RATINGS & REVIEWS

A great way to learn! Review: Pratham Books’ educational titles

3.5/5/5
rating

This is a review of three children’s books digitally published by Pratham Books as part of their Storyweaver campaign. All three titles are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) books. You can download these stories by clicking on the title links.

How Old is Muttajji?

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Author: Roopa Pai

Illustrator: Kaveri Gopalakrishnan

Reading Level: Level 4

You know what I like reading best? Detective stories. I would have become a detective if I’d known that it wasn’t compulsory to wear a hat to be one. Still, I devour detective stories by the dozen and I was delighted to read Roopa Pai’s little story that combines math, history and a good, clean piece of detective work.

Putta and Putti are visiting someone for their birthday. But this remarkably old person has no idea how old she is! Muttajji remembers several things from her life but she doesn’t know when she was born. So Putta and Putti have to collect clues, put together pieces of information from ‘witnesses’, do some research and finally arrive at an answer. In the process, we learn about historical events and get to do a bit of addition and subtraction too. Normally, I’d hate anyone who tries to make me do math when I’m enjoying myself but full marks to Roopa Pai for tricking me into it. Colloquial expressions like ‘Aaan yes!’ add flavour to the story and will work well when read aloud too.

I was wondering, though, why Putta and Putti never mention looking up the internet to do their research – don’t they have access to the web in Mysore? Don’t their parents have smartphones? Do children still visit libraries to look up facts? Not the ones I know! But maybe these are proper detectives who will take their information only from verified sources, eh?

Kaveri Gopalakrishnan’s illustrations are full of life and humour and make this picture book all the more endearing. There’s a little section towards the end that has more information about the historical events that make an appearance in the story – follow the example of Putta and Putti and go to the library and read up further, will you?

Up World, Down World

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Author: Padmaparna Ghosh

Illustrator: Sunaina Coelho

Reading Level: Level 3

All of us have our fears. We’ve been brought up with a healthy amount of don’t-do-this-or-else which is meant to keep us away from danger. Fatima and Gopa from Up World, Down World are no different. You should know, though, that Fatima is a girl and Gopa is a dormouse.

The creatures of the Up World (those who inhabit the trees) are afraid of the creatures in the Down World and vice versa. But Gopa, who lives in the Up World, and Fatima, who lives in the Down World, end up becoming friends and discovering that not everyone from the other world is evil. We meet some of the fascinating creatures who share Gopa’s neighbourhood and learn some interesting facts about them along the way.

The Down World, curiously, is limited to human beings. Are the animals in the Up World scared of animals who live on land, below the trees, just as they are of humans? We don’t know. While the book has the laudable theme of conservation and environmental awareness, I was wondering if the anthropomorphic characterization of the animals doesn’t somewhat defeat the purpose. Shouldn’t we, as humans, learn that all life has value and that it isn’t just ‘people like us’ who deserve to inherit the planet? Was it necessary for the dormouse to read a book for Fatima to meet him? I can’t help thinking that a more natural encounter would have made the story stronger.

Some tighter editing would have helped too. ‘Fatima and Gopa held hands and went off exploring’ – Gopa is drawn as a tiny dormouse and it would have been quite impossible for the two friends to hold hands while walking together. The vibrant illustrations by Sunanina Coelho are true to life, and will help young readers identify the animals and birds they meet in this book, outside of it too.

On the whole, Up World, Down World is a fun book but it’s strictly rooted in the ‘Disney’ premise of conservation. And I’m a bit too grey-haired to root for it strongly.

 Manikantan has enough

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Author: Anil Menon

Illustrator: Upamanyu Bhattacharya

Reading Level: Level 5

Stories about gadgets taking control of human life are old. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from a picture book with a similar theme – was it going to be about yet another out-of-control, crazy robot? Rajinikanth has done that already and who can do it better than him, huh?

But this story about Manikantan isn’t just about ‘cool’ devices having a mind and say of their own. In this futuristic and slightly creepy tale, all objects ‘think’ – including shoeracks and beds. They incessantly nag Manikantan about what he should and shouldn’t do and rat him out to his mother too. Ugh.

As I was reading, I was hoping this wasn’t going to be yet another lecture on the ‘evils’ of technology. The story seemed to move in that direction, what with Manikantan slipping into nostalgia about Anandpuram, his village, from where he and his (single) mother had come to the Smart City (clever name!).   If all well-meaning elders focussed their ire upon the TV when I was growing up, it’s the iPad or iPhone that is demonized now. The point is, technology has its uses and it’s here to stay. We may not like it but that doesn’t change a thing.

Thankfully, Anil Menon is too good a writer to fall into such a cliché. His layered, complex story narrated in simple language, brings out the different facets of technology and doesn’t get moralistic or preachy at any point. Perhaps Menon’s victory lies in the fact that he doesn’t present the story to us as ‘what to ought to be’ but rather ‘what is’. I did wonder though if it’s possible for Anandpuram to remain so untouched by technology when things in the Smart City are so advanced. If the mobile phone’s rapid infiltration in rural India is anything to go by, Anandpuram should at least have progressed from charcoal fires in this futuristic world, no?

This is a thought-provoking little book that children and adults alike must read. The illustrations shift with the moods in the story – humorous, reflective and menacing at times. We need more stories, like this one, that look forward towards the future boldly without offering a return to the past as the impossible to achieve solution.

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