Children’s books can work like portkeys to nature. Turn the pages and you can be whooshed into a dense green jungle full of mysterious tigers and merry bears, transported to a bleak desert landscape, or plunged deep into the ocean, swimming with sea turtles and dodging jellyfish. We pick 11 books that will enchant young readers and introduce them to habitats where the wild things are.
In Mitali Perkins’ Tiger Boy, Neel’s parents and teachers want him to study hard for a scholarship that will take him from the Sundarbans to Kolkata. But Neel loves his home – he can splash like a river dolphin in the freshwater pond, climb tall palm trees, and forage for wild guavas. Besides, he has a bigger problem than geometry and algebra to worry about: there’s a tiger cub missing from the reserve. With the help of his sister Rupa, a spunky girl who has been forced to drop out of school, Neel decides to find the cub and save it from being trafficked by the evil Gupta. After all, who knows the island better than him?
Tiger Boy takes children into the swampy forests of the Sundarbans. Perkins paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live in a place threatened by climate change: islands bolstered against rising sea levels by sandbags and furious cyclones tearing away mangroves. Yet, Tiger Boy is a story of hope; it’s about the splendour of the mangrove forests and islands, the magnificence of the tiger and its vulnerability, and human resilience in the face of adversity.
Also see: The Honey Hunter by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet is a sumptuously illustrated book that brings alive the richness of the Sundarbans. Nair’s story takes children through the mangrove forest, while Jolivet’s candy-coloured illustrations bring to life the honeybees, tigers, and trees of the Sundarbans.
“Imagine living in a place where the sun rises each morning over blue mountains and great plains with grass that grows taller than a man.” This is where Akimbo lives, on the edge of a large game reserve in Africa. Readers will be enchanted by young Akimbo and his home. British author Alexander McCall Smith is best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he has a delightful repertoire of children’s books as well, which includes the Akimbo series.
Set in the heart of Africa, Akimbo lives alongside zebras that graze in the plains and lions, leopards, and baboons in the hills and forest. Man-animal conflict, poaching, conservation, and endangered animals are all part of the narrative. In Akimbo And The Elephants, his father who works on the reserve points out an animal and cautions him, “Don’t make a noise. Just look over there.” If only everybody on a safari would listen to Akimbo’s father, we would have so many more quiet and pleasant trips into the forest.
Also see: You’ve watched the movie Duma, now read the book it is based on. How It Was With Dooms is the story of Xan Hopcraft who grew up with a cheetah at his home in Nairobi. There are some lovely photos by his mother Carol Hopcraft in the book as well.
If you thought frogs lived only in ponds, then Kartik Shanker’s book will make you think again. Shanker’s protagonist is Philautus or Thavalai, a tree frog who has never ever come down from his Big Tree home. One day, Thavalai decides to hop off to look for the big blue sea. He has many adventures, including getting directions from a snake who could have easily swallowed him whole.
Maya Ramaswamy’s illustrations recreate the dark, deep shola forest, the surrounding hills and grasslands, and their many denizens. A hornbill sits placidly in one corner of the page, while a balloon frog puffs up in purple glory on another. Venomous snakes slither across the book and a dragonfly flits over the words. The book is packed with nuggets of information, such as that grasslands are hot in the day and cold at night, but the shola is always cool. Readers also learn that Thavalai often gets teased because Philautus frogs bypass the tadpole stage and froglets hop straight out of eggs.
Also see: Children can Walk the Grasslands With Takuri, a pygmy hog who is the protagonist of this book by Nima Manjrekar and Nandita Hazarika. Part of the same series is Aparajita Datta and Nima Manjrekar’s Walk The Rainforest With Niwupah, where a hornbill takes readers on a tour of his rainforest. Both books have been illustrated by Ramaswamy.
Shandana Minhas’ Survival Tips For Lunatics is a rollicking tale that throws together a motley bunch of characters. There’s a squabbling pair of siblings, a Protoliterodragon who cannot stand bad poetry, and an angry black bear “with a dislike of the species that had put him on the endangered list”. The story is set in Hingol National Park in south-west Pakistan which is home to Chandrakup, the largest mud volcano in South Asia.
Changez, 12, and his brother Taimur aka Timmy, 9, go camping with their parents. Next morning, Changez wakes up to realise that the parents left them behind by mistake. Help is at hand in the form of a talking sparrow and other animals. The unlikely group end up across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where they find that the human world holds more dangers than the forest. Survival Tips For Lunatics also explores the multifarious wonderful and fraught relationships that humans and animals share, and while doing so, holds up a mirror to our flawed ideas of civilization. But Minhas’ touch is always light, keeping the reader chuckling and turning the page.
Also see: Jungu The Baiga Princess by Vithal Rajan is set in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh and spotlights conservation and tribal rights. It’s a story about the Baiga tribe and their commitment to protecting their forest.
What happens when a snail has an itchy foot and wants to see the world? He hitches a ride on the tail of a humpback whale for the journey of a lifetime. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, Julia Donaldson’s picture book is a real treat. Young readers will join the snail and the whale to see “towering icebergs and far-off lands” where penguins frolic in the water. Then they go on to “fiery mountains and golden sands” to say hello to monkeys and turtles. While Donaldson doesn’t dwell on any particular habitat, the book makes for a fun guessing game about possible locations. For instance, where in the world are caves beneath waves where sharks with hideous toothy grins lurk? Or which place is sunny and blue and has thunderstorms?
Also see: In The One And Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate talks about the tyranny of captivity and the yearning for the wild. The story is narrated by Ivan, a silverback gorilla who lives in a glass cage in a performing mall. Ivan introduces himself in the most heartbreaking manner by saying, “I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.” Ivan chooses to not remember his real home, where his father had a bouncy belly that was the perfect trampoline for his sister Tag and him. It’s the only way he can cope with living in a cage. Based on a real life story, Ivan is both beautiful and moving – a poignant reminder of the absence of home.
Bijal Vachharajani , when not reading Harry Potter, can be found pottering about in the jungles of India. She is the author of two children's books, "So You Want to Know About the Environment" and "What's Neema Eating Today?"