The ‘Miss Laya’ series, written by Mala Kumar and illustrated by Abhishek Choudhury, follows Miss Laya, a Games teacher at Big Tree School who likes to help anyone who asks for it after school. Over the course of the 4 books (Miss Laya Starts her Fantastic Motorbike, Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike is Hungry!, Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike Does Not Like Fruits!, and Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike Carries a Big Box), Miss Laya has many small adventures on her trusty motorbike, meeting various characters like Manjappa the farmer and his dog Tukki, Chandra the vegetable and fruits seller, and Biddu, a little kid who hurts his knee.
A common thread that runs through the 4-part series is the starting of Miss Laya’s motorbike. The process entails three sets of words: ‘dhup dhup dhup’, ‘clap clap clap’, and ‘9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, start!’ Different characters say it each time, but the easy repetition encourages readers to follow along with the onomatopoeia rhyme and engage with the story. The adventures are simple and the solutions equally so, and that’s what makes Miss Laya a breezy read for little kids, at a length of just 200 words per story.
The author Mala Kumar, in a recent interview with the Indian Express, explained the inspiration for the series and its fan-favorite illustrations. The idea for the motorbike came from a discussion that was tailored towards converting print books into e-friendly formats. The team had realized that creating e-books first and then adapting for print may be a better approach, and Kumar was tasked with “com[ing] up with four stories with a super character, for very small children.” She dives into detail on how creating a book that young readers could read on phones had many challenges.
“How do we get them to read, and yet not get them glued to the device? I wanted to create a book where the reading would be on the device, but the action would be out of it [sic]. Enter an energetic character called Miss Laya, who gets them to read, but also prompts them to jump and shout and do simple things [sic] that kids love to do.”
Kumar states that the illustrations for the picture book were equally if not more important than the story itself. She describes the team dynamic as very collaborative, with everyone on the same wavelength bouncing ideas and edits off of each other. Having worked with illustrator Abhishek Choudhury and editors Bijal Vachharajani and Aparna Kapur, she describes the creative process of the invention of Miss Laya.
“I envisioned Miss Laya as a fun, energetic, middle-aged woman, who was kind but not preachy. The bike had to be special too—bright, with a flag. […] Abhishek quickly came back with sketches for Miss Laya and a motorcycle with a sidecar that we all loved….even though we did make him do some tinkering and paint job on it to accommodate all our tastes!”
When prompted with whether the Miss Laya series was a feminist statement, Kumar explains how each adventure drew inspiration from real-life heroes (both male and female) that she’s come across.
“As a journalist, one of my first editors was a brilliant career woman who had also been a swimming teacher in a school. In small towns in India, we still see many women commuting on cycles and mopeds. Chandra, the character in Miss Laya’s Fantastic Motorbike Does Not Like Fruits is based on a single mother [I knew] who is a farmer, and rides a moped.”
Mala Kumar was very particular in making Miss Laya a games teacher, and emphasized her belief in the importance of games in a child’s upbringing, especially girls.
Games, both competitive and non-competitive, teach children many life skills in an organic fashion. Unfortunately, in most schools, both the games teacher and the period are undervalued. Having a female games teacher is sure to make many girls play more and thereby, learn more through play.
In describing the logistics of the series, Kumar explained the benefits in making the book available in multiple languages (10 versions are available on the StoryWeaver website).
These books work very well as read-aloud stories. Parents and teachers can read it to their children in any of the available languages. The first step to learning a language and appreciate its worth is to feel the words ring in one’s ears. As more and more children enter English medium schools and stop speaking in their mother tongue languages even at home, multilingual books play the important role of keeping all languages alive for the new generation of readers.
Kumar says that her choice for targeting a younger age group with Miss Laya was in part because she believed that children could start reading from when they start teething as infants.
Babies look at pictures, and can pay attention to something being read out to them. […] However, parents need to do this without putting any pressure on the child to become a reader. Not every child will grow up to be a reader, and that’s absolutely fine. As adults, it is our duty to give children access to different kinds of books so that they can pick up a book of their choice, and not judge them by their choice. Or judge them for not picking up a book.”
The Miss Laya series is meant for younger children beginning to read, with StoryWeavers classifying it as a Reading Level 1 in English, and can be read for free here: Miss Laya and her Fantastic Motorbike.