Nandana Dev Sen, while describing – and, in some ways, defending her eclectic of body of work – asserts that she resists being labelled. Sen dons several hats. She has acted in over 20 feature films, is a child rights activist, a screenwriter and an author of children’s books. Sen was recently in the Capital, along with French-American illustrator Kris Di Giacomo to present their work-in-progress children’s book — Earth Song. Both of them worked on it during their week-long stay in Delhi as a part of Bonjour India. Sen spoke to indianexpress.com about her new book that deals with sustainable development, why she feels drawn to the genre of children literature and what she seeks to achieve through her writing.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
How do you make environment issues palatable to children?
You do it by simplifying and focusing on the environmental issues, so that they are engaging and immediate rather than didactic and remote. At the same time, it’s important to be truthful, not simplistic. It’s a vast subject, so you break it down into problems that kids can actually understand, and can connect to their day-to-day lives, like the pollution in Delhi, or clean water. It’s a misconception that kids don’t want to hear about things going wrong in the world, things they can help fix. Children are naturally sensitive – they like having a voice and feeling empowered to make a positive difference.
Now, in our country there is a longstanding tradition of the child who never argues, the quiet one who never questions anything, being celebrated as the “good” boy or girl. I’m glad to see that this is beginning to change, because we want our kids to be noisy and argumentative, don’t we? (laughing). To combat climate change and protect the environment, kids must ask difficult questions, and hold grownups to account. They must be change-makers for the future.
How was it to collaborate with Kris Di Giacomo, the French-American illustrator for Earth Song?
Wonderful! I’m delighted that the French institute brought us together for this residency and it’s been lovely to take part in Bonjour India. Kris is a very talented artist and we’ve become close friends through our collaboration, which has been a great process of exploration and creative negotiation. We’ve generated exciting ideas through our discussions, while absorbing our mutual working styles. The journey has been fun and inspiring, and we are already plotting our next collaboration in New York early next year, to take our work together further.
Why are you drawn to children’s literature?
Many reasons! To begin with, it grew out of my years of working with kids in the area of child rights. In fact, my first book Mambi and the Forest Fire got “created” in a room full of kids in a workshop I did at Sneha, a home for children and women rescued from trafficking.
Second, I love children’s books because they are so influential as a medium. They make an enormous difference to the way a child views her world, and can greatly shape her values and confidence. I believe that children’s books can go a long way in fostering empathy, and promoting ideas of equality, non-violence and justice. These might sound like big words but you don’t need to write a big boring tome to get kids to think about these concepts – which are more critical now than ever, across the globe. And kids totally get it if you discuss them in a safe, clear, non-threatening way, relating them to their lives.
Finally, I just love the infectious fun, fantasy and silliness that writing for children allows me to lose myself in. Lots of boundaries can slip away in this limitless world of the imagination, which is often a luxury for a grown-up! One can trespass into delicious territory that as an adult you often forget how to access.
How do you use the medium of children literature to promote empathy in your books?
Examples? Okay! My book Mambi and the Forest Fire is about a monkey who wants to fly and swim like her “cooler” jungle friends. But when they are in danger, Mambi realises that her gift is equal to theirs, because she can jump so bravely – and save her friends! The book celebrates the unique gifts that each child has…(it) promotes empathy, I hope, by celebrating diversity as well as equality, through the quirky character of Mambi.
My book that just came out, Talky Tumble of Jumble Farm, is full of word puzzles, be it anagrams or antonyms, but it’s no coincidence that its protagonist is a chatty little girl who has a loving, playful relationship with her single, working mum. The stories in the book are entirely about how these two take care of each other, the Beti just as much as the Ma.
Who were your favourite authors while growing up?
In Bengali, Ashapurna Debi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Satyajit Ray, Leela Majumdar, my grandparents Radharani Debi and Narendra Deb, my mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen. I loved Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, AA Milne, EB White, E Nesbit, and absolutely adored every book by Roald Dahl. I must say that I am glad that commodification of children’s literature did not exist as pervasively then as it does now.
Children literature, generally, is viewed as bedtime stories. With your books do you intend to achieve that and also hope that the text is remembered long after the turning the last page?
Actually, there’s a whole universe of kid-lit beyond bedtime books, but the answer to that question would definitely be yes. As it turns out, I’ve written two bedtime books, Kangaroo Kisses and Not Yet! But, yes, I hope that my books not only lull children to sleep, but help them wake up with a thought about their place in this diverse and beautiful world of ours.