Guest Conversation: Suma Subramaniam, Ellie Peterson & Suniti Srinivasan on Creating Picture Books

By Suniti Srinivasan

Editor’s note: Today we’re sharing a snapshot of the conversation from Cynsations Intern Suma Subramaniam‘s recent book launch for Namaste Is A Greeting, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (Candlewick, 2022). The chat was led by student writer Suniti Srinivasan and included author and illustrator Ellie Peterson; the conversation took place in October at Secret Garden Books in Seattle.

Suniti: To start off, when did you realize you want to be a children’s writer and tell us about your journey to publication?

Suma: So, I wanted to write from a very long time but I realized that I wanted to be a children’s writer in 2010 when I attended my first SCBWI conference and I met the wonderful Sundee Frazier who is right here. I had a critique with Sundee Frazier and she read one of my manuscripts, the first page I had ever written for children and she said “Well, this is a great page and I am going to recommend this work as one of the most promising works in progress in this conference today and when you complete it, please reach out to me and if you are interested, I will refer you to my agent.”

Four years later I completed that manuscript and it became a novel and I reached out to Sundee and she remembered me and was kind enough to refer me to her agent and we did connect. In 2014, Sundee again urged me to pursue the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and she took me all the way to Seattle where there was a gathering and she had me meet with Anne Gardner who runs the MFA program at Vermont College and we met and I applied and got accepted and eight years later I am here with published books and more to come. So thank you Sundee, you are a big part of this event and my journey and I wouldn’t be here if not for you.

Ellie: So did you see yourself as a writer prior to trying to write for children?

Suma: I did not see myself as a writer for a very long time, until in 2017 my short story won the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) short story contest and WNDB chose to publish it in a middle grade anthology [The Hero Next Door, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Crown, 2019)] and when it came out, I felt like a writer.

Suniti: That’s amazing! How did you transition from middle grade as I know you have a middle grade series coming up as well two picture books?

Suma: This is such a great question. It’s funny that you ask that because I just received copy edits from my middle grade novel “V.Malar a Pongal super host” in 2024, it just came yesterday and its due early next week along with a draft of my second novel which is due in 2025. So it’s all a good kind of chaos, but something to understand is the difference between writing picture books and middle grade it’s the age category.

Picture Book fiction is oriented towards readers who are within the age category of 3-4 or 4-8, or middle grade or young adult kids who are children at heart. Middle grade, on the other hand, is geared towards children between 8-12 years old and the same applies to them as well. But what I have learnt from picture books is I have learnt to be precise with words, I have learnt voice, character development, plot, structure and in fact I wrote my middle grade novels as picture books first. Like I wrote V.Malar as a picture book and then it evolved into an early reader then a chapter book and then it transformed into a middle grade novel.

I feel like picture books help me write a synopsis better than exploring a huge project like a middle grade novel. I have also noticed that they take as long as they want to take. Like my picture book that releases in a couple of weeks “She sang for India” took me 8 years from creation to publication and my middle grade novels take just as long.

Ellie: I would like to ask you a follow-up question. You and I, we both have picture books out with the perspective of omniscient third person. So there is kind of this outside person that is telling the reader a story as you have in Namaste Is A Greeting. I was just wondering did it come out on page like that for you or was it a purposeful decision? Did you try writing it in first person? How did that come about for you?

Suma: You know it’s an excellent question! When I wrote “Namaste is a greeting” it came to me in the form of a poem and I wasn’t even considering writing it as a picture book. As the idea developed in my head when I had that life threatening incident, I knew that this story had to be told a certain way and it had to be a picture book. And then I wrote the visual narrative for the poem and so when I submitted the picture book, I actually did submit a visual narrative.

Ellie: Really! Usually to have any kind of illustration of a picture book is a No. It’s interesting that you took the risk to say it like that.

Suma: Yeah, and I really like that the Candlewick team was open to that. They asked me for it and we went back and forth a number of times on the story structure and Sandhya the illustrator was also extremely collaborative on it and she wanted to know what the vision for my project was and from the beginning we knew we needed a south Asian protagonist and it had to address all forms of diversity. She brought that vision to life beautifully.

Suniti: Touching more on the diversity aspect of it, usually Namaste is used as a form of a greeting as you said in your book. How did you make it so well connected to a variety of audiences and not just a specific audience?

Suma: I am so glad that you asked that question. As you know I am an immigrant writer who straddles two cultures and sometimes more at work, at home and outside and I have seen people use Namaste and sometimes it’s misinterpreted, misused or misrepresented. As more and more American children of Indian descent enter schools in America, I wanted this book to serve as an opportunity for everyone to understand the meaning of the word and discuss it in their homes, in their classrooms, in their schools and in their communities. Namaste Is a Greeting is not a religious book. It is a story about a girl who finds the divine in everyone and in everything that she comes across around her. She makes friends with people who look like her and also are different from her and there is a certain powerful dimension to this form of diverse friendship because its offers hope in times of adversity and that’s what I hope readers take away from this book that we are all one when we think from the heart.

Ellie: I want to pass this question to Suniti as well. Seeing a south Asian character represented book, something that is a strong cultural tie for you, what does it look like for you? When I was kid, I grew up in the United States and I didn’t see a lot of characters that looked like me, I would like to think that the tide is turning and we are having more books that have that kind of representation. From your perspective what’s that like?

Suniti: I mean even present day I feel like, though there has been an increase in diversity, a lot of the books that are recommended towards people my age don’t include Indian American more specifically South Indian American characters. I think it’s really important for younger children and children my age who are at a point where we are kind of questioning our culture, our identity to acknowledge the importance of our roots. Sometimes verbally from people around you is not always the most assuring because you have friends, peers and that makes so much judgement come up, questioning your identity. In that way books help you feel secure about who you are and that there are other people around you who have had similar experiences or who just are similar personality wise.

Suniti: I would like to ask some questions that are more targeted towards the book. Adding on to my previous question I wanted to know how you cultivated Namaste into a deeper meaning than the surface level one and also how you connected it to so many other things?

Suma: That is an excellent question! So the inspiration for Namaste and why I wrote it this way is because of my childhood upbringing. So I grew up in a small apartment in a diverse neighborhood in Bangalore which is supposed to be the silicon valley of India. As a child, I bonded with my neighbors and friends when we celebrated and embraced our differences and we came together during our holidays and events. So I wanted to break down a well-known concept and a popular concept like Namaste into smaller everyday actions that children can use and apply and bring that experience to life. That was the vision of the story and how Namaste was created.

Ellie: Okay I have to ask some questions about the illustrations being an illustrator. So when you saw that, what was your impression or how did that match up with your vision? What did the illustrator bring to the story that you didn’t expect to be there?

Suma: I am just so grateful for Sandhya to have illustrated this book. I didn’t expect her to bring it to life in the way that she did. I gave her the visual narrative but she drew the old woman and she drew the grandma, little girl. Having not seen myself in the pages of the book, I saw myself as the little girl and also in that grandma a few years from now because I have a dog (burst into laughter).

I think Sandhya captured my life in a snapshot but she also captured the lives of many people I know. Now that the book is out into the world, I hear people call me and tell me, like in my critic group about how she was going to buy the book for all her friends because they are all grandmoms now and they all need it. I had two little girls in my neighborhood come and give these sweet letters for the launch and wished me good luck and I saw all of them in book. It’s gratifying to say the least, and rewarding. Although this journey has been long, this book has seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Now that it has seen the light it has been rewarding.

Suniti: Adding on to the illustration aspect Ms. Petersen I know you are both an illustrator and an author. How has that shaped your perspective when looking at other picture books or illustrations in general.

Ellie: Its interesting because when I see a book like Namaste Is A Greeting, maybe the words are spare like less than 200 words?

Suma: Yes about 200 words. I turned in a manuscript just about last week. You know I got like 5000-word critique for that. I thought to myself this picture book is only under 200 words, why am I getting 5 pages of critique. And everything made sense a couple of days later and I had to incorporate them. I guess that’s the magic of picture books.

Ellie: That’s the thing. Every word has to pack a punch and if you are the illustrator that’s coming in, I have to think about how to add my own story to this narrative. Did you have a visual narrative of the grandma and the little girl in your visual narrative?

Suma: I had the visual of the girl, the illustrator brought the grandma and then we formed the story together. We went back and forth on the story and there was a lot of collaboration with the Candlewick editing team and Art direction team. It was a team project. And you know it takes a village to bring a book out. I am really grateful for the collaboration; it doesn’t happen all the time but it happened with this book and also for She Sang For India [illustrated by Shreya Gupta (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)]

Ellie: To your question Suniti, it feels like the process like you brought the visual narrative that the illustrator was able to act on, that feels like a lot more of what I do when I do. If I have the visual narrative in my head when I am writing the words and then I can be really spare with the words then I know what it’s going to look like as an illustrator. I am sure the illustrations look quite different in the book than what you pictured in your mind, in this case I can’t imagine anything better; the illustrations are phenomenal.

Suniti: Yeah, it seems like in any book you take a fragment of you and put it into the book. So how would you say that this book would show what you wanted as a child or the books you wanted as a child. Does this represent it in any way?

Suma: It does. First of all, I think all of us see ourselves in the book, it satisfied all the requirements and needs of making the book.

Suniti: In a sense did you feel this book was directly connected to you or was unintentional?

Suma: It was not intentional but I felt a personal connect especially through the child character and the grandma character.

Ellie: What do you hope people take away from this book, Namaste Is a Greeting?

Suma: I guess what I want everyone to take away from this book is that it only takes an ounce of kindness to make friends who we know and who we don’t know. That’s the essence of this book.

Cynsational Notes

Suma Subramaniam’s interests and passions in writing for children are mostly centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting by day or writing by night, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI. Suma is the author of Namaste Is A Greeting, She Sang For India, and other books for children and young adults. Suma has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College Of Fine Arts. She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows.

Ellie Peterson is the author and illustrator of multiple picture books, including How To Hug A Pufferfish (Roaring Brook, 2022) and School Is Wherever I Am (Roaring Brook, 2022). Her work is inspired by 20 years as a classroom teacher and her experience growing up as a biracial army brat. When she’s not in the classroom, you can find her making art in her backyard studio or exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she lives.

Suniti Srinivasan is a freshman from the Seattle area. She has been an avid reader from a very young age, absorbing the tales of strong characters in fantasy lands and society. She has worked with We Need Diverse Books and has interviewed authors from diverse backgrounds. She has also won literary awards from competitions like the Sejong Writing Society.