Everyone can appreciate good storytelling, and parents and teachers who would like to educate their kids about another country or culture are wise to begin with a stack of books. When choosing children’s literature to increase global awareness, I think it is important that the books are visually appealing, culturally accurate and without stereotypes, and are age-appropriate, engaging stories that subtly inform and showcase new traditions and people.
With my kids, I choose one country per month to “study.” Recently we chose the magnificent country of India. We made food from that country, studied the map, learned the flag, watched video clips, and read a lot of fiction and non-fiction books. Out of the lot, here are our favorite stories we found in our library, with my reviews, and the reviews of my kids. There are so many great books about India, and I will be doing more posts soon to review other great titles!
Picture Books with Exceptional Indian Art
One, Two, Tree by Anushka Ravishankar, Sirish Rao, and illustrated by the exceptional artist Durga Bai, is the perfect preschool or kindergarten book, counting the numerous animals that somehow fit into an enormous tree. What makes this book so remarkable is the traditional folk art, from the Gond tribal tradition of Central India. My daughter (4) says “How can so many animals climb up a tree?!” Check out other books by internationally renown Indian author Ravishankar like award-winning Tiger on a Tree, I Like Cats, or Excuse Me, Is This India?
Monkey Photo by Gita Wolf and illustrated by artist Swarna Chitrakar is another example of unique Indian folk art, this time the patua style from Bengal is showcased. The layers of stripes and dots and curls make the animals look exotic and fanciful, and my kids wanted me to read very s-l-o-w-l-y so they could pour over the illustrations. This is a silly story of a monkey who is tired of being photographed by tourists. He grabs the camera, and begins to snap pictures of his other animal friends in the jungle. My son (4) says “I would call the police if he stole my camera!”
True Stories that Inspire and Teach Universal Values
Aani and the Tree Huggers is written by Jeannine Atkins and wonderfully illustrated by Venantius J. Pinto, who took inspiration from the 17th century styles of northern Indian miniature painting. It is based on real events that occurred during the 1970’s in northern India. A group of women of “Chipko Andolan” (Hug the Tree Movement) were victorious in blocking the deforestation around their homes, by hugging the trees. The story delivers many important messages about conserving our environment, the use of non-violent resistance, and courageous women who stand up for what they believe in. For lesson plan ideas, see Jeannine Atkins’ web site. My favorite lines:
“The trees give us their fruit and berries. Their wood provides our houses and our plows and hoes. The roots keep the land from sliding when the heavy winds and rain come off the mountains.” [Later:] “Already you’ve cut more than we cut in a year,” Kalawati said. “Animals live among these trees. Where can they go?” Aani throws her arms around the tree, and the other women soon follow.
My daughter’s (7) eyes were wide with anticipation, as she whispered “They’re trying to save the trees mommy. I would too.”
Finders Keepers? A True Story in India by Robert Arnett and illustrated by Smita Turakhia is another gem. I believe this is one of the best examples of multicultural children’s literature I have read so far, and I think every library should own this treasure! Honestly, If you only read one book about India, please choose this one. It is based on a true story, and packed with beautiful descriptions and information about India: torans, Mt. Abu, clothing, foods and drinks, typical roadside stands, monasteries, temples and deities, dharma, respectful greetings. I absolutely love this book, because it teaches about doing the right thing (the Indian philosophy called “dharma“). This story tells about the journey of one man through northeastern India, and his encounter with a very honest little boy. The boy finds the man’s wallet, yet doesn’t understand why the man wants to give him a reward for returning it:
“This boy does not understand why you should give him any money for returning to you what is yours. The idea of accepting a reward for doing a good deed makes no sense to him.
Universal values abound: honesty, doing the right thing, humanity, and respect are all embodied in this extraordinary story. My kids loved to see the people riding on top of the bus, wanted to taste the hot, sweet milk, and stood up to practice “pranam” or “namaste” at the end of the book. I loved it!
Stories with Kids
Younguncle Comes to Town
by Vandana Singh tells the story of three small children in a village in India who enjoy a visit by an uncle with exciting and zany stories- from being kidnapped by monkeys to rescuing a stolen horse. Note that this delightful book of stories received accolades in India, where it was originally published. It’s rare to find such colorful storytelling that keeps kids engaged and laughing, while getting a glimpse of another culture- and this amusing book does just that!
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a classic short story and part of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. There are MANY versions of this story, but this one- beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney- was what my library had for me. In this adapted version, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a young mongoose who becomes a sort of pet to a family in India, and defends them from venomous snakes in their garden. The little boy, Rikki, finds that there are King Cobras, their clutch of eggs, and another venomous snake in his garden, that will battle with the brave mongoose.
Traditional Hindu Stories
Hindu Stories by Anita Ganeri has 7 traditional religious stories for children aged 9+. I think it is meaningful to teach kids that 80% of Indians follow the Hindu religion, and it permeates the culture of India with traditions, celebrations, fine arts, architecture, and language. I only read a couple of the stories to my kids, because they are a bit younger than the target audience, but they did enjoy “Rama Rescues Sita” as an introduction to the next book: Hanuman, based on Valmiki’s Ramayana and retold by Erik Jendresen and Joshua M. Greene.
If your kids like superheroes, epic fights where good prevails over evil, and fantasy characters with incredible mythology-type powers— this is the book for them. Although the age range on amazon says 4+, I think they might have meant grades 4+ (ages 9+).
My little ones (4 years old) could not keep track of who was good (i.e. who to root for), who was bad (or who we should be afraid of). However, my older son (7) particularly liked the dramatic photos that paired so well with the exciting story of how Hanuman, the monkey hero, save Princess Sita from the malicious demon king, Ravana. The original story is from an ancient text called Ramayana, written thousands of years ago in Sanskrit by the Indian poet Valmiki. The traditional story tells the adventures of Prince Rama, his marriage to his true love Princess Sita, their exile into a forest and Sita’s subsequent abduction by the terrible demon king Ravana. In the end there is a classical battle between brace monkey soldiers and Ravana’s demons, and good triumphs over evil. This book is an exciting introduction to this classical Indian story.
I can’t stop thinking about India, and how much I would love to travel there!