“A whole new adventure begins when a little boy finds out that his family are going to move,” reads the blurb of Neichu Mayer’s first book for children, Sitapaila. “His new home is far away in Nepal. Sitapaila is the most magical place he could ever imagine. He meets new friends and comes across many different types of animals.”
The tiny book is elegantly written by Mayer, who grew up in India and lives in Jerusalem with her husband, an Israeli diplomat, and their young son. It is also beautifully illustrated by Israeli artist Yonat Katzir.
Mayer describes herself as “passionate about cross-cultural learning and embracing diversity,” and says she is “fascinated by the interaction between children and animals, and their ability to imagine the good side of life under any circumstances.”
The book, with the little boy as storyteller, starts with his parents informing him they are moving to Nepal. And two pages later, the family – together with their Burmese cat, Inle – have moved to their new home in Sitapaila, a small village in Kathmandu. After three years in Sitapalia, the writer is saddened by the fact that the family has to leave, but cheered by his parents’ promise that “One day we will go back to visit.”
It’s a delightful book that can be read multiple times to children, who will be especially intrigued by the strange words like “Sitapaila” and “Namaste,” but comforted by the feeling that such a far away place can become a fun home.
I suspect that Mayer, whom I am fortunate to call a friend, wrote the book to remind her son that although Jerusalem might be his home now, he once lived in an exotic and exciting place in Nepal, to which he will one day return. Like all good children’s books, this is a book that children – and adults – will also enjoy returning to, over and over again.
I interviewed Mayer about her book.
What does Sitapaila mean, and why did you choose it as the title?
Sitapaila means “Sita’s path” (Sita is the incarnation of Lakshmi, the wife of supreme Hindu God Vishnu. She was the wife of Rama). Sitapaila is a story of our life in Nepal. Our family went to live in Nepal in 2014 on my husband’s diplomatic mission. The neighborhood where we lived in Kathmandu is called Sitapaila. Sitapaila sits on a small hilltop outside the ring road in Kathmandu. Our son celebrated his first birthday there soon after we arrived. That place holds a very special space in his heart. For him, Sitapaila is a magical place, full of happy memories, and I wanted to keep those memories alive. Today, three years after we left Nepal, he still talks about Sitapaila with great enthusiasm and excitement. For him, Sitapaila was his first home.
Why did you write the book?
I wrote the book mainly for our son, who holds many sweet memories of Sitapaila, his magical home, in his heart. It is about him and his cat’s experience of relocation, finding new friends and making memories. I also wrote the book for families like us who often have to relocate with children. Relocation is exciting and fun, but it also comes with many uncertainties and causes tremendous anxiety, especially for children. When we were making plans to make the first big move with our toddler, I searched for children’s books that could prepare him but couldn’t find any in our local bookshops here. That is another reason why I wanted to write this very simple story to help parents prepare their children for any form of relocation. Our three years in Nepal were exciting and challenging, and at the same time we went through some very profound life-changing experiences. Within a few months of our arrival, there was a disastrous avalanche in the Himalayas, where we lost four promising young Israelis amongst many trekkers who were severely injured. Soon after that painful event, there was a tragic bus accident in another part of the Himalayan Mountains, and two young Israelis died in that accident. Then came the 2015 Nepal earthquake, which was a traumatic experience for all of us. When we returned to Israel after three eventful years in Nepal, many people thought we were relieved to be back home in Israel and that we must have had only bad memories from Nepal. That was not true. Although we encountered many difficulties, we were profoundly touched by the Nepali people’s beautiful human kindness and resilience. Through this book, I wanted to show that our life in Nepal was quite normal and happy.
What is its main message to the reader?
I think the main message to the readers is to find joy even in small and normal encounters in life. And that even when you are away from your real ‘home,’ you can always create a home by adapting to your new situation with an open mind and some curiosity. I also wanted people to learn that people and neighborhoods all over the world are all the same, if you look beyond your “comfort zone” and cultural differences.
Everybody has desires to get to know the other, to learn from each other and to find common grounds. And I strongly believe that for children and animals this comes quite naturally. They adapt, they appreciate and they find joy in any circumstances. n
Sitapaila – A Home Far Away
Illustrated by Yonat Katzir
Olympia Publishers, London, 2020