Children’s Books and my Father: A Remembrance

Culture and memory share a root, like branches of the same plant. That root is us, human beings, in our most creative and unself-conscious renditions. Once again, after the whirlwind of systemic violence and structural upheaval engineered through the COVID19 pandemic response, the time has come to honour the memory of those we love who have been lost to the novel coronavirus. My father, the late Professor Manabendra Bandyopadhyay (1938-2020), was one such deep loss. 

Although he had been suffering from loss of sight and other health issues in his last few years,  for over half a century, he contributed vastly to the field of Bengali literature and poetry, fiction/poetry in translation, and critical approaches to the early discipline of comparative literature— from the late 1950s until his retirement from teaching at the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In his participation in the cultural and socio-political world of Bangla letters, my father often searched out unusual or unique writers— “against the grain”. While in his translations for adults, he often examined and explored different schools of writing from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, it was his love of books for kids that had a big impact on me as a  young reader and thinker. 

For my father, books for children were as eclectic and engaging as those for adults. He presented me with hundreds of books over the years, and it is especially those books of childhood I often turn to, for a break from the grinding neo-liberal world with its anxieties, bleakness, and inhumanity. 

I fondly remember a range of books from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, to Toronto poet’s Dennis Lee’s Wiggle to the Laundromat. Along with these, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, James Kruss, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Erich Kastner, Rhoda Power, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne,  and the inimitable Tove Jansson made paths into the rich and exciting world of books, a world that was both escape and confirmation, at different times. Through the reading of such international cast of characters, historical moments and types of books, my interest in historical periods, and how people live in different times and places, was piqued. 

In particular, I am grateful to my father for sharing his love of Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures from both Turtle Island and Australia. This awareness of the space I inhabited as a brown child of an immigrant parent to Canada, set me apart from other primary and middle school children as did my experience of racism from a very early age at the hands of my peers in the pristine provincial primary schools of Ontario of the 1970s. 

But when reading, the ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being, allowed me to understand and perhaps at a young age, confront the reality of racial inequality which I experienced. Books like Aguhana, Half-Breed, The Island of the Dolphins, A Nice Fire and Some Moon Pennies gave me a glimpse of a world that was made invisible and silent in the Canadian educational system, that of First Nations, Metis,  and Inuit peoples. Stories by Lois Lenski based on interviews with children and families, gave me an idea of how  working class and rural children, especially girls,  lived as recently as the 1930s-50s in the various United States of America, and how important they were to household economies as recently as the ‘50s and ‘60s. Stories about Harriet Tubman and Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, were a part of my personal canon, as much as Anne Frank and Laura Ingalls Wilder were the staple authors for little girls at the school library. 

In remembrance of the important role that fiction and poetry has played in my own life,  I offer up today’s blog post as a tribute to all those amazing writers who tackled the daunting task of writing gripping and memorable fiction for children, writing that satisfies at any age, books such as Alice in Wonderland, and those of Roald Dahl.  And through acknowledging them, I acknowledge the fount of this fictional diversity, my father. 

Yellow Butterflies, Kaushalya Bannerji, August 2022

This week on the second anniversary of his passing, I have been thinking of him even more. When my partner planted a butterfly bush in his honour, butterflies immediately came to visit. White, orange-patterned, and yellow, they fluttered down to the purple, pink and red flowers. We will always think of our absent loved ones when the butterflies float and dance by us on their invisible currents.

I want to end by sharing a musical piece about the world of Macondo,  from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A  Colombian Nobel-winning writer who was popularized in Bangla by my father, and whose work he explored for many years. Here the lyrics are by Mexican accordionist and composer Celso Pina and performed by Leiden (Cuba-Mexico) and Andrea Echeverri (Colombia) formerly of the group Los Aterciepelados (The Velvet Ones). I am sure he would have enjoyed hearing this rendition.

Macondo by Celso Pina (Mexico) (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)

The hundred years of Macondo, sound, sound, in the air

And the years of Gabriel trumpeting, trumpeting, his announcement!

Enchained,  Macondo dreams along with José Arcadio

And although life is a whirlwind of memories

Aureliano’s sorrows, are four

The beauties of Remedios, violins

The passions of Amaranta, guitar

And the spell of Melquiades is the oboe

Úrsula, one hundred years, loneliness, Macondo

Úrsula, one hundred years, loneliness, Macondo

You are the epic of a forgotten town

Forged in a hundred years of love and history

You are epic of a forgotten town

Forged in a hundred years of love and history

I imagine and live again

In my memor,  burned by the sun

Yellow Butterflies,  Mauricio Babylonia

Yellow butterflies flying free

Yellow Butterflies,  Mauricio Babylonia

Yellow butterflies flying free

Late Night Haiku

Many people living with chronic illness, worry, and pain, experience insomnia. In fact, even children can experience it. It is a very insidious problem, and with the current state of affairs, I suspect that more people are staying awake than before. Paradoxically, even those with chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia, may be unable to sleep, although they feel exhausted. Sometimes, after exertion, whether cleaning or shopping or laundry or even walks for pleasure, pain and fatigue hit like a ton of bricks. But at night, sleep can be elusive. Since I was a reader long before the internet, I often enjoyed reading at night. I still do. There is something magical about immersions in other worlds, while the world outside of oneself is sleeping and relaxed.

Reading, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

In Mexico and Cuba, the nights would be punctuated by rogue roosters, all of who seemed to suffer from insomnia, and never waited for dawn to start their proclamations! In fact, I began to wonder if the rooster- crowing- at- dawn trope was actually a myth. Or was it that ages ago, cities and countrysides were not as lit up throughout the nights, encouraging roosters to sleep?

Rooster, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2018
Insomnia, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Reading however is a great escape, if one can concentrate enough to enjoy it! I continue reading at night especially when I can’t sleep. With the closure of bookstores and my aversion to online shopping, the high-price of new novels, I have found online resources at the public library to be a great resource. I first realized that online reading was helpful in travelling, as so much weight was taken up by my books. But with the pandemic, I have resorted to online mysteries, biographies and children’s literature. Sadly, the last category is the weakest and a lot of stuff online for kids is really repetitive and badly written. Illustrated books for younger kids show a total reliance on cartoon culture and a lack of visual imagination.

The other night, while waiting for sleep, I went back to the haiku, a favourite form of poetry. After reading a few contemporary ones, I decided to try my hand at some after a long time. Here, they are.

Insomnia

  1. Late at night, breath’s sound

replaces the city’s corrosive hum

cat turning, finds core.

Cat, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

2. Insomnia is

a star, gleaming digital

more know her name than Capella’s.

3. Middlenight, riddle 

sleep. the sky holds her secrets

behind a veiled cloud.

 4. Insomnia’s leaves

are bookmarks, half-faded slumber

poems echo dream- like.

5. Insomnia, silent 

as that cat that crept in on

fog’s feet or vice versa.

6. Fog footed, insomnia’s 

friend to cat, bat, and the night

blooming jasmine.

The Reading Hour, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

What’s Your Superpower? Children’s Books in a Pandemic World

Mine is reading. For many years, I have escaped or disappeared into texts. Writers have made the visible world invisible and the invisible world, visible. They have shown us downward plummets and paths toward happiness. They take us on journeys into the core of the earth or the heart of the sky. When the world is going to hell, whether it be through bullying and racism in school or work, at university, relaxing on a holiday, books have been a constant and life-saving companion.

I can’t stress enough the importance of building up some personal resources against the bleak winter and under these pandemic conditions. Debates are raging on about the wisdom of taking sanitary precautions like masking and hand sanitizing, versus, “business as usual”. Poverty— as well as covid19, is growing, in response to haphazard and unsupported lockdown measures that have made living a terror for millions of people in the developing world and in the wealthier countries, like Canada, U.S, and the U.K., where Black and other people of colour, make up increasing numbers of an underemployed and badly educated working-class, in holding pens, that pass for schools.

Yet, in the months since the media has let us in on the existence of this new coronavirus, we have not witnessed governments come up with life-affirming measures of public safety. But while millions lose jobs, day labourers go hungry, families are evicted, medical debt is a huge thing across the world, hospitals and seniors’ homes are understaffed and underfunded, mental health crises are rising, and economically non-productive people and working people are devalued and dehumanized, there are some who are doing their utmost to profit from this uncertainty and mixed messaging.

That’s why it is important to be able to read about different stories than those that characterize our time— one of vast indifference and apathy in which millions are languishing in misery, fear and hunger.

I want to share a couple of kids’ books which I believe are under-rated and under-represented in the world of post-world war 2 children’s literature. The first, is The Happy Islands Behind the Winds, by James Kruss.

This book, written during the end of that war, offers a possibility of a more humane world, through the stories of the Happy Islands, a fantastical land where animals, birds, fish, insects, and vegetation, are as much citizens— with corresponding rights and obligations— as humans. The beauty of the islands is in their straightforward belief that hope, kindness and beauty are cornerstones of “good” living, that power ought to be distributed equally among beings in society and that we are all capable of learning from our mistakes and worthy of trust and redemption. The author manages to do all this with a great deal of imagination and humour, conveying a sense of wonder at the variety of stories the world could offer. Animals, insects and people share stories and poems that open up a world of astonishingly progressive ideas about crime and punishment and belonging and rejection!

I believe this book to be one of the most lovely examples of books for kids. It is the first part of a trilogy comprised of Return to the Happy Islands, and The Lighthouse on the Lobster Cliffs, where we meet the characters of the Captain, the four seagulls, poltergeists, lighthouse keepers, and so many more. In these books, trees talk, insects reason, people respond to kindness and understanding, and change is good. They also encourage imagination and story-telling, important tools for feeling like we are a part of the world!

These books are now out of print, but were published by Atheneum Press in 1960s in English translations. The Happy Islands Behind the Winds can be found at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL24763459M/The_happy_islands_behind_the_winds if you are interested in browsing. It can also be ordered through inter-library loan through the public library.

The second book that made a big impression on me while growing up, was the British historian Rhoda Power’s novel about the 14th century life of Redcap, a blacksmith’s son in medieval England. This book, like the one above, shares the device of stories within stories, much like the idea of a 1001 Nights. It centers outcastes and the powerless of feudal society at the time— children, “witches”, minstrels, and the like, celebrating tricksters, jugglers, acrobats and all the entertainment of that long-ago age.

Redcap Runs Away (1953), is a captivating book about a runaway boy who falls in with a group of minstrels and travels England in the Middle Ages. While it draws on religious and other influences of the time, it’s still a fascinating and imaginative book, which allows us to expererience life in another time and place. Fantasy writing does not have to be confined to Utopic or otherwordly scenarios. Historians turned storytellers are often adept at blending fantasy and history together! Rhoda Power crafts an interesting story, that lends itself to researching some of the daily conditions of life in medieval Britain. It’s hard to imagine a time when entertainment was not a click or tap away, but had to be conjured up by real people with talents and skill, in real time! (Cuba is perhaps the only place I’ve stayed in, in recent years, where I was exposed to amazingly talented young people who shared their talents on the streets and parks and patios, instead of staring at their cellphones or TVs.) But getting back to this children’s book which allows us to imagine a different way of life; it shows us that Redcap’s view of the world and the questions that challenge him are as much a product of his time and circumstances as are ours. And that’s a good departure point for learning about history!

While many of us are more confined to the home during this time, libraries in much of North America have gone online. Although it’s not the most complete selection of books, nor the most diverse, libraries are a great online resource at this time, as are sources like Open Library, for harder to find books.

In times when we feel confined, books are a way of taking to the seas or the open road, allowing all of us, adults and children, a chance to remove ourselves from the humdrum concerns of every day life! Over the next while I’ll be sharing some lesser known books for kids, including Jamaican Andrew Salkey’s stories on natural disasters for children!