Children’s picture books as a genre made an appearance two centuries ago. Before that even those books written for children were full of text, mostly
unreadable and boring in terms of presentation. John Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World in Pictures) — that was published in 1658 — is widely considered the first picture book for children. It was an encyclopaedia that had captioned illustrations of the natural world.
The author himself was an educational reformer. He was one of the first to recognize that children and adults are basically different. Comenius’ book remained quite popular till the 1850s in England. He set a trend that publishers of children’s books take for granted today. Author-illustrator teams such as Roald Dahl-Quentin Blake, Paul Stewart-Chris Riddell and Julia Donaldson-Alex Scheffler are legends today. And publishers would pay anything to snap them up.
In 18th century Europe, the most popular kind of pictorial children’s books were fairy tales and legends. They are still popular. In India, these take the form of mythologies and legends. For instance The Puffin Book of Magical Indian Myths — a title that sounds irresistible. Translations of Indian mythological stories — with their twists and turns — into English have played a major role in the development of the reading habit in children.
The Puffin Book of Magical Indian Myths: By Anita Nair, Illustrated by Atanu Roy, Puffin, 181 pages, Rs499
How else would a child know Ghatothkacha from Kumbhakarna? Or Sita from Panchali?
Anita Nair of Ladies Coupéfame (and Mistress, Satyr of the Subway and The Better Man) joins hands with Atanu Roy, who has illustrated more than 100 books. But this, say the credits, is his first major picture book assignment.
Fifty interesting mythological anecdotes adorn this collection. The Nair-Roy combine works well. The 150-plus full-page, all-colour illustrations perfectly complement the easy narrative. Each page is a delight when one compares it to the glut of books on Indian mythology — each one shoddily produced, with an apology of an illustration. The “painting”-like illustrations are bold, vivid and have an interpretation style that stands out. “I have avoided the stereotype as far as possible and interpreted each story as only a story without religious connotations,” Roy says in the book.
“My mother, Soumini, and grandmother, Janaki, fed my appetite for myths and legends,” acknowledges Nair, a former creative director in an ad agency, in the preface. With a few tales from the Dasha Avatars (10 incarnations of Hindu god Vishnu) thrown in, this collection has some of the lesser known stories such as How All Living Creatures Began to Blink (a story about King Nimi, from whose name the word Nimisha—the blink of an eye—came about), How Pushan Became Toothless (which reveals why only gruel and cooked ground food is offered while praying to this god) and What Draupadi Did to Feed 10,000 Sages, as well as popular ones such as How Bali was Defeated, How Ganesha Got His Elephant Head, and Why Ganga Came to Earth.
Coming after the rollicking Living Next Door to Aliseabout a boy Siddharth and a baby elephant, Magical Indian Myths is pure magic. Children apart, you too could up your mythology quotient. Nair has written another book on a similar subject: The Puffin Book of World Myths and Legends. Her works have been translated into 26 languages.
The writer is the editor of Heek (e-heek.com), a children’s magazine.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org