Nidhi Chanani on Pashmina

Pashminacover-450x635Nidhi Chanani (the talented illustrator who created the cover for my Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh) is announcing a new graphic novel. Pashmina is the story of young Priyanka’s internal and real-world journey to India. Is this India real or not? What’s behind the exotic fruit and the glittery sari shops? In a swiftly turning tale that unfolds in black and white alternating with brilliant color, Priyanka navigates magic and mystery to uncover the history of her family and to find her place in the world. I asked Nidhi a few questions about the process of developing this lovingly crafted graphic novel.

[Uma] You write about the origins of Pashmina as “opening a suitcase and traveling to a fantasy version of India.” Why was this important to you?

[Nidhi] I wanted to represent India in the best possible way to Priyanka and to readers. In order for Priyanka to move through her journey, the fantasy India had to push her to step outside of her comfort and answer questions.
[Uma] It pushed her, interestingly, by falling short, didn’t it? The exotic elements were unreal, they weren’t enough. They weren’t the real India that she was looking for. Can you talk a little bit about the many connections you are making there for your character? What do you want your readers to take away from this?

[Nidhi] It was important to ground Priyanka with aspects of Indian culture while not fully introduced to the wealth of imagery and beauty. Through the pashmina her curiosity for the real India is accelerated. It was important that Priyanka’s journeys with the pashmina intrigued her to visit the country itself but the choice to do so had to originate with her.
[Uma] Your character, Priyanka, is an outsider in many ways. Tell me what led to the elements of her character as you developed this book?
[Nidhi] I wrote a lot from personal experience. Priyanka enjoys drawing and only has one close friend. She is teased at school for her difference economically and culturally. These aspects are directly plucked from my life. Her mom is a variation of my own. Nimisha, her mom, is strong, nidhiheadshotreligious and loving. And her mom’s life choices shape her environment as she navigates questions about her past. As I developed her backstory the elements of Priyanka’s character became apparent.
[Uma] Every book teaches the writer (and I’m presuming artist as well) something she didn’t know before. What did creating Pashmina teach you?
[Nidhi] It taught me so much! The steel you need to revise scripts is one lesson, but I also revised thumbnails 3 times for nearly every page. In total I think each page was revised 8-11 times. It taught me patience – making a good book takes time and dedication. Meeting my deadline taught me that I can draw for 10+ hours a day and I am fortunate enough to have a family that supports that. It taught me that comics are made from love. You have to love the form, flow and drawing the same characters for years. It taught me how to plan, ask the right questions of my editor and early readers. There’s more… but finally, it confirmed that I want to continue creating characters and narratives that are not often represented. If I can keep doing that for the rest of my career, I will be happy.
[Uma] Can you tell me how you went about developing Priyanka’s backstory? I know how I’d do that as a writer but your work is rich in images, so I’m curious—what did that process look like for you?

prisss-1[Nidhi] I drew these early Priyanka expressions to explore who she is through how she reacts and acts. I thought about how she would conduct herself in each environment – with comfort and freedom around her family and with trepidation and insecurity around others. This is one of the fun parts of the early work in comics – to explore your character through design, expressions, and clothing.
[Uma] Fabulous! Look at that Priyanka-face! Much luck, Nidhi, and congratulations!

The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.

An Untold History, A Working Title

There are many stories that never get included in history textbooks and many others that should be part of the contemporary discourse but get overlooked. Political mayhem regardless, books for children have begun to take such stories on in fiction, nonfiction, and innovative combinations. Here are just a few:


Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner


No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illus. by R. Gregory Christie


Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz


Calling the Water Drum by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Bond


Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

Now, with the release of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I’m honored to have been able to bring one of these untold narratives to the page. More on the book on Kitaab World, The Book Smugglers, Teen Vogue Ms. Yingling Reads, and Cynsations. Thank you all!

Lee and Low, the diversity source for anyone who reads, is absolutely the perfect publisher for this book. They have staked out that very space in the children’s publishing market, after all, over so many years–the space of stories that don’t usually get told. Thanks as well to writer and educator Tami Charles who offers ways that teachers can use my book in the classroom.

At one time this book had a different title. It was only a working title, the sort you know won’t last, but it holds the story ahead of you in some mirage you keep on following. In that way, the working title keeps you working. At the outset, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh was called “Summer’s Promise.”

At this moment, with this book out, summer promises to be a season of gratitude.

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!