Tara Books, 2011.
New Horizons Mention, BolognaRagazzi Awards 2012
A wonderful array of sea creatures adorns the pages of this visually stunning book from Tara Books. Intricate patterns in jewel-like colors provide the endlessly changing water backdrop, over which reptiles, birds, fish and crustaceans are placed alongside smaller waterlife motifs. Waterlife brings together the crafts of bookmaking and printing so that reading the book becomes a multi-sensory experience: not only is it a feast for the eyes, but it is a pleasure to feel the texture of the hand-printed pages and even to smell them! This is a book to be cherished and would make a very special gift to a child, as it offers a reading experience that will grow with them through into adulthood.
The book opens vertically with a picture filling the bottom page, such as a sharp-toothed crocodile; a lobster; male sea horses “their pouches heavy with eggs”; four white swans framed by lotus flowers. In the bottom left corner of the creamy-white page above, the book’s artist Rambharos Jha gives a short description of each picture, relating it both to his culture and his own artistic development and curiosity. His art is heavily influenced by the Mithila folk painting of his childhood, from Bihar in Eastern India: however, as an artist he has developed the motifs of the Mithila tradition to generate his own voice. So, for example, a page full of different sized fish comes with the title “Changing Tradition” and Jha explains that he knows all these fish through Mithila art but he doesn’t know their names, and moreover: “Their otherness lies not in their shape, but in the lines that pattern their bodies – these are not traditional Mithila lines”. The sense of freedom of artistic expression that this engenders in a sense also opens the door for readers of Waterlife to find their own artistic voice.
Young children will be attracted to details such as the facial expressions of the fish or the hugely long water snake; and they will enjoy counting and finding things. As well as the art, older readers will absorb Jha’s descriptions, with their inviting headings like “The Trick”, “The Octopus at Home” and “The Food Chain”. There is also excellent back matter encompassing an afterword by Jha, “How I Came to Waterlife”, and a note on Jha’s background by Tara Books’ Gita Wolf, as well as a page showing different motifs from Mithila art that appear and are embellished in the book.
Waterlife is an exquisite book on every level. Adults buying the book for children (and what a beautiful gift it would make) will probably need to acquire another copy for themselves.