What do India’s children wish for? How do they understand ideas like freedom and equality? What does democracy mean to them?
It was with such questions that the editors at Pratham Books had begun a quest nearly two years ago, which led to the making of a bilingual picture book, I Wish (Meri Arzoo), published this week on their StoryWeaver platform, an open-source digital destination for children’s books.
“We sent out questions to school children from across the country, asking them what they wish for,” says Bijal Vachharajani, editor at Pratham Books. The result was an outpouring of responses—some 300 of them—from schools in Kashmir to Chhattisgarh, from Adivasi children to those with special needs.
After sorting through this formidable mountain of replies, the editors passed on a longlist to illustrator Priya Kuriyan, entrusting her with the job of art directing the book. “We tried to pick the most diverse and interesting responses, while ensuring that there was a wide representation,” Kuriyan says. She went on to invite illustrators from across the country, most of whom have already worked with Pratham, to illustrate each of the 16 responses that finally made into the book.
I Wish will appear in other bilingual editions, featuring English alongside Tamil, Marathi and Kannada respectively. It throbs with heartwarming images, filled with joy and hope, and provokes even adult readers to make a wish—there's a reason why Nobel-winning economist Esther Duflo gave a copy of a Pratham Book to the Nobel Museum when asked to donate an object that symbolises her work.
I Wish features stunning artwork by a wide range of illustrators, the best in the business. From Rajiv Eipe, who recently won the Big Little Book Award 2020 for his extraordinary work to Canato Jimo from Nagaland to the Gond artist Roshni Vyam—every turn of the page confronts the reader with a distinctive style and sensibility.
If Kanak Shashi’s illustration of a child in the throes of dance pulsates with joy, the centre-spread, with Vyam’s work, evokes a different kind of dynamism, one that is hypnotic and serene. Kuriyan responds to 13-year-old Gauri Rachalwar (“I wish every animal the freedom to roam around”) from Akshara High School in Maharashtra with a heartwarming jungle scene, featuring an array of smiling faces, from that of a toad to a solitary owl peeking out of a nook in a tree.
Sagar Lohawe, who is also 13, from Alphonso Sr Secondary School, Maharashtra (Nalanda Abhiyan Lab), wishes for “the development of the world (or universe) in the hands of small kids”. Gitanjali Iyer gives form to his wish with a burst of limpid figures and liquid colours.
Each of the cues sent by children from around the country touchingly reveals their relationship with the world, the dreams they cherish, and the extent to which those dreams are controlled by family, community, and society.
“A lot of girls wrote back saying they wanted to do things that boys of their age do,” Vachharajani says. As 12-year-old Kajal Kumari puts it, “I wish to be as free as my brother.” Bandna Devi, 14, from Haji Public School in Jammu & Kashmir, adds that her wish is to be able to speak freely.
Alongside such moving responses from children who are already privy to the unfair realities of the adult world, there are more innocent wishes, such as for the freedom to eat chocolate—presumably, unlimited quantities of it—and to be free of scolding from the grown-ups.
“Each of these books is one step towards a child’s reading. And even more importantly it is one more step towards a child’s joy and confidence,” writes Duflo about Pratham Books in her introduction. “And with million children taking a step at a time, we are bound to go a long, long way.”
Here's hoping that parents, educators and caregivers pay heed to her words.
You can read the book on https://storyweaver.org.in.