I love when I discover a story I’ve never heard of before. That’s just the case with today’s nonfiction picture book biography.
Suma Subramaniam is an Indian American author and volunteer for We Need Diverse Books. She is a contributing author for The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House) and the author of Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick). She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College Of Fine Arts. You can learn more about her at her website.
SHE SANG FOR INDIA: HOW M.S. SUBBULAKSHMI USED HER VOICE FOR CHANGE is a nonfiction picture book biography about the very first Indian woman who sang for her career (as it was forbidden for Indian women to perform in public). She broke many barriers and continually pushed forward doing what she did best: singing. She would go on to sing at the United Nations and was even requested by Gandhi to sing for India’s freedom. Trust me when I say that this is a story you won’t want to miss.
Me: When did you first learn about Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi? What made you want to write this book?
Suma: I grew up listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi’s voice on tape all my life. Her name is metaphorically synonymous with Carnatic music in India. She has ardent fans all over the world.
I wrote this book to show how a small-town girl can use her voice to bring change and make the world a better place.
Me: How long did it take from your first idea of this story as a picture book to its ultimate publication? Were there detours along the way?
Suma: I started writing this story back in 2014. It took 8 years from idea to publication with numerous rejections, a persistent agent, and two brilliant editors who championed the story to the finish line. That’s 17 rejections to 1 acceptance if we don’t count the rejections I received during pre-agent times.
Like M.S.’s life, this journey took patience and time. I revised it many times to pare down the story into a lyrical and poetic picture book biography of 40 pages.
Me: Can you tell us a bit about your research process? How long did it take you to research all the different facts that went into this story?
Suma: The research process was long and arduous. M.S. Subbulakshmi’s story is all over the internet and there are books about her life written for the adult audience. But there are none written for children. Writing this story needed a structure that met the needs of today’s young readers who are hooked to video gadgets.
I studied over 400 + picture book biographies. I learned about poetic devices, lyrical text, source notes, and back matter among other craft techniques. I also interviewed her family.
Me: Wow! That’s a lot of books! There are a lot of historical events that take place in this book that could be politically divisive, yet you write of them in such a factual manner without seeming to choose sides. Was that hard to accomplish? Did this come about through many revisions or was that always included in this story?
Suma: Thank you for the kind words! From the beginning, I wanted to highlight M.S. Subbulakshmi’s work in community service. In a world that was dominated by male artists and at a time when India was in deep turmoil under the British rule, this remarkable woman made a mark in this place. Her career lasted seven decades. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award–which is regarded as the Nobel Prize of Asia–for her contribution to community service through her music.
My editor’s and beta readers’ encouraging feedback helped me revise the manuscript post-acquisition with a definite goal in mind: to show how Subbulakshmi made a difference in the world by using her voice for social justice.
Me: I know many children who are drawn to music, but Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was gifted. She never gave up on herself or her talents, despite so many rules and restrictions. Why is telling her story important to you?
Suma: M.S. Subbulakshmi’s story is one of quiet strength. Her story is not only applicable for young readers, but is an inspiration for adults, too. Every day, I find myself going back to what I learned from her life. There are two key takeaways:
- create a habit of consistent learning and practice in our area of interest
- have the humility and courage to share our work for the good of the world
Me: I love that. I also love Shreya Gupta’s illustrations in this book. They are wonderful! The color palette is so warm and inviting. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Suma: Thank you for the appreciation of Shreya’s work. I’m in awe of her talent. She brought Subbulakshmi’s story to life with an exquisite and authentic color palette. What I love the most is the collaboration we had every step of the way. The surprise was pleasant and heartwarming when I saw Shreya’s sketches for the first time.
Me: What projects are next for you? What can we look forward to reading?
Suma: I have quite a few upcoming projects in the works.
The Runaway Dosa, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (Little Bee Books), releases in fall next year. It’s a fairy tale mash-up of “The Gingerbread Man” and the Tamil rhyme “Dosai Amma Dosai.”
In 2024, I have three books:
A Bindi is a Dot, illustrated by Kamala Nair (Kids Can Press), releases in spring 2024. This picture book is a celebration of the beauty and cultural significance of bindis that explores the different names for bindis, when and how they are worn, and how they are made.
My Name is Long As a River, illustrated by Tara Anand (Penguin Workshop), releases in fall 2024. The picture book follows young Kaveri—who insists on a nickname—as she and her Paati take a journey along the Kaveri River. As they travel, stories of how Kaveri got her long name unfold, deepening her understanding of who she is.
The first of my middle grade series, V. Malar: Pongal Super Host releases in 2024 and the second book is slated for release in 2025.
And I have one more book that is yet to be announced.
Wow! That’s a lot of upcoming projects. Congratulations! I can’t wait to read them. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Suma.
Dear readers, this picture book is released into the world today. It’s an incredible story of a girl with a gift who persisted in pursuing her talents despite the barriers in front of her. She succeeded in achieving her dreams, but even more than that, she managed to change the world. That is no slight feat and no slight biography to cram into a picture book. Don’t miss this one!