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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Gifting Books to Babies and Toddlers

Reading Lists

“For your babies and pre-schoolers, surround them with books and print, read to them every day, let them play with books, choose books, talk books, play with magnet letters, read signs and food packaging, make labels for things, draw, paint, sing songs.”

– Tweet by Michael Rosen (Poet and novelist, Children’s Laureate)

CB-1As a children’s author, I’m fortunate to have a direct hotline to several Book-Genies. These genies are usually indulgent of my requests, never ever limiting me to the prescribed three wishes. But when recently, I ordered twenty copies of my current favourite children’s book, the voice at the other end of the line reprimanded me gently. “Five copies is all I will give you. And why do you need twenty copies, anyway?”