Author Interview: Darshana Khiani on Finding a Structure to Tell Your Story

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Today we welcome author Darshana Khiani to talk about her journey to becoming a published author and how writing her new book, I’m An American, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Viking, May 2, 2023) presented very different challenges from her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Versify, 2021).

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

First, thank you so much for having me. Cynsations has been a blog I have been reading for many years and it is an honor to be here talking about writing and books.

The reason I got into writing for young readers is two-fold: my love for books and looking for connection. I was a voracious reader as a kid up until about high school, when the workload became too much. In my early 30’s, I became a mother and was reading lots of picture books to my kids. By this time, I wasn’t fulfilled by my day job anymore. The area of high-tech I work in is a foundational technology, meaning it makes a lot of other things possible like video streaming, online shopping and more. But I am very far removed from the end consumer.

I wanted something where I could see the impact of my work. It’s been twelve years since I have started this journey. I’m enjoying all the connections I’ve made through my writing and South Asian Kidlit advocacy work. I feel my life is richer and fuller now.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I’m so grateful that as I was beginning my journey a lot of people in kidlit were starting to have activities on-line from webinars, communities, and online classes. In the beginning the two things that had the biggest impact and helped me get on the right track for picture book craft were Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic class and Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 community. Before these two, I only had 1-2 manuscripts that I was working on over and over. Susanna’s class helped me learn the basic narrative structure and the 12×12 community gave me the extra incentive to keep writing new stories.

One of the hardest parts about writing for me, even now, is writing new stories. Picture books is a numbers game (see this wonderful blog post by Kate Messner) and it’s really about concept. Also the best way to learn craft is to keep practicing. In addition to writing, get yourself a good critique group. Also, don’t be afraid to change groups or seek out other people to supplement your needs. I’ve been with my main, in-person, critique group for nearly twelve years.

Darshana with a few of her writer friends.

I’ve also built up connections with other writers along the way to provide supplemental support such as accountability partners or folks who can give me non-fiction writing advice. I also benefited from doing a three month picture book mentorship with Kathi Appelt in 2015. By then I had learned the basics and was “practicing.” From her I learned to tighten up story arcs, which helped me level up my craft.

Kathi Appelt with Darshana

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In the summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. The White man peppered the Asian man with a variety of questions. Even though the Asian man gave answers that were similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the fourth generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American.

I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? The initial attempt was a narrative story with a biracial character asking the adults in his life “Who is an American?” For various reasons, it wasn’t working. I received an insightful critique during WriteOnCon which helped me showcase the heart of the story which is “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship.”

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

There were numerous new challenges with this story which was so different from anything I had written before. One of the concerns early on was the age of the audience, and making sure the content and language was appropriate. Since the story is told in layered text and vignettes, the adult reader has flexibility in choosing which stories to read based on age appropriateness.

Another challenge was the volume of research. I had one main immigration book that I started with and took copious notes. I created a spreadsheet with all the different American values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants.

There was a bit of shuffling around initially and then a bit more once the story sold. The challenge that I am concerned about even now is have I done an accurate job and handled these stories with compassion and care. The book has been fact-checked and has had accuracy reads, but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. My motto while writing this book was do no harm.

Darshana’s workspace

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I didn’t have mentor texts for this book. However, there was one pivotal book which helped me realize that a vignette format with different kids was possible. Back in January 2018, the critiquer from WriteOnCon suggested I set the story in a classroom giving each child one value to discuss. At the time, I was burnt out from speed drafting the narrative version which was a flop. I put the story and critique away for months. The following October, I read I’m an Immigrant Too! by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Gosh (Beach Lane Books, 2018) and even though that book was for a younger audience, I was inspired to work on my American immigration story and knew the new structure would work.

Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, used with permission.

I’m an American seems a little more serious than How to Wear a Sari, did your process differ for creating each text – either in the initial drafting, or revising?

Yes, I think those two books are on the opposite reading spectrum. How to Wear a Sari is a timeless, funny, dress-up story about a girl who wants to be “seen” as older and more capable by her family.

I’m an American is a more serious look at the values that bring us together as one people despite our differences and trials in our nation’s history. The main difference is that the American book took doing a lot of research before getting started.

The one commonality the two books had was that I wanted them to have accurate and sensitive representations. In How to Wear a Sari, initially one of the art spots had a joyful scene of the girl lathering up her face with shaving cream; a nod to a dad shaving. Given that facial hair is a sensitive subject for some South Asians girls, I requested that the art show something different so as not to perpetuate the idea that facial hair has to be removed.

I’m an American deals with many different cultures, so I wanted to be extra careful that I didn’t misrepresent or cause unintentional harm to the groups I was trying to spotlight. I read beyond what was needed for the story, got sensitivity reads, and listened to the feedback I received along the way.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

It’s simple but it takes time and lots of work.

  • Read a lot in the category you want to write for but also other age categories as well. This will inform you of what the market is like. I still try to read 300-400 picture books a year. I read one or two picture books while eating breakfast.
  • Write. The only way to truly learn how to write is by practicing and getting feedback.
  • And most importantly be curious. I wrote a blog post a while back about how curiosity leads to inspiration which leads to story ideas.

Cynsations Notes

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better.

Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. In addition to I’m An American, she also has a second book publishing in 2023, Building a Dream: How the Boys of Koh Panyee Became Champions, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk (Eerdmans, September, 2023). She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.