Kids’ stuff

Bestselling children’s author Yannets Levi’s books feature characters inspired by Indian mythology, says Saimi Sattar

  • Published 1.03.15
Pic : Jagan Negi

It was the purest chance that brought Israeli author Yannets Levi to India for the very first time. “I took an atlas and decided that I’d go wherever it opened. I don’t know whether it was fate or karma but the atlas opened at India,” says Levi who has delved deep into Indian culture and read the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the works of Rabindranath Tagore and even Ghalib.

Today Levi is a bestselling children’s author and has sold more than 500,000 copies in Israel plus more in translation worldwide. His books include characters that seem to borrow from Indian myths. In one book, balding and tubby Uncle Leo transforms into a half man and half woman — Indians will recognise that as an Ardhanarishwar (a composite form of god Shiva and his consort Parvati).

Then, in another tale there’s a story-swallowing demon which is again very similar to another Indian myth. Says Levi: “I find myself constantly influenced by Indian myths.” 

The author, whose Uncle Leo books are now being translated into English and are selling in this country, has come to India more than 30 times. He recalls how he arrived in Delhi and, like many of his
compatriots, made his way to Paharganj, with its hotels and eateries aimed at low-budget tourists. He felt an instant connect with the area. “I remember saying to myself welcome home,” says the author who loves almost everything about this country.

For years Levi tried to figure out why he felt so at home here. Today he reckons it had to do with the poverty that he saw around him. He says: “As a child, my father was very poor. His stories about his childhood were really vivid in my mind. The poverty in India looked like the next chapter in my father’s stories.”

Uncle Leo, the chief protagonist of his most popular books, constantly gets into the most amazing scrapes. One book, takes place in the wilds of Siberia (Uncle Leo’s Adventures in the Siberian Jungle) and another in the Romanian steppes (Uncle Leo’s Adventures in the Romanian Steppes). The blurb for one book says: “Uncle Leo is no ordinary uncle, he’s one-of-a-kind — he’s an adventurer, a traveller, a magician, all rolled into one.” Levi has also written two books for adults and other children’s books. Besides this, he also translated Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography into Hebrew. 

He’s also a high-profile celebrity in Israel and scripts TV shows and also hosts one called What’s the Story? He says: “In the show we talk about books’ characters as if they were real people. The kids also contribute to the show by sharing their experiences.”

Yannets Levi at a storytelling session with students at DPS International Edge school
in Gurgaon

He’s fond of telling how he accidentally strayed into writing children’s books. He’d already published two books for adults when one day he offered to babysit his brother’s five children. “My niece was crying and when everything else failed, I found myself saying a very irresponsible sentence — do you know how Uncle Leo was stuck on a cloud?” says Levi. He knew that he had to tell her something extreme which would evoke her curiosity. This was Uncle Leo’s first adventure. The story unfolded as he told it.

And that’s how Uncle Leo became Levi’s most important character. The children loved his story and demanded more adventures. “I didn’t write the adventure — I just improvised as I went along,” says Levi who believes that he creates the most fascinating adventures with children around him.

The author still tells his daughter stories and then writes them down. “When I tell a story often I don’t know what the next sentence will be,” he adds. Incidentally, Uncle Leo is modelled on his father’s uncle. Says
Levi: “He had four hairs on his head which he dyed yellow and purple. He wore round glasses, had a big belly and wore suspenders. I saw him as a kid and he looked quite weird.”

Levi feels Uncle Leo appeals to children because even though he’s an old person he has a child’s spirit. “He’s
always on the lookout for adventures, searches unknown kingdoms and believes in stories with all his heart. The paradox that an old man is like a kid appeals to children worldwide,” he adds.

His next children’s book (it’s not an Uncle Leo) will be out towards the year-end. The stories in it were first told to the eldest of his three daughters. “It’s based on my father’s childhood and the main character is a poor kid who needs to survive and get along without anything,” says Levi.

Says Levi: “My daughter lives with all kinds of gadgets, hasn’t felt hunger and so this is a fantasy for her. But it gave her another perspective. Everyone lives in a bubble. This story breaks the bubble.”