Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Little grown-ups, and other misfits

[Did this for my Forbes Life books column – around the time I was part of the jury for the children’s fiction prize at the Goodbooks Awards]

Discussions about literature for children and young adults often pivot around the question: should young readers be spoon-fed? Do messages and morals have to be spelt out? Some parents and teachers seem to think so, but there are others who give pre-teen readers more credit and point out that the best way to engage a mind – and to provoke some thought in the process – is to tell a story really well, to make the characters and situations involving. Ideas can lie embedded within a “fun” narrative. Besides, as the writer EB White once put it, “Children are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. Anyone who writes down to them is wasting his time.” A related observation is that it makes little sense to shield children from “dark” subject matter, especially at a time when content of all sorts is so easy to access.

Having recently read a number of new young-adult (YA) books by Indian authors, I was pleased to find that many of them – some to a greater degree than others – steer clear of pedantry. Even the ones that are set in a school environment and deal with a vulnerable but intelligent child beginning to make sense of the world, working his way through notions of right and wrong, seeing a friend or classmate through fresh eyes and learning about empathy.

A good example of this is in Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which begins by cleverly misdirecting the reader: the narrator, a 16-year-old named Komal, has just had her life turned upside down, because her best friend Sahil (and she only wants them to be friends, nothing more) has said three little words to her. We think we know what those words are, but soon we discover that we were wrong; we then follow Komal on a journey to understanding and acceptance. I won’t provide big spoilers here, but this novel addresses an important subject – the marginalization of people who are unconventional in some way – with lightness. You won’t at all feel you are being preached to.

Which is also the case with Samit Basu’s delightful The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times. If you’re in a solemn mood, you might tell someone that this book’s lesson is: It Isn’t Good to Cheat in Your Exams. But that wouldn’t begin to convey the strengths of this fluid narrative about a boy who has a rich inner life, and who is so nervous about his exams that he nearly crosses over to the dark side. In a smart demonstration that “doing the right thing” can be cool, some of the most fun passages have Stoob and his friends thinking up ways to prevent another friend from cheating during a test. The writing aside, I enjoyed Sunaina Coelho’s illustrations, which complement the text wonderfully – as in the drawing of Stoob being chased by weapon-wielding Hindi alphabets, or the hilarious one of him and his parents depicted as mythological characters from an old, melodramatic movie.

Another of my recent favourites in the school sub-genre was Shabnam Minwalla’s The Strange Haunting of Model High School. Though set in south Mumbai – with references to real-world landmarks such as Churchgate station – this book might remind you a little of Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s stories, with a supernatural twist thrown in. The characters here include a lonely girl-ghost who has been floating around the school’s corridors for over a hundred years seeking a piece of information that will put her mind at rest, a conniving deputy principal named Mrs Rangachari, and the three protagonists – BFFs named Lara, Mallika and Sunu – who set out to help the ghost even as they prepare for an inter-school production of the musical Annie.

One of the incidental themes in Minwalla’s novel – a less-privileged girl attending a posh school – is handled more directly, and a little more self-consciously, in Kate Darnton’s The Misfits, told from the perspective of an American girl named Chloe who has recently moved to Delhi with her parents. When Chloe encounters another misfit, the dark-skinned Lakshmi, who is very Indian but not of the “right class”, she gets an insight into the workings of the adult world, and gets to play savior as well. Darnton’s book is sensitive and engaging, but since it seems to have been written in part for a non-Indian readership, some of the content might feel over-expository, and just a teeny bit patronizing, to an Indian reader. (Chloe’s parents, who used to be hippies in their own youth, keep shaking their heads indignantly at the class prejudice they see around them.)

Another, breezier story about an 11-year-old girl is Judy Balan’s How to Stop Your Grownup from Making Bad Decisions, written as a series of blog entries by “Nina the Philosopher”. A few dramatic things happen here (Nina and her friend Aakash blow up the school swimming pool with stolen chemicals; her single mom has a serious accident and must also be kept from getting married to a seemingly unsuitable boy), but the overall tone is that of a chatty diary entry – Nina isn’t trying to write a thriller for us, she is simply going through life and negotiating things as they happen. In the process she shows the clear-sighted wisdom one might expect in an intelligent child, but which some adults might also envy. “People who THINK all the time should have their own rooms,” she observes, making a case for introverts who need a lot of space to themselves, even when they aren’t doing anything observably important.

At one point, Nina says she feels like she is the grown-up and her mom the teenager in the house. A more literal version of this situation can be found in Andaleeb Wajid’s No Time for Goodbyes, which operates at the intersection of YA fantasy and teen romance: after glancing at a Polaroid photo, 16-year-old Tamanna finds herself back in 1982, where her future mom is a little younger than her, and where she has to pretend to be a visitor from Australia (while dodging questions such as why the Harry Potter book she has brought along has a “2000” publishing date). A nice nostalgia trip for those of us who remember the times Wajid is writing about, this is the first in a three-book series (the sequel, Back in Time, is out too), and I’d be interested in seeing how she manages to stretch out this one-note premise without getting too repetitive.

One thing she does well is to invoke the pang of knowing that the person you want to be with may always remain inaccessible or out of bounds – in this case, literally belonging to another dimension. Looked at that way, notwithstanding the time-travel angle, this book is about the very universal “outsider” emotions that are also evoked in real-world narratives like Slightly Burnt and The Misfits.

[Other recent posts on children's/young adult books: Manan and Ela; Tik-Tik, the Master of Time]

1 comment:

  1. I especially love it when you write about the children and young adult books (I love your other nuanced reviews too, but these are precious to me). I just crossed 40, but still lose myself more inside a YA/children book than anything else, and I wish I could get all these books that you mention in US. In fact, in my own mother tongue (Bengali), I never read adult books. I guess I still re-live the life that I left behind when I left my home town :).

    I marvel at the writers who can balance the story-telling, realism and also keep it non-UA rated.