11 MIN READ
Parents and children alike have long bemoaned the dearth of quality age-appropriate children’s books in Nepal. While many do exist, their production quality leaves a lot to be desired and are hence not very appealing to children. This led a handful of Kathmandu-based publishers to try and address that gap with a series of vibrant publications. Fine Print, under its Finetasy imprint, published two children’s illustrated books in both Nepali and English in 2015 – Yatra (The Journey) by Ubahang Nembang and Sanu ra Aandhibheri (Sanu and the Big Storm) by Bandana Tulachan. Then, in 2018, Safu published Nepali and English translations of veteran writer and poet, Durga Lal Shrestha, who wrote primarily in Nepal Bhasa.
Now, Srijanalaya, with support from The Asia Foundation, has published six children’s books, written and illustrated by a diverse cast of authors and illustrators. These books deal with sensitive topics and are presented alongside enigmatic and vivid illustrations.
As a 20-something man, I could’ve reviewed these books but it did not feel entirely fair, as I do not have children and I am not a child myself. Luckily for me, I have an 11-year-old sister, who I call Maiiya. She was more than happy to have me read to her and then tell me her thoughts. And that is exactly what we did, reading one book per day.
Sunday: Gayal Keto (गयल केटो)
The first book that we read was Gayal Keto. According to Maiiya, the cover was very intriguing. Written by Bina Theeng and illustrated by DidiBahini (Keepa & Dristi Manandhar), Gayal Keto tells the story of Rajib, a school kid, and the struggle he faces with bullying in school.
“I’ve never been bullied before, but the book helped me understand what it would feel like for someone to get bullied in school,” Maiiya said when I asked her for a review.
She added that the book was easy to understand and the depictions of Rajib seeing himself as a demon in the mirror, Rajib staring into the sunset, and the drawings of faceless students around him all really helped her see how lonely he must have actually felt.
“I think the idea of Rajib opening up to his brother while playing video games was fun,” she said, adding, “I think that the way in which Rajib overcame his problems was a bit too easy, but the story is also much easier to understand because it is so simple.”
Maiiya, who is a sixth-grader, believes that even a first-grader could easily enjoy the story.
Monday: Juvi (जुभी)
The second book we dived into was Juvi, written by Ujjwala Maharjan and illustrated by Alina Chhantel. Juvi explores the life of an unnamed character who has been locked up in a juvenile detention center.
Unlike the other five books that we had, Juvi appeared more somber at first glance. Clearly, the book had not been made for younger kids like yesterday’s Gayal Keto.
“I liked the story more because it felt more mature, but it was also sad to read,” was Maiiya’s verdict.
“The illustrations were also dark and creepy, but I think it suited the story.” she added.
Maiiya shared that she had seen juvenile detention centers on Netflix but she had never really thought about what life there was like. My sister told me that the muted palette, dark silhouettes, and red barbed wires spread through the book really helped her see how lonely and trapped the character must have felt.
In the book, the kids inside the detention center were portrayed with eyes growing all over their skin. Some had only a few while others had their bodies covered in pupils. “It’s like everyone is constantly looking at them, and that they can’t really fit into society,” Maiiya aptly interpreted.
As for the story itself, it kept both of us guessing about what it was really about until the very end. Maiiya felt that the story was somewhat difficult to grasp in the beginning but everything became clear towards the end.
Tuesday: Sunaulo Sungur (सुनौलो सुँगुर)
On Tuesday, we decided to pick up Sunaulo Sungur, which translates to ‘Golden pig’ and was written by Swapnil Smriti and illustrated by Swornim Shakya. The story is about Lingyok and his life in his village and school. This story in particular explores Lingyok’s struggles juggling helping out at home and going to school. It also emphasizes the value of education, and how Lingyok comes to terms with his family’s livelihood of raising pigs.
Sunaulo Sungur was among the longer books in the bunch. Maiiya felt that the story was a tad bit long and the vocabulary a little too tough for her. That said, she mentioned that it was still a very enjoyable read. What especially stood out to her were the realities of Lingyok’s life in his village. For my sister, who has lived a large part of her life in Kathmandu, reading about what life outside of urban centers could be like seemed really interesting.
Something that Maiiya felt strongly about was how Lingyok was compelled to skip school just to help out at home. “Kids should be taught to help out at home, but they should not have to sacrifice their studies for it,” she said.
Moreover, while this is a kid’s book, she believes that adults too can take away a lot from it. Reading the book might help parents and teachers realize that while children’s wrongdoings should have consequences, adults must also be more understanding and accepting of the struggles that kids might be going through, she said.
Maiiya liked that the final panel with Lingyok’s drawing was a pleasant ending that helped reconfirm his journey of self-acceptance.
Wednesday: Ambar ko Dhun (अम्बरको धुन)
My sister and I picked up Ambar ko Dhun next. Penned by Pranika Koyu and inked by PayalSapana Paints, Ambar ko Dhun is a story about the daily life and obstacles of Ambar, a child who has a physical disability.
One of the first things that stood out about Ambar ko Dhun was the art style. Unlike the other five books, this one appears to have been drawn and painted by hand, as opposed to the more digital styles of the rest. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Maiiya really enjoyed this change of style.
“It makes the characters and the story feel more childlike,” she said. This works in favor of the story, given that it is written from the perspective of a child.
The story itself was also just as enjoyable. Simple to read and paired with an emotive story, Ambar ko Dhun was a quick read for us, despite it being just as long as Sunaulo Sungur.
“The book really helped me understand how many simple things I take for granted,” said Maiiya. We both felt that the art and the story did a good job of showing how people with disabilities are treated differently by society. Maiiya also complimented the book showing the struggles of Ambar’s parents directly.
“They did not have to show that, but it’s nice that they did,” she said.
Thursday: Utsukta (उत्सुकता)
We started reading Utsukta on Thursday after dinner.
The story by Sarita Pariyar and the art panels by Rupak Raj Sunuwar shares a story about discrimination based on caste, which has been portrayed in a rather clever manner. In the story, our main character, Utsukta, is an ant who has to learn how to deal with social discrimination. Pariyar and Sunuwar cleverly use different insects to portray people from different castes.
“I think this was a really clever way of showing things, especially since the book was written for a younger audience that might not really know much about caste,” said Maiiya.
She noted that she had witnessed the issues highlighted by the book and appreciated that the story showed how situations pertaining to social discrimination have improved over time, but they still have not gone away entirely.
Something that she did wish had been done differently was the way the book ended.
“I liked how the story showed that Utsukta grew up to become a writer. Maybe the author based the story on something they experienced themselves,” she said. “I do wish that the story could have shown Utsukta taking some immediate action against the discrimination that she had faced.”
Friday: Chhyanbale (छ्याँबले)
The last book that we read was Tirtha Gurung and Roseena Shakya’s Chhyanbale. Maiiya really liked the art style of the book and said that it reminded her of an animated movie. This is also why we read this book at the very end; Maiiya wanted to save the best for last.
Written by Gurung and illustrated by Shakya, Chhyanbale is the story of the titular boy whose disability makes him dependent on others to help him get around. The story also showcases instances of bullying and personal loss as well.
The book is written from the perspective of a swallow that watches over Chhyanbale. This was something that took both Maiiya and me a while to catch on to. Nonetheless, once we did, it only further enhanced the way in which the story flowed.
“It was a bit confusing to understand at first, but once you get it, the book becomes quite enjoyable. I think it would be even better when we read it a second time,” said Maiiya.
One qualm that Maiiya had was about the way in which the story was presented.
“I don’t mind the comic-like panels and the dialogue bubbles used in the book, but I think I like the storytelling style of the previous books more,” she said.
Something that is nicer about the story, though, is how the story does not shy away from showing real loss; in this case, the death of a loved one. Albeit a bit heavy, Gurung and Shakya have managed to portray death gracefully. Maiiya too was glad that it was not simply a goody-goody kids story, but one where the character faced substantial adversity. She also added that the way in which the story ended made her feel warm and fuzzy, and that she felt like the death of Chhyanbale’s grandfather had not been in vain.
Good children’s books —especially those in Nepali— are a rarity to come by. Oftentimes, making a story shorter and simpler can prove to be more daunting than writing a fully-fledged piece of adult fiction. I for one certainly do not have a lot of Nepali children’s books that I can go back to from my childhood days. The old Meena comics are perhaps the closest thing I can remember.
Books like these six make me hopeful that this reality has slowly begun to change. The child in me hopes to see more books like these in bookstores and school libraries across the country.
Getting to read these six books over the course of a week was certainly a really enjoyable experience for me and my sister. I don’t often read alongside my sister but doing this over the past week was a welcome affair. What was even better was that these six books were not just any average children's books, but rather books that were willing to deal with important issues that affect children without dumbing them down.
You can read these books and more at: https://www.letsreadasia.org. As JUVI is for older children, interested readers can write to Ritica Lacoul of The Asia Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Srijanalaya (email@example.com) to request a copy.
Sajeet M. Rajbhandari Sajeet is a Media Studies undergraduate and is currently reporting for The Record.
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