I try and shed every single taboo when writing for young readers
says Paro Anand who has always been a frontrunner in beautifully expressing and tackling complex issues related to children and young adults through her books. Here, in conversation with Varsha Verma, she shares more about her love for writing and her journey as an author. Excerpts. Journey so far…
Pic courtesy: Asha KochcharEver-smiling and always humble, Paro Anand shares, “I don’t know how established I have been over the years, and not even sure when this really happened. The journey has been a roller coaster. I have struggled, strived and pushed as hard as I could. It began one very rainy day when I took a manuscript of several play scripts, door to door, down Ansari Road. I was soaked in the rain as I had wrapped my precious pages in my raincoat. Most of the time, I was turned away right at the gate by the guard. I must have gone to 17-18 publishers that day.
Finally, one said that they were interested in the concept of the playscripts, but wanted me to re-write everything. So I did and ended up with a bad back. But the book didn’t even get published as the editor who had told me to write these, left her job and that was that. Eventually, it got published as my 7th book. And I have to say, it wasn’t very good.”
But Paro is happy to be where she is now. “Now, I am so fortunate to have publishers wooing me to give them my work. How lucky could I get in one lifetime! The other day, I was sitting in my verandah with my morning tea, my lovely doggies by my side, my Sahitya Akademi award under my belt and I suddenly had the feeling that I had reached. This was it… everything I had worked towards – professionally, personally, economically – I had achieved. It was such a sense of ‘phew,’ I had worked to get here, and now I was here. Everything from here on is just the cherry on the icing of the cake,” she laughs.
Writing not just a hobby…
So did Paro always wanted to be a writer? “I had thought I wanted to be a drama teacher, but then I started writing plays and knew I loved it. I had always been a great liar. It was when, at a dinner, someone asked me what I did and I said I was a writer and the person said, “Oh that’s such a nice hobby.” I was somewhat stung and said, “It’s not a hobby, it’s my profession” and that’s when I started treating it as such,” she replies.
Hardest part of writing a book…
Though it seems hard to believe that established authors would also have some writing issues, but it is true. As Paro puts it, “Getting started is most difficult, and then comes the discipline. Once I am in ‘the zone,’ it goes along. But writing is something that can so easily be shoved to the back burner. Everything else seems more important and urgent, but you have to just set that time and do it. Even when I don’t have something specific to write, I write.”
Writing for children: any guidelines?
“I try and shed every single taboo when writing for young readers, whether it is a book on body image for the very young, or the impact of rape and violence for teens. I respect my readers by giving them my truth. My only beacon light is that I try to end the story on an upswing, with a ray of light at the end of a dark tunnel. It doesn’t have to be a happily ever after, tied up in pink bows, but just that I try not to end on a note of despair. Since teenage is a hard, dark time, I don’t want them to be left with no hope,” shares Paro.
Characters: inspired from life or fictitious?
“Well, there is always a bit of both… shreds of people who I have come across show up in the oddest places in my stories. But I am not writing biographies, I am writing reality fiction, so the characters are not ‘real’ in that sense, though the situations and they themselves may be rooted in reality,” she tells. Advice to
As an advice to aspiring writers, Paro sums it just right, “Fellow writer, Uma Krishnaswami said something that has stuck with me years later. She had a secret formula for writers – BIC – which stands for Bottom in Chair. Simply put your bottom on a chair and write but don’t set out writing for 16 hours and a 100 page book, stake it in bite sized pieces. Writing in the first flow is the fun part. It’s the re-writing that is the work. But, re-work and re-write to make the best possible book. And then, once you feel ready, make a neat, error free submission. I have had really sloppy presentations made to me when I was a commissioning editor. And honestly, the feeling I always had was that if the writer didn’t respect her own work, how could I?”
Book that influenced your life…
“Born Free by Joy Adams for inspiring me, Watership Down for making me see the animal kingdom in a completely different light, The True Adventures of Prince Teentang by Kalpana Swaminathan for making me laugh and Harry Potter and JK Rowling for showing me and the rest of the world that it was fine to break every rule that the industry pundits had set,” she says.
Tips for inculcating reading habits…
“As a child, I wasn’t a great reader, it was when I found Born Free that it clicked. It was just a matter of finding the right fit for me. So I would say, try different books, don’t hesitate to drop a book if you don’t like it. Carry a book in your car when there isn’t much more to do,” she advises.
On a lighter note…
On asking about her likes and dislikes, Paro replies, “I don’t consider writing as work. It’s the thing that I go to if I am feeling off centre. I just love it. Other than that, I love to swim, play with my dogs, work out with my trainer, which would all make me a super fit, super slim person, but, sadly I also love food a lot and I am married into a family of awesome cooks!”
“I am secretly addicted to spider solitaire. I have to play it before I sleep because it blocks out everything else that happened in the day. I am also a huge fan of a singer songwriter, Keith Urban whose lyrics just really speak to me,” she concludes.
Paro Anand is one of the leading authors for children and young adults. She also works with children in schools and NGOs, through her programme Literature in Action and holds a world record for helping over three thousand children make the world’s longest newspaper. She has been awarded for her contribution to children’s literature by The Russian Centre for Science and Culture. No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, opened to rave reviews, was on the International Board on Books for Young People Honour List, has been translated into German and French, and is being adapted for cinema. The Little Bird who held the Sky up with his Feet was on the 1001 Books to Read before You Grow Up, an international gold standard of the world’s best books ever. She has published her 26th book this year, a graphic novel called ‘2’ published by Scholastic and there is another ready to go called A Very Naughty Bear with Scholastic and two more in the pipeline – a collection of short stories called The Other and a novel called Nomad’s Land.
First of the Children First Books published!
In November 2016, Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts, Vidyasagar School Chennai and Duckbill Books, ran a contest for writers to write books featuring children with special needs. There was felt to be a need for more such books because while inclusive education and inclusion is a concept that very few argue with, what actually happens on the ground is a different matter. There has to be awareness and a change of attitude if we are to accept differences. The idea behind Children First, therefore, was to publish books which treat children with special needs as children first—with all the hopes, fears, mischief and fun that comes with being children.
The four winning books include Lavanya Karthik’s Neel on Wheels (picture book), R.K. Biswas’s Vibhuti Cat (illustrated book), Harshikaa Udasi’s Kittu’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Mad Day (chapter book) and Shruthi Rao’s Manya Learns to Roar (chapter book).
“Hundreds of new titles are published each year for children in India, but only a handful of children’s books feature a differently-abled character in the story. And books which realistically portray disability are rare,” says Swaha Sahoo, who heads the Parag initiative at Tata Trusts. “Parag aims to make literature a part of every childhood. Unless we have books that register the presence of the differently-abled around us in a sensitive but unexceptional manner, we will not realise the values of inclusiveness in children’s books. “What is special about the Children’s First series is their representation of children with disability. The protagonists in the books are not overly heroic. They are children with regular likes, dislikes, fears and dreams. They are characters that children can easily identify with.”
“These books are a fulfilment of a long-held dream for us,” say Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu of Duckbill. “We have long felt the need for books about kids with special needs. While we have previously published a couple—Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman and Unbroken by Nandhika Nambi—we feel there need to be many more for children of all ages.”