The World Environment Day is around the corner (June 5, 2019) and what better way to teach little children about our wonderful planet than books? Children appreciate our planet and love to learn about her precious resources. Books and stories on nature can help expand their unerstanding of nature and celebrate the wonders of the world around them. Benita's book The Lonely Tiger illustrates the urgent threat of extinction and loss of habitat among valuable species, and asks the pressing question: are our trees, wild animals, birds and insects safe amidst us?

One Story for Nature!

When you write a book, there are bound to be questions from readers. I look forward to them. However, I’m a little taken aback by one question that keeps popping up about my latest book, One Lonely Tiger. (Penguin Random House India), illustrated by Sekhar Mukherjee. Why, I am asked, did I write about an “environmental” issue?

That set me looking deep into myself for an honest answer. The first reaction from me is bewilderment. Then, I find myself thinking, why not? And next, I go back to how I wrote One Lonely Tiger.

Most of us write what we are. I honestly believe I will not be able to write about astrophysics because it whooshes past me faster than a meteor. With due apologies to Rene Descartes and his succinct, “Cogito, ergo sum,” (I think, therefore I am), I find myself saying, I write what I am.

Born into a home that was open to pets of all kinds, I grew up in a tiny space with a large heart. It is green, filled with all sorts of plants. For as long as I can recall, my mother pointed out the wonders of the natural world to me. When I was five, a Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) chose our ixora shrub to stitch a nest in. My mother showed it to me, from a safe distance. I would sit quietly and watch the work progress. She taught me an invaluable lesson to let them be. I never thought I was entitled to go near the nest to see it better or to peep inside when the nest was lined, or to count the eggs when they were laid. There were anxious moments when the nestlings began to try their wings but finally, Gen Next took wing. The joy, excitement, the wonder, the anxiety went out in a little flurry of unsure feathers. One day, the empty nest fell off the parent plant. We picked it up. My mother showed me the wonder of the little stitches done without a needle. I still remember that. It’s a joy to realise that children remember more than you may think they will!

How much of our preferences are genetic? How much do we pick up from near ones? I am not remotely qualified to answer that, but my mother would tell me, as I pottered around with plants, that my joy in the natural world reminded her of her father, who had a beautiful garden in Myanmar. All her “growing up” stories were about the garden, the dogs, the insects, the plants in the shade under the house and outside.

And so, I guess, although I read lots of books about kings and queens, dragons and fairies, the books I remember with the most fondness are my nature books. Those were frugal times. Many in our generation wore hand-me-downs. Many in our generation read hand-me-downs. I remember my favourite Nature encyclopaedia, given by the older daughter of a family friend, had lost its glossy cover. All that was left for me was the hardbound red cover and the priceless nuggets inside. The photographs were in black and white, rather grainy by today’s high-res standards, but they were priceless because, thankfully, we cannot look too far into the future and pine for what is yet to come! My parents would read out news about Khairi, the tigress in Odisha brought up by a human family. We saw popular children’s films, and we certainly went to see “nature” films like Born Free.

They say, hindsight is sharper than current vision. As a child, I never thought twice about spotting bees build a hive in our home, watching them progress and then taking the disused hive to school to show my teacher and friends. That had become a way of life for me.  

And so, gradually, without my realising it or without it being imposed on me, I was drawn to a certain route in life. I grew up, moved to another city. Suddenly, one day, a sparrow flew in to perch on a curtain rail in the living room. This became a daily routine. I felt blessed because it had chosen my home over all others around. The little droppings were a reassurance that the resident bird had arrived for the night. When guests got a little loud, I worried for my sparrow, a resident in my home, not a guest.

And so, my work for children often finds the natural world creeping in, or even holding centre stage. The proud ball meets with a fatal injury and is devastated. It is turned into a rose plant holder and is visited by insects that make it happy. Our home has not featured in any of my stories, but the silk cotton tree (Bombax ceiba) outside, on the road, on which a pair of kites nested, has gone into the story, Cottonopolis.

That is why, if I write fact and fiction books on the environment and I write about recycled crafts (Trash Crafts and Fabulous Folk Art: Scholastic; Green Gardening: Harper Collins), it is because my parents brought me up with a green bough in my heart. That’s where the writing bird has perched.

~

Author and journalist Benita Sen loves writing for children. Peeping over the decades into her own childhood, she writes all that she loved reading: fact and fiction, prose and verse, biographies, environmental books, and craft books. Some of her happiest hours are spent conducting workshops and story sessions. Between writing and more writing, she tries to help hapless dogs, cats and neighbourhood birds, to name a few (Penguin Random House India).