(This review appeared in The Asian Review of Books on June 20, 2010.)
Out of the way! Out of the way! is a picture book offering a trifecta of intelligent story appealing to both children and adults, rythmic text begging to be read aloud, and eye-catching illustrations drenched in color.
Somewhere in India, a plant taking root in the middle of a village path catches the attention of a young boy, who looks after it even though people keep asking him to move out of the way. With time, the path becomes a road that curves around a tree now big enough to make people move out of its way. Or perhaps not, for the tree becomes a sanctuary for animals and people alike, offering a place of stillness amidst the roil of urban life.
Countries (like India) which look upon industrialization as the key to poverty alleviation often consider environmental concerns a rich people’s luxury. But tree and road make room for each other in this tale, showing that the development imperative may indeed be amicably reconciled with the conservation movement. Yes, Krishnaswami’s clever resolution gave me much pleasure–almost as much as the bullocks “nodding their heads, one-two, one-two,” even as the bullock-cart man cried “Out of the way! Out of the way!” That jaunty line occurs on almost every page, and as was the case with my three-year-old son, I too found it very hard to stop once I got started on the refrain. There really should be an earworm alert on the cover, Umas!
This book’s abstract concepts make it suitable for the suggested reading age of 6+, but the illustrations are saturated with the sort of detail that preschoolers love. Uma Krishnaswamy’s (y, not i) extravagantly imagined scenes compliment the minimalist text perfectly. The young plant is surrounded by vignettes from a village life—bullocks waving rebellious tails, a temple tower, an earthenware pitcher near a string bed. As the plant grows into a sapling, urbanization creeps on to the page in the shape of motorcycles and street lights and TV antennas. Finally, as death-defying autos dart through gobs of exhaust fumes towards high-rise towers, there sits in the middle of the chaos The Tree, grown from tender babyhood to a stately abundance of blood-red fruit.
It’s all quite lovely, and even the youngest readers will find great pleasure in following a kite’s trailing string across the page, or spotting the mango falling from the vendor’s basket into the gleeful cupped hands of a young girl.
In a land populated by sweet bunnies riding school buses towards glittering rainbows, Out of the way! Out of the way! is like a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, it takes a tree.
A note on the name of this post. The title of course references a much-beloved classic, but I chose it for another reason as well. Bangalore, once a quiet place, is now developing at a frantic pace, careless of everything but the call to glory. Uma’s story is sort of my wish for the city that I love.
This post is part of Uma Krishnaswami’s blog tour for the launch of her book. I don’t normally participate in these tours, but I’m acquainted with Uma in the virtual world, where she has never failed to impress me with her wisdom and her generosity with her time and knowledge. And of course, her mad prose skillz. So I’m honored to be part of this tour, and I hope you’ll check out the other tour posts.
Thursday 24 June:
Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrations by Uma Krishnaswamy
Tulika Publishers, India, 2010
Genre: Picture Books