Great tales deserve to be repeated.
That’s a line from Gita Wolf’s The Enduring Ark, one of a few recent picture book offerings, great tales in their own right, which spring in one way or another from India.
A small man leading a big fight: That’s how Alice B. McGinty describes Monhandas Gandhi in Gandhi: A March to the Sea, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. From March 12 to April 5, 1930, Gandhi led nearly 100 marchers to the village of Dandi at the Gulf of Cambay, all in protest against the British government’s laws against Indians taking salt from the sea. In this sweeping tale—illustrated by Gonzalez with pastels, watercolors, color pencils, and ink—McGinty writes vividly of the pacifist, “once a quiet child, once a lawyer too shy to talk,” who spoke out softly, yet clearly, to his fellow protesters. Setting out on his journey with thousands of hungry and poor Indians, he knew he was marching to break a law, McGinty writes, yet he “takes the lead with his walking stick, his steps fast and firm.” The laws are wrong, he tells everyone. The taxes on the salt they must purchase, as well as the taxes on cloth, are unfair. Yet they join in solidarity for what they know is right: They plan to scoop salt from the sea, “boil it, clean it, sell it, buy it, sprinkle it.”
McGinty evidently traveled to India for this book, all in an effort to retrace the steps of Gandhi’s long March. With short, direct and evocative sentences, she writes with great reverence and wonder about Gandhi’s efforts and the long, hard march to the sea. “Never has salt tasted sweeter,” she notes towards the book’s close, when she explains how Gandhi and his followers were arrested and sent to jail for their peaceful protest.
Gonzalez’s richly detailed illustrations are beautiful—magnificent in spots—and he knows the wisdom of not cluttering up a spread: In one, we see Gandhi from behind. He’s finally reached the sea and “bathes in the rough, warm waves.” Gonzalez lets the majestic sea and pastel sky dominate the spread, while Gandhi stands, weary yet determined, to the right. Using light, shadow and perspective to dramatic effects, Gonzalez makes the action feel alive for readers.
In one striking moment, we read how Gandhi, trying to make a point about tolerance, stops along the journey to draw water from the well of some Untouchables, while his followers watch with “disgust and fear.” Educators and librarians wishing to expand on this notion of India’s caste system with their students might want to check out Gloria Whelan’s In Andal’s House, illustrated by Amanda Hall.
This picture book comes from Sleeping Bear Press’ Tales of the World series, which aims to educate child readers about world cultures. In this story, we meet Kumar, who comes from a long line of Untouchables. Though, in today’s Indian culture, such discrimination is supposed to be a thing of the past, Kumar confronts bigotry at the hands of a classmate’s grandmother. The book goes far in illuminating for children what being an Untouchable meant in India’s past, and it emphasizes how “the foolish and unkind people” who still believe that way today are essentially ignorant. “The great man, Gandhi,” Kumar’s grandfather tells him, “said such treatment of the untouchables was very wrong.”
Finally, my favorite of these offerings: Wolf’s The Enduring Ark, illustrated by Joydeb Chitrakar, which will come to readers by way of Tara Books in mid-May. Presented in panoramic accordion folds, we are told the Indian version of the great flood (very similar to the Old Testament one) with Noah and Na’mah, who choose two of every animal to escape God’s torrential rains. Chitrakar employs the Bengal Patua style of scroll painting to render the stylized illustrations, mostly composed of bright primary colors. The accordion folds only make the “page turns” more compelling, as the action moves forward to the concluding rainbow, the symbol of hope.
Three very different offerings for students wanting to learn more about India—and three great tales, which deserve repeating.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.