The Honey Hunter

Written by Karthika Nair and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet
Published by Little Gestalten

How will the mighty Demon Tiger punish the little honey thief?

Who is this book for?

Sharing at storytime or reading independently   5-8 years

Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities   5-10 years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities

About this book

Shonu lives on an island in the Bengal delta surrounded by mangrove forests in an area known as the Sundarbans, where bees build their combs like golden palaces in the highest branches of the trees. Shonu’s father is a honey collector and Shonu has been brought up to know and respect the natural laws of nature. The forest is guarded by the fiercely-protective Demon King: a Bengal Tiger, who demands obedience and must not be crossed.

Meet Shonu who lives the the Sundarbans, an area of mangrove swamps and deep dark forests protected by the Demon King in tiger form

When indiscriminate logging disturbs the environmental balance of the area, cyclones, floods and droughts ensue. Along with thousands of others, Shonu’s family cannot farm or fish, and everyone goes hungry. Shonu knows he must not gather honey from the wild bees out-of-season, but one day hunger overwhelms him. Paddling his canoe to the edge of the mangroves, he continues on foot, scaling trees to find the dripping, oozing honeycombs and gorging himself on their contents.

He has forgotten the Demon King – but the tiger hasn’t forgotten him. A gigantic roaring fills the forest and everything cowers before the giant tiger. It’s all over for Shonu!

Or is it? The forest also has a Guardian Deity, known as Bonbibi.  “Gobbling… children will not solve anything,” she tells the Demon King. Luckily for Shonu, Bonbibi has another idea: one that involves a different kind of justice. If the boy is willing to spend all summer as a tree, feeding nectar to the bees and helping them restore their hives, that could be enough to save him. But will the Demon King agree?

The Honey Hunter started life as DESH, a 2011 dance-drama by Akram Khan (see links below) and every page of this dramatic picturebook is like a mini theatre-set. Indian poet Karthika Nair brings the text vividly to life with a storyteller’s sense of pace and place, and French illustrator Joelle Jolivet adds depth and impact with brightly-coloured artwork inspired by the traditional Indian artform known as pattachitra

Part environmental fable and part adventure story, this hugely appealing and deeply memorable picturebook is full of treasures to be unpacked, enjoyed and used to inspire creative activities of all kinds.

Note that there are ideas and images in this book that may upset some children including scenes of flooding. They are neccesary to the story and contribute to its impact and relevance, but please make your own judgement about appropriate use and give children plenty of opportunities to express their reactions and discuss the issues raised. 

Shonu knows he mustn't steal honey at the wrong time of year, but he's too hungry to resist     copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Sharing and talking about this book

Before introducing The Honey Hunter, pool what you know about Bangladesh and India, marking cities and regions on a map and adding post-its with other information (from natural history to Bollywood!)
Challenge children to find out more by asking family members and friends as well as searching online. 

When you're ready to share the book, use a visualizer if possible to project the illustrations on a screen. If not, pass the book round as you talk about it, as children will want to take a close look at the artwork.

If reading with older children, you might like to be aware that the text on the first couple of pages may give the impression that this book is intended for a very young audience. Keep going as there is much here to interest and reward older readers, too!

What did you like? Did this book remind you of anything else you’ve seen or read?
Did it surprise you in any way? How did it make you feel?
Who would you recommend it to and why? 

What next? Activities...

The Forest of Beauty as seen by Shonu from his boat        copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Look at the picture of Shonu sailing into the Sundarbans. How has Jolivet depicted the forest? 

“When he awoke the sky was green, not blue… a sky of leaves and branches witha moving, shifting land below”

“I’ve used… the direct colour technique,” Jolivet says, “like… screen printing or lithography. The different colours are drawn separately with India ink on tracing paper and then assembled on the computer… I found traditional forms of painting like pattachitra, which inspired me.”

Research pattachitra paintings and compare traditional Indian depictions of trees with those painted by artists from other traditions. For example, the French painter Le Douanier Rousseau who produced naïve scenes of the jungle without leaving France ("When I go into… glass houses and see strange plants of exotic lands, it seems… that I enter a dream” he said). Klimt’s series of Beech Grove paintings and Monet’s Bodmer Oak also feature trees, as do many anonymous Chinese paintings of cloud-capped forests. Which artwork do you prefer and why? What techniques were used to create them? 

Visit a park or woodland to draw trees from life using pencil crayons, graphite sticks and charcoal. Use your realistic sketches to help you design stylized pictures of trees. Try simple printing techniques featuring your stylized designs, then add washes of colour.

Use what you’ve learned to paint or print a forest scene inspired by Jolivet and pattachitra (or one of the other artists you’ve discovered). Can you write or tell a story set in the forest you’ve depicted?

What can we learn from this book about the wildlife and ecology of the Sundarbans? Look for information about local customs and beliefs that help protect the landscape.

“It’s their fault we are… starving!” says Dakkhin Rai. But is it fair of him to blame people for droughts and floods? Why do these problems happen? Who is working to protect the environment and what can we do to conserve areas like the Sundarbans?

“Bonbibi realized that Dakkhin Rai loved the forest more than anyone. If he was cruel, it was only because people were invading his forest to cut it down”

Research a charity or campaign to protect wildlife and the environment. Design posters to publicise these issues. Sow wild flowers or plant windowboxes to help bees in your neighbourhood.

Environmental damage to the Sundarbans     copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

"At night... (the bees) would... tell Shonu stories. Wondrous stories of things they had seen... songs he learned to echo with his leaves and boughs"

Write stories for the bees to tell Shonu. Stitch tiny handmade books, one for each story (see online for tutorials) to create a mini-library for the bees.
Make a story-hive to house your library by gluing shelves across a shoebox, then fitting a hive-shaped cardboard frame around your box.
Paint with an Indian-inspired colour-scheme, fill with your storybooks and leave near an open window for the bees to find!

People used to believe that they should visit their hives to tell the bees about important family events such as births, marriages and deaths. Can you find paintings or other artwork depicting this tradition?

The Bee Goddess who rules the wild bees in the Forest of Beauty  copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Shonu stepped into the kingdom of honeycombs: black and gold clouds shaped like mountains, castles, crowns… hanging from branches, rising from hillocks, growing into hollows”

Look at the spread in this book showing the honeycombs. Why are they depicted as palaces, do you think? Can you find other pictures of bees? What did you know about bees and honey before you read this book, and what have you discovered by sharing it?

Examine a honeycomb (they are sometimes included in a jar of honey) to look at the materials used, its construction and the patterns formed. If possible explore hives with a beekeeper to discover how honey is made.

Find out about wild bees online or via information books (there's a clip here featuring David Attenborough which is interesting despite the picture quality) and talk about what you've discovered.

The wild honeycombs remind Shonu of palaces     copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Imagine you’re a wild bee living in one of the honeycombs in this book. Tell the story of how you made the honey and what happened when Shonu raided your home. What will you do now?

Karthika Nair describes honey as “liquid light” to be drunk in “great gulps of joy.” Hold a honey-tasting session (check for allergies!) and use poetic language to describe what you can see, smell, taste and touch. Cook honey cakes and biscuits and sell to raise funds for a bee-protection charity.

“Striding towards him was Dakkhin Rai… in his favourite disguise: a Royal Bengal Tiger… larger than fear and twice as angry”

When Shonu sees the tiger, he flees in “a jumble of arms and legs and panic.” Describe Shonu’s escape using a first-person narrative, making your readers feel every moment of your ordeal.  

Tigers have long been respected, feared and hunted. Learn about tiger conservation projects and create a display. 

Can you find other writing, artworks or performances featuring tigers?

At the festival of Pulikali, people dress up as tigers to celebrate harvest. If you were going to hold a festival to honour the tiger, what would you do? Plan and host a festival to honour a wild creature of your choice.

The Demon King watching over Shonu, who is making amends to the bees by spending all summer as a tree      copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten
The Bee Goddess talking to the wild bees      copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Look at the honeycombs in this book. Why do you think bees build using hexagons? Investigate how much weight a hexagonal structure will hold before collapsing!

Investigate 2D and 3D hexagonal geometry and have a go at creating hexagonal number sequences. 

Try some origami hexagonal folds and use to create collaborative mobiles.

Print using Indian-style hexagonal blocks to explore tessellations and other patternmaking, or sew some hexagonal patchwork - perhaps a very small quilt to keep the bees warm!

This book started life as DESH, a dance-drama by Akram Khan. Look through the book with this idea in mind and talk about each spread. How could you show people what's happening just using your bodies? Would it be easier or more difficult with props and scenery? What would you use and how would it work? Listen to everyone's ideas and ask children to extend and question them.

Take this further by focusing on Shonu's transformation into a tree and his interaction with Dakkhin Rai. 

Start by looking at the pictures showing Shonu as a flowering / wilting tree. What do you think he can he see, hear, smell and taste in each picture? How do you think he's feeling? How can you tell? Copy Shonu's postures, using your bodies to express what you've been discussing.

Shonu as a tree providing nectar for the bees     copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

Look at the picture of the tiger showering the Shonu-tree with water. How do you think Shonu is feeling now? Explore movements showing what happens and how Shonu responds.

Now look at the picture of Shonu's initial transformation from boy to tree and explore through body movement and facial expression. 

“(Shonu’s) feet began drilling into the soil, deeper and wider, seeking water, pushing pebbles out of the way, wrapping themselves around stones…”

How do these words and images add to your thinking? Can you build on your movements to reflect this? Explore ideas, show back and discuss.

“a roar reverberated across the land… torn from the earth’s belly: dark, raspy with anger and hate and blood”

Now talk about the Demon Tiger. How does Shonu feel about him? Find text to back up your ideas, then look at the pictures and explore tiger-movements of your own. Try some silent roaring to go with your prowling and menacing. Can you sit without moving and still look fierce? How will you shake yourself, like Dakkhin Rai, to give the Shonu-tree water? 

In pairs, create movement sequences showing Dakkhin Rai observing Shonu’s transformation, Shonu’s response to the weather and Dakkhin Rai’s life-saving manoeuvre. Show back and discuss. Write about the episode from Shonu’s perspective, using interesting and expressive language, then Dakkhin Rai’s. 

Make masks inspired by Jolivet’s illustrations and create performances featuring your words and movements.

Then write about what you did, the changes you made to your work and an evaluation of your final performance. 

For more information about DESH and the Akram Khan Company click here

For the DESH trailer click here

A 46 minute film documentary HOMELAND: THE MAKING OF DESH is also available online to rent or buy


Interrogate the text and artwork for information about Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai. Who are they? What do they look like? How are they described? Who or what do they guard, and why?

Look at the picture showing the two Bonbibis and compare them. Why are there two of them? 

(Shonu) saw… bare feet beneath a shimmering green sari. Lifting his head… he saw a dark lady with a silver trident in one hand. So he opened his left eye… and spotted… another warrioress, in a pink salwar-kameez and wondrously curved slippers, her hair covered in a… veil.”

“Bonbibi is worshipped by Hindus and Muslims in the Sundarbans,” says Karthika Nair, “and it was fascinating to see the plurality of belief in (Jolivet’s) representations… There are few “official” photos (of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai) - we got a clearer picture through photos of temples and shrines, street theatre (and) festivals.” 

Search for traditional images of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai online and compare with the pictures in this book.

Are there other places where different religions share holy places and beliefs? Where? What is shared, and by whom?

Think of a natural place that’s special to you. What would its guardian look like? How would they behave? What special powers might they have? What would they do and say to ensure the safety of their place? Inspired by images of Bonbibi and Dakkhin Rai, use clay, papier mache or other sculptural materials to create models of your newly-invented guardians. Write about them and how you made them.  

Bonbibi wearing her green sari      copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

The Honey Hunter is packed with information about a spectacular and distinctive area of the Indian subcontinent– the Sundarbans. What did you already know about Bangladesh and India, and what have you learned by reading this book? Revisit the map you annotated before sharing The Honey Hunter and use the book’s text and illustrations to add information.

How do Shonu and his family live? What do they eat, how do they travel, what are their occupations and beliefs? What does this book tell us about the natural history of the area? 

List the wildlife mentioned in the text. Find photographs and draw pictures to add to your map. What else can you discover about the region? Create your own illustrated non-fiction guidebook.

Use information provided in the glossary to make ghee and kheer. What else can you taste, look at, listen to, read, learn about, wear, play or take part in that comes from Bangladesh or India?

From the glossary     copyright Joelle Jolivet for Little Gestalten

If you liked this, try...

Zoo-ology a large-scale non-fiction picturebook by Joelle Jolivet (Egmont)

An Indian Beach by Day and Night a wordless concertina book by Joelle Jolivet (Tara Books)

365 Penguins a picturebook by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet (Abrams)

No Dinner! The Story of the Old Woman and the Pumpkin by Jessica Souhami, a picturebook based on an Indian folktale (Frances Lincoln)

How the Bee Became, a short story for children by Ted Hughes in How The Whale Became (Faber)

The Night Life of Trees by various artists, featuring exquisite (and wordless) images of trees printed in India on handmade paper (Tara Books) For more information together with a look inside the book, visit the BrainPickings blog here

For more information about the publisher, Little Gestalten, click here

The Honey Hunter started life as a dance-drama called DESH.
Written by Karthika Nair, Akram Khan and PolarBear, it was directed, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan. 

For more information about DESH and the Akram Khan Company click here

For the DESH trailer click here

A 46 minute film documentary HOMELAND: THE MAKING OF DESH is also available online to rent or buy

To hear Karthika Nair talking about her poetry, click here  

Also featured on Cast of Thousands...

Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands


Sign In to Comment On This Book

Get updates and news from Cast Of Thousands direct to your inbox