Selected by Ann Lazim.
I’ve suggested a range of the best children’s books about India, from information books to picture books and fiction. There are more authors of South Asian heritage being published in the UK now, several of whom are exploring personal identity and challenging earlier versions of history in the context of relations between India and Britain. An interesting new trend seems to be emerging of novels set in an alternate version of the early days of colonial India with City of Stolen Magic by Nazneen Ahmed Patak (Puffin, 978-0241567487, £7.99 pbk) and Gita Ralleigh’s The Destiny of Minou Moonshine (Zephyr, 978-1804545478, £14.99, hbk). I’ve also featured some titles I’ve been delighted to discover through being on the jury of the NEEV Children’s Book Award.
India, Incredible India
Jasbinder Bilan, illus. Nina Chakrabarti, Walker, 978-1406395426, £14.99 hbk
A vibrant array of aspects of India, inviting readers to dip in. Thara and her Nanijee tour the country by exploring stories and facts related to objects gathered on the latter’s travels and kept in a trunk made of sheesham wood. They include a sketchbook of copies of cave paintings in Madhya Pradesh, a puppet from Rajasthan, ankle bracelets from a dance school in Chennai, postcards of artworks from the Indian Museum in Kolkata, a model rocket from the Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh. A positive picture of the variety of life and cultures in India encouraging further exploration.
Lands of Belonging: A History of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain
Donna and Vikesh Amey Bhatt, illus. Salini Perera, Nosy Crow, 978-1839944680, £14.99 hbk
This thoughtful book surveys the historical and current relationship between people of South Asia and Britain. It ranges from Ancient India, through the horrors of colonial history and partition, to the contributions made to Britain by South Asian people, both as individuals and culturally, including language, cuisine, celebrations and sport. To understand more about the role of the British Empire, particularly in this part of the world, young people are recommended to read Stolen History by Sathnam Sanghera (Puffin £8.99 978-0241623435).
Rashmi Sirdeshpande, illus. Ruchi Mhasane, Andersen Press, 978-1839131400, £7.99 pbk
A universal story about bereavement and learning to live again following loss, with a specific setting in a small village in India. A boy lives with his grandfather who shares his joy in art and painting with all the local children. The shared lives of grandson and grandfather are depicted in words and delicate pictures – they grow, sell and eat fruit, make paper boats to float in streams made by the monsoon rain. Grandfather says he will never leave but inevitably he dies and the boy’s sorrow is so great he puts away his paints and brush – until one day a small girl arrives with an important request.
The Katha Chest
Radhiah Chowdhury, illus. Lavanya Naidu, Allen & Unwin, 978-1911679141, £11.99 hbk
Asiya loves to see, smell and feel the beautiful kartha quilts made from old saris stored in a chest in her Nanu’s house, holding stories the family continue to share after Nanu is gone. Alternate spreads in this picture book are inspired by Bengali folk art – cloth paintings called Pattachitra, showing the family’s past and their historical context, especially women’s roles. Another book evoking tender memories of a grandmother is Paati’s Rasam (Karadi Tales 978-9391790103) by Janaki and Dhwani Sabesh, illus. Pallavi Jain & Vaijayanthi, shortlisted for the 2022 NEEV Award, in which her granddaughter and daughter recreate her special recipe.
Bumoni’s Banana Trees
Mita Bordoloi, illus. Tarique Aziz, Tulika, 978-9390834259, £6.99 pbk
Based on real events seen from a child centred viewpoint. Interesting facts about the growth and use of bananas are delivered in a story with an underlying theme about sustainability. Bumoni’s family and life in Assam are well portrayed and her ideas taken seriously. A winner of the 2022 NEEV Award in the Early Years category. Tulika publish their titles in many of the languages of India. This book was first published in Assamese. Another picture book from Tulika, this time originally published in Bengali, in which a young girl’s idea benefits her community is Jhupli’s Honey Box by Achintyarrup Ray, illus. Shivam Choudhary (£7.15 978-9390834518).
Catch That Crocodile!
Anushka Ravishankar, illus. Pulak Biswas, Tara Books, £6.99, 978-9383145089 pbk
Anushka Ravishankar is one of India’s most loved authors, renowned for her nonsense verse. Here all the townspeople are terrified by the appearance of a crocodile until young Meena calmly coaxes it away. The text is thoroughly integrated within Pulak Biswas’s lively, spare and striking black, white and green pictures. Visual as well as aural wordplay is characteristic of Anushka’s work, much of which is published by the innovative Tara Books. To dig deeper into this see Gita Wolf’s blogpost.
Sona Sharma. Looking After Planet Earth
Chitra Soundar, illus. Jen Khatun, Walker 978-140639812 pbk
One of a series about the everyday life of Sona who lives with her Tamil speaking extended family. After hearing about climate change at school, Sona is determined that everyone around her will do their bit to save the planet and quickly learns that she needs to do this in co-operative ways. By encouraging her grandmother to use only organic materials when creating her kolam – an art form made mainly from rice flour with added ingredients – she influences the whole neighbourhood. Chitra has written a great range of picture books and folk tale retellings. I’d particularly like to mention Pattan’s Pumpkin: An Indian Flood Story illus. Frané Lessac, Otter-Barry Books, 978-1910959848, £7.99.
Ajay and the Mumbai Sun
Varsha Shah, illus. Sònia Albert, Chicken House, 978-1913696337, £7.99 pbk
Ajay, an orphan in the slums of Mumbai, has the wit and determination to found his own newspaper with a group of friends. His streetwise knowledge and relative invisibility enable him to seek out stories and expose corruption and fight injustice. A story in the tradition of children outwitting adults with suitably attendant humour, this novel nevertheless incorporates some serious issues around social justice, living and working conditions and the environment. There’s a sequel too: Ajay and the Jaipur Moon (978-1915026132 £7.99)
Tamarind and the Star of Ishta
Jasbinder Bilan, Chicken House, 978-1913322175, £7.99 pbk
Tamarind travels with her father and stepmother from England to India where she will be staying on her own with her mother’s family who she doesn’t know. No-one will talk about what happened to her mother and facts and feelings about this are at the heart of this novel set in the Himalaya. The local flora and fauna play significant roles and Tamarind’s gradual enjoyment of food her family eats demonstrates their growing mutual trust. Like Jasbinder Bilan’s earlier novel Asha and the Spirit Bird (978-1911490197) this is a story with a realistic setting and a strong mystical element. An excellent novel for slightly older readers about a UK-based girl connecting with her Indian heritage is Sita Brahmachari’s Jasmine Skies (Macmillan, 978-1509855353)
The Wheel of Surya
Jamila Gavin, Farshore, 978-1405291743, £7.99, pbk
Great to see new editions of the Surya trilogy, set in India at the time of partition and its aftermath. It begins in 1947 in a village in the Punjab where the lives of an Indian Sikh family and a British family become intertwined. The action moves to London when Marvinder and her younger brother Jaspal become separated from their mother in the turmoil surrounding partition and they travel in search of their father. In the remaining volumes The Eye of the Horse (978-0008511258 £7.99) and The Track of the Wind (978-0008511241 £7.99) the children return to India. An in depth look at this period in history seen through the lives of some engaging characters.
Ann Lazim is an active member of the UK section of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People). She edits reviews of children’s and YA books for Historical Novels Review and since 2022 has been on the jury of the Indian NEEV Children’s Book Award.