Guest Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

This book, co-authored by John Green and David Levithan, is a different read. The first book starring gay characters to ever feature the prestigious New York Times Bestselling List at No 3, it deserves immense credit to normalise a topic as taboo as homosexuality. Kudos to John Green’s character Tiny Cooper who doesn’t associate sexuality to liking musicals or to liking football!

The book is refreshingly original and honest. It blends the ridiculous with the real. It doesn’t talk of the most popular girl in high school falling in love with a tall, dark and handsome prince. No, the book stars characters that are more down-to-earth and live in the real world. The book has an astonishing amount of foul language but perhaps it was required to shape the characters.

This sensitively written novel, though takes a nosedive after the very threshold of the book. Just as the plot is about to deepen, the book disappoints the reader.

It must be said in favour of the authors that a lot of thought has gone into the smallest of details, be it the name ‘Will Grayson’, the location where the two Graysons meet and even the typeface! The plot is not too adventurous itself for the book is very character driven. But the skill displayed in weaving together the alternating chapters written by the two authors is commendable!

This colourful, bouncy and charming book has a conflicting dark, depressing side to it as well, which can make it incredibly difficult to read. The rude, sarcastic, teenage humour, though, keeps one laughing!

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Written by: John Green and David Levithan

Publisher: Penguin Books
Price: Rs 350

Reviewed By Sidika Sehgal

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Guest Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I really don’t know what to say about this book. Let me start with the fact that it is the most intense and amazing book I have ever read.

Revolving around the story of our narrator’s childhood, the story begins when his family’s lodger, an opal miner from South Africa, steals their car and commits suicide in it, releasing such strong forces that no ordinary human being can stop.

On the day of the suicide, the narrator is wandering around the town, when he comes across a large farm, belonging to the Hempstocks – Lettie, a young girl, Mrs. Hempstock, her mother, and Old Mrs. Hempstock, her grandmother. I’ll get back to these characters in a while.

Our narrator is the main victim of the unleashed monster, which is targeting his family. The beast is slowly pulling apart his whole family bit by bit. The beast is their new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. His only hope is three Hempstock women, the oldest of them having a memory going back to the beginning of time, and the youngest of them calling a fishpond her ocean.

After reading this book, I didn’t feel like reading anything more. It was so intense that I knew there couldn’t be a better book. I recommend it to anyone who reads this and doesn’t call Neil Gaiman a “Gay-Man”. I am practically begging you to read the book and tell your friends to do the same.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
By Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Headline

Reviewed By:
Imran Batra, Noida
Age 12

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Guest Review: Flat-Track Bullies

Flat-Track Bullies is a book 10-12 year-old boys will enjoy thoroughly. The book is vaguely familiar. It’s not written in elitist English, but its student-friendly language with a touch of Rajnikanth’s all-too-famous dialogues makes the book your own.

The protagonist’s (Ravi) control-freak parents (and I’m talking from a completely objective point of view here) add humour to the book, though the incessant parents’ and teachers’ bashing is disrespectful and could have been avoided.

What is really appreciable about the storyline was the element of children running the rat race, making concerted efforts to ace in every arena and competing for material success adds a subtle touch of realism to the book. And in support of my hippie theory of always following your heart, the science teacher and the grandfather offer useful advice and teach an important lesson – that it’s okay to fail sometimes and to not want to chase those all-too-common goals like getting into IIT.

The author takes a casual dig at the way grown ups think and how they attempt to turn summer vacations into organized lazing around. And, as a teen in my apparently ‘rebellious’ years, I can understand how difficult adults make it for children to have fun. Balaji Venkataraman has captured the true essence a typical Tam-Bram family in 21st century India.

My favourite part of the book was undoubtedly the interaction between Ravi and his grandparents. His immense love for his grandparents and their pampering was adorable. I could almost smell the ghee-laden laddoos my nani makes for me every winter.

The protagonist’s weird sense of humor and the use of fruit names instead of I-won’t- tell-you-what kept me turning pages. What is really despicable though is how the protagonist prays to God, rather begs and bribes God with coconuts to forgive him and help him one last time. And I couldn’t quite comprehend why there were quotes at the bottom of each page.

Thanks to the web of lies the protagonist weaves, the plot deepens. Though dramatic, this book by Balaji Venkataramanan, published by Duckbill, is awfully intriguing. It offers a deep insight into how an 11-year-old boy, growing up in modern India with all its expectations, thinks. A significant contribution in books for preteens, Flat Track Bullies is a delightful vacation read!

Flat-Track Bullies
Written by: Balaji Venkatramanan
Publisher: Duckbill
Price: Rs 250

Reviewed by Sidika Sehgal, Delhi

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Of spiders, ice and codes

I recently spent an absolutely delightful morning at The Shriram Millenium School in Noida with grades 2 and 3. The children brought tremendous energy, enthusiasm and curiosity that made for a really fun session for me as I spoke about my History Mystery book series.

In fact, those are the very same things that the history of India brings forth in me today. I wasn’t too fond of history back in school but I have gone on to discover it to be a fabulous, fascinating and fun subject. Combining it with fictional mysteries full of humour has been very exciting and I was glad to see it spark an interest in the children as well.

History though can often be quite abstract in terms of comprehending time for little children. What are CE and BCE? How far back in time was Ashoka compared to Akbar? I decided to enlist the help of the children, as they became markers in my timeline before the audience. A birthday girl marked the year Jesus Christ was born. We then hopped a few hundred and thousand years back and forth to get a good sense on eras, where we are today and where on that timeline are the main characters from my first two History-Mystery books.

We discovered what we knew about Emperor Ashoka as a group. We spoke of the emperor trying to spread his messages across the country without television, radio, newspapers and internet. The kids came up with all kinds of ideas and learnt about Ashoka choosing inscriptions on rocks and pillars. They were intrigued that this well-known emperor was lost to India for almost 2,000 years till James Prinsep deciphered the script on his pillars and rocks in 1837. We spoke about cracking codes and discovering answers to mysteries. I hope that many will visit my website and download code sheets that we’ve created with the key to crack them. They contain the messages that emperor Ashoka left on rocks and pillars across our country.

I did get a few suspicious looks when I claimed that Akbar used to like to watch spiders fight, or that he would have ice carried down from the mountains for chilling his drink. It took vigorous nodding of my head and standing straight for two whole minutes rather than jumping around as I usually do, to lend some credibility to my claim.

We did a fact or fiction quiz and as an author writing historical fiction, I explained to them the need for research, accuracy of setting and how I almost referred to oranges in the Ashoka book, when there were no oranges in India at the time! The children were quite amazed that they eat fruits and vegetables today that were not known in our part of the world many years ago.

It reinforced my belief that by introducing kids to the fun bits of history at an early age, we’ll have many little historians around! The History Mystery books have mysteries you’ll never find in history books – since they are fiction! However, the books are loaded with facts about the ruler and the time and a section at the end sorts it all out. The first two have released and more are on their way!

Natasha Sharma

 

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Guest Review: The Susu Pals

The Susu Pals is the overused story of two girls, Rhea and Dia who are “We’ll marry the same prince” friends. Though it is a heartwarming story of how friendships are formed and maintained, it is also a portrayal of the times when friendships and loyalties are tested. And before people judge the book by its cover (literally) the book is about friendship not ‘urinating’!  

The author, Richa Jha has succeeded in achieving an easy to read text that uses new adjectives. Her depiction of Rhea’s feelings when she must learn to live without her friendship with Dia is beautiful. And a new character towards the end adds a surprise element.

I was pleasantly surprised with how the author has managed to break stereotypical notions in a picture book for young girls. While playing, Rhea and Dia don’t pretend to be waiting for princes or making tea. Instead, they are out robbing banks and playing pirate. The story ends with a trio of two girls and a boy bringing down the “same gender” stereotype.

One small grouse here. Considering Jha’s love for picture books and her immense experience in the same, I would have liked to see a more original storyline. The presence of an unwashed and tattered teddy bear, whom the girls call ‘Prince’, was too clichéd and their animals being best friends was no less. Also, in a time of sms abbreviations I don’t quite approve of the use of the word ‘pals’ by the author. The one thing that really pinched me was the name-calling in the book.

The illustrations, by Alicia Souza, complement the story very well and have a degree of detail. The toys and the picnic basket are illustrated well. The atypical use of colors and color combinations is original. It’s evident that much thought has been put into the color of each character’s clothes to put forth an image compatible with the character. The comments made by the animals add humour to the story.

The Susu Pals
Written by Richa Jha; Illustrated by Alicia Souza 

Publisher: Snuggle With Picture Books
Price: Rs 300

Reviewed by:
Sidika Sehgal, Delhi

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Guest Review: The Little Prince

My journey with the little prince started on 29th April 2013 when my mom gave this book to me. At first, I thought that the book is very boring but when I reached the third and fourth chapters I thought the book was very interesting. At one time I was on chapter 17 and I got so very interested that I read till chapter 25 but then I slept.

I liked many things about this book like the little prince, the huge baobabs and even the cover of the book. But I did not like the pictures too much, because they were not expressing anything and – in all the pictures, except the baobabs picture – there was a man standing or sitting.

I was fascinated to see the baobabs. As explained in the book, they are enormous trees/weeds that could cover a whole planet. They were like gigantic castles. Even if we were to take ‘a herd of elephants with us they would not be able to eat one single baobab.’ They were type of purplish green in colour. They can never be there in real life, but you never know.

The little prince is the main character of the story. He travelled from planet to planet to find friends. First, he found some roses. He asked the roses, “Where are the humans?” The roses replied: “They are everywhere, all around you.” Then he met a fox. The fox asked the little prince to tame him. The little prince tamed the fox and they became very good friends. Then he met a snake in a desert. The snake guided the little prince to the humans. The little prince met a human and told him how he found him.

My journey with the little prince was memorable.

The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Reviewed by: Nandini Narula, Delhi
Age: 11

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Guest Review: Junior Kumbhakarna

Kumbhakarna, courtesy his eating and sleeping habits, is quite a household name and doesn’t need any introduction. But this story is about Kukku whose favourite bedtime story is that of the slumbering giant. It is also a story of how real life imitates fantasy – or mythology in this case. The story resonates with parents who face the everyday dilemma of putting their children to bed and then waking them up in time for the school bus.

A delightful read, Junior Kumbhakarna, is a conscious effort by Arundhati Venkatesh to introduce mythology to children for she herself grew up with these stories.

The journey of waking Kumbhakarna up is laced with humour, as nothing – not donkeys braying loudly, not lively drums, not the delicious smell of motichoor laddus (quite a favorite with the author) – wakes him up.

The simple use of action words makes the book a dramatic read! The crisp storyline written with brevity adds to the charm of the story. Much credit is due to Shreya Sen, the talented illustrator of the book. A first timer in illustrating mythological stories, she has done a wonderful job! That is perhaps because she could relate to the character of Kumbhakarna.

Sen’s cute cartoons with eyeballs the size of saucers and teeth as white as snow are appealing. The vibrant colours used in different hues and shades are a lovely sight! The intricacy in her illustrations is commendable. The effort that has gone into detailing a quilt or the elephants’ howdahs or turbans of soldiers is appreciable. Even the smallest of details like the cashew nut on the laddu or the hair on Kumbhakarna’s hands and chest or the elements of a four-year-old’s forever-dirty room are well thought of. Yet I simply cannot overlook the poorly illustrated animals.

This book gave me a rush of nostalgia and reminded me of how eager I would be to listen to stories of the strong Hanuman as a child! Even after reading it 5 times in a day, I could read it just one more time. In an age where cartoon shows like Chota Bheem educate children of their colourful past, Junior Kumbhakarna is a pleasant read.

Junior Kumbhakarna
Written by Arundhati Venkatesh; Illustrated by Shreya Sen

Publisher: Tulika Books
Price: Rs 135

Reviewed by:
Sidika Sehgal, Delhi

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Jo Henwood: “A good story gets into your head and teases your mind”

Spontaneous wit, bubbling humour and a thirst for understanding things about India define Jo Henwood, the storyteller from Australia, who was on a short visit to Delhi recently.

It was one of those odd coincidences that work their way into one’s lives. Jo, who was headed to Delhi for a conference got in touch with us through friends of friends of friends. “Is it possible,” she queried on an email, “to conduct storytelling sessions in Delhi considering that I will be in your city for a week or so?” It was. And that is how we worked out her tour to a few schools in the NCR.

Storykeeper

Storytelling is a serious business at the best of times. And who better to turn to than someone who is an accredited storyteller, the president of the Storytelling Guild of New South Wales, Sydney and who has a Master’s in Cultural Heritage and qualifications in library science, conducting tours, museum studies and gifted education.

Most of Jo’s work is as a tour guide or education officer at several heritage sites in Sydney. It certainly gives her some interesting raw material in her real love, storytelling. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops at community colleges and museum theatre conferences. Her specialization includes heritage sites, people with disabilities, draw-stories, science fiction, mysteries and historical stories.

In all this, her professionalism stands out. Landing in New Delhi, for the first time in her life, on a cold Monday night, Jo was ready – on a blustery Tuesday morning, pink hair swept back – to leave for a ‘storytelling-tour’ to four schools, spanning two days.

Instant hit
The first school we visited was Pathways in Noida. After a quick visit to the well-stocked library, Jo was raring to do what she loves – tell stories. The session started off with a simple question, ‘Who likes stories?’ All the children responded with a resounding ‘ME.. ME… ME!!’  It set the ball rolling and there was no stopping her after that.

She started with a story called ‘Belonging’ by Jeannie Baker. The school library happily allowed Jo to use its copy of this wordless picture book, brought to life by Baker’s vivid illustrations and Jo’s interactive style of storytelling. This was followed by five stories ranging from The Little Old Lady who was not afraid of anything! to the story of a Kookaburra Bird.  The children were mesmerized and just didn’t want her to stop. In the end, the teachers had to reluctantly step in and end the session – and only because Jo was getting late for her next school visit.

Dino tales
The next school on the itinerary was Shiv Nadar, Noida where all of us were treated to a delicious lunch. Jo was careful, for very obvious reasons, with the tempting delicacies spread out on the table. She started with a very interesting topic talking about her time as a dinosaur keeper in Australia! All of us wanted to know what that meant.

Fascinated bunch of children at Noida

Jo explained that her work with museums included taking care of robotic models of dinosaurs. Jo went on to speak about her work with children with disabilities, as a tour guide in historic gardens and an educational officer in botanic gardens.

The children were all in awe of the Dinosaur Keeper. Aptly enough, the session started off with one about dinosaurs which amazed the children even further. Once the story ended, many hands went up and Jo was bombarded with questions ranging from ‘Where did you learn theatrics like these?’ to ‘Why did you become a storyteller?’ and finally the inevitable why-her-hair-was-pink query.

Gurgaon ahoy!

Pathways School

Day Two started nice and early with a session at Pathways Gurgaon where Jo captivated the audience with her unique style. The students were curious to know where Jo had come from, what all she did and what storytelling meant to her. “A good story,” explained Jo, “gets into your head and teases your mind. It plays around in your mind and makes you wonder!”

Jo’s final session was at The Shri Ram School Gurgaon, with a lively and exuberant bunch of 6-7-year-olds.  Jo’s stories also included one about an old couple enjoying their lives in the Australian Outback. Little did we know that such a lovely start would lead to such a scary climax. Everyone in the room got goose pimples when Jo repeated ‘Give me back my golden arm’ in scary whispers, loud monotones and finally a bloodcurdling scream. To top it off, she ended the story with one final whisper that was the scariest of all! The sessions also included a few Irish and Chinese stories among others.

We don’t have to say it, but she got a standing ovation at every school.

By Vineet V George

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Cross-country Workshop

I was a little worried that Eureka was abducting me for some obscure reason as they took me on this beautiful solitary drive through misty mustard fields with the shadowy Aravali ranges in the background, with no traces of human life for miles on end.

Discussing literature and fave books

However, my thoughts moved from abduction to magic after an hour and a half when I found myself in front of a castle of sorts which had suddenly materialised at the end of a dirt road that had meandered for 30 minutes in a manner that had been somewhat annoying. The castle turned out to be Pathways World School and I came out of the maze that was my mind to remember that what I had set out for was to conduct a Writing Workshop for 53 students of Class 3.

The Writing Workshop was a pleasure as such events usually turn out to be.  The children were bright and responsive and had done their homework well – they knew about genre writing, they knew who I was and what I wrote.  We discussed literature, their favourite books and authors. We discussed the elements that went into each genre and how they sometimes stubbornly overlapped and made categorisation difficult.

Since we decided that my book falls into the fantasy genre (it surprises me that it should – I do think it’s quite a straightforward, realistic narrative but there is magic in the book apparently) we discussed fantasy literature at length and science fiction too, as one boy said he liked only science fiction and it appeared he might physically harm me if I did not discuss his favourite genre for a bit. Which was not unreasonable and turned out to be fun in any case.

The discussion of fantasy was followed by a group writing exercise for which the kids formed eight groups of six or seven kids each to create a fantasy land that could feature in a book that they might write.  Many lands emerged in the course of the workshop – the constructor land, two candy lands, two robot lands and so on and so forth. There were chocolate swimming pools, electric clouds, zombies and monsters and lands in which men and boys were prohibited entry. We discussed the various fantasy lands and how they worked till we ran out of time and had to hurry and wind up.

Starring role

And then I signed many copies of The Stupendous Timetelling Super Dog and felt like Salman Khan with his shirt on – I always feel like a bit of a star when I am asked for my autograph.  I went on a quick tour of the school too and particularly loved the library and art rooms.  It was getting late though and it was time to embark on the return journey with the prospect of enjoying the Haryana countryside without the fear of kidnapping this time.

Himanjali Sankar

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Guest Review: Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is a criminal mastermind. He is the 12-year-old son of a billionaire and the story is about how he kidnaps Holly Short a LEP (Lower Elements Police) captain belonging to an extremely hi-tech race of underground fairies to get money and then look for his father who has disappeared.

The ransom? One metric ton of 24-carat gold – a metal that the fairy world has in abundance. But even though the fairies have a lot of gold, it was difficult for them to give it away. Many rescue attempts are made but the fairies are unsuccessful as they come up against Artemis’s highly intelligent mind and his bodyguard, a man-mountain called Butler.

Finally, the LEP decide to give the gold but they have a trick up their sleeve. They decide that after giving the gold and retrieving Captain Short, they will bio-bomb Artemis’s house and wipe out any living tissue in it. But Artemis turns out to be smarter.

After agreeing to take only half the gold, he releases Short but drugs himself and his friends so that they become unconscious. Can he get away with it?

This is very exciting and interesting book and the first in the series of Artemis Fowl’s adventures – or misadventures as the author calls it. I could not stop reading it and kept going back to it with every free second I had.

I recommend this book to readers who are interested in crime fiction.

Artemis Fowl
By Eoin Colfer

Reviewed by:
Ishaan Varshney, Delhi
Age: 12

 

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