It’s not too often that one sees picture books with Indian or Indian-American protagonists or those steeped in Indian legends or mythology. To be sure, they exist, but they’re not exactly a dime a dozen. But this year, readers have been treated to two such picture books, both sprightly tales with vivid, lively artwork.
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Caldecott winner Gerald McDermott is known for his around-the-world trickster tale picture book adaptations, and this time he’s back with a trickster tale from India. Monkey, released by Harcourt in May, is a story from the Jataka tales, or early Buddhist literature, dating as far back as the third century B.C. and translated from Sanskrit. This serves as McDermott’s final volume in his six-title series of trickster tales. (The series has thus far brought readers tales of legendary, warm-hearted double-crossing creatures from the Amazon, the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, West Africa and Hawaii.)
A chattering monkey lives “high in a tree on the banks of the wide, flowing river.” Hot on his trail, as Monkey hops from tree to tree, is hungry Crocodile, who dreams of devouring Monkey’s heart. Hopping onto Crocodile’s back one morning to hitch a ride to the delicious mangoes in the middle of the river, Monkey sinks lower into the water, much to his dismay. No matter: He manages to hoodwink Crocodile and make his way back to the treetops. Eventually, he snags his mangoes, all the while getting past Crocodile and yelling, “Your teeth may be sharp, but your mind is dull!”
McDermott, who co-designed the book, gives us show-stopping artwork in this one. Using textured papers, hand-colored with fabric paint and ink in primarily bold greens and reds, he lays out the action with simple shapes and movement that propel the story forward with a driving energy. These are sprawling spreads that make no apology for their exuberance.
His author’s note also indicates he uses the technique of “teasing apart moistened handmade paper to create a furry edge.” Indeed, the quick-witted, clever Monkey possesses a textured, ragged outline, one so seemingly shaggy that young children will want to reach out and pet him. (They’d want to reach out and touch scaly Crocodile, too, but for his sharp-toothed, though dull-witted, menace.)
Writer and elementary school teacher F. Zia, who grew up in India, brings us Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji (Lee & Low Books) with artwork from illustrator and animation storyboard artist Ken Min. This entertaining tale of a young boy and his visiting grandparents is a celebration of story. Aneel asks his grandfather, Dada-ji, to tell him a tale one day. “Hunh-ji, yes, sir,” he tells Aneel.
Dada-ji then proceeds to tell his grandson the rollicking tall tale of his own Dada-ji, who long ago wrestled snorting water buffalos, tied two hissing cobras in a knot and spun three trumpeting elephants by their tails. “Arre wah! Oh wow!” the villagers shout. Turns out it’s the hot, hot roti, which sizzled on Badi-ma’s wood hearth, which gave him “the power of the tiger.” Off go Aneel and Dada-ji to make some of their own flat, unleavened bread, then set out to find adventures of their own.
This is the first picture book from Min, a California artist, whose angular, earth-toned illustrations pop with energy, playful perspectives and style.
Mmm. Hot, hot roti, but am I spoiled by foodie picture books to have expected a recipe for those, like me, who are left with their own rumbling bellies at the book’s close? Hunh-ji, yes, sir, and arre wah! That would have made an already good book even better.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.