Writing well for children is as difficult as writing for adults and while it would be easy to list dozens into the latter category there are only a few important children’s authors that spring to mind. Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, Tolkien and Alan Garner are my favourite four but to these must now be added P.G. Punchihewa, whose Mahi Pancha stories, illustrated by that peerless artist Sybil Wettasinghe, form an outstanding contribution to contemporary children’s fiction.
There is a series of five books both in Sinhala and English translations. Punchihewa features the life and adventures of a fly that possesses the key attributes of a human being, has wonderful adventures, gets lost and found and even finds a wife! Punchihewa’s language is simple, finely crafted, effective and carefully honed:
“A few days later he saw the jasmine in front of his home in full bloom. The fragrance of the flowers wafted into the home”.
The stories can be read to five year olds and be read by seven year olds and the English books are ideal teaching texts- no school should be without a supply of them. Very few serious adult authors and Punchihewa is one of the very best, have successfully spanned these very difficult genres. Mahi Pancha’s adventures will be read and remembered as long as there are children to read and remember.
The oldest children’s stories recorded in Western literature are Aesop’s Fables, which began the tradition of using animals symbolising humans and it is this tradition that Punchihewa draws on so eloquently in his stories. He sets his tales in the present and thus can utilise aeroplanes and foreign travel. It is very appropriate that these books have received approval as school library books.
With a carefully chosen vocabulary and an exquisitely honed style these stories that are intrinsically fascinating will be a source of delight for decades to come. The diction is simple but elegant and the layout is enriched by startling and evocative illustrations.
The stories follow the child-fly’s adventures and one of these is growing up. The high quality of language makes them ideal English language primers and even the high gloss art paper the publisher has chosen provides a perfect finishing touch.
I cannot sufficiently praise this series. Punchihewa had already - especially with Shattered Earth - established himself as one of Sri Lanka’s most gifted contemporary writers and these books further reinforce that reputation.
(Barry Tebb is an English poet, novelist, editor and translator)