Author Interview: Varsha Bajaj on How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?

How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Ivan Bates (Little Brown, 2004). From the catalog copy: “As the day comes to an end, each precious little animal nestles into its cozy place and waits to be tucked in by its parent. Bears, horses, bunnies, ducks and even snakes request the required number of goodnight kisses to get them to drift off to sleep. From one to ten (and then some!) these tender kisses are part of a reassuring bedtime ritual for animals and people alike.” Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

My inspiration was a bedtime ritual I began with my son, when he started counting way back in 1996. Being a children’s writer was not even a gleam in my eye then. I would ask him how many kisses he wanted, and it would lead to much kissing, counting, and laughter. My daughter was born in 1997. We had another player in our bedtime game!

In 1999, I was trying to finish a doctoral thesis on “The Ethical decision making process” as it applied to counselors (A 10 on the exact, dry and boring scale). I found myself doodling and scribbling about hugs and kisses and bedtime instead. I decided to give in and learn about writing for children.

I also remember nights when I was bone tired and just wanted to get through bedtime. The words of Goodnight Moon or Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You would lift my fatigue and make bedtime special.

I wanted to create a bedtime book that was warm and sweet and reeked of unconditional love! Not easy, given that I have a dark side prone to depressive thoughts!

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I wrote the first draft in 2000. I made the decision that I wanted the book to have a universal appeal. Animals are ultimately “multicultural.”

I wanted a succession of animal parents to ask the question, “How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?” of their children. Most of the animals chose themselves; they sat in my daughter’s stuffed animal hammock! My son, by this time was six. I threw in the spider and the snake to satisfy his boyish fascination with all things icky! He was also developing a sense of humor and would ask for an impossible number of kisses on the occasional night! It gave me the idea for the twist in the end, with the girl and boy asking for hundred and million kisses each. The story ends with the question being posed to the reader. I wanted to ensure that the reader joined in the fun! The first draft had only Mom animals posing the question. Rajeev (my husband) was offended. The second draft had Moms and Dads!

After many revisions, and invaluable help, and encouragement from a very patient critique group, I had a completed manuscript in 2001. There I was an unpublished, unagented writer with a manuscript! Most publishing houses were closed to me! Houston SCBWI hosted Editor’s Day in February 2001. Editors from closed houses, including Little Brown, agreed to accept one manuscript each from attending writers. It was my golden ticket! That day two out of five editors talked about how difficult it was to sell a bedtime story and five out of five editors cautioned against writing in rhyme. I was depressed! I came home and binged on shrimp curry and rice (my ultimate comfort food).

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Mary Gruetzke from Little Brown & Co. called in Sept 2001 and offered to buy my manuscript! I was an Editor’s Day success story! The publication date was April 2004.

I understand now why editors and seasoned writers caution against writing in rhyme. It is incredibly difficult. Mary, my editor was patient yet demanding in her quest for getting the rhythm and rhyme as perfect as possible. My nightmares rhymed! I often wonder if I would have chosen rhyme had I been more aware, but then Ignorance is bliss. The opening lines wrote themselves, and I just followed their lead.

My biggest psychological challenge was separating from the characters I created. Ivan’s (Ivan Bates) fabulous illustrations made me fall in love with them all over again. I wondered what each animal would do after they woke up the next morning, what would they “feel” like doing that day? Unfortunately, the manuscript didn’t sell! The rejection forced me to move on!

Cynsational Notes

Awards for “How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?” include: Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award (2004); NAPPA (National Association of Parenting Publications) Gold Award, 2004-2005; Texas Library Association’s 2×2 list 2004-2005; Finalist, Texas Institute of Letters, Austin Public Library Award. Congratulations, Varsha!

Editor Mary E. Gruetzke, formerly of Little Brown, left Scholastic for Walker this month. Her title is “senior editor.” Source: The Purple Crayon.

Cynsational News & Links

Apologies for any recent code glitches. In particular, the interviews are loaded in with coding from other programs, and sometimes, my clean-up efforts go better than others.

“My Washington D.C. Adventure” from author Linda Sue Park on the National Book Festival.

Six Simple Ways to Make the Most Out of Any Writing Workshop or Writing Class by Suzanne Lieurance from Ezine Articles.

Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction by Anne Scott MacLeod, “professor at the University of Maryland and the author of American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (University of Georgia Press),” from The Horn Book, January/February 1998.