Author Interview: Flying High with Ritu Hemnani: A Creative Journey to Lion of the Sky

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By Suma Subramaniam

Today we’re welcoming author Ritu Hemnani to Cynsations to discuss her path to publication and the role her family history plays in her middle grade novel in verse, Lion of the Sky (Balzer + Bray, May 2024).

Congrats on your U.S. publishing debut, Ritu Hemnani! Could you tell us about the story and what inspired it?

Lion of the Sky is set during the 1947 Partition of India and is about 12-year-old Raj, a Hindu boy who loves flying kites with Nana, his grandfather, and Iqbal his Muslim best friend. But Raj’s world is soon fractured by a line drawn on a map. Quoting from the Kirkus starred review, “This is a tale about being lion-hearted, soaring after falling many times, and still reaching for the sky. It’s also about lines that divide, that cut across hearts and countries, and that are seared into memories.”

The journey of Lion of the Sky, began the day my 8-year-old daughter asked me a homework question: “Why do people migrate?”

I told her that our family was involved in the largest mass migration in world history, where over 14 million people lost their homes and over one million died. She was fascinated, so I took her to the library here in Hong Kong. We found books on the World Wars and the Holocaust but not a single children’s book on the Partition.

My little girl put her hands on her hips and accused me of making the whole thing up. It broke my heart. I decided to write the book we couldn’t find.

How did you weigh what to keep and what to fictionalize from your own family history?

I chose the name “Raj” for my main character, in honor of my father’s beloved brother, Rajan, who tragically died at a young age. I also gave honor to my great-grandfather’s noble gesture of sacrificing his life during the Partition. By weaving this element into the story, I hoped to acknowledge the sacrifices made by countless individuals during that tumultuous period.

Other true elements include saying goodbye to friends known for decades, the experience on the train, and the challenges of adapting as a refugee. While these specific elements carried personal significance, I made the conscious decision to fictionalize much of the narrative. This allowed me the freedom to explore themes, characters, and events that, although not directly rooted in historical reality, evoked emotions, and conveyed universal truths.

Ritu and her three extraordinary children

Why did you choose a novel in verse to tell this story?

I chose to write Lion of the Sky as a verse novel because I wanted to tap into the power of poetic language to evoke potent emotions, complex ideas, and vivid sensory experiences to make an impact on readers.

The rhythm, cadence, and imagery of poetry helped me capture the raw emotions, anguish, and resilience of the characters, making their experiences more vivid and relatable. The white space also invites readers to make personal connections and ‘fill in’ the blanks, so the reading process becomes a collaborative and interactive experience between reader and writer.

The white space can also be seen as a symbolic representation of the division of separated families, communities, and cultures and serves as a reminder of the rupture caused by the Partition and the void it left behind.

During your writing and revision process what mentor texts did you find useful and how?

I read many verse novels during my writing and revision process, including Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins, 2011), The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Little, Brown Books, 2014), and Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, 2019).

Each delved into deep and raw emotions, capturing the essence of human experiences with powerful imagery and concise language. Reading these books helped me appreciate the blend of poetry and storytelling, and understand the emotional potential of language, and how words and devices work together to create a resonant impact on readers.

School Visits: Introducing the verse novel, Lion of the Sky

What do you hope young readers will take away from this story?

I hope that Lion of the Sky will ignite empathy and understanding in young readers. As they reflect on the struggles faced by individuals forced to leave their homes, I also hope it fosters a deeper appreciation for the human capacity to endure and overcome challenges. Above all, I hope it will serve as a powerful reminder to choose kindness and understanding over hatred and division, emphasizing the importance of unity and compassion in our world today.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

One of the best moments was when I received my book deal! Interestingly, my 2019 TEDx Talk, which I almost backed out of giving because I was trying to finish my novel, played a part in my editor’s acquisitions meeting and helped secure the deal! Another highlight for me was being able to work with Alessandra Balzer.  Her expertise, guidance, and belief in my story elevated the project to new heights and she helped me polish the book of my heart beyond what I had ever imagined.

Alongside these moments of triumph, there were undoubtedly challenging times. The waiting game, the self-doubt, and the rejections became soul-crushing at times. Yet, even within the worst moments, I learned valuable lessons. Each rejection taught me resilience, pushing me to refine my craft. I discovered the power of embracing feedback and using it as fuel to make my manuscript stronger and more compelling. Through the lows, I grew as a writer, honing my skills and finding the determination to carry on.

Ritu’s 2019 TEDx Talk, An Inheritance Worth Sharing

Did the editing process for your debut novel offer any insights that you’ll be using for your writing process going forward?

One lesson I learned was the importance of a systematic approach to editing. Alessandra meticulously tackled the big-picture aspects of the manuscript first, such as fleshing out the characters, editing out overused phrases and narrative devices, enhancing the vividness of settings, and strengthening the overarching themes. By focusing on these fundamental elements, we ensured a solid foundation for the story.

Once these core elements were solidified, we delved into the smaller threads that needed weaving in more consistently. This approach reinforced the heart of the story, creating a cohesive and impactful narrative.

Moving forward, I hope to carry these insights with me. I will also embrace the early stages of writing, allowing myself the freedom to explore and create without the paralyzing pressure of perfection. By doing so, I can fully embrace the revision process and bring out the true potential of my stories.

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

My most productive writing happens in the morning, in my oldest daughter’s room, which, since she left for university has been transformed into my writing sanctuary. It’s a space adorned with musical instruments and her singing, dancing, and public speaking awards which creates an inspiring atmosphere that fuels my creativity.

I set a goal to write at least 500 words in the morning. However, inspiration often strikes at unexpected times throughout the day! Whether it’s during a quiet walk or hike, a captivating conversation, or even late at night, I seize those moments when the muse whispers in my ear and the words flow effortlessly. Whether it’s the structured mornings or the spontaneous bursts of inspiration, I embrace both to fuel my writing journey and bring my stories to life.

Lion of the Sky debut at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival

What advice do you have for children’s book writers who are just starting?

  • First, read widely to gain a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the genre. Pay attention to storytelling styles, character development, pacing, and themes that resonate with young readers.
  • Joining a community of writers is also invaluable. Connecting with fellow writers creates a support system where you can both receive and give critique.
  • Continual learning is essential, so take courses, listen to podcasts, and read books on writing for children.
  • Lastly, embrace your inner child. Tap into your own memories and experiences of being young. Remember the magic, wonder, and emotions of childhood. By connecting with your inner child, you can authentically capture the essence of what resonates with young readers.

What do you have coming up next?

I am working on a new novel in verse. I’m also exploring the realm of picture books and would one day love to write a graphic novel. There are so many wonderful people, places, and things in this world to write about and I can’t wait!

Cynsational Notes

Ritu Hemnani is an author, journalist, educator, and motivational speaker, who hopes for every child to see themselves in the pages of a book. Ritu recognizes herself as ethnically Indian, a British national, and calls Hong Kong her home, where she lives with her husband and three children. Ritu’s debut middle-grade novel in verse, Lion of the Sky, is now available from Harper Collins/Balzer+Bray.

Ritu shares the seeds of her writing journey in her 2019 TEDx Talk, An Inheritance Worth Sharing:

Suma Subramaniam is a recruiter by day and a children’s book author by night. Her picture books include Namaste is a GreetingShe Sang for IndiaThe Runaway DosaA 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 InstagramTwitter or Facebook and connect with her on Linkedin.