January is the month of new beginnings, warm quilts, winter sun and books. With literature festivals, book fairs and writers’ meets lined up through the month, what better time to celebrate books and the incredible span of the literary imagination?
* Eight-year old Tomas would rather be outdoors than be seen around books. He hates school and he hates stories and cannot for the life of him fathom why he needs either in his life. But, one day, his mother takes him to the library, where a new librarian sits on a life-like unicorn and reads stories out to children. Against his wishes, Tomas gets drawn into the circle and as he listens to stories — Aesop’s Fables and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, among others — his life is touched by the magic that can only come from freeing up one’s imagination. When war comes to his little European valley and ravages homes, lives and the local library, Tomas, like the other children frequenting the library, knows that there’s only one way to keep the faith: by protecting their stories. Michael Morpurgo’s 2005 classic, I Believe in Unicorns (Walker Books), for children in the age group of 7-11, is a life-affirming tale about the regenerative power of stories to bring people and a community together.
* Across India, education and literacy have mostly been the purview of the privileged, but what if you are a little tribal girl of 10, bursting with curiosity, eager to know of the world but with limited access to education? What if you have to work for a living and have no time to attend regular school? The Why-Why Girl (Tulika Books, 2012, appropriate for 6+), the first picture book by Indian literary giant Mahasweta Devi, tells the story of Moyna, a Sabar girl who is struck by the indignities of her life and who wants an answer to her million questions about the ways of the world. When Devi introduces her to books — “because books have the answers to your whys!” Moyna goes back to the other children of her community, sharing with them the knowledge she has gleaned and urging them to join school. Over time, she becomes the first girl to be admitted to the village primary school. Later, as a teacher, she impatiently urges her students to never stop asking “why”. Devi throws up questions of class and gender discrimination, of utility and accessibility and why literacy should be a basic human right in this must-read book.
* The importance of reading and documenting community history is re-emphasised in Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford (Penguin Random House). This recently published book is a biography of Puerto Rican immigrant of African origin, Arturo Schomburg, a law clerk who was struck by the absence of narratives on people of African origin in America and went on to build an extensive, exhaustive personal collection of Black history through books, music, letters, art and other memorabilia. A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg would later contribute his overarching collection to the New York Public Library, where it would become the cornerstone of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Told through poetry and illustrations, this is a book perfect for 8-12 year olds with an appetite for history.
* No one captures the thrill of a new reader better than award-winning writer-illustrator Mo Willems in his delightful picture book, We Are in a Book (Hyperion Books, appropriate for 3+). To their great surprise, best friends Piggy and Gerald the elephant find themselves in a book, with an actual reader listening in on their conversation. They try their hand at engaging with the reader, but what will they do when the book comes to an end? Willems is a joy to read at all times, but this 2010 book is particularly meta as it introduces early readers to the codes of engaging with a physical book, the symbiotic nature of this engagement and returning to it for more at each reading.
* In The Incredible Book Eating Boy (Harper Collins), Oliver Jeffers’s 2006 picture book for readers in the age group of 4-6 years, Henry loves all sorts of books (though red ones are his favourite) — to eat. His voracious appetite puts him on course to becoming the smartest boy around (a bit like Susan Meddaugh’s alphabet-soup-eating dog Martha), except there is a snag. The faster he eats, the more indigestion he gets. So, he decides to slow down and read books instead and discovers that it is a much more enjoyable pursuit, just like eating broccoli is. As with all of his books, half the magic of Jeffers’s creations lie in the art. Here, he works with found objects — slackened book spines, tattered pages, soiled book covers – to create a book that is deliciously witty, judiciously preachy and completely worth the gluttony.