February 24, 2020
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A Jungle On Your Bookshelf

Let your kid spend the summer in the lap of nature

A Jungle On Your Bookshelf
Once upon a time last year, there was that Bungle in the Jungle when all the Sher Khans in Sariska's forests went missing. About the same time, everybody was worrying about The Last Swoop, when our jatayus or vultures were vanishing from the skies. Now, it appears that The Huge Hullabaloo about Green India has inspired a slew of eco-stories for kids about our trees, beasties, birdies and even creepy crawlies. And its motley crew of authors—wildlife scientists, filmmakers and eco-lovers—are taking up pens for the first time to write nature-books for young readers.

A bit like the monkey and crocodile stories from the Panchatantra and the Jataka Tales, today's greenbooks, written with a modern twist of wildlife biology, are filled with curious creatures and habitats. A robber crab on the Andaman Islands, an endangered great pied hornbill in the Northeast and a diligent dung beetle couple who thrive on sh**cakes in India.

This collection of critters has young readers delighted by their tailspin. "I never knew how far or how fast turtles could swim or how cleverly they lay eggs in the sand to keep them warm," says 9-year-old Uttara Rangarajan about Turtle Story. Fusing fact with fiction to create 'faction', this story by wildlife biologist and turtle expert Kartik Shankar describes the odyssey of an Olive Ridley turtle who swims freezing oceans, survives sharks and evades trawler nets, to finally nest on Orissa's soft sandy beaches.

Step into the children's section of a bookshop, stoop below the Harry Potters, and you'll spot many an enchanting being, created by Indian authors to edutain readers aged between 4 and 14. For pre-schoolers, there's Jhilmil the butterfly who's fluttering about in search of the sun. Juniors have Niwupah the hornbill to take them on A Walk in the Rainforest, as he screeches out facts about Hoolock Gibbons and flying squirrels. The ageless will love Eli the Elephant who trumpets out the tale of how he protected all his furry buddies from the tsunami.

Environment has always been a central theme for the National Book Trust (NBT) established in 1960. "Pollution has sold 1.5 lakh copies since it was first printed by in the '70s," says Neera Jain, editor, NBT. Affordable pricing between Rs 5-30 is their hallmark—any child who has a Rs 5 coin in hand can buy an NBT book. Niche and more expensive imprints like Tulika Publishers and Tara Publishing have also been printing artistic greenbooks since the '90s.

Now environment is a many-tentacled publishing trend. Pratham Books, who reach underprivileged children through 5,000 libraries across 14 states and nine languages have just launched a Nature Series. Starting with last month's Turtle Story, Pratham has seven more titles to be sold through catalogues. Scholastic, a global children's media company, has a new Environment Watch series with an introduction by Medha Patkar, which rolls out in June. The first of these, Saving Grandma's Tree by Jey Manokaran, is based on the Chipko movement. Environmental ngo teri is beefing up the marketing of its two-year-old Terrapin books division. Even the adult-oriented Permanent Black has landed on children's bookshelves with Salim Ali for Schools, a biography of the birdman of India.

Explaining this metamorphosis, Paro Anand, formerly associated with the National Centre for Children's Literature, says: "Besides sheer topicality, nature is a high emotional priority for kids today." Paro, also a well-known nature-writer, is working on a fantasy story about how the Himalayan bear got its white patch.

Book traders maintain that sales are slack. Anuj Bahri Malhotra runs a popular bookshop in Delhi, Bahrisons. He's also published Margaret Donald's Eli and the Elephant this year. He says: "I don't know if we'll be able to sell our run of 3,000 copies." That's because parents who don't blink before shelling out Rs 300 for a pizza cringe at paying Rs 150 for stories that can make their kids' spirits soar. There's little awareness about what's available for voracious young minds. Salespeople also flounder about what to recommend. All this keeps print runs small and prices high. Bibliophiles also blame the media for reader ignorance. Mala Dayal, who headed the NBT's Nehru Bal Pustakalaya for 25 years, says, "It's only rubbish for adults that gets reviewed, not children's books by some of our world-class writers and illustrators."

Those who believe green is good, refuse to put down their pens. "I always wanted to write a book about hornbills for urban kids, who know more about faraway toucans, koala bears and giant pandas, since there's nothing about our own species," says Aparajita Datta, co-author of A Walk in the Rainforest. A wildlife biologist by training, Aparajita has spent years working on hornbill conservation which allowed her to authentically describe Niwupah's adventures. After A Walk... Katha Books are planning to cover 12 biospheres, "from deserts to marshes, so children can develop insights into habitat," says editor Vinita Lal.

V. Geetha, editorial director at Tara, says, "Eco-consciousness is central to our sensibility, that's why we've developed a line of books made with handmade paper and toxic-free ink." Tara is also actively working with schools and teachers in Chennai and Bangalore. "Children respond naturally to the natural world," says Sandhya Rao, editor, Tulika Publishers, whose books are being used by schools and NGOs like Greenpeace and Swasthyam. Wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, who's penning three titles for Tulika, says: "I'm glad there's a niche now for biologists, naturalists and filmmakers to write about contemporary born-in-the-wild experiences."

But everybody doesn't have to survive blood parasites in the jungles. Acclaimed author Ranjit Lal does his research by staring out of his window, trawling the 'net and rambling about Delhi's ridge'. Lal's The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories (Puffin Books) is crowded with local bugs and grubs. "Children love dazzling facts like how a spider's silk when it's as thick as a pencil can stop a jumbo jet."

This summer, as the sun arches over us, leaf through a greenbook that'll bring the great Indian outdoors indoors. Buy one for the little tyke holding onto your fingers or for your secret inner child. Be a bookworm and wiggle your way through Jungle Book India, encountering some oddball characters who sputter out their sagas in doggerel. Like Pooch the mongoose, "whose most tasty bites are termites," (Zai Whitaker's Boastful Centipede and Other Creatures in Verse). Or meet Tipsy, a common cerulean butterfly who announces in near-perfect prose that "I'm not dishgraceful,' (in Ranjit Lal's The Caterpillar...). Kid or adult, you'll laugh about this flutterbug's tendency to suck up cider rather than nectar.
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