New Delhi: J K Rowling, the creator of the phenomenal "Harry Potter" series has made history of sorts in the literary world by not only presenting a wondrous and absolutely believable fairytale with her latest offering, "The Ickabog", but also by firing the imagination of young readers worldwide with 18,000 responses to a competition (for the seven-to-12 age-group) to illustrate the book.
Eight Indian children are among the 34 from five countries who made the final cut for the book, released on Tuesday.
Not only have these tweens made their debut on the international stage but are bound to strive for greater heights and also inspire their peers to emulate them whenever given the chance.
The Indian winners are Aron, Indrashis, Aria (all aged seven), Meghashree, Divyanshi (eight), Radhya (nine), Divymaan (10) and Sai Prasad (11) and are naturally quite ecstatic. Their surnames and cities of residence were not revealed as this is not permissible in respect of minors under British laws, the publisher, Hatchette Children's Group, said.
"The only good news during this lockdown", "Thanks to the almighty", "an adorable moment", "boom", "motivated and encouraged" is how some of them reacted (See Box).
The other winners are from the UK (12), Australia (six), New Zealand and Ireland (four each).
To get back to the book: Remember what mothers across India told their children way back in the 1970s in the wake of the blockbuster "Sholay"? "Jaldi so jao nahin to Gabar uthake le jayga" (Go to sleep or Gabar will come and snatch you away).
A variation of this is the theme for "The Ickabog", which is essentially aimed at tweens but which will also appeal to older children and, for that matter, even adults, as it deftly weaves the present day dog-eat-dog global scenario into lessons in morality - for instance, lies don't become the truth even the 10th time they are related and that there are no shortcuts to success.
There's a rather interesting story behind this book - which proves another adage - that there's a time and place for everything.
The idea for "The Ickabog" - the word derives from "Ichabod", meaning "no glory" or "the glory has departed", and this will become clear once you've read the story - came to Rowling while she was still writing Harry Potter. She wrote most of a first draft in fits and starts between Potter books, intending to publish it after "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" the final novel of the series.
"I read the story aloud to my two youngest children when they were very small, but I never finished it, much to the frustration of (daughter) MacKenzie, whose favourite story it was. After I finished the Harry Potter books, I took a five-year break and when I decided not to publish a children's book next, 'The Ickabog' went up in the attic, still unfinished.
"There it stayed for over a decade, and there it would probably be still if the Covid-19 pandemic hadn't happened and millions of children hadn't been stuck at home, unable to attend school or meet their friends. That's when I had the idea of putting the story online for free and asking children to illustrate it," Rowling writes in the Foreword.
"Down from the attic came the very dusty box of typed and handwritten papers and I set to work. My now teenagers, who'd been 'The Ickabog's' first audience, sat and listened to a nightly chapter once I'd nearly finished. Every now and then they'd ask why I had cut something they used to like, and naturally, I reinstated everything they missed, astounded by how much they remembered," Rowling adds.
Beginning May 26, the first two chapters were posted on a dedicated website, www.theickabog.com, with 34 daily instalments appearing in total, each weekday, up until July 10 - the competition for illustrations being simultaneously announced.
The response might have been staggering but was not surprising, given there's much to tickle the imagination and get the creative juices flowing when you're dealing with a mythical monster, a kingdom in peril and an adventure that will test to the limit the bravery of four children as they overcome of machinations of a crooked cast of characters whose evil ways eventually come unstuck as the power of hope and friendship triumphs against all odds.
"The Ickabog" is set in the kingdom of Cornucopia that was once the happiest in the world. It had plenty of gold, a king with the finest moustaches you could possibly imagine, and butchers, bakers and cheesemongers whose exquisite foods made a person dance with delight when they ate them. Everything was perfect - except for the misty Marshlands to the north which, according to legend, were home to the monstrous Ickabog.
Anyone sensible knew that the Ickabog was just a myth, to scare children into behaving. But the funny thing about myths is that sometimes they take on a life of their own. Could a myth unseat a beloved king? Could a myth bring a once happy country to its knees? Could a myth thrust the four children into an adventure they didn't ask for and never expected?
It's a jolly good read right up to the final denouement and as you immerse yourself in the book, you will in all likelihood be struck with a sense of deja vu of what is happening in the world around you and this is what makes the tale so believable.