Anushka Ravishankar, writer of some of our favourite children’s books talks about the grown up business of writing for little ones.
We knew we were fans of Anushka Ravishankar when we first picked up To Market, To Market during one of our shopping trips with Baby Baguette. The child loves anything by Tara Books, but this one was special. What she enjoyed most was the swirling whirling rhyme scheme, and before long she was lisping around to the book all over the house. That’s when we decided that we just had to pick Anushka’s brains and find out more about where she got all those wonderful ideas from!
Anushka Ravishankar has written more than twenty-five books for children, many of which have been published internationally and several of which have won international awards. She has worked in publishing, at Tara Books and most recently at Scholastic India as the publishing director. These days, as co-founder of Duckbill, Anushka is spearheading a move to bring exciting new voices in children’s literature to the forefront.
We are thrilled to have her on My Big Red Bag, talking about her inspirations and writing process for our readers.
MBRB: Anushka, as fans of your work, could you tell us a little about how and when you decided to become a children’s book writer?
I always liked writing and I always enjoyed children’s literature, especially nonsense. But I decided to write books for children when I discovered that there was a great dearth of Indian children’s books in the market. This was in the early nineties.
MBRB: What is your writing process like? Do you start with an idea, an image? Do you write every day or only occasionally?
I write very occasionally, and mostly under threat.
Like most writers, I find it impossible to put a flag on when and where the writing process begins. It certainly begins before I put finger to keypad. Sometimes it’s an idea. sometimes it’s an image, but most often it’s a jumble of things – thoughts, images, ideas – which I can only make sense of once I actually start writing.
MBRB: One of the things we’ve enjoyed about your books are the gorgeous illustrations. In fact in some of your works, like Catch That Crocodile! , even the way the words are placed is unique and distinct. What is the collaboration process between the artist and the writer like?
It varies hugely from book to book. It depends on the illustrator, the story itself and on the publisher, who brings the two together. Sometimes I’ve worked from the images, sometimes we do a bit of back and forth, and sometimes I just send the text and the illustrator interprets it visually. But I quite often change the text so that there is that tension between the text and the images, which is crucial to a picture book or in fact, any illustrated book.
I met most of my illustrators long after they’d illustrated my books.
In books like Tiger on a Tree and Catch That Crocodile, the play with the text was done by the brilliant designer, Rathna Ramanathan.
MBRB: You have been writing books for children for nearly 20 years now. Who are some of the other Indian writers and illustrators whose work you personally enjoy?
There’s a long list of illustrators I like. There are the illustrators who’ve been around for years and have more or less blazed the trail, like Pulak Biswas, Suddhasatwa Basu, Vandana Bist and Atanu Roy. Then there are so many younger illustrators: Anitha Balachandran, Priya Kuriyan, Kanyika Kini, Prashant Miranda, Deepti Sunder, Shreya Sen … the list goes on.
As for writers, I love some of the books by Uma Krishnaswami, Ranjit Lal, Paro Anand, Devika Rangachari, Asha Nehemiah, Samit Basu and Siddartha Sarma. But I also look forward to reading more by some of the new young writers (including Samit and Siddhartha), because I think the future of Indian kidlit lies in the hands of young writers.
MBRB: On a different note, what are some of your favourite ‘grown up’ books?
To Kill a Mockingbird is an all-time favourite. Apart from that, I love Ishiguro, there are several crime fiction writers whom I follow, I enjoy the novels of Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. I’m also a die-hard Georgette Heyer fan.I know I’m going out on a limb with this, because people turn up their noses at romance, but I think she’s marvellous and when I’m blue, nothing cheers me up like a Georgette Heyer.
MBRB: So many parents today complain that their children don’t read enough. Why do you think that is so? What can parents do to make their little kids readers from a young age?
I think we need to stop wailing about computers and TV. These things are here to stay and if they appeal to kids more than books do, that’s okay. But I do believe that kids who grow up in a home where books are seen as a happy way to pass the time, where the parents are reading, and the children are being read to from a very early age (and I mean very early – like just-born early), will grow up to be readers. Forcing or nagging kids to read is a terrible idea. It’s like screaming at them to go and have fun, or else!
MBRB: Could you tell us a little bit about Duckbill? How has your journey as a publisher been so far?
At Duckbill, we want to publish books that are compelling and distinctive, with offbeat ideas, contemporary themes and a serious predisposition towards humour. So we have mythological heroes, literary zombies, space-travelling pumpkins, singing monsters and timetelling superdogs. We also have feisty little girls and disgruntled little boys. Our list is a hodge-podge of many things, just like the duckbilled platypus.
The journey has been, like most journeys, a mix of exhilaration, enjoyment, trepidation and fatigue. But mostly enjoyment. Finding new writers and fresh voices has been most enjoyable thing and the business of creating beautiful, unusual books makes us incredibly happy.
MBRB: Anushka, what advise would you give to budding writers, especially to those who are writing for children?
2. Be interested in everything.
3. Write all the time, but don’t expect everything you write to be published.
4. NEVER write down to children.
MBRB: One of the things we’ve enjoyed about your books is that they are so distinctly Indian in their themes and cadence, but at the same time, not based on religion or mythology. Is this something you work on consciously?
I’m not a great fan of religion or mythology, so not basing my books on those things was an easy decision. My books are as Indian as I am. Why would I need to make a conscious effort to be or not be Indian? If there’s one thing I deplore about some of our children’s books, it’s the attempt to focus on the bindi and the sari and the diyas and the idlis, rather than the characters and the story – and if the characters wear saris or eat idlis, that’s normal, isn’t it? Why make a big deal of it?
MBRB: Lastly, here’s a question we ask of all our interviewees. If there was one person from history that you could back and have dinner with, who would it be and why?
Some chef, I guess. I’d like to have a good dinner.
Thanks a lot Anushka!!
To find out more about her work, or to pick up a Duckbill for your little one, we suggest you visit their online stores. Who are some of your favourite Indian children’s authors? Tell us in the comments section below.