Review Blog

Feb 05 2013

School for princes by Jamila Gavin

cover image

Sub-title: Stories from the Panchatantra. Francis Lincoln Children's Books, 2012. ISBN 9781845079901.
(Age: 10+) Recommended. Imagine a collection of fables with a back story. A king finds a wise teacher to guide his arrogant, irresponsible sons to maturity. The old man recounts fables in order to teach the young princes how to be responsible rulers who understand that everyone is deserving of respect.
Jamila Gavin has chosen five stories from The Panchatantra, a collection of fables from the Peacock City of Tamil Nardu in southern India. Like the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, these stories have morals and focus on the interactions between animals. However, unlike their pithy European counterparts, they are more like short stories, rich in detail and emotion. The characters engage in life and death struggles as they discover which values enhance life and which lead to loss and destruction.
The teacher is Visnu Sarma, believed to be the originator of the fables, but his patient tutelage of the young princes is fiction. Jamila Gavin has written five stories of her own to explain how the young men gain wisdom. Her creation of Preeta, a village girl, assists the teacher in his task, as she provides the princes with insights into the lives of their future subjects. The literary device is so successful that many readers will overlook the interweaving of stories created more than 2000 years apart. Although the writing style is redolent of traditional tales the world over, the powerful dialogues and vivid descriptions are the work of a gifted story teller.
Bee Willey's illustrations for the narrative are lively, stylised depictions of the people and their region, but the fables themselves are accompanied with simple line drawings. Changes in the background colours of the pages further emphasise the interweaving of the old stories with the new.
Although School for princes provides a fascinating introduction to the traditions of Tamil Nardu, the princes' learning journey is one that will be recognised and enjoyed by readers from all cultures and all walks of life.
Elizabeth Bor

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