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 I was 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.
I would like to welcome screenwriter and children’s author, Supriya Kelkar.
Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films, including Lage Raho Munnabhai and Eklavya: The Royal Guard, India’s entry into the 2007 Academy Awards. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) THE SANDALWOOD PYRE (Tu Books, 2020), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).
NAVJOT: What were your dreams of hope growing up? (Were you first drawn to illustrating or writing or something else, perhaps?)
SUPRIYA: I always loved drawing and wanted to illustrate from a young age but I really fell in love with writing in third grade, after my teacher had us work on a story and bound each kid’s story into their own hardcover book. I felt so proud to share that story, from that moment on, I decided I wanted to be a writer. A couple years later, in middle school, I narrowed that dream of writing down to screenwriting. I wanted to write movies. So when I was hired by Vidhu Vinod Chopra to write Hindi movies with him after I graduated from college, it was truly a dream come true.
NAVJOT: What moved you from writing for the Bollywood screen to writing for children?
SUPRIYA: Although I wrote Bollywood movies at work, the screenplays I wrote while studying film at the University of Michigan, and on my own time after that, were mostly scripts for children’s movies or TV shows. I had first had the idea of writing my middle grade novel, AHIMSA, as a screenplay actually. When it wasn’t clicking as a script, I decided to try it as a novel, and that’s how I first started writing children’s books. A decade later, after I had children, I didn’t want to be gone from them for long stretches of time for scripting sessions out of town that my job required, so I decided to focus more on children’s books. I took classes, read books to improve my craft, worked with freelance editors to revise, and then in 2016, AHIMSA won Tu Books/Lee and Low Books’ New Visions Award and along with it, a publishing deal. So 14 years after I wrote the first draft of AHIMSA, it was published in 2017.
NAVJOT: Many readers may be surprised to learn just how long it takes to complete a manuscript for a children’s picture book. Could you describe the timeline for THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH? How does it compare to writing for the big screen? On reflection, were you prepared for this journey?
SUPRIYA: Yes! It can be really hard to fit an entire story into less than 500 words. It takes many drafts to get a picture book right. I wrote the first draft of THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH in early 2017 but the story wasn’t working. I revised it several times with totally different plots before I got the idea that it should be about a family moving. I then took it through several passes with the critique groups I’m a part of. Next, after several months and drafts, I showed it to my agent and did a few more revisions with her notes. When it was finally ready, my agent sent the book out on submission. Once the book sold, the work was still not over. The illustrator, Alea Marley, had to create the art. And my editor had notes for me to address in the first edit. The manuscript then went through a copy edit as well. The book was published about 2.5 years after I had first started working on it.
I think writing for the big screen really prepared me for how long publishing takes. I had worked on one screenplay for five years that didn’t get made until a decade later. These kinds of incidents are very common in the film industry. The years of rewrites on screenplays also taught me just how important it is to not be attached to my words and know that there is always room for improvement. So that prepared me for this journey as well.
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 The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh? Since you are not from a Sikh heritage yourself, what resources (if any) helped you navigate missing pieces during the writing of this story?
SUPRIYA: I wanted to tell a story with the theme of kindness that showed an Indian-American boy’s journey from a place of happiness, to a new place that is quite different from where he grew up, to finally feeling at home again. And I wanted to highlight the little microaggressions that can add up in a child’s life, like the dread I felt every Valentine’s Day at school when I would get card after card with my name totally misspelled.
I am eternally grateful to my friend and fellow author, Simran Jeet Singh, whose picture book, FAUJA SINGH KEEPS GOING: THE TRUE STORY OF THE OLDEST PERSON TO EVER RUN A MARATHON, comes out later this year. He wrote the most beautiful afterword for the book. I was also grateful to him for reviewing countless drafts of the manuscript and of course, to you, for reading it early on and pre-publication as well. I also collaborated with the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization, to develop a discussion guide for the book. I was glad to work with them given their experience in promoting accurate Sikh awareness and preventing bullying in our nation’s public schools.
NAVJOT: What compelled you to add the lines:
“I like your hat,” said Harpreet
“I like your hat,” said the girl
“Mine’s not a hat, actually. It’s called a patka,” said Harpreet.
SUPRIYA: On the plot level, I wrote those lines as a way to bring Harpreet together with his new friend, but because there was mention of his friend’s hat and he wears a patka, I also wanted to have Harpreet address the misconception that some people have that a patka or dastaar is a hat. Your work on making that point clear is so important, and when people who have read this picture book bring up these lines, I send them to your interview with The Conscious Kid where you explain how a dastaar is a daily action of faith.
NAVJOT: There are many routes to publication today. What avenues did you consider before pursuing the publisher(s) who acquired your titles? Have all of your titles been published the same way? Why/why not?
SUPRIYA: My agent submitted the manuscript to editors at different publishing houses. All of my traditionally published work has been published this way but it was a long road to get here. I queried dozens and dozens of book agents from 2003 (back when queries were sent by mail instead of e-mail), through 2016 with no luck. After years of rejection letters, I was getting ready to give up, when I entered the New Visions contest. When I found out I won the New Visions Award in 2016 and that AHIMSA would be published, I queried agents one last time, and it was truly a thrilling day when I started working with my amazing agent later that year.
Finally, I asked Supriya if she could share her own seed of knowledge for aspiring writers and self-publishers.
NAVJOT: Is there something you would change/do differently before embarking on this journey again?
SUPRIYA: Early on, as a child in elementary school who never saw myself reflected in a book or TV show or movie, many of the books I wrote featured a white, blond-haired girl. It was obvious that somewhere along the way, I had received the message that my story wasn’t important. It wasn’t until college that I really wrote a story about a South Asian-American character. But that was the exception. The majority of scripts and books that I wrote early on were not about characters who looked anything like me. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it knowing my story matters and that I deserve to see myself in a book just like all kids do. And I would proudly write the stories it has taken me years to be able to write, from the start.
I would like to thank Supriya for her time and great patience while I’ve navigated life during these uncertain times of COVID and home schooling. Please check out all her titles in the links below.
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.
Thank you for joining us at the Pod!
All images have been used with permission from Supriya Kelkar and/or Sterling Children’s Books.