Cover Reveal & Author Interview: Suma Subramaniam on Working with Editors & Finding Fuel for Your Creative Journey

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By Gayleen Rabakukk

We’re thrilled to host a cover reveal and interview with Cynsations Intern Suma Subramaniam‘s debut chapter book/early middle grade series, V. Malar: Greatest Host of All Time, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan due out from Candlewick Press in November. From publisher-provided information:

V. Malar can’t wait to celebrate the harvest festival Pongal with her cousins from Seattle. But will they have enough in common to make it enjoyable? An illustrated chapter book about extended family and holiday traditions, kicking off a charming new series.

V. Malar loves living on a farm with her parents in a small town in India. And Malar’s absolute favorite time of year, the harvest festival known as Pongal, is finally here! This year’s festival will be different because her aunt, uncle, and cousins from Seattle will be visiting and celebrating with them.

Feeling both excited and nervous, Malar promises to be a great host to her cousins. But when Priya and Kamal talk about all the things they have back home, or when they’re not interested in the animals on the farm, Malar finds it hard to keep her patience and be the gracious host she promised she’d be. The cousins clearly don’t start off on the right foot, but after a few clashes, there are some laughs, and Malar realizes that her cousins might just become friends after all.

Family and celebrations big and small await in Suma Subramaniam’s sweet story, brought to life by Archana’s Sreenivasan’s friendly illustrations. A glossary of Indian terms and an author’s note about Pongal can be found in the back matter.

The cover of V. Malar: Greatest Host of All Time was designed by Hayley Parker. Illustrator Archana Sreenivasan‘s work has been published in magazines, children’s books, and comics. She finds the natural world and people-watching most inspiring and engaging. She is based in Bangalore, India.

Personalized preorders for V. Malar: Greatest Host of All Time can be placed through Brick & Mortar Books and Third Place Books.

Suma, congratulations on your first foray into the chapter book/early middle grade space! How did writing in a new category come about for you?

Malar’s story began as a picture book. I shared it with a few trusted friends from my Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults class. After their invaluable critique, the story grew longer. The main character had a lot more to say than what met the eye in the initial draft. That resulted in writing for a different age category.

Suma’s Vermont College of Fine Arts class of 2017.

You have two new books coming out in May, A Bindi Can Be… and My Name Is Long As a River. Please tell us about the path to publication for each of these books.

A Bindi Can Be…, illustrated by Kamala Nair (Kids Can Press, May 7, 2024) went on sub at the start of 2020. Nine months later, Katie Scott, my editor at Kids Can Press expressed interest in the book. After four years and several nights of burning the midnight oil, it’s a real book.

Sometime in 2020, my agent, Miranda Paul, editor, Elizabeth Lee, and I exchanged emails and brainstormed a story about a name that is long or difficult to say. It led me through a long and winding path of revelations and drawing inspiration from my own family history.

My Name Is Long As A River, illustrated by Tara Anand (Penguin Workshop, May 28, 2024) is finally here, ready to share with the world.

What do you want readers to take away from each book?

A Bindi Can Be… invites children of Indian heritage and the diaspora as well as other children who do not share the ethnicity to have a better understanding of why people wear a bindi. [Learn more about Suma’s inspiration for this story in this Cynsations post.]

As for My Name Is Long As A River, I’d love for readers to remember that names have power no matter how long or difficult they are to say and spell. [Read more about how Suma chose the main character’s name.]

By now you’ve worked with several different editors and different publishing houses. Were there any insights you gained during the editing processes that helped you with later books?

The editorial process for each one of my books has been different. However, I love working with my editors. Their feedback at every stage of the production process has been invaluable. They’ve played a crucial role in especially these areas:

1. Holding the reader’s imagination from the start through the end of a story.
2. Finding the nitty gritty details buried deep inside the scenes and chapters.
3. Bringing points that I missed to the surface for me to explore further.

I’m grateful for their attention to detail and care for the stories I write.

Suma’s library writing space.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write early in the morning or late at night. I like the quiet at both times of the day. Being surrounded by books fuels my literary world so I write in my library.

On my table, you’ll see a “Light While You Write” candle, gifted by Cynthia Leitich Smith. There is also a journal because I draft all of my manuscripts by hand.

Finally, there is also a picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom.

How many drafts do you typically go through for a picture book?

A lot. I have numbers for my most recent books:

A Bindi Can Be…took 37 drafts.

My Name Is Long As A River took 91 drafts.

The Runaway Dosa took 47 drafts.

I revise until the book moves to copy edits. Then, I revise some more until I can’t anymore.

The developmental edits take the lion’s share of my time and attention on a project. This could take anywhere between a few months to many years, and multiple visits to the library for research. The copyedits and proof-reading cycles are much shorter.

Interior spread from A Bindi Can Be…, illustrated by Kamala Nair, used with permission.

You wear several hats – Human Resources Professional, author, plus volunteering with We Need Diverse Books, SCBWI, and Diverse Verse, and Cynsations Intern! What are your top tips for authors with busy lives and limited writing time?

It’s not easy to wear multiple hats and juggle deadlines. But I try my best. Here are some tips:

  • Consider how you measure progress. Some days, your writing may not be at par. But you may have spent a significant time of the day checking out giant stacks of books at the library and reading. That counts as progress, too!
  • Have a regular schedule to work on your craft even if you’re not able to dedicate time every day. Consistency and staying close to your creative project at all times is the key.
  • When you’re stuck, be kind to yourself. It’s okay to set the manuscript aside, and care for someone you love or do things that will set you free.
  • Find your community. Children’s book people can enrich your life in fun ways and nurture your inner child.
Suma with A Bindi Can Be… illustrator Kamala Nair.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

What I love most is the ability to make connections with readers. It’s magical to take everything I have inside of me and put it out in the world in this form of love.

When readers choose my book and give it their attention, when they take the time to read it and tell me what they thought of it – it’s the most heartwarming gift I can ask for.

Suma at a school visit.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

When I was a young girl, my dad would take me on his bicycle to the State Central Library in Bengaluru where I would read and write. It would take us nearly an hour-and-a-half to the library one-way almost every Sunday. That bug stayed with me even as I moved to the U.S. many years later.

State Central Library in Bengaluru where Suma grew up.

So I’ve been writing for a long time. But I started writing for children only in 2010. After fourteen years in this journey, here are some things that made me a better writer:

1. My critique/support/accountability groups are some of my best friends in the industry. We’re there for each other in every step of the way – business and personal.

2. The learning never stops. Even after earning an MFA degree in writing for children and young adults, every course I take gives me a tool to add to my ever-growing creative toolbox.

3. Over the years, I volunteered for several organizations. And I have found that volunteering in inclusive spaces that explore my creative interest have given my life deeper meaning. They energize me from my day-to-day routines, and I’m a happier person because of these activities.

Suma’s first kidlit critique group in the U.S.- Writers in the Rain. Pictured are: A.O.Peart, Martina Dalton, Suma Subramaniam, Fabio Bueno, Eileen Riccio and Brenda Beem.

What are you working on next?

I have the first of my chapter book/early middle-grade series, V. Malar: Greatest Host Of All Time, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan (Candlewick Press), releasing in November this year.

Other than that, I am drafting and revising two middle-grade projects that are too premature to talk about.

Cynsations Notes

Suma has several in-person events coming up in the Seattle area.

Suma Subramaniam is a recruiter by day and a children’s book author by night. Her picture books include Namaste is a Greeting, She Sang for India, The Runaway Dosa, A Bindi Can Be…, My Name is Long as a River, and more. Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door. Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine and anthologies for children.

She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who will do anything for Indian sweets and snacks. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook and connect with her on Linkedin.

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 serves as board member for Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and also leads a book club for young readers at the library. She’s active in Austin SCBWI and has taught creative writing workshops for the Austin Public Library Foundation. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.