Sunday, March 03, 2013

In conversation with Asha Nehemiah

Asha Nehemiah
Asha Nehemiah’s books brought out by CBT - Mrs. Woolly’s Funny Sweaters, Wedding Clothes, Granny’s Sari, Surprise Gifts, The Runaway Wheel, and The Rajah’s Moustache – are sure to delight 3 to 6 year-olds, and discerning 30+ readers!

Her books for age 6 and above - The Mystery of the Secret Hair Oil Formula, The Mystery of the Silk Umbrella, Sir Lawley's Ghost & Other Stories (to be reissued as The Boy Whose Nose Was Rose & Other Stories), Zigzag and Other Stories - are full of fun, fantasy and adventure.  Most recently published are the Meddling Mooli books. Her book with Duckbill ‘Trouble with Magic’ will be out in April. Her stories also appear in anthologies like ‘Grandpa Fights an Ostrich’.

In 2013, Asha Nehemiah along with Aditi De, Poile Sengupta, Roopa Pai, Shyam Madhavan Sarada aka Greystroke, Vidya Mani, Vijayalakshmi Nagaraj and Vimala Malhotra, launched Bookalore, Bangalore's Big Little Book Club – an initiative to bring book related events to children in Bangalore.

ST-ers have greatly enjoyed Asha Nehemiah’s writing, feels wonderful to have her here with us. I came away with the thought that the people behind the books we love are as warm and welcoming as the books themselves.

ST - How did you begin writing for children?
Asha - I began by writing one-off stories for children’s magazines and children’s pages in the newspapers. I was also writing articles for adults and copy-editing manuscripts at that time. I discovered that in writing children’s fiction, I could experiment crazily with humour and fantasy in a way I just couldn’t in other types of writing, so naturally I started writing more for children and now I rarely write for adults.

Your stories published by CBT are simple yet inventive, touching (without being sad) yet fun, and appeal to both children and adults. You seem to have your hand on the pulse of the reader. What is the inspiration for your stories?
More than inspiration, I think it’s the desire to tell stories that capture the colourful, funny, crazy world we actually live in – in a way that children can enjoy.

Do you think books for children should not ignore the harsh realities of life?
Books for children should definitely not ignore the harsh realities of life. Children should be exposed to these but in terms that they can handle. Books should make children aware of these realities and get them to think about the issues raised, but not leave an aftertaste of despair. Even in the most fantastic and funny story – there can be glimpses of the real world and I really like introducing these glimpses in my books.

You have written books for the 3-6 age group and for older children too. How different is it writing for a slightly older audience?
Writing for every age-group or reading level comes with its own set of challenges. When I write for older children I can be more inventive with the plots, use multiple storylines in a single novel. In Mystery of the Silk Umbrella I had such fun weaving 3 different storylines into one exciting adventure. 3 different sets of people wanted the Silk umbrella – all for different reasons.  For younger children the story has to be engaging even if I’m allowed only 600 words – 600 simple words to do so. Most of my CBT books are just 600 words long.  This is challenging in a different way.

Do you think authors are now required to do more than write a good story? Do they have to be out there (and have an online presence), taking part in marketing and promotion? What do you think of this trend? Would you rather just write, or do you enjoy the interaction?
The most important thing for any author is to write a good story. That comes first. Sadly, the best story can languish unread if the publisher doesn’t invest some time, money, thought into promoting the book. Yes, authors have to be a part of the process. I love the interaction but it does eat into the time I should be writing. Ideally, I would like to spend about a quarter of my working schedule meeting my readers and promoting my books and rest of my working hours writing books.

Please tell us about Bookalore.
Bookalore is something many of us were thinking about independently and it was wonderful the way we all came together to make it a reality. It is an initiative by a group of authors and illustrators in Bangalore who decided that they must do their bit to bring books  and children together in  innovative and fun ways. We’ve just started and we’ve got lots of great ideas about different ways of introducing Indian children’s books, as well as international titles, to readers in engaging and activity-based events. We also hope to make authors and illustrators more visible.

What has the feedback been from young readers who have read your books? Any anecdotes you would like to share?
I visit schools regularly and interact with my readers. I’ve had such wonderful responses from them and every visit throws up a question or two that I’ve never encountered before. That’s how differently kids can think.  Questions like:  Why didn’t Granny use a clothes pin on the sari? Why does your story start in the middle of the night? You haven’t mentioned whether the stones they threw away were actually precious stones. And so on. They draw me pictures and posters. One little boy slipped a stone into my hand telling me it was a semi-precious stone. When I told him, I shouldn’t really take a semi-precious stone, he said, “It’s alright, I have the other half”.
One of the best times I had was with the children in a school in Chennai. They had made me a bottle of ‘Wondergro Supersonic Hair Tonic.” (from my book Mystery of The Secret Hair-Oil Formula) and drawn a picture of the formula from the book. Seeing how delighted I was, they felt it was wise to caution me not to actually use the hair oil because it was made from food colouring. That was really memorable.

The Wondergro Supersonic Hair Tonic

Top picks among children’s books.
As they come to my mind at this point:

Cool by Michael Morpurgo
Catherine, Called Birdy  Karen Cushman
Smith Leon Garfield
The Boy in the Dress David Walliams
The Why-Why Girl, Mahasweta Devi
Pranav’s Picture, Nandini Nayar
Barber at the Zoo, Pratibha Nath
The Sign of the Beaver, Elizabeth George Speare
Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech
Two Weeks with the Queen, Morris Gleizman

We have had a couple of publishing houses in India set up children’s imprints in the recent past. Do you think children’s literature is getting the attention it deserves?
Not at all. Children’s books in India fall into the vicious cycle where they are not promoted properly, so they don’t sell well or make a profit so they’re not considered worth promoting and so the vicious cycle continues. As an author, there’s still so much to despair about in the current scenario.  But there is an inkling of change with new children’s publishing houses and imprints. I am optimistic.

What more do you think can be done to promote reading - by publishers, bookstores, libraries, schools, parents, and blogs like Saffron Tree?
This is too profound a question for me to do justice to in an interview. Briefly, I think parents first and schools next are the two most influential and important factors in promoting reading. Parents have to be good role models and if the parent enjoys reading and is willing to spend money and time getting books for the home, the child has a good start. Parents should read to children and with children from the time they are babies.   Publishers have to do their bit in giving children the widest variety of great books – something for every reading taste. Historical fiction, sports stories science fiction, travel writing, comics – children need lots of options.

Saffron Tree is a great resource guiding parents about the best books available. The reviewers have won the trust of readers and I know that if ST says a book is good – it must be good.

[pics courtesy Asha Nehemiah]


sathish said...

Asha Nehemiah,

What a lovely interview. I loved reading about the responses from kids for your stories.

We love your stories at home.

Arundhati, Thank you for a wonderful interview.

Arundhati said...

Thanks Satish, my pleasure. I loved this - "Seeing how delighted I was, they felt it was wise to caution me not to actually use the hair oil because it was made from food colouring."

I still remember how I felt after reading Mrs. Woolly's Funny Sweaters and Granny's Sari the first time. Those two are my favourites, though I love them all! Even now, after so many rereads, her stories leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

sathish said...

Arundhati, That split me up as well. She has a nice sense of humour!

Unknown said...

Thanks Satish, Arundhati. I'm thrilled to be 'In Conversation' with Saffron Tree!

Arundhati said...

Thank you for all the fun we've had reading your stories :) I hope many more children enjoy them. Look forward to your new titles

the mad momma said...

Great interview, Arundhati. We love Asha's writing too.

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