V for virus
Writer Zai Whitaker's book on the pandemic invites eight-plussers on an adventure to save the world.
The planet isn't called Earth anymore. It's now Dearth — a place with depleting essentials. It's also where Zyrus the Virus (Tulika Books) is rooted in. Featuring Zyrus, who we dare say is an 'adorable' anxious little virus with spikes, as its protagonist, it hopes to take readers aged above eight on an adventure of learning and discovery not about the pandemic and its ravages, but what they must learn from it.
Coupled with engaging illustrations by Niloufer Wadia, the book has been authored by Zai Whitaker, who grew up in Mumbai and currently lives and works at the Madras Crocodile Bank near Chennai, which she helped set up over 40 years ago. Over a phone call, Whitaker tells us that she has never been this happy with a book. The author of the award-winning Salim Mammoo and Me, also acknowledges that she has perhaps never written anything so quickly, in the span of seven weeks. "With every book, many strands come together. As someone working in a zoo and on several environmental projects across the country, the environmental scenario is pretty much at the back of my head. The Coronavirus is reminding us of every message that scientists had long warned us about," she says.
Another reason that compelled her to write the 50-pager, was adventure. While thinking of short adventure stories for children, rather obvious narratives of kids falling on the hillside during a hike or kids going snorkelling and meeting a shark, cropped up. "Then I said to myself, 'Oh silly thing, it's all around you!' I realised that the pandemic was the biggest adventure that's ever happened to the Earth. I wanted to get the book out during the lockdown because only then would it have an impact," she shares.
What's interesting about Whitaker's writing is the fact that it is didactic without being too in-your-face. It takes a while to note that nail polish being the preferred drink for all viruses because it is available in plenty is actually a comment on consumerism and as a result, landfills. "It's not the sort of book where children are like, 'Oh! I am being educated.' And it is this approach that requires a lot of fine-tuning while writing," she shares.
Zai Whitaker. Pic/Gnaneswar Ch
Zyrus the Virus did entail a lot of research, and Whitaker attended many Zoom webinars including one by the National Centre for Biological Sciences. She also reckons that she will possibly take to writing about the pandemic again. "For long, we've been talking about the 11th hour. But this is the 11th hour. I want this to be a good story that stays in the minds of children and parents. In every possible way, we need to look at what we do and think as people."
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