My favourite books for children from 2018

I read some excellent books for children and young adults last year (I can’t believe I’m saying last year to 2018 already) so making a top ten list was very difficult. Which is why I ended up making a top eighteen list (that’s only nearly a lie; I mostly chose 18 due to template considerations but I bet I could easily make a top twenty-five list. I also spent most of December reading too many books which left me with very little time to write about all the books I’ve been reading. So the blog tragically languished. I’m hoping to find more sustainable reading and blogging (and hopefully-soon-to-be-launched vlogging) habits in 2019 but I’m not going to make it a resolution lest I jinx it. In fact, I’m just not even going to think about it too hard in case I spook the idea away. For more details about why I loved these books, I wrote a blog post for the lovely folks at Duckbill which you can read here.

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Book List: Children’s books about the Partition of India

I’m not only way behind on my blog duties but also every other thing I do for fun including catching up on my weekly dose of Doctor Who. I’m currently an episode behind (a number which is only likely to increase because I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch it before the next one comes out tomorrow). But I do have a Whoverse inspired book list to keep me going in the meanwhile.

I think the latest season is doing a smashing job with its historical time-travel adventures – the one based on Rosa Parks was one of my all-time favourites and inspired its own book list. After I watched The Demons of Punjab, I followed the discussion on Twitter and discovered that the episode introduced many people to the Partition of India, a part of history that I’ve taken entirely for granted thanks to its dry inclusion in our history textbooks. I, like many others, only began to fall in love with history once I left school. I find it utterly tragic that quite often, schools distill history to its bare bones of dates, facts and figures while ignoring the contemporary connections and all the fascinating stories. And countless children the world over leave school with a faint sense of disdain for history and no understanding about why its study even matters.

On the other hand, children’s texts – books, films, TV shows – have the potential to counter these dull narratives by providing more detailed perspectives. Of course, the perspectives aren’t universal – all of history is subjective. But understanding the same topic through multiple worldviews and diverse experiences goes a long way in resisting singular ways of seeing the world and its people. The Partition of India was an ugly part of Indian, Pakistani and even British history. But among the brutalities of this shared experience of our past, there were also moments of friendship and love and hope.

PICTURE BOOKS

mukand-and-riaz-english

Mukand and Riaz

“The story is set against the background of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. But friendship between children knows no barbed wire fencing: all children play games, enjoy ice-cream and feel the loss of friends. Based on the memories of her father, animator Nina Sabnani made this film for the Big Small People Project, Israel, using the art of women’s appliqué work, common to both Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India, to provide a rich and textured visual experience. Mukand and Riaz is essentially about every child’s right to friendship and a home. Through shared memories, shared craft and shared histories, it offers deeply moving layers of meaning with which to identify and from which to draw strength.”

When I first came across this book a few years ago, I don’t think I realised its importance and implications. Since then, I’ve worked with books and young people in various ways and had my thinking shaped and changed while studying for an M.Ed degree in children’s literature and literacies. Now I look back at this simple, gentle book with a fresh new perspective and a lot more respect. It’s the sort of book which can be used in various ways to help young people make sense of history and the world.

chachaji's cup

Chachaji’s Cup

“A china teacup serves as both a memento of troubled times and a bridge across generations in this unusual family portrait. For as long as young Neel can remember, his great-uncle Chachaji has used only his own mother’s old cup at teatime. Why? Because it has a history; his mother’s family was among the many that were displaced when India was “broken” into two countries in 1947, and though she had to leave much behind, she chose to take the fragile cup on the long journey to a new home. Using strong brushwork and deep, rich colors, Sitaraman centers most of her scenes on dark, expressive faces, placing Neel’s extended family in this country, and with dress and other details subtly suggesting the mingling of cultures such families experience. Doubly valuable for its overall theme, and as a surprisingly rare depiction of an Indian-American family, Neel’s story is bound to engage readers, as well as leave them more receptive to learning about their own families’ past.” (Source: Kirkus Reviews)

I haven’t read this book; I only stumbled upon it while researching this post. But I have encountered the author previously. Her book Book Uncle and Me is one of my favourite early-chapter books. And this one seems like an intriguing premise to an exploration of historical events.

one day in augustOne Day In August 

“Kishen’s cow strays away one day in August, leading him and his friend Shagufta into unknown territory. This gentle story of love, friendship, and the innocent wisdom of childhood is set against a time when the partition of India caused immense loss to millions of people.”

I discovered this book in the library of a school I used to visit for a reading programme. I browsed through it when I had some time to kill in between classes and then had to go back and read it again because of how cleverly and gently the topic of Partition was introduced to younger readers.

MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

the night diaryThe Night Diary

“It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.

Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.”

This book took me by surprise. My friend lent me her copy and I didn’t begin reading it with any sort of expectations – good or bad. It turned out to be a superbly beautiful story full of nuanced explorations of one family’s fraught journey from a new country to an old one.

Jaipur Literature Festival Inspired Book List

I came back from my first trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival with a buzzing brain, happy memories, a notepad full of new books to add to my to-read list, and a stomach bug that I acquired by completely ignoring what my sense of smell was specifically evolved to avoid and eating railway station kachori that smelled a bit funky. To the shock of everyone around me, my self-imposed book ban was implemented successfully thanks in part to surprisingly strong willpower and mostly due to JLF’s decision to bring in Amazon as their bookstore partner.

I didn’t get to make it for any sessions on the first day because it clashed with a conference we had signed up for (the best part of which was the gorgeous palace location where peacocks and peahens just casually strolled through the grounds). But the sessions I did attend made up for it by being incredibly stimulating, expanding my knowledge about matters I was ignorant of and introducing me to some great new authors and books.

NON-FICTION


A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

a history of readingThe author casually informed the audience that he and his partner bought a medieval presbytery in southern France, renovated it, moved in and currently share space with his library of over 30,000 books. He was fascinating on stage, dissed Amazon and Paulo Coelho (the latter on multiple occassions), and has a library of 30,000 books in southern France! Of course I want to read what he has to say. You can read more about his bookworm habits here. Now if anybody asks me where I put all the books I buy, instead of saying, “In the pots and pans in the kitchen,” I’m going to reply, “In my future library in southern France.”

empress dowagerI didn’t manage to attend this session but the title by itself sounded fascinating. At the age of sixteen, in a nationwide selection for royal consorts, Cixi was chosen as one of the emperor’s numerous concubines. When he died in 1861, their five-year-old son succeeded to the throne. Cixi at once launched a palace coup against the regents appointed by her husband and made herself the real ruler of China—behind the throne, literally, with a silk screen separating her from her officials who were all male.”
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
my salinger yearI have minimal interest in J. D. Salinger so even though I’d heard about this book, it hadn’t really interested me. But the author was delightful, and listening to her talk about her book made me want to give it a shot. When she was 23, the author worked in a literary agency where one of her jobs involved replying to fanmail addressed to J. D. Salinger. If the book is anything like the author, it’s sure to be interesting and have a brilliant sense of humour.
how to ruin a queenAnother session I didn’t attend but wanted to thanks to its original title: How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne. In 1785, a sensational trial began in Paris that would divide the country and captivate Europe. A leading Catholic cardinal and scion of one of the most distinguished families in France stood accused of forging the queen’s signature to obtain the most expensive piece of jewelry in Europe: a 2,800-carat diamond necklace. Where were the diamonds? Was the cardinal innocent? Was, for that matter, the queen? The revelations from the trial would bedevil the French monarchy as the country descended into a bloody revolution.
sophia An interesting title is half the battle won. I didn’t even have to attend the session to know I wanted to know more about this lesser known figures of 19th century India. In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage. She was bold and fearless, attacking politicians, putting herself in the front line and swapping her silks for a nurse’s uniform to tend wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields.
hemlock cup This was an utterly fantastic discussion and I’m so glad it was my last full session at the festival. Next time I’m going to make sure I leave the day after JLF ends, but this time, unfortunately, I had an afternoon train to catch. Even though the author spoke of Socrates and his philosophy (something I am nearly clueless about), it wasn’t scholarly, but accessible and enjoyable. In fact, now I’m desperate to learn more about Socrates and his life and times. One of the things she spoke about (through the example of a genius ape) was how sharing knowledge is what makes humans more capable than animals because this is what allows different ideas to come together and consequently leads to progress. Something the festival did a great job of too.
granta indiaThis was the last session I stayed for, and could only sit for half of it, thanks to my 2pm train. But I usually love Granta, so I’m sure I’ll love an India-focused one edition even more. For a long time – too long – the mirror that India held to its face was made elsewhere. ‘What writer about the country would you recommend I read?’ first-time travellers to India would ask, and in the later twentieth century the answer was still Forster or Naipaul or even the long-dead Kipling. In fiction, that changed with Rushdie. Now it has changed in all kinds of non-fiction. Narrative history, reportage, memoir, biography, the travel account: all have their gifted exponents in a country perfecting its own frank gaze.
TRAVELOGUES

Books by Brigid Keenan who was hilarious, and frustratingly didn’t mention the title of the book she read her sidesplitting excerpt from. So I’m just going to have to track them all down!
a strangeSam Miller investigates how the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Americans – everyone really, except for Indians themselves – came to imagine India. His account of the engagement between foreigners and India spans the centuries from Alexander the Great to Slumdog Millionaire. It features, among many others, Thomas the Apostle, the Chinese monk Xuanzang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Vasco da Gama, Babur, Clive of India, several Victorian pornographers, Mark Twain, EM Forster, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles and Steve Jobs. Interspersed between these tales is the story of Sam Miller’s own 25-year-long love affair with India. The result is a spellbinding, 2500-year-long journey through Indian history, culture and society, in the company of an author who informs, educates and entertains in equal measure, as he travels in the footsteps of foreign chroniclers, exposes some of their fabulous fantasies and overturns longheld stereotypes about race, identity and migration. A tour de force that is at once scholarly and thought-provoking, delightfully eccentric and laugh-out-loud funny, this book is destined to become a much-loved classic.
holy mountainIn 587 A.D., two monks set off on an extraordinary journey that would take them in an arc across the entire Byzantine world, from the shores of the Bosphorus to the sand dunes of Egypt. On the way John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist stayed in caves, monasteries, and remote hermitages, collecting the wisdom of the stylites and the desert fathers before their fragile world finally shattered under the great eruption of Islam. More than a thousand years later, using Moschos’s writings as his guide, William Dalrymple sets off to retrace their footsteps and composes “an evensong for a dying civilization”
this divided island In the summer of 2009, the leader of the dreaded Tamil Tiger guerrillas was killed, bringing to a bloody end the stubborn and complicated civil war in Sri Lanka. What happens to the texture of life in a country that endures such bitter conflict? What happens to the country’s soul? Samanth Subramanian gives us an extraordinary account of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed. Taking us to the ghosts of summers past and to other battles from other times, he draws out the story of Sri Lanka today-an exhausted, disturbed society, still hot from the embers of the war. Through travels and conversations, he examines how people reconcile themselves to violence, how religion and state conspire, how the powerful become cruel and how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories.
tribes with glass While other authors on the Travel Writers panel spoke about their difficulties with a new country’s language, customs or people, Charles Glass had his experience of being kidnapped to talk about. So it’s a good thing he was saved until the end. Tribes With Flags is a chronicle of Glass’ journey from the southern Turkish coast to Lebanon, and includes the 62 days he was held captive by pro-Iranian terrorists in Beirut.
the first firangisIn the centuries before the British Raj, when the Mughals were the preeminent power in the subcontinent, a wide array of migrants known as firangis made India their home. In this book, Jonathan Gil Harris, a twenty-first-century firangi, tells their stories. These gripping accounts are of healers, soldiers, artists, ascetics, thieves, pirates and courtesans who were not powerful or privileged. Often they were escaping poverty or religious persecution; many were brought here as slaves; others simply followed their spirit of adventure. Some of these migrants were absorbed into the military. Others fell in with religious communities the Catholics of Rachol, the underground Jews of Goa, the fakirs of Ajmer, the Sufis of Delhi. Healers from Portugal and Italy adapted their medical practice in accordance with local traditions. Gifted artisans from Europe joined Akbar’s and Jahangir’s royal ateliers, and helped create enduring works of art. And though almost invisible within the archival record, some migrant women such as the Armenian Bibi Juliana and the Portuguese Juliana Dias da Costa found a home in royal Mughal harems.
a history of the worldThe book explores a dozen of history’s most influential maps, from stone tablet to vibrant computer screen. As Brotton shows, the long road to our present geographical reality was rife with controversy, manipulation, and special interests trumping science. Through the centuries maps have been wielded to promote any number of imperial, religious, and economic agendas, and have represented the idiosyncratic and uneasy fusion of science and subjectivity. Brotton also conjures the worlds that produced these notable works of cartography and tells the stories of those who created, used, and misused them for their own ends.

HISTORICAL FICTION


 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

the luminariesThe author made the process of researching for historical fiction seem particularly inviting. It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, the book is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmith

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home. One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways…But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS: MIDDLE GRADE


 

Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill

wild magicMari and her brother Jakob have followed enchanted music and are now trapped in a world of wild magic. A world as cruel as it is beautiful. And all the time, they are being stalked by a fearsome beast, who needs one of the children to break a centuries-old curse.