Of the many children’s books I got to see at the speed-dating session/small book fair with German publishers in Berlin a couple of months ago, I was especially taken by the historical fiction titles in the dtv junior catalogue. These are books that combine fictitious plots with historical background and detail: a young protagonist is typically at the centre of each story (a boy who joins Hannibal’s army, two children solving a mystery in ancient Rome), which makes the whole thing more interesting for young readers. It’s very different from the textbook format of supplying dry detail about a historical event or setting.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of scope for doing this sort of thing in India, given the country’s vast and varied heritage. Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar and a member of our traveling band in Germany, just sent me a revised edition of Of Kings and Commoners: Fact & Fiction from the Past, a children’s book that covers various epochs in Indian history, from the Indus Valley Civilisation down to Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 (with stops along the way at the Maurya, Gupta and Chola dynasties).
The format is simple and neat: for each historical setting there’s a short story (typically not more than seven or eight pages long) followed by a separate section that provides background detail. The stories aren’t intricately plotted and they don’t need to be: their function is to present the common man’s perspective of life in those times, to make the strange and the distant seem familiar, and to throw in some authentic detail that can be elaborated on in the second section (a child playing with a clay monkey in the Indus Valley story, for instance). In one story, a boy enters the Pataliputra palace and catches a glimpse of King Asoka. In another, a young stone-carver nervously teaches the emperor Akbar how to use a chisel. A family makes a three-month journey from Dilli to Daulatabad and back to Dilli again under the reign of the volatile Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
This is an engaging way to teach history – and actually, even the non-fiction sections here are more interesting and compact than the school textbooks I recall. Five of the stories in this book are by Subhadra Sen Gupta, the remaining three by Monisha Mukundan. Both writers are quite experienced in the historical-fiction genre, though I’m not familiar with their other works. If anyone has information on other Indian publications of this sort, I’d appreciate a pointer.