No kidding!

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on November 13, 2020

Come away with me: Books serve as time machines, as portals to magical lands, as ships to distant shores and as rockets to faraway planets   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

All books offer glimpses into other worlds and other minds. But those for children succeed a little more

I became a writer of children’s stories in a moment of foot-stomping, fist-clenching indignation. This doesn’t sound particularly nice or noble, but it’s the plain, unadorned truth.

My unedifying tale begins on a muggy evening around 10 years ago. The oldest of my three daughters had become enamoured of pink tutus and Swan Lake. We’d succumbed to her pleas and enrolled her in a ballet class run by a famously strict teacher. What I hadn’t realised was that this teacher terrorised not just dainty little girls but their mothers as well.

Every three months the school held an Open Day, during which the mothers were chastised for the crimes of their daughters. (Keeps wanting to use the toilet. Comes with a chocolate-stained mouth...) On this particular day, the focus was sloppy hairdos. “The ballet buns are just terrible. They come undone. The hair escapes,” the teacher harangued as her gimlet eyes examined the frothy six-year-olds lined up against the wall.

Next she placed a white plastic chair in the middle of the room, crooked her index finger at my daughter and said, “Aaliya, sit on this chair.”

Aaliya obeyed. Well, obviously.

I quailed. Even more obviously.

The teacher began to undo Aaliya’s bun. Aaliya had long hair that required a few dozen pins and a hair net to hold the bun in place. One by one, the teacher removed the pins. And with every pin that she removed she tutted and shook her head. All this, while 60 little girls gawped at Aaliya, and 60 big mummies gawped at me.

Finally, Aaliya’s hair tumbled down her back and the ballet teacher lifted the ponytail high up in the air. “The problem with this ponytail,” she announced to the room at large, “is the rubber band.”

So there I sat, the mummy who didn’t know how to buy rubber bands, turning crimson with mortification. Do you wonder, then, that as Aaliya and I headed home, I swore revenge? “I will show her,” I decided. “I will show her. I will... I will... make her the bad character in a book. So there.”

That night, when the rest of the household was tucked into bed, I marched up to my computer and wrote, “In Cosy Castle, there lived a princess, a dragon, a court jester and an old crone who may or may not have had magical powers. So it really should have been a proper castle with flags and drawbridges and knights in shining armour.

“Instead, it was a boxy grey building with six floors, an unreliable lift and a one-eyed chowkidar...”

Six months later, I had my quiet revenge and my book. The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street is the story of six children in a Colaba building who attempt to use magic to defeat two scheming neighbours and save the precious bimbli trees in their garden. (The ballet teacher metamorphosed into a horrid speech and drama teacher named Mrs Braganza — to rhyme with extravaganza.)

Mission accomplished, I was ready to return to the world of grown-ups, news reports and editorials. I had been a journalist for 10 years and a stay-at-home mother for five. What I really wanted to do was to write a book for adults, and to eventually return to journalism.

A decade later though, I’m still writing books for children. For a simple reason. There is so much to say, and so many fun ways to say it. A horror book can employ spooky whiffs of strawberry shampoo, a middle-class Mumbai building with a cobwebby stairwell, and WhatsApp messages from strangers, to pass on that essential message of our times: Beware of the twilit world behind your phone screens.

A fantasy novel can take readers on a clue hunt through familiar streets and show them that each city is a place of stories, hidden treasures and magic. That tucked away in the seemingly drab and grey streets of Mumbai are stone elephants, soaring goddesses and unexpected beauty.

A funny school story can convey that, even when they are pitted against mean, authoritarian adults, children need not be helpless. That there are always ways to stand up and fight.

Books do much more than tell stories. They serve as time machines, as portals to magical lands, as ships to distant shores and as rockets to faraway planets. They are magic wands that transport a child from the Mumbai of 2020 to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany or a town on the banks of the Amazon. They invite readers to try on the shoes of a girl growing up in Nigeria, as well as a girl growing up behind a burqa just two bus stops away. And, without seeming to, they whisper that most important message. That essentially we are all the same. We all feel fear, anger and joy. We all hate homework and love chocolates.

All books offer glimpses into other worlds and other minds. But books for children succeed a little more. Not because of their writers but because of their readers. Children accept with equanimity the idea of a friendship between a girl in a gleaming high-rise and a girl in a tumbledown shanty; they accept that the world can easily be different from the place that it is.

Perhaps the best part about being a writer of children’s books is that, sometimes, I can help them conjure up that alternative reality.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author

Published on November 13, 2020

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