"I hope that as kids read and are exposed to diverse literature, they find the courage to share their authentic stories."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Bajaj, your latest book is Count Me In (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019), a middle-grade novel about the power of families and friendship to overcome hatred and racism. Kathi Appelt wrote that she wouldn’t be surprised if Count Me In “started a movement of its own.” Please tell us about your book and your inspiration for writing it.
Varsha Bajaj: Count Me In is an uplifting story of a community supporting one of its own. It was inspired by a newspaper story. In 2015, a Sikh physician in New York City was attacked and called a terrorist. Unfortunately, I read other stories like it, but at the same time there were voices speaking out against hate and for tolerance. Our children are witnesses and trying to process life just as we are.
Kathi Appelt has always been generous to me, as she is with all Texas writers. I am so thankful for her friendship.
You grew up in Mumbai, India, before coming to the United States as a graduate student. Please talk about what you liked to read growing up and the authors that spoke to you. Which Indian authors would you recommend to Texas readers who’ve not read Indian literature?
I wish I’d had access to a remarkable public library system like we have in America when I was a child. I grew up on a staple diet of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Enid Blyton was a beloved British children’s writer. They were the books that were available to me. I read the classics, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Tom Sawyer. I’m sure I’m forgetting titles. I was a voracious reader as a child. I also read the Amar Chitra Katha series. They were comic books that were based on stories from Indian mythology.
Some of my favorite Indian writers of adult fiction are Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Chandra, Manil Suri, and Arundhati Roy. If you haven’t read them, find them, you have a treat in store. Veera Hiranandani, Mitali Perkins, Padma Venkatraman, Samira Ahmed, and Roshni Chokshi are some of my favorite Indian writers for young readers. Again, I wish I could name them all. The We Need Diverse Books movement has helped many authors get published, and it’s a refreshing change.
You arrived in the US in 1986 for grad school. I was charmed and intrigued when I read about how nervous and scared you were on that first car ride from the airport in St. Louis. Then you crossed the Mississippi River and felt as if you’d visited the river before, with Tom Sawyer and Huck Fin, and that Mark Twain had, that day, made you feel less alone and less scared. Please talk about the power of stories that helped you adjust to a different culture.
I wonder if Mark Twain imagined that a young girl in India would be inspired by his work. Stories have a way of crossing boundaries of country, religion, socioeconomic status, and even language. The setting may be different, the colloquialisms local, but the experience is universal. Stories can make foreign experiences feel familiar by taking you into the hearts and minds of a character. I recently read Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing, and he helped me travel into the homes of Filipino families.
You finished your master’s degree and became a counselor. After your children were born, you’ve written that you fell in love with picture books. Please tell us about your first picture book, how you became a writer, and about your first big break in publishing.
My first picture book was How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?. It was illustrated by Ivan Bates and published by Little Brown in 2004. The board book edition continues to be in print. I joined the Houston chapter of SCBWI in 2000. In 2001, I signed up for Editor’s Day. Editors from New York publishing houses spoke at the conference. It was an education for a newbie like me. They also accepted submissions from the attendees, which was an opportunity because I didn’t have an agent. My manuscript was picked by an editor at Little Brown. So yes, I was picked out of the slush pile. The concept of the book was inspired by a game I played with my kids at bedtime.
I think the process of writing picture books, especially collaborating with an illustrator, can be quite mysterious for writers who’ve never done it. Please tell us about your experience with the illustration aspects of publishing and your best advice for a successful and enjoyable collaboration.
A picture book is a marriage of words and pictures. I love being surprised by the unique perspective that an illustrator brings to a manuscript, and I haven’t been disappointed so far. Most picture books have less than five hundred words. Each word is therefore a precious commodity, to be used wisely and judiciously. I remind myself that I have the illustrator to help me tell the story. I don’t have to use words to describe every aspect. The words and pictures build on each other to create a whole.
Your first middle-grade book, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman & Company), was published in 2014. It’s about a teenage girl, born in the United States, who discovers that her father is a big Bollywood star. When she travels to India to meet her father, the culture clash is profound. Why did you move from picture books to middle-grade books? Did your own children, perhaps, experience that culture clash?
I’d been writing for eight or nine years; my own children were middle schoolers, and I grew with them. Abby Spencer’s journey was informed by several experiences. My family hosted international students in India. Seeing my home through their eyes was an awakening. My American-born children’s reactions to India were also informative. Things that I took for granted were new to them. I also tapped into the fish-out-of-water feelings that I experienced when I first came to America.
You also teach writing to children, from pre-K through eighth grade. Please tell us about you experience with WITS Houston. What is your first advice for young writers? How do you encourage #ownvoices in your presentations?
My advice for young writers is read, read, read. Don’t wait for inspiration. Writing is a skill, an ability. The more you practice and learn, the better you get. The first draft is only the beginning. It’s a seed that grows with each revision. Don’t compare your first draft to a finished, published book. The WITS program is aspirational in its goal to encourage young children to poetry. It broadens the world of students.
A few years ago, I did a workshop with kids in Irving, Texas. The majority of the kids that day were South Asian, and they were timid to put their truth on the page. Most of the kids had used Caucasian names for their fictional characters. I stressed that we all have a story. I wanted to hear their unique story. Do they have rotis and daal for dinner? Do they celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Eid, or some other festival? I hope that as kids read and are exposed to diverse literature, they find the courage to share their authentic stories.
Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How has Houston, in particular, shaped your writing and career? Which Texas writers do you admire and why? Can you recommend some of your favorite Texas children’s authors?
The Houston SCBWI and the kid lit community in Houston and Austin have played a huge role in my growth and journey. They have been there for me to read early drafts, to give advice, and to listen. I would recommend that readers go over to my friend Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog and look at the full and updated list of Texas authors and explore her website.
Some of my favorite Texas kid-lit authors are Jacqueline Kelly, Kathi Appelt, Liz Garton Scanlon, Anne Bustard, Lynne Kelly, Karen Harrington, Jennifer Ziegler, Jennifer Mathieu—the list is endless. Ack! I’ve probably forgotten some friends.
Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?
My first short story for young adults comes out in October 2020 in an anthology (Come On In) to be published by Inkyard Press. I am in the middle of a messy first draft of my next middle-grade book. I’m wary of revealing too much at this stage because it changes every day. I have a picture book on submission, and my fingers are crossed.
What books are on your nightstand?
Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, Yes, No, Maybe So by Aisha Saeed and Becky Albertali, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead, the Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, Devotions by Mary Oliver, and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah.
Varsha Bajaj writes books for young readers. She grew up in Mumbai, India, and when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree, her adjustment to the country was aided by her awareness of the culture through books. In addition to her previous picture books, she wrote the middle-grade novel Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, which was shortlisted for the Cybils Award and included on the Spirit of Texas Reading Program. She lives in Houston, Texas.