It’s been a big week in the news for women’s rights, and I feel compelled today to talk about a picture book, released in April, about women, hope, struggles and freedom.
Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit sees it U.S. release this year from Tara Books, an independent publisher of picture books for adults and children, based in Chennai, South India. This is the picture book debut from artist Amrita Das, who paints in the Mithila tradition of folk art, a style of Indian painting practiced, as I understand it, in the eastern region of India. As famed Indian author Gita Wolf (also the founder of Tara Books) notes at the book’s close, Amrita hails from a “highly patriarchal community.”
The story is based on a real event in the author-illustrator’s life: She journeys on a train to Chennai, the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Apprehensive about traveling so far, she sets out to attend a book-making workshop and to learn about art. It’s the farthest she’s ever been from her home village.
After getting settled into the workshop, she begins to ponder what to draw. Her instinct is to draw an idyllic childhood scene, but she then stops to consider the typical childhood for a girl in her situation—hard work with her own girlhood passing before her eyes. Suddenly, she remembers a poor, shy girl she saw on the train trip to Chennai. The girl was alone, and the author watches her, wondering all the while if she has “someone to call her own,” if she has a place she calls home. She imagines her going to work in a rich person’s house. (“The rich go their own way and are what they are,” she writes. “I don’t really care to know them, I’m not drawn to them. But the poor…I’ve always felt at home with them.”) And she imagines the girl never went to school.
It’s these musings about this stranger she sees that make her wonder about the lot of women and girls in India: “A girl’s life is hard, especially if you’re cursed to be poor.…If you dream for a moment, you’re asked why you’re twiddling your thumbs.” To want anything is taboo, especially to desire to travel, and girls are constantly reminded they weren’t born boys. The author goes so far as to ponder the very meaning of freedom, questioning whether marriage really sets one free.
She spends many spreads in the book wondering about this girl, though she admits that she has no idea what really goes on in her mind. So absorbed is she in this stranger that she hardly pays heed to her train journey, and by its end, she notes, “I had become her, in some way.”
Everything shifts when she sees another poor girl, hobbling around with a cart, selling fruit. She is missing the lower half of one of her legs, and the author realizes she’s “her own creature,” working and earning money for her family. The experience is an epiphany for the author, making her see that, essentially, we get what we get in this life—and we must “make the most of it.” On the very last page, she speaks of her workshop and painting her own journey, made all the more rich by what she’s seen. “I’m unsure,” she writes, “but unafraid, and I have some hope. I want to be brave, and different.”
These are powerful words coming from someone who lives in a traditionally male-dominated society. Das’ prose is straightforward, direct and moving. The translation from the Hindi original by Gita Wolf and Susheela Varadarajan is seamless.
The highly stylized illustrations, a wonder of symmetry, are captivating. They reflect grand traditions of Indian art, yet also retain subtle, beautiful shades of originality.
It’s a good thing Das got on that train, despite her apprehensions, to take that book-making class. “I started out not knowing much,” she notes. “Life is strange—you never know what awaits you.”
HOPE IS A GIRL SELLING FRUIT. Copyright © 2013 by Tara Books. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
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.