Be it reviving ancient creatures like the elephant bird or creating endearing characters like Sringeri Srinivas, they have worked in tandem to produce books that have become popular. Featuring a series of interviews with our authors and illustrators:
Ken Spillman is one of Australia’s most versatile and prolific authors, editors and critics. He is the author of more than 35 books spanning many genres. An entertaining and inspiring speaker, Ken has presented sessions to many tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines and Singapore.
Ken is the author of The Auto that Flew published by Pratham Books, and has also conducted storytelling sessions with Pratham Books in India.
Your book starred an auto. In real life, do you enjoy traveling by autos? Was there a particular experience with one that inspired your tale?
Years ago, when I first visited India, I was hesitant to travel by auto. Traffic is far more dangerous in Australia because speeds are greater, and I needed to adjust my mindset so that I didn’t look at autos as a way of courting death. Once I started riding in autos, however, they soon became my preferred mode of transport. Riding in an auto I could feel truly part of street life, without any barrier to "the real world". The outside temperature, the changing sensations in the nostrils, the pedestrians squeezing past, passengers in other autos that stopped alongside, and so on. I also came to like auto drivers. As a foreigner I knew that they looked upon me as an opportunity to make some better money, and once I learned what a ride was really worth I didn’t mind giving them a bit more. I noticed that many of them had little "shrines" in their autos, not only the deities but also Bollywood stars. These gave me a glimpse of their fantasies and dreams, and may have somehow inspired The Auto That Flew.
Why did you decide to share this story with Pratham Books?
As a foreign author spending a lot of time in India I was very interested in what all the different publishers were doing. Over time I learned about Pratham Books and its objectives resonated with me. I’m really passionate about "A book in every child’s hand” too! That led me to make some book donations to Akshara Foundation and to run some sessions for Akshara on a couple of my visits to Bangalore. I had just written The Auto that Flew when I visited for that purpose and remember thinking - “It’s such an Indian story, and Pratham Books reaches out to more Indian kids in more languages than any publisher I know. Let’s see if they might want to publish it.”
What was your first reaction to the illustrations in the book?
My first reaction was this: Ajanta is brilliant. I had met Ajanta previously and knew her to be a true professional, but I also knew my auto story would challenge any illustrator. I was truly excited to see her illustrations and didn’t feel any inclination to have input into them. Hats off to her. I’m hoping Pratham Books will put us together again!
Do you have a favourite spread/page?
I love so many, particularly the aerial perspectives. The view down to India Gate and other landmarks is fantastic. Oddly, though, I like the title page best. Ajanta’s illustration of Arjun the auto from above, through the clouds, so that we only see the yellow canopy and a glimpse of his eyes, is pure genius. It very subtly awakens interest, whispering quietly to the reader: “Get on board for a flight of imagination.”
Bhabloo Bear’s Adventure is delightful, though I’m probably biased because I greatly admire Paro Anand and have worked with illustrator Suvidha Mistry. Paplu The Giant is by another writer I respect, Ramendra Kumar. Asian Spendour: Folk Tales from Asia is a fine book, and I’m happy to have it in my collection. There’s a new release I really look forward to getting my hands on, too - One Day in August by Bharati Jagannathan.
You visit India quite often. How do you like the country and your experiences here? Have you based any other stories on them?
I love India and miss it greatly if I am away for too long. From the time of my first visit I felt somehow "connected", and I have wondered whether that is because I had some Anglo-Indian teachers in primary school. I remember them speaking of India with such love, and perhaps I absorbed some of that. When people ask what I love most, I never hesitate: the people. I have deep friendships with many people in India and find that I can communicate easily with almost anyone there — even those who speak little English. I have visited schools in many countries but Indian schools are my favourites, by far — the children are great listeners but are ever ready to get excited and have fun, which is the perfect combination in my opinion.
As for basing stories on my Indian experiences, that was never my intention: it "just happened". The first was a little novel titled Advaita The Writer which is now recommended reading on the CBSE syllabus. There are quite a number of others now, including Rahul and the Dream Bat and the Daydreamer Dev series. Another book, Radhika Takes the Plunge, is about an Indian girl who has moved to Australia.
Your association with Pratham Books has grown from being a part of Bookaroo in the City, being a #PBChamp and sharing stories with kiddos at Akshara Foundation. You've recently also put us in touch with One for One Books in Malaysia. What made you connect the dots between their work and ours?
One for One Books (Magicbird Publishing) in Malaysia does wonderful work with underserved and marginalised children, including those in the poorest villages and refugees. Just as I do sessions with non-profit organisations in India, I also work with various foundations in other countries, and one of them is Magicbird. Rights and licensing costs are often a barrier to the distribution of high quality creative content to children, and Pratham Books’ publishing model with its embrace of Creative Commons breaks that barrier down. I saw an opportunity for Malaysia’s children to benefit from this, and it really delights me that Magicbird and Pratham Books have been able to make this happen.
What do you love most about writing?
That’s easy: the freedom to explore ideas and imagine other worlds. It’s fun, a world in which boredom cannot exist. The people I create are absolutely real to me. I know them as well, or better, than the flesh and blood people in my world. I also like the freedom to work anytime and anywhere, as well as the opportunities it gives me to take stories and ideas to the kids I meet through my school sessions and visits to libraries.
I read that you loved The Little Prince. What are your favorite parts of the story as a child and as an author?
The Little Prince can be read and enjoyed at any age — that’s one of its attractions, and I’ve tried to achieve that with a couple of books, including my recent book The Circle. Most of all I adore the flower, loved in spite of all its vanities, delusions and vulnerabilities, all so very human.
What, according to you, makes a good story?
Readers want and need to be taken on a little journey — even if that’s a journey by auto! Almost all of the time, being pulled into a story means being convinced by (and caring about what happens to) a character. When I teach and mentor writers, I emphasise the need to know characters well, to be able to see and hear them and understand their private thoughts and reactions to the things around them. If you get character right, you will see settings clearly and maintain point of view more easily. All this adds up to good stories.
Is it easier/harder to write for children than it is for adults? How so?
No good writing is easy. It takes time, whether that time is in eking out a first draft or in all the redrafts. Writing for adults, teenagers, older children and younger children — the difference is that all require a different mindset or "wellspring". As adults, writers carry within them deep experience of childhood and adolescence. Some people can tap into those wellsprings, yet some very good writers find it immensely difficult. Fortunately, I’m one of the former.
Who/ what most influenced your career as an author?
I remember being read to a lot by my mother, and I give her credit for that — I believe I was able to internalise story structures and voices at a very young age. Later, when I was eight, I had a teacher who made creative writing fun, and I realised then that I could get as involved in my own stories as I did with reading. Then, as a teenager, I went through a painfully shy phase and found that I could take refuge in writing. At that time, I had a teacher who told me that I should never stop writing — and I haven’t!
As a prominent writer and critic, is there a particular trend you’ve noticed in children’s books these days?
In many markets, there’s an increasing number of picture books aimed at older readers. Many are extremely thought-provoking, with my own book The Circle and the work of my Australian friend Shaun Tan being example of this genre. There are also significant trends in middle-grade reading. The most obvious is that there is more and more white space on every page — a story might be quite short, yet the book might run to hundreds of pages. I believe this is related to the rise of the digital, because children like to have the sense of moving quickly through text, almost "swiping" it. In writing for older children and teens, fantasy has dominated in recent times but I believe we are now seeing the return of realism and magical realism.
If you could live in the world of a book, which would you choose?
As a child, I would certainly have chosen The Adventures of Robin Hood. I could see myself living in the forest, an outsider yet part of a group committed to righting wrongs and helping the poor. The idealism, adventure and romance that were all part of that world excited me no end. As an adult, I could see myself living in one of Vikram Seth’s books, probably An Equal Music (oh, how I’d love to play an instrument so well) but maybe A Suitable Boy (though I’m probably unsuitable).
What drives you?
I’m driven by a love of stories and a belief that people have always needed stories — not just for entertainment but to develop a deeper understanding of people and the world generally. The classic story structure has a "problem-resolution" pattern we can absorb while very young — if reinforced as children grow, this makes them more resilient.
I’m also driven by the belief that we can all help in making the world a kinder place, and that giving is part of what makes us healthy. I try to spend as much time and money as I can assisting and interacting with people (particularly children) who are marginalised in some way.
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(This interview was conducted by our intern Vedhika Anoora. Vedhika is from Coimbatore and is currently studying Media & Communication, Literature and Psychology at Christ University. She volunteers to teach children in an after-school program organized by the Centre for Social Action, Christ University. Even though she has been able to navigate her way around a basketball court, she is still unable to find her way to the Pratham Books office without getting lost at least once a week!)