My cousin Rekha's visits from Canada always, always means one thing - the most delightful, surprising picture books. And not in ones and twos, mind you, but in bags - plastic bags, glossy, shiny, truly phoren ones that are strong and can bear the 5-odd kilos of picture books she stuffs them with. There are always three or four such bags, chosen and filled with great care by her, and while n studies the chocolates and the art stuff or the toys, Amit and I go into a huddle over the books. Juggling two jobs and a family, she still manages to scour her city for the nicest old (some from the '50s, '60s and '70s too) and new picture books. She always manages to strike a balance between the parents' greed and the child's needs - so they are the sweeter books which will appeal to n, and the darker, older, more esoteric ones that she feels Amit will like, or I will.
One of the books she got us this time was this beautifully painted book called The Grey lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang. I took one look at it and clearly classified it as one of the darker books - certainly not for the resident rabbit. N's favourites just now - to an obsessive degree - are The Berenstein Bears who are sweet enough, and intelligent too, but after a while, their American-style clean living just gets to you. Unlike before, she refuses to experiment with genres. Normal, I guess. So I didn't even bother trying to show it to her and put it away, till, one meal-time, in a defiant sort of mood, I took it out and showed it to her.
The book was a surprise to both of us. For one, it didn't have words - any words. Then, one of the two main characters was an old, mysteriously-named 'Grey Lady', who appeared in tones of a dull, light brown. The other was a thin, sinister-looking fellow - all gangly-limbed and a startling shade of blue. He wore a bright yellow-and-red shawl and a purple hat, and slunk around the book, sometimes looking casual, sometimes evil, sometimes clever, sometimes determined, relentless, and finally, just hysterically happy.
I thought n would be scared of the images, of the snatcher's furtiveness; of the sliver of shiny danger that runs through the book. But she was intrigued by the story, rivetted by the old woman's courage and the snatcher's determination. And, most of all, by the artist's clever, bright pictures and the swift-though-wordless pace at which things move.
There is a wonderful urgency to the story. It starts sweetly enough. An old lady goes to a shop to buy strawberries. On her way out, the Snatcher sees her. He follows her, making many a dive and grab for the basket of berries. Magically - with a lot artist ex machina - she manages to stay safe, often missing his gnarly blue-fingered, red-tipped hands by a hair's breadth. She dashes into buses, hides in a swamp, climbs a tree, swings from a vine, and then, just as the toothily grinning Snatcher almost reaches her (also by vine), she disappears into a light-brown-coloured page, leaving the Snatcher puzzled and a bit defeated. Till you turn over and see that he has spotted the most delightfully detailed mulberry bush, and eating a few berries, looks blissful, content. So happy, that his hair stands up on end in a stunning orange-coloured afro. The Grey Lady is home safe, and her family - including the pets and sundry babies - are all delightedly biting into the berries.
What I thought would freak n out was the complexity of the detail and the slightly scary tone of the illustrations - much like in Tuesday. As with Tuesday, she liked it unexpectedly, she didn't get scared of it, and every time we open it, there's a new detail to be seen. Like there is an exotically dressed lady who rolls into frame on a red skateboard, holding a pail of eels. As the old lady dashes into a bus that is in the extreme right edge of the spread, the Snatcher bangs into the eel woman. Something that is only suggested by the eels flying all over the place on the next page. The Grey Lady disembarks from the bus at her stop and you see that the Snatcher is waiting for her there. How did he get there so fast? You realize only on the fifth reading that the Snatcher has snatched the eel lady's red skateboard. Then, after many, many readings you spot something magical and strange: the tiny mushrooms that sprout in the Snatcher's footsteps.
Also, somehow, Bang's narrative on each page is multi-dimensional. So in this pic, for instance, you have the Snatcher peering out and spotting the Grey Lady, and him following her, all casual-like. The visual is separated by that door there, and I thought it would be confusing for n that there are two parts of a narrative phrase here, and not two sets of different characters. (Click on it for a better view - the scan is bad.)
But intuitively, she got it. That's not surprising; kids these days are bright. My point is something else. I googled Molly Bang and found this. Read it because it tells you about the sheer cussedness of people, how they refuse to consider that kids can like things that are slightly off-centre too. When it comes to children and what they should read or watch on tv, everyone is an expert. And everyone usually gets it wrong as well (of course, this is more apparent on tv than in the world of books).
Getting published can be tough, uphill work. Often creativity seems like only a tenth of the process. The bigger, tougher part is sheer dogged determination you need to - like Bang - keep on submitting, re-working, re-thinking and then submitting again.