I think it was Harry Potter which, at age 12, finally helped me transition from picture books to tomes subsumed with words. The latter helped me exercise my imagination in a different way but took me away from the wonder and amazement that were evoked by illustrated books and comics. I felt a similar kind of awe while gleaning through the pages of The Jungle Radio: Bird Songs of India, a beautiful story, written and illustrated by Devangana Dash with the aim of introducing children to the amazing variety of birds that are found in India.

Dash says that children’s literature has always been of interest to her. Over the years she has grown immensely fond of picture books and has researched a lot on them, “When I was studying sociology, I was also briefly volunteering with a non-profit organisation and was engaging with children in a classroom in Delhi slums. That brought me closer to learning and teaching methods in schools and engaging in activities with children.”

And it when she was in a design college where she wrote her first book. And by the time she graduated, she had written and illustrated three! Here she was introduced to the world of visual storytelling and found her passion in illustration and book design and publication and familiarised herself with writing for children, the art of illustrated books, and discovered some of her now favourite artists and authors through her research. She was also exploring themes like education, child rights, and conservation through research based design and interviewing children, parents, educators, book sellers to understand the existing children’s media in the market.

When I was studying sociology, I was also briefly volunteering with a non-profit organisation and was engaging with children in a classroom in Delhi slums. That brought me closer to learning and teaching methods in schools and engaging in activities with children.

“I got introduced to the colourful and musical world of birds back in college, where The Jungle Radio was originally conceived as a part of a storytelling project for environment education. The project led me to the jungles of Bandipur, Karnataka, which was fascinating to a student of nature like me. I was seeking an experience and a story to write, I couldn’t have found a better space than the lush forest in monsoon and the calls of the wild. Soon, bird watching became a fascinating hobby for me. I have also been a birder at home, and a loyal audience to the delightful birds visiting my balcony everyday—parakeets, babblers, sunbirds, kites, woodpeckers and many more,” she adds.

Dash, who works as a book designer at Penguin Random House feels that we need more content for children that encourages a young reader to wander outdoors, observe, imagine, ask questions, love nature and more importantly be a good listener to the world. She also found out while engaging with school going kids in Bangalore and Delhi, that most city children only knew a handful of city birds around them—commonly parrots, crows, pigeons, peacocks, and eagles, and ostriches! (which you don’t find in India). – “I believe that we can sensitise children towards the sounds of nature, when they look at these sounds as a crucial, intangible component of the forest resource. I wrote and illustrated this book hoping to nurture an audience that is aware and sensitive in its engagement with wildlife and the natural world,” she informs.

I believe that we can sensitise children towards the sounds of nature, when they look at these sounds as a crucial, intangible component of the forest resource.

She selected a total of 30 Indian birds to feature in the book to ensure they cover most Indian regions. There are some birds that mostly inhabit cities, a few more in coastal areas, and a few you can spot high up in the mountains. There are also birds you find in marshy wetlands, and those you find in dry climate. Some birds are endemic to some regions, and others are migratory.

“Some feature in the story because of their unique quality of calls—duet singers, group singers, mimics of other sounds, or those which have a distinctly loud and harsh voice! After curating all the necessary research, I started hand painting all the 30 birds. The visual style in the book is a combination of painting and digital drawing and colouring. For the final production, the idea was to package it like a big gifty book celebrating the birds and natural heritage of India.”

As a book designer, Dash understands the very fine details important in making picture books that enhance the reading experience for a child—being careful about the word limit on every page, the balance of visuals and colours, to work with better compositions etc. She elucidates how picture books are a powerful medium for a child who is yet to develop a solid reading habit, they are an introduction to the experiences yet to be discovered by them.

Children are wonderful and wanderful and always seeking stories. Their creativity knows no boundaries and it’s the best audience to engage with, they will take your story seriously and will help you refine your stories in so many different ways.

“It’s like a small window to the giant world full of opportunities, feelings and mysteries unknown to them. Children are also inherently creative, and they might make a completely different meaning out of the pictures they see in a book, which is why picture books are also open to a lot of interpretation and don’t usually end with a prescriptive, moral of the story.

It has so many takeaways and the illustrations are a joy for a child—the colours, lines and shapes, the characters, everything comes together to create a small world functioning within the book. This is why picture book artists have a fun, but very responsible task at hand—of telling the world through pictures. I also think picture books are for everyone and not just for children. Adults enjoy picture books a lot too, and they never go out of trend because they are relatable and always full of art.”

For anyone wanting to write for children, Dash advises them to be as authentic as possible, “Children are wonderful and wanderful and always seeking stories. Their creativity knows no boundaries and it’s the best audience to engage with, they will take your story seriously and will help you refine your stories in so many different ways. Seeing things from the eyes of a child is difficult after so much conditioning and adulting! But it is a rewarding and wholesome experience.”

Picture Credits: Vasundhara Dash

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