Iconic in the world of children's books, a superlative editor and a visionary, we are excited to have Sandhya Rao's interview here at Saffron Tree, as a part of CROCUS 2010. Thank you Sandhya!
As you read through, you will discover what makes her tick, her passion for books and writing and some nuggets about the publishing world.
How did your journey into writing for children begin?
I have always enjoyed writing, even as a child and I think I always wrote in a more ‘adult’ fashion than was appropriate for my age simply because I used to read a LOT. So, very early, I decided to be a journalist, never mind that I didn’t know a thing about what that entailed. I think I thought a journalist just sat back in her chair and wrote. Well, I did become a mainstream journalist, one of those lucky ones that worked on the desk but also wrote. Meanwhile, I had got back in touch with Indu (my dear, schoolfriend) and Radhika (who had married Indu’s brother and who too I had known since way back) after some years, and we worked together in Delhi. Radhika and I somehow would always talk about children’s books (she had been a passionate teacher) and would talk about one day doing books for children. Then, it so happened, I wrote a story for her birthday, made it into a book… soon after we started Tulika. That’s how it began. Because then, we needed books to publish!
What triggers your stories? Do you have any favourites among your works?
Anything can trigger a story. And sometimes, nothing. It just pops into your head. No, no favourites, each is a special baby, with its own special history. The best award is to think that maybe some child, somewhere, is reading the book and feeling something special as a result of reading it.
You are an editor as well. Does that hone the writer in you?
Absolutely. You tend to become more critical of your writing. It can also push you to the edge when you begin to think that nothing you write, works! It can put a dampner on spontaneity, so that’s something to watch out for.
Writers often say that travel and childhood impacted them in a big way. Would you like to highlight any aspects that were enriching/ turning points, in your case?
Well, I grew up completely free, in a small town, where everybody knew everybody. Then I was in boarding school, a small one, where I felt homesick for just one day and then I loved it, though I know of others who hated it. Basically, I was lucky enough to be able to get completely immersed in all the experiences that came my way. I was (and still am), what I call, an “enthu cutlet”. I had a wonderful teacher in junior and middle school, called Mr Philip Kureekat. I have no idea where he is now, but I shall never forget him. I remember once, we girls had to embroider hankies and the boys, I don’t remember what they had to do. Almost all the girls got their moms to do it for them. Now, I didn’t even realize this was a possibility! So I very painstakingly embroidered my name across one side of the hanky. It looked awful. I remember Mr Kureekat telling me that mine was the best because I had done it myself… I must have been about 9 then. I have never forgotten how I felt. He used to also cut me down to size when occasion demanded! Then there were some other people too… but as far as experiences go, the experience of visiting small villages in Tamilnadu on an assignment to see what the ground realities were with how Dalits were being treated (when I was working in Frontline, Chennai) – that was a major turning point.
Who were your favorite writers when you were growing up? What books would feature on your Must read Top 10 picture books for children from across the world?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I read everything: among my favourites were Paul Gallico, Louisa May Alcott, Susan Coleridge, Edgar Wallace, L. M. Montgomery, Angela Brazil, … lots and lots more. And yes, of course, Astrid Lindgren.
Top 10 picture books: I bypassed the picture books when I was young. But now I’d say: Procession by Micky Patel, Max’s Bath by Rosemary Wells, The Snowking’s Daughter by Sowmya Rajendran, … there are so many, my mind’s going blank!
You write for pre schoolers and for young adults as well? How would your approach be different apart from the obvious?
Well, I haven’t written for young adults as yet (unless you’re thinking of books like Suresh and the Sea, and My Friend the Sea). I love to write for little ones. Fundamentally, though, writing is about communicating, having a conversation with yourself/your readers. At least that’s how I see it. And the basic difference I see is that in your conversation with little ones, you have to be clear, explicit, whereas with older readers you can be alittle more ambiguous, you can assume much more, your reference points can reach out much further.
How do books that offer a wholesome flavour of ethnic culture (such as Tulika) fare elsewhere in the world? Can you name some books, publishers in other countries?
I think they’re faring much better of late. The West at least is slowly trying to shed its baggage of preconceived notions, or its rather limited ideas of what being multicultural means. I have to put this in context: India is such a multicultural, pluralistic, multilingual society/culture, that our understanding/acceptance, general speaking, is far more widely spread. Often what is understood as ethnic culture is limited to old texts and stories and pictures and so on. The world of contemporary society is often overlooked. It’s important to understand this as well. We have to understand cultures, unfamiliar cultures, as they are now, as they have evolved, with their histories and practices and ways of life, and not frozen in one exotic time.
There are publishers such as Kane and Miller, NorthSouth, Charlesbridge, Frances Lincoln and so on who are open to such books… they are selective, but they are willing to consider other cultures/books,
At and About Tulika:
How would you describe the children's book scenario in India today? Where do you see Tulika in the next decade?
It’s a big market. Many people see this, and are exploiting its income generating potential. Besides, with the demand for reading materials on the up, more and more players are jumping into the fray. What we have is a mixed bag… a lot of mediocre stuff, some outstanding work. What’s upped the ante generally, is better production and packaging. We see ourselves as continuing to do great books, and more than that, that more of our books reach more children in more languages. Our star is the reader, not the writer/illustrator/publisher.
As an editor, how do you decide which language/s to translate a book into? What all languages are you comfortable writing in? While challenging, isn't translation a bit stifling?
If someone wants a book in a certain language, and we can get a minimum printrun to make it viable, we will be happy to add that language to our list. That’s how one book was done in Oriya, and another in Urdu. I am comfortable in English, I take a shot at Hindi… sometimes I fancy myself in Tamil, but I don’t know it, it’s just a feeling that I do! I love the sound of languages, and am not shy of trying to speak any language…. So, no, I do not think translation is at all stifling. I see it as a challenge. We are natural translators in India, we’re constantly translating in our heads… I believe it is a strength whose power we have not yet acknowledged, let alone exploited.
Would it be right to say that Indian languages tend to express more using fewer words than English ? What has been your experience with bi-lingual books ? How does that impact the book in terms of page size, font size, etc? Is that why Tulika books differ in size?
That’s not true of all languages. Kannada, for instance, seems to be very concise, whereas I often find Tamil is not. Sometimes some languages just don’t have the words to express something… Bilingual books are a great way to build our language strengths. I, for one, LOVE the idea of bilingual books. I remember seeing a Pablo Neruda book, in Spanish and English, and I loved it. I will sometimes even now just read aloud the Spanish, even though I don’t know it, but I know what it says because of the translation…. I have seen small children also do this with bilingual books and/or with books in different languages. I have seen them revel in reading aloud together, English and Tamil.
There are many considerations that determine the size of a book. Of course, for bilingual books you have to make sure there’s enough space for text, especially since languages like Tamil take nearly twice the space that English does. This holds true for single language books as well. It would be boring to have all books in the same size. Then again, it depends upon the story. Some require larger pictures, some smaller. Then, the length of the text. If it’s a word book, you do need to have larger pictures, and so on…. Sometimes, the illustrator might just have got it wrong…..no, just joking!!!
How do you conceptualize a series such as the endangered animal one or the one on Looking at Art? Are there any plans for music, crafts, dance and so on?
The animals series happened because Radhika saw the photographs at Latika Rana’s place and listened to the narrative. We have such few books about Indian animals for small children. Since it was for small children, the text would have to be minimal. Then it seemed to lend itself well to the bilingual format. That’s how that happened. Looking at art is something we always wanted to do, and here was a writer who had the credentials to do it. Yes, we do want to do music, crafts and so on… when the right writer comes along.
Can you tell us what you look out for when manuscripts are sent to Tulika publications? How do you shortlist?
The most important thing is the story has to appeal. There has to be something ‘different’, or ‘appealing’. It has to have visual possibilities. If it’s written well, that’s perfect. Sometimes, it’s not written well, or the point has been missed, but the idea is great… if the author is willing to take suggestions, and willing to work along with us, then that’s good.
How do you zero in on the illustrator? Assuming the story comes in first?
Usually the story comes first. We’d love to have pictures first, too. We look at various people’s work and see if they have a style and an inclination that might suit the story. There’s a lot of upping and downing that happens, lots of discussion, so both author and illustrator have to be willing for that.
What about translating into foreign languages and reaching facets of Indian culture/ folklore to non Indians?
Many of our books have been done in other languages. For instance, Takdir the Tiger Cub, Line and Circle, My Mother’s Sari… these have been done in Spanish, French, Somali, Chinese, Turkish… and so on…
Are there any plans to collaborate with similar publishing houses such as Tulika across the globe exchanging stories - widening what is on offer to children in terms of cultural sensitization?
We would be happy to collaborate. That’s what co-publishing, or selling rights is all about. For instance, a whole lot of our books were done by Oxford Karachi – and we’re thrilled because children in Pakistan will be seeing Indian books, with their own ethos. There are points of similarity and points of difference. My Mother’s Sari, for instance, has been published in the US… so when you think that ‘American’ kids are seeing this very ‘Indian’ themed book… that’s exciting and promising.
Does Tulika plan to do audio books and what is your opinion of e-books/ kindle, etc?
We don’t as yet plan to do audio books ourselves. If somebody else wants to do them and if we are on the same page, then that would work. People say ebooks, kindle are the way of the future. Me, I’m oldfashioned, give me a regular book to hold and touch and smell any day….
When you take a regional folk tale/ cumulative tale/ rhyme and publish it are there any copyright issues? It is publicly available is it not?
Well, these are in the public domain. In any case, folktales, for instance, change with every telling…. Sometimes change completely. That’s how you have different versions in different parts of the world. They belong to the world’s resource, I suppose.
Anything in particular that you would like to tell the contributors and readers of Saffron Tree?
There’s nothing to beat books and reading! You really can travel the world with them.
Sandhya Rao needs no introduction to most Indian readers but for the rest:
Sandhya Rao writes for children and works as Editor at the Chennai-based Tulika Publishers which has pioneered new standards in children’s books. Growing up in different parts of India has given her a special feeling for people and languages and cuisines. She opted out of an active career in mainstream journalism to help a friend realise the dream of creating exciting books for children in many languages. She has talked about books from India in many parts of the world and best enjoys sharing stories with children everywhere. Some of her well-known books are Ekki Dokki, Sunu- sunu Snail: Storm in the Garden, My Friend the Sea, Grandma’s Eyes, Dosa, Picture Gandhi, My Gandhi Scrapbook and My Mother’s Sari. For more about her books, visit here..
Sandhya can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org