My latest series of books for the newly independent readers – Nikhil and Jay are very special to me. They are inspired by my own family and our blended heritages. The series is illustrated by Soofiya and published by Otter Barry books.
I will be talking to Nikki Gamble of Exploring Children’s Literature about how this series came about and why. I will reveal secrets and inspirations behind each of the stories in these two titles and show parents, teachers and librarians how to expand the reading with fun resources and activities.
You’re invited to this event! It’s free and fun and online. Come and listen to us chat about how children of blended heritages, especially Anglo-Indian is never featured in books for these ages and how these stories help children understand and explore with their dual heritages.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive an invite! Don’t wait, register before we run out of zoom spaces.
Ever since I was a little girl, I loved Elephants. Where we lived, an elephant used to come to the streets with the mahout to offer blessings in exchange for coconuts and banana. Elephants as Hindus believe is a symbol of Lord Ganesha.
Lord Ganesha is also my favourite deity in Hindu epics and stories. He is fun, he can be temperamental and he is human in so many ways. Lord Ganesha has been drawn and re-drawn in funny ways across history in the subcontinent – and has so many superpowers that he’ll always be my favourite.
These are just six (did you find all 6?) of the innumerable Ganesha statues and depictions I’ve in my flat.
Elephants as beasts are family-oriented. They are female-led groups and love playing with their kids. They are patient, they remember for long and are empathetic. Peace-loving giants, who love bananas! What’s not like about Elephants?
So when I started writing stories, Elephants started featuring in them. Obviously!
In my first picture book in the UK, Pattan’s Pumpkin, illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by Otter-Barry Books, my earliest imagination was when Pattan returned to the mountains riding an elephant. Illustrator Frané Lessac generously included them in many spreads and elephants are one of the reader favourites in the story.
Listen to Frané talk about her inspirations for the art in this book and the process.
In my much-loved picture book You’re Safe With Me, illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing, I introduced Mama Elephant, the matriarch of the forest. She has wise words for the little baby animals in the forest and reassures them. The image of Mama Elephant cradling the babies in the crook of her trunk was the first image that spurred on the story.
Children and adults alike love colouring in the wonderful illustration by Poonam Mistry during workshops. Download a colouring sheet here to try your own art in Poonam’s style.
And today to celebrate World Elephant Day we have a special treat from Tutti Frutti StoryTime in association with Leeds Libraries. Register to listen to You’re Safe With Me, watch the illustrations be animated and learn to do a craft activity too.
Then I want to tell you about Tiger Troubles. This was a story I had been working on for many years until it got published in 2019. In Tiger Troubles, we have Elephant as one of the animals and in fact the first one, who takes it upon himself to confess and not to get his friends into trouble. Hannah Marks has brought out his character in this lively illustration and throughout the book.
And then of course, when I published the first book of Sona Sharma series – Sona Sharma – Very Best Big Sister, from early on, I wanted to make sure that Sona has a plush toy called Elephant. She might have been gifted other animals but her imaginary best friend is Elephant. In the Sona Books, Elephant is her wise counsel, her listening friend to talk through her anxieties and also quite a character. Elephant I’m told by young readers is quite funny and he has one major obsession – he has not been given a name.
Jen Khatun, the illustrator of the series, created a wonderful activity for children to draw the Elephant from the book. You can download it here!
So, when we asked children in Northern Ireland to draw Elephant with Jen’s guidance and find a name for Elephant and explain their reason, these are some wonderful names they came up with. Note the Indian scripts and references the children have used.
Writing stories about Elephants raises awareness. Beyond loving elephants, I want to help them too. So if you want to find out more about elephant conservation and protection, check out the following resources.
Here are some organisations you can look up, studies you can get more information from and find things you can do within your circle of influences.
Books are springboards into conversations about life. Especially for children. Whether it is about going to a new school or having a sibling, books help children put themselves in the characters’ shoes and evaluate their own feelings.
Therefore it’s no doubt that empathy can be built with stories. Understanding another person’s viewpoint, albeit a fictional character, builds those empathy muscles in children’s minds.
As a reader first and then a writer, most of my emotional skills were developed through reading. My aspirations for the future came from stories I listened to and read. Books opened up subjects like history, politics to me without becoming an academic class. Today I see that in the children I visit with my books. They recognise themselves often in the characters of my books, even though many of my stories are set in a faraway continent.
So I’ve put together a list of books that you can read on Empathy Day from my portfolio that will help create the space for difficult conversations, understanding a different point of view and even taking action to help someone else.
Each book is different – some characters are human and others are animals. And yet, in each story, we learn something about our own emotions and of others. We also see how each character acted to demonstrate their empathy.
In Sona Sharma - Very Best Big Sister, Sona needs to love her little sister despite her anxiety of not being loved anymore. She takes action to become the Very Best Big Sister she aims to be.
In Tiger Troubles, the Sloth Bear must accept his mistakes to avoid getting his friends into trouble. Every child I've read this book to, understands why the Sloth Bear must be brave enough to confess despite being terrified.
In the Prince Veera Series of books, each case that comes before Prince Veera and his friend Suku requires understanding two sides of the problem. It requires not just clever thinking but compassionate evaluation of the people involved, and what's at stake.
In the Manju series of books, you will see Manju understand why shortcuts don't actually lead to satisfactory conclusions. In the first book, she is wishing for someone else and in the second book, she realises that helping someone else's wish come true and understanding the plight of the genie, is far better than focussing on her own problem. Of course, the universe rewards her too.
It was perhaps 2003 or 2004. I wrote a story about perspectives. About looking at things in a new way or perhaps for the first time. It was a funny story about a tortoise and how he had never seen the sky.
It was one of those stories that I had thrown away into the virtual drawer and had forgotten about it. When I registered on TES website to upload some stories for classroom use, I dusted this one out, added some free clipart and published it for teachers to use in classrooms.
The story took off. It got featured in the main pages as a popular story and many teachers downloaded it. When TES then moved everyone to their new site and wanted us to reevaluate our content, I decided to take down the story and submit it again to publishers.
The fact that the story was popular in classrooms, because it was short, it was easy to read, it had animal characters and it gave an important message – perspectives differ. When you see something for the first time, do evaluate whether you’re overreacting or not. So I decided to submit it to OUP, Pakistan who had just published one of my earlier stories too. (Read about that here).
In less than a month, OUP Pakistan came back with a Yes! And it also got included in their 70th anniversary celebrations this year as editor’s choice. The book is out now and the story of Upside Down seems all upside down to me and all about perspectives too.
I’m grateful for the joys of this year, spending more time with my family, not having to see a dentist or find an excuse to eat ice-cream. I went through a range of emotions from loneliness to despair to joy. I wrote a number of new books under lockdown conditions, preferring to stay inside my head than read the news. I focussed on the detail, ironed everything possible in my closet and organised my ear-rings into pairs. All those little things helped me focus on the big picture.
I miss meeting friends and family, miss school visits which gave me the inspiration and energy to keep being creative and the festival circuit that always comes with a new book. Nevertheless, I did try and do most of that virtually – through the help of technology. Ironic that the large scale urban growth driven by technology caused the pandemic and we relied on tech us to keep us distracted from that chaos.
I really hope that this changes our collective humanity and we strive to work smarter to protect our planet. In my own little ways, I’ve been brave this year, spreading my wings, getting a new agent, writing new and different things.