Scholastic India Posts

“The Crystal Ribbon” by Celeste Lim and “Untwine” by Edwidge Danticat

Strength of character is never with those who blindly follow. You need to be able to make your own choices and walk your own path. 

The Crystal Ribbon

Celeste Lim’s The Crystal Ribbon is about Jing who belongs to an extremely poor family. In order to have some food on the table the eleven-year-old Jing is sold for five silver pieces to a wealthy Guo family as a bride to their three-year-old son but her primarily role is to be his nursemaid. It is a cruel life and from this household she is sold to a courtesan.  She slowly with the help of a spider and a nightingale she escapes and returns home to her delighted father. She soon finds happiness in being an apprentice to Shenpopo, the shamaness at the local village shrine.

The Crystal Ribbon is historical fantasy with the characters, incidents, and certain places in the story being purely fictional. The story is set in AD 1102, during the Northern Song dynasty in the Taiyuan province of Medieval China and according to the author’s note in the book “much of the detail in the story, such as the practice of tongyang xi, traditional rituals, and the invention of paper money, are historically accurate”. She adds:

“Although the magical elements in the story are fictional, that isn’t to say that the people in those days didn’t believe in such magical creatures and deities; some of the Chinese beliefs, practices, and rituals mentioned in the novel still exist, and certain characters, such as the huli jing, spide jing, and baigu jing, are drawn from classical Chinese literature and compilations such as the Shanhai Jing, Journey to the West, Soushen Li, and Liaozhai Zhiyi.

What I especially hope to bring to attention is the tradition of the tongyang xi. Although the Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) banned this after its establishment, it is still practiced in rural areas, generally among poorer communities. My ama ( grandmother) used to tell us many such horror stories, including one about how our great-grandmother bravely fled China during the great famine and came to settle in Malaysia.” 

Award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine is another stunning book for middle-graders. It is about sixteen-year-old identical twins Giselle and Isabelle Boyer. They are talented musicians and live life like any other teenager except for the strong bond uniting the sisters. Also their life is a bit topsy-turvy for now as their parents have announced their separation though continue to live under the same roof. En route to a concert the family is involved in a horrific accident that rips their family apart. Just as the girls had to be untwined at birth from each other during the C-section performed on their mother, after the accident, Giselle has to learn to untwine herself in every sense of the word from her sister, Isabelle, who is no more. It is an excrutiating process as Giselle feels the absence of her twin sister very strongly.

“Split in half sometimes, and at other times walking, living, breathing for two. Two hearts are beating in one chest,but it feels like no heart at all.”

It is an extremely moving tale for any reader but if you are a twin ( as I am) the searing pain experienced upon reading the story is unforgettable.

Both the books —The Crystal Ribbon and Untwine –are written for young adult readers expressly but they are both such magnificently exquisite stories told ever so elegantly that they will be forever treasured.

Celeste Lim The Crystal Ribbon Scholastic Press, New York, 2017. Hb. pp.340 

Edwidge Danticat Untwine: A Novel Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. pp. 310

( Both the books are available in India courtesy Scholastic India as well.)

16 February 2018 

“Amulet” series by Kazu Kibuishi

The Amulet series is about two siblings Emily and Navin who after losing their father in a car accident move into an old house that belonged to their great-grandfather. While browsing through the dusty library of their ancestor the children discover an amulet which Emily promptly puts on. She soon discovers it has magical powers. It is in this house that their adventures begin once their mother is kidnapped by an odd tentacled creature. The set of seven books is about the children giving chase to the creature, coming upon their dying great grandfather, rescuing their mother but also stumbling across a parallel fantasy world which is a cross between steampunk and the fantastic. Classically there is the tussle between the good and the evil that the children have to combat but it is also about the importance of an individual’s will power against external forces. In this case it is Emily not only leading the motley group of creatures and her brother into battle while simultaneously battling the force  of the Amulet which is trying to overpower her and control her.

It is a series of books that will appeal to 8+ readers onwards. The illustrations are complex and crowd every page. At times there are frames that would work ideally as a flip book and not necessarily as a segment of a graphic novel. Kazu Kibuishi is primarily an animator who abandoned the comic form to become a professional animation artist. After a few years he returned to the comic book form — telling stories through words and still pictures on the printed page. It is fascinating to see how the artist/storyteller attempts to bring his experiences on to the page. Undoubtedly it is a long series with the eighth volume expected later in 2018. Yet I could not help but feel that the artist is experimenting by converting his animation skills to a comic strip. At times this works at a disadvantage for the books since the storytelling becomes thin at times in favour of the fancy foot work of the artist.

Having said that the young readers are utterly charmed by the books and this series is a steady seller. It was evident at the World Book Fair, New Delhi, Jan 2018 with youngsters crowding around the graphic novel section. Copies of this particular series were flying off the shelves.

 

Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, Scholastic India, Pb. 

5 February 2018 

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

Julia Donaldson in India, Interaction with educators, New Delhi ( 19 January 2018)

Scholastic India organised a FABULOUS interaction led by Julia Donaldson’s with educators,  teachers and  librarians at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. It was a technically perfect  masterclass on how  storytelling and  picturebooks can be employed  imaginatively in classrooms, with minimal or NO props, involving all the children, with a little bit of rhythm, song and dance, opening a world of possibilities!

Neeraj Jain, MD, Scholastic India standing in front of a display of Julia Donaldson’s books

Julia Donaldson spoke of her journey from a musician/songwriter making an unexpected foracy in to the world of books and how very fortuitous it turned out. She spoke of her collaboration with Axel Scheffler and other illustrators. She performed some of her better known stories such as  Gruffalo transforming the room of schoolteachers into little children as they sang along with her! She was accompanied on the guitar by her husband Malcolm and a supporting cast that included her publishers from UK and India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A magical morning!

19 January 2018 

An interview with Venita Coelho, “Boy No. 32”

Venita Coelho works with images, words and paint. She is a writer who has worked in film, television and literature. Her published work includes  Dead as a Dodo  which won the Hindu Award for the Best Fiction for Children 2016.  The Washer of the Dead  was long listed for the Frank O’Connor award. She is a screenwriter with films for Dharma Productions and Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions to her credit. As an artist she works with charcoal and with acrylic paint on glass. She is about to set off on a great adventure – having converted a Tempo traveller into a caravan, she and her daughter are off to travel across India.

Venita Coelho’s recent young adult novel Boy No. 32 is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!

In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.

Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!

Here are excerpts from an email interview:

I could not help wonder how you came upon this idea? Why?
It came out of the years I spent in Mumbai. The many times I caught the last train out of Churchgate and chatted with all the urchins in the compartment. It came out of all the stories they gave me and the adventures that the city gave.

How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it require?
I am a three draft writer. Knocked the first draft out across one November ” Nanowrimo”. That is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. You sign up at the website and for one month you get cheerleaders who push you along as you frantically write. People around the world are racing to finish their novels and the collect energy is quite astounding. The next two drafts took about eight months. But that was along side being a single mum, earning my living, and surviving Hindi films.

I can see it easily adapted for a school theatre performance — was that your intention?
It’s a movie! We don’t make children’s films in India. Every Hindi film with its songs and dances is essentially a children’s film. There is never a budget to make a ‘children’s film’. So I just put it in a book – Item number and all.

How did these characters come about? Which one struck you first?
Definitely Battees. He’s based on all the cocky little boys who sat down next to me at stations and launched into long stories. I so deeply admire the sheer courage and unputdownability these kids display, and I really wanted one of them to tell his story in his voice. And I have a very big soft spot for Item. Such courage. Such a diva!

Has your day job of writing scripts for the Indian film industry help craft young adult novels?
Not really. Hindi films have no idea of how to talk to young adults. All they ever offer them are mushy love stories. In fact to switch from writing films to books I normally have to do a couple of weeks ‘detox’ when I consciously switch from writing scenes and move to writing descriptions. Another level is moving from the superficial level of films to a deeper emotional level for books.

What has been the response of the kids who have read the book? Have you encountered them at your sessions in different cities?
We’ve had riotous sessions. The kids always love the elephant story – and it gets them thinking about real patriotism. And I always tell them that only one thing separates them from the kid on the street – sheer luck. They could have been born anywhere. And it is their duty to pass that luck on. It always makes for lively discussions.

Do you get different responses to your stories from boys and girls or does a gendered reading not matter?
I haven’t found that gender makes much difference to the response. Girls tend to ask more questions though.

Do you write with a specific reader/audience in mind?
Nope. Never do that. You can never tell how a story is going to turn out. An adult story might find it’s own way to be a children’s story. A writer can’t really predict how pitch and tone will finally tune itself. I let the story find it’s own audience. I try to write interestingly enough for anyone at all to be able to read the story.

Before publishing, do you “test” the story out or go with your instinct. I ask since I found the novel pitch perfect.
I did have three readers for the final round. It was a first for me. I got some good feedback and I will try it. again. But basically I have had so much damn writing practice doing television that it’s finally coming easy. When you do a daily soap you write 5 episodes a week. That’s ten hours of TV a month. That’s a heck of a lot of writing!

What is next on the cards?
I’m working on three different books. I tend to bounce between books. The one closest to my heart is a story based on my growing up in Kolkata. I grew up in a building that the Indian government had acquired to house the jews that it rehabilitated after the holocaust. I grew up hearing stories of the concentration camps. Now I’m finally ready to write them down.

Would you ever consider writing a series arc for young adults?
Of course. Just finished the first book of what is meant to be three books in total. I love the space that ‘Fault in our Stars’ occupies. Now that is really young adult space. So I have done a book that is for really young people, with a love story at the heart of it – but also the issues of terrorism, violence and ahimsa. Let’s see how it does!

Venita Coelho Boy No. 32 Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2017. Pb. pp.186 Rs. 295 

Scholastic India Session on reading, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

On Sunday 26 November 2017, I moderated the ‘SCHOLASTIC INDIA SESSION’, a conversation on young adult fiction with Shantanu Duttagupta, Scholastic India and Arti Sonthalia at the Times of India LitFest, Delhi (#TLFDelhi). The conversation began with Arti Sonthalia introducing her fabulous chapter book, Hungry to Read.  The story revolves around a reading competition in Grade 3 with the aim of inculcating the love of reading amongst the students. The prize of a night stay in school to use the telescope to watch the night sky is what every student dreams of! The delicious way in which Arti makes it more than a dull story about a competition. Read it!

Using Hungry to Read as a springboard, the conversation expanded to reading levels, tools for measuring reading such as lexile and numbers at the back of books, reading for young adults, reading as a lifelong skill particularly in this information age where content is the oil of twenty-first century!

Watch the conversation:

28 November 2017 

Scholastic India literary residency for children, July 2017, New Delhi

Scholastic India is celebrating its twentieth year of existence in India. In these two decades it has established itself as a leading publishing firm of children’s literature and laid firm roots in the Indian subcontinent with the regular school book fairs it conducts. For eleven years now the Scholastic Writing Awards competition has been held at the national level. The winning entries are published in an annual anthology and the first was called For Kids by Kids: The Best of Scholastic Writing Awards 2007. 

2017 was special. Not only was the Scholastic Writing Awards 2017 published but it was taken to another level by organising a literary residency for the winners. The mentors were well-knwon authors, Dr Devika Rangachari and Payal Dhar.  It was held at Zorba the Buddha, a beautiful retreat on the outskirts of Delhi. Scholastic India had had the foresight and consideration to also invite a parent to accompany their children for the two-day residency. Here is Shashirekha Krishnamoorthy speaking about her daughter Nandini winning the award and the literary residency.

L-R: Payal Dhar, Dr Devika Rangachari and Neeraj Jain, MD, Scholastic India

Here is a short film made at the retreat with the winners of the competition.

It was a stupendous success!

12 September 2017 

Scholastic India celebrates International Literacy Day ( 8 September 2017)

Scholastic India to Participate in International Literacy Day to Promote Literacy as an Instrument to Empower Individuals, Communities and Societies

New Delhi, 8th September 2017 – Fifty one years ago, September 8 was officially proclaimed as International Literacy Day by UNESCO aimed at mobilizing the international community to promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies.
Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, is celebrating International Literacy Day in India and around the world. Scholastic India has engaged partners across the spectrum to reach out to readers. These include:
� Popular parenting website MyCity4Kids will encourage parents to write about why reading is important.
� The popular Facebook reading group for parents The Reading Raccoons, is inviting parents to post a picture of their children reading.
� Scholastic has associated with Books On The Delhi Metro, a group of reading enthusiasts and book fairies who drop books inside the Delhi metro for commuters to read and pass on. They will drop bestselling Scholastic books inside the metro on September 8.
� On Twitter, the Scholastic India handle will donate to a foundation The Community Library Project the total number of books equal to the number of retweets of its International Literacy Day message.

Speaking on this range of activities, Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India said, “Access to books, and reading books of their choice every day, helps children grow into readers. This in turn can transform a child’s prospects for success. For International Literacy Day, we have tried to capture these aspects through various activities, hoping to encourage parents to participate in the process.”
In 2016, Scholastic India released the findings of its first-ever India version of the global research report, Kids & Family Reading ReportTM. This national survey of Indian children aged 6–17 years and their parents, plus parents of children aged 0–5, explores attitudes and behaviours toward reading books. The survey reveals that 86 percent of children aged 6–17 years agree that “my favourite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.” Eighty-eight per cent of boys and eighty-six percent of girls equally agree “I would read more if I could find more books that I like.” The majority of children, 81 percent, in this critical age group enjoy reading books for fun and more than three-quarters, 77 percent of children, believe reading books for fun is extremely or very important.

Importance of reading aloud
Parents of children aged 0–5 years shared that the top benefit they want for their child when they read books for fun is development of vocabulary and language skills. Similarly, these parents primarily start reading aloud to their children to help them learn the letters and words. Half of the parents surveyed who have 0–5 year-olds, received the advice that children should be read books aloud from birth, most commonly from their grandparents. Overall, only 27 percent of parents started reading aloud to their children before age one and 60 percent began reading books aloud to their child at two years or older.

Parents play a huge role in seeding the love for reading and in keeping kids interested in books. One of the most powerful predictors of reading frequency in children age 6–17 is being read to by parents 5–7 days a week. Across all ages, 85 percent of children love being read aloud and among kids aged 6–11 years, whose parents have stopped reading aloud to them, more than half, 57 percent, wish their parents had continued.
The online link for the detailed free to download report is: http://scholastic.co.in/en/readingreport
The survey was conducted, among 1,752 parents and children, including 350 parents of children aged 0–5; 701 parents of children aged 6–17; plus one child aged 6–17 from the same household. All data presented in the Kids & Family Reading ReportTM, India Edition represent the country’s English-speaking population with access to the Internet.

About Scholastic
Scholastic Corporation (NASDAQ: SCHL) is the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, a leading provider of core literacy curriculum and professional services, and a producer of educational and entertaining children’s media. The Company creates quality books and e-books, print and technology-based learning programs for pre-K to grade 12, classroom magazines and other products and services that support children’s learning both in school and at home. With operations in 14 international offices and exports to 165 countries, Scholastic makes quality, affordable books available to all children around the world through school-based book clubs and book fairs, classroom collections, school and public libraries, retail and online. True to its mission of 97 years to encourage the personal and intellectual growth of all children beginning with literacy, the Company has earned a reputation as a trusted partner to educators and families.
8 Sept 2017 

“No Touch” A picture book on child sexual abuse ( CSA)

Not a day goes by without the morning newspapers reporting the horrendous sexual attacks upon children. It is frightening and deeply disturbing. In a manner of speaking CSA ( child sexual abuse) has replaced the news about dowry deaths which used to fill the papers in the 1980s.

It becomes extremely difficult to discuss child sexual abuse particularly in a society like India where any conversation remotely linked to sex is considered moral taboo. It is not uncommon to hear of young couples getting married and clueless about how babies are born! In such a scenario teaching a child to recognise and articulate uncomfortable scenarios which are probably in the purview of CSA becomes challenging. Hence a picture book like No Touch published by Scholastic India is relevant and useful.

In fact an innovative way of getting this book read has been by having copies of the book dropped off by book fairies on the Delhi metro.

Child sexual abuse is absolutely horrific and what is truly alarming is the perpetrators are mostly known to the children abused. There have been many concerted campaigns such as this animated video on child sexual abuse made in English and Hindi by CHILDLINEIndia. In 2014 noted filmmaker Pankaj Butalia published Dark Room: Child Sexuality in India with the hope to open this conversation outside of the specialized, academic circles. Another brilliant attempt was made by Scholastic India author Ken Spillman in his short story “A bubble of shared knowing”. After the December 2013 dastardly act of raping a young girl in Delhi the conversations about child sexual abuse and rape opened up and for the first time these filtered into public spaces and collective consciousnesses. As a result the case of writer and rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali who had been gang-raped in the 1980s began to be discussed once more. In fact she was brave enough to write about the incident in an NYT article “I Was Wounded; My Honor Wasn’t” ( 7 Jan 2013). A few months later she co-authored a forceful article in the Guardian asking for children to be made aware of rape and sexual assault, the discourse must be brought home. ( “To protect our children, we must talk to them about rape” 26 April 2013).

No Touch a picture book is a step in the right direction. The book needs to be read, shared and disseminated widely. These difficult conversations must be had in every household and schools.

No Touch published by Scholastic India. Hb. 2017 

3 August 2017 

M.G. Leonard Talks Beetles with Bookwitty

I interviewed the fabulous award-winning writer M G Leonard for literary website, Bookwitty. It was published on 1 August 2017. The original url is here but I am also c&p the text below. 

M. G. Leonard is the award-winning, bestselling writer of the Beetle Trilogy. So far, Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen have been published to a resounding welcome from readers worldwide. These are delightfully told stories about Darkus and his father Dr Bartholomew Cuttle who get mixed up in Lucretia Cutter’s mad, hair-brained, bordering-on-dangerous scheme. The two novels published have a big dollop of the fantastic but are an utterly delicious blend of modern science and imaginative storytelling that explores the plausible but so far speculative limits of life as we know it. The stories are meant for middle-graders, and deftly etch the grey area children and adults cohabit, as children enter their teens. M. G. Leonard spent her early career working in the music industry, and then trained as an actor, dabbling in directing and producing as well as performing, before deciding to write stories. Maya Leonard lives in Brighton with her husband and two sons.

Why write a trilogy about beetles? Was the trilogy worked out as one composite plan or did the stories develop as you wrote them?

Beetles are so interesting, that it would have been impossible to fit everything I wanted to say into one book. It was always going to be a trilogy because I like tightly structured stories, and didn’t want to write an open ended series that went on until readers were bored of the concept or characters. I had a loose outline for each of the three books, but these developed as I wrote them. One thing I’ve always known is the ending for each book in the trilogy.

How did you get into storytelling? The blend of science and stories come together so nicely.

I became a storyteller by working in the theatre. I have worked at some of the best theatres in the UK for nearly twenty years, and had the honour to share a working space with some of the greatest writers and performers in the world. This has been both a joy and an education, and given me the confidence to start telling my own stories. I have never been a scientist, but a playwright that I respect once told me that you should write about what you want to learn about, because the joy of discovery and the wonder of understanding will infuse your work. This is what I have done. At the beginning, I knew nothing about beetles and was afraid of all insects.

How did you get into writing for children? What is your routine?

I did not make a decision to write for children, but I knew my protagonists had to be children because they have open minds, hearts and are curious about the world. More often than not, Adults have made up their mind what they think about the world. An adult could not experience the same journey as Darkus, because they already know what they think about beetles. Of course, now that I am writing for children, I’ve also realised that my inner age is around twelve, I don’t feel like I’m a grown up. I don’t know many adults that do.

If I’m on the road, promoting, then I will write on trains, in hotels or in airport department lounges. If I’m at home, my writing routine is to get up early, before my children wake and write as much as I can. Then I must begin the day and take them to school. Once I return I will edit something else and take care of admin. I write best in the early hours.

Although Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen are meant for children, these stories address a range of “adult-like” issues: environmental disasters, evolution, genetics and transgenics, funeral rituals etc. It seems if you have been concerned about these for a very long time. Is that so?

I am a mother and a gardener, and I fear our attitude to the planet is abusive and will ultimately lead to great suffering and perhaps our own extinction. I mourn the number of creatures who have become extinct because of our attitudes to their habitats, and hope that by writing about these things I may inspire children to care about insects and the environment. Once a person cares about something, they are more likely to protect it.

What is the most interesting aspect of genetics for you?

The debate about when it is right to interfere with the genetics of a creature and when is it not goes back as far as Frankenstein, which is one of my favourite books. I do not have an opinion on what is right or wrong, as I don’t understand the complexities of the science or the implications of the act, but I know that humans have modified fruit flies and mosquitos. It is only a matter of time before someone modifies a beetle, and they are the most evolutionarily successful creatures on the planet. This both terrifies and fascinates me.

This story is worthy of good speculative fiction. Do you enjoy reading sci-fi? If so who are the writers you admire?

I do enjoy sci-fi, but have not read it exhaustively. My favourite sci-fi book, and one of my favourite books ever, is Dune by Frank Herbert. There is so much to be admired about this book. A great sci-fi book marries philosophical thought with science and Frank Herbert does precisely this. As I mentioned above, I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is possibly the greatest science fiction book ever written. The third science fiction writer I have to take my hat off to is Douglas Adams, because I like to laugh and I find humour a wonderful digestive aid when it comes to facts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a delight and ferociously clever. All three books I have mentioned I’ve read more than three times, which is a testament to how good a book they are.

What are your views on the debate about environment versus evolution?

Several well-respected scientists have suggested that there is no intelligent life form on other planets capable of communicating with us because whilst there will be life in the universe, intelligent life evolves to a point where it causes its own extinction. I suspect, unless we alter the way we live, putting the environment first and preserving the balance of the ecosystem, this is what will happen to humanity. There can be no positive evolution without protecting the environment.

Will Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen be optioned for film or an animation series? These seem to be stories that would work very well in the edutainment space.

I will do everything in my power to create a film or animated version of the books, because I wrote them with this in mind, however I feel very strongly that the central message and educational content of the books not be thrown out in a desire to make it commercial. I am searching for producers who will honour these important elements of the stories as well as having the clout to get a production off the ground.

Your writing is very visual. Do you draw as well?

I do draw, but not well. I think the visual element of my stories comes from being a producer and working with film, which I’ve done on and off for over twenty years.

What are some of the more interesting questions children have asked you?

I get asked all sorts of questions about writing but mostly about beetles, and I can usually answer them, but, after explaining about the short life span of some adult beetles, one child asked me if beetles experienced time at the same speed as humans, and I was flummoxed! Other than saying that time was a human construct, there was no real way for me to answer, and I think it is a wonderful question. I often sit and think about it.

Both the books are originally published by Chicken House and distributed in India by Scholastic India. 

2 August 2017