History and trivia come together in a colourful package.

Do you know who won the first Olympic running race? Or what the crown of olive leaves presented to the winner was called? How about the year in which India first took part in the Olympics? Can you name the ‘magician’ who led our country to gold in hockey?

This is not a quiz — it’s a teaser to nuggets of information packed away in two books recently launched for children: India at the Olympic Games (for 8-plus years) and India’s Olympic Story (11-plus years). Published by Chennai-based Tulika, in association with the British Council and the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, the colourfully illustrated package includes history, trivia, and mini-biographies. Both books open with a letter from Abhinav Bindra, India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist, in which he talks about his love for sports, and the spirit of the Olympics.

Moving from the origin of the Games, the books discuss India’s performance over the years, and profile prominent Indian sportspersons who have made their mark there. The book for the younger audience is visually more attractive, with the narrative centred around illustrations, while the other is text-heavy and uses cartoon-strips to lighten the account.

Writing about a vast topic like the Olympic Games is a challenge in itself — writing it for children, even more so. Yet, both books cover extensive ground in simple, easy-to-follow language and a conversational style. Bits of little-known information and anecdotes engage the reader’s attention, while the illustrations add a colourful spin to the pages. The chapters flow seamlessly and it’s tempting to read from start to end at one go.

Tracing the growth of the Games to its modern-day avatar, the books make references to significant socio-political events — such as the Indian Independence movement and the rise of Nazism in Germany — and their impact on this international event.

There are several features that make these books a worthy buy. For one, a plethora of facts have been presented in a manner that is neither overwhelming nor boring. Second, the books touch upon ethical issues such as the ban on performance enhancing drugs and the spirit of sportsmanship, inviting young minds to ponder on them. Third, the suggested reading material, movies and Web sites encourage readers to pick up the thread of learning on their own.

Finally — most importantly — the books pay homage to sporting heroes who are rarely in the spotlight (which almost always shines over Tendulkars and Dhonis in this cricket-crazy nation). Even for those who are not athletically-inclined, reading about Dhyan Chand, P.T. Usha, M.C. Mary Kom, and K.D. Jadhav is a reminder that no great achievement is won without toil and tears. It is also a nudge towards an all-round appreciation of sports beyond popular favourites cricket and football.

The only thing that struck as slightly odd was the nature of some activities in the books. The crossword, unscrambling words, or pinpointing places on the world map are interesting. However, sections that ask the reader to re-write a passage in their ‘own words’, or ‘discuss’ questions are rather textbook-like. However, savvy parents could turn it to their advantage by organising a fun reading-cum-discussion session. Although written with younger audiences in mind, the books serve as good reading material for adults too. And when you are watching the 100-metre sprint, you could impress everyone by recalling that it was a cook named Coroebus who won the first-ever Olympic running race — unless, of course, your kid beats you to it!

(This article was published on July 26, 2012)
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