Harness the potential of a book

As a child in the21st century, there is so much to worry about. From not being able to play outside to dangers on the Internet. They’re hardly left alone and adventures from books in the 70s seem like another world. While some children are able to talk about their fears, many do not have the language or the emotional confidence to voice their anxieties.

There is not a lot of time to sit down and listen, to ourselves, our inner voices and our children’s unspoken fears. Our lives are full of commute, routines, school work and social media. How do we then settle down quietly to talk about such anxieties? Will it even work if you asked a child, if he/she is afraid of something? This is where books come in. Reading books that touch upon anxieties within a story can often help a child reflect on their own anxieties. They might even mention if they had the same question. They might come forward with something they had worried about.

NHS advice says while younger children often have separation anxieties that will slowly go away when they grow older and go to nurseries or sleepovers, other anxieties especially social ones start to manifest. Many anxieties are not serious enough to see the doctor about and can be dealt with one important medication all parents hopefully have access to – books.

A story for a child is never just a story even when it’s full of fun and adventure or fart and poo. Look closely and you will see the gateway into themes that a parent can pull into a discussion.

  When I wrote You’re Safe With Me, at first, my only real goal was to reassure the animals in the forest about the thunderstorm. I approached it as a storyteller first and then as a poet. When the book was written and beautifully illustrated by Poonam Mistry, and published, it created wonderful responses from children. I’ve discussed their fears about natural disasters and they have been able to tell me that they feel reassured after reading the book. Read one of my earlier posts about how children can deal with the fear here.

So when I started writing You’re Snug with Me, a few things were in the back of my mind. The two polar bear cubs born in the snow den, are going to encounter a fierce natural environment they have to cope with. They have never left the warmth of their mother’s embrace for almost nine months, and then when they find this vast region of ice and snow, would they worry?

As a child, growing up must be exciting and worrying in equal measures. What if I sit next to a boy or girl I’m not friends with? What if my new teacher is stricter than the one I had now? What if my new school is too far away? They’ll be picking up on the conversations they overhear in school or at home about teachers, about other children in their class and wonder how it would affect them.

The bear cubs too have similar questions. Who will they meet when they get out of the den? Will Mama leave them alone or would she stay with them? How fierce are the snowstorms and drifts? And more importantly, will all this ice stay frozen?

Of course, at the outset, the story is about polar bear cubs. But then if you use the text to steer the conversation about similar fears children might have – will the giraffe go extinct before my next birthday because I’d like to go and see them in the zoo? Will there be more floods and earthquakes as I grow up and what can I do to stop it?

Then go further – ask them what other things might worry them? Especially if a child is going to the nursery for the first time or transitioning from nursery to reception, talk to them about embarking on that adventure – exciting as well as scary as it might be.

Books are wonderful resources to discuss children’s anxieties. Parents can gently ease into these. Also there is a wide array of books available that either focus or touch topics on the periphery – as a parent you know when you want a big dose of something and when just a pinch is more than enough.

All my books come with activities too – from colouring to solving word puzzles, go further than the book. The more children interact with a subject matter, the deeper their introspection gets. Put your listening hat on and jump into the joys of a book.

Talking About Empathy at Stoke Newington Festival

Empathy Lab and Stoke Newington Festival invited me to present a storytelling and Empathy workshop with You’re Safe With Me, which is on the list of #EmpathyReads for this year.

Many young families with babies to 10-year olds were present, eager to listen to a story and talk about empathy. I started the session asking about the difference between sympathy and empathy.

It was easier for some 8-year olds to explain sympathy to me. And then slowly we discussed the concept of empathy. Find out more here. As I explained the various elements of it, even five year olds could relate to it. One child put up its hand to explain how she knew a friend of hers was hurt in the playground the previous day, and how she felt sorry.

Then I told them the story from You’re Safe With Me. We had one avid listener who was fascinated with Mama Elephant and he was so worried why she didn’t appear in every spread in the book. The new animals they had seen in the story – loris and pangolin touched their curiosity. And when I explained about pangolins and how we need to save them – one child remembered and asked about it during the activity time we had.

The hall was full of young children who were fascinated with the story of thunderstorms, thunder, lightning, the hungry river and the loud wind. They actively participated.

 

And then came the activity. We had Empathy postcards (check out the resources on the Empathy Lab website) and I explained to the children that we are going to make a wish for someone else.

Here are some of the wishes they came up with during the session:

  1. My Nan, because she needs an operation in her eye and she needs to get better to look after Grandpa.
  2. My grandpa because he is on a stretcher and he needs to get better.
  3. My teacher because she spends a lot of time preparing for class.
  4. My friend – I want her to be my best friend forever.
  5. I want my friend to have a pedal bike too because I have one.
  6. I wish for David Attenborough to save more animals

 

Here are some hilarious ones!

  1. I wish Donald Trump would not be President.
  2. I wish Prince Harry a happy honeymoon.
  3. Joanna, write a new book. (On asking who Joanna was, of course it was J K Rowling! Duh!)

And this one broke my heart – I wish my friend would be nicer to me. I spoke to this little girl and we talked about how she could find out more about why her friend might be rude to her. And maybe she should also say how she feels like, to her friend.

After that wonderful time writing wishes for someone else, they did colouring in and made masks (you can download them here). Towards the end of the session, one child had a tantrum when he had to go home. “I don’t want to go!” he declared. Another came to me and said, “Thank you for the story.” And her little sister, perhaps just four, said, “I loved your story, you made my day.” And she gave me a hug.

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It’s my privilege to be able to write and tell stories to children. And when I know I touched a few hearts and helped them to discuss the thoughts behind the stories, it makes all the trouble worth it.

When I write a new story, I might know who might like it or what ingredients should go into it. Even when the book is out there, you don’t know who it’s going to reach. But when it actually connects, the circle is complete and that’s when the book is truly an agent for change.

12th June is celebrated as Empathy Day across the UK. Find out more here and perhaps you will find the time this 12th June,

  1. to read one of the books from this year’s list,
  2. share your Empathy inspiring books and
  3. take one action that reflects empathy.

Follow Empathy Lab on Twitter here. You can follow me on Twitter here and on Instagram here. From now up to 12th June and of course after that, we will be discussing empathy, recommending books and sharing ideas, experiences and more.

Lists, editor’s choice and more

This week has been brilliant so far. I’m recovering from a bout of flu and I need all the good news I can get.

Earlier this week we found out that Pattan’s Pumpkin, published by Candlewick Press in the US has been added to the 2018 Notable Social Studies Book list! It’s an amazing honour and also I’m glad many schools and children will be able to find out more about this wonderful story.

Then a casual glance at last year’s round-ups of books published in the US led me to this wonderful list. The School Library Journal had created a 2017 list of folktales and fairytales and Pattan’s Pumpkin is featured in that too.

And some exciting news about my upcoming title with Lantana Publishing. You’re Safe With Me has won a lot of praise for its wonderful artwork and the stunning design. Fiona Noble has chosen it as her editor’s choice for the 2018 May releases of this year in The Bookseller this week!

You’re Safe With Me is also chosen as an empathy read by Empathy Lab. Find out more here.

And if you have missed this news from before A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice is on the shortlist for the Surrey Libraries Children’s Book Award.

Come Read with Me on Empathy Day

Empathy Lab UK along with authors, libraries, Patron of Reading, Society of Authors and other like-minded people is launching Empathy Day on 13th June. This is the first such celebration and the hope is to continue to celebrate empathy and promote mutual understanding in communities and schools across the year.

As a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend, I believe empathy starts early and starts at home. How we treat our families on good days and bad days, how we like to be treated when we are down and when we are raring to go is as important as scoring high grades, making money or even winning Gold Medals in competitions.

But how do we build empathy amongst young people? How do we ensure the next generation has a reserve of empathy and shared experiences to tap into? Books are a wonderful way to learn about others, or what we perceive as otherness. We’re often afraid and wary of new and unfamiliar things. By getting to know others – they perhaps are no longer strange to us and hence no longer other.

Who are these others? Where do they live? Why should we care?

In a society like ours, where many politicians are asking us to be afraid of others, defining the other is important. What is this other-ness? Is it a different religion, language or the way we dress? Whether we follow the same religion or not, whether we speak the same language or not, do we all not laugh and cry at similar things? Do we all not want happiness, love, friendships, an ice-cream on a hot day and cute cat pictures on social media?

To celebrate the first Empathy Day, authors are visiting schools and reading books that teach us empathy and to walk in the shoes of others. You can recommend a book, a song, a movie that to you represents empathy, that would show the reader / listener/ viewer what it is to understand the world from another viewpoint. Do you have activities, poems and songs to share? Tell us on twitter with #ReadforEmpathy hashtag.

Want to know more and the science behind Empathy? Check out these resources.

And don’t forget – visit the Empathy Day website on 13th June to get hold of the Read for Empathy Guide.

And to end I want to share this video that was useful to me to understand empathy – do watch if you have a few minutes.

Pyramids of Caste and the Need for Inclusivity

I grew up under the shadow of the caste system in India. Castes are ancient constructs that defined professional and social place in the communities. The primary division amongst the ancient Vedic communities 1500 to 500 BC was the Varna. And within each varna, the jathis were defined.

Varnas defined the social classes – the pyramid of our society back in India for thousands of years. Then of course were the people who didn’t even have a place in this pyramid.

Casteclass

  • The Brahmins – who were teachers and priests
  • Kshatriyas – the kings and soldiers who protected and governed
  • Vaishyas – the merchants, the moneylenders who kept the economy going
  • Sudras – the people who performed hard labour.

This original system of social strata is so embedded into the collective memory that even after years of struggle many communities still are marginalized and exploited.

Even today most people have either a school certificate or birth certificate that ticks either of these. FORWARD / BACKWARD / MOST BACKWARD / SCHEDULED CASTE / SCHEDULED TRIBE. Although I must say this is to level the playing field.

India is also a product of multiple imperial and colonial occupations right from the time when the indigenous people of the peninsula were brought under the conquering Aryans from the North West.

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By Jaseem Hamza – http://www.panoramio.com/photo/75615435#c91196480, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47123893

Both in the north and in the south (which was separated by the Vindhya mountains), communities existed in the hillsides and in woods and forests. These communities are sometimes collectively called Adivasis – the ancient people. Many of these communities for generations before and after Independence (from the British) either were deprived of their land (and hence livelihood) or forced to move to towns and cities to look for work.

Caste was part of our life in every sense of the world. While there were no social restrictions in the cities I grew up in, divisions existed based on caste, jathis and religions. Home to perhaps every religion in the world, most people learnt to live together in harmony except when politicans whip up the frenzy to gain emotional response. That was true for castes too. Traditionally South Indian politics (even today) is driven by caste and the divide between the “indigenous” Dravidian people vs the enforced caste system that came from the Aryans. The political parties flaunt their Dravidian credentials to gain votes.

You can read more about the influence of castes in politics here.

I have always been drawn to stories told by ancient communities. Whether they are stories from Native American communities or the Maori tribes. I seek out stories from India’s ancient communities – be it from Andaman islands or from the hills of South India.

The Irular community is a tribe that inhabited and still inhabits the mountain ranges of the south-west. These communities are nature loving and were tribes who lived off the land, nurtured it and cherished it.

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Their name, Irular, itself is a token of marginalization. Irul means dark in Tamil, one of the ancient languages of the world. Irular are people who are dark. While the tribes from Tamilnadu, the state that I belong to, are proficient in trapping venomous snakes and rats, the ones from Kerala are farmers. Today they would be classified under SCHEDULED TRIBES, whose tribal way of living has been sacrificed at the altar of development and modern politics.

Nowadays many of these families come into towns looking for construction work – given forests are being destroyed and the old way of life seemingly impossible. Even in the cities and towns, they often live in shanty towns and slums, looking for hard labour in construction and other industries.

One such legend is that of Pattan’s, the elder of the ancient Irular community in Kerala. Set in the valleys of the Sahayadri mountain ranges, Pattan’s Pumpkin tells the story of Pattan and his wife living in harmony with nature. One day he finds a bottle-gourd plant.Courge_encore_verte

He replants it, nourishes it and the plant bears a fruit that grows and grows. Before Pattan could enjoy the juicy bottle-gourd, rains begin to lash against the mountains. For days the rain fell causing distress to animal and plants. Pattan must save his community somehow.I’m sure you have spotted already that the cover shows a pumpkin and not a bottle-gourd. That’s because I’ve taken some artistic liberty to change the bottle-gourd into a pumpkin as it is a familiar fruit to imagine. The brilliantly talented Frane Lessac has brought it to life with her vibrant pictures.

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I stumbled upon the story of Pattan in the research notes gathered by Philipose Vaidyar. I tracked him down to find out more about the story. And the journey began. I researched the Irular community, and my Dad scanned copious notes from the bowels of the Connemara Library, watched videos of their modern-day issues, read about the gorgeous mountain ranges they lived in.

For me, telling the story of Pattan symbolises many  different things.

The story is a story of conservation and responsible farming that Pattan practiced thousands of years ago. Living one with the land, looking after other animals, birds and other living creatures including a bottle-gourd plant shows how ancient communities lived in harmony and highlights how we forget to look after the natural world around us.

46bfec_9a7a3cac79ee4132929418f33997b1ccThe story is not just another flood story. It is about embracing a world where we accept and celebrate differences amongst fellow human beings and appreciate the differences in our ways of life. It is about the duty every human has to protect, transform and grow the natural world around us.

It is about a kind man who decided to save his community from the floods with ingenuity and quick thinking. It is a story from a community that has faced enormous hardship. Bringing a positive story from them to the world stage would open the window into their beautiful world.

Find out more about the power of stories especially about unheard voices and tell us about your own favourite books that celebrate differences and promotes understanding of the world.