KidLit Talk: Ashok Banker and Sandhya Prabhat on 'I Am Brown'
It's the book birthday of I Am Brown, a joyful celebration of the skin you're in! We're delighted to have the brilliant author and illustrator Ashok Banker and Sandhya Prabhat here on the blog to give us a glimpse into how they created their delightful book. Go on - you're in for a fun and insightful read!
On the illustrations
Ashok: You're such an amazing artist. Your use of shapes, colours, the richness of background details, the graphic elements you add, overall composition, it's so strong and unique. You have a very individual, immediately recognisable style. In similar yet strikingly different ways, so does your sister Chaaya. How did so much talent erupt in a single family? Are any more of your family artists? Did the Talent Fairy visit your house and grant you all boons?
Sandhya: Thank you for your incredibly kind words. They mean a lot. My grandfather who passed away recently, was a prolific Tamil and English writer and a professor of English Literature. I’ve dedicated this book to him. He had a never-ending supply of hilarious and wise stories, both from his life and fictional : he repeated these incessantly. Our family’s nutty stories get passed on like this, via oral tradition, much like the Mahabharata and Ramayana. My grandmothers on both sides, and my mother, sew like nobody’s business. They’ve designed our clothes and exquisitely hand-embroidered and appliquéd and painted them, since we were babies. My mother DIYs everything, and has her nose deep in a sewing or art and craft project all the time. My father is an IT professional but is also a writer in English and Tamil. He has published several novels and written many short stories. Perhaps this bunch of people has been our talent fairies, if any. My sister and I are grateful and to have gotten a trickle of their creativity.
Ashok: You do book covers for non-fiction books and novels as well, and I think you've also done advertising and editorial illustrations. And then there's your animation. Yet somehow, your work finds its strongest expression - in my humble opinion - with children's books. There's something so bright, colourful and appealing about it. What shaped your style to make it so perfect for children? Was it a conscious decision?
Sandhya: Thank you, again. I suspect this is true – I do enjoy working on picture books a tad extra. Perhaps this is because I’m an avid consumer of children’s picture books myself. I am thoroughly fascinated by how fewer words and lots of imagery can work together to deliver emotion powerfully. I follow many artists on Instagram who work on picture books to admire how they treat their material. I take a single illustration, spread or spot, and try to design how every aspect of it can reflect the story/line that it is depicting. How can colours show mood? How can composition direct the eye of the reader to the subject? How can the placement of the image on a page tell the story? How much white space do I leave around a character? Where do I put the text so that the reader combines it with the picture correctly, to form sense? I enjoy this process. Children, I think, are the toughest audiences, since they’re brutally honest. Therefore, watching a child reader enjoy and understand a book I illustrated, is a bigger creative win for me, than say receiving an award for animation/illustration. I love the latter, but the former is a sweeter victory.
Ashok: You've been kind enough to praise my script for I Am Brown. (Thank you!) As you mentioned, I don't specify any art instructions or suggestions. Even during the editorial process, I kept mum, leaving the art entirely in your very capable hands. That was my conscious choice, because I'd already chosen and trusted you to do a great job. But it must have been daunting just to have that text, with no guidelines. How did you go about visualising this book? Were there many iterations before you settled on one particular style and these characters or did you just put brush to canvas and let fly? Give us an insight into your process on I Am Brown
Sandhya: The support of the editor Alice Curry made this less daunting and more like an adventure. First I read and re-read the script many times. I tried to read it, only as a reader, and not an illustrator. I wrote down what I visualised as I read it and came up with a few different treatments, all of which seemed equally exciting to me, and proposed them to Alice. From this, she helped me pick the direction we finally went with. The idea was to illustrate children at play and show them using everyday objects or being engaged in common activities. These illustrations, when combined with your beautiful words, would provide insight into their aspirations, preferences, desires and personalities. The book aims to work such that neither the illustrations alone, nor the words alone, can independently create the effect that it now creates. This to me is a collaboration that is successful.
Ashok: You have such a wonderful style, so perfect for children's stories. Have you ever thought of or been interested in developing an animated film or TV show perhaps? I know you've done some animation already? Any ambitions to do your own animation series or film perhaps? (I have a vested interest since I love animation and have long been trying to find an artist who shares my vision and passion for my stories and worlds, but this is not (entirely) wishful thinking!)
Sandhya: I have worked many years ago on a popular TV series in Singapore, ‘The Diary of Amos Lee’, and have animated for it with two of my friends. I also recently animated for a children’s literacy program created by the Carolina Panthers and Scholastic to inspire children to read more. I’m always dreaming of creating an animated film by myself but my style (drawing all frames) is time-consuming and expensive. Perhaps some day, I’d have the luxury to spend a year or two on a film. At the moment, I enjoy animating short content though.
Ashok: What's on your easel or tablet right now? What are you working on or planning to work on next?
Sandhya: My sister Chaaya and I just released an animated sticker pack for Facebook that we designed together. I’m completing a few illustrated covers, and have three new illustrated/picture books coming out in 2020 that will be released between April and December.
On the writing
Sandhya: Why was writing on 'brownness' important to you?
Ashok: I am brown! Picture books are a visual medium and the first exposure a child has to literature. There's a mountain of wonderful picture books featuring white children. They're such beautiful books with wonderful messages. Every child deserves to be seen. As a brown child from a sub-continent where over one and a half billion brown people live, I grew up without ever seeing a single picture book featuring anyone like me. Even now, when there are so many lovely picture books published out of India and elsewhere featuring brown children, they tend to be the majority population. By which I mean, Hindu, upper class, upper caste. That's fine, because everyone deserves representation. But I felt there should be picture books that children like myself could relate to as well: Non-Hindu, irreligious, low-caste/outcaste, mixed-race, one foot in the west, one foot in the East, so many seemingly contradictory heritages all contained within one idea. The concept of brownness. From that seed of inclusivity sprouted the idea for I Am Brown.
As you know, the book isn't only about children like me. It aspires to be about all children everywhere who are seen as brown kids. There is so much more beauty that isn't skin-deep. We can be anyone, anywhere, eat, work, achieve anything we put our minds to. It's a book celebrating the things that unite us, the joy of being a child.
Sandhya: You've written over 50 books for adults, and are a prolific writer with many adult fans. What made you write a children's book?
Ashok: Actually, my first published books were children's books. Amazing Adventure at Chotta Sheher, The Missing Parents Mystery, Vortal (which was written in my early writing years but published only much later). Even before I Am Brown came out, my recent children's books have been The Invisible Spy (Secret School Mysteries, Book 1) from Scholastic and Bhumia Adventures: The Angry God (Tulika), Prince of Ayodhya: The Graphic Novel, based on my Ramayana Series book of the same name, and The Legend of Rudra: Shiva Trilogy Book 1. Forthcoming children's books by me are Aliens Ate My Homework (Secret School Mysteries, Book 2) and The Haunted Centre (Secret School Mysteries, Book 3), followed by Rama's Story, a Young Adult adventure retelling of the Ramayana, and Pax Gandhi coming out in 2020/21. And there's even another picture book, Tiny Tiger, which I hope will be illustrated by your own sister, Chaaya Prabhat! About 20% of my 70+ books to date have been children's books, including the eight-part Krishna Coriolis series. But I had never written a picture book before and I love picture books. I have my own small collection and I constantly read picture books, often picking the ones I think will appeal most to our recently arrived granddaughter Leia, who loves books and has been addicted to them since she was several months old and barely able to sit and hold them on her own! A picture book is a special challenge because it's a visual medium but it's also the most powerful way to tell a story.
Sandhya: How is writing for children different from writing for adults? Which is more challenging or do they have equal challenges?
Ashok: Writing for children is wonderful. They don't have the patience for adult BS! You can't trick them with literary devices and stylistic stunts. You have to tell a good story, tell it well, and avoid intruding and trampling all over it. It's like entering the jungle of story as an entire menagerie of animals - you have to switch shapes and forms constantly, using every talent at your disposal, but knowing when to stop. The hardest thing about writing for children isn't just what you say, but what you leave out. With adults, you can ramble about unrelated things, pile on detail, or have dialogues which are entertaining just for their own sake, toss in contemporary references and pop culture tropes. With children, the narrative has to be timeless, trend-proof, and without any unnecessary padding. When you get it right, it's the most wonderful feeling of all. Some of my favorite books of all time are children's books. They transcend their category to stand as great works of literature. Watership Down by Richard Adams is a great book about community, friendship, loyalty, courage, immigration. Just William by Richmal Crompton is one of the funniest, most memorable depictions of the realities of childhood. Annie On My Mind by Nancy Friday is one of the most moving, heart-aching love stories. The best of literature is in the children's section of the bookstore and library.
Sandhya: I received the manuscript with only your beautifully written text and no directions on how to interpret the text. I gave it my own spin. Is this how you'd imagined the illustrations to interpret your text?
Ashok: I made it a point not to imagine the illustrations. I was very clear that it would be your choice to make. I wanted to pare the message down to its most basic, most elemental, and universal truths. Simple statements of fact, of affirmation, of self-esteem. Your illustrations were far, far more beautiful, original and surprising than anything I might have imagined. I do claim credit for researching South Asian illustrators extensively to find the one I thought would be just right for this book. When I came across your art online, I immediately had an instinct that you were the perfect pencil to bring this vision to life. I'm so happy I found you, and even happier that you agreed! Thank you!
Sandhya: Would you write more for children? What would those books be on?
Ashok: I am working hard to reshape my writing career to be more of a children's author, while continuing to write a few select adult books as well. As I've mentioned above, I have several titles forthcoming, and many others in the works. I have an idea for another follow-up book to I Am Brown, but won't say anything more till I've written the script. Surprising as it may seem, it takes me far longer to develop, incubate, write and revise a 200-word picture book script than it takes me to write a 200,000-word epic fantasy novel! But the knowledge that little hands and little eyes will hold and view my words, and little minds and hearts will gladden on reading them, makes the effort and time more than worth it. I love children - raising them, caring for them, talking with them, reading to them - and have never lost the child in me. If I wasn't a writer, I would be a Montessori or kindergarten teacher, quite likely. But with a farm filled with animals on the side - none of them required to work for a living, purely for the pleasure of caring for them and living alongside them. And of course, a lovely library full of beautiful books!
Thank you, Ashok and Sandhya, for sharing your creative processes with us! Follow the blog tour for more behind-the-scenes stories from and beyond-the-book goodness.
Click HERE to see more from this joyful celebration of brown skin, of being amazing, of being you!
Ashok Banker is the bestselling and critically acclaimed author of over 60 books which have sold over 3.2 million copies in 21 countries in 61 languages. This is his debut picture book. Find out more about his other books on ashokkbanker.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Sandhya Prabhat, an independent animator and illustrator, has published nearly a dozen picture books. She also animates videos and designs e-stickers. She has worked on projects for Google, Snapchat, Wechat and Carolina Panthers. See more of Sandhya's gorgeous work on Instagram and on sandhyaprabhat.com