"Why?” That simple question from a child, repeated over and over as they try to make sense of the world, can drive one to frustration. As much as we try to shield children from the more horrific aspects of the outside world, the impact of events from history plays out daily in the form of current affairs, whether it’s extra checks on Air India flights, the Ukraine war, or extreme climate events. Going beyond textbooks to read history could help children in their quest to understand just why things are so bad.
“There is no denying that we need diverse tellings of history, especially in the present,” says Radhika Menon, publishing director of the 27-year-old independent children’s publishing house, Tulika Books. “We need more than the single story that textbooks tell, and we need to discuss big issues in a responsible, factual way.”
Away from classrooms, authors are pulling at threads to unravel stories about lesser-known queens, the struggles of kings, the villainy of viceroys, and the daily lives of people of the past. Having different kinds of history books opens up children’s minds to the idea that there are many ways of looking at a story—through the lens of people, events, lives, achievements, archaeology, ecology, and more. “It is a sensibility that helps them grow as critical readers,” points out Menon.
Reading history can also, as Yuval Noah Harari wrote for The Guardian last year, help free children from some of the fears, illusions and hatreds that they imbibe, almost unconsciously, from adults around them. “History is the study of how things change,” wrote Harari. “People made the world what it is—and people can therefore change it.” In that spirit, here are five books on history by Indian authors that look at the past in a new light.
Illustrated by 16 of India’s best artists, including Priya Kuriyan and Satwik Gade, and released in September by Tulika Books, this is the children’s version of veteran journalist P. Sainath’s moving 2022 book about the forgotten foot soldiers of India’s freedom struggle. M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar are the figures most closely associated with independence and the stories of hundreds of young men and women, who, motivated by the mere notion of freedom, did everything from carry messages for freedom fighters to cook food for underground resistance fighters, have been forgotten. These graphic narratives tell 16 such stories with sensitivity and depth.
This beautifully illustrated 2022 graphic novel from Penguin takes a reader all the way back to 3200 BCE and the birth of civilisation in South Asia. It’s a great introduction to one of the earliest civilisations about which so much is as yet unknown, combining fine artwork and deep research with a strong fictional narrative. A sutradar gives you a tour of what was once among the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world, while vignettes from everyday life of the past raise issues such as migration and social hierarchies, which continue into the present day.
Archaeology may seem rather dry for a child—until you read archaeologist Devika Cariapa’s chatty book that takes a reader through two million years of history. She pieces together literary allusions, archaeological findings and established fact like a giant jigsaw puzzle to explain not just history but also how historians and archaeologists work with scraps of information, shards of relics and a lot of imagination to string together human evolution. There are photos, maps, cartoons and illustrations to speed the story along. Another book for readers of all ages, it hasn’t aged a jot, though it has been over six years since Tulika Books published it.
Part of Puffin Books’ Girls Of India series, the title of Anu Kumar’s book leaves little to the imagination: Three pre-teens living during the reign of Rajaraja Chola in southern India find themselves embroiled in an adventure that involves a rescued Chinese sailor, a murder, a missing statue and the peace of the Chola kingdom itself. The hero of the story is Raji, a 12-year-old sculptor and dancer, who solves the mystery with the help of her two friends, who include a young Rajendra Chola. Other equally thrilling titles in this series, which also touch upon social issues of the day, are A Chera Adventure by Preetha Chockalingam, A Mauryan Adventure by Subhadra Sen Gupta, and A Harappan Adventure by Sunila Gupte.
If kings and queens are the ones who make it to history books, Subhadra Sen Gupta tries to fix this by recounting history through daily life in India through the ages. While there’s no telling of history without its seminal figures—from Ashoka to Hastings—Sen Gupta puts the stories of kings, queens and viceroys into perspective with tales of weavers, soldiers and children. Trivia, art, culture and history come together in this engaging book, published by Penguin in 2012. The sequel, Let’s Go Time Travelling Again, was released in 2021, and follows a similar format of turning textbook history on its head.