Maya Saves the Day
written by Meera Nair, illustrated by Priya Kuriyan
Trouble with Magic
written by Asha Nehemiah, illustrated by Priyankar Gupta
The Vampire Boy
written by Sharanya Deepak, illustrated by Vinayak Varma
(all from the hOle Books series, Duckbill (India), 2013)
Have you read a (w)hole book? Okay – apologies; I can’t resist the pun! The ‘hOle books’ published by Duckbill are a series of early readers bursting with energy, humour and feisty characters, with plenty of imagination thrown in for good measure. Their slogan is ‘Jump into reading through a Duckbill hole’, and the defining feature of the books is, in fact, a hole in the top right corner, just right for holding/twirling the book on a small finger. The hole is also often incorporated into the black-and-white illustrations that are scattered throughout the books. There are currently nine books in the series, and the good news for readers outside India is that they are also readily available as e-books, although I would recommend the physical book where possible because, as well as being attractively presented with shiny dots superimposed on the cover, there is that hole!
I have enjoyed three books in the series, each with the kind of zany plot that will appeal to young readers, and each also totally child-centric. Maya Saves the Day contains three stories. In ‘The Tiger in Maya’s House’, young Maya creates a satisfying amount of chaos while bravely pursuing an escaped tiger. ‘Maya’s Parents are Very Naughty’ begins with a normal family outing to the shops but when Maya and her baby sister realise that they have become separated from their parents, a very cross Maya eventually finds a solution that lets them know in no uncertain terms how naughty they are for wandering off. I love this story for the real bravery it encapsulates (it is unthinkable that Maya herself might consider herself lost – logically, how can she be when she knows exactly where she is) and because it is so empowering for young children.
In ‘The trouble with Mintu, Pintu and Mintu’, a much longer story taking up about half the book, Maya decides she wants a dog. There’s a great description of her calculated tantrum and her parents’ dispassionate reaction. So when Maya and her two friends Ayesha and Vivek discover that they are not ‘going to be eaten by the creature in the corner’ of the half-finished building that her parents have ‘banned, forbidden, prohibited, in short, said a big, fat NO to Maya playing in’ because ‘The-thing-in-the-corner’ is in fact three puppies, she then has to find a way to keep them. That’s not easy when The Van is doing its rounds picking up all the stray dogs in the area; the ‘chowkidar’ (security guard) has them under his radar; and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of her parents changing their minds… Any child who has known that desperate yearning for a pet will love this story.
In Trouble with Magic, nine-year-old Veena is determined to help her herbalist Aunt Malu invent something wonderful that will make her name and fortune. Aunt Malu has already tried out a number of Veena’s ideas and has suffered the consequences so is not exactly keen to comply – but as it happens she comes up with an amazing, magical invention of her own. Only things don’t quite work out to plan and it takes Veena’s ingenuity to save the day… You’ve got to admire Veena’s tenacity and there’s plenty of food for readers’ imaginations to take off on inventive flights of their own.
The Vampire Boy is noteworthy in that, while it is the story of a young vampire Kris, who has to start attending human school, following new government regulation, and so contains some unsettling comparisons of school lunches (bread vs a bottle of O+!) and intriguing abilities such as an acute sense of smell or walking soundlessly an inch above the ground, on a deeper level it is the story of friendships forged across differences. And Kris is very different, even for a vampire, because he hates blood (he’d rather eat bread) and he loves (and is very good at) counting – the stars in the night sky, the grey hairs on his teacher’s head, the number of children at school each day – and the number who actually emerge when the school sets on fire… It would be easy to categorise The Vampire Boy as a silly story that kids will enjoy reading and then move on from. It is a silly story and kids will enjoy it, but it has an underlying message that kids will hopefully take away with them — of tolerance, celebrating difference rather than being suspicious of it, and enrichment through being open to new friendships.
These are all great stories with universal appeal, all carefully crafted with deft characterisation and perfectly attuned to a child-reader’s perspective. Each of the illustrators has a distinctive style and their universally dynamic illustrations contribute to the humour and capture key moments in the narrative as well as providing visual pauses. It is a bonus for children everywhere that their Indian setting is a given through their being written, illustrated and published in India. This makes the series ideal reading for children in India and the Indian diaspora; for young readers outside India they offer a reading experience that will broaden horizons without force-feeding cultural awareness, because in essence the stories will capture their imaginations and make them laugh.