My wife's school has a lovely programme called DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) - in which one period of the day, all the children have to put away their textbooks and read a 'story-book'.
The upshots of the programme are too many to name (and the person who started this deserves a Nobel Prize) but there is a downside as well.
Some of the more addicted kids have started pestering their teachers (including my wife) at all hours for more books to read! Since about a hundred of her students stay in the same building as us, the pestering literally goes on at all hours!
Since I am the certified bibliomaniac in the family, my wife promptly asked me to make a list of the books that are suitable for children in the age group of 8-12.
I immediately sat down with a pen and paper - and realised it is a lot more difficult than I thought. Simply because all the usual suspects (like Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and even Feluda!) have already been read.
Of course, my other disadvantage is that I have done 90% of my childhood reading in Bengali. But at least, some of my childhood favourites are now available in translation.
So, I figured that there would still be an interesting list to be made - which would tickle the 12-year olds enough to give them a habit of a lifetime.
Better than cocaine, but just as addictive...
Okay, a caveat - some of these are not strictly children's books, which simply means they are far more interesting than Enid Blyton! But, they do not have risque content either.
Swami and Friends (R K Narayan) - Narayan's best known story about a gang of kids in Malgudi talks about friendship, adventure and patriotism in understated tones and a brilliant sense of humour. Even if a 10-year-old misses out on the subtleties, he can still identify with the angry headmasters, doting grandmothers and rag-tag cricket teams. Some things just don't change...
Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Salman Rushdie) - In my humble opinion, this is Rushdie's best novel, beating Midnight's Children narrowly. It is a fairy tale about a story-teller, who loses his gift of the gab when the Sea of Stories is polluted by Chupwalas. His son, Haroun, embarks on an adventure to reclaim the Sea. In this, he is assisted by the Guppees, Prince Bolo and Princess Batcheet. How they all challenge the king of Chupwalas - Bezubaan - in the Battle of Bat-Mat-Karo is a P2C2E (Process 2 Complicated 2 Explain)!
George's Secret Key to the Universe (Stephen & Lucy Hawking) - This is the only book in the list, which I have not read. But I have read the spiritual sequel of this book when I was a little older (about 16) and The Brief History of Time was one of the most interesting books I have ever read.
This time, Dr Hawking collaborates with his daughter to give a children's version of science of the universe. He has done it before and I am presuming that this one is going to be an apt primer for his more popular book.
Going Solo (Roald Dahl) - A wonderful book on the life of a fighter pilot in WWII, I am not sure if this book by Roald Dahl would be classified among his children's books (unlike the sure-shot entries like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and Willy Wonka something). I read this when I was almost an adult but I remember being fascinated by the book, which manages to hold one's attention despite talking about a time of which today's children (as well as me!) have a very vague idea of. Having a fighter aircraft under your exclusive command is a thrill which translates very easily, I guess!
Fatikchand (Satyajit Ray) - Okay, this is a non-Shonku, non-Feluda book by Ray and is not one of his best-known works. It is about a boy who is kidnapped and loses his memory in an accident. He meets a juggler called Haround Al Rashid - and the two of them have a ball before the kidnappers return. And so does his memory.
Ray's understanding of children, their fears and joys has been much documented. This is one of the better examples.
Tales from Shakespeare (Charles & Mary Lamb) - Before Omkara and Maqbool, this is where I got my ideas about the bard from! Written in simple English and painless prose, this is a must-read for those who get impatient with slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Actually, this is a must-read for everybody including film directors!
You only have to read The Tempest to see what a fantastic film it will make.
Idols (Sunil Gavaskar) - Gavaskar writes exceptionally well and there has been no accusation of ghost-writing either. This is one of his better ones, which talks about his heroes and their most endearing traits and enduring performances. It is almost devoid of prejudices and sarcasm. It was also written in the earlier part of his career, where he did not have to justify his actions as a cricketer / batsman. Kids nowadays have cricketer heroes with life span of about a month. Here's one book which talks about more durable heroes.
The natural progression of this series would be Ramachandra Guha's series - Spin and Other Turns and Wickets in the East.
Vikram and Vetal / Vikramaditya's Thrones - The first one is better known (thanks to the serial and the Tortoise ad), where Vikramaditya solved a series of 25 puzzles put to him by a 'phantom' corpse. The second one is lesser known in which a shepherd demonstrates tremendous acumen whenever he sits on a hillock.
Both are phenomenal examples of ingenuous problem-solving (that too in succession), starring one of the most well-known characters of Indian history - Emperor Vikramaditya.
Raj Kahini (Abanindranath Tagore) - In another one of his novels, Aban Tagore described himself as "chhobi lekhey" (writes pictures). That description couldn't have been more apt.
In this book, he puts together a series of stories about the valiant warriors of Rajputana and their famous resistance against invaders. The forts of Mewar, Jodhpur and Chittor come alive in his pen-pictures of the unforgettable characters. History became my favourite subject for quite some time after I read this book.
Mountain of the Moon (Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay) - I have already written about this book some time back, which is one of the most breath-taking adventures ever written.
A Brief History of Everything (Bill Bryson) - This page-turner of a book is a humorous, racy renditions of the stories behind some of the apparently boring topics in school. Bryson reconstructs the stories behind the inventions of physics, chemistry, zoology and botany in a tongue-in-cheek manner - but without compromising on facts or undermining the achievements.
Wish our textbooks were written by him!
I have restricted myself to books that are easily available. Which brings me (oh no, not again!) to the tragedy of translations from Bengali (or the lack thereof).
I am sure I missed millions of books suitable for children - but after leaving aside the best-seller favourites, crying out loud over lost gems and accounting for holes in my memory - this is what I would recommend for 10-year olds.
So, tell me what I missed!