Suniti Namjoshi and Krishna Bala Shenoi’s The Boy & Dragon Stories and Other Tales has two things going for it – the creative juxtaposition of text and images in the storytelling, and the matter-of-fact manner in which fantasy has been used in the stories, giving a very traditional feel to these otherwise modern-sounding stories.
Apparently, there’s a term for it – magical realism – but it might be easier to put it in context if one were to say that most of the stories have an almost Enid-Blyton-esque feel to them. Very often, as adults, we tend to over-explain fantastical elements in our stories; not so here. Dragons and giants exist because they do – just like the fairies at the bottom of the garden did when we were kids. So, the eponymous boy going off on adventures with the dragon seems just as normal as, say, climbing a tree and finding a magic land on top. Yet the writing does have a distinctly unique feel – a little folktale-ish, a little contemporary.
The stories range from the boy and the dragon going off on adventures, of course, to kids outwitting monsters, a baby giant who wants to play with children, a monkey who writes a book, a boy who learns to love trees and even a cyber-themed story. Suniti Namjoshi’s style of writing is distinct and each story jumps directly into the action – no pat intros like “once upon a time”. Interestingly, while some of the stories have a traditional set-up/conflict/resolution formula, others seem like vignettes, which makes for an absorbing mix.
The only drawback in this collection, and it’s a big one, is that yet again we have a children’s book in which ‘the boy’ becomes the standard-bearer of all things childhood, a representative of all children and adventures of childhood. Most of the creatures are male as well. Let’s break this up. Six of the fourteen stories feature ‘the boy’ (in one case ‘the small boy’ who may be a different character). The dragon, the little dinosaur, the giant, and the baby giant are all represented as male.
Only four stories feature girl protagonists, but it is significant that none of them are main characters – in fact, in three stories they are accompanied by a boy. It is also not insignificant that two of these stories are about girls crying – yep – and one is actually about a girl who doesn’t cry ending up crying because she thinks “it would help”! Among ‘creatures’, the whirlwind, Monkeyji the writer and the Beautiful Elephant are female, the latter two in the same story.
Krishna Bala Shenoi’s black-and-white illustrations are absolutely delightful. Two of my favourites are the double-page, full-bleed images of pebbles washed up on the beach, with shadows of the boy and the dragon, and the one of the giant by the sea, looking out at the horizon. The illustrations have been placed to be part of the text rather than set apart, providing a nicely immersive experience for young readers.
The book is marked for readers aged eight and above, but might work as a read-aloud for younger children as well, especially given the illustrations. Had it not been for the skewed gender representation, this would have been a top-notch collection of stories. But if you can ignore that – though how will things ever change if we continue to do so? – it is still an imaginative anthology.
By Payal Dhar
Author: Suniti Namjoshi
Illustrator: Krishna Bala Shenoi
Tulika Publishers, 2015
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Anthology