Saturday, April 18, 2015

Meet Annie Besant, the author of Whimsy

Written by: Annie Besant
Illustrations: Ruchi Mhasane

Published by: Karadi Tales

Written by Annie Besant and illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane, Whimsy is a charmingly rendered picture book from Karadi Tales. The tale is spun around two playful and fun characters - Mr. Prat and Ms. Fox and their delightful rendition of what whimsy means to each.

Whimsy is wearing a cat for a hat, feeding it with custard and cream in silver spoon, purple skirts, yellow parasols, riding unicycles wearing pink pantaloons and many more such delicious details that turn the text into a rich multi-sensory treat.

Ruchi's pencil and soft watercolor strokes lend a soothing feel, perfectly marrying the words with the pictures. The illustrations are indeed the real icing on the yummily whipped Whimsy cake.

Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Annie Besant, the author of Whimsy. I had the pleasure of asking her a few questions to hear the inside scoop behind the Whimsy story.

1) Whimsy is a very different book from Mala's silver anklets. We would love to hear how the inspiration for Whimsy came about.

Quince! I doubt I even know how to pronounce that fruit (though it sounds lovely in my head!). I was dreaming of sweet juicy fruits one hot summer’s afternoon, when my mind wandered to quince. Not that I have eaten it in any form or shape…but something about the word was very enticing to me. Sharp, lemony…whimsical! I can almost imagine Quince to be a princess in shining armour, with curls that could poke your eyes out, wearing her boots front to back.

So quinces, naturally, led me to thinking of Edgar Lear’s poem The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and the famous line:
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

And that is how the mad duo of Mr Prat and Ms Fox took birth on a page that was hastily torn from my very out-dated calendar diary. I’m not a proponent of page-tearing from books, but Mr Prat made me do it. So I wrote out the courtship of these mad creatures.

2) Please tell us about how your children's writing journey began.

It began years ago at one of my favourite independent bookstores in New York. I was living in New Jersey at that time and would often spend my weekends at this bookstore in New York with my favourite cup of caffeine. Ensconced in a corner, I would browse through book after book. It was here that I bumped into bookshelves sagging with children’s books.

I began reading them, though earlier I had had no interest in children’s or young adult books. They pulled me into their world – a complex world expressed in tiny word frames. I think it intrigued me that children’s writers have so many limitations to work with: reader’s age and vocabulary, complexity of theme, suitable content etc. Yet, a picture book’s few pages can contain an amazing wealth of colour, illustration, humour, warmth, cleverness, and kindness... the list of merits is unending.

I was a writer myself at that point, dabbling with short stories, poetry, with dreams of writing a grand novel. And when I read those children’s books, I read without thinking that I would one day write them.

Then I moved to Chennai a few years ago. One fine day, a little girl inspired me to write my first picture book Mala’s Silver Ankelts. When that got picked up by Tulika, I felt brave enough to write more. Next, Scholastic picked up my manuscripts, then Karadi Tales and HarperCollins.

At some level, I confess I’m surprised that I’m a children’s author. I never would have picked that path for myself … but I guess that’s why it’s called life!

3) Any other project in the works?

A few books that are waiting to see the light of day – and, happily, almost all of them with Karadi Tales! There’s a romp of a story titled The Dragon’s Toothache, which has our heroine bravely climbing into a dragon’s mouth to try and get to the root of its toothache. But when she gets swallowed in the process, what she finds waiting for her is truly hilarious. Then there is a series titled Gus the Bus – all about a bus set in fun-loving Chennai.

I’m also working on a sequel to The Pterodactyl’s Egg (HarperCollins, India)… and facing the challenge that any author who writes sequels faces – how to make the next book the mother of all sequels! I’m toying with an idea for a graphic novel and trying to figure out the next step.

4) Share with us a little more about Whimsy and how it was working with Karadi Tales on the project.

Whimsy is one of my personal favourites. Where most of my picture books are grounded in reality, Whimsy is pure fantasy. Writing it was sheer fun…and I loved coming up with ways for Mr Prat and Ms Fox to outdo each other. Making up things comes easily to me and so Whimsy was full of strange fancies and notions. In my own way, it was also a salute to Lear’s whimsical lovers – Owl and Cat (in fact, an observant reader may even have noticed them sailing by in a boat in one of the spreads).

However, if you look closely, there are other subtle elements in there that question and push stereotypes. The world still has strong views about who can fall in love with whom, how the very subtle dance of courtship should be conducted, and more importantly strong views about accepting or not accepting those who are different from the usual herd. I would like to think this book provides the opportunity for parents to discuss these issues with their children.

Working with Karadi Tales was a unique and collaborative experience. Shobha Viswanath and Manasi Subramaniam (the then commissioning editor at Karadi Tales) were both very hands-on from the word go. They questioned the story when they had to, challenged it when needed to, nurtured it at all times, babied it like crazy, and found an amazing illustrator (Ruchi Mhasane) for it. That is how I knew this book would be a success – because it passed the tests laid down by two of the most empowered and accomplished women it’s been my pleasure to know. I was also included in the illustration process. This helped ensure that there were no conflicting visions for the story. And what can I say about Ruchi’s art – bewitching!

5) Any thoughts on the importance of reading picture books that you would like to share with our readers?

My thoughts in the exact order than I’m thinking them:
1. Reading will not make you grow taller. But you may meet a giant who will carry you on his shoulders.
2. Reading will not help you with your math scores. But you may save the world with nothing more than your kindness.
3. Reading will not help you like the dark any better. But you may make friends with the dragon under your bed and find out its afraid of the dark too.
4. Reading will not fill your stomach. But you may be invited to a mad tea-party to answer unanswerable riddles and recite nonsensical poetry.
5. Reading will not help you stay the same forever…because you may find a giant peach, or stumble into a chocolate factory, or fly a Hippogriff.

So read! It will show you worlds that you will never want to leave. Read. Read. Read.

6) On a fun note, this question stems from knowing your love for Alice. What strange creatures would your wonderland have if you were to create one?

Mr Prat, for sure! Perhaps mermaids who wear top hats and tap dance? Oh, and a Wagabaloo. What is that, you ask? You’ll just have to jump down the rabbit hole to find out, or is it climb up the rabbit hole?

7) Do you conduct any book reading sessions or writing workshops in Chennai?

Yes, many and often! I love interacting with children of all ages, and more so with their parents who are often curious about how to get their sons or daughters to read more.

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