A for art. C for change. Kids’ books are getting darker, cooler, nuttier

The boom in children’s publishing means muralists, animators and graphic designers are signing on. The result? Crazy, unusual illustrations that defy convention.
Ayeshe Sadr and Ishaan Dasgupta created a colourful world for Talon Wrestles An Anaconda, a book about a boy who visits the zoo and decides he wants to be like one of the zoo’s powerful, mammal-chomping snakes.
Ayeshe Sadr and Ishaan Dasgupta created a colourful world for Talon Wrestles An Anaconda, a book about a boy who visits the zoo and decides he wants to be like one of the zoo’s powerful, mammal-chomping snakes. (Courtesy 211 Studio)

No pigtails. No Aadarsh Balaks. No preachy grownups. No morals at the end of the story. As children’s books in India get a makeover, their illustrations are brightening up too. Over the last five years, animation artists, muralists, graphic designers and doodlers have been lending heir skills to books for kids, redrawing the lines of what constitutes art for India’s young people.

Some of the work is almost cinematic - moody vampire landscapes, grandmas that swing up coconut trees. Others are clearly tongue in cheek - jokes about poo, gags sneaked in for parents. But each is a step towards a new visual language for kids, one where the rules are elastic - and a new adventure is just around the corner. Take a look:


Rajiv Eipe


Ammachi’s Amazing Machines (authored by the illustrator); Pratham Books



“As a child, I was always drawn more to the pictures than the story,” says Eipe. He trained as an animation filmmaker and jumped at the chance to work on children’s books. “The publishers wanted physics-related content, but in a way that was fun, not preachy,” Eipe says. He dreamed up a grandmother who invented simple machines using household objects, to make coconut barfi with her grandson. “Grandparents are resourceful, they are from a DIY generation,” Eipe says. “I captured some of the spunk of my own grandparents, and details of their home, in the book.”

Ruchi Shah

The Cat In The Ghat (authored by Ambika Rao); Pratham Books



Inspired by a real-life expedition of explorer Sandesh Kadur, this story follows a photographer‘s attempts to document a little-known wild cat in the Western Ghats. Shah says the book was originally conceived to feature the photographer’s work. “But a children’s book is a lot more fun when it’s illustrated,” she says. Unlike most books, the drawingstake up only half the page, so she knew her work needed to stand out. “I had to select what could be highlighted in the pictures and I knew I wanted the feel of the rainy, lush, damp forests,” she says. “I wanted the colours to burst out of the page.” She worked with photo-inks and splotches and didn’t care about staying within the lines. “When kids draw they spill, yaar. Why shouldn’t you?”

Harshvardhan Kadam

Moon, Ramu and I (authored by Geeta Dharmarajan); Katha



This tale of a little girl, her dog and her wizened grandpa stacking up furniture and trying to get to the moon could be from anywhere in the world. As could Kadam’s style. Kadam has worked on murals, books, even skin, but was clear he wanted his work to look like an animated sci-fi film. “As a kid, I would want to hold a book up any which way and still get the story out of it,” he says. The minimal text and unusual angles mean you can read it any way up too. Kadam’s heroine is no goodie-goodie. She’s weird and edgy. His moon doesn’t resemble cheese but an idli. “I wanted every page to be a surprise, soyou could to go back to it and rewatch it like a cartoon.”

Kavita Singh Kale and Santosh Kale


17 Seen Unseen (authored by the illustrators) ; UNESCO MGIEP



How do you get young adults to understand Unesco’s concept of sustainable goals? You get the duo behind Underground Worm Art & Design to turn the problems into monsters, in a graphic novel for kids over 12. “To work on this book, we had to come down to the kids’ way of thinking,” says Singh Kale. “They like innovation, they like finding solutions through inventions, they collaborate well with different kinds of people.” The novel was in black and white, and the publisher worried that it might be too dark for kids. But children seem to have loved it. “We distributed free copies on the Delhi Metro. The art was also up at the Jor Bagh station,” Singh Kale says. “Everyone responded to the illustrations and the message behind them.”

Nancy Raj

Maharani The Cow (authored by Christy Shoba Sudhir); Tulika Books


Raj discovered the power of art when working with a non-profit that creates books for hearing-impaired children. “They couldn’t hear the narration, so the images had to do the storytelling,” she says. Over the last decade she’s worked on textbooks, magazines and story books, given up a corporate job to illustrate and will soon do artwork for children’s clothes. This book tells a simple tale - a cow decides to park herself in the middle of a busy street, causing complications. “Visuals open a world beyond the two lines of text on the page,” Raj says. “It’s like drawing a poem – there’s meaning, memory, energy, flavour and smell. There are little stories unfolding even in my traffic jam scenes.”

Kunal Kundu

Vee Loved Garlic (authored by Richa Jha); Pickle Yolk



Vee loves garlic. But Vee is a vampire and her family believes it will kill her. Can she convince them she’ll be ok? Kundu’s art gives the tale of discovery and free will the animation-film treatment. Hisworld is mildly macabre, dramatic and Halloweeny. “Childlike drawings don’t necessarily work for children’s books,” Kundu says. “You have to work on composition, colour choice, what’s in focus, what angle you’re presenting, the point of view of the child or the adult reader. The reader is like a film audience.” Most publishers think dark visuals are unsuitable for kids, Kundu adds, “but when Neil Gaiman does it, it’s automatically fine”. The double standard works for fees too. Kunku says Indian publishers pay only a quarter of what equally skilledartists get in the West.

Alicia Souza

The Susu Pals (authored by Richa Jha); Pickle Yolk



What? You never had a friend you’d do susu with? Rhea and Dia do everything together, like best buds. Until Isha joins their class. Souza’s cheery work brightens up the story of friendship and getting along. “I had to make sure the visuals included the kids and parents’ point of view,” she says. “And we wanted handwriting, not set fonts.” Today’s stories are letting kids take control and learn lessons themselves, she adds. “Some grown-ups were a little scandalised by the title, but there are plenty of pee and poo books in India now.”

Ayeshe Sadr & IShaan Dasgupta

Talon Wrestles An Anaconda (authored by Kim McArthur); Amberjack Publishing



“There are plenty of artists working on children’s books in India today and that’s good news. Kids’ books are the nicest platform for your work,” says Sadr. Dasgupta, her co-founder at 211 Studio, agrees. “You can let your imagination run wild. Even though the story has a script, you can add text to the background, textures, crazy things you remember from your childhood. We always try to do something different with a children’s book.” Talon visits the zoo, learns about anacondas, is impressed by their power and decides he’d like to be an anaconda himself. “Drawing the plants and animals were the best part,” Sadr says.
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