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Meet Baby Baba and his maker

  • Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka excels as a storyteller in his first picture book
  • The story focuses on Baby Baba, a toddler with a habit of putting everything into his mouth

‘Chinaman’ author Shehan Karunatilaka’s latest work is a children’s book.
‘Chinaman’ author Shehan Karunatilaka’s latest work is a children’s book.

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It’s cricket season and Shehan Karunatilaka, author of Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew (a must-read novel for all cricket fans), is back with a new book. But Please Don’t Put That In Your Mouth has nothing to do with cricket. A picture book for children, it has at its centre a toddler called Baby Baba who cannot resist putting things into his mouth. The illustrations by Lalith Karunatilaka, Shehan’s younger brother, are adorable, as is the text, which runs in rhyme. Lounge asked Shehan Karunatilaka on email about the origins of this book and his ambitions as a newfound picture-book writer. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea take shape?

I have experienced many traumatic moments involving toddlers eating dangerous things. My daughter once mistook a wet paint brush for an ice cream and started licking it. My son is known to pick up dead insects and munch on them. I intended to write a cautionary tale, but silliness overtook it.

Are you a fan of picture books?

I read two every night to the kids and was impressed by how brilliant the best of them are. Then found out that A Very Hungry Caterpillar (by Eric Carle) outsells Dan Brown and Salman Rushdie every year. Having already spent six years on my second novel, I thought I would do something fun, simple and possibly more lucrative.

What were the challenges of writing in this format?

Making it re-readable. Kids aren’t too fussy, but parents who have to read aloud can be. So tried to make it fun for both of them. Rhyme helps, as do quirky pictures. So we used both.

Could you tell us how you and Lalith collaborated?

He’s always my go-to illustrator for personal projects. He used to design album covers when I played in bands and has illustrated my yet-to-be-published short-story collection. His pictures usually outshine the words, which forces me to lift my game.

Baby Baba’s ambition of putting things into his mouth grows bigger, to the point when he wants to eat automobiles and monuments.

Kids instinctively get magic realism and surrealism. They may question the logic of the story, but are quite comfortable with Gruffalos and Cats in Hats and the bending of what’s possible. I followed where the rhyme went and Lalith liked the ridiculousness of it, so we kept it in.

Are we going to see more books for young readers from you?

The plan is to do one every year. We just brainstormed some ideas for next year’s one. Increases our chances of stumbling upon the next Hungry Caterpillar.

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