She’s called the Dr. Seuss of India but it’s a moniker that makes her uncomfortable. Anushka Ravishankar is an acclaimed children’s author who is known for her nonsense verse (which led to the Dr. Seuss comparisons). Her other books include chapter books, retellings of folk tales and non-fiction. Several of her books have been published internationally and have won awards. She is now principal platypus at Duckbill Books, which publishes books for children and young adults. Some of her books are: Tiger on a Tree, Moin and the Monster, Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas and The Rumour.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about the journey that led you to becoming a children’s author?
I started off as a programmer and systems analyst, but I always wrote, so I decided at one point to try my hand at writing for children. The fact that I couldn’t find enough Indian books for my daughter to read was one of the motivations. I wrote a couple of stories, and they were well received, so it gave me some confidence. I started doing freelance work for Tinkle and later joined Tara Books as an editor. I wrote my first children’s book in 1996/97, when I was working there. The book did well and I continued to write for them.
2. Most children grow up on a diet of western fiction. Do you think it skews a child’s perspective and affects their cultural identity?
Well, we grew up on a diet of western fiction. I’m sure it affects one’s perspective, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The books one reads affect us in many ways, but they are not the only variables that go into the mix: there’s so much more to cultural identity than the literature one is exposed to. There is family, environment, the people one meets, movies – the effect of western fiction is leavened by all of these. Having said that, of course it’s good for children to read fiction that is set in their own context as well (though not, I would argue, exclusively). The good news is that there are many, many Indian children’s authors writing good books now, so children have a much greater choice, and with a bit of guidance from parents and teachers, can be given a balanced diet, as it were.
3. You have been likened to Dr. Seuss. Is it a moniker that worries you or makes you feel proud of your success?
I’m not comfortable at all with that comparison. I don’t think in terms of success – I do what I do and I enjoy doing it, so on a scale that goes from ‘worry’ to ‘pride’, I would definitely be much closer to ‘worry’!
4. How do you formulate your stories? Do you take inspiration from everyday things?
I don’t do a lot of pre-planning, but I usually have a vague idea about where the story is going. The idea for a story could come from anywhere: from a newspaper article, from something I saw, from my childhood or my daughter’s childhood, from a story I might have heard about someone else … anything that happens anywhere can turn into an idea for a story. And when all else fails, there’s always the imagination!
5. Do you think your books can be utilized in classroom? And how do you think they will help young readers?
I really believe that any book – whether it’s a picture book or a serious tome – can be used in the classroom, if the teacher uses his or her imagination and has the will to do it. When Pulak Biswas (the illustrator) and I travelled to France with the picture book Tiger on a Tree, we found that every school we visited had used the book in such creative ways! A book can be used as a springboard to talk about many things. I don’t write books with any pedagogical intention in mind, however. I write books that children can enjoy reading. Finding out how they can help young readers is a job I’d leave to teachers.
6. Your books are beautifully illustrated. Do you collaborate with the illustrators?
The degree and manner of collaboration varies with every book. Sometimes, I get the illustrations first, sometimes there’s a bit of back and forth, sometimes I give them detailed descriptions of how I imagine the visuals will be, sometimes I just send the text and they run with it. The publisher has a very strong involvement in the process, so it’s quite often not my choice to make. But there’s always some degree of collaboration, yes.
7. What do you think about the current children’s fiction scene in our country? Well, it needs to grow a lot more but do you think the future looks bright for children’s fiction?
I think children’s fiction is at an exciting point in India. There are suddenly many new, fresh voices. there’s a lot of experimentation with new genres and themes and ways of telling stories. The future is definitely promising for the creation of good children’s books, therefore. The future of books in terms of their reach and readership depends on many other factors. One significant factor is how much exposure they get through schools and libraries. We hope this will happen. If schools encourage the reading habit and make an effort to get children to read Indian children’s books then the future can be bright indeed!
9. Can you share some inspiring advice for aspiring authors? For example, like finding publishers, illustrators etc.
Writers of children’s books in India are in a good place. All publishers are always on the lookout for good writers. So if an author has written a story and submits it to a publisher it will definitely get read. The rest depends on the quality of the book. Sometimes, of course, a publisher might reject a book for other reasons – because it doesn’t suit their list, or they have done too many books about tooth fairies … that sort of thing. As for illustrators, finding an illustrator is best left to the publishers. The writer just has to write.