Monday, October 25, 2010

Sandhya Rao Speaks to Saffron Tree

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…, 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..

She likes nothing better than to curl up with a book. She also likes messing about with her hands, and has a keen ear for music and movies. She lives in a cosmopolitan locality of Chennai which is home to many schools and trees.

Sandhya can be reached by email at


sathish said...

It was very nice to read this interview.

More power to "enthu cutlets" of the world!

Thank you Sandhya and artnavy.

artnavy said...

It was very nice meeting Sandhya in person as well.

sandhya said...

Wow! Art, wonderful questions. And Sandhya Rao has answered them so affectionately! You have really brought both the writer/editor and the Tulika publishers to us so well.

Sandhya's views resonate so much with a lot that I believe in- "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." I remember a conversation I had with Prabha regarding this!

"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." Something that I've dealt with in a later post of mine.

And A also has an ambition to become a writer, and thinks she can "because she reads so much!" Well, I'll say thanks, Sandhya Rao-I was smiling as I read your reply.

sandhya said...

And we have really loved "My Mother's Sari." I have lost count of the number of people we have gifted it to. It is A's 'favouritest' book among all her Tulikas, of which we have many. In fact, I have caught her reccmmending it to people!

artnavy said...

I am sure we will see A publish one day and maybe with Tulika themseleves?

I loved all of Sandhya's answers too and I shld link all her books that we have reviewed here at ST

Swapna said...

Thanks for this lovely interview...

We got to know more abt Tulika and the person/s behind it...

And Art, maybe ur A can also come up with her book on Indian puppets very soon...

utbtkids said...

Art, this is such a treat.

I couldn't help laughing when I read Sandhya called herself an enthu-cutlet :)

Well one could see it in her books. Be it a simple book on dosa or a book about India's journey to freedom....

My personal fav is THE STORY OF AUG 15th. A great way of explaining what freedom meant for different people.

How does the editor in you impact the writer in you is such a great question. I never thought about that perspective.

This is an interview I will come back and read again.

Choxbox said...

WOW! Here’s to enthu-cutlets!

Art, lets work together and somehow do the next logical thing after an interview - get her over to Bangalore!

I remember when i first saw a copy of My Mother’s Sari. The bookshop owner (an acquaintance) came over and asked me why I was smiling so much! Gifted it to my kids’ old school in the UK, they have asked for more copies!

Poppy said...

Arthi, you missed your calling.. That was a phenomenal interview! And Sandhya sounds just as I thought she would.
My fav line..
"We are natural translators in India, we’re constantly translating in our heads…"

Choxbox said...

And Qs from the younger readers of Tulikas in these parts: Why the name Tulika? Why the black bird? Why do all children’s book publishers have a bird (this comes from seeing the penguin and the puffin I guess) as their logo?

Any answers Art?

Tharini said...

Very interesting to hear about the world of publishing straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Thanks Sandhya for taking the time to share so much with us. I loved what you said about a book being a conversation with oneself and other children!

Art, your questions were well thought out, and as I read them, I realised...Oh yeah, I'd like to know that too!

Sheela said...

Enjoyed reading it, Art, and thanks Sandhya for taking the time! Interesting how Sandhya shares, "(stories)It just pops into your head". I've always been curious about this :)

Artnavy said...

Thanks All!

Have passed on the query to Tulika and to Sandhya Chox...

Am sure they will revert

artnavy said...

Message from Sandhya- Thanks Sandhya!!

Hi Art,

Thanks for the display, and the great responses! Here are some quick answers:

Tulika came from Radhika's husband, Sashi... This was when Radhika and her sister in law Indu (who is Sashi's sister) were going to set up a dtp unit in Delhi, and Sashi suggested this name for the company. Then Radhika moved to Chennai, kept the name. Tulika (pronounced toolika) is the old fashioned feather quill, in Sanskrit, as you may know.

The black bird is actually a crow. Yes, for some reason children's publishers all over the world have birds for their logos, I don't really know why. Maybe because they fly... Anyway, so we wanted a bird, and then we looked around and decided that since the crow was the most common, unmissable bird, and found all over the world, we said, yes, kaka it shall be for us! The crow has a great sense of family, is very clever, and is everywhere...yet is not exotic...


Choxbox said...

Thanks Sandhya and Art!

Will pass the answer on to the child!

Vibha said...

Simply a treat Art. Wonderful questions and answers.

artnavy said...

Sure thing Chox
Remember non exotisising India

Vibha- thanks glad u enjoyed it

Praba Ram said...

A great interview encompassing a whole spectrum of topics. Thanks, Art and Sandhya!

"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." - couldn't agree with you more.

To address the issues of access and reach, wish we had a network of public libraries like we have here in the west. Or even some form of private/public partnership. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

Aline Pereira/ said...

It's great to learn more about Sandhya. She really is a powerhouse of passion, talent and creativity, isn't she?

artnavy said...

You know I was asking Sandhya about Tulika's availability and distribution plans when we met.

All you Tulika lovers, do pressurise book stores and libraries to stock more of them and their ilk.

She sure is... I loved your interview with Tulika at Paper Tigers as well- saw it a couple of days back

Meera Sriram said...

Enjoyed this Sandhya, particularly the story of how Tulika took off and the slice of your childhood. Thanks for being here with us for Crocus!

And BTW, I wonder if the crow is in there also because it was a crow's feather quill that was widely used at one time as a fine pen for writing and drawing :)

Thanks Art for the perfect questionnaire!

artnavy said...

Praba- message from Sandhya

That would be great. Our library movement is not enough to write home about, and we do need to network in a proactive way. Not work only in pockets. That's certainly something we need to learn from other countries/cultures. There's something about a library that's magic... my childhood was a whirl of libraries (some of them pretty poorly stocked, in retrospect), but the smell! I can never forget that smell. And then, we kids would pool our book resources and put together our own library, and actually charge a small amount to borrow. Then we'd go and buy NEW books! MORE books!


Never thought of it that way. Wow.

Ferida said...

Great interview, Sandhya! I totally resonate with what you said - how ideas just pop into your head, how stories are conversations with the reader, and about the value of the printed book, among other things. You must have a gratifying relationship with your authors because you understand publishing from both sides.

Suchitra said...

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