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Sowmya Rajendran has a BA in English from Stella Maris College (Chennai) and an MA in Gender Studies from the University of Sussex (UK). She has published 12 picture books, a YA novel and has also written several short stories for Chandamama magazine. She blogs at http://mediumboss.wordpress.com/
What were your favourite books growing up?
I grew up on a staple diet of Tinkle, Champak, Gokulam and Chandamama like any other kid from my generation. The first book I read from end to end was The Adventurous Four by Enid Blyton. And for a very long time, I never read anyone other than her. I read children’s books by Indian authors much later.
What made you take up writing?
I’ve been interested in writing since childhood. I wrote my share of ‘angsty’ poetry and slowly graduated into prose writing when I got to college. I did consider options like doing medicine or dentistry for a career but I was cured of that pretty soon. Writing was what I was good at and I was lucky enough to end up doing just that. And I’m making enough money doing it!
I love walking into book stores and seeing my books on the shelf. It makes me happy.
How and when did you start writing children’s books and any particular reason why you choose to write for children? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
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.
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.
I never really stopped enjoying children’s books or thought I was too old to read them. When I was doing my MA in the UK back in 2006, a publisher who’d newly entered the children’s books market read my blog and got in touch asking if I’d like to do children’s books for them. Niveditha, my friend from college, and I had already discussed possibilities of doing children’s books together – with me writing and her illustrating them, so we set about creating a series of books called The Underwater Friends. It’s another story that we had a fall-out with the publisher and the series didn’t continue like we’d hoped it would. There were too many differences in opinion.
The genre of children’s literature, what made you take it up?
Nothing made me take it up as such. I like imaginative writing that has a touch of humour. I enjoy creating quirky characters, absurd situations and make-believe worlds. All of these characteristics go well with children’s books.
You’ve published many picture books for children. Can you describe the process of writing one?
A good picture book is one that has a strong concept. And by concept, I don’t mean a moral or a message. There should be an idea in the book that propels it forward and captures the child’s imagination. For me, the writing process starts with this idea. Sometimes, I already know how the story will end. Most times, I let the idea lead me. A lot of people assume that writing picture books is easy because you don’t have to write much. But the art of writing with simplicity and minimal words is a hard one to master. After writing the story, I make it a point to read it aloud to listen to the rhythm of the words – that is how most of my readers will ‘read’ my book, too – and make edits as required.
You’ve said writing for children teaches you ‘not to be a bore’. What is your secret recipe to capturing a child’s imagination?
There is no magic wand you can wave to achieve good writing. What you need to do is work hard at your writing and be open to criticism. Reading a lot helps, too. I can’t stand children’s books that talk down to children and are bent upon drilling morals into their heads. I believe in respecting my audience and creating work that I can enjoy reading, too.
As a mother, has your perspective on writing changed from before? Do you write for ‘her’ now?
I think motherhood is a wonderful learning process on all accounts. As a children’s writer, this is especially so. My daughter is only a year old but we read many books together. I’ve been reading one of my books, Monday to Sunday, to her since the time she was about a month old or so. It’s fascinating to see how her reactions and responses have changed as she’s grown older. Earlier, it was simply the colours in the book and the rhythm of the words that interested her. Then, it was the physical feel of the book itself and the act of turning pages to see the same-but-different-every-time pictures. Now, she loves identifying objects in the book that she’s familiar with – a banana, a pair of shoes, a clock, a bag etc. She even sticks her tongue out like the boy in the book does! You wouldn’t think looking at a simple picture book that children can get so much out of it, but they do! And as a writer, this has been an absolute joy to discover.
In terms of ideas, how do you know a certain theme resonates with an age group?
To start with, I’m not too old myself 🙂 I remember my childhood very well – I had a fantastic time growing up. I was bratty, angsty, dramatic and difficult. This ensured that I had a very colourful childhood with several memorable episodes. Many of my books usually have an autobiographical element in them. Like in The Snow King’s Daughter, the boy, Keshav, rolls himself into a mat and imagines he is in distant lands. I used to do that all the time as a child. The girl in School is Cool plays several rounds of make-believe games inside her head and dawdles around before going to school. Much of Mayil Will Not Be Quiet, the young adult book I co-authored with Niveditha Subramaniam, is also based on real life experiences. When you are not afraid to be proud of the truth, what you write will resonate.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Children who will tell you in the blink of an eye that your story is boring.
Do you think children’s literature has come of age in India?
Yes. This is a very exciting time for children’s books in India. There are several new publishing houses that are bringing out children’s books that are of good quality, lit fests for children’s authors and illustrators, awards and better sales. But there is still room for improvement. Indian children’s books hardly get any display space in big bookstore chains that choose to dump them all into an untidy pile. You only see the Hannah Montanas and Wimpy Kids everywhere. Not that they shouldn’t be around but it is time Indian children’s writers get some space, too. Not because they are Indian but because they are good.
How important is marketing your book? What are the relevant avenues for a genre like yours?
I’m not going to be saintly and tell you that marketing doesn’t matter. I don’t think marketing somehow cheapens your ‘art’ either. If your work is good, telling more people about it makes sense to me. Sending the book out for reviews, organizing events around the book like a launch, story-telling/dramatized readings etc are some ways of doing it. You can also explore options on social media. Merchandizing is another option. For one of my new books, The Pleasant Rakshasa published by Tulika, Jeeva Raghunath, the well-known storyteller, is performing at a children’s store-cum-activity-center. T-shirts with an image of the main character will be sold during the event.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished working on a four book adventure series with Karadi Tales. It should hopefully be out next year. Then there’s the sequel for Mayil Will Not Be Quiet. I’m also working on a book for adults – a satire on moral policing and the absurd patriarchal constraints in our society.
Is there a lot of opportunity for amateur writers now ?
The more number of publishing houses there is, the more opportunities there will be. So yes, there are more opportunities. But if you want to graduate from amateur to published, you have to be willing to do the groundwork. Write, refine, send, wait, wait some more, pester your publisher, be open to editing…and finally relish the moment you see your first book!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
If writing is what you want to do, don’t aspire to write. Just write. Don’t wait for the Muses or for inspiration to strike you…choose what you see around you and write. Telling a story that you know really well, that you see around you every day, is difficult, fulfilling, and rewarding.