Searching for the Songbird
Appropriate for: 10+ years
Sometimes, the best kind of reads turn out to be books you go into without any preconceived idea about what to expect out of them. Joining in the adventures of Jannat aka Johnny Raut, a 12-year-old, recently transplanted from Mumbai to Dehradun for a year while his parents figure out their future, ends up being one of the most enjoyable reads in a year that has seen some great children’s books by Indian writers.
In every possible way, Searching for the Songbird begins and ends with birds. As Johnny tries to overcome his nostalgia for his home in Mumbai and quell his anxieties about his family’s future together, a sudden disappearance of a woman, a local caretaker of a neighbouring farmhouse, known for her mellifluous voice, throws him headlong into a mystery. Assisting Johnny are three of his classmates — Ambika, and the twins, Ketu and Rahu, named not after the planets, but the mountain peak K2, an image of which, the twins’ father is certain, had kept him from danger once. There are suspects galore among the birding group that comes visiting Crimson Sunbird, the eco-resort that Johnny’s mother has inherited from her uncle and where she wants to reinvent her life. And, there are birds, of course, turning up at every juncture, making Johnny temporarily forget his troubles as he marvels at their beauty, and, as in the case of the slaty-headed parakeet that mysteriously befriends Johnny, helping foster a sense of pride in their well-being.
Aggarwal’s writing is sleek and the mystery in itself, divided into six bird-named sections, engaging, but what makes the book stand out is how easily it also makes space for the many prejudices woven into our social fabric. From caste to inter-faith marriages to the insurmountable odds facing women to how development is abetting environmental degradation, the book touches upon many provocative social complexities without making it didactic or, in middle-grader speak, soppy. Oh, and for lovers of Beatles, this is a book that has the original boy band at its core, in a surprising and very satisfying avatar.
Iora and the Quest of Five
Crimson Dragon Publishing
Appropriate for: 10+ years
Nature is also cast in a starring role in Arefa Tehsin’s Iora and the Quest of Five, the first book in a series of six YA fantasy novels, centred around rainforests. Iora, a little girl, belongs to Twitterland, an undiscovered rainforest civilisation, who must seek out who the mysterious “five” are, in order to be able to save her father from the threats that seem to be besieging him — a precursor to what lies in store for their precious enchanted forest, whose ecosystem is under attack from the unchecked avarice of man. As Iora embarks on one of the most dangerous expeditions of her young life, accompanied by her trusted non-human companions, and Chinar, the human who accidentally spots her in the rainforest while out on an expedition with his father and who gets drawn into her world, there are dangers they must overcome and secrets they must unearth in the Wacky Wilderness before the crisis they are in can be thwarted.
The first book to be written by Tehsin, known for her work on children’s writing around nature-related themes, Iora and the Quest of Five has gotten a new lease of life in the US, where it has recently been brought out by indie publisher Crimson Dragon Publishing. Tehsin uses a tested plot point to drive home the dangers of intemperate aggrandisement at the cost of nature. Apart from traits that one has come to expect of Tehsin’s work — humour, attention to detail, and a deeply-felt appreciation for nature — it also reflects the arc of her growth as a writer who can carry off diverse genres with ease.