by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy, Candlewick Press, US edition, 2019
My son has started reading chapter books to himself, but for all his wide-ranging enthusiasms and interests, he’s quite a cautious reader, not venturing far from familiar series and characters. So I’m searching for books to tempt him to step a little further, little further, into the wonders that await him. I have a large stack that I don’t think he’s quite ready for – but I’m excited to have built up. And I’m looking for familiar ideas, flashes of colour to entice him to take another step from the path and into the woods of story.
Some time ago, his Patti and Thatha brought him a book of Tenali Rama stories from India. The stories, set in early modern southern India, are based on a real character, Tenali Ramakrishna, a vikata kavi or clown-jester-poet at the court of Sri Krishnadeva Raya, king of Vijayanagar. He’s an important figure in Indian folklore, and stories about him are very popular. In the stories, Tenali is adviser and poet and critic to the king, and not without flaws himself. Our kids love these stories – my feelings are more mixed! So I jumped when I found Chitra Soundar’s Mangoes, Mischief and Tales of Friendship. The setting, the style, the laddu sweets (my son’s family nickname when we took him to Chennai for a wedding aged 8 months was ‘laddu’) – all lured my son into trying something new….
Enter Prince Veera and his best friend, Suku. These two boys, the main characters in Chitra Soundar’s ‘modern folktales’, have the wit and style of Tenali Rama – but these I can read with pure enjoyment. The boys’ friendship is delightful, and the stories have witty solutions with a thread of compassion. And they are really fun to read together. Certain lines have us laughing out loud. The style is lively; we usually take turns reading a page each as the story skips along. From the man trying to charge for the delicious smells coming from his sweet shop to the man who sold his neighbour his well – but not the water in it, each tale is a separate but linked story, so we can finish bedtime without a cliffhanger every night. The illustrations perfectly capture the historic but also timeless setting that suits these ‘modern folktales’ and add an extra dose of humour.
The stories are timeless, but they have a modern sensibility, an awareness of poverty and status. Prince Veera’s friend is a farmer’s son who won a scholarship to study with the prince, and Veera is curious, keen to explore, and to learn about his kingdom – and courageous in standing up to his father on behalf of others. This book includes two short books published in the UK as A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom (2010) and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (2016) – the titles are apt. These are fun stories – but that doesn’t stop them having lots of important things to say about fairness, justice and equality all in the mix.