I wrote my first story for Sona Sharma in 2015 – she came fully formed on the page along with her Grandfather whom she calls Thatha (Grandpa in Tamil) and Elephant, best friend and imaginary friend all rolled into one.
Although I loved Sona in her first story I wasn’t sure a quietly funny family story will appeal. My first confidence in the story came later that year when I was doing my MA at Bath Spa University. I had a 1-1 session with our Professor – the most amazing David Almond. I had sent in the first few pages of Sona for him to read and he loved it.
It gave me the boost of confidence I required to send the story to my editor at Walker Books, Mara Bergman. Mara loved Sona – but we decided she needed a bigger story, a story that shows off her charm, her humour and also her love for her family.
That story became SONA SHARMA – VERY BEST BIG SISTER. Loosely based on my growing up in Chennai, and set in a contemporary Chennai in a loving family like mine and a fun cast of characters in Sona’s world – her school friends, teacher, her auto-rickshaw driver and Mum’s best friend Mullai – they all help Sona become the VERY BEST BIG SISTER to her baby sister.
Sona Sharma is currently available to pre-order and will be out in the world on 3rd September. Beautifully illustrated by Jen Khatun, the stories showcase one family in Chennai and a little girl who has the fears of any first-born child like me – will my family love me less when the new baby comes?
Amma, Sona’s mum explains to her that families have loads of love to go around and Appa, her dad explains that they will be poor only when they run out of love.
With the help of Elephant, gentle proverbs of Paatti, her grandmother and the wisdom and stories of her grandfather and the no-nonsense street smart of their auto-rickshaw driver, Sona learns to love her little baby sister.
Get hold of a copy now and find out who the President is, who Miss Rao is and how Sona finds a name for her little baby sister.
Sona Sharma will be visiting a number of UK blog sites during the month of September. Don’t forget to follow the bloggers to find out more about her mission to becoming the Very Best Big Sister.
I write mainly stories that touch upon India in some way. Putting aside why that’s so, my stories bring tales from all parts of India.
These stories are definitely for the Indians who live everywhere in the world. I witness the joy of children from Indian backgrounds in schools across the world when I bring these stories to them. They are undoubtedly a joy to the parents and grandparents who can relate to them and enrich the reading session with their own stories and tales from their own lives.
But is that all? Surely these stories appeal to everyone else? For a child who has no connections to India, these stories are exotic, magical and from a place where they had never been to. Perhaps they’d travel to India, inspired by these books. Perhaps they’d relate to their neighbour from India better.
Stories about someone other than our lived experience is a window to the outside world. It is a door to walk through and make friends, shake hands and embrace someone new. It’s a mirror that reflects how similar we are to others in this world, however far we seem.
“When the only images children see are white ones…as long as children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books… there seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation.” -Nancy Larrick, 1965
Schools, libraries, parents, grandparents, booksellers, publishers and reviewers must therefore not brand these books as “Great for South Asian Kids”. Because they are universal in their appeal – both to South Asians and to the rest of the world. How else will a child find out about life outside their town, city and country?
Read about why we need public libraries and these must be curated by professionals who understand Equity in the Library.
Schools, libraries, parents, grandparents, booksellers, publishers and reviewers must not only embrace if they want diversity in their reading – but also if they don’t want it. What if your community or school or customer base is monochrome? Then how would you show your world that the universe is a bigger place than what they can see and perceive?
Absolutely make it available in communities where South Asian readers live. But don’t forget it to bring it to readers who have not ventured beyond safe reading choices.
As the fabulous John Burningham once said, "Children are not less intelligent, they’re just less experienced."
So let’s give our children a varied, rich and wide experience of things around the world. So they grow up to be citizens of the world embracing people from all backgrounds.
Elli Woollard wrote a poem to go with this post and she has given me permission to reproduce it here.
“Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.
At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.”
My mother language is Tamil and I never learnt it formally. I learnt Tamil at home – to speak, to read and to write. I read every magazine and book my parents were reading and of course Tamil Cinema had wonderful songs that was full of poetry.
Every year in January, during festivals and holidays, we listened to debates and poetry in Tamil and often went to see plays and movies in Tamil.
My first poem was in Tamil when I read a poem by Poet Suratha. Find out more about how Suratha inspired me here.
I continued to write in Tamil and one of the teachers, who was also our vice principal and was a scholar in Tamil helped me in the library outside school hours. I then wrote a puppet show about Economics in Tamil and wrote a long poem about India’s warrior poet Subramania Bharathi.
But we also learnt English right from kindergarten and slowly, by the time I left primary school I had started to think in English. I read both Tamil and English fiction relentlessly, but with more English than Tamil.
Then when I was in my first year at university I entered a state-wide competition on the state of education in our country and I wrote an article in Tamil for this. I was so worried because I had never written anything formal in Tamil and one of my friends, who knew her grammar and spellings, helped me edit it. I won the first prize in that competition. But sadly that was my last published work in Tamil.
Now I write in English and rarely write in my mother tongue and I agree with the statement from United Nations. Forgetting your language is much more than forgetting the language, we lose the culture, literature and even social norms, proverbs, adages and more.
In Nelson Mandela’s words,
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
As an aunt of mixed race nephews, I’m constantly thinking about how I could show them the beauty of their mother language. They listen to music, and hear us talk but they live here. And they don’t often get to explore the language the same way as we did growing up in India.
And it is possible to forget your mother tongue if you don’t use it. This article at Babbel explains the research behind it.
My grandmother never learned Spanish
was afraid of forgetting her gods
was afraid of waking up in the morning
without the prodigals of her offspring in her memory
My grandmother believed that you could only
talk to the wind in Zoque
but she kneeled before the saints
and prayed with more fervor than anyone
Jesus never heard her
my grandmother’s tongue
smelled like rose apples
and her eyes lit up when she sang
with the brightness of a star
Saint Michael Archangel never heard her
my grandmother’s prayers were sometimes blasphemies
jukis’tyt she said and the pain stopped
patsoke she yelled and time paused beneath her bed
In that same bed she birthed her seven sons
—Translated from the Zoque by David Shook
Check out my bi-lingual books that help many children read both in English and their mother-tongue.
Are you a young person whose mother language is different from the one you speak most of the time? Go and find out more about your language. Learn about poetry, proverbs and stories from your mother language and find ways to listen to it being spoken. You won’t regret it.
Shobha Viswanath is my publisher at Karadi Tales in India. She is also my senior editor and a writer herself. Shobha is also Farmer Falgu’s big fan.
As a writer it is a great thing if your publisher loves your character as much as you do. She is the main reason why Farmer Falgu has packed his bags and prepared his bullock cart and is now off to Japan and France to meet the children there.
I met Shobha 2-3 years ago when I visited Chennai before Farmer Falgu when came out. Then I met her again when we were preparing for the launch of Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip. She is everything you’d want your editor and publisher to be – funny, encouraging, determined and absolutely positive. I’m proud and ever so grateful that Farmer Falgu and I found a great home at Karadi Tales, which is an independent publisher in India, making forays into the world market.
Karadi Tales is primarily a picture-book and audio-book publisher – I love their songs and readings – my nephew has a stack of them and we listen to some so often that we know the words by-heart. Having said that, KT has just published a Middle-grade book too.
As the final instalment of the discussion on children’s book for this week’s twitter chat, I asked Shobha the same questions I asked Sayoni Basu. And this is what she said.
1) What are the major challenges for an Indian children’s book publisher on the world stage and within India?
– India lacks crossover books – books that can travel. Most of the books that are published by Indian publishers are too contextual to India. If the books have to travel, they have to have a universal appeal.
For example, Farmer Falgu may be a farmer from India but the central crux of each story in the series reveals his resourcefulness which in turn is universal.
The language too is quite important. Colloquial words and phrases may limit potential readership.
– Indian publishers lag behind the international publishers in terms of sourcing high-quality and diverse illustrators who have a repertoire of varied styles.
– Distribution in the foreign markets has been a challenge. Several things are required of a publisher, including a strong backlist of books.
2) When you go to Bologna, what are your impressions of the market compared to Indian books?
The books that are produced abroad are higher in quality – production and illustrations.
Do we have more variety?
– No. India does not have that kind of variety.
Are Indian books lacking in any aspect?
– Indian books lack in several aspects. The Indian market is heterogeneous – books are produced to cater to people from all walks of life. In terms of quality, unfortunately, it leaves us neither here nor there.
Until about 15 years ago, folktales and mythology based stories were regurgitated, but things are turning around now.
3) What is your experience in selling rights to world markets? Does the west want to buy very traditional content? Do they want to fit inside the multicultural box or are they willing to look at contemporary stuff too?
If a book is well produced, well illustrated and the story is well told then there are takers for the book in the market. They do not want to buy only traditional content. They are willing to look at contemporary stuff as well.
4) Do you get support from international and Indian bodies to help with the costs of attending world book fairs? Is your presence imperative?
Yes, we do. Bologna supports publishers and helps them attend the fair, as does Frankfurt through their fellowships and invitational programmes. However, this support is not meant to be continuous – it is only meant to give the publisher a platform. In India, Capexil provides the publisher with the necessary support.
If the goal of a publisher is to make the book travel then their presence is imperative. Agents may not know the books as thoroughly as the publisher does.
5) Should India carve its own space in the book market and not worry about whether US and UK buy rights? What other markets are more welcoming to Indian books?
Of course, we should carve our own space in the market and not worry about the UK or the US – as long as we do not compromise on the quality of the story, illustrations or production standards.
6) Can you recommend three Indian books that any child in any part of the world should read?
The Rumour | Written by Anushka Ravishankar and Illustrated by Kanyika Kini
Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip / Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market | Written by Chitra Soundar and Illustrated by Kanika Nair
Monkeys on a Fast – Audiobook | Written by Kaushik Viswanath, Illustrated by Shilpa Ranade and Narrated by Sanjay Dutt
Thank you Shobha – for recommending my book and also giving candid answers to my questions. It is clear that we have a long way to go to bring Indian books to world stage but it is not hard as we think it is.
We are chatting about Indian books and their place in the world stage at 6 pm GMT today, 24th April 2015, with hashtag #storiesfromindia – Don’t miss it!!!!
I met Devika at a talk arranged by Duckbill Books in New Delhi on the eve of Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, November 2014. I was inspired her passion for letting children be – let them read what they want, if they don’t want to discuss it with parents, that’s fine, she said.
Then I met her two days later again at the Duckbill breakfast and we’ve been in touch via social media. When I started discussing books from India, Devika was my first choice for an opinion on reading by children and writing for children in India.
Dr. Devika Rangachari has won several awards for her children’s writing. Her book, Growing Up (Children’s Book Trust, 2000) was on the Honour List of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) in 2002.
Here is our discussion on writing for children.
1. What books did you read growing up? What do you think are the big differences between the books of then to now?
I read anything and everything that I could lay my hands on when I was growing up. Among my favourites were Enid Blyton and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer; later, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and A.J. Cronin. I remember reading several Russian folktale collections as well. Indian books hardly featured in my scheme of things.
I think a significant difference between the books of then and now relates to themes.
Contemporary young adult books, for instance, focus on topics that might earlier have been considered unsuitable reading matter for children/ adolescents and would, at best, have been treated with coyness. The globalisation of literature has also played a large part in this change.
2. As a writer, how do you choose a subject or a theme for your books? Do you have a specific reader in mind? Is that reader Indian? Do you think about an international audience when you write the book?
As I am a historian, I enjoy writing historical fiction based on my research on women in early medieval India who remain invisible in the mainstream historical narrative. Through my books, I hope to counter any incipient gender bias at an early stage and make my readers aware of extraordinary women in history who do not otherwise feature in their textbooks. I don’t really have a specific reader of a particular nationality in mind, although my characters are always Indian.
If I have written it well, the book can be enjoyed by anyone anywhere.
3. Do you go into schools and the community to meet your readers? What do they tell you about today’s books and what they are reading?
Some of my publishers send me on regular school visits so that I can interact with my target audience. What is always apparent to me is that children do read despite all the naysayers and prophets of doom—and despite all the competing distractions available to them.
In addition, their reading is seamless in that they don’t particularly focus on culture-specific books but are eager to read books that emanate from anywhere in the world. International publishing phenomena are equally popular here.
Of course, there is a huge discrepancy between the reading skills and choices of children who attend private, English-medium schools and have easy access to books, and their vernacular-speaking counterparts who constitute the majority.
4. Do you wish your book would be published in the UK and US and be considered for prizes like the Carnegie?
Yes, it would be great if my books were to be published in the US and UK, and compete for the Carnegie and other prestigious writing awards. At present, there is a dearth of awards in India instituted to identify and commend the best in children’s writing.
5. What support would you like from the bookshops in India?
It would help enormously if they could display/ promote children’s books by Indian authors in a prominent manner instead of shoving them away into inaccessible, dingy corners that is largely the norm. So while one could literally stumble over stacks of Rick Riordan, for instance, one would be hard put to even locate one’s book in the average bookstore!
6. And lastly can you tell us three books from India that every child in every country should read?
The Grasshopper’s Run by Siddhartha Sarma
Swami and Friends by R K Narayan
and of course Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari
If youhave a view and you want to discuss, join me on Twitter on 24th Apr 2015 (Friday) at 6 pm GMT with hashtag #storiesfromIndia