The Ammuchi Puchi

The Ammuchi Puchi
Sharanya Manivanna and Nerina Canzi
Lantana Publishing
To visit India, no matter which part, is an assault on the senses, especially that first time: the sights, sounds, smells, the sheer seeming chaos that surrounds you is almost, though not quite, overwhelming. But somehow, for me at least, there is something about it that gets right into your spirit and doesn’t want to let go; so, you keep on going back again and again and … then, you realise that you’ve fallen in love with the place. This picture book evokes some of the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of the country.
Now one of the most striking things about India, particularly the southern part is the dazzling, dancing array of butterflies and it’s something my partner and I both appreciate every time we go. I happen to have picked up a few words of Malayalam and thought I recognised Ammuchi as mother but then realised that word is ‘ummachi’ ; I know grandmother, or rather maternal grandmother as ‘ammacci’ in Tamil (having taught some Tamil speaking 5 year olds in my reception classes) and my Hindi, which is much better, tells me that ‘puchi’ means kiss. So, before even opening this gorgeous book, I was making lots of connections and deciding the title means ‘grandmother’s kiss’.
Let’s get to the story then: the setting, I think, is rural south India; and its narrator is Aditya who lives with his younger sister, Anjali, their parents (Amma and Appa) and grandmother, Ammuchi.

The two children adore their paan-chewing grandmother, despite being somewhat scared by her ghost stories – “Don’t you see it sitting there, with eyes big-big like two moons?” until that is, they grow out of being spooked and join in with her tales of ghost sightings, furnishing their own details to add to her descriptions of the mango-tree dwelling manifestation.

Just as Aditya’s tenth birthday approaches, Ammuchi gets ill, has to go into hospital and dies. The two youngsters, like their parents, grieve and the children in particular struggle to come to terms with their loss: that constant ray of sunshine no more illuminates their lives …

But then one evening a beautiful butterfly flies down and settles on Anjali’s head. It’s “Ammuchi Puchi,” she tells her brother. Next day at school, he tells his classmates of the event, saying, “Ammuchi Puchi is an insect who is our grandmother.” Despite their ambivalence, back home that evening, Aditya ponders further and becomes convinced that the butterfly is in fact his grandmother. His parents’ response and seeming lack of understanding, result in the Ammuchi Puchi becoming the children’s secret. It turns out though, that it’s not only the children who have a secret: the Ammuchi Puchi has one too: one that she reveals to the brother and sister one rainy night;

and so begins the healing and the understanding that Ammuchi’s love will always permeate their lives, no matter what.
Grandmothers have a very special place in Indian families in particular, but grief is a universal phenomenon. What Sharanya Manivannan’s moving, thought-provoking narrative offers for all readers is, ‘a place from which to become aware’. Yes, it’s deeply sad in part; but ultimately it’s about much more than heart-breaking loss and grief: this is a joyous celebration of love, of a very special person who relished life; of family; of the beauty of the natural world; and of the power of the imagination. No matter your feelings about, or understanding of, reincarnation, the author’s symbolising of the grandmother as a butterfly both comforts the child characters and allows for open-ended responses from readers everywhere.
Nerina Canzi’s illustrations complement the telling beautifully. The predominance of vibrant hues in the lush flora and fauna, the fabrics of the clothing, the kolam design on the school floor, the carpets and rugs, underscores the Indian setting while at the same time, reinforcing the message that the story is essentially, about abiding love and the way children have a propensity to transcend deeply upsetting events. In contrast, almost all colour is leeched from the spread dealing with Ammuchi’s dying, reflecting the palpable desolation her death brings to the whole family, and rendering it all the more affecting for readers, not least this reviewer.
A must have book for all family bookshelves and primary classroom collections.

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Fantastical Journeys

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Are We There Yet?
Nina Laden and Adam McCauley
Chronicle Books
A small boy and his mother set off to drive to Grandma’s and they’ve barely started the journey when the boy pipes up with the words most parents are all too familiar with, “Are we there yet?” It’s a question that is repeated over and over together with mum’s “No.” response as the trip takes them onto the motorway, across a suspension bridge …

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through farming countryside and a desert landscape, each of which includes increasingly surreal happenings …

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They then leave the road and go first beneath the sea …

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And then deep into outer space …

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before finally emerging at their destination to be greeted by Gran whose garden is filled with topiaries of various things observant readers will have noticed along the way. And what does the boy have to say about the journey? He certainly doesn’t seem to number among the observant ones. His, to my mind, enigmatic final response seems at odds with what I had all along been taking (and celebrating as such) to be a series of glorious flights of fancy. Was it or was it not all in the child’s head?
McCauley’s mixed media illustrations are deliciously playful: look carefully at the opening living room scene and there, mainly scattered around the floor and sofa, are objects whose significance emerges during the drive.
A great book for developing visual literacy and developing talk most certainly; and those just starting to read too will get enormous pleasure in being able to read the minimal text themselves. There is so much to discover in every spread; this is one to revisit time and again when new insights and meanings will emerge.

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My Family is a Zoo
K.A.Gerrard and Emma Dodd
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Courtesy of a boy narrator we learn what happens when he and his dad start out on a journey (destination unknown to the younger of the two at least) together with one or two additional passengers.

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On route they stop to pick up other family members together with their special friends

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Seems the car has an every increasing capacity to take on all those extra passengers …
but where are they all going?

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This is ‘not so much a family – More a family zoo!’
Finally they reach their destination where a wonderful surprise awaits …

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There’s so much to enjoy in this story told through Kelly Gerrard’s gently humorous rhyming text that reads aloud well and Emma Dodd’s cute and cuddlesome character-filled scenes.

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Poppy Pickle

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Poppy Pickle
Emma Yarlett
Templar Publishing
Joyful exuberance leaps out from this one right from the start – despite the downpour. I guess I was predisposed to loving it after reading ‘A little girl with a BIG imagination’ on the cover. This small girl’s imagination knows no bounds when she’s banished to her bedroom for some high-spirited imaginings …

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Before long, her entire room is crammed with all kinds of crazy creatures and Poppy is in her element.

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But good things don’t go on forever as our heroine discovers all too soon. Totally diverting delight turns to utter disaster as her mum and dad begin to twig that’s she’s not actually tidying her room as instructed.

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However, imagining things isn’t a reversible reaction as Poppy discovers when she tries some desperate ‘un-imagining.’ Equally unsuccessful is the imagined giant eraser ploy; is it all up for Poppy then? Fortunately, not quite.: we have been told she has a BIG imagination so, in the nick of time there follows a light-bulb moment …

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But that still leaves a lot of explaining to do …
Oh, and the after tea tidying up, and the dressing down; but even that doesn’t dent our young heroine’s unsquashable imagination – hurray for Poppy say I. ‘TA-DAH!
Wonderful idea – wonderfully delivered in a deliciously droll and direct manner, and wonderfully wackily and wittily portrayed.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

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The Wonder

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The Wonder
Faye Hanson
Templar Publishing
If you want a beautiful book and one that celebrates the imagination, then most definitely The Wonder is for you; indeed I can’t imagine many people who would say no to either of those things.
I have a good friend in Rajasthan, India, an artist, who has this written large on the wall of his studio: “ Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso. Essentially this quote is the key to Faye Hanson’s fantastic book.
The story follows one small duffle-coated boy who finds something to wonder about in everything he sees. He sets out for school through the park, onto the bus, then across the road with the lollipop lady

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and into the school building.
(Children want to know why such a little boy is going to school alone and why he wears his coat in science.) I wonder …
At every stage he encounters adults who, seemingly, want to stifle his imagination, none more that his ‘form teacher’ who barks, “No daydreaming today” in greeting and his science teacher who isn’t interested in his question about the stars (What kind of school is this? one wonders). Joy of joys though, his art teacher has written up on a board in the art room, that very Picasso quote I mentioned and she clearly believes what it says. Here in her room, the boy is encouraged to use his imagination and truly he does as his daydreams take flight across the, initially daunting, large blank page in front of him.
It’s at this point in the story that the predominantly sepia tones of the illustrations give way to glorious, coloured, intricately detailed flights of fancy. There’s a park scene with amazing subterranean animal homes among the tree roots…

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A skyscape with cloud makers creating incredible dreams …
A mouth-watering edible landscape, a glorious playground parade populated by all manner of animals

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and finally (my favourite and also hidden under the dust jacket) wherein the galaxy makers wield star-shaped dough cutters and every star is buffed and polished to make it shine.
Just like the boy in the story, Faye Hanson’s imagination knows no bounds. Not only the fantasy scenes, but every one of her spreads, including the sepia-toned real world ones, are filled with wonderful details: and, it is actually these early spreads, with their brighter coloured daydream insertions, that are harbingers of what is to come.
What a fortunate child to have adults – his parents

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as well as his art teacher -in his life who at a crucial stage, encourage the boy to use his imagination for, on the final endpapers we are shown that same boy, now wearing a much larger duffel coat standing between his parents and an amazing spiralling exhibit in a large gallery – one assumes his sense of wonder has been encouraged to flourish.
Totally immersive, inspiring and a joy to behold, this is not just for dreamers. I would love to see this amazing and powerful book as a required focus for reading and discussion on every course where teachers are in training, for every teacher in schools and for all those who design (and prescribe) curriculums. If only I had the power to prescribe … I wonder what might happen, I wonder …
The trouble is you cannot measure imagination.

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