Small children are one of the greatest sources of inspiration for writers of children’s literature. When my own children were little, they were my first critics, and they were extremely frank ones at that. When I would read out something that I had written to them, I would know at once if it had made the cut or not. Their short attention span meant that they would start to fidget if the first few lines of a story or poem had not caught their attention, and within a few moments, they would run away, but not before telling me the bald truth that my work was ‘so boring.’ I always paid heed to these first, in house critics because I know that little children are usually forthright and candid when expressing their opinions. When they clapped or giggled in delight when I was reading a new story to them, I would be pleased that I had written something that struck a chord with my listeners. When my son was about six or seven, and saw a turtle up close for the first time, he crept near it and lay down on the ground beside it. The turtle immediately withdrew into his shell, but my son, with one eye closed, kept trying to peer into the turtle’s shell.
“What are you doing?” I asked him in surprise.
“I want to see what the turtle’s house looks like inside,” he explained earnestly. Then he asked me, “What kind of furniture do you think the turtle has in his house?” I was astonished, and enchanted too, with this unusual question that I would never have thought of. Later, it became the topic for a poem that appeared in ‘Just Imagine - Stories and Poems,’ published by Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., in 2002.
MR. TURTLE’S HOME
Though Mr. Turtle often opens his front door and peers out,
He never sets a foot outside his little home.
In fact, wherever he goes, he carries it about –
A little brown shell, shaped like a dome.
Since he’s always at home, I’m sure Mr. Turtle’s home must be,
A really cosy and comfortable place.
How I wish I could just peep in and see,
How he has filled up his own little space!
I wonder if he has an armchair, snug and deep,
And perhaps a small table and chair on which to dine.
Maybe he reads in the armchair before he falls asleep,
In a soft bed, lined with sheets so fine.
I wonder if Mr. Turtle has hung paintings on his walls,
And if he’s got curtains to shut away the glare of the Sun.
But I guess this is something I will never know at all -
For Mr. Turtle’s house has got room for just one!
© Santhini Govindan
My children have since grown up, joined the rat race, and quite forgotten what it’s like to live in the magical land of make believe. But small grandchildren have arrived, and they have begun to provide me with new ideas. My older granddaughter, five going on six, is currently captivated by dinosaurs, dragons, and monsters. Her conversation is dotted with references to them, and one of her interesting questions to her mother inspired me to write this poem…
DO MONSTERS HAVE MOMMIES?
I know that monsters are scary creatures,
Who can terrify and frighten people so,
But there’s something about little monsters
That I really want to know.
I wonder if monsters have mommies,
Just like my friends and I do?
And what are monsters’ mommies like?
How I wish I knew!
I wonder if monsters’ mommies wake little monsters up,
In the morning, when they want to sleep on,
Do monsters’ mommies holler, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
When their small monsters stretch lazily, and yawn?
Do monsters’ mommies help out with homework?
When there are pages and pages to complete?
And when the homework is finally finished,
Do monsters’ mommies give their little monsters a treat?
Do monsters’ mommies read bedtime stories to little monsters,
Before the lights are put off?
And I wonder, do monsters’ mommies give them nasty medicine,
When they have fever, or a cough?
I know that monsters, being monsters,
Are supposed to be brave, and without fear,
But do little monsters sometimes feel afraid,
And want their mommies to be near?
Do monsters’ mommies scold their little ones,
When they say things that are quite untrue?
And do monsters’ mommies make cakes and sweets
For little monsters’ birthdays, just like our mommies do?
Do monsters’ mommies sometimes give little monsters,
A kiss and a cuddle too,
When monsters’ mommies want to tell little monsters
Those magic words - ‘I love you.’
© Santhini Govindan
Please do not reprint/publish this poem without getting prior permission from the author.
Since I write children’s literature, I am often invited to judge competitions in which children have to submit their original stories or poems.
This is usually an interesting exercise, because children are amazingly bright, and think very creatively. After years of teaching creative writing to children, and reading stories and poems written by them, I have developed an unerring eye for differentiating a child’s original work from one written by, or dictated by a parent who desperately wants his or her child to win a prize at any cost. When I read a poem or a story written by a child, I always try to hear the writer’s voice, rather than concentrating on squiggly handwriting that’s hard to read, spelling mistakes, and errors in grammar and punctuation. This is not to say that I ignore carelessly written pages, but when one is six or seven years old, one’s thoughts unusually tend to race, and a pen or pencil gripped in a small hand has a hard time keeping up with the flow of words tumbling out from an imaginative mind. So, inevitably, a few vowels get dropped here and there, not to mention full stops. Commas are usually non-existent in a young child’s work! This style of ‘judging’ has inevitably led me into some rather uncomfortable situations.
On one occasion, an extremely resourceful parent managed, to not only find out that I had judged a competition, but came to confront me with her child’s entry, which she exclaimed loudly and aggressively ‘was far superior’ to the winning entry that she had unearthed, and carefully evaluated herself! I tried to soothe her ruffled ego by trying to tell her that her child’s entry had its merits too, but I soon discovered that this was definitely the wrong thing to say.
“Then why did you not give her a prize?” she asked me belligerently. The lesson I learnt from this encounter with a fierce, tiger mom was never to try and explain decisions made while judging a contest. Most contests always add in fine print that ‘the decisions of the judges are final.’ Parents of children competing in competitions would do well to remember, and respect this. They should not find fault with, and criticize the judges if their child does not win a prize in a competition. Instead of wailing and showing their disappointment to the child, and criticizing the efforts of other contestants, a parent should commend his or her child’s efforts in competing, and encourage him or her to try again.
In my creative writing classes, I always try to teach children the importance and the value of doing one’s own work, rather than getting someone else to do it, or copying someone else’s work so that they can ‘win’. I tell my students that I want to see them write about their own thoughts and ideas. This always elicits imaginative responses. I have not been so successful in getting small children to edit their own work.
On numerous occasions, after a story has been handed into me, I have suggested gently to a small writer, “Why don’t you read your story again and see if you can change anything, and make it better?”
“But I’ve finished it.” This answer, which I’ve heard countless times, is uttered in a tone of finality that I know I cannot challenge. A few of the more confident writers have even told me disarmingly, “but how can I make my story better? It’s already perfect!”
Judging writing contests means I get to read children’s original ideas. Some of these are so hilarious that they linger in my mind. Years ago, I judged an essay competition in which children had to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The essays listed many occupations that had caught the children’s fancy – doctor, astronaut, fireman, movie star, and engine driver. But one young boy, obviously world-weary despite his tender age, and tired of the burden of never ending school work, homework, and extracurricular activities wrote truthfully, ‘When I grow up, I want to be RETIRED!’
My father was a chronic worrier. He worried about things that he read about in the newspaper and watched on television. He worried about the welfare and safety of his family members, his own health, inclement weather, the incompetence of the government and his bankers, and about paying his advance income tax on time. In fact, he worried so much that a cousin once joked that if my father had nothing to worry about, it would cause him acute anxiety and worry. My father not surprisingly, worried most of all about my mother, my sister, and I. When we went out of our home, and did not come back at the time we had specified, he would work himself into a frenzy of worry, imagining that we had been caught in frightful scenarios, when in reality, we had probably been so engrossed in our own activities that we’d forgotten to keep track of the time. This was of course, before the arrival of the ubiquitous mobile phone in India.
Once the mobile phone appeared, and my father got the hang of how it worked, he was well and truly hooked to its charms. To my father, a mobile phone was not an instrument to chat with others – it was merely an efficient way to assuage his worry by keeping close track of his family members. In fact, my mother stoutly refused to own a mobile phone for years, because she knew that whenever she went out of the house, her main caller would be my father, enquiring solicitously about her whereabouts, and then asking her testily when she was coming home. My mother eventually became a mobile phone owner when she was gifted a phone, but the gift hardly filled her with joy. But she, being quite resourceful herself, soon found a way to prevent my father from using the dratted instrument to keep tabs on her. When we went out, she would bury her mobile phone so deep in her handbag, among piles of sundry odds and ends, that even its most insistence rings would be muffled.
My father was not clued in to the uses of sms text messages when the service was initially launched in India. However, he soon realized that text messages were a valuable tool to help him keep track of errant family members who were unable to phone him, (or refused to do so) when they insisted on wandering far from the family nest. When we flatly refuse to call to give details of our whereabouts when we were travelling, we were graciously told that we could ‘send an sms,’ instead. As the years passed, and my father became older and frailer, he ventured out of his home less and less. His window to the world was his television set, and as he watched the sensational, high voltage stories of terror and violence that it beamed, night after night, his worries grew. He became extremely anxious every time any of his family members went out, and we were always told to send him an sms to announce that we had reached our destination safely. We sometimes baulked at this, not because sending an sms was difficult, but because, as we explained to him, ‘we were not children anymore – we were in our fifties and were grandmothers ourselves, and could reasonably be trusted to look after ourselves.’ He was most displeased to hear this, and we finally came to a compromise (partly to bring relief to our mother who bore the brunt of his worried outpourings about our safety.) Whenever we went anywhere, when we reached our destination, we would not call, or send lengthy text messages, but would send a one word sms to reassure him. The message would simply read ‘reached.’ This became standard operating procedure, and when I was travelling, I would automatically send the sms saying ‘reached’ to him before doing anything else.
On February 24th, 2015, I spent the day with my father, who was living in my sister’s home. As I left in the evening, he gave me a cheerful wave and reminded me, as usual, to ‘send an sms’ when I got home. I did this automatically before getting on with my other, routine chores. Two days later, on the morning of Thursday the 26th, my mother called me to say that my father had collapsed while he was having breakfast. I hurried to the hospital where he had been taken, but his eyes were closed, and the doctor told us gently to inform our close relatives that he was sinking. By twelve thirty, his heart stopped beating, and he was gone.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, our family set out to immerse the little urn that contained my father’s ashes in the ancient Banganga Tank in Walkeshwar. As our car sped long Marine Drive, there was a light drizzle, and it was gloomy. I wondered sadly where my father was, and worried, just like he used to do, if he was safe and well. He was a person who planned all his journeys carefully, paying meticulous attention to the last detail. In the days before liberalization of the aviation sector opened up Indian skies, and we travelled by train, our family would always be the first to appear at the railway station. Led by my father, we would be ready and waiting long before the train chugged into the station. When journeys by air became the norm, we would always be among the first customers when airport check-in counters opened. Now I wondered anxiously how my father had managed his final trip to eternity. I worried, just like he used to worry about us, whether he had had a smooth journey. Then suddenly, my young niece let out an shout.
“Look!” she cried excitedly, pointing upwards. We all turned to look, and there, arched across the sky, in magnificent luminescent colours, was a beautiful rainbow. As my niece quickly photographed the splendid sight, I smiled through my tears. From his new location, my father had found a way to send us the trademark message that he had always been so particular about - ‘Reached.’