Report: Two children’s books from India make it to The White Ravens catalogue
Two children’s books from India -- Richa Jha’s The Middle and Kanak Shashi’s Guthli Has Wings -- have made it to the 2020 edition of The White Ravens, a prestigious annual catalogue published by the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (International Youth Library). “It aims to promote quality in children’s book publishing and has become an increasingly useful tool for anyone interested in looking beyond national borders,” writes Christiane Raabe, director of the Munich-based institution, in her preface. This year’s catalogue contains a selection of 200 notable children’s and young adult books from 56 countries, published in 36 languages.
Jha’s book The Middle, published by Pickle Yolk Books, revolves around a girl named Azma whose restlessness with not knowing keeps her mind occupied with questions. She seeks answers in books but the quest for knowledge is too urgent to be contained by the act of reading alone. Jha says, “A big part of this is my own story -- my unease with the dark when growing up. It would scare me and I could feel creatures lurking around. Like Azma, I would find it difficult to sleep. Books were a constant source of solace at night, and yet, those same books made drifting off difficult because the stories wouldn’t let me be.”
Shashi’s book Guthli Has Wings, published by Tulika Books, tells the story of a child who struggles to find acceptance in a family bound by conventional ideas about gender. Guthli identifies as a girl but the mother cannot relate to this as she sees Guthli as a boy. How love enables understanding is the theme their story is built around. Shashi says, “I created Guthli to speak about things that I feel should be said. I was addressing issues like gender identity, roles, patriarchy, etc. in my paintings but I wanted to write about them too. I tried the format of an article but I realised soon that it was not my style. Then I tried a story, and it clicked for me.”
In keeping with the annual tradition, all the books in The White Ravens catalogue were meant to be on display at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek’s booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. However, browsing in person is not possible this year due to public health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 catalogue has been produced as a digital-only version instead of a printed edition. It is divided into sections based on language. The Middle and Guthli Has Wings are part of the English section, which also includes books from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and USA.
“Books are chosen for the list based on the universal relevance of the themes they address, their literary and pictorial qualities, or their innovative approaches or design... Its international nature results from the efforts of approximately 20 children’s and young adult book experts, who are tasked with sifting through the thousands of books received annually by the International Youth Library,” writes Raabe. This team, comprising in-house staff members, freelance readers and advisors -- reads books in their original languages, goes to book fairs, coordinates with publishing houses, and consults with other experts, to scout books for The White Ravens.
The Middle has been illustrated by Eva Sánchez Gómez, a Spanish national living in Catalonia. Richa met her at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair a few years ago. “Awed by the depth of her dark, brooding yet hopeful, nuanced illustrations,” Jha was keen on working with Gómez. When she shared the story with the illustrator, she was struck by the seamless alignment of ideas. The illustrations helped Jha add layers to her narrative. It was a beautiful back-and-forth of ideas and execution that we exchanged throughout the making of this book. This is how I usually work with most illustrators; their visual inputs helps me bolster the story further,” says Jha.
What is particularly noteworthy about their book is the complete absence of adults in it. Azma depends on her inner resources to cope with fear through imagination and creativity rather than running to an adult for comfort or protection. This is not a feel-good book. It gives readers a glimpse of the internal conflicts that children live with, and the strategies they devise for themselves. Gómez says, “The fantastic creatures representing Azma’s fears and imagination appear scary at first but, once Azma faces them, they become more friendly and even useful and necessary. Fear is just another part of life and the real point is how we deal with it,”
Shashi has illustrated Guthli Has Wings on her own. She wrote the story in Hindi in 2010, and it was translated into English by her friend Rinchin. It deals with complex issues in a manner that is accessible and moving. Though the child has been identified as ‘transgender’ by readers of the book, the author does not use this term. She says, “I would like for us to accept diverse identities in children’s books without labelling them... there is a need for more books on the subject of gender identities and many other themes that are barely touched in children’s books.”
The concept for this book struck Shashi while working with a group of children on a magazine project supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Art in Delhi. She observed that the children used to tease each other when a piece of clothing worn by someone did not match their understanding of gender norms, or if someone played a sport that was not considered appropriate for their gender. She designed activities to draw attention to the performative aspect of gender, and helped children articulate their thoughts about it.
While Jha is not planning to write any more books that feature Azma as a character, Shashi has written several stories with Guthli as the protagonist. She says, “In one story, Guthli refuses to mention her separated father’s name in public. This brings embarrassment to her maternal uncle. Guthli questions the need to carry her father’s identity when he is not a part of her life. In another story, she stands up to a teacher who molested her. In yet another story, she asks why women need to leave their home and live with their husbands.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.