Chitra Soundar is a very well-known and popular writer for children. Born in Chennai, India, she has written over 40 books, including Pattan’s Pumpkin for Otter-Barry Books (2017). With the first two Nikhil and Jay books (published this month), she says it is no coincidence that she has two young nephews of whom she is extremely fond, and who appreciate her skills in creating spicy, tasty vegetarian meals. Chitra divides her time between south London and Chennai. Here she shares some of her own early inspiration and how she, in turn, is a positive role model for the children she meets.
Early this year, I did a number of virtual visits with Book Trust Northern Ireland. In one of my sessions, there was a Y3 child from a South Indian family. When it was his turn to ask questions, he didn’t have questions – he had testimonies of how he too was like me. He did a show and tell of everything Indian around him that he was able to relate to in my books. The sheer joy in his face, his passion to share his life with the rest of his class and tell everyone that he has been seen, he has recognised himself in the books, was life-affirming.
Growing up in India, I was lucky enough to read comics that were made in India about Indian epics, legends, folktales and heroes.
While I didn’t have contemporary role models in stories I recognised, I was in touch with my culture both from my own family telling me stories and from these Indian comics.
But most fiction texts I read were western with very few exceptions.
One such book was Kaziranga Trails by Arup Kumar Dutta. I was mesmerized by two boys who saved a rhino from poaching in the nature reserve park in East India. Mr Dutta made his mark on me. I wanted to write like him. 40 years later, I found him via this new-fangled-thing called the Internet and emailed him and he was genuinely affectionate and congratulated me on becoming a writer and was surprised to hear that he had inspired me. The next character I wrote that week after Dutta wrote back to me, I named after him. A full circle.
And that’s the power of being a role-model. Creating stories for all children who want to be like the protagonist of the stories I write and also for all children who want to be the author who imagined those stories
To be honest, I never even knew if Mr Dutta was a real person when I was a child. I had never met Enid Blyton either and I just assumed writers were some strange people who lived far away and lived different lives.
But when I go into schools nowadays and talk to children and tell them about my growing up, my experiments with story as a kid, my certificates for writing stories and essays and poems, I can visibly see the flicker of inspiration.
When I do assembly talks, I often make the children pronounce my name and they giggle and make fun of it, because it’s unfamiliar to them. Then I tell them the story of my name, and they stop laughing at me and are eager to share their own stories about names.
I recently got a bundle of letters from a school in Birmingham – five out of those 15 letters said, “I want to be a writer like you.” And all of these were Asian children who perhaps never had imagined that as an option.
Few years ago, I was asked to pitch a story to Aquila a children’s magazine and their current theme was Alexander the Great. I did not want to write a story that was focused on Alexander (or the western / victor’s perspective). Knowing that Alexander met a great Indian king during one of his last battles, I chose to tell a story (The Mahout of Thill) from a young mahout’s perspective who was in that battle against Alexander. We must constantly strive to offer multiple perspectives to our children so they are able to discern the truth for themselves.
From fiction to nonfiction, poetry to fairy tales, if every classroom reads stories from faraway places, it opens up new paths to walk on, avenues to explore and worlds to discover. When we don’t do that, we’re in danger of raising a future generation that does not understand differences, perhaps even fear them. Differences are what makes us unique. Let’s embrace them.
If books are magic and if books are transformative, then let’s make that magic and transformation relevant to all children.
Published by Otter-Barry Books 05 August 2021
Nikhil and Jay Save the Day and Nikhil and Jay:The Star Birthday