Tuesday, July 3, 2018

If There Is a Title, Will the Needle Come Out of the Well? – The Neverending Stories of My Childhood

This is a guest post by Sharanya D.G., editorial intern at Tulika. 

For a child reluctant to fall asleep – like I was – no bedtime story is ever long enough. Children want stories that go on and on – “without an end… neverending…” like the little girl in The Neverending Story asks of her Ajji. If the bedtime story doesn’t end, then the child need not go to sleep, right? They can just listen to the story forever and ever…

The Neverending Story is a picture book published by Tulika in 2006, written by Ashwini Bhat and illustrated by Chinmayie. This book has in it not one, but two neverending stories similar to the folk stories that Ajjis are fond of narrating – the kind of stories that I grew up with. It was a pleasant surprise to see these stories in a book, and to almost read those very words. These are not stories that can be written or read; these are stories that are told, whispered into your ear as you are lightly patted to sleep – stories that morph into dreams as you doze off midway. Yet, Ashwini Bhat’s writing, along with Chinmayie’s illustrations, managed to transfer these words and emotions into a picture book, cleverly using the conversation between a little girl and her Ajji.

What I loved were the loops and repetitions which are an important facet of children’s tales. There is some sort of amusement and comfort we all receive from such loops and repetitions. They prove to be helpful especially when it is time to sleep. Some tend to count sheep, others concentrate on white noise but for a child like me, bedtime stories with repetitions seemed to work wonders — at least according to my parents! One of the deadliest stories they would draw out (yes, much like a weapon) when I was being a handful was the one with the grandmother’s needle in the well – the same grandmother, the same needle, the same well as in The Neverending Story

This story is about an old woman with a single sari that needs to be mended. Unfortunately, the only needle she has falls into the well. At this point in the story, the narrator waits for the listener to respond. No matter what the listener says, the narrator retorts by repeating everything the listener just said, asking if the needle would come out of the well, if those words were said. This goes on and on, and the story never ends as the conflict is never resolved — the old woman and needle are never reunited. There is nothing the listener can do about it, and nothing the narrator will do about it.

This naturally became my parents' go-to story when I was in the mood to blabber on and on, refusing to go to sleep. It was the only way they could get me to shut up. The only way I could stop them from repeating the same question over and over again was to keep quiet, close my eyes and stay that way until I fell asleep.

Predictably, I soon began to dread this story. It stopped being fun. I might even go to the extent of saying that this story would have been the first (sort of) existential crisis I remember having. What was the point of anything if the needle did not come out of the well? Nothing I could do or say would make the needle come out of the well.

But I refused to let such stories defeat my purposes – of not falling asleep and of irritating my parents. So I had a list of ways to try and outsmart the story when drawn out.

I told my parents to go help the old woman out if they cared so much, but being older and wiser, they threw that statement right back at me (quite coldly, I might add)!

I called them names that I was sure they wouldn’t repeat.

I even gave them smart alecky suggestions (like using a strong magnet to pull the needle out).

But they were passively repeated too. The story seemed resolution-proof. There is nothing the listener can do about it, and nothing the narrator will do about it.

I had almost given up trying to win this tug of war when I realised that my parents weren’t doing anything to help the needle come out of the well. So I turned the tables on them, “If you say ‘if you say so and so will the needle come out of the well?’ will the needle come out of the well?” I asked them one fine night. That was the last time I heard them tell the story so smugly.

However fifteen years later, nostalgia hit me unexpectedly as I read The Neverending Story at the Tulika Bookstore. It was the same feeling one gets while reading an old diary. Each word being read carries with it a trunk full of memories. As children, we listen to a lot of stories that are passed down through generations in our cultures. By making these stories into books, not only is the story endemic to that culture that is documented, but also the feelings these stories carry — the feelings of home, of love, of belonging and of familiarity. It is the same kind of comfort one finds in repetition. One naturally wants their child to grow up with the stories that shaped them during their own childhood. One wants to express their love to their child in ways familiar to them, like narrating the stories that they have heard from their own parents and grandparents. 

And for me, this feeling of familiarity and comfort was validated when I held The Neverending Story – a published book that accurately encapsulates the story so close to my heart. Now that such tales from various cultures are being written and published, these neverending stories will, in fact, never end.

Sharanya D. G. is an editorial intern at Tulika and was so moved by finding her childhood story on the Tulika bookshelves that she wrote about it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Colour Thief is Here! Q and A with Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar

Hot off the press, this picture book is a riot of colours which have a story to tell! The Colour Thief by Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, is a rich visual extravaganza set in a timeless place somewhere in the mountains.

We spoke to the writers, Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar for the story behind the story. This is the second part of the two-part interview series. In the first part, we spoke to the illustrator for a peep behind the pages.

Where did you find the idea for The Colour Thief? What sparked off this multi-coloured tale? Was it something that was always on your mind or it appeared out of the blue?

Sylvia: The story idea came from an experience I had at the eye doctor. I was having cataract surgery and I saw the most amazing array of colours. I wondered what it would be like if the world had no colour at all. The Colour Thief was born.

Stephen: When Sylvia sent me the draft I was intrigued. Colour is a passion of mine. I  saw a hidden message - the emotional impact of colour on people. Does that require eyes to see or can it be ‘felt’? What if we created an opportunity for children to literally ‘colour their world’? How exciting would that be? What kind of person would want to steal the joy of colour from others? That must be a very unhappy person. 

As co-authors, how do you collaborate on writing a book?

Stephen and Sylvia: One of us usually comes up with a seed idea that he/she develops into a first draft. If it is something that we want to collaborate on then it is sent to the other by email (we often live on different continents and at the very least on different sides of the country in Canada). If the idea looks feasible there is a lot of revising back and forth before we settle on the final story. For the last edits we always meet via Skype and read the story out loud, changing words and tweaking the rhythm. Talking directly to each other allows us to discuss word and plot choices, character refinement, etc. We polish our manuscript as much as possible before sending it to a publisher.

The story of the colour thief doesn’t commit to a place or a time. Today, picture books and YA books are becoming more and more local and situated in a sense. What made you go in the opposite direction?

Stephen and Sylvia: We are both interested in stories that speak to the higher side of human nature—compassion, kindness, generosity and oneness. These attributes are universal in nature, not limited to a particular culture or rooted in a specific time. We feel that this gives the stories depth and appeal to a broad readership. We both love India and its wonderful people so many of our characters are rooted in Indian society.

Nature is a big part of your story – the land, the sea, the mountains. Is this something that comes from personal experience? For example, did you grow up in the mountains?

Stephen: I have a studio in the Himalayas so I look at the mountain landscape and himalayan skies daily. Though I was not born in the mountains I loved my first train ride through the Rocky Mountains in Canada when I was 10 years old. When I was a college student I made my way over the French alps into Switzerland and it renewed my inspiration. I was trained as a biologist and have written many books on the natural world and its diversity. I am passionate about conserving our wildlife and the habitats they live in, whether on land or in water.

Sylvia: I live on a small island on the west coast of Canada near the Rocky Mountains that Stephen crossed as a child. When I was young I lived in a rural area in Ghana, Africa, close to nature. My father was an entomologist and the family often accompanied him on field trips into the forest. I was amazed at how some insects mimicked other insects and nature. Some moths had large eye markings on their wings, other insects looked like sticks or leaves. Some insects had the pattern of other insects on their wings – it was all truly amazing. Like Stephen, I am passionate about wildlife conservation and I have a special love for elephants.

Of the many books that you have individually written, which do you consider your personal best and which the most challenging?

Stephen: The book that I am working on is typically the most challenging but that’s what makes it exciting. Some of the best books almost write themselves in the sense that the story idea can come in a flash, like Sylvia’s experience at the eye doctor. It is the revising and editing that is the hard part – that can take months, sometimes years. I am particularly proud of a 4-book series on climate change that I wrote and illustrated for a U.S. publisher, Earth Has a Fever, for students in grades 3-5. You can see more of my books on my website:

Sylvia: The most challenging book is always the one I am working on which is often a young adult novel concerning social issues. However my favourites are picture books as I love to see how an artist interprets words into pictures.

What book/s are you working on now?

Stephen: I am finishing up an educational book for grade 3 readers on how glaciers are melting as global temperatures rise. Everyone should know how climate change is affecting ALL life on our planet.

Sylvia and I are collaborating on a series of environmental books set in India about a fictional family with many animals. ‘The Chelos’ champion a number of environmental issues—rainwater harvesting, water and air pollution, and trade in endangered species. We are working with a publisher to finalise a chapter book for the first story in the series. This series is particularly dear to us because these are the only stories that we actually wrote when we were in the same room. It was in New Delhi about 15 years ago and this remains the one and only time that we met face to face without a computer screen in between. However, to this day we continue to spark creativity in each other!

Sylvia: I am working on the last chapter of a young adult novel on the topic of arranged marriages. A Canadian girl goes to Delhi unaware that her parents want her to get married to a boy she doesn’t like. The story is further complicated by an old unsolved murder and the possibility of her being the reincarnation of that victim.

Stephen, you are both an author and illustrator. Which of these two do you think is more challenging?

To come up with a new, unique and captivating story is always a challenge. I have many more books in print written by others that I have illustrated but the ones that are dearest to me are the books that I authored as well as illustrated. That having been said, I am delighted with the illustrations that Sandhya Prabhat has created for The Colour Thief. Her use of perspective, scale and texture add a lot to the story as do the wonderful characters that she illustrated.

The biggest challenge for me as an artist is to bring my own style and vision to a story written by someone else to add visual layers to the story, develop the characters further and strengthen the story line.

The challenge with writing is to just do it every day, without fail. Like the monkey dropping stones into the river, one day you will be able to walk across. I don’t have to muster the inspiration for art, it comes more naturally. There is so much beauty all around us and I have been trying to capture it since I was a young boy. 

Stephen, when you are writing and illustrating a book which comes first – the words or the pictures?

One of the great advantages of being both an author and an illustrator is that as a story is developing in my head I tend to visualise it at the same time. Once I have a storyline I make small thumbnail sketches right onto a print-out of the story before developing it into a storyboard. I have the luxury of being able to tweak the text and leave out details that can be shown in the art. A good picturebook is pure poetry. Every word is important. The art should draw the reader back in again and again unfolding more delight on every single read.

  Stephen Aitken is a writer-illustrator who is passionate about the natural world. His studio in the colourful Himalayas provides shelter for ants, pigeons, spiders and an odd mouse.

Sylvia Sikundar spent her childhood always on the move, making up stories about imaginary friends and pets whenever she got lonely. She likes to write books to share her love of nature and animals. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Colour Thief is here! Q and A with Sandhya Prabhat

Hot off the press, this picture book is a riot of colours which have a story to tell! The Colour Thief by Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, is a rich visual extravaganza set in a timeless place somewhere in the mountains. We spoke to the illustrator for a peep behind the pages.

How did you get into illustrating for children? What about it appeals to you?

I've illustrated and animated as a professional for adults and children, on different kinds of projects. However, children are the wiser audience, I find. The younger a child is, the more limited his/her vocabulary is thought to be. Therefore, an illustration's job is to tell those parts of the story that words alone, cannot. I find this really challenging and exciting. A child who finds a book boring, will unhesitatingly dismiss it. So I feel doubly responsible, designing and drawing for these brutally honest readers.

Sandhya Prabhat
The Colour Thief is your first book with Tulika. How was your experience of working on it?

I was given complete creative freedom to design the book, its characters and colours. Moreover, with ace storytellers and editors working on the team, creative discussions were great fun! It was a very fulfilling experience. 

The pictures of The Colour Thief are vibrantly alive making it seem like they are leaping off the page. What is the process you follow to illustrate a book? What considerations guide it?

The main character, the Giant, almost instantly took form in my mind, once I read the story. I couldn't wait to draw him. After discussions with the team, I came up with ways to treat colour, and black and white, since this treatment would be important in the storytelling. The script also had notes on how colour was to be envisioned. I was also advised to look at hilly Indian landscapes and villages for designing the city and characters. The project began with a lot of momentum since it was just the type of story I love, and it all came together really nicely very soon. 

Did you at any point in time feel blocked while illustrating this book? How did you overcome it?

I did not!

What do you do when you are not illustrating or animating? What does your daily work routine look like?

I try to read in my free time. And then I do these excellent things: eating, sleeping, cleaning, worrying and looking forward to more drawing. 

Illustration: Sandhya Prabhat

Sandhya Prabhat is an independent animator-illustrator from Chennai, who works between India and the USA. She has a Masters in Animation and Digital Arts from NYU. She draws for children’s books and graphic novels, and animates for TV, film and short videos.