Ever since I was a little girl, I loved Elephants. Where we lived, an elephant used to come to the streets with the mahout to offer blessings in exchange for coconuts and banana. Elephants as Hindus believe is a symbol of Lord Ganesha.
Lord Ganesha is also my favourite deity in Hindu epics and stories. He is fun, he can be temperamental and he is human in so many ways. Lord Ganesha has been drawn and re-drawn in funny ways across history in the subcontinent – and has so many superpowers that he’ll always be my favourite.
These are just six (did you find all 6?) of the innumerable Ganesha statues and depictions I’ve in my flat.
Elephants as beasts are family-oriented. They are female-led groups and love playing with their kids. They are patient, they remember for long and are empathetic. Peace-loving giants, who love bananas! What’s not like about Elephants?
So when I started writing stories, Elephants started featuring in them. Obviously!
In my first picture book in the UK, Pattan’s Pumpkin, illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by Otter-Barry Books, my earliest imagination was when Pattan returned to the mountains riding an elephant. Illustrator Frané Lessac generously included them in many spreads and elephants are one of the reader favourites in the story.
Listen to Frané talk about her inspirations for the art in this book and the process.
In my much-loved picture book You’re Safe With Me, illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing, I introduced Mama Elephant, the matriarch of the forest. She has wise words for the little baby animals in the forest and reassures them. The image of Mama Elephant cradling the babies in the crook of her trunk was the first image that spurred on the story.
Children and adults alike love colouring in the wonderful illustration by Poonam Mistry during workshops. Download a colouring sheet here to try your own art in Poonam’s style.
And today to celebrate World Elephant Day we have a special treat from Tutti Frutti StoryTime in association with Leeds Libraries. Register to listen to You’re Safe With Me, watch the illustrations be animated and learn to do a craft activity too.
Then I want to tell you about Tiger Troubles. This was a story I had been working on for many years until it got published in 2019. In Tiger Troubles, we have Elephant as one of the animals and in fact the first one, who takes it upon himself to confess and not to get his friends into trouble. Hannah Marks has brought out his character in this lively illustration and throughout the book.
And then of course, when I published the first book of Sona Sharma series – Sona Sharma – Very Best Big Sister, from early on, I wanted to make sure that Sona has a plush toy called Elephant. She might have been gifted other animals but her imaginary best friend is Elephant. In the Sona Books, Elephant is her wise counsel, her listening friend to talk through her anxieties and also quite a character. Elephant I’m told by young readers is quite funny and he has one major obsession – he has not been given a name.
Jen Khatun, the illustrator of the series, created a wonderful activity for children to draw the Elephant from the book. You can download it here!
So, when we asked children in Northern Ireland to draw Elephant with Jen’s guidance and find a name for Elephant and explain their reason, these are some wonderful names they came up with. Note the Indian scripts and references the children have used.
Writing stories about Elephants raises awareness. Beyond loving elephants, I want to help them too. So if you want to find out more about elephant conservation and protection, check out the following resources.
Here are some organisations you can look up, studies you can get more information from and find things you can do within your circle of influences.
Books are springboards into conversations about life. Especially for children. Whether it is about going to a new school or having a sibling, books help children put themselves in the characters’ shoes and evaluate their own feelings.
Therefore it’s no doubt that empathy can be built with stories. Understanding another person’s viewpoint, albeit a fictional character, builds those empathy muscles in children’s minds.
As a reader first and then a writer, most of my emotional skills were developed through reading. My aspirations for the future came from stories I listened to and read. Books opened up subjects like history, politics to me without becoming an academic class. Today I see that in the children I visit with my books. They recognise themselves often in the characters of my books, even though many of my stories are set in a faraway continent.
So I’ve put together a list of books that you can read on Empathy Day from my portfolio that will help create the space for difficult conversations, understanding a different point of view and even taking action to help someone else.
Each book is different – some characters are human and others are animals. And yet, in each story, we learn something about our own emotions and of others. We also see how each character acted to demonstrate their empathy.
In Sona Sharma - Very Best Big Sister, Sona needs to love her little sister despite her anxiety of not being loved anymore. She takes action to become the Very Best Big Sister she aims to be.
In Tiger Troubles, the Sloth Bear must accept his mistakes to avoid getting his friends into trouble. Every child I've read this book to, understands why the Sloth Bear must be brave enough to confess despite being terrified.
In the Prince Veera Series of books, each case that comes before Prince Veera and his friend Suku requires understanding two sides of the problem. It requires not just clever thinking but compassionate evaluation of the people involved, and what's at stake.
In the Manju series of books, you will see Manju understand why shortcuts don't actually lead to satisfactory conclusions. In the first book, she is wishing for someone else and in the second book, she realises that helping someone else's wish come true and understanding the plight of the genie, is far better than focussing on her own problem. Of course, the universe rewards her too.
in the latest addition to the Prince Veera series – A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth.
My nephews are big fans of the Prince Veera series of books. These stories are reimagined folktales from India and the stories are trickster tales where the trickster tricks for the sake of fairness and justice.
But when my nephew asked me for a new book in the series, I wasn’t sure there was going to be one. And then he said, “But if you make Veera go to Raja Apoorva’s kingdom, maybe he can fix problems there.”
Children who read the books know that Raja Apoorva hasn’t been very fair in his dealings when he visited Prince Veera’s Himtuk and hence my nephew’s need to fix the root-cause. His empathy for the people in Peetalpur, the kingdom of Raja Apoorva that might be suffering from his unfair judgements and quick temper.
That was enough to start me off. I pitched four stories set in Peetalpur instead of Himtuk, where Prince Veera and Suku don’t have a reputation yet. Will they be able to offer suggestions, fix problems and bring truce? Will they be able to earn the trust of Raja Apoorva’s court?
In these four stories, we go from a fun-fair filled with tricky situations where they laugh, they joke and Suku even comes close to wrestling to the problems within the royal family and as usual tiffs between neighbours.
Suku goes from “the wrong friend” that Raja Apoorva used to think he was to Honourable Citizen. And we also introduce the feisty Princess Kanti and her adorable daughter Heera who loves Veera. Suku thinks it’s because her name rhymes with Veera’s although Prince Veera would beg to differ.
Through their journey to Peetalpur and their return, each story has inter-linked stories in them because every interaction with Prince Veera and Suku is a test – of their character, their quick-thinking and their integrity.
In this book, I also added a note at the back to explain the context of these stories. Many South Asian parents will recognise the essence of many of the stories I reimagined here. This author’s note gives a glimpse into my inspirations for these stories for younger readers.
Uma Krishnaswamy returns with me in this book with her beautiful art that gives us a glimpse into the ancient stories and yet retain the playfulness of every child.
This book would not have happened without the support of two people – my nephew Isaac who gave me the idea and Mara Bergman, my editor (and an amazing author) who from the beginning loved Prince Veera and Suku and helped me bring their stories to life on the page. A little bird tells me the new title A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth will also come to the US. So watch this space for updates on that.
Here is a video introducing the book with a lot of thank-yous at the end!