Nathan Kumar Scott has been a theatre director, designer, playwright, puppeteer and storyteller. He is currently the director of an educational foundation which provides youth and educators the opportunity to travel, volunteer and study abroad as a means to gain greater understanding of the world and themselves.
The bio at the place he works reads:
Nathan was born and raised in India, speaks fluent Hindi, and studied at Woodstock School in the Himalayas. He holds an M.A. from the University of Washington in South Asian Studies and a B.A. from Oberlin College in anthropology. Nathan has been a Watson Fellow, studying non-formal education throughout South and Southeast Asia, as well as a Fulbright Fellow in India, studying Indian puppetry and performing arts. Besides his many years and extensive experience in India, Nathan has travelled and worked in East and West Africa (he speaks some Ki-Swahili); Central and South America (teaching college courses in Spanish at Universidad de las Americas in Mexico, volunteering in the Ecuadorian rainforests); and East and Southeast Asia (studying Bahasa Indonesia while doing research in Indonesia, living and working in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines). Nathan is a “Global Nomad” and yet there are still many places he would like to go – Patagonia, Easter Island, the Great Barrier Reef…
His books were reviewed here earlier and we now have Nathan with us:
ST - What drew you to writing for children?
Nathan - I have always been interested in stories and myths, but before I began to write for children I was a performer. Theatre, puppetry, dramatic storytelling was how I expressed myself. I continue to be very interested in live theatre and performing, but clearly written stories and books have a much wider circulation. With a book, your stories take on a life of their own, far beyond your reach. For me, the transition from performed stories to written stories was fairly easy. And even now that I am more known as a children’s writer instead of children’s performer, I prefer to “tell” my tales rather than “read” them!
Born and raised in India of American parents, you speak Hindi; your books have Indonesian folk tales and Indian folk art. How do you see books/stories help bridging cultures, in formal and non-formal education?
What is so fascinating and wonderful about stories is that they travel so readily and so easily. Stories are carried around the world, and so very few elements of folklore are ever “pure” or truly isolated. In stories we find our common humanity, because we can all relate to a story, however distant. So stories become a bridge between cultures. And of course stories carry messages, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. Stories have always been used to teach lessons of one kind or another. So stories are a universal educational tool!
You have been described as a global nomad collecting stories from all over the world. Kanchil, the animal trickster, is adorable and refreshing. How did you come upon Kanchil and these terrific tales?
I was introduced to the character of Kanchil while I was doing research on puppetry in Indonesia. I was on the island of Java studying wayang kulit or traditional shadow puppetry when I was invited to a performance for children. (Most puppetry in Indonesia is geared for adult audiences). I did not know what kind of puppet show I was going to, but a friend encouraged me to go. What I saw was not the traditional tales of wayang kulit but instead a collection of animal tales known as wayang kanchil. I immediately recognized Kanchil as a trickster whom I had never heard of – but clearly related to other trickster figures around the world. This was my introduction into Kanchil’s world!
Tricksters manipulate; mythology is replete with violence and stereotypes, but imagination, wisdom, values and ideas also abound. How do parents decide if it is the right time to give kids a gentle push towards the real world?
That is an interesting question and one which I have wrestled with in writing my stories for young children. Tricksters are multi-faceted and don’t necessarily do what is “right.” Kanchil plays tricks on his friends and gets them into trouble for no apparent reason. But ultimately as parents (I have a 4 year old and a 7 year old) we need to teach our children to live in a complex world. If all we expose them to is a sanitized version of life and reality, then they will be poorly prepared to face the real world. Stories are a ‘safe’ way to give them this exposure because children will only absorb as much as they are ready to.
Is it natural for a storyteller to be inspired to write at some point? How about writers taking up storytelling?
Yes, I suppose so… I think that there is a certain glamour in being an “author”, but the immediate rewards of telling stories to a live audience are so much higher. You get feedback right then and there – which authors never get. But most storytellers do want their stories to last, which is why so many of us have been inspired to put our stories down on paper (though nobody uses real paper any more...)
Writers taking up storytelling? I actually think there are fewer who do. There is some comfort in the distance from your audience which writers get. You get accustomed to the detachment. But storytellers love the immediacy, the engagement, the smiles or laughs – which is why they are storytellers first and foremost, not writers!
How is it different writing/storytelling for audiences in India and abroad?
For younger audiences, there really is no difference. Children are children all around the world, and all children love a good story. But as the audience level gets older, there certainly is a difference. I love writing and telling stories for youth in India, because they are not so quick to lose their innocence. Indian culture is steeped in stories and mythology – even for adults – whereas in the west, there is an artificial divide which separates children from youth and adults. So youth and adults in the west are far less able or willing to embrace childlike fantasies or suspend disbelief. Indian audiences on the other hand have no trouble suspending disbelief, which makes you more fun and engaging to write and tell stories for!
What do you think of the storytelling and children’s publishing scene in India today?
I’ve been very impressed and pleased to see the growth in children’s publishing in India. When I was a child growing up in north India, there was virtually nothing geared for children. The government publishing house had a few children’s titles, and then there was Amar Chitra Katha, but that was about it. So now it is incredible to see all the fantastic work coming out of Indian children’s publishers. Tara has certainly been on the forefront, but there are many others as well. And my impression is that south India has a much more active children’s publishing scene – at least for English language materials.
What did you read as a child? Which children’s books would you recommend?
As a young reader, Dr. Seuss was my absolute favorite author! I continue to read Dr. Seuss to my children today. His sense of childhood imagination, his word play, his rhymes, his silliness and his seriousness continue to inspire me. The first book I ever read was “Go Dog Go”. The book that gave me permission to dream, which encouraged me to untether my imagination, was “McElligot’s Pool.” And even today, “The Lorax” brings tears to my eyes when I read it to my children. Dr. Seuss was an absolute genius! Every child should have at least a few Dr. Seuss books in their collection – my children certainly have more than the average!
But of course now there is so much wonderful children’s literature out there and available. I love picture books because children need good art as well as good stories. Books by Tomie dePaola should not be missed, books by Eric Carle, books by Jan Brett. You can’t go wrong with any of these author-illustrators – my children’s bookshelves are full of them! For somewhat older children, I love Byrd Baylor. Her book “The Table Where Rich People Sit” made quite an impression on me! I could go on and on, but any of these books would be a fantastic start.
You lived in the Himalayas; did that inspire you and influence your writing? Any anecdotes you would like to share?
Living in the Himalayas absolutely inspired me on so many levels. The stark beauty of the mountains, the incredible sunsets over the Doon Valley, the bright rhododendron trees, the verdant moss and ferns during the monsoons, the hardy people who make those mountains their home… But I’m not sure if the mountains have had any direct influence on my writing. I think I’ve been more influenced by India in general – the rich folklore, artistic traditions, music and performance, mythology and stories.
What is your advice to aspiring children’s writers? What kind of training is beneficial?
My advice to aspiring children’s writers is to take your stories to your audience. Read them, tell them, perform them – in schools, libraries, or wherever there are groups of children. Children are your most honest critics – they will let you know whether you have a story which engages them, bores them, or puts them to sleep. When I write, I imagine that I am actually telling my stories to a group of children. This automatically gives you an active rather than passive voice
The best way to be engaging as a children’s writer is to know what interests them. Spend time around children. Don’t dumb your stories down or underestimate their capacity to grasp complex themes. Above all, write well, because children deserve our very best! If you are an aspiring children’s writer, keep at it – I look forward to reading your stories.
[pic courtesy Tara Books]