The magic of sharing stories

Menaka Raman

I’m often asked which part of the book creation process I love the best. While there’s nothing sweeter than a ‘yes’ from an editor you’ve sent a book proposal to, and seeing the first sketches of characters you’ve created is always thrilling, and holding author copies is a high that never gets old, if I’m really honest, the best bit about making books for me is when I get to share them with my readers through school and library visits.

I suppose my reason for choosing this is quite selfish. After all, it’s only when I read to a live audience of children that I get to experience first-hand if my book ‘works’ or not. Did that joke I was so proud of coming up with, land the way I hoped it would? What about that little moment I added to a scene during the nth rewrite – do they like it? What do they think about this character’s dialogue here?

And with children, one always gets the unvarnished truth. Because they – unlike adults who have learned to sit through things with a polite smile on their faces – reveal exactly what they’re feeling. Sometimes you get the reactions you hoped for – giggles or gasps of surprise – and sometimes, it’s crickets.

But whatever the reaction, it’s always genuine and honest.

I’ve been writing children’s books for almost six years now, and have had the immense privilege and joy of reading from these books to young people in a range of settings – from government and affordable private schools to international schools, from community run libraries to book clubs and at literature festivals. Often, when schools extend an invitation, it is in the belief that the children will ‘learn’ something from our visit. Usually, I am asked to stress upon the importance of reading, how to become a better writer (something even I’m trying to learn!) or the role of reading in writing. And while I can’t promise that they will learn these things – or anything really – I know that I always leave sessions having gleaned something new: about how young people see the world, their fears and hopes, and the role that books play in their lives.

In a recent social media post, one of my favourite authors, Kate Di Camillo wrote, ‘Writing books is done by humans for humans. It is a way for us to connect,’ and I cannot agree more. My books have become a way of connecting with other people, many of whom I will never meet. But the ones I do get to meet? The experience is nothing short of delightful.

Having written across formats – picture books, to chapter books, to novels – I’m lucky that I get to meet children across age groups through my writing. They each bring something different to our time together.

The youngest children I’ve discovered are able to suspend belief and wholly accept absurdity. In my book Lenin’s Guests illustrated by Kalp Sanghvi (Pratham Books), a young boy is called upon by his uncle to look after some friends who are travelling through Lenin’s hometown. When children discover that Lenin’s afternoon guests are in fact a praying mantis and a camel, there is always a ripple of utter joy through the room. Never disbelief. Never cynicism. Not once has a child said, ’Hey! That’s not possible!’ Instead they laugh and go along with it, eager to know what happens next.

Of course, some of this unbridled acceptance fades as children get older and more aware of the world around them and its ways of working. They like to challenge things and question you. Primary students are a different kettle of fish. They’re eager to share with you what they know, and it’s always fun to see them jostle one another to answer the questions I ask them about ISRO and space research during sessions with books like Topi Rockets from Tumba illustrated by Annada Menon (Puffin) and How to Reach Mars and Other Impossible Things illustrated by Rajiv Eipe (Puffin). After reading from the latter at a school in Bengaluru, a 10-year-old shyly asked me if he could share what he knew about the ‘slingshot’ manoeuvre. When I agreed, he went on to give an explanation that was so concise and correct that I jokingly suggested he be a research assistant for my next book. He sought me out later and shared his mother’s email id with me, instructing me to write to her when I wanted him to get started on work.

Today’s children don’t lack confidence, nor do they lack access to information. When I asked a group of students who they went to when they wanted a question answered, instead of the usual ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ I was expecting, many piped up that it was Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Alexa, and one even said ChatGPT! But the responses led to a lovely conversation about trusted sources of information, fake news and how they could double check the information they were being presented. These were eight-year-olds, mind you.

As any teacher reading this knows, some of the hardest children to reach are middle and high schoolers. Some of them are suspicious of adults, others are convinced you’re a relic from a bygone time (and to be fair, at 14, a 43-year-old is indeed a species on the brink of extinction), and some are so preoccupied with their exams and studies and extracurricular activities, an author is quite low down on their list of priorities. I always try to engage them by talking about the things I know my teenage children are into – multi-player video games, SnapChat filters and characters from manga (a form of Japanese graphic novels and comic books). A 43-year-old who knows about Tony Tony Chopper (a character in manga comics) can’t be all that bad.

It’s only in the last couple of years or so that I’ve had a chance to interact with this age group as my novel Loki Takes Guard (Speaking Cub) was a pandemic book and came out during the lockdown.

One of my first outings with Loki was to a residential school in Indore. I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive before the event. The book is about an 11-year-old cricket crazy girl in Chennai who wants to play for her local team. What would readers living in Madhya Pradesh make of this story set in a very particular milieu that was literally and figuratively miles and miles away from their own lived reality?

But as I spoke to them, I was reminded of something that I often tell children without thinking twice – that certain experiences and stories are universal and they strike a chord with us. That Saturday afternoon my own words really hit home as girls and boys alike asked me question after question: “How can I convince my parents to let me have a chance to go after my own dreams?” “How can I make my grandmother my ally? She’s so strict and conservative!” “Why was Loki’s father so silent throughout the book? Why didn’t he have any opinions on anything?” Later that day, some of the students sought me out and spoke to me of being allies for one another when their families were not the most supportive, and their attempts to form clubs and spaces that were gender and choice inclusive.

The same book when shared with high schoolers in Bengaluru received a very different reaction. The majority of the children believed that listening to one’s parents was the ‘right’ thing to do. They genuinely seemed convinced that their parents knew exactly what was right for them and there was no need to rebel. It was their duty to make them happy. I left the Bengaluru session thinking ‘Hmm, what’s going to happen to these kids’ and left the Indore session thinking ‘These kids are going to be alright.’

It’s a thought that echoed in my head a year later when I read I Love Me illustrated by Ekta Bharti (Pratham Books) to children at a free community library in Bengaluru. The children, many of whom were from migrant families, opened up about being the new kid, their anxieties around making friends in a new place and how it was hard to put themselves out there and face rejection. It was wonderful seeing how the children gave each other suggestions on how to approach someone, and what they might say to become friends. They didn’t hesitate to challenge one another either. When one of the young boys pointed at the main character Rubina and said, “But who will make friends with this girl! Look at what she’s wearing. It’s too short!” I paused wondering how I might respond to this statement. Before I could articulate my response, another boy piped up and said that what one wore was their choice “My body, my choice” he summed up neatly. “What right do we have to say that her dress is too short?” he questioned.

It’s honestly these conversations that keep me writing alone at my desk. That very idea that something I write might be read by or to a young person and play a tiny role in shaping how they see the world is precious. As Kate di Camillo said, books really are about connections.

The author is a children’s book author, podcast producer and communications consultant based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at menaka.raman@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply