The Write Choice
#JoyofReading : Children’s author, picture book creator and indie publisher Richa Jha takes us through behind the scenes of her last title Machher Jhol, gives a sneak peek into the exciting mix of titles that are currently in the making, and everything in between.
by Manisha Sinha
Machher Jhol or fish in mustard curry is a relished delicacy of Bengal, and for the uninitiated, it is also the award-winning title of children’s author, picture book creator and indie publisher Richa Jha. The book with illustrations by Sumanta Dey hit the stands in October last year and is a picturesque ode of the City of Joy, its sights, sounds, and smells. The endearing story of Gopu, his ailing Baba, and loving Dida, has fish curry occupying an enormous proportion and almost becoming a character in the storyline. The story pans out during Durga Pujo in Kolkata, takes a reader through the lanes and bylanes of emotions and commotion, and manages to awe and shock in ample measure as it draws to an end on a delectable note. The picture book went on to win the BICW Award and Comic Con Award in 2018 and was also shortlisted at Peek A Book Children’s Choice Awards 2018.
Cooking up a delight
Machher Jhol was conceived when Jha spotted stunning works in watercolour by Sumanta. Recounting how the book was conceived, Jha says, “When Sumanta connected with us at Pickle Yolk Books for possible collaborations, I was stunned at some of the watercolours of Calcutta in his portfolio. Two, in particular, stood out. The first was a street scene done which felt so life like that one could feel the smells and sounds of the city. The second was a frame of his mother standing in the kitchen by the gas burners, cooking. While it was stunning beyond measure, the most arresting part in it was the flames around the kadhai. I knew I HAD to bring in the beauty of both together and weave a story around the city that is close to my heart.”
With the flames in the frame, she knew that the story had to be done in a way that it teased out the very soul of Kolkata. It kept developing in stages even as the illustration work on the book was on. In awe of her illustrator’s work, she adds, “It was fascinating to see the frames unfolding, one by one. With each new spread, Sumanta out-excelled himself! The book IS what it is because of his exceptional talent. As an author, the only thing I did was to keep the story as honest as I could. The coming together of Gopu, Baba, Dida and the dog in the way they do in the book seemed like the best possible way to ensure that.”
Turning a new leaf
Jha’s spent her early years in Dhanbad and owes a lot to Carmel School that helped shape her into the person that she is today. “Growing up in the small, yet cosmopolitan Dhanbad taught me resilience, confidence and groundedness. And I feel I have worn both with ease all my life.” She was drawn to the wonder of words even as a child, but the fabulous undergrad years at Miranda House taught her the real power of words (and more importantly, of the pauses between what’s said or heard). A reserved person throughout, she preferred her views to herself, but it was there that she became aware of the importance of speaking out/up. “That words, images and silence can be a tool for expression, dissent or change are what started homing in indelibly in my being from that point on. It was there that I learnt to make my ability to express through the written words into my strength. Much of that reflects in what I now write in the form of books for the very, very young,” she recounts how her literary journey started.
Hooked to books
The author’s literary journey has been an exciting and fulfilling one. It all started around 2001 when her first child was born. Even before he had turned four months old, Jha found herself buying dozens of books to read aloud to him and keep both of them engaged. This enlightened her on the power of picture books, and thus she gradually extended her writing passions towards creating picture books of her own. As she quickly adds that she had not set out to be a children’s/ picture book author. An avid consumer of fiction, she has been writing for as long as she can remember. But writing for children was not even remotely in her scheme of things. “I’m not sure if I can ever point to a particular date or happening which prompted me to take it up. But, at the same time, I am conscious of the various influences that gently nudged me in this direction. It all started with my happy discovery of the magic encapsulated in the sea of well-crafted picture books. It developed into an almost mad passion for devouring more that prompted me to study the craft behind getting a picture book ‘right’; which then became an all-consuming desire to attempt writing a few myself; and finally, giving in to the irresistible push from within to start publishing them. It’s been a beautiful, organic journey where one thing has led to another, and here I am, finding myself both wiring and publishing picture books for children.
Not a kid’s play
Writing for children is easier said than done. “It is challenging (but equally exciting). Children are honest, blunt and often fierce when it comes to expressing their likes or dislikes for something. Therefore, it is imperative that your story too is honest,” says Jha. She quips that in the case of picture books, the author and the Illustrator have a tougher job at hand because what they create has to appeal equally well to the parent or teacher/ librarian too. “The author also needs to leave ample room for the illustrator to fill in (more than) the gaps. An accomplished illustrator will often introduce parallel visual narratives of her own. And for the author, it’s only 400-500 words in which to string a complete narrative arc,” says Jha adding how writing a picture book usually appears deceptively simple to most but is one of the most challenging forms of writing.
A book a day
The author has a varied reading taste, and her list now comprises almost entirely picture books and middle-grade fiction as she finds these equally fascinating. But she wishes she had the time to sink her nose into some good literary fiction too. “It’s been months since I managed to steal some time for a gem,” she rues.
Jha says she doesn’t believe that there is no right or wrong book for a child. “Any book that engages with a young mind, especially in today’s day and age of numerous distractions on all sides, is a snug fit for the young mind. The child will know when it’s time for her to move from one set/kind/level of books to another.” In the same breath, she doles out an important piece of advice around age-appropriate books. “We as parents, teachers, librarians need to stop acting like the gatekeepers to what children read. And we need to stop fussing over the ‘age-appropriateness’ of books. Nothing is too complex/ too simple / taboo / inappropriate for children. I believe that books can break down complex subjects to children in a reassuring way where they can control the pace and degree at which they want to process it in their minds. If they find a book that they are not able to connect with, they will put it aside,” she adds. Much like this, she finds it difficult to place her own books in a neat formulaic box because each is hugely different from the other. But there are a few givens: her books are almost always about the different challenges children face or the many joys they experience in their growing up years; her characters always question; and her books never gloss over the supposedly ‘difficult’ topics (death, disability, separation, insecurity, the trap of toxic masculinity, nudity, and more. “That apart, the only thing I can say about my books, in general, is that they are honest in their intent and approach. And the children in my books trudge through their mini-crises to arrive at their triumphs,” she says on her picture books. No wonder children tend to gravitate naturally towards Vee Loved Garlic, Thatha at School, The Manic Panic and The Susu Pals. “But if an adult is doing the picking up, they are more likely to go for the other titles,” says Jha with a sigh.
Work in progress
The year will see her mainly in a publisher’s role, something that she is quite excited about. 2019 began on an interesting note with an absolute first for her imprint – Pickle Yolk Books – exhibiting at the New Delhi World Book Fair 2019. “It was an exhilarating experience,” she says. And from there, she’s been busy hopping on to attend various lit fests across the country and world. She has an exciting mix of titles getting ready at Pickle Yolk Books – from slapstick to emotionally uplifting to visually stunning and avante-garde. “These are all books in various stages of preparation and completion so a bit premature to share the details yet. But I am blessed to be working with a fabulous range of some of the most talented authors and illustrators in the industry; so much to be grateful for!”
Her latest from Pratham Books, Binti Knows Her Mind, is about a spunky little fire-ball who does not let other people’s no’s deter her from trying out what she has set out to do while her next Giggy and Daddy’s release will coincide with father’s day. “It is unlike anything we’ve done so far in terms of the plot. It’s a simple celebration of a daughter-daddy bond, no more, no less. It’s light, fluffy and out-and-out cute. Mithila Ananth, the book’s illustrator and I had a great time working on it,” she says.
Parents interested in opening up the world of books to your children, please do visit pickleyolkbooks.com for some exemplary award-winning literary work.
The books under the banner of Pickle Yolk have received various awards and nominations at some of the most prestigious literary platforms.
The Tree Boy, by Srividhya Venkat, Illustrated by Nayantara Surendranath, has been listed as one of the best South Asian books in 2018. It was also shortlisted at Peek A Book – Festival of Children’s Literature Children’s Choice Awards 2018.
Dance of the Wild, by Richa Jha, illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane, was a runner-up at Publishing Next Industry Award 2018. It was also shortlisted for FICCI Publishing Awards 2018, Baby Elephant at the Kyoorious Design Awards 2018, and White Raven 2018 at the International Youth Library.
The Unboy Boy is being made into an animation film for children at the Children’s Film Society of India.
The Manic Panic by Richa Jha, Illustrated by Mithila Ananth, was shortlisted at Peek A Book – Festival of Children’s Literature Children’s Choice Awards 2018.
Whispers in the Classroom, Voices on the Field (edited, an anthology for YA, published Wisdom Tree): a stupendously fab collection of about 40 short stories around school from the absolute best literary minds in the country.
Best Friends are Forever (illustrated by Gautam Benegal, published by Wisdom Tree): because friends are forever.
Gul in Space (illustrated by Lavanya Karthik, published by Pratham Books): a kickass aspirational role model for girls and boys; girls and boys need to see girls doing all this and more in books.
Binti Knows Her Mind (illustrated by Kalyani Naravane, published by Pratham Books): imperative that kids see strong-willed girls in books and see the importance of being able to say NO.
Why should you read these Pickle Yolk Book titles?
The Susu Pals (illustrated by Alicia Souza): gender bender spunky girls
The Unboy Boy (illustrated by Gautam Benegal): gender bender gentle boy
Love Like That (illustrated by Gautam Benegal): there is no one “right” way for parent-child bonding
Thatha at School (illustrated by Gautam Benegal): squashing the demons in one’s mind.
Boo! When My Sister Died (illustrated by Gautam Benegal): a story of strength in love, loss and grief.
Vee Loved Garlic (illustrated by Kunal Kundu): question, question and question the given.
Dance of the Wild (illustrated by Ruchi Mhasane): be wild and free
The Manic Panic (illustrated by Mithila Ananth): to celebrate the little joys of our unplugged moments
Machher Jhol (illustrated by Sumanta Day): to see how an achingly beautiful artwork can touch your soul!