Friday, March 16, 2007

Vanuvati Smiles!

It is not often that I get to read books written for children. The last I tried to read patiently was the Harry Potter series, which, honestly I believe is engaging but bad fiction for children. The idea is not to get into the merits of fiction for children, but basically to try and understand what would be construed as good children's fiction. I read the book "The Simle of Vanuvati" written by friend Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan recently, and this took me back to the questions I had in my mind. Harini's book is interesting in many ways. It tries to blend bits of history, archeology and adventure into a narrative that is quite engaging.

Obviously the first thing about fiction for children is the simplicity of narration and also the simplicity of the theme. As a kid I was addicted to the Enid Blytons essentially because of these aspects.
Possibly a good book for children should have all the things that the kids day dream about. That would include superheros who grow up from ordinary folks that one can identify with, people seen in pure black and white without multiple dimensions to a personality. Afterall, for children you are a good man or a bad one and very rarely be both at the same time. However, if one is writing a thriller with some suspense element in it, then a good man can ultimately turn out to be bad or vice versa, but at a given point in time the position is clear. More than anything else I guess the book should come to the point fast. If I reflect and think about the books I liked as a kid, they were all about the aspirational dreams for an adventure, a comic but stern character like Inspector Goon, a pet, disapproving parents, rebelling kids - who eventually were proved to be correct, lots of forbidden [or rationed] food like chocolates, pastries and a great and happy ending.

Harini's book has all these thrown in for a good measure. As far as language goes, Harini gets into the skin of these youngsters easily - the conceptualization of the type of music they like, the type of expressions the kids and the setting is perfect for an adventure story to unravel.

The story starts in 2500 BC a fine setting for what should be seen as a novel that moves into an archaeological site later. It moves a few centuries to 712-14 AD very quickly before settling down in almost the present 1998. While the two stories rooted in history creates enough curiosity about what could be in store for us when I finished reading the novel I was wondering whether it was indeed a good technique to have these two smaller stories. As adult fiction I can understand that one might want to put such stuff in the beginning to later cover some complex grounds and meanings that would be open to interpretation. However, if a kid were reading it, s/he might get impatient becasue these seem to be two unconnected stories and it is a while before Vanuvati the doll/god appears in the third time phase. For a children's adventure book, I thought the action happens very late in the book.

Not only does the action happen late, the mystery is solved without too much of a complication. Harini does not provide credible alternative suspects before concluding who the culprit is. For instance I would have thought that the character of Prajapriya Devi was not developed to the potential and this character could have been made more integral part of the plot. Instead, she fleets in and re-appears in the story towards the end.
In stories involving crime, one would be looking for a great motive. The way the book is constructed, one would assume that Vanuvati would turn out to be a very precious find that would fetch crores and stealing it in itself should be a good enough motive. However towards the end we find that there is a treasure hunt that is going on, and except for Creek the American who is looking for the treasure, there is nobody who is aware of the possibilities. So when the kids get on to investigation, actually they are not solving something in an organised manner but just stumble upon the criminal, the motive for the crime all at the same time. I would have thought that the entire mystery would revolve around the idol and that was a bit of let down.

The other thing one is not sure of, till about the end of the book is the age-group of the kids. Only when we come to the last time phase do we get an inkling of what their age at the time of adventure could have been. Leaving this to imagination is a bit dangerous because we are not sure what is the inherent capability of the kids, and how much they have surpassed it in being super heros.

In spite of the above issues that I have flagged or flogged, I found the book really enjoyable and I am sure my son would love it more than me. Possibly I am looking for more than what ought to be in a children's book - I am no longer a child and need to be in that frame of mind to appreciate books written for much younger people.

For those who want to buy the book it is available here.

Before I end, I reproduce one of my most favourite quotes from Singer about why he writes for children. If you see that and what he has written about the expectations of adult readers from their writers, you can then discount all that I have written above!!

Extract from Singer's Nobel Banquet Speech

"Ladies and Gentlemen: There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them. Number 1) Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics. Number 2) Children don't read to find their identity. Number 3) They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. Number 4) They have no use for psychology. Number 5) They detest sociology. Number 6) They don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegans Wake. Number 7) They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff. Number 8) They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes. Number 9) When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority. Number 10) They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."


Anonymous said...

Hi Sriram,

That was a very fair assessment of my book, except for one thing that you may not be aware of -- the role played by the market in shaping the final form. It started off as a pure adventure story, and was rejected (several times) for being too 'formula'. Apparently publishers don't want Enid Blyton type books, even if parents and children are still clamouring for them. I realised I had to find a way to make it different, so I cut a lot out of the original manuscript and added the medieval part. I still think shifting the focus from the mystery/adventure to the history of Vanuvati differentiates and enriches the book. I really hope it will interest my young readers and make them aware of the colourful past of our country. But you're right -- I should probably have a) developed the role of Prajapriya Devi further and b) made Vanuvati the target of the treasure hunter Creek. It just seemed to me he was more likely to be after crass gold that he could dispose of easily.

Anyway, I'm so impressed by your excellent analysis of the book that I'm going to pile on and send you my next manuscript. Don't say you didn't ask for it!

V said...

Why is Harry Potter bad fiction for kids? Eli Goldratt would say that JK Rowling had a goal, and that she bloody well achieved it ;)

The best books I can think of are Rajaji's Ramayana & Mahabharata. You kinda grow with them. At first they're good guys vs bad guys with multiple heads and / or brothers. And then you see the bad guys do have some good qualities and the good guys arent really perfect. And then you see that 'dharma' as your granny told you years ago isn't a black and white thing either.

How do you do?