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.

Connecting Books and Young Readers: An Open Book Foundation

Gaithersburg_201420140520_102123When I was in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC recently to attend the Gaithersburg Book Festival, I stopped by Strawberry Knolls Elementary School. Strawberry Knolls lives up to its lovely name. Students and staff were generous and welcoming, and everyone was appreciative of my books, my time, my presence in the school, and the foundation that made my visit possible. Look at this lovely post by 1st grade teacher Laura Ado.

anopenbooklogoAn Open Book Foundation is a DC area nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring authors and illustrators to schools in the Nation’s Capital. Not only do they arrange the visits and host the visiting authors and illustrators, but they also purchase or arrange for donations of books so that every child leaves at the end of the day with a book. Sometimes these are the first books these children have ever owned. That should not be the case, certainly not in communities in and around Washington, DC. But that’s the way it is.

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I came home with a stash of thank you notes. No one can do rainbows like a six year-old. One child took four elements of the book jacket of my picture book,  Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and integrated them into his own jaunty image. Wow. This is why I write for kids!

Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically calls for states who are party to the convention to “encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books.” The United States at this time is a signatory to the convention, but has yet to ratify it.