Party troopers

7th November 1997 at 00:00
Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley, recovering from a year of multicultural celebrations, talk to Sian Griffiths

Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley interrupt each other constantly - in the nicest possible way. "There's a picture at the back of the book ..." "Yes, of me, covered in red paint." "I went away, didn't I, when you were taking the pics?" "And when you came back I was covered in dye."

The couple's first book, Children Just Like Me, used children's own words to paint a vivid picture of daily life in 31 countries. It was an unexpected hit for Dorling Kindersley (co-founded by Barnabas's father), sold 750,000 copies and won the 1995 TES Information Book Award. In Celebration!, children again provide the commentary - 26 of them, aged between four and 15. This time, however, the snippets of text are about favourite festivals - food, dances, costumes, gifts - collected by Anabel and Barnabas in a year of travel across 18 countries. The result is a child's-eye view of 25 celebrations.

The two books, says Barnabas, meet the demand from British and American teachers for help in explaining "where their multicultural classes come from". Anabel, a former Montessori teacher, adds: "I remembered how school curricula focus on festivals, making cards for Mother's Day, for example, and how multicultural festivals like Diwali, Hanukkah and Chinese New Year are now widely celebrated. Teachers found it difficult to find references to these different festivals - and particularly references that were not boring. "

Barnabas recalls touring 30 schools in the United States and showing slides of children from various countries. The schoolchildren would shyly put up their hands and say, "Actually, I'm Ethiopian too." "Everyone would go 'Wow' - they hadn't known before. It gave them a reason to be proud of who they were. Afterwards you could see them asking each other things like 'Do you really eat that food?'."

As the interview progresses I realise why the children are laughing on nearly every page. The Kindersleys evidently have an empathy with youngsters. While Anabel interviews them, Barnabas takes the pictures. But the pair interact constantly. There are pictures of Anabel cuddling the children, Barnabas playing football and, of course, getting covered in paint when Pratab and Padmini celebrate Holi in Rajasthan.

"We used to do stupid things to make the children laugh. While Barnabas photographed them I would draw on his face or stick things in his ears, " says Anabel. "I think it helped that we are both quite young," adds Barnabas, 26. "And because we travelled alone, just the two of us, no huge team."

Their itinerary was based on a calendar of all the festivals in the world which involve children. They criss-crossed the globe, sometimes with just hours to spare between events. UNICEF found many of the interviewees and interpreters; occasionally the Kindersleys used personal contacts.

It wasn't always easy. At the Sri Lankan festival of Esala Perahera, first they couldn't find an elephant, then they couldn't find a child, then they couldn't get them in the same place to be photographed. All this in the monsoon season. The elephant's trunk snuffled away at Barnabas's light meter each time he tried to take a reading. Nevertheless this is the event, with its 100 glistening elephants, which reminds Barnabas of the time his family camped out on the Strand to glimpse Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding procession.

Christmas is celebrated in multiple guises. "We thought Christmas would be the same throughout Europe, but there are big differences," says Barnabas. Maria, in Germany, believes that Baby Jesus delivers her presents when she goes to church on Christmas Eve, while Matus in Slovakia waits for St Nicholas to fill his boot with treats on December 5.

The festivals range from the elaborate - Chinese New Year - to the movingly simple, such as Raksha Bandhan in India, a 10-minute ceremony during which Suman ties a home-made bracelet around her brother Manoj's wrist and he vows to protect her. The children, too, are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. Suman and Manoj are the children of migrant construction workers, living on a building site in Delhi. Sayo and Kazu in Japan are obviously wealthy.

Which were the authors' favourite festivals? Anabel loves Mexico's Day of the Dead, when families make their dead relatives' favourite foods (being careful not to put chillies in the dead babies' soup) in the hope that they will return for just one night. They both have delightful childhood memories of Christmas and Barnabas also recalls happy Guy Fawkes's Nights. At a time when globalisation is daily eroding the differences between cultures, this book celebrates those which remain. "We are different," says Barnabas, "But we are also the same."

Celebration! by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley.

Dorling Kindersley in association with Unicef Pounds 9.99 See book offer, page 16

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