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Richa Jha, 42
Category: Picture books
Picture books are no child’s play. There’s the small matter of grabbing attention and the bigger objective of holding on to it. And, there’s also, like all good icing on cakes, the issue of ensuring that the children keep coming back to the story for more. Which is probably why Delhi-based Richa Jha looks fondly back at the years she spent scouring picture books for her children and reading them aloud, and later, reviewing them on her blog, Snuggle with Picture Books. It would prepare her for things to come when she would finally decide to turn author with Best Friends are Forever (Wisdom Tree, 2012), a picture book illustrated by Gautam Benegal. “While I’d quit (my marketing job) to turn to full-time freelance writing in 1998, the thought of bringing out a picture book for children came about after several years of having read hundreds and hundreds of children’s books. In hindsight, I would not have liked it any other way. I needed to go through the process of enjoying them as a parent, of actively seeking them out both for my children and for myself, of craving them in one form or another all the time, of studying them closely for their craft and unmatched brilliance, and of then seeing it as a creative imperative that I needed to find an outlet for,” says Jha.
Since Best Friends Are Forever, Jha has written six other picture books, the most recent being Thatha at School and Vee Loved Garlic (both 2016). What sets her work apart is the happy marriage between text and visuals — while the words craft a narrative, the illustrations pack in tiny details and micro-stories that readers can keep coming back to in subsequent readings. Her storylines are nuanced — they celebrate differences, rationalise their way out of superstitions, gender stereotypes and insecurities with wit and gentleness. In Thatha at School, for instance, Oviyam is embarrassed at the thought of taking her lungi-wearing Thatha, whom she adores otherwise, to school for the annual Grandparents’ Day. In The Unboy Boy, Gagan’s family cannot get on board with the fact that he is not “boy” enough. “Pause for a moment to think about any complex nuanced subject (friendship, betrayal, separation, death, sibling rivalry, the many fears, insecurities, bullying)… Those of us writing for children are acutely aware of the impact our stories may have on young impressionable minds. And so, every single idea, word and pause needs to be carefully weighed before going on the final page,” says Jha.
In India, writing for children is far from lucrative — book sales are low, and print runs often languish in warehouses. While reading has gained momentum and parents are willing to spend upto Rs 500 on foreign publications, for Indian authors, the benchmark remains around Rs 200. It would hardly seem like a good proposition then to turn publisher, but Jha says she wanted to break free of the cycle and do her own thing at Pickle Yolk Books. In the 18 months since she set up her imprint, she is yet to break even, but Jha has set a few things in motion — illustrators are equal-part collaborators in her projects and are paid at par and Jha does not scrimp on paper quality or other imperatives that shoot up production costs. “Even for the 500 word-ers that I do for picture books, I take close to a year (or more) and over 40 drafts each to have a polished manuscript ready. I like the stories slow-cooked rather than microwaved, allowing them to simmer and stew over weeks and months between each revision,” she says.
But are there any surefire means to grab eyeballs in her job? “The age group I write for (mostly, five-seven years) loves two things: gory stuff with unimaginable damage to the body parts, and scatological humour! It’s fun hearing them come up with these really ghastly (but also surprisingly deep and insightful) twists to my stories,” says Jha, with a laugh.
Books on death, nudity, economic disparity and parent-child role reversal; Jha has commissioned books on life in space and one for adults.
Andaleeb Wajid, 36
Category: Young Adult
Andaleeb Wajid’s parents loved reading so much that her father named her after an Urdu novel. He’d wanted her to become a doctor and she shared his dream as well, till she turned nine. “In Hong Kong, in my father’s office, I had an epiphany of becoming a writer because I liked the idea of sitting at a desk. It came back to me when I was in Class 12, a period of great confusion in my life,” she says. Her father had passed away a few years ago and relatives were bringing up marriage. “We belong to the Lababin community from Tamil Nadu and it’s a very small and close-knit community, with orthodox views. There was no way I could actually pursue any sort of career like all my friends were doing. That was when I turned to writing, more as a last refuge,” says Wajid, who balked at becoming “one of those girls who get married while in college, get pregnant immediately and never return”.
She got married after her second year exams and wrote several short stories during her pregnancy. “I started writing stories for kids then and sent it out to Open Sesame, a children’s supplement that I grew up reading. My first story was published days after my son was born,” says Wajid, who then went on to write her first novel, Kite Strings, in 2006. But it would take three years to find a publisher. “After my first book was published, I quit my job as a content writer for a restaurant review company and decided to focus on writing books,” she says. Her output has been tremendous — in five years, Wajid has written 10 books, the latest being Asmara’s Summer (Penguin Random House). She also conducts creative writing workshops with writer Sajita Nair under their Nutcracker brand in Bangalore.
Wajid’s books feature strong, young women who are constantly walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity. Her strength lies in her ability to bring alive the worlds of ordinary girls who find themselves in difficult situations — an arranged marriage, the sudden loss of a parent, the decision to wear a hijab or a burqa or not . There is an urban Muslim female teenager experience, she says, that is captured in her books, but it is not an entirely deliberate move. “I think it’s very difficult to grasp the concept of a community within an overall Muslim structure; and I think Bollywood’s representation of Muslims is responsible for it to a large extent. The taveez-wearing, dargah-visiting, Turkish topi-wearing, shayari-spouting Muslim I’ve seen in movies, leaves me baffled,” she says. “A lot of South Asian writing coming from Muslims is quite high brow and serious and daunting to me as a writer. I want to write about the common experiences of people, irrespective of whether they are Muslim or not. And then, I write the books I write because I want to tell a good story, something that a reader begins with anticipation and ends, feeling satisfied,” she says.
The Crunch Factor to be published by Hachette in November.
Sowmya Rajendran, 30
Category: picture books to young adult
“I treat children as real people. I give myself the freedom to dislike some of them. My writing generally stays away from fluffy, happy themes. I like being irreverent. I like giving my reader something to think about. I like surprising them,” says Sowmya Rajendran. And she does — the Pune-based author of 22 children’s books, two YA books, and one novel for adults is one of the most accomplished writers in India today. Four of her novels — Water Stories From Around the World, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet! (2011), Monday to Sunday and The Pleasant Rakshasa — are recommended reading by the CBSE.
Rajendran wanted to be a writer for as long as she could remember. “In my BA course in English at Stella Maris College, Chennai, we studied feminism. Suddenly, so much about the world made sense. I found answers to questions that had troubled me,” she says. After an MA in Gender Studies, she collaborated with Niveditha Subramanian to write Mayil Will Not Be Quiet!, a resource book on gender for children. “Back then, there was barely anything on gender for children in India and we struggled to find a publisher. Then, Tulika Publishers said they’d take it if we could rewrite it as a diary. The idea appealed to us,” she says.
Mayil Ganesan, a pre-teen, is constantly scribbling and doodling about the world around her, the changes in her body, seeking answers of confusing questions. “In 2015, it won the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar,” says Rajendran, who works with gender-related themes in many of her books. “I think most independent children’s books publishers today are aware of stereotyping and are doing away with it. Sometimes, I even think they overdo it — it’s so rare to see a girl in a pink frock in a book these days! I personally do it because I enjoy doing it — I like to see what happens to a story when you break the rules,” she says.
A picture book called Suddenly Cow.
Natasha Sharma, 39
Category: picture books and Middle-grade readers
How old does a person have to be to be able to write for children? Natasha Sharma isn’t quite sure, but she does know that she is “1.33 Saturnian years or 21 Martian years old”. She’s also “10 years old within, particularly in moments of hysterical laughter that end up in hiccups, and 273 years in dog-years-converted-to-human-years (the best measure of a sensible person’s age. It makes me very wise)”. It makes her quite the right person to be writing across genres and age groups — she has written picture books such as Princess Easy Pleasy (2016) and Rooster Raga (2013) for five-seven year olds; historical fiction (her popular History Mystery series) for eight year olds and above, and nearly-non-fiction works such as Squiggle Takes a Walk (2014) and Squiggle gets Stuck (2016) that aim to make middle-graders grasp the nuances of punctuation and grammar.
It’s in these books for the middle-graders that Sharma really comes into her own. She has a whacky sense of humour and an intuitive understanding of how long to hammer home a moral, and when to draw back and let the children have a vicarious romp. It makes her books a curious mix of unusual trivia and good old-fashioned fun and repudiates the idea that learning and fun are mutually exclusive ideas.
Sharma likes to get ideas about her stories first hand. “Young readers are forthright and so much fun. I’ve had them tell me about the nail-chewers and nose-pickers in their family and friends,” she says. Her first book, Icky, Yucky, Mucky! (2014) was a story about a royal family with disgusting habits like chomping food, biting nails and so on.
How does she know if her audience is having fun? Sharma has a rather expedient barometer for gauging audience reaction: “My first readers are my son and daughter. They are 11 and nine years old and cover most of my target audience. While I know they form a biased readership, I hover over them, trying to decipher facial expressions as they read! They do give meaningful feedback that I take very seriously,” she says.
Sharma will begin writing her next History Mystery with Shah Jahan as the central character. There are two other books — one inspired by her love of mangoes, the other a story for middle grade that has been a long work-in-progress.
Mitali Perkins, 53
Category: 10 + to young adult
Born to a harbour civil engineer father and a teacher mother, by the time Mitali Perkins was 11, she had moved out of the family home in Kolkata and lived in over five countries around the world, including Ghana, Cameroon, the UK, US and Mexico. It was only in seventh grade that her family settled in California and Perkins became accustomed to the elusive rhythms of a regular life. In all those years, the only constant in their itinerant life were her books. “It was difficult to move around a lot, but I always had my books and writing. They were home to me. That’s also a gift that stories give a child,” says the writer, now based out of San Francisco Bay area.
When she finally began to write, Perkins found herself invariably writing about children caught between cultures. Her first book, The Sunita Experiment (1993), was the happy outcome of a contest organised by the publishing house, Little Brown, and told the story of a Bengali-American girl whose grandparents come to visit her in the States. In the year that follows, Sunita finds herself at variance with her American upbringing and her Indian roots and begins to deliberate on who she really is.
This preoccupation with questions of identity, culture and race, about power, prejudice, economic disparity and the fallouts of violence and consumerism would go on to become determinants of Perkins’ subsequent books such as Monsoon Summer (2005), Bamboo People (2010) and more recently, Tiger Boy (2015). Her characters are almost always south Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Burmese, to cite a few) and Perkins weaves in contemporary socio-political references to her narratives to set the choices and outcomes of her characters in context.
Perkins says her themes fell into place without design, born of her experiences in those lands and her subsequent research on topics that were close to her heart. “I wrote the books I wanted to write, not to fill a gap. After they were published, however, I found that books featuring children without privilege and power were not as common as other types of books,” she says.
But, the publishing industry is exacting and Perkins, whose books have steadily been on notable books lists, is aware of that. “My second book, Monsoon Summer, came out 12 years after The Sunita Experiment, and endured 22 ‘no-s’ from different editors. Book publishing is a business, not a non-profit. You need to sell books,” she says.
What helped her along was an authorial epiphany — the realisation that “writing for children is not really that different than writing for adults. The entire process of writing is challenging. You have to be willing to take risks, face rejection, and master revision (be willing to change every word) — I call them the three ‘Rs’ of becoming a published author.” The realisation freed her from her addressing a set target audience. “I write for children. But mostly, I write stories for myself,” she says.
Her forthcoming untitled young adult novel from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux releases in autumn 2017. Perkins has signed a contract with FSG/Macmillan for two novels and two pictures books, and has finished one of each.