By Meera Sriram
Our family will not be traveling anywhere this summer. Not overseas and possibly nothing domestic until the pandemic completely blows over. We will be relying on books, now more than ever, to fill our days. We will meet new characters, weave in and out of varied settings, and get lost in a story—we will experience everything that travel brings, within the pages of a book. Luckily, books have the power to reach out and take us in, even when we have to stay where we are.
When my children were younger, we looked for stories set in India to help stay connected to our roots. At the same time, we actively sought out stories set in many different parts of the world. We enjoyed books like Hush! A Thai Lullaby, Abuela’s Weave set in Guatemala, Peach Heaven inspired by the author’s childhood in South Korea, and stories by Atinuke and Allen Say. These books took us to places different from where we lived in the U.S., and into homes and lives both similar and unlike our own. We also devoured books that came as a collage of countries, like The Barefoot Book of Children and the more recent This is How We Do It.
These books allowed us to travel far when our wallets and schedules were tight. More importantly, they helped open our minds. Stories set in faraway places are a celebration of the geographical, cultural, and linguistic diversity of our world. However, picture books set outside the U.S. continue to be rare here, their value often underestimated. This void is amplified when it comes to content for early learners (board books and concept books).
Inspired by the richness of stories set in distant countries, I often dreamed of “taking” children along to places that have stayed with me and will probably stay with me forever. Because sometimes, a place is much more than a visual memory. When we remember the smells and sounds, and every nuanced feeling we experienced, then the place becomes an emotion.
In my #OwnVoices debut picture book The Yellow Suitcase (Penny Candy Books, 2019), the main character, Asha, travels with her family to India to grieve the loss of her grandmother. Uncomfortable sights and scents in the house leave a storm of melancholy in her until Asha finally finds a way to reclaim her fondness for Grandma’s place.
Today, my second picture book, A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, steps out into the world! It is set in Chennai, the metropolis in southern India where I was born and raised. Chennai to me is a mosaic of emotions.
Published by Barefoot Books and illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa, A Gift For Amma is an allusion to the outdoor markets and street life in Chennai. In this book, a little girl steps out to a busy market street to shop for a gift for her mother. The streets are lined with too many wonderfully “colorful” things like saffron and vermilion and terracotta, making it a difficult task to handpick the perfect gift for amma. To make things worse, cattle and rikshaws come in the way. As we navigate several street scenes, we smell herbs and hear drums. We feel the heat and taste a variety of things. Mariona’s illustrations explode with bright hues and spreads teeming with people, flowers, animals, spices, textures, and patterns transplant us in the middle of a vibrant bazaar in India.
A Gift for Amma hopes to evoke emotions in kids by walking them through a kaleidoscope of colors and a sensory experience that capture the chaotic beauty of street markets. It hopes to fill children with wonder if they haven’t been to someplace similar. And with delight, if colors bring them joy. If it brings back memories, it will make them nostalgic. In every case, it hopes to leave them with the familiar feeling of travel and wander.
In my next picture book, Between Two Worlds (Penny Candy Books, 2021), readers will travel to Hungary and France and India as they explore the life of an artist raised across cultures.
It is true that some of life’s best stories are found between the pages of a passport. However, it’s equally true that passports to some of the best places in the world are found between the pages of a book, even for the youngest among us. A Gift For Amma harnesses the power of a book to transport you to someplace far or new. Or maybe, just maybe, to a place you call home.
A Gift for Amma by Meera Sriram is out now. Order the book here!
Meera Sriram grew up in India and moved to the U.S in 1999. An electrical engineer in the past, she now enjoys writing for children, leading early literacy initiatives, and advocating for diverse bookshelves. Meera is the author #ownvoices picture books, The Yellow Suitcase and A Gift For Amma, and the upcoming title Between Two Worlds. She has also co-authored several kids’ books in India. Meera believes in the transformative power of stories and likes to write about people, places, and experiences less visible in children’s literature. For more information, please visit Meera’s website.