SCBWI Bologna 2010 Publisher Interview: Gita Wolf of Tara Books

Interview by Sarah Blake Johnson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

First of all, congratulations! Your book Do! illustrated by Ramesh Hengadi and Shantaram Dhadpe, is the Bologna Ragazzi New Horizons award winner for 2010.

The jury praised the books text and artwork stating: “Paper and figures are embroidered with a lace like precision. There is a wealth of narrative in the details that beg to be explored at length. …an exquisitely crafted, eminently readable book.”

Quality, innovation, and collaboration are words that are connected with Tara Books [of Chennai, South India]. How do you foster these attributes and what is the philosophy of Tara Books?

I’ll take on collaboration and innovation first. We work with great artists–especially from the folk and tribal communities of India–so our collaborations are in themselves very exciting. We’re interested in creativity that is manifest in unusual places, and in bringing this to the form of the book.

Many of our artists come from traditions which paint on walls and floors, or on narrative scrolls. To bring them into the book form involves close collaboration with a creative group of people–not only artists and storytellers, but designers and bookmakers as well.

The artists we work with are not only incredibly talented, they also come from communities which have very different realities from urban middle class ones in India, and I would also assume, elsewhere in the world.

That is one of our aims–to welcome different voices and subjectivities to speak to us. It is this variety which brings unexpected richness into creative work. Innovation is then automatically part of such interactions. To do justice to such work requires an attention to quality–communicative design and good production.

You have written many award-winning books, in addition to being a publisher of books for children, teens, and adults. What is it that you most enjoy in story? What inspires and informs your own writing?

I like building up a structure of words and then whittling away at it. I enjoy crafting and editing, which is a little like sculpture–you chip away until you’re satisfied, and the work has a form you can live with. I suppose I share the universal human interest in narrative, in what happens to a set of characters and how it all ends.

In my writing for children, I’m inspired by my memory of reading as a child, and how freeing it was. I particularly enjoy whimsy and humour in children’s writing.

You started Tara Books 15 years ago. It is now a collective, owned by those who work at Tara. What does this fairly recent change mean for your readers?

I guess it means more to the functioning of Tara, rather than a great change as far as readers are concerned. For instance, earlier, those of us who were part of Tara and also writing books didn’t take out their royalties–we just put it back into doing more books.

With a more formal structure, we now pay ourselves royalties, and this also means that the company is more realistically structured and less subsidised by our work. We function with as little hierarchy as possible, and knowing that we own the company together gives us a feeling of…well, ownership. And all the commitment and satisfaction that comes with it.

The prize-winning illustrations in The Night Life of Trees are incredible [see last video below]. Yet what struck me most when I first opened the book was the fragrance, which added the sense of smell to this very visual reading experience. What led you to use handmade paper and individually hand-printed pages in some of your books?

It’s a long story, going back to a time when I took a couple of sample pages of my story The Very Hungry Lion to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I’ve spoken about this in other places, but it was a serendipitous thing. Here’s a link to a Globe and Mail story, which describes what happened.

Tara Books runs workshops for both professionals and children. Can you explain the philosophy behind your workshops? Which Tara Books titles developed because of this interaction?

We want to work with artists who haven’t created books before. We typically invite them to workshops, and work closely with them to generate images. The workshops are a way for us to develop and nurture dialogue and creative partnerships with a range of artists and authors.

We’ve had a lot of books published as a result of these interactions – the major ones have been The London Jungle Book, The Night Life of Trees, Tsunami, Monkey Photo, Do!…

Can you explain your artist-in-residence program?

This is a year-long internship program for designers who would like to learn and work with us on designing books. The exciting part is the artists and creative people they come into contact with at Tara and our handmade book process.

You’ve recently expanded your list to include graphic novels. Your most recent catalogue highlights two books: Sita’s Ramayana [scroll for interiors] and I Seen the Promised Land. Why did you choose to retell these two stories, that of a well known Indian epic from Sita’s point of view and that of a famous American, Martin Luther King? How does the graphic novel format add depth to these stories?

Again, I’d like to give you a link to an article I wrote on this.

All your books deal with culture, whether the culture of India, the experience of an individual in a foreign land (The London Jungle Book), or the culture of other countries. What do you think about the role of books in cultures and the role of culture in books? Do you feel your embrace of culture is the reason for the international appeal of Tara Books?

Culture can mean so many things. For us, it is a manifestation of the creative spirit in art and language. We’re attracted to unusual artists, simple people who have a wealth of imaginative worlds in them, that other people don’t know (and often don’t care) about. A book holds a world within itself.

We’re also interested in the book as an object, as a structure of meaning whose form is as inspired as its content. To take the creativity that manifests itself in unexpected people, and nudge it along the path to becoming a desirable cultural object is what motivates us.

Perhaps it is this spirit that appeals to so many people. You can see that each of our books is made with great care and commitment.

How many handmade books have you published, and what are some recent titles? What languages have these books been translated into?

We have published seventeen handmade books, and these books have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, German and Portuguese, among others.

Do!, Fingerprint, and SSSS: Snake Art and Allegory are three of our recently published titles.

List of all titles that are handmade:

Circle of Fate
The Night Life of Trees
In the Dark
Tiger on a Tree
Elephants Never Forget!
The Very Hungry Lion
Beasts of India
Nurturing Walls: Animal art by Meena Women (partially screenprinted)
Oedipus the King
The Bacchae
SSSS: Snake Art and Allegory
Hen-Sparrow Turns Purple [shown below, designed as a scroll]

You’ve been very successful at finding talented artists. Also, many of your books use tribal art, which allows readers to experience traditional art from many regions of India. From what artistic traditions do these artists come?

Meena from Rajasthan, Gond from Madhya Pradesh, Patua from West Bengal, Warli from Maharashtra, Patachitra from Orissa, Kalamkari from various parts of the country.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out this video on the making of Do! Note: 2 minutes, 2 seconds long.

John Berger Presents Nurturing Walls from Tara Books. “Screen-printed on brown kraft paper, the art from the walls of Meena tribal homes in Rajasthan is seen for the first time outside of their villages. The women of the Meena tribe practice this art form, known as Mandana, painting the muds walls and floors of their homes to mark festivals and changing seasons. Mothers teach their daughters, passing on their skills and keeping the art tradition alive.

“Launched at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London in October 2008 with an exhibition of art prints from the book, renowned art critic John Berger opened the show with warm words.” Note: sound doesn’t begin until 46 seconds into the video, which is 10 minutes, 25 seconds long.

“Watch the making of the handmade book The Night Life of Trees.” In the video below, learn more about the handmade book process from Tara Books. Note: 10, 2 seconds long, and it’s hard to read some of the explanatory text but still a fascinating peek into the company.

Cynsational Notes

Visit the Tara Books blog.

Sarah Blake Johnson is a student in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. During her MFA program, she has written a young adult novel, nonfiction, short stories and several picture books. Originally from the western United States, Sarah has moved all over the world with her husband and children. She has lived in Brazil, Finland, Iceland, and China, and she currently lives in Germany.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.