Interview: Richa Jha

We got to talk to picture book publisher Richa Jha!

Richa Jha is an Indian children’s author and picture book enthusiast. Her books have been shortlisted for prestigious national literary and industry awards, won a popular award, and entered the Limca Book of Records. She hosts the country’s first online critique platform and runs the only website dedicated to reviewing Indian picture books (Snuggle with Picture Books). She is a former editor for children’s books at the New Delhi based Wisdom Tree, and the Kids section editor at Time Out Delhi. She’s an active member of the kidlit community, SCBWI and IBBY, and regularly attends conferences, webinars and book fairs, including Bologna and Frankfurt. She now runs her independent publishing house, Pickle Yolk Books. She is a keen solo traveler having backpacked across 31 countries, and counting. She lives in the NCR with her husband and two children in a house filled with picture books, photographs and plush toys.

Writing children’s books is picking up in India. How did you start?

The picture book landscape in India seems to be gradually coming of age and there cannot be a happier soul in this country than I! It is heartening to see the kind of interesting, exciting books that are beginning to get written and published now. I feel we are all set to welcome a glorious phase of picture books in India!

I have been writing for over 20 years now, but my children’s book writing journey began only about seven years ago. This was a natural, organic extension to my passion for picture books. The love began in earnest once my first child was born in 2002 and I began buying books for him by the dozen when he was less than four months old. I didn’t look at age appropriateness. It was the sheer act of snuggling together and reading aloud to him that kept us both engrossed and took our bonding to another level. That’s when I began to appreciate the power of picture books. It has been (and continues to be) an amazing journey of discovering some of the greatest stories from around the world ever told in a format most engaging and complete. So when I began writing my own stories, it was like my mind had been prepping itself up for it all these years.

You’ve started a publishing house called Pickle Yolk Books and you also have a website called Snuggle with Picture Books. What has your publishing journey been like so far?

Unplanned, straight from the heart and deeply satisfying. I enjoy creating books but am yet to feel comfortable with the ‘publisher’ tag resting on my head, mostly because I am unable to get myself to ‘think’ like a publisher or see my Pickle Yolk Books like a business. In a way, it acts both as my biggest strength and my weakest link. By seeing myself only as a creator, I make sure I don’t allow the market/ selling dynamics to influence my choice of subjects. But brave books don’t sell; brave picture books, even less so.

Then there are the additional ‘age-appropriate book’ perceptions of the parents to battle with. Parents in India are loath to seeing even their 5-6-year-olds with a picture book in their hands. In a mad rush to get them to read ‘real’ books the weaning off happens early. So by definition, picture books in India get slotted as books for under 5-year-olds. Given the kind of books I publish, therefore, it’s like creating books for a non-existent reader! My biggest challenge as a publisher is to get parents, teachers, children to warm up to the idea that picture books can (and should) be read by older children too, alongside anything else that they are reading.

The themes of your books are unique and brave. Be it bereavement, gender, friendship or embarrassment, you talk about tough issues to little people. How do you zero in on these ideas? 

I have always believed that our children lead difficult lives that we adults often gloss over. We tend to sugarcoat it as an innocent idyllic life-stage. But in reality, they are faced with constant rejections and varying forms and degrees of loss. They struggle with finding acceptance in an adult world, they fight hard for their thoughts to be heard, they are negotiating a rude, mean dynamics among the peers and are battling all kinds of fears that are new to them, in additions to getting weighted down by academics and parental expectations. All this, without the hindsight of experience. It’s not easy for them. And that is what my books are all about. About tough personal challenges in some form that the children themselves figure a way of navigating around and triumphing over. So it’s not about issues but about the real demons they face within and without.

How long does it take for you to write a 400-word picture book?

Sometimes, as many as five years! But for most books, it is about a year. I go through several (about 50, on an average) rounds of revision, spread over months/ years. Because I also publish most of what I write, I have the luxury of keeping them in a constant state of revision until the final printed copies are out. Actually, in that sense, they never quite end up not being works in progress.

You’ve collaborated with artists Gautam Benegal and Ruchi Mhasane. What’s the most important thing to remember when you are collaborating?

Trusting and respecting the illustrators’ artistic process and their creative space. Which also means that unless I am struggling to meet a critical deadline, I try not to rush them through the artwork. What I love about working with both Gautam and Ruchi is that they act as my creative conscience-keepers; in moments when I am beset with self-doubt about the story of the WIP, they help me get back my clarity. And they never shy away from pointing out the flaws and weaknesses in my story. In many ways, learning to welcome and respect feedback (without taking it personally) is the first step in any healthy collaboration.

What are the tools an author and illustrator need to know about while creating a picture book? 

I am not sure if these would qualify as tools, but here are the essentials.

  1. First and foremost, there is the need to rid oneself of the perception that a picture book is easy to write; it looks deceptively simple. And read hundreds and hundreds of good books in this format before attempting one of your own.
  2. The author needs to think visually. So even though, in most cases, the illustrations are done by another person, by thinking visually, the author is able to get the pacing, page turns and punches right.
  3. A picture book is very different from an illustrated storybook; the latter follows a somewhat similar narrative like the oral stories we are used to hearing from our grandparents. But a picture book is different. The interplay of the text and visuals is what forms its core and soul.
  4. The illustrators need to go way beyond what the text says when planning out their visuals. In a picture book, the illustrations have as much role to play as the text. So a parallel visual narrative or two over and above what the text says is non-negotiable.
  5. Where most picture books fail is getting the ending right. Without a deeply satisfying ending, the reader feels cheated.

Favorite picture book?

That’s impossible to respond to! I have countless favorites. I once compiled a list for my blog (but this too was a couple of years ago; I’ve discovered so many gems since!): A Monster Jamboree of my Favourite Picture Books.

Sneak peek into your next project.

I could fill reams talking about my works in progress! These days I am working on the story of a blind boy negotiating the crowded streets of Calcutta (Maccher Jhol, illustrated by Sumanta Dey) and on a funny story of a dad-daughter duo.

All the best with your future projects, Richa!

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