Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Almost as difficult to answer, and with champions just as vocal on either side of the debate, is the question – which is more important in a children’s picture book: the text or the illustrations?
“It’s called a PICTURE book, duh,” says the ‘illustration-of-course!’ camp. “Without evocative/lush/quirky/true-to-life artwork, any book for young readers (and not-yet-readers) would completely fail. It is the pictures that primarily draw them in, not the story. Why, even if you just gave them a book of pictures and no text, young children would be engaged, making up their own stories with what they see before them, letting their imaginations run riot.”
“Pictures are important in books for young children, but only because they enhance the story,” retorts the ‘story-is-everything’ camp. “And let us remind you that a story can very well stand on its own, even without pictures. If that wasn’t so, there wouldn’t be such a strong tradition of oral storytelling in every culture! In fact, sometimes, pictures can distract and restrict the child’s imagination, which would otherwise go haring down completely unexpected paths.”
The jury is still out, but maybe there is no right answer to this question. Both camps agree, after all, that the point of a picture book, or any book at all for young children, is to engage, entertain, and set the imagination free. As an occasional bonus, such a book may also inform and educate. For this kind of magic to be created, it is a no-brainer that both pictures and words have to work together well.
Does that magic happen in Pratham Book’s Grandma’s Glasses? Almost, but not quite. Author Rohini Nilekani, writing under the pen-name Noni, has a special gift for writing simple, sweet stories, and this story, of a grandmother who can never find her glasses, is in the same mould. It has the facts of a geriatric life conveyed in little Richa’s endearingly deadpan words – “Without her glasses, she can’t find her glasses”, and “She needs me. To be her eyes, to find her own eyes.” It has typical Indian grandma dialogue – “Veena’s mother-in-law came, you know. And how much she gossips! We had many cups of tea. And she ate all the laddoos your mother had made.” It has a plot that includes a little Blues Clues-style drama – Richa finally finds the lost glasses by playing detective. Which is all good. On the debit side, the denouement is rather rushed, and the entire resolution happens on the last page. Plus, the story itself lacks the lovable lunacy of Noni’s Sringeri Srinivas stories, the simple charm of Listen to My Body, and the imaginative sweetness of The Moon and the Cap.
Tanaya Vyas’ illustrations do great justice to Noni’s story. Her ‘Nani’ is instantly identifiable with a north Indian grandmother, and the scene with Nani having chai and laddoos with her gossipy friend is beautifully true-to-life (Nani’s expression is not to be missed). A cat (not part of the text), several pairs of glasses, open cupboards, balls of wool, chappals, photos on walls, washbasins, a puja mantap, and other elements of a regular household are strewn randomly across every doublespread, allowing for involved conversations outside of the main story with the child being read to, if the adult reading the story should want to start them. Which is a nice touch by Vyas. But the design, which probably is a standard one – picture in a box along the top two-thirds of each page, black text on white background along the bottom one-third – is boring, and does not keep up.
The final verdict? Grandma’s Glasses is a nice story with nice illustrations. At Rs 30, it is, like most other books from the Pratham Books stable, a good buy. On the whole, though, it lacks the X factor that catapults a competent picture book into the ‘highly-recommended’ category.
By Arundhati Roshan B.
Illustrator: Tanaya Vyas
Pratham Books, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Picture Book