Guest Conversation: Suma Subramaniam, Vikram Madan & Suniti Srinivasan on Collaboration in 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 She Sang For India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change, illustrated by Shreya Gupta (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR, 2022). The chat was led by student writer Suniti Srinivasan and included author and illustrator Vikram Madan celebrating his new titles Owl and Penguin (Holiday House, 2022) and Bobo and Pup-Pup, illustrated by Nicola Slater (Penguin Random House, 2022); the conversation took place in November at Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, Washington.

Suniti: I would like to start this interview with asking both of you what was the inspiration behind creating both these books?

Vikram: They are mostly inspired by life. They are both about friendship, friendship seems to be this thing that’s most important to people and something I have been always puzzled about. So I write these books to explore their concepts and to have kids navigate their world through the things they can learn from the book.

Suma: The inspiration for She Sang for India and Namaste Is a Greeting came from my own childhood. I grew up in Bangalore which is also called “Silicon valley of India” and also the “Garden city of India.” I grew up in a small apartment in a diverse neighborhood with people from various religious backgrounds and class. I realized that as a child I bonded with my neighbors and friends when we celebrated our differences and came together to celebrate festivals, get-togethers, and events. So, I wanted to capture that experience with a word like Namaste and break it down into small everyday actions that children can use and apply in their life.

As far as “She Sang for India,” the inspiration for that came from listening to MS Subbalakshmi’s music all of my life and the huge impact it had on my life. Now MS Subbalakshmi as a child and even her life is an example of how a small-town girl can make a difference in the world with a dedication to her talent and devotion to her craft. In her time it was very rare for a woman to make a mark in the world and there were rules by which Subbalakshmi had to live by. A girl could be told that she could become anything she wants, but if she were to be confined by rules, then how could she become what she wants? So, MS Subbalakshmi broke those rules, broke those barriers and she made a difference in the world and that’s what this book is all about and that’s where the inspiration came for this book came from.

Students from Samskriti Kala Kendra (Seattle-based Carnatic music school) sang “Maithreem Bhajatha” at the event. From Left to Right: Mathangi Sriram, Mahathi Sriram, Saanvi Sridhar, Ganishka Kuntumalla, Harini Satishkumar, Archini Koushik

Suniti: Thank you so much for that. As we know MS Subbalakshmi was the first woman to perform at the UN General Hall and this was the song that she performed. Adding on to that, MS Subbalakshmi was able to break multiple barriers and stereotypes for what a woman should do through her music. What would you consider are in general powerful tools to express feminisim? How do you feel feminism is portrayed today versus what MS Subbalakshmi did?

Suma: Thank you for the question, Suniti, it’s a pretty loaded question, but I’m sure I am speaking for may people here that art is a powerful tool to express feminism. When I grew up, I craved women heroes in movies and books. I did not see them in books or movies or media. I read books that had heroes, but the heroes were boys and they were lead protagonists, they were superheroes, but I didn’t see myself in the books or I didn’t see other women represented as heroes in books and I relied on stories that I grew up with.

Stories from my mother who is sitting in the audience, my grandmother, my older sisters and cousins and they shaped me to who I am. They are not necessarily famous but those were the feminist role models that I looked up to. So the goal for me to actually write this book is to help young readers have that opportunity to have a woman role model that they can look at that I didn’t have and I’m going to turn that question over to you because you are right now a student and you are also an aspiring artist and you want to make a career in writing, right?

Do you see women or yourself represented in books and do you see women achievers honored in books and what and how do you think we should do to move that needle forward?

Suniti: That’s a lovely question actually! When I think about it, it really depends on the scenario. If I were to take school for example my answer would have to be No, not only has there not been women, there’s also not many characters who are Indian American which makes it very hard for me sometimes to understand text on a deeper level especially when it comes to the analysis of text.

But when I look at books around me and I take the time to grasp like take a few from here, I’m able to find women who are very powerful and have made such a big impact whose voices are finally being heard, although their achievements were far in the past, I’m relieved to see that women now are able to recognize other women, like yourself bring them to light, though I feel that to push the needle forward as you say, I think not only do adults need to have that awareness so do children and we can do that not only by making books or by spreading awareness in our classrooms.

We can also do [that] by reading more books and sharing those books with peers around us and I think that its really important for kids of our generation to value who we are not only our gender but also our religion, culture, and identity.

Both Suma and Vikram read from their books during the event.

Suniti: Thank you both for both those previews. For Vikram’s I channeled my inner four-year-old and for Suma aunty’ s I got to learn a little bit more about someone very impactful for the entirety of India. So as we can see in both of your books, they are very centered around images. I know in yours Vikram you did it because it was so that aspiring young readers can feel more included and Suma aunty, I would like to know a little bit more about why you had so many pages in your book solely dedicated towards imagery.

Vikram: So these books are for kids and we are trying to get them to read but the early years are so visual you know everything is new, every day is an adventure, books tend to have a lot of pictures at the earlier ages, so picture books are called picture books because they are full of pictures basically and then as they move to readers we still want to give them enough visual input and enough visual content to capture their imagination and keep them in the content.

Suma: I echo whatever Vikram said, he is an illustrator so you know I’m going to add to whatever he said. One cardinal rule about writing picture books or any books for children that are illustrated is that we leave room for the illustrator so our goal when we write for children especially in books like these is for example for Namaste Is A Greeting, the entire book is 32 pages.

For She Sang for India it’s a non fiction picture book biography, I have a little bit of room and guess how much? 40 pages its not a whole lot, so the goal for every writer is to make our story as succinct and precise as possible and use as few words as possible to tell the story, so we make room for the illustrator to bring their vision to the project and when the illustrator brings their vision to the project we collaborate together, like I had an opportunity and that doesn’t happen very often, but I had the opportunity to collaborate with the art direction and the editorial team for both my picture books so I wrote up a visual narrative on what I wanted for Namaste Is A Greeting and Sandhya, the illustrator, the art director as well as the editorial team and I worked back and forth on it, and then we changed the text, and we added things to it, removed text and modified some of the text, too as we went along the way, and the same happened with She Sang for India.

She Sang for India was a non-fiction picture book biography which meant that there was tons of research and it was about a real human being right, so we had to get all the facts right and so it was a process. It took eight years from creation to publication and there was a reason why it took that long and [I] shared all of my research notes, my source notes, my bibliographies, pictures, videos and everything with the illustrator. We met on video chat several times it happened during the pandemic, so we couldn’t meet in person.

I interviewed the family of MS Subbalakshmi, I got information from them and everything went into creating that book and as you can see the rewards of both the books, I mean its really rewarding to see what the illustrators brought to them because their vision to the book is equally important and as much as I created the book, I created half of the book and the illustrator created the other half. So a lot of credit goes to them too.

Suma’s family celebrate She Sang for India

Vikram: So I have to share a little story here. I illustrated and wrote Owl and Penguin. I wrote Bobo and Pup Pup but did not illustrate it. When I sent the book out to the publisher, I was hoping to illustrate it but they came back and said we really dislike any illustration style you have or have done in the past. So you have a choice you can either let us find an illustrator for the book or we are not going to publish it. So I was like, “okay fine, I’m happy to see what you do with this.” They found an excellent illustrator, her name is Nicola and she is a New York Times best-selling artist of many other books and she injected her own life into these characters, very different from what I might have done. So I really admire what she has done but the other one is my baby because I illustrated it as well.

Suniti: That’s lovely. Its great to see how both of you were able to collaborate with your illustrators and I think that the joint effort holds a place in both of your hearts because of the amount of work, time and dedication that was put into it. On an ending note I would like to ask what you want people to take away from your books. Vikram if you would like to go first…

Vikram: So I like to think of you know the reason we do these books for kids is that we are injecting hope into the world, a hope for a better world. So I like to create books that leave the readers for the kids and adults who are reading to them or adults who are just secretly reading to themselves to have a feeling of positiveness. There’s a lot of sad stuff in the world and if you focused on that you would not feel very hopeful or upbeat.

But if there is something that can inject some positivity and hope into your day even if it’s a few minutes I think that’s really important to counteract and to keep us going forward as a species that builds things and makes things better. So for me all books are about hope no matter what story they tell because kids are going to learn from those stories and then hopefully take some lessons away into their lives that will help them in the future.

Suma: I am going to steal all of Vikram’s words. The responsibility of a chidrens author is really to leave the door open for hope and positivity and that’s what we want to spark through all of our books. So the one thing that I want readers to take away from Namaste Is A Greeting is that it only takes an ounce of kindness to make friends and with MS Subbalakshmi’s book, two values that I take away from her book is one is to create a consistent habit of learning and practice in our area of interest and secondly to have the humility and courage to share our work for the good of the world.

Suniti: Wow! Now that we have learnt what the take away from the book is, what are your next steps? I know that you guys have other books coming out as well and I would like to hear a little bit more about it.

Vikram: Bobo and Pup is a series book. Three books are already out and the fourth comes in January. Owl and Penguin is also a series book, that just came out and the second one comes out in about six months and then I have a few more that I am working on down the line.

Suma: I have another picture book that releasing in the fall of next year that’s called The Runaway Dosa. So everybody please come and help me catch that “Dosa” before it runs away. Its a fairy tale mashup of the gingerbread man and also a favorite Tamil rhyme called “Dosai amma dosai” and it has a fun array of fantastical creatures from Indian mythology.

In 2024, I have three books that are releasing, one is called Bindi is a Dot which is a celebration of and about the significance of bindis and the second is called V .Malar a Pongal Superhost. It is my first middle grade debut. It’s a middle grade novel about a mystic pro 9-year-old kid who wants to make friends and has adventures and celebrates festivals and does all kinds of funny things. The third book is called, My Name Is As Long As A River. Its about a girl who understands the value of her name.

In 2025, I have two more books, Book 2 of V.Malar a Pongal Superhost will release and also another book that is yet to be announced.

Suniti: Thank you both for the update on your books.

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 GreetingShe 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.

Vikram Madan grew up in India where he really wanted to be a cartoonist, but ended up an engineer. Many years later, he finally came to  his senses and followed his heart back into visual and literary humor. When not making whimsical paintings and public art, Vikram writes (and illustrates) funny books, including the award-winning poetry collections A Hatful OF Dragons, The Bubble Collector, and Lord Of The Bubbles, the early reader series Bobo & Pup-Pup and the forthcoming graphic novels Owl & Penguin and Adventures Of Zooni.

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.