Indian kids are skilled story-lovers: Yannets Levi
Israel’s most popular children’s writer on how a crying child inspires the best in him
Yannets Levi, probably Israel’s most popular children’s writer, is fast accumulating Indian fans. Translated from the original Hebrew into English, five of his “Uncle Leo” books have been published by Red Turtle, Rupa’s children’s imprint, in India. The series has reportedly sold 500,000 copies in Israel and the first book won the 2010 Library Award, the most important literary prize for children’s books in that country.
Levi, who has been to India “dozens of times”, has quite a magnetic personality, and when speaking to children, his lips, hands and legs all move in unison. Uncle Leo’s Adventures are books of fantasy and reality, exaggeration and factuality, illustrated with colourful, humorous, dramatic illustrations by Yaniv Shimony. Every Wednesday Uncle Leo—based on Levi’s favourite uncle—visits his two nephews and regales them with the story of an incredible adventure that he has had in places one cannot find in any official atlas: he gets stuck on a cloud, visits the chocolate land, turns into yellow cheese and even becomes a cockroach! These stories came to Levi during impromptu babysitting sessions with his little nieces and nephews.
Excerpts from an interview:
Would you say that every child has an Uncle Leo in his life?
Many kids write or tell me they wished they had an uncle who tells amazing adventures and can look straight into their hearts and understand them. Though Uncle Leo is quite old, he has the spirit of a child. He wants to go on adventures, to hunt for treasures, to discover unknown kingdoms, to fight demons and overcome monsters. He believes in stories with all his heart. So, I don’t know if every kid has such an uncle, but I’m quite sure every child has an Uncle Leo in his or her own soul.
When did you exactly believe that you could sit down and write these stories?
I didn’t plan to write a children’s story, but I’d already published two fiction books for adults. When I told the stories to my nieces and nephews, we were all so excited about it that pretty soon I realized that I must write those adventures. I still tell stories to my family’s kids.
Writers usually tell us they need complete silence, peace and preferably a room with a view in order to be inspired, but I have discovered that inspiration comes in the most unpredictable moments. For example, when my daughter cries and nothing helps, more often than not, a story is the solution. Somehow, the immediate need to do something about it leads me to better stories than I’d write if I were to sit in front of my computer.
Any more Uncle Leo adventures in the offing?
As long as the supply of nephews and nieces doesn’t stop—and, of course, I also have my own daughters. I’ll probably keep on telling adventures of Uncle Leo and then write them in books. This year a staged play of Uncle Leo will premier in Israel and the seventh book will probably be published.
What is the difference between Israel and India when it comes to children’s literature?
Storytelling is much more dominant in the lives of Indian kids. An Indian mother or father, grandma or grandpa have so many stories at hand—Krishna stories, Panchatantra, Ramayan, Mahabharat and so on. All of these stories are flexible and ready to be told in innumerous versions. India is an empire of stories that are reborn each time they are told. You won’t find so many old stories on the Israeli parallel shelf.
Children’s literature in Israel is quite developed, consisting of original pieces and translated books. People usually buy books for their kids and in general children’s literature is the most successful of all genres. Israeli writers for children meet children as part of the yearly programme of most schools.
But more than anything—and despite the differences—I feel that kids in Israel and India are thrilled by the same things. Indian kids are, you might say, skilled story-lovers.
Do Israeli authors and publishers find it difficult to attract children to reading?
I must admit I don’t feel that nowadays kids read less than my generation, when we were kids. There is no doubt that they have many attractions and temptations that didn’t exist when I was a child. I feel that many kids would prefer playing on their computer, rather than play outside. But then I feel that the Internet and the new media usually make them more open to the world, smarter and more sophisticated. Therefore, writers should work harder in telling them more elaborate stories. Anyhow, children will always be interested in good stories. Uncle Leo’s Adventures were created while telling them to kids without any gadget, as storytellers have done for thousands of years.
You are comfortable in Hebrew as well as English. Will you try and write in English to become more global?
Language is not merely words. I feel that I know Hebrew thoroughly. I know its roots and all its hidden layers and most subtle hues. There are certain creative processes, certain emotions, I’d prefer expressing in Hebrew. Nonetheless, there are other things that I might wish to explore in English. I wish my stories to be translated into English and other languages, but then maybe I’d write some day directly in English. The translation of Uncle Leo’s Adventures’ was done in Israel by Margo Eyon but I was involved in the editing and finalization of the English version. So you might say the text was recreated in English. It’s my “official” English version of the books and I have a complete artistic choice in it as if it was originally written in English.
Do you have any favourite Indian authors?
I love R.K. Narayan, Vaikom Basheer, Tagore, and others. I love Bhakti songs— Kabir, Mirabai, Tulsidas and others, and I love Ramayan, Krishna stories, Mahabharat and many other myths.
What is the most lasting impression that India has left on you?
The thing I love the most about India is the dominant role stories have here. Stories are everywhere—everywhere I go, whomsoever I meet. Trees and mountains and rivers are stories in India. And so many people have fascinating stories to tell.
I find new stories on each visit to India. I believe that the first man was created in Africa, but the first story was told in India. Therefore, the fact that my stories are now published in India is first of all a privilege and a blessing. And if they joined Indian children’s culture, It would be a dream come true.
You have become quite popular in India. Do Israeli children know about Indian authors?
Israelis are quite familiar with some Indian authors for adults. I translated Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography into Hebrew and it was a best-seller in Israel. I also translated a book by J. Krishnamurti. Unfortunately, Indian children’s books are not usually known to Israeli children. I hope to write a children’s book about my travels in India. I also plan to introduce Indian children’s books to some Israeli editors .
Is fantasy your favourite genre?
No. I don’t limit myself to any genre. Last February I published a children’s novel in Israel based on my school days. I’m interested in stories that offer me new discoveries about myself and the world around me. It can be done in any genre.
I believe that if I discover something new while creating a story, it will reach the reader too.
In future, while writing for children, will you think of touching upon conflict topics?
I do that all the time, I think. You see, Uncle Leo’s Adventures touch conflicts through fantasy. For example, in one of his adventures, Uncle Leo visits the kingdom of Decria where foreigners are to be executed. In another adventure, Uncle Leo turns into half-man-half-woman. I wasn’t aware of it when I told the story, but it deals with gender issues that any society copes with. Though they are all open to the reader’s interpretation, sometimes fantasy is the best way to explore real-life conflicts in the most subtle manner.
M. Venkatesh is the founder of the children’s literature festival Bookaroo.
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