Career Achievers: Varsha Bajaj on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Varsha Bajaj is a successful children’s author with a long, distinguished career.

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer-artist’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

My first book—How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?— was illustrated by Ivan Bates and published by Little, Brown in 2004. It was well received. It won awards and recognition and sales followed. The board book version continues to be in print and that feels like a miracle in today’s publishing environment.

I had left behind a secure job as a therapist to dive into writing, and the success of the book was much needed affirmation.

In the midst of the celebration, life happened, as it does. Between 2005 and 2008, we faced adversities as a family that threatened home and health, and it felt like we were in the midst of a storm. I came very close to putting down the pen and returning to a dependable monthly paycheck.

Those years were tough as a writer, too. It felt like I was wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Harry’s cloak helped him get to places unseen. I wanted to rip my cloak with my bare hands.

Agents and editors did not see me.

I had always been a reader, but I started reading like a writer. My years of graduate school had taught me how to learn. I applied those strategies to my writing. I underlined sentences, analyzed structure and deconstructed scenes. I read craft books too. I was putting in the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, 2008).

Unbeknownst to them, Gary Schmidt, Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Doreen Cronin, Kate DiCamillo, Mem Fox, Laurie Halse Anderson mentored me through their books.

Varsha Bajaj with Kathi Appelt at the launch party of This Is Our Baby, Born Today (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2016)

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I’ve learnt that just like ideas come from everywhere, lessons can be learnt anywhere. I learnt an important lesson sitting on my couch watching “American Idol” in 2008. It was easy to see which singers would make it through in the audition rounds, but once you got to Hollywood week, the competition became fierce. When it got down to the semifinals, it became subjective.

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019

I drew parallels between my manuscript submissions over the years and the competition process. My first submissions were easily eliminated and met with the deafening silence they deserved. But over time as my work got stronger, I started getting personal rejections with possibly a helpful comment or two.

As an audience member, I was listening and eliminating contestants just like editors and agents make a choice every day.

Publishing is a business, the decision to acquire a manuscript is not personal. Your manuscript is a product and must be, in the end, marketable.

In December 2010, I threw off my invisibility cloak. My agent, Jill Corcoran, read my words and saw me. In 2013, Nancy Paulsen read my work and saw me, too. I did celebrate that two-picture book deal, even in my state of shock. In 2018, when Jill quit agenting to become the Director of Publishing at the Smithsonian, the amazing Caryn Wiseman at Andrea Brown Literary Agency saw me, too.

If I had to do it again, I’d protect myself from being as crushed by rejection and the hurtful silence of agents and editors. I’d remind myself that marketing comes naturally to some. Some of us have to work at it. Practice does make it easier, if not perfect.

Today I am not as hard on myself. I do what feels comfortable to me.

I would think hard and long about quitting a day job, especially if you’re a person who is comforted by the achievement of tangible goals and the all-important paycheck.

I would also celebrate each small victory with cake. Like when How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? was released in South Korea, or I got fan mail from a girl who essentially outlined book two for Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014).

Varsha Bajaj and Cynthia Leitich Smith

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I wasn’t on social media when my first book came out in 2004. Regardless, it is my bestselling book to date. Social media has the power to reach so many and to create a sense of community and belonging. The ability to share the triumphs and the struggles of the creative life is essential for sanity.

Picture books and physical books have both survived dire predictions.

The We Need Diverse Books movement was a game changer. Back in the 2000s, I couldn’t have imagined that an imprint at a major publishing house would be called Kokila.

In 2009, I was asked by an agent if there was a market for stories like mine. That question coming from an industry professional made me question and doubt.

In the not so distant past, “professional” reviewers felt it was okay to make references to “spice” from an author of East Indian origin. Other “esteemed” councils felt it was okay to make comparisons and be disparaging.

Times have changed.

Thank Goodness, times have changed.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.

Learn to stand up for yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.

This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Surround yourself with a supportive community.

Critique groups are vital because feedback is a writer’s fuel. Find a partner/group that gets your work. For example, I wouldn’t be a good critique partner for someone who writes horror. I’m not familiar with the genre or its sensibilities.

Critique groups are not necessarily for life. If you were in a job that wasn’t a good fit, you would look for a new one. Sometimes paths and schedules differ along the way. Sometimes goals and needs change. Hopefully, the personal friendship will survive the professional ups and downs.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers and readers, looking to the future?

See a book talk from Colby Sharp on Count Me In (Nancy Paulsen Books, August 2019).

That stories transport kids to all corners of the globe, touch their hearts, and make them citizens of the world.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

That the creative muse stays with me.

That I can reach young readers, librarians and teachers.

That I continue to write with integrity, heart and a sense of humor.

That my critique group, my agent and my editors caution me if I don’t.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.