Middle-school fiction books have the unenviable task of trying to hold a reader’s attention purely through storytelling. Often the books are not of the illustrated variety and the young reader must choose to stick with only strong stories, stronger characters over all other distractions. Four recent releases, all aimed at the eight-plus audience, show just how that can be done.
BIPATHU AND A VERY BIG DREAM by Anita Nair | Puffin | 216 pages | ₹299
This feel-good story, which leaves you with a smile on your face, will have you cheering for the characters and sneering at the villain, who let’s face it, isn’t all that bad!
There are three very important things in Bipathu’s world—her elder brother Saad, football, and Hrithik Roshan. Bipathu and Saad are inseparable. “He is the crescent moon, and she the star alongside.” Saad is diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is forced to stay at home. Bipathu makes sure he never misses out on anything and regales him with stories of the world, brings him picture books, and prays fervently for the day her Ikka (elder brother) can get leg braces so he can walk. She is very passionate about football but must play without her mother knowing, because her mother believes football isn’t for girls. This forces Bipathu to hide her football camp and her recurring dream of playing football with Hrithik Roshan from her family. You begin to feel sorry for her, until she meets Madama. Mythili, or Madama as she is called, moves in next door to Bipathu. A journalist from the big city, she finally decides to come back to her home in Kaikurissi when she loses her vision. Bipathu helps Madama and in the process imbibes Madama’s philosophy of “asking the universe for help.” And the universe responds with braces for Ikka, a little puppy she names Duggu, and by taking her a step closer to realising her football dreams.
It is books like Bipathu and a Very Big Dream that make you fall in love with author Anita Nair’s work. With this book, Nair revisits a place in Kerala close to her heart and brings in elements from her other books to create Bipathu. Words like pandemic, lockdown, Covid are woven in organically, making this book an example of the kind of stories our children will grow up reading. In addition to Bipathu, it is supporting characters like Saad, Rahul, Madama, and Maash that young readers will remember long after they have finished reading this book.
DANCE, NANI, DANCE: STORIES OF GRANDMOTHERS AND GRANDFATHERS | Edited by Bulbul Sharma | Talking Club | 248 pages | ₹399
Dance, Nani, Dance deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf for its ability to take us back to our own happy memories with our grandparents. It is simple, beautiful, and the stories have that timeless quality to them. The stories in this anthology are written by some of India’s finest writers of children’s literature and every one of them is a winner.
The anthology begins with a story by Bijal Vachharajani about a
grandmother known for her hoarding abilities—whether it be plastic bags or free shampoo sachets—she has a place for everything. Her story of Dadi travelling to America will remind us of our own grandparents and the trials they face when they travel—be it language barriers or the inability to understand why other countries don’t share our strong feelings for achaar and snacks!
Ruskin Bond paints us a picture of everything a memory and a photograph can evoke. In his story, ‘A Photograph’, he takes us back to his childhood home, which is made complete by his Granny. He finds a photograph, which he suspects is of her from her younger days. Though Granny remembers what is there and not there in the photograph, she will not admit it is her. The story is at once arresting and intriguing.
The book highlights the special bond we share with our grandparents and how we accept them for everything they are—whether they are amateur sleuths, talented dancers, or even wannabe Gen Zers! It also doesn’t shy away from talking about age-related morbidity. Stories by Jerry Pinto and Ashok Banker talk about the death of a grandparent with nuance and sensitivity. Menaka Raman’s ‘Viva Magenta’ deals with the loss of Paati, but takes a hilarious twist when Paati comes back to visit!
The stories in this anthology will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions and at the end of it all, will make you desperately want to call your grandparents to speak with them.
THE GREAT POOP WAR by Ranjit Lal | Red Panda | 136 pages | ₹275
A classic whodunnit that will have middle-school readers hooked to the end. As a parent of middle graders, I know that the obsession with poop
and fart jokes is real, and this book will have them giggling and guffawing.
The residents of Sparkling Apartments in Delhi are having a crisis. Their apartment complex, which has won multiple awards for being the cleanest society in the city, is facing a giant roadblock in the form of well, poop. Nobody knows how or who put it there and everyone wants to get to the ‘bottom’ of it (see what I did there?). What’s worse, every time there is poop on the streets, CCTV cameras shut down and go blank!
Now, the entire society is divided into cat owners versus dog owners and the resident society office bearers only have time to fight each other. There seems to be no way to solve this mystery and the cleanliness award is taken away too. Everyone including teens Parvati and Bharat and the pets themselves decide to form patrol groups to catch the offending party, live in action. But will they prevail or will the offender continue to dump all over the society?
Ranjit Lal has over 35 books to his credit and is a formidable force in the world of Indian children’s literature. With this book he combines his trademark humour with his love for the animal kingdom by bringing alive cats and dogs and driving home a strong message about unlawful animal testing. The setting is relatable and children will be able to spot people from their own neighbourhood in residents of Sparkling Apartments. Lal also peppers the story with important messages of living together while putting aside differences.
My favourite part of the book was the delightful names of the characters. Shri Gangajal Badrinathji, the president of the RWA, Srimati Golgappadas, the secretary, and Shri Billiram the owner of two vivacious cats Soo-Soo-Sussi and Poo-Poo, and the dogs Doo-Doo, Bada Naak and Bug Eyes. This is a complete laugh riot for middle-school readers and one they will remember for years.
THE CAT WHO BECAME KING AND OTHER STORIES FROM INDIA | Dhan Gopal Mukherji | Talking Club | 160 pages | ₹250
A book with animal stories is the first choice when it comes to reading with children. Dhan Gopal Mukherji, a Newbery Medal-winning author puts his own special twist to the Panchatantra-esque stories that delight and enlighten. His work has always reflected his love for animals and The Cat who Became King is a collection of stories that teach empathy, bravery, and kindness.
You can take your pick of animals—from the mighty tiger to the buzzing bee—and find a story that is a perfect read for bedtime for your children or yourself. Whether you are reading about the cat who became too fat to remain king or the arrogant fly who meets his match in the elephant—these stories are short, funny, and written in a way that is perfect for middle-school readers to envision. This is a book that can be cherished at any age and will be enjoyed many times over.