Thursday, August 29, 2019

Growing with Picture Books – Notes so far

Author-illustrator Niveditha Subramaniam shares interesting experiences from her journey with Tulika in this delightfully-written guest post.

Children often ask for the same book to be read again and again, but their reading itself is never quite the same. I’ve often wondered if this is really any different for adults. And as a reader of pictures and a visual thinker, I have certainly come to think of a cyclical reading process as being intuitive and essential to enjoying, unravelling and creating narrative. 

Thinking Round: Jalebi Curls

I did my first book with Tulika as an intern. The seed for the idea had been planted many moons before I wrote it. One night, I had gone for a walk with a friend who had pointed to orange swirls on the moon. “Doesn’t it look like a jalebi?” she said. The moment and the description lingered in my memory. But I didn’t have a story. When I finally wrote the first draft, it was based on a series of images that tumbled into my head. And it was having the time and space to read and pore over pictures during the course of my internship that finally led me to find the right words to coax them out and connect them.

Jalebi Curls
Picture books have few words and editors will often tell you to make every word count. But what are the ‘right’ words?
For me, there are a few simple measures that are useful in evaluating this.

1.     Do the words allow pictures to take the lead?
2.     Can I ‘hear’ the story?
3.     Does the removal or addition of a word say something that the pictures do not or complement it in a way that enriches the reading experience as a whole?

Working with Dilemmas: The Musical Donkey

In 2010, I was commissioned by Tulika to retell a Panchantantra story. I chose the fable of The Musical Donkey. In the original (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the most popular version), a donkey who likes to sing does so against the advice of his friend, the fox. He ends up being badly beaten up by a sleepy farmer whose cucumber field he wanders into at night. The moral is that there is a time and place for every action.

The juxtaposition between the humanised animal and the inhuman treatment meted out to him had always bothered me. Even if the animal did not stand in for the child, how could the violence be justified? The discrepancy between an adult’s understanding of this transposition and the assumptions about a child’s ability to somehow infer all this bothered me. These questions filled my head as I wondered how to rework it to suit the contemporary reader.

In my retelling, the farmer does not stir from his sleep because he’s dreaming that he has a thousand cucumbers in his field. I anthropomorphised the cucumbers who flee the scene unable to bear the donkey’s cacophony. At the end, the farmer wakes up to find bleary-eyed cucumbers all around him. Meanwhile, the donkey is fast asleep in the field.

Each of the books in the collection feature folk art styles from different parts of India and the bilingual collection was particularly sought after in schools. An educator at an international school, who also reviewed the book, was grateful that I had done away with a violent ending (illustrations accompanying the text often featured a very bloody donkey). But there were some parents and teachers who were sceptical about the twist. What was point I was trying to make?

When I was working on the retelling, a picture of the cucumbers dashing out of the field appeared in my head. The image that followed was that of the farmer lying in bed, surrounded by cucumbers. When I reflect on my own writing process, it strikes me how images always precede words. My approach to character and plot rely on visual integrity. But this does not answer the question.

The Musical Donkey

A storyteller, who used the book in a workshop, told me that children identified both with the donkey who slept peacefully in the field and the cucumbers running to the farmer for help. Although, I hadn’t been conscious of this while writing the story, this response has always stayed with me as a reminder that young readers are far more at ease with multiple points of view than they are given credit for. 

Thought Clouds: The Sky Monkey’s Beard

The first picture book I wrote for older children, The Sky Monkey’s Beard, was inspired by the levitations of a hairy seed – in Tamil, Thathapoochi. For a long time, the spiralling movements of the seed played out in my head like an animated sequence. One day I ‘saw’ bubble eyed sky monkeys flocking together. And then, a silver monkey from whose long beard the seed drifted away. The third image was that of a little monkey who spied through the clouds and saw a river which looked like a shiny tail.

The Sky Monkey's Beard

In its final shape, the book imagines how the first monkey on earth came to be. A little sky monkey grows weary of being a creature of the clouds. Her family is alarmed at this demonstration of ‘unskymonkeyness’ but her grandfather understands that her place is on earth. Because the story evolved from the triptych I saw in my head, these remain the strongest images; the roots from which the narrative grew. As a writer and illustrator, I have now come to believe that the theme of a book can be made legible entirely through pictures – my love for and exploration of wordless picture books comes from this conviction. 

But what makes a picture book truly compelling?

1.     Is it the way in which pictures and words take cues from each other and fill each other’s gaps?
2.     Can pictures and text also leave space for readers to work out ways of meaning-making that doesn’t depend on a single definition of ‘the whole’?
3.     Can details in pictures and words become trampolines that give us room to step outside the story and think creatively about the world we live in?

These are questions I constantly ask, in relation to my own work and otherwise.

Purple like Karimuga: The Pleasant Rakshasa

While belonging and identity surfaced at the end of writing The Sky Monkey’s Beard, identity was a strong underlying theme in the first picture book I illustrated, The Pleasant Rakshasa. Through depicting a rakshasa who likes his pot belly, hairy legs and dark skin, Sowmya Rajendran gently inverts notions of beauty and happiness.

The Pleasant Rakshasa

I had grown up with friends, some of whose grandparents or parents told them not to play in the sun for too long for fear that they would become dark. As a baby, I was much darker-skinned than my brother. When my skin tone lightened as I grew up, our neighbour assumed that my grandmother, who then lived with us, had worked some “magic” on my skin and wanted to know what it was! 

Sowmya once met a parent whose daughter loved the book and whose anecdote moved us both very much. Her four-year-old came back home after playing in the park and told her that her friends were constantly saying she was dark. The mother was perturbed but her daughter didn’t seem very upset. The mother held a hand mirror to her face and asked her what she thought she looked like. The girl thought for a minute, giggled, and said, “I think I am purple like Karimuga in The Pleasant Rakshasa!”

This exchange really brought home that picture books help readers grapple with difficult situations on independent terms. It also made me revisit the familiar notion of why ‘less is more’ with fresh eyes.

Drawing as thinking: Soda and Bonda

Soda and Bonda was first developed for my Diploma project – the penultimate module in the Masters Programme in Children’s Book Illustration I did in Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. The book is about a cat who looks like a cat, but feels like a dog. The dog is unable to understand this but eventually accepts the cat for who she is. The idea was inspired by the dog-like behaviour exhibited by a relative’s cat, something that I had witnessed a long time ago but never quite forgotten. It was initially called Bad Cat – a phrase used in the text.

The process of observational drawing was crucial to the development of the book. I spent a lot of time drawing a specific dog and then transferring this body language and range of gestures to the cat in my book. Two developments took place: as I sketched and ‘thought’ with my pencil. First, I actively began to question the boundaries between seeing and feeling. Second, I began to mull over animal-human encounters themselves. 

Along the way, the title changed from being Bad Cat to Soda and Bonda. In the way the characters have shaped, both human and animal traits are explored through the characters (I hope). Soda and Bonda was also one of the books I went on to further develop in my Masters Project. However, because the title didn’t work for the UK audience, I had to change it to Mudpie and Mooncake. 

When Tulika decided to publish it, I was relieved to go back to Soda and Bonda – titles which were really expressive of these characters – a dog who thought he was too cool and a lump of a cat with boundless energy. I also did the pictures all over again – I wanted to really nail the gestures and body language and I had only achieved this partially earlier.

Soda and Bonda

I was excited about how the story would take shape in other languages. However, the concerns that cropped up in translation was something I didn’t anticipate at all. 

1.     In more than one language, a line that read so easily in English – ‘Soda looks like a cat but feels like a dog’ became complicated and messy in translation. In Tamil, for instance, ‘unarvu’ (the word for feeling) was too high-flown and didn’t have the lightness that the context demanded. The next best option was to go with ‘thinks’ like a dog which altered the meaning.

2.     At a point in the book, Soda gets annoyed with Bonda and says, “Go away, you bad cat!” In Hindi, for instance, the translation for this – ‘gundhibilli’ – took on a very negative tone and connotation.

3.     Soda the dog is male and Bonda the cat is female. While the animality of the characters was something I as the writer-illustrator had been clear about, one of the translators saw it from an entirely human-centric perspective and read it as a story where ‘a man was telling a woman what to do’. While this seemed far-fetched to me, I couldn’t be dismissive of the implications in a story that was about self-perception, acceptance and friendship.

My own editorial experience in Tulika has sensitised me to what it means to ‘think in different languages’. And I have never ceased to be fascinated by the wonderful crossing-over that happens from one language into the other (the writer and activist Rinchin’s work is filled with the most evocative examples of this). But Soda and Bonda was an eye-opener in drawing my attention to how the links between gender, language, cultural codes and usage can make the simplest of texts a minefield.

Speaking without Words: Flutterfly and Ammama’s Sari

Those who work closely with picture books in any capacity can easily imagine that the incubation periods can be long and the challenges unprecedented. Last year, I wrote about finding my visual voice in this guest post on the Tulika blog.

It feels counter-intuitive to write or speak about wordless picture books. Theirs is a rich and varied silence in them and the suspension of verbal language alters the nature of the exchange between readers and books. I have seen wordless picture books like Manjula Padmanabhan’s A Visit to the Market and Suzy Lee’s Wave countless times and marvelled at the way in which the genre trains the eye in reading visuals in multiple ways but also disrupts the tendency to assign a set of fixed meanings.

In my first wordless picture book, Flutterfly, a little butterfly flies out of a child’s pillow and flits from page to page, from one room and person in the house to another. Each character has his or her own response but are united in the wonder they all feel as they watch it move. The palette uses two colours – the butterfly is orange and the characters and the environment are rendered in black and white. While this had been a considered decision, I was thrilled when a parent told me that in addition to following the butterfly her 18-month-old also enjoyed looking at the characters and what they were doing.


Ammama’s Sari, my latest wordless book, is inspired by vivid memories of my grandmother. Repurposing and reusing things were natural to her; she took pride in creating something new but found more fulfilment in extending its lifespan; in giving it a second and a third and a fourth life. Bits and bobs and scraps were carefully saved and eventually made their way into some endeavour or the other. 

I made the first draft of this book in 2015 but wasn’t happy with the outcome – it didn’t have the tactility, the sense of touch that was at the core of the memory or the childhood experiences of watching her work. It took me awhile to get back to it and in 2019, I started work again. This time, I decided to work with fabric and paper. While the sari itself was made using a single piece of fabric, I used leftover scraps to make lots of small elements in the book (to keep to the spirit of repurposing my grandmother believed in) and combined that with illustration. Collage is something that I have never taken to naturally or used in work but I discovered that thinking about what the project called for made me work through blocks and issues that surfaced.

Ammama's Sari

At Tulika, the editorial team works closely with both pictures and text and their approach integrates an understanding of writing and art. During the course of working on my own books, editorial intervention has strengthened my understanding in many ways:

1)     Identifying conceptual weakness.

The first thumbprint book I worked on featured animals piling on top of each other. While visually, this idea was fun, I couldn’t really develop this into a story.
I was given freedom to try and work it out in terms of pictures before getting to this understanding.

2)     Defining the main focus of the story.

The first draft of The Sky Monkey’s Beard had a sub plot of sorts, inspired by frame stories I had loved listening to while growing up. However, it was taking away rather than adding to the story. This was one of the first instances where I learnt that story had to be adapted to suit the format as well.

3)     Paying attention to the flow of narrative and details keeping in mind the audience.

I was one of the contributors to an anthology called Water Stories. In the story I worked on, The Dragon’s Pearl, a young child turns into a dragon. Among the many suggestions I received, an important one was to include the mother’s response to this transformation at the end of the story, something I hadn’t originally done. The inclusion of this moment made it substantially better.

With respect to visuals, the guidance received at every stage is something that has ushered in clarity about how to look at pictures in picture books.

1)     What is clear to me but not obvious to the reader.

One’s intimacy with a story one writes or characters one invents sometimes comes in the way of being able to see the larger picture or think about what cues there are in the pictures that will enable readers to make connections.

2)     The lack of flow between one image to another.

At the rough sketch stage, feedback has often helped me take a step back and not just look at a particular page but think over its connection to the next. Over time, this back and forth has become more intuitive.

3)     To keep a balance between the literal and the imaginative.

There are different kinds of relationships between text and images and no way one way is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. However, editorial intervention makes one aware of this balancing act and helps illustrators ask a number of questions: Where do I need to show something in an obvious way? Which detail or part of illustration can I be more subtle? Does the scope of the project allow for more or less of the literal or the fantastical? Is there a match between the tone of the text and the tone of the visuals?


Dr. Seuss was at a cocktail party where he met a brain surgeon.
"Oh, you're that man who writes those children's books," the doctor said. "Some Saturday, when I have a little extra time, I am going to write one of those."
Dr. Seuss replied, "Ah, yes. And someday when I have a little free time, I'll do brain surgery."

There are many misconceptions about children’s books and writing for children. Children’s books are playgrounds where every child has the right to imagine happiness. But well-crafted children’s books can also be shelters to young readers grappling with complex concerns. Picture books, in particular, are their first windows to exploring the world. And every children’s book that I look at, fall in love with or create always reminds of the unique responsibility that rests on the shoulders of children’s book makers: to nurture, cherish and defend the creative freedom of children.


Niveditha Subramaniam cherishes every opportunity to celebrate her abiding love for visuals, which almost always inspires her work — particularly picture books, and wordless and graphic narratives. Her books with Tulika display her enormous versatility as writer and illustrator, ranging from the wordless Flutterfly, to the whimsical Soda and Bonda and Tsomo and the Momo, and the bestselling Mayil diaries.

Click here to get your copies of her books!

1 comment:

Comments? Feedback? Opinions?