Our Seeds of Knowledge Series hopes to share the voice of creators in children’s publishing and also, offer guidance to aspiring writers and illustrators. This kind of diverse community knowledge is what I wish had existed, when starting out with Saffron Press.
Here at the Pod, we advocate passionately for accurate diverse representation. Some wonderful creators have generously accepted an invitation to share knowledge. We will learn about their work and the work of representing the Sikh identity in their children’s books.
Our (in)visible faith identity may be viewed as an equalizer for some – a way for all of us to be defined in the same category – but as members of the broader Sikh community, we are aware that our cultural nuances differ widely. Once we build safe spaces where our stories can exist, without distortion or stereotypical portrayals, our little ones will learn to tell their own stories, without prejudice. Our stories will grow and these collections will include diverse perspectives and intersectional lived experiences. This is what I imagine for our future citizens of change – their dreams of hope soaring – seeing themselves in the world of books as protagonists and knowing that they too, belong.
I would like to welcome artist, illustrator and children’s author, Meenal Patel.
Meenal Patel is an artist, illustrator, and children’s book author based in San Francisco, California. She is inspired by family, childhood wonder, strong women, textures in nature, and her Indian-American heritage. When she’s not making art, she loves reading to her nieces, cooking chana masala, eating ice cream, visiting her home state of Minnesota and being in the beautiful outdoor spaces of California.
NAVJOT: When does Meenal Patel’s story to publication begin and why?
MEENAL: I started my first children’s book, Neela Goes to San Francisco, in 2012 but didn’t publish it widely until 2016. That initial version of my first book was intended only for my niece, Neela, as a one-off gift to her. I wanted her to have a memory of visiting me in San Francisco as she grew up and I loved reading to her so it seemed like a good present. Watching her absolute delight in seeing a character in a book that resembled her was really powerful and made me want to dive deeper into children’s books and illustrations in general. This experience gave me the powerful realization of how impactful and necessary it is for children to see themselves represented in the books and media that surrounds them.
After that experience, I knew I wanted to keep making books. My latest book picture book, Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala, is about taking pride in your heritage and sharing your traditions with others. It required a lot of self-reflection and digging deep into my childhood to unearth the story. Hopefully that honest work helps people connect with it.
NAVJOT: What drives you to write and illustrate books for children?
MEENAL: I want people to feel seen and I hope I can be a small part of doing that by making these books and putting my art out into the world. The feeling of being understood can deeply impact kids – and all people for that matter. It can affect confidence and self-worth. At the same time, exposing kids (and adults!) to experiences that differ from their own gives them a wider world view and helps them grow their understanding and empathy for others.
NAVJOT: Many readers may be surprised to learn just how long it takes to complete a manuscript for a children’s book. Could you describe the timeline for one of your titles? On reflection, were you prepared for this journey?
MEENAL: Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala took a total of 2 and a half years from the spark of inspiration to actual publication, and the journey continues to get the book into peoples’ hands. Much of the 2 and a half years was in developing many stories before this story became what it is.
The spark of this story came from traveling to India with my parents a couple of years ago for the first time as an adult. I had always wanted to see the country where my family is from with my parents, so it was a really special trip for me. India is a full-sensory place and I was so inspired by the people, colors, patterns, food, and sounds. I was also struck by how many experiences were deeply familiar, and at the same time, others felt very foreign.
After that trip I knew I wanted to make a picture book about India. Something related to all the amazing sensory moments I felt so connected to. I stewed on it for about a year and a half but none of the stories I wrote felt right. It all felt very surface-level. I threw out everything and started over. I took time to journal about that trip to India and why it had such a deep impact on me. It was the everyday things that I saw there that felt so familiar to me because they were a part of my everyday home life growing up. I was comforted by this sense of greater human connection – these people halfway across the world doing things the way I did halfway across the world. Even though I had this sense of being so different and sometimes lonely growing up in a community that didn’t have much diversity, all along there were all these people who understood all those things. That’s comforting to me. All of this unpacking of my experience felt like a really honest jumping off point for this story.
In hindsight, I knew it would take more than a year to make the book but I didn’t think it would take me quite so long to get the story itself out of me. It took a lot of digging and deep reflection to write this story because it is very personal. I had to unpack a lot for myself and that took time but ultimately led to a story that I hopefully connects to people at an emotional level.
NAVJOT: Given the growing awareness around diverse representation in children’s books, what were some of your own challenges during the writing and illustration process of both Neela Goes to San Francisco and Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala (+ any new titles)? What resources (if any) helped you navigate your blind spots?
MEENAL: One of the biggest challenges for writing and illustrating Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala was that I was centering a large part of the story in India. While my family is from India, I was born and raised in the United States so I feared not being able to accurately portray India. India is a very diverse place and I wanted to make sure I acknowledged and accurately represented this in the book.
Beyond doing a lot of research on many aspects of the book’s content, I took additional steps to ensure that my book was accurate and culturally sensitive. After I wrote the manuscript, I reached out to The Conscious Kid, which is an education and research organization that focuses on reducing bias and promoting positive identity development. I asked them if they would be willing to provide consulting services (that I was willing to pay for) to help me ensure that my book was culturally sensitive and accurate. They agreed and provided me with feedback after reviewing my manuscript that was extremely helpful. They asked questions that made me think critically about what and how I was saying and showing elements of India. They also gave me the idea to reach out to you, Navjot! You were generous enough to review some of my illustrations to ensure I was accurately portraying Sikh head coverings. We had a great back and forth that helped me to refine the details of those illustrations.
(Meenal was gracious enough to share a BEFORE and AFTER of her illustrations to reflect the work she invested in to ensure accurate diverse representation).
NAVJOT: There are many routes to publication today. What avenues did you consider before deciding on your personal journey? Were both of your titles published the same way? Why/why not?
MEENAL: Neela Goes to San Francisco was independently self-published. At that point I was working full time at a design agency and not freelance illustrating as I am currently doing. So I knew I was going to keep the book project smaller scale and local given the content. I learned a lot about how the book world works during that process, namely that it’s incredibly difficult to get a book in stores unless it is in traditional book distribution channels. For my second book, I really wanted to reach people more widely so knew I needed to get into standard distribution channels. I considered traditionally publishing but there were life circumstances that made me decide to go for it on my own again. This time via working with a hybrid publisher. I still had to fund everything (partially through a Kickstarter) but they provided editing, other services, AND were able to get me into standard distribution.
In the future, I’d love to traditionally publish given that the time and costs necessary for self-publishing are quite intensive. It’s also really appealing to me to work with a team of people through the book making process.
Finally, I asked Meenal if she could share her own seed of knowledge for aspiring writers and illustrators.
NAVJOT: Is there something you would change/do differently before embarking on this journey again?
MEENAL: Embrace that making a children’s book is a very long process! Even though it’s a short book, that doesn’t mean it will come together quickly.
I would like to thank Meenal for her time and for her investment in the work of diverse representation in children’s books.
All images have been used with permission from Meenal Patel.