by Samantha Kokkat
Anushka Ravishankar, an eminent personality in India’s children’s literature industry, has been working in children’s publishing since 1996 as an editor and writer. She started off as an editor at Tara Books, a groundbreaking independent publishing house, where she wrote her first book Tiger on a Tree. In 2012, she co-founded Duckbill Books, which has won coveted national and international awards. Duckbill now exists as an imprint of Penguin Random House, India.
Anushka has written over twenty books for children, several of which have won awards including the South Asia Book Award for her picture book The Rumour, published by Karadi Tales. Her books have also been featured in the prestigious White Ravens catalogue multiple times. She has written picture books, chapter books and non-fiction for children and young adults. She is best known for her witty tales and nonsense verse, and is lovingly dubbed India’s Dr Seuss. Many of her books were co-published internationally and have been translated widely into numerous global languages.
In this interview, Anushka talks about her approach to writing and her long relationship with books for children.
Q: You co-founded Duckbill with Sayoni Basu in 2012. You worked as an editor at Tara Books before this, and continue to be closely associated with them. The two publishing houses have a different aesthetic and focus, they have distinctive narrative voices, and provide different reading experiences. In many ways Duckbill and Tara capture your breadth and interests as a writer, editor and publisher. Could you tell us a little bit about the different kinds of books that you like to work on? What excites you as you write and search for stories to publish, at Duckbill and at Tara?
A: When I first joined Tara, in 1996, new, independent children’s book publishers were changing the game. It was a good time to be in children’s publishing. The exciting thing about working for Tara was that I could be as silly and absurd as I liked. I started writing picture books in absurd verse while I was working there. I realised that nonsense was the language I was most comfortable in, and I was lucky enough to have found the one publisher who appreciated the absurd as much as I did! I left Tara as an editor in 2001, but whenever I write funny verse, I still always send it first to Tara Books.
When we started Duckbill, Sayoni and I were very sure about what we wanted—new, contemporary voices, telling unusual stories, with plenty of humour. We wanted to publish different genres, but we did not want to do folk tales or mythology because there were plenty of publishers doing those. So we did workshops and found many wonderful new authors. It’s hard to communicate the exhilaration of those early years at Duckbill. Sayoni, Ayushi (our young colleague) and I had so much fun coming up with new series ideas, finding a host of delightful authors, experimenting with genres, illustration styles, layouts and design. We felt that children’s literature in India really needed more books with unusual premises, unexplored genres and fresh, original voices.
Q: You are one of the most widely translated children’s book writers in the country. While your books have a universal quality, they are also rooted in India and the lives of its people. Your stories have been set in Kerala and Maharashtra, places you are familiar with. You advise children to write about familiar things to make their stories richer. The nonsense verse you write is also written in the English that you heard, growing up and living in India. How well do these nuances read after they have been rendered in a different language? Do you work closely with translators to ensure that the Indian flavour is not lost in translation?
A: I do believe that a book gains depth and texture if the author is immersed in the world that it is set in. People often ask me if I make an effort to write ‘Indian’ stories, but I feel that what I write is as Indian as I am—in this urban, multilingual, multicultural way that some of us Indians are familiar with. How these translations read in a different language is something I cannot tell you, because I don’t read or understand the languages they’re translated into. I don’t work with the translators, usually, though I have had some of them ask me about specific references. I imagine it must be hard to translate verse accurately, and still retain the rhythm and rhyme. And cultural markers don’t always translate well, either. So translators must be allowed some liberty and if some of those Indian flavours are lost in translation, that’s part of the process.
Q: The flow of children’s books has always been from the West to the East. In a multicultural, globalising world it is crucial that the exchange happens both ways. While Indian children’s books are lauded by publishers and distributors, they still need to make a significant mark in the mainstream market or in school libraries. How can we make this exchange more fruitful and impactful? On a lighter note, have you heard from readers from other parts of the world about their experience of reading your books?
A: I’ve read my books to children in Germany, France, Ukraine, Malaysia and the UK. I find that for the most part they respond in the same way as Indian children do, but of course there are specific cultural experiences that they cannot possibly relate to. That is not at all a bad thing. Children need to engage with cultures different from their own. Realising that there are children out there living lives different from yours is as important as seeing yourself in a book and feeling validated by that. Which is why it is disheartening to see the one-way movement that happens when it comes to children’s books. I think and hope this is changing, but very slowly. Publishers, unfortunately, are in the business of making money; changing the world is not top of their agenda!
Q: You love writing and reading humour. We know that you do not want your books to be didactic or moralistic. Not many Indian writers dabble in nonsense verse in English. The eminent writer Sukumar Ray has explored it in Bengali. Your books fill a gap, both in terms of what is published and with respect to what children are reading. You have previously mentioned that you don’t write nonsense or subvert logic to serve any grand purpose. Do you think it’s becoming increasingly important for children (or even adults) to read nonsense, to learn to have fun, and to let go of logic and meaning, especially these days when children are groomed and herded to become more successful and pursue goal-oriented reading?
A: I think children were always urged to pursue goal-oriented reading. Reading comics, for instance, was considered frivolous and pointless when we were kids. I think it’s important for children to read whatever they want. I have met children who say they dislike humour and actually like serious books with a moral. Good for them, I say! I write the books I would like to read and I don’t assume that they will appeal to every child out there. Children are not a single homogenous mass. They are individuals with individual tastes, and we should stop thinking of them as a coagulated lump of non-adultness! So children who enjoy nonsense should read nonsense, and the others can read biographies or rocket science or whatever scratches their particular itch.
Q: You came to nonsense verse, not through techniques, but through a love for the genre. You are very fond of Lewis Carroll’s work. You have also spoken about how reading is an important part of being a writer. Could you tell us a little bit about Anushka, the reader? In what other ways has your reading influenced your writing?
A: I used to be a voracious and indiscriminate reader as a child, because books were precious things that we didn’t get very easily, growing up in a small town. I read anything I could lay my hands on. I find that reading books on science and maths excites my brain and gets me thinking in strange and odd ways.
In fiction, I like books with complex characters dealing with complex moral and philosophical issues. I also read a lot of whodunits because I love puzzles. Actually, I still read almost anything (except horror, I cannot read horror!), but I find that I can no longer read romances unless they are very funny. I do believe that everything I read influences what and how I write, in direct and indirect ways. Lewis Carroll has definitely been a huge influence. Also Edward Gorey, but he’s too dark for children in these politically correct times!
Q: You have spoken at length, multiple times, about the synergy between writing and illustrating while making picture books. To you, words and pictures are tangential to each other and add something to the other. Each of your books have a unique nonsensical visual language that adds so much charm to the book, be it Wish You Were Here, Captain Coconut and The Case of the Missing Bananas or To market! To market! It also captures the lived experience of the people of India. Many of your books, however, have been illustrated by global artists. What is that process like for you as a writer when the illustrators are not equally familiar with the setting? How do the fresh set of eyes affect the visual language of the book itself? Is anything gained or lost?
A: One of the joys of writing a picture book is that while I’m writing the text I never know what the final book is going to turn out to be.
I rarely meet the illustrators or even communicate with them while they’re working on my book. The synergy comes from the way they respond to my words or I respond to their visuals. But every book evolves in a different way.
In the case of Tiger on a Tree and To Market! To Market! The illustrations came first, so it was up to me to write text that was tangential and created that tension with the visuals.
Sometimes the process can be less straightforward. For Catch That Crocodile!, illustrated by the wonderful Pulak Biswas, I first wrote the story in prose, with character descriptions, etc. When Pulakda sent the illustrations, I deleted the text and rewrote it in verse to work with the illustrations. There was no sense in repeating what the visuals already depicted.
With Today is My Day the setting and the characters were universal enough to not need any ‘Indianising’. So Piet Grobler was given a free hand, more or less.
Gabrielle Manglou worked on Excuses! Excuses! while she was in Chennai, so that helped a lot.
With Hic!, there was much more back-and-forth with Christiane Pieper—not just because of the Indian setting, but also because the text had huge gaps which the visuals were supposed to fill with a narrative. That required a collaborative process.
When I wrote the wacky Captain Coconut mystery, I didn’t really think of what form it might take, so the graphic novel form in which it was published came as a wonderful surprise! The graphic elements that Priya Sundram introduced into the book added a dimension to the story that I would never have been able to visualise. There’s another Captain Coconut mystery coming out soon, and it promises to be very different, visually. I’m looking forward to being surprised yet again!
Q: Before you made your foray into publishing and writing, you graduated in Mathematics. Your fascination with mathematical theories continues to manifest itself in many of your books. Recently, you also brought out the Science for Smartypants series. We can see that science piques your interest just like maths does. You have also mentioned that you are a pretty logical person and enjoy subverting logic through nonsense verse. Do any of your other interests find their way into your stories and nonsense verse?
A: Yes, mathematics has been a big part of my mental life! My fascination with mathematics is most evident in my book of nonsensical fiction, Ogd. The Smartypants series came less from my desire to teach science to small children than from my own predilections for science and silliness.
Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas was an expression of my love of the hardboiled fiction genre, with its staccato style, which I’ve parodied for absurd effect.
I love animals and true stories about animals and their encounters with humans; many of my books are inspired by these stories that I’ve read or heard about. Quirky, odd situations always intrigue me. For instance, my latest book with Tara is a response to a documentary about a family living in a flat in Mumbai, who kept a most unusual pet—a rooster!
Q: You have stories to tell about how most of your books came along, both the writing and the illustrations!
A: There are so many ways in which books happen! First the idea comes into one’s head, and the idea can come from anywhere.
The idea for Catch That Crocodile came from a news story about crocodiles which had escaped from a zoo during a flood and got stuck in wells and ditches. Elephants Never Forget was the fictional answer to the question ‘why?’ which I asked myself when I saw a documentary about an elephant that lived with a herd of buffaloes.
Here’s a funny story about how Hic! happened: I was talking to a friend and she told me how someone staying at her home had been having hiccups all day, and in an attempt to scare him into stopping, she’d told him that he was wearing mismatched socks. It didn’t work—clearly, mismatched socks were not as horrifying to him as they were to her. It was so funny I couldn’t stop laughing and thinking about it. I actually wanted to somehow get that hilarious story into the verse I wrote, but it turned into a book on nonsensical ways to cure the hiccups.
As for Ogd, my book of nonsense fiction, the story behind it is even stranger than the book itself. A friend had left his typewriter with me while he was travelling. I asked him if I could use it, and he agreed on the condition that I would dedicate whatever I wrote to him. So I wrote a totally mad short story called Ogd, with a tongue-in-cheek dedication. It later became a book. (Ogd is my only book with a dedication.)
The creation of a picture book is often a fascinating journey, with many wrong turns and u-turns and back-and-forths! In many of my books, the pictures came first.
For instance, in To Market, To Market, Emanuele Scanziani had done a set of pictures of a market in Pondicherry, in vivid detail and deep, dramatic colours. It became the story of a girl going through a market and having so much fun that she forgets to buy anything. The verse was a reaction to the Emanuele’s vibrant market.
Delightful as it is to write the verse to a set of marvellous illustrations, there is a different kind of delight in giving the text to an illustrator and finding it transformed into something I would never have been able to imagine. Anything But a Grabooberry started out as something I wrote with my daughter – a freewheeling poem about all the random things she wanted to be. The Grabooberry was added later, as a nonsensical element. Rathna Ramanathan created an amazing typographically illustrated book from the poem. It is now getting a new life with a new name “I Want to Be,” with the typography refined and redone (and without the grabooberry, therefore closer to the original text).
Q: From your long career in writing and editing, what are some books that you enjoyed working on the most? How did those stories reach you?
A: The books I remember writing because I was having so much fun in the process are Moin and the Monster, At Least a Fish, Today Is My Day, To Market, To Market and Excuse Me, Is This India? The first two, because I was really having fun with the characters, and in fact, I remember there was a point in At Least a Fish, when I was actually cackling as I wrote because I found my own jokes so funny. Sorry, I know that sounds weird, but it’s true.
The last two were both books where I responded to visuals. I enjoyed that inexplicable process of looking at a visual, and using its energy or the little details in it to take off at a completely different angle than the illustrator might have imagined.
Today Is My Day is one of my favourite picture books. The story is wicked and wacky and it was great fun to write it. Then it went to Piet Grobler for the illustrations and it came back looking even more wicked and wacky! I love the character of the girl, as Piet visualised her. Not the sweet little girl of most children’s books, but a little brat, clearly up to no good!
As an editor, there are many books that I’ve enjoyed working on, for various reasons—some because they came so complete and well-written that they needed no editing, some because they sparked off ideas that turned into series, some because they needed to be poked and gently prodded into shape, and when that was done, they turned out to be fabulous! Editing is something I enjoy immensely, and I miss it now that I have stopped doing it. But the thing about editing is that it takes me into the author’s head while I’m working on their book and while it’s good fun to take up residence in an alien head, it does mean that I can’t inhabit my own.
Samantha Kokkat is the Reading Community Manager at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and helps organize the Neev Literature Festival. Prior to this, she was part of an initiative which aimed to create a community of 1 billion young readers in India. She has written a children’s book published by MsMoochie Books, and holds a Master’s degree in English Studies.
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.