Writers must entertain and inform: Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan
Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan wears many hats. Based out of California, she is a children's author, professional Voice Over Talent, poet, and translator, who came to this second career from a non-profit organisation where she spent two decades using her words to bring funds to disability-related initiatives. Her voice has been used in documentaries, educational and journalistic ventures, and audiobooks, both in India and the United States, and her essays and stories have appeared in publications including India Currents, Scroll.in, Biz World and Skipping Stones.
But, beyond this formal bio, she adds “I am a Malayalee who grew up outside of Kerala to diasporic Malayalee parents. I am a middle child with an older brother and a younger sister. I speak Malayalam quite well, but am mostly illiterate in terms of reading and writing my mother tongue. I have lived in the United States since I was a teenager but visit the country of my birth every year-sometimes twice a year. I am a mother of a daughter and a son, and an Ammamma of a granddaughter and a grandson.”
Can you tell us a bit more about your published work?
My Poetry Reader published by Clearfork Publishing in September 2020, How Many Lines in a Limerick? is an illustrated poetry book that uniquely mixes "how-to" poems that teach about poetic forms (like sonnets, villanelles, and haikus) with examples of those forms. I have presented the difficult subject of the technique of poetic forms as simply as possible so that it makes the learning that much easier. My picture book, Indi-Alphabet, published by Mango and Marigold Press (February 2018) takes readers around India and provides geography in its maps, history in the fun facts on each page, poetry in the descriptions of places in India, and serves as an introduction to the sub-continent. Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma is an illustrated biography that brings alive the life and times of the celebrated Indian Artist who began his art career in the 19th century. The book was published by Red Panda, an imprint of Westland Books, in April 2021. I am also the published author of five other children's books in India (with Mango/DC Books and Tulika).
What tempted you to trail down the path of children's literature?
Reading and writing have always had appeal to me and I availed myself of all opportunities to write whether it was for contests or submission. My first 'children's story' was published when I was a teenager. It was in the weekend children's supplement of the Hindu. As a mother, and now a grandmother, I spend a lot of time reading to and sharing stories with children. Sometimes the stories are books I read aloud and sometimes they are stories that grow out of my imagination. As a voice-over professional, I'm also often hired to narrate audiobooks for children. Children's literature has become part of my day to day. I have many story ideas percolating in my head. I'm grateful that my work is resonating with publishers and readers.
How did young readers respond to your work Prince with a Paintbrush, depicting the life and legacy of Raja Ravi Varma and the rich Indian culture?
It's been thrilling to see how well-received Prince with a Paintbrush: The Story of Raja Ravi Varma has been. Readers have applauded the book (both the text and the illustrations) and have logged in for book related Zoom events and book readings from all over India brimming with questions and comments. They have said that they are particularly pleased because the book is not 'dry' or 'boring' as they feared biographies could be, but that it is framed from the perspective of a child who is discovering more about the artist. Young readers have taken the time to write and share thoughtful, positive reviews of the book with me. I have included their written posts on my website, www.shobhatharoorsrinivasan.com
Earning the approval of children may sometimes prove to be a monumental task. How do you find the tune of children and the content that fascinates them?
I see my task as a writer to both entertain and inform and approach every new book with both goals in mind. I recognize, however, that it's necessary to keep the subject and facts interesting so that children continue to turn the pages of the book that they are reading. I'm mindful to not talk down to my readers. In the story of Raja Ravi Varma, by allowing the painter's life biography to be unraveled by the child narrator, I was able to inhabit a child's perspective and curiosity and that narrative style has ensured children's engagement with the text. I've also included a page of fun facts at the end of the story for readers to enjoy and explore further. In Indi-Alphabet which is an oversized picture book that has something for children of all ages, we have illustrations of the bus that transports the young children drawn on every page for little children to locate, and cool facts at the bottom of every page for older children to look up and learn if they are curious. In the poetry book, the example poems that illustrate poetic forms are light-hearted and fun to read.
What changes would you like to see in the broad spectrum of children's literature?
Changes are organic and happen all the time. My job as a writer is to respond to the interests of readers and the demands of the market. Changes in the industry are dictated by the purchasing power of readers and trends in the market. In the USA, diversity in literature and 'seeing one's self on the pages of books that one reads' is very important. Publishers big and small are also seeking folk stories that describe ethnic subjects and other cultures, and new minority perspectives are the industry trend. Illustrated picture books and graphic books have also become increasingly popular as children today are accustomed to visual narratives. As an Indian-American member of our shared global community, I have made a commitment that my writing will reflect that diversity. Mine will be a literature that represents the fullness of our collective lives and experiences. I will write books that are inclusive so that children see themselves on the page. Children learn swiftly, and from everything around them, including from the books that they read and that are read to them. In India, I've observed a thirst for a resurgence of stories from our country's classical trove. Last year during the lockdown, I launched a daily video read-aloud of stories from the Panchatantra, Jataka tales and Tenali Raman on YouTube and subscribers to my channel grew by leaps and bounds. Stories of adventure, and characters with heroic abilities have always appealed to children. Mythology too is a wonderful vehicle where protagonists who have a 'higher power' capture the imagination of children who seek heroes and adventures in their lives. I'm pleased to see the resurgence of children's books from the Indian epics and folklore for children. I've also received many requests from readers for children's biographies of other Indian artists and historical figures.
We see that you have been associated with a lot of social work and proved yourself in many varied fields. What is that like, managing multiple roles that require your attention?
There are parallels in each field. With the children's audiobooks that I narrate as a voiceover talent, I use the modulation, inflection and expression of my voice to draw children to the stories I read aloud. As a writer, I use compelling and creative words to engage readers. Print modelling, which I've done in the past for a number of advertising campaigns, is also a way of using yourself to tell the story of a product. When I was in Development and Grant writing, I used the power of words to draw funders to programs and projects that they wished to support. So in many ways, I have been a storyteller in multiple mediums. It is important, however, to separate performative work from honest exposition. In all the mediums that I've mentioned, sincerity in the telling of the story is crucial for it to be received well by readers.
Has Shashi Tharoor ever influenced you in any way?
Of course, he has. My brother's discipline and commitment to excellence in every task he undertakes has been inspiring to so many of us in the family. He has always encouraged me even when I was young to push myself creatively and not settle for the easy route. And he is gracious in his appreciation of efforts when the results are stellar. I'm proud of my brother's prodigious writing talent, his incredible world knowledge, and his sharp intellect. He is also incredibly humble and accessible to everyone who seeks his time and counsel which is a remarkable quality even if it leaves him with so little time each day for rest. I am grateful for his influence and his presence in my life.
Your future works?
Three new books are already in contract with publishers and should be out in the next year. I've been commissioned to write a book about teachable lessons from my mother's life. The life lessons from someone of my mother's generation are valuable; they can be the building blocks and inspiration for the next generation. I also have a picture book on a temple elephant that should be out by the end of the year. The book's text and illustrations will introduce the costume and color of Kerala to readers while also telling the story of a magnificent animal that is in danger of extinction. There will also be an Indian edition of the poetry book that was published a year back in America. In addition, I'm working on a collection of stories that I've called A Treasure Trove of Timeless Tales.