Monday, 14 September 2015

Book review: Big Bully and M-me

Big Bully and M-me
Text: Arti Sonthalia
Illustrations: Sebin Simon
Duckbill. 2015. Paperback. Rs. 150. 68 pages. English. Age: 7+
ISBN: 978-93-83331-21-5

Some issues are so fiercely volatile, so intrinsically fragile, that they need handling with kid gloves, especially in children’s books. Yet, reading novels by British authors Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo and Elizabeth Laird are like master-classes in how to communicate the most bleak, even gory, subjects. Broken homes. Refugee lives. Current politics.  Mental illness. The differently abled. They touch each issue with deep understanding, sensitivity and superb storytelling to make it child-accessible.

Within the Indian context, some authors have mastered this tricky turf. Names that spring to mind immediately include Sigrun Srivastav, Ranjit Lal and Paro Anand.

 To me, Arti Sonthalia’s book stands apart from the other Duckbill Hole books I have read because it is essentially issue-based. The series, for children just stepping into chapter books, has uncomplicated plots, fun characters and lively illustrations.

How is Sonthalia’s distinctive? Her plot, potentially a minefield because her narrator Krish has a speech impediment, is handled with intelligent emotion, laced with humour. Her quick-paced storytelling is a sure invitation to even reluctant readers. Her adept handling of the subject will silence adult doubters who ask, “But why write about this for children?”

Her main character Krish (he hates being called Krishna), is shorter and skinnier than his classmates at Bright Side School. Self-doubt clouds his days. Will his best friend Green pick him at basketball? Will Ishaan, the class bully, trip him up every day? How many wily ways must he think up to avoid oral tests, plays and debates?

His worst nightmare comes to life when Krish’s class teacher decides on an extempore speaking contest for the semester show, with an irresistible prize. But why must he be paired with the Big Bully? I will resist giving away more of this quirky plot.

Sonthalia gifts Krish a credible narrative voice: “Every time I open my mouth, my words break and jerk, making it difficult for others to understand what I say. Sometimes the words get stuck in my throat and won’t come out.’

The supporting characters are as vivid, as unforgettable. Like Dennis ‘the Menace,’ their class teacher, who ensures that classes are fun-packed. He believes Krish can conquer challenges.  

Krish’s mother promises him a new bicycle if his extempore is smooth sailing. His super-achiever brother wins an inter-school spelling bee. His smart classmate Khushi seems to read his mind. Krish is in awe of them until he discovers that everyone is human. This changes his world.  

Sonthalia evokes Krish’s plight just right. She does not talk down to young readers, neither does she preach. Her narrative sparkles, her vocabulary is spot on.

In an interview with Tanu Shree Singh on the Duckbill blog, Sonthalia says, ‘I did my research on stammering and what children face when they stammer. I also met the Indian Stammering Association leader in Hyderabad.’ She attended their sessions, listened to podcasts, read books ‘to feel the trauma a person who stutters goes through.’ What emerges is a poignant tale about the human condition, its sunshine and shadows, wrapped in an extra-large heart.

Sebin Simon’s zany illustrations enhance the story. Such as notebook jottings of Krish plotting his way to a new bicycle. Or a class joke translated as a teapot filling a car petrol tank. Or Dennis in a mighty stretched jump-stop. Or a Krish’s tall mother looming over Dennis as he announces the results.  

Sonthalia seems like a natural for the Hole books, even with her first book for children. Would young readers and older reviewers like to read more by her? Yes, beyond a shadow of a doubt. 

This review was originally published in GoodBooks at:

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