Four Things I Kept In Mind While Writing a Children’s Book
By Varsha Varghese
Hey Readers, this week’s post comes to us from Varsha Varghese, author of the latest children’s book ‘Leya’s Extra-Secret Super-Important Birthday List’.
Read other children’s writers and research the publishing landscape
I read a lot as a child, a book a day on most days and often two a day during summer vacations. I quickly graduated to general fiction in middle school. I revisited children’s books when I co-founded a volunteer-led reading project at the age of 22, working with children from under-resourced communities in Delhi.
It was my first encounter with wonderful independent children’s publishers such as Pratham, Tulika, Tara, Eklavya, Young Zubaan, and Duckbill.
They were bringing out more diverse stories than ever before and I actively incorporated these titles into my TBR list. Reading for writing also opened my eyes to nuances that I would not have caught as a casual reader. For example, the difference between chapter books and middle-grade books, the number of illustrations typically featured in a chapter book, the publishers more likely to take on difficult topics, etc. Publishing for children has come a long way in the past decade, but one cannot yet say that most Indian children can see themselves in the stories being written.
Prioritise relatability and inclusivity when picking a story idea
It was only as an adult that I reflected on how so few of the books that I read as a child had characters or stories that were relatable.
I have an undergraduate degree in Economics from St. Stephen’s College, a postgraduate diploma in liberal studies from Ashoka University, and a master’s degree in Development Studies from The Graduate Institute, Geneva. My love for children’s literature and my academic training meant that I not only continued reading children’s books but was also consuming research around representation in children’s literature. As one could easily guess, there are fewer girls in children's books, and even when they appeared, they often had far less to say and do than their male counterparts.
This solidified my constraint #1 for writing: write only with female leads.
My continued engagement with fiction and non-fiction literature in the field of gender and facilitating a gender reading circle for my peers led me to my
constraint #2: write a feminist children’s book but with a world set up that is realistic.
It was important to me that I did not portray a utopia far removed from the realities of my young readers. I did not think it would be fair to write a story where Amma and Appa did an equal share of all household chores with no complaints. How could a child reconcile on their own that their homes and parents showcased actions far from ideal or equitable?
Ask yourself: Am I the best person to write this particular story?
While the story I wrote is rather close to my lived experience, the idea took shape from an academic paper a friend was working on in graduate school. I encountered the phrase “Gulf Wife”. These are married women from Kerala whose husbands work in the Gulf, and I was particularly interested in the subset of gulf wives who did not live with either their parents or in-laws but were raising their children independently.
Necessity forces these women to make key financial decisions for their children, often navigating public spaces dominated by men.
But these seemingly feminist actions do not come from reflection or mutual unlearning. There will without doubt be tensions when circumstances change, for example when the husband returns to Kerala.
Leya took shape in my head long before I began writing the story. She is a 9-year-old girl growing up in Thrissur, Kerala in a single-parent household with her Amma taking care of her while her Appa worked in Kuwait. She has a different life from my childhood. I lived on the other side of the migration story, growing up in Dubai with my parents from a vastly different economic class to Leya’s and only visiting Thrissur every year for summer vacations. But I still knew enough about Leya’s world that convinced me that I could write her story.
Just be brave and write out your first draft
There could be many reasons stopping you from starting. For me, it was self-doubt and the awareness that it is tough to break into the publishing industry. The process of writing my first draft included finding friends to bounce ideas off of, joining a writing mentorship group, and reading some wonderful books on writing as a craft.
Find a system of writing that works for you, for many it could be writing a messy first draft and then whittling it down to perfection. I knew that I cannot write like that. What I needed was a 1-page synopsis and chapter outlines before I even began writing the story itself.
It did take me a couple of drafts and many beta readers from ages 7 to 35 before I reached a version of the story that I hope is as compelling for an adult as it is for my child readers. The wonderful illustrations from Bhavya completed the journey and the book is now out in the world.
If you are more curious about my children’s book “Leya’s Extra-Secret Super-Important Birthday List”, here’s a blurb:
Nine-year-old Leya has a secret list of things to do before her 10th birthday. Items on the list include writing amazing letters as part of a school assignment, baking a cake by herself, overcoming her fear of blood, and walking to school alone. To complete the list, she must take help from her best friends Aman and Diya.
She knows that her family is different from theirs. Living with her Amma in Kerala and her Appa working in Kuwait, she is overjoyed when he returns home unexpectedly. But is Appa hiding something from her? With the new challenges at home, can she complete her secret list?
You can purchase the book on Amazon : https://www.amazon.in/LEYAS-EXTRA-SECRET-SUPER-IMPORTANT-BIRTHDAY/dp/B09WKC5QWS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=XV2R9BSKISXA&keywords=leyas+extra+secret&qid=1651752989&sprefix=Leyas+ex%2Caps%2C248&sr=8-1
If you wish to purchase a signed copy, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Instagram at varshaxvarghese
If you wish to donate copies of this book to children from under-resourced communities, do reach out to me either over email or on Instagram to directly place a bulk order on your behalf from the publisher at a heavy discount.
Varsha holds a master's degree in development studies and works with a university in Admissions. A part-time writer, she has authored 2 picture books and a children's novel and has previously run a volunteer-led reading project working with children from under-resourced communities in Delhi.