By The Book: two new books that talk about neurodivergence and take readers back in time to India’s past
Read, Write, Race by Arti Sonthalia is an empathetic introduction to dyslexia while Chandragupta Maurya and the Greek Onslaught by Shruti Garodia and Archana Garodia Gupta offers insight into the creation of an ancient Indian powerhouse of an empire
Read, write, run
Suitable for: 7 years and up
At first glance, there’s very little that could tie Muhammad Ali, Tom Cruise, and 10-year-old fifth-grader Raghav. Sure, there’s the proven genius of the first two in their chosen fields, but Raghav has yet to prove himself and, on the face of it, it seems unlikely that school will be pleasant this year either. No matter how hard he tries, the letters don’t fit into a sequence before his eyes, the reading continues to bewilder him, and as for the writing, all his neat thoughts seem to get twisted as he tries to write them. His best friend has dumped him for Karan, the class leader, and, as if to make matters worse, Ms. Joseph — the one who’s known throughout college for her no-nonsense, no-nonsense attitude — is his class teacher this year.
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But despite the disastrous start, Raghav will soon realize that all of his misfortunes that shame him and provide grist for the mills of class bullies really aren’t his faults after all. And that sometimes the strictest adults are the most compassionate ones after all.
In India, popular culture rarely addresses the issues of dissenters, except for a Taare Zameen By (2007), whose theme Read, Write, Race shares, or Margarita with a Straw (2014), mainly intended for an adult audience. There are few films and fewer children’s books in India that focus on the difficulties, physical or mental, faced by people with disabilities. Lack of understanding and empathy often leads to corrosive systemic persecution from peer groups and institutions, which reduces self-esteem and confidence.
The thing that Raghav shares with actor Cruise or boxing icon Ali is dyslexia, a learning disability that has little bearing on intelligence but blocks one in the mainstream education system. Sonthalia tells the story of Raghav’s diagnosis and first steps toward assimilation into the mainstream after years of a straitjacket with sensitivity and a disarmingly light touch that highlights Raghav’s issues without overdoing it. This allows him to integrate not only dyslexia, but also other forms of perceived lack – shyness and temporary physical handicaps – that children, and even adults, need to be aware of. Easy to read, this is a book that can start a conversation about divergence and why empathy makes the world a better and more tolerant place.
History Hunters: Chandragupta Maurya and the Greek Onslaught
Shruti Garodia and Archana Garodia Gupta
8+ years old
In the times we find ourselves in, the story remains one of the most controversial topics, constantly reframed in narratives to support the claims of ruling dispensations around the world. The result is a widening gap between fiction and fact, which is not helped by the fact that the study of history in India has always tended to get bogged down by emphasizing memorization rather than on understanding how the past has shaped our society, political, economic and cultural life.
One way to tackle this problem is to ensure that material is taught at the primary level with an emphasis on understanding rather than blind stuffing of dates and names. The other way, of course, is to turn to books—non-fiction and historical fiction—to sharpen one’s curiosity about particular times and events.
Before his untimely death in the Covid-19 pandemic, writer Subhadra Sen Gupta had been one such champion of historical storytelling for children, bringing eras and characters to life through lively tales. Shruti Garodia and Archana Garodia Gupta started their writing careers long after Sen Gupta, but they have proven to be reliable standard bearers of the genre. Following their hit The History of India for Children (2018), History Hunters, their new historical fiction series, focuses on the adventures of five Goa-based friends – Rohan, Zoya, Eknoor, Ansh and Elfu, the pet elephant of Rohan. The first book in the series, Chandragupta Maurya and the Greek Onslaught, involves a good old fashioned time travel and, as the title suggests, an encounter with Chandragupta Maurya two millennia in the past, before he became the outstanding ruler recorded in the books of history.
One of the problems with historical fiction, especially that aimed at young children, is a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, leading to the spread of misinformation. The writers have tried to subvert this by providing a postscript that mentions their creative freedoms and an information sheet that provides details on the Maurya era and the bloody battles that led up to it. In a clever twist, the writers also hinted at how easily history can be manipulated to create larger-than-life impressions that can dazzle while obscuring the truth.
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