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Dare to be different

With innovative illustrations and text, Anushka Ravishankar's Tiger on a Tree has won international acclaim. NIMI KURIAN talks to the author.

Innovative Illustrations: A page from Tiger on a Tree.

YOU would think children's literature never had it so good. So much recognition, so many awards and so much to read. Chennai-based Anushka Ravishankar's book Tiger on a Tree from Tara Publishing has won another major literary honour — it has been included in the 2005 American Library Association's Notable Children's Book List of outstanding books. And this makes Tiger on a Tree the first children's book from India to make it to the list.

Awards galore

This is not the first award that this book has chalked up. Earlier this year, Tiger... won the 2005 New York Book Show Award in the children's fiction category. It has also won the Andersen Award, Italy; Book of the Week from the Cooperative Children's Book Centre, an initiative of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Biennale of Illustrations, Bratislava and the Star of Excellence, French Union of Culture. So being recognised in the ALA makes it the sixth international award.

Tara has sold the rights of this book to publishers in the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea. As part of Tara's Tamil reading project a Tamil version of Tiger... will soon be out.

Tiger on a Tree is a very different kind of book. Tara Publishing has used innovative and unconventional illustrations and text to tell children the story of a tiger. Pulak Biswas' black and orange illustrations are set off in the beautiful handmade paper. But, says Ravishankar, she did not sit down to write the story about the tiger. Biswas had already done the illustrations at a workshop conducted by Tara earlier, and she worked on the text much later. She says she enjoys writing this way because it creates a kind of tension between the writing and the illustration. It also gives the opportunity to work with minimal text for maximum effect.

Tiger... , incidentally, was her first book. She has since then written more than 10 books for children — some in verse, some fiction and some non-fiction. She has also tried her hand successfully at writing plays. Her stories, told in nonsense verse, are fast-paced with a rhythm that carries through its pages. Ravishankar has rightly earned the name India's Dr. Seuss, for she has taken children's literature away from heavy text to light verse. Her verse borders on the wacky and is almost catching, making you want to repeat each line — louder and with more emphasis.

Tara Publishing has been unconventional in the sense that they have not gone in for brightly coloured illustrations, a lot of text and stories with morals. Taking the path away from these time-tested guidelines for children's fiction, Tara has taken children's literature in India into a totally new realm. Tiger... , for instance, has only black and white illustrations with just a dab of orange for the tiger and only one line of text in a page! But this apparently creates in children an interest to innovate and be imaginative.

Creating interest

Ravishankar recounts her experience in France, where she and Biswas had gone in connection with the book. A number of workshops had been conducted in schools across the country and the children were familiar with the book. One resource person stopped the story when the tiger had been caught and the text read: "What shall we do now?" The children were asked to illustrate the options. Ravishankar says she was surprised with the kind of illustrations the kids had come up with. While one of them had drawn a tiger rug, another had drawn a neatly arranged table with plate and fork and knife. And on the plate lay an orange and black striped skin.

So what is the future of children's literature in India? Ravishankar says, "In the West, publishers plan workshops and activities around a book to generate interest. This creates an awareness in the child and he starts reading."

In India, publishers do not do this and so new books come out and are stacked on shelves in bookshops without the child even being aware of it. Could this be why children's literature has not travelled beyond retelling folk tales and myths? A few publishers have been daring and taken the plunge and done something different. And they are the ones who have made a mark on the international circuit.

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