A Shawl for the Baby

Christmas Stories

A Christmas story by Asha Nehemiah

There was a time when I would try and submit a Christmas story to one or the other of the children’s newspapers I wrote for.  Every year, I would post a hard copy of my typed manuscript to either The Hindu’s Young World or the Deccan Herald’s Open Sesame, some weeks in advance. I would never know whether my story was accepted and had to wait eagerly  for the Saturday morning before Christmas, which is the day the children’s sections were published.

What a thrill it would be when I found my story was published!

As a special Christmas gift to my readers young and old, I am sharing here the Christmas story I wrote in 1999. It was published on Christmas day  in  the Open Sesame.
The story will be available to read on my blog all of the remaining days of December and right through January 2023. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Merry Christmas dear readers and may the spirit of love and sharing permeate every single day of a wonderful new year.




                                                                                    A Christmas story by Asha Nehemiah

This year, Rakhi offered to be a woolly lamb.   Shyam was eager to be a cow (probably the first cow ever to wear spectacles!) while Diya, with her head freshly shorn over the weekend, insisted on being an angel.

‘I suppose even angels are sometimes bald,’ conceded their teacher Miss Dawson reluctantly, as she handed out parts for the school’s annual Christmas play. ‘And Rina,’ she turned to the girl sitting morosely, her swollen ankle encased in pink, crepe bandage, ‘Stop looking so glum. You’ll be helping me with the props and costumes this time.’

            Rina cheered up. A sprained ankle ruled out a part for her in the school Christmas play, but helping with the costumes would be fun.

            She made out a list of everything she required.  Silk saris to be draped as robes for the three kings. Dark-coloured kurtas and striped towels for the shepherds. Gold paper for making the crowns, silver foil for fashioning angels’ wings … on went the list.

            ‘Ma, remember that lovely, white shawl of yours. Can I borrow that for baby Jesus in the play,’ she begged her mother.

            ‘Not for a baby! It might get spoilt!’

            ‘We’re not using a real baby this time. Not after the chaos our piano- teacher’s baby created on stage last year. Bawling loudly throughout! Miss Dawson is using a doll as baby Jesus this year.’

             A whiff of mothballs enveloped them as Rina’s mother, Mrs George, took the white shawl out of her cupboard.  It was beautiful. Delicate ivory-coloured embroidery ran along the border and the silk tassels at the edge were still glossy.

‘There are so many memories that this shawl brings back,’ said Mrs George, holding the fine, soft wool to her cheek, ‘The last time I wore the shawl was at your christening. It was in December and every bit as cold as this year. I don’t think I’ll lend it to you. You children are so careless that you’ll probably lose it. Remember how you tore Papa’s coat and dented my candlesticks which you took for the school play last year!’

            ‘Ma!’ protested Rina, ‘There’s no way the shawl can get torn or dented or lost. Remember, I’m in charge of the costumes.’

            Rina sounded so confident and convincing that there among the costumes that she carefully put away in the school cupboard the next day, was her mother’s expensive white shawl.

            The cast practiced earnestly for days and, finally, it was the night of the dress rehearsal.  Rina rushed about pinning up the silk saris that displayed an alarming tendency to slither on to the floor and taping up crowns that persisted in slipping over the actors’ eyes!

            ‘Bring the shawl to wrap the baby!’ Miss Dawson called out.

            Rina looked in the cupboard. She rummaged under piles of costumes. No shawl!

            ‘Hurry up Rina! The play is about to begin!’ Miss Dawson was getting impatient. Rina quickly whipped a faded green tablecloth off a small corner table and wrapped the doll in it.

            ‘Where’s the white shawl the baby was supposed to be wrapped in?’ hissed Miss Dawson.

            ‘I don’t know. It’s missing from the cupboard!’ Rina was very upset. Bad enough she seemed to have lost her mother’s favourite shawl, and here was Miss Dawson scolding her for it. How was she ever going to explain it to her mother!

The next day she and Diya searched every inch of the green room behind the stage. They emptied every cupboard, they crept under furniture, they explored every dark corner — no shawl!

‘I think the shawl must be lost!’ Diya concluded wearily, trying to remove some of the cobwebs that covered her head and clothes after the search, ‘Will your mother be angry with you?’

‘Not just angry! Furious is more like it!’ Rina sounded upset.

Both girls sat exhausted on the floor, resting against one of the screens for a while before they began putting back all the stuff they had removed from the cupboards.  The school was very quiet as almost all the students had gone home.  Suddenly, the green room door creaked open and a soft patter of feet moved across the floor. The girls could see a pair of bare feet on the other side of the screen. 

            ‘Who is it?’  Rina called out.  There was a gasp, and a flurry of quick movements but the girls got up before the person could dash out of the room.  It was one of the women who worked as a cleaning maid at school.  And there in her hands lay the missing white shawl.

            ‘Please, don’t think I was stealing the shawl,’ the cleaner’s voice trembled with nervousness, ‘I meant to put it back in the cupboard. I didn’t know it would be required yesterday. I thought the Christmas play was only on the last day of school. It is so cold, I didn’t think anyone would notice if I used the shawl for my baby — just for a few nights.’

            The miserable story came tumbling out. The cleaner lady’s six-month-old baby finding the winter too cold. Wringing her hands wretchedly, the woman pleaded, ‘Don’t report me, please, or I’ll lose my job.’

 Rina looked from the cleaner’s tired face to the shawl.  ‘Please,’ she heard a voice that she scarcely recognized as her own, ‘Please keep the shawl for your baby.’

The cleaner looked uncertain. ‘Please take it for your baby,’ Rina repeated, and when the woman continued to protest, Rina insisted, ‘Think of it as a Christmas present from us.’

            Taking the shawl from Rina, the cleaner whispered, ‘Bless you,’ and scurried out of the room. 

            ‘What a girl you are! Frantic one minute about losing the shawl, scared your mother will be furious with you … and then giving it away yourself the next minute.’ Diya’s voice was exasperated but the big hug she gave her friend showed that she approved. ‘How are you going to explain this to your mother?’

            ‘Maybe it’s better to let her think the shawl is lost. That might be easier than trying to explain what I’ve done. What do you think?’ Rina asked and the two girls planned how they would account for the shawl’s loss to Mrs George.

But things don’t always work out as they’re planned.

            On the night of the Christmas play, Mrs George noticed with surprise that baby Jesus was wrapped in a crumpled, faded green tablecloth instead of her beautiful, white shawl.

            ‘I suppose you’re wondering about your shawl!’ whispered Diya’s mother who was sitting next to Mrs George  at the performance. ‘Diya told me about it.’ And she went on to reveal everything that the girls meant to keep secret.  

            Mrs George was both puzzled and annoyed. ‘Oh no! How could Rina give away my favourite shawl! And why does she want me to think it’s lost?’

            ‘Rina thinks it’s better that way. She’s scared you’ll be very angry if you know she’s given away your favourite shawl to the cleaning woman’s baby without even asking you.’

            For the rest of the evening, Mrs George didn’t hear a word on stage. She was wrapped up in her own thoughts. Suddenly, she felt very small indeed.

After the play was over, she went backstage to pick up Rina.  Miss Dawson, smiling and flushed with the wonderful success of the play, was complimenting all her students. 

            ‘Rina did a terrific job of the costumes,’ she told Mrs George, ‘Those wings she made! And those fantastic masks for the animals in the stable!  So realistic. You should be proud of her!
            ‘Of course, I’m proud of her. But more than the animal masks or the angel wings, it was thinking about the baby — the real little baby I mean — wrapped up warmly in my shawl that made the Christmas story really come alive for me.’ Mrs George spoke to Miss Dawson but her eyes rested softly on her daughter.

            Miss Dawson didn’t have a clue what Rina’s mother meant. Rina too was puzzled about how her mother had found out that she had given away her shawl.  But of one thing she was certain. Mother wasn’t angry about losing her shawl.                                                  


first published in the Deccan Herald’s Open Sesame on December 25, 1999

For your reading enjoyment only. NOT to be reproduced or used without the author’s permission.



Reading is our superpower. But the pandemic has made it more difficult, even downright impossible at times, for us to tap into our superpower. Ironically, many of us are just not able to summon up the magic spell of reading at a time when we require it the most.

We are stuck at home. Locked down by the pandemic. Hemmed in by stress and anxiety. The worst impacted are our children. Cut off from the access to books at the school library. Cut off from the book-lending circles with friends.

This is a good time for parents, grandparents and other adults to step up and rediscover the magic of reading with our children.  

There are still a few more weeks of the summer holidays. We are facing the grim prospect of many more months of restrictions, online school and no access to fiction.

Here are some suggestions for reviving our superpower. Do please tweak and customise them based on your family interests.

1) Spend more time reading to your child and reading with your child.  Create a time of calm and fun, bonding over books. One way to do this is create SOAR time : Switch Off And Read. Switch Off your devices and Read.  Don’t make it regimented like morning PT. Start with maybe just 30 mins, twice a week. Get your children involved in planning it. What shall we read? Where shall we sit?  What snacks shall we have? (Go on, indulge the snack cravings with pakoras, chaat, cake, chips, butter murukku). What is the special signal that will  indicate SOAR time is about to start: a whistle, a bell, Papa doing the bhangra? Get your children involved in every aspect of the planning to make SOAR time as much fun or just as calm and cosy as they choose.

2) Use online platforms like zoom and google meets to share the fun of reading with family and friends. This is something I discovered during  Lockdown v.1 last year, thanks to my 7-year old grandson who would organise family zoom parties and  quizzes. He would ask us to keep out favourite books ready to share (along with our favourite snacks). There was usually a hectic round of baking which went into making these snacks seem to materialise casually.

3) Hold Book Parties online.  Enlist grandparents, cousins, the children’s friends. Maybe even their parents. A reading party could be as simple as everyone being given a time frame to read a book and then share a brief review of it at the party. On the lines of What I liked/hated about the book.

If you are up to revving up the bookish excitement a notch, (and you should be) experiment with choosing a theme for the books everyone will read. Themes like: Travelling India on a Book. Around the World in Forty Books. Music. Food.  Sports Wildlife

4) Book Bingo is a great activity. There are hundreds of free printable Reading Bingo sheets. Here’s one I’ve created. Customise your own. Share these sheets with a group of family and friends. The parents of your children’s friends will thank you for starting this, so do call in favours and get them to pitch in. Once you distribute the sheets, the participants just tick off a box when they have finished reading a book that fits the category described. On a pre-agreed day, meet online (over snacks, of course) to exchange notes, share book recommendations and award prizes (of books!) to those who have ticked the maximum number of squares.

5) Book Scavenger Hunt is a spin off from Book Bingo. Here, the action takes place on one evening with participants sitting at their own homes (with snacks and favourite beverages, needless to add). As the categories are read out, the children rummage through the book shelves at home and place the books in the pile. The family with the tallest pile or maximum number of books wins the prize.

6) Lockdowns create a lot of stress and anxiety. Use this time to get children to talk about these issues. Migrants. Refugees. Death of parents.  Inequality. Bullying. Not fitting in. Book titles and recommendations appear in the video below. Skip to the 18-minute mark to get straight into my book recommendations.

7) Poetry in the Park (Indoor park) Recite or read their favourite poems. For me, poetry and novels in verse have formed a bulk of my lockdown reading. I realised that there is something so powerful, so distilled, so concentrated in poetry that makes it so much easier to read when one is tense and stressed. Though there is an amazing amount of poetry available free online, do buy a few poetry books for home. There’s no better time to indulge your poetry passion.

8) Bookish Days and Filmy Nights:  Movie night is another great activity to get the family reading and watching together. Choose a book, or book series, which also has a film or TV series based on it. First get everyone in the family to read the book and the grand finale could be watching a movie based on the book. Make a big deal of the evening by serving finger foods or a snack dinner to compliment the book/movie. There’s a fairly new movie release of Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses, old version of Because of Winn Dixie. There are the Harry Potter movies. Several great movie versions of classic Jane Austen and Charles Dickens books. Gerald Durrell and P.G Wodehouse come to mind.  As do Agatha Christie and other detective fiction novelists. There are plenty of movie adaptations of  Young Adult fiction. The Hate you Give being one. Use your discretion to decide which comes first – book or movie. The idea is to create a buzz about reading.

Finally, the BIG question:  HOW DO I GET THESE BOOKS. At   Indie  bookstores and libraries, of course. As soon as lockdown restrictions are eased, indie bookstores and libraries will be the first to spring into action. They know reading is essential and that books are vital. This is exactly what libraries and indie bookstores did in 2020 the minute restrictions were eased.

I strongly recommend that all parents and grandparents befriend the people running children’s libraries and indie bookstores. They make the best book recommendations based on the fact that they’ve read literally thousands of books.

Here’s a list of indie bookstores and libraries(to be updated). Do add any stores I have missed out in the comments section.



Funky Rainbow www.funkyrainbow.com

Lightroom, Lewis Road


Kahani Tree

Trilogy Library and Bookstore



Kool Skool – The Book Store

Bookvook – Books for All

Full Circle Bookstore

Bahrisons Kids


Storyteller Bookstore


Tulika Bookstore

Tara Book Building


Turning Point


Rachna Books


Walking BookFairs


The Dogears Bookshop



Hippocampus Children’s Library, Koramangala

Cosy Nook Library, Koramangala

Kahaani Box


Bookworm Library, Goa


Turning Point


The Book Shelf Library and Learning Centre


Nest and Den


House of Book and Tales


Marigold Creative


MCubed Library

Kidzalaya Book Library

The BookNestLibrary and FunScienceClub


Thanks so much readers for sharing your favourite libraries. Since many libraries have branches in more than one city, I’m adding them here alphabetically

Book_My_Read Library, Kolkata

Bookelphia, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane

Little One’s Bookhub, Bangalore

The Book Bench, Mumbai

thinkBox Children’s Library

Piglets Library, Akola

Unnati Books and Toy Library, Bangalore/Pune/Mumbai

PS:  Do watch this video to get book recommendations. And play a writing game.

Book recommendations start at 18-minute mark.

Writing game starts at 27-minute mark.


A Time to Mend



The kindness of strangers. The support of caring communities. These can bring hope during the darkest days. To borrow the tagline from the magazine Communalism Combat — “Hate Hurts, Harmony Works”.

Here’s a pdf of my story of hope, trust and neighbourly love : A TIME TO MEND. With the hope that you will find some comfort in it during the anxiety and insecurity of these times.

This story first appeared in A Clear Blue Sky Stories of Conflict and Hope (Pub. Puffin Books).  This anthology has stories by some of our finest writers of fiction for children and young adults.

You can read it the story for yourself or read it to your children. Available for everyone to read on this blogpost during the lockdown from May 10 – 24 2021.

Building Empathy through Children’s Books

Empathy, Reading Lists

Books are a great way to provide an immersive experience into the lives and feelings of people we may never meet. And by opening a window into unfamiliar worlds, books nurture empathy for people with lives very different from ours.

Empathy is regarded as one of the most vital life skills for living in peace and harmony, not just within our communities, but even as global citizens. Former president Barack Obama cited  the ‘empathy deficit’ as one of the most disturbing factors in modern societies.

One of my own empathy role models, Harsh Mander, said in a talk, ‘‘We need more outrage, much more empathy and public compassion.”  We need to ask ourselves, he says, has hate lynched my conscience? We need our conscience to ache by what we hear and see around us.

As a children’s author, I’m often approached for suggestions and book lists. In response, I’ve drawn up lists of books for babies and toddlers, books for early readers, children’s books which adults will love, mystery books, and funny books.

Recently, I decided to create a book pack which sensitizes  readers to the  injustice and inequality in our society by giving them a brief glimpse of what it could mean to walk in someone else’s shoes.  Some of the books are just joyful stories set in communities far removed from our lives of privilege. Others were chosen to help the readers question stereotypes deeply ingrained in our minds. Some books deal with gender, several deal with forest rights.  I wanted the books to help spark conversations about difficult issues such as domestic violence, caste, intolerance.

I roped my friend Vidya Mani of Funky Rainbow pop-up children’s bookstore into this project. Vidya helped me finalize the titles by first making me question every choice and then confusing me further by plying me with enough book-suggestions to fill a library (a small one!).

 We argued about whether we should restrict the list to fewer themes and focus on books for primary and middle school children (we did!). We relooked our decision to leave out books on ability and its different shades and went with our feeling that the issue of disability rights required a focus and list all on its own. I enjoyed the process and we’ve managed to put together, as a model, a pack which costs a little less than Rs 2,500 at today’s prices, and which we feel is an essential one for every school and every home library.  Regard this as a basic list meant for parents to draw from and for educators/librarians to tweak and customize.

Though there are many wonderful books on all of these issues, this list abounds in our personal favourites — books which tell a good story and tell it well.

Kali and the Rat Snake by Zai Whitaker, art by  Srividya Natarajan (Tulika): Young Kali from the Irula tribe of traditional snake catchers hates going to school. He is hesitant to open his lunch box at recess time as he is worried about his classmates’ reaction to the food his mother has prepared for him – fried termites. But when a harmless rat snake wanders into the classroom one day, Kali’s classmates begin to recognize how special he is. Kali’s own apprehensions about how he will be perceived is very sensitively portrayed without any finger-pointing at his more privileged schoolmates.  

The Why Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi, art by  Kanyika Kini, (Tulika) Based on the true story of Moyna a young girl of the Shabar tribe. Curious and intelligent, Moyna just can’t stop asking questions. Childlike these questions may be but they also question the inequalities her community accepts so passively. How Moyna manages to change the timings of the school in order to accommodate the responsibilities she and other Shabar children take on routinely – like grazing the goats – and how she finally gives back to her community. Beautiful art by Kanyika Kini.

Boy Who asked Why by  Sowmya Rajendran, art by  Satwik Gade (Tulika)

Deals sensitively with the indignities and injustice that Dalits face. Based on the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Movingly describes how young Ambedkar was forced to remain thirsty on the days the school peon was absent, and there was no one available to pour  water into his outstretched palms. Being a dalit, he was not permitted to even  touch the earthen pot in which water was stored.

For older children ‘Bhimayana’ is an excellent read, supported by the illustrations by Gond artists Durgabai and Vyam.

Mukund and Riaz story and art  by Nina Sabnani (Tulika): Mukund and Riaz are inseparable friends playing in the streets outside their homes. Till the violence and uncertainty of the Partition of India-Pakistan forces Mukund and his family to leave for India under very dangerous circumstances. How friendship transcends all boundaries and how people can remain caring in spite of political turmoil and the narratives of hate.

Kali Wants to Dance by Aparna Karthikeyan art by  Somesh Kumar (Pratham Books)  Kali, a young dalit boy, wants to be a dancer, even though his friends tease him that only girls dance and his uncle warns him that dancing will never earn him any money. Based on the true story of Kali Veerapathiran who grew up in a fishing village, went on to study dance at Kalakshetra supported by his widowed mother, and a patron of the arts, to finally achieve his dream of becoming a classical Bharata Natyam dancer.

Sadiq wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy art by Niloufer Wadia (Karadi Tales) Sadiq belongs to the nomadic Bakarwal community of Kashmir. Sadiq’s Ammi creates beautiful embroidered rugs. Sadiq has learnt to stitch and sometimes helps his Ammi. But he is expected to tend the sheep and goats. When Ammi falls ill just before an important order is due, Sadiq steps in to help.

Arya in the Cockpit by Nandita Jayaraj art by Upamanyu Bhattacharyya (Pratham Books)

Arya always wanted to fly. She dreamed of being a trapeze artist, a fighter pilot or an astronaut.  In this she is inspired by so many real life women. She attends flight school and becomes a commercial pilot. 

Anna’s Extraordinary Experiments with  Weather by Nandita Jayaraj art by Priya Kuriyan (Pratham Books)  The inspiring story of Anna Mani the Indian scientist who invented and built over a hundred gadgets to measure the weather. The book starts at Anna’s eighth birthday and shows how her fondness for ‘book, books and more books’ enabled her to pursue her dream.

Shabana and the Baby Goat by Samina Mishra art by Roshini Pochont (Tulika) An evocative glimpse of village life with a diverse set of characters. Starting with 4-year old Shabana and her pet goat Kajri. Kajri constantly gets Shabana into trouble by nibbling on Phuppo Jammo’s burkha while Shabana is reciting from the Koran, or by chomping up  Masterji’s books so that he cancels class. Everyone wants to send Kajri away till  Shabana discovers a great solution to the problem.

Behind the Lie by Asha Nehemiah art by   Aindri C (Pratham Books) Valli and Ramesh live under a cloud of fear always anxious about their abusive father’s short temper. The story offers a glimpse of what might happen if communities stop normalizing domestic violence and provide support to women who might be victims of such violence. A gentle and warm story.

Chuskit goes to school by Sujatha Padmanabhan art by Madhuvanti Anantharajan (Pratham Books) Living in the rocky terrain of Leh, wheelchair-bound Chuksit longs to go to school but the rocky lanes and streams make it impossible for her. Till the community gets together to find a solution.

Ismat’s Eid by Fawsia Gilani-Williams art by Proiti Roy (Tulika) A warm and funny story adapted from a Turkish tale. Set in India, it tells the story of Ismat,  a shoemaker, who buys Eid gifts for his family. The backdrop to the story is the customs, rituals and foods prepared during this festival. 

Jadav and the Tree Place written and illustrated   by Vinayak Varma (Pratham Books) Based on the inspiring real story of Jadav ‘Mulai’ Payeng, a conservationist from Assam, single-handedly transforming  a barren area into a lush  forest by planting trees. Jadav is moved to start his tree-planting project when he sees snakes dying on the sand bank of the river. Starting with a few trees, Jadav works tirelessly till the forest once again becomes home to birds and animals, and finally the snakes return too.  

The Forests Belong to Us by Subhadra Sen Gupta art by  Tapas Guha (Teri’s Terrapin books)

With her dramatic narrative flair, Subhadra Sen Gupta tells the story of how women and children saved trees from mass cutting by the simple, peaceful  measure of hugging them. Chipko takes Root written and illustrated  by Jeyanthi Manoharan (Pratham Books) is another narration of the Chipko Andolan, a standout movement which was powerful and effective  in its simplicity. Both books fictionalize the true story of the little girl who first spotted the men with axes and alerted the women in the village. Lovely insights into the life in the Himalayan region and the power of collective action.

The River of Life by Subhadra Sen Gupta art by  Tapas Guha (Teri’s Terrapin books)

The story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.  Through the stories of two young girls, Kanti and Deepal, the author provides us with both sides of the Narmada dam story.  It also provides insights into the lives of the tribal people in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The Seed Savers by Bijal Vaccharajani  art by  Jayesh Sivan (Pratham Books) The wonderful story of a group of women farmers who come up with an idea of a Seed Bank where the seeds of cotton, paddy, millet and other crop are banked. These seeds can be ‘withdrawn’ and then ‘returned’. Inspired by a real-life event, this heartwarming story underlines the power of community action and the creative solutions rural folk can devise.

Three essential collections of stories are:

 A Clear Blue Sky – Stories on Conflict and Peace (Puffin) With stories by some of our best-loved Indian writers ranging from Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Manjula Padmanabhan, Poile Sengupta, Rohini Chowdhury, Adithi Rao, Asha Nehemiah. This anthology deals with wide ranging issues from communal riots, religious intolerance, to caste divide and moral policing.

Invisible People by Harsh Mander (Duckbill) The book is a collection of true stories from an India which few of us will ever encounter. Harsh Mander explains in his foreword that his books  chronicles ‘memories of begrimed city pavements and demolished slums. Of hunger and stolen childhoods. Of life within and beyond prison walls. Of hate in the air and blood on the streets. Of stigmatized castes.’

Sorry Best Friend (Tulika) Shorter stories  with a fantastic list of contributors: Zai Whitaker , Shama  Futehally, Githa Hariharan, Swapna Dutta.  The story ‘The Lights Changed’ by Poile Sengupta remains an all-time favourite of mine. While the stories speak of conflict, suspicion and diviseness –they also hold out hope!

One nice way to use the individual stories from these anthologies is to read them  and then throw them open to discussion. What would you have done in the protagonist’s place? Can you think of another way this problem could have been resolved or this conflict defused? Could you tell this same story from another point of view?

Listen with your heart to the children’s responses and discourage judgmental behaviour.

© Asha Nehemiah

Gifts that can be nibbled, gulped and feasted on — long, long after the festive season

Books as gifts

India is a land of innumerable festivals. And one of its several seasons of good cheer and unabashed feasting starts this month and goes on till the New Year.

For the last few weeks, stores have been announcing Diwali gift hampers of sweets, dry fruit, chocolates and the choicest gourmet foods.  Bakeries have started putting up posters announcing their special plum cakes in many avatars: with almond or royal icing, with raisins soaked in rum or sherry, enriched with almond meal or not, varieties from the sinfully rich to the more austere.

Cakes and chocolates and sweets are great! And I’d be the last to forbid any one to gift me a cake over the festive season. Preferably one that’s home-made. Or Theobroma’s Dense Chocolate Loaf. books1

If you are looking to give an adult a gift over the festive season, and want to choose something that says your choice has involved much personal thoughtfulness,  a gift that has no ‘best before’ date stamped on it and one that joyously and quite literally, has  an eternal  shelf life – then,   why not consider this list of ten children’s books.  Almost all of them are books that I have received as an adult or have gifted to adults much to their delight and continuing pleasure.  These books are guaranteed to nourish the child in the recipient – which is a wonderful thing. The lucky recipients will probably share the book with the children in their life, thereby extending the joy of the book in a way that nature and publishing meant for good things to happen.

One more thing – it’s unlikely that the lucky adult recipient already possesses a copy  of any of these books, making children’s books an all-round great gifting idea.

KR1Why You Should Read Children’s Books… Even Though You are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell: This pocket-sized delight was a gift to me and now has a permanent location on my bedside table. Written by the children’s author Katherine Rundell as an essay, this book format makes it a lovely gift for all ages. I’m summing up Rundell’s thesis in her own words: “There’s something particular about children’s fiction that can open up new perspectives for adults.” And,  the best children’s fiction “helps us refind things we may not even know we have lost”.  Makes a perfect gift on its own and could also be accompanied by any of the books suggested below.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane illustrated by Jackie Morris: While going through one of the newer editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionaries, Robert Macfarlane was surprised to find many words had been omitted (probably because of the limitations of space). What he was more dismayed about was that most of these ‘lost words’ had to do with nature, and had been replaced by words related to technology. So he took the lost words like acorn, adder, ivy, magpie, newt and writes a verse or a riddle to reclaim the magic of the lost words. Meant to be “a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words.” LW2Jackie Morris’ sumptuous watercolour illustrations add the kind of magic that makes the book totally enchanting.

The London Jungle Book by Bhajju Shyam (Tara Books) I’ve gifted this special book to many adults, mostly students leaving home for the first time to study overseas. I figured that all the feelings that the talented Gond artist deals with – the apprehension about settling into new surroundings, the wonder and happy bewilderment at being plunged into a new culture – would resonate with them. Plus, they would have something special about their home country to share with new friends. Working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, Bhajju Shyam captures the year he travelled to London to work on a mural he had been commissioned to paint.


The Arrival by Shaun Tan A beautifully drawn wordless graphic novel. Again this is good gift for anyone starting a new journey as it tells the story of a man who leaves the violence and terror of his home country looking for a new home. The book is sepia-toned with some of the panels drawn like photographs. The man travels through many puzzling landscapes which mirror his vision of how alien everything is to him. A triumph of visual storytelling that also captures the resilience of the human spirit when supported by small acts of kindness.

gabriel 2The Nativity by Julie Vivas One of the most heartwarming narrations of the nativity story, making it a perfect Christmas gift. The human layer in this story is  portrayed with warmth and charm. Julie Vivas’ unusual depiction of the angel Gabriel wearing frayed robes and a pair of what looks like trekking boots with laces undone and so many other spectacular spreads can be pored over for hours.

The Ramayana for Children by Arshia Sattar illustrated by Sonali Zohra (Juggernaut Books) A fine retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana by noted scholar Arshia Sattar. Her evocative retelling has drama and colour and is supported by Sonali Zohra’s spectacular illustrations. In the author’s note, Arshia tells us that, ‘Valmiki’s story of Rama is my favourite and there are many reasons for that. It is a story of jealousy and betrayal, of love and honour, of courage and faith, of friendship and loyalty’.

SS coverStepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs supported by the Stone Art Work of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr  Having to flee one’s home to undertake perilous journeys because of civil war or genocide  has led to the worldwide humanitarian crisis of refugees seeking safe havens. Margriet Ruurs tells a heartwarning story of a Syrian family who have to take a boat across dangerous seas. What illumines this simple story is the stunning stone work of artist Nizar Aki Badr who places stones he has collected randomly to compose the pictures.

 Wilfred Gordon Macdonald Partridge by Mem Fox,  illustrated by Julie Vivaas A young boy, whose home shares a wall with a Senior Citizen’s home, sets out to discover what memory is when he is told that one of his friends, a resident at the home, has lost her memory. PAGESSuch a nuanced story with fabulous illustrations. Lots for any adult to ponder over.


Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day: A wordless picture book that is a great gift for dog-lovers, especially for owners of Rottweilers. The old-fashioned illustrations, reminiscent of British women’s magazines of the 50s, are charming. Mother has to go shopping, so she leaves Baby in the capable paws of good dog Carl. Naughty Baby gets into all kinds of mischief and Carl has to feed, bathe and rescue her before Mother returns. Chuckle-inducing fun on every page.

ASG coverAmrita Sher-Gil: Rebel with a Paintbrush by Anita Vaccharajani, illustrated by Kalyani Ganapathy (Harper Collins) A biography of the celebrated ‘rebel’ artist Amrita Sher-Gil told in words, pictures and reproductions of her work. Amrita’s freewheeling life and unconventional thinking are presented against the backdrop of the time she lived in. It’s a meticulously researched book, most engagingly written by Anita Vaccharajani. Kalyani Ganapathy’s incredible art is as much a pleasure to behold as the reproductions of Sher-Gil’s work.

Most of these ten books suggested above are available in a hardback version, making them nicer for gifting.  They also come with a much higher chance of being enjoyed than that decorative candle that is never lit or that rogue bottle of wine that lurches from home to home as it gets gifted and regifted.

Here’s wishing you  a Merry Bookmas and a Happy Bookwali!

©Asha Nehemiah

October 2019

A Starter List of Chapter Books

Reading Lists


To read independently for enjoyment is perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of life and definitely one of the cornerstones of a good all-round education. Chapter books are a significant milestone in a child’s reading journey. They provide a vital transition point for a child progressing from sounding out words and articulating them with hesitation, to reading silently, independently and with finally with pleasure.


Large font, generous use of pictures, simple storylines, vocabulary that is mostly familiar but with enough new words to increase vocabulary and comprehension – all these  are features which make chapter books invaluable in encouraging independent reading.  Chapter books are of varying lengths. Around  60-120 pages is a good length to start with for new readers. 

The Delicious Dilemma of Choosing a Book

Book Club

Every year, the agonising moment comes around! The moment when I must put aside dithering, stop procrastinating, and finally commit — to the book I’m going to present at  my Book Club! This should, in theory, be a breeze for someone like me. I always have a pile of wonderful books that I’ve just read. And an even taller pile of books that are just waiting to be read. Plus a teeteringly high pile that’s just … well …   waiting patiently in my online shopping  cart.

In truth, however, choosing the book  that I will share with the dearest of  friends at  my Book Club, always turns out to be harrowing in the nicest possible way. The same way that an arduous trek undertaken to a soundtrack of protesting muscles and  laboured   breathing,  finally rewards the climber  with a breath-taking view!

Writing a story on Domestic Violence

domestic violence

How much darkness can a child take? For children who are scarred by the trauma of living in abusive homes, a book should ideally offer a laugh, an adventure, a few moments of respite from the fear and insecurity in their lives.

How would such children react to confronting the horror present in their lives in their books as well? Would they not (as some adults do when forced to confront their demons) just want to close the book mid-sentence on the first page? Could a story make them feel less alone, less powerless?

And then, what about children lucky enough to live with caring parents — would they ever want a peek into what goes on in homes different from theirs? To gain an insight into how it must be for children living in abusive homes?

These were the thoughts that whirled through my mind when I decided to write a story for children on domestic violence.

Barking to the Choir by Gregory Boyle

Book Reviews

It was a moment of pure irony.  Because reading an article titled ‘My Year of No Shopping’, made me rush headlong to –  what  else — shop! For a book. And that too even before I finished reading the article.

 In her New York Times article, ‘My Year of No Shopping’ Ann Patchett, (the PEN Faulkner and Orange Prize winning novelist), recommends Barking to the Choir  as a great book to read if you want to see what  true faith in action looks like in this age of mindless consumerism.