The honorary Wildlife Warden of Udaipur, Arefa Tehsin has written many animal and travel related articles and books, including Tales From the Wild. Her keen knowledge of living creatures, their habitats, and the ecosystems are well matched by her ability to connect with her young, mainly urban, readers, through skilful writing.
According to the book’s jacket, “Munia knew that the giant one-feathered elephant bird had not swallowed the horse, even though he was big enough to swallow one! A story about a magical bird and a brave and curious child.” While the basic story line is well within the realm of fantasy, the details are a little muddled. The protagonist is a little girl who walks with a limp and whose parents think she is with her friends, while she spends her time with the magical bird. While she fetches wood and water, she is made fun of by her peers and excluded from games they play.
We are told by way of information at the end of the picture book that “this story is inspired by the real Elephant Bird (scientific name: Aepyornis maximus), the biggest bird that walked our planet. It inhabited the island of Madagascar. With more and more settlements on the island, and more forests ruined, the species became extinct around 1700 CE.” Other than the fact that the elephant bird is herbivorous, unfortunately, we do not get to know much else about this extinct creature.
The illustrations are very colorful no doubt and the paper used by Pratham is glossy as usual. However, so many books are available in the cartoon style today that the opportunity for the art work to stand out is lost. With many trained artistes trying to cater to the children’s illustration genre in the current scenario, it is a pity that editors and publishers accept ordinary work rather than push their contributors to attain higher standards.
The story has more to do with human attitudes to disability as well as human notions, based on ignorance, about animals. In the Panchayat scene, there are only males, and two children, including Munia. The only other female faces seen in the book are the mother’s and another woman in a neighboring village. One wishes the illustrators would have considered adding a few more girl children, if not adults?
Since environmental and life skills education starts early in schools, the book is a good resource for teachers of elementary grades. It could serve as a starting point to address traditionally taboo topics like physical disability and bullying. It could also be used along with older books like Eric Carle’s The Mixed Up Chameleon, Tulika’s Rooster Raga and Colour Colour Kamini, and NBT published Mickey Patel’s Rupa the Elephant to talk about animals who do not fit any stereotypes.
By Rachna Dhir
Author: Arefa Tehsin
Illustrator: Sonal Goyal, Sumit Sakhuja
Pratham Books, 2014
Subject Category: Fantasy