Guest Post: Meera Sriram on A Gift for Amma

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.

I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:

Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.

A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.

Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion, terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.

At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.

It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.

Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.

Process Notes: Meera Sriram on Facts and Story

Meera Sriram and Praba Ram are the co-authors of a loving picture book portrait of a woman in a cowherding community in western India and the majestic large cats that share her world. I asked Meera to talk about the writing process with this book, as it compares to the writing of fiction. Here’s what she wrote:

Almost a decade ago, my first book for children was released in India, titled Dinaben and the Lions of Gir. I had co-authored the book, which follows the lives of Maldharis, a dairy farming community living in the interior of the Gir forest in western India.

Fast forward, and my debut picture book in the U.S came out in March last year. The Yellow Suitcase is a story about the emotional trajectory of a little girl, Asha, who travels with her family from the U.S to India to mourn the loss of her grandmother.

When Uma prompted me to compare and contrast the writing process that went into the two projects, I was excited to analyze them because, while Dinaben and the Lions of Gir is creative non-fiction, The Yellow Suitcase is fiction based on real-life incidents.

Looking back, I can see that the ideas for both stories sprouted from personal experiences. Raising kids in the U.S where we bought dairy products off shelves got us wondering if our kids knew where milk, yogurt, and butter really came from. This concern was magnified because, growing up in India, we often watched cows milked on the street and mothers turn milk into curds and butter. It was this fragment of thought that kicked off our research and later introduced us to Maldharis and their incredible forest ecosystem. Similarly, Asha’s grief story was inspired by my family’s loss, when my kids lost their first grandparent in India. Interestingly, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, very often we draw inspiration from our own experiences.

While both books were written for the picture book format, their target age groups fell into different bands within the spectrum. Real-life photographs corroborated facts in Dinaben and Meera Sethi’s beautiful art added authentic details to the fiction in The Yellow Suitcase. The biggest challenge was driving home the takeaway – presenting environmental conservation to preschoolers was as tricky as fleshing out grief stages for elementary kids.

In Dinaben, we wanted to talk about a forest dwelling community and the endangered Asiatic lion in a way that will inspire little kids to think about our forests. A fiction toolkit greatly helped with this. Creating a main character, Dinaben, her family that milked cows and churned butter, and a setting that included a quiet household in the woods where the lions roamed, offered an engaging fictional framework. And what enabled telling Asha’s story? My family’s trip from California to India in 2010, all the emotions we share as people, and the truth that death is inevitable and universal.

Well, sometimes storytelling helps us present facts and at other times facts help tell a story.