Bookaholicanonymous feels extremely privileged today as we have Paro Anand speak to us through this interview. She is one of the foremost writers of children’s literature in India today. Just go through her bio below and you’ll know why. But not just children, she writes for young adults and adults as well. The sheer expanse of her writing genres baffles us. She reiterates our belief that the bigger the achievement the humbler the person is. If you aspire to write for children then you must definitely read this interview to know how children’s literature has changed with time like everything else!
About Paro Anand: She is a Sahitya Akademi, Bal Sahitya Award winner for her book, Wild Child, now published as Like Smoke, with additional content. She has written books for children, young adults and adults. She also works with children, especially those in difficult circumstances through her program Literature in Action and holds a world record for helping over three thousand children make the world’s longest newspaper.
She was invited to speak at the Harvard India Conference, USA on Disruptive Innovation in Literature for Young Adults and Children.
She has been awarded for her contribution to children’s literature by The Russian Centre for Science and Culture. No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, which opened to rave reviews, was on the International Board on Books for Young People Honour List, has been translated into German and French. She headed the National Centre for Children’s Literature.
The Little Bird who held the Sky up with his Feet was on the 1001 Books to Read before You Grow Up, an international gold standard of the world’s best books ever. Wingless has been performed nationally and internationally. She has co-authored '2' a graphic novel with Swedish writer, Orjan Perrson.
As a performance storyteller and speaker, she has represented India in the USA, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Germany and Bangladesh, besides all over India.
In 2019, she was awarded the Kalinga Karubaki Literary Award for Fearless Women Writers.
You have been asked repeatedly how you started writing books/stories, but no interview will be complete without this question. So please tell us on last time.
When I was in Class 7, I wasn't good at anything much especially not academics. Once, in class, the teacher asked us about what pets we had at home. Everyone seemed to have the most exotic pets. When my turn came and everyone's eyes were on me, instead of very old dog, which is what I had, out popped the answer, “A monkey”. With much oohing and ahhing, I was asked all sorts of questions about this alleged monkey. And like 'makhan' the answers smoothly flowed out of me. And in my head, I'm thinking, 'wow, I'm so good at this'. I think I knew then that I could be a writer. So I started off telling lies in my stories, but I ended up daring to tell the truth.
You write books for children, young adults and adults, is it different writing for children and young adults. What do you keep in mind? How do you decide topics for children and young adults specifically?
There is only one taboo I keep in mind when writing for children and young adults - I like to end on a note of positive. Not necessarily a neat, tidy happy ending, but at least on a note of hope, showing a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark that tunnel is.
Topics seem to come to me. That is why it is important for me to interact with children. I listen, I try to understand their needs, wants and sometimes, even demands. What are the stories that they need? But a story can really come from anywhere, the title of another book, a stray comment, a newspaper article. I have stories from all of these. As a writer, you have to keep your antenna up, because you never know when there is a story floating by. Eavesdropping is a wow research tool. You get the nuances, the 'voice' just right.
You choose to address head on difficult topics like — war, terrorism, sexual abuse, mental illness and more with your books for children. Tell us more.
As I said, I work with children in difficult circumstances. Such as those in the situations you mention. Most of these young people don't have a platform to tell their stories. A long time ago, before I wrote No Guns at My Son's Funeral, a young girl said to me, “You tell our stories”. There was a need to have their issues represented. It was a pivotal point for me as a writer. This is why I my stories sound authentic, because they come from a real place, even though they are fiction.
Do we underestimate our children’s understanding? If yes then how?
I will quote from a story called Nalya from my book, I'm Not Butter Chicken:
“She's too young to understand these things,” she heard the grown-ups say over head. So she stood there. Too young to understand. Too wise to weep. Knowing things they couldn't even dream about.”
I was reading this story to Class 7 students. One girl asked, “How do you know?” I asked her what she meant. And she said, “You're one of the few adults who understand that children are much wiser.” Time and again, I am astonished by their depth and breadth of understanding and empathy. Never once, and I repeat, NEVER ONCE has a child said that one of my stories was inappropriate for their age-group. It is the 'gatekeepers' who object.
Do you think sticking to age appropriate books is a good idea or bad?
I grew up in a home full of books. We read every evening. I hated this time, however. I would wait impatiently, kicking the sofa while my family were buried in their books. But we had an open shelf policy. You could pick up whichever book you wanted. I picked up Born Free by Joy Adamson. It changed the course of my life. I then went on to read Bertolt Brecht at 12 and the great American plays like Streetcar Named Desire. I gained from reading books beyond my age. And it never adversely affected me. I was reading Blyton and Brecht all at the same time. I largely disagree with age grouping. My daughter was reading Silvia Plath at a very young age. And my son, who wasn't a great reader suddenly found Asimov when he was in Class 4. But when he tried to borrow it in his school library, he wasn't allowed to. I bought him some titles and he loved them.
Tell us a day in your life. Do you go - okay today I have to write a story for kids? Then? Or?
I try to write every day. Every single day. I lead a pretty complicated life with many balls to juggle. So I try to get two hours of writing. This means, that I have made myself totally adaptable. I happily write at airport terminals. And by the way, I love traffic jams, because I am cocooned in my car, headphones on and bang away at my laptop, or handwrite. I call it, surfing the jam. Sometimes, I get my driver to pull over on the side before we reach home so I can finish something.
Two of your books Like Smoke (updated version of Wild Child for which you received Bal Sahitya Puraskar by Sahitya Akademi) and No Guns at my Son’s Funeral were in controversy, schools did not want you to read them in your school talks. Why? What is in it?
As I said, these and other titles are top choices with young people, but red flags for adults. Sometimes, I think it is because we as gatekeepers are scared of the questions and discussions that will follow. I have seen the positive influence that the stories have had on kids when they have read them. I think we need to be braver as parents and teachers. It is bizarre to me that violence and death seem to be easier for adults to accept as reading material, but love and sex are taboo. weird, no?
I think, in fact, that stories are a wonderful safe space to talk about difficult issues. I would encourage parents and teachers to read the books that their young ones are reading and talk about them. We let them play the most violent video games, we let them be exposed to the most sexist remarks - look how freely children hear the sisterf***ker remarks. Yet we believe that they don't know what it means.
Children are born without hate, yet somehow, they imbibe it along the way. From where? From us. And if there are stories that nurture empathy, then isn't that preferable?
Do you like to engage with your young readers and get them thinking through your books or you prefer just to tell your story? Are you a friend or a guide?
I think a good story and a good storyteller always has something of value to say. I think stories are empowering and lead to deeper understanding. I have seen such powerful discussions coming out of a reading. So I guess my answer would be - both.
Your book The Other is very interesting. Tell us more about it.
I have been working with many children over the years and I have been inspired to write on issues that they have brought up. I know it is a difficult book for many schools to deal with. I understand that. But I think we have to pull our collective heads out of the sand and realise that kids are talking about the issues, only they are not talking to us about it. We may choose not to talk about sexual abuse, but think of it this way, if it’s happening to you or someone who you know, then you've kind of closed that door on your child being able to tell you about what's going on. If, on the other hand, you've both read and talked about this story openly, there's a better chance that they can approach you if they need to.
We underestimate young people. There is one story called ‘Grief is a Beast’ in The Other. I wrote it while sitting by mother's bedside when she was slowly slipping away. When the book came out, I wondered whether I was being self-indulgent in including this story and whether it belonged in a book for young people. However, when I went to a school that was studying the book, I asked which story they wanted me to narrate. They all said, ‘Grief is a Beast’. I said, guys I'm not sure I would be able to do it, without dissolving into tears. They said, can we read it out for you. And they did. We all wept together and it was such a binding moment for us.
What do you think of the fairy tales that we grew up with? Are they perpetuating stereotypes?
I enjoyed them but my feeling is that we rely too heavily upon them. in the sense, if we are reading a sexist fairy tales with our kids, then let's talk about the fact that that's how it was back then and how wonderful that today, Rapunzel didn't need to rely on a Prince Charming. she could rescue herself.
What kinds of stories do you like writing for adults? Are they inspired by your own life/events? Or are totally fictitious?
All my stories are inspired by the people and circumstances that I have encountered along the way. Pure Sequence is a story about women in the 70's-80's and I'm not there yet, but have been so inspired by the grace and fortitude of older women who I have been blessed to have met.
I do have a story that is in the making that has a lot more personal experience. But honestly, all my books are very personal.
Are you affected by what’s going on around you? Do they unwittingly feature in your books?
Of course. Being Gandhi is based on my experiences of 1984, Weed came out of my work and research of No Guns at my Son’s Funeral, my upcoming book, Nomad's Land (which will be out next month with Speaking Tiger) is on displacement and migration.
Thank you so much Paro Ma’am for gracefully agreeing to do this interview!
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