Every year almost all the children’s book publishers put out a whole lotta picture book schlock alongside some tiny gems. If you are a librarian, your job is to find those gems and to direct parents and teachers to them. Think of it as a game. It’s like wading through muck to find a glint of gold. You can find it, but you have to be patient (and try to remember what gold looks like too). Particularly here in America, we children’s librarians see lots of junk that looks exactly the same. So when I find myself handling a book like Do! I am almost at a loss to comprehend what I have before me. Tara Books is the only publisher in America that puts out handmade picture books straight out of places like Chennai, India. In Do! you have a fun concept book from the Warli tribal community. It’s the kind of book that serves to remind us that there’s more to literature for children than pretty sparkles and tales we’ve heard many times before. Do! I guarantee, is like nothing you’ll find on your library shelves right now.
Action and rest are the name of the game in this fun picture book written by three artists of the Warli tribal community in Maharashtra, Western India. Open it up and you find yourself looking at a series of two-page spreads. On each one is at least one word describing what is going on. "Talk". "Cook". "Work". "Read". Some words are benign like "Fish". Others violent like "Fight". Through it all, multiple figures that are hardly more than stick people show the basic action that happens in their little village when accompanied by their livestock. A section at the end shows readers how to draw their own Warli-styled characters, and a final note discusses how the book was made and where it is from.
Picture books. Those funny little objects that we all deal with at some point in our lifetime, though few of us stop to think them through. What is the point of a picture book? To learn to read? To learn to love to read? To teach? To inform? To amuse? I hold Do! and I start to wonder. The book could do any of these things, but it seems to primarily want to allow the child reader the chance to pore over the pages, searching out all the little details. The book itself calls the Warli style of art "almost like pictograms." The characters are easily recognizable and even if the story didn’t explain what was happening on a given page, kids could probably figure it out. That might not be a bad application of the book for the non-verbal, actually. Parents could turn to a two-page spread of something like the word "sit" and ask kids to figure out what all the characters and animals have in common.
The idea of a "handmade book" is its own problem. Is that a good or a bad thing? We think of "handmade" and sometimes our minds consider craftsmanship. Other times we think of slave labor. In the case of "Do!" we’re dealing with the former. As the book’s afterword on Warli Art explains, "Today it is not just the women, but many men who paint . . . and the art is used commercially." In the particular case of this title, each book has been silk-screen printed and bound by hand. Some editions even sport a little additional slip of paper that shows the process from screenprinting to typesetting to binding to stitching. The result is a sturdy, well-made book, with a cover of a deep chocolatey brown. There is no slipcover, and the endpapers show the repeated images of the circular dancing and folks reading in trees. I was also much taken with the color of the pages. We’re so used to the bleached white of a book’s page that for some reasons we’re caught off-guard when confronted by brown. In "Do!" the words and pictures are of a thick white ink that shows up brilliantly against the muted paper landscape.
I read and reread Do! a couple times and you know what it reminded me of? Busy books where there’s lots to see. Where’s Waldo or any of the Anno books (Anno’s U.S.A., Anno’s Journey, etc.). Certainly the characters here are hardly more than stick figures but they convey everything they need to with as few lines as possible. Now I can tell you right here and now that this book won’t be to everyone’s taste. Hand it to the child who only loves pink sparkles and you will learn all too soon what they think of it. This is a book for the curious child. The one who’s always trying to find the hidden details and images in their picture books. The inquisitive one who will stare rapt at these pages for hours on end. Let your kids be world travelers. Introduce them to Do!.
On shelves now.
Source: Hardcover copy sent for review from publisher.
- Gita Wolf discusses Tara Books and where she hopes it can do at PaperTigers.org.
- Gita Wolf speaks with Indian By Design, discussing how Tara’s books are conceived by children, amongst other things.
- A profile of artist Ramesh Hengadi.
- He is also discussed at IndianExpress.com.
- Watch the books actually being made here! Very cool.