I love picture books about holidays and I can’t wait to share today’s picture book with you.
Namita Moolani Mehra is a children’s book author, cookbook author, and food and parenting writer. She wrote the picture book ANNI DREAMS OF BIRYANI, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat, and the children’s cookbooks THE MAGIC SPICEBOX and SUPERFOODS FOR SUPERHEROES. Namita also runs a social-impact business called Indian Spicebox that helps fund hot meals for underprivileged children in India. Namita was born in a remote village in Nigeria, grew up in the UK and India, studied in Chicago, and worked in New York for over a decade. She currently lives in Singapore with her husband and two children. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
THE LIGHT WITHIN YOU is a picture book about Diwali seen through the eyes of a little girl. Diya is so excited about her upcoming trip to India to see her grandma for Diwali. She is struggling being in a new town with new classmates, as well as a bit anxious trying to explain why she’ll be gone for three weeks. As much as she feels right at home with her Nani in India and loves celebrating the festival of lights, she worries about explaining things when she returns to her strange new life. Her joy and anxiety are so palpable and realistic that I fell in love with Diya. And the ending was one of those that warms your heart so much that you want to read the book all over again. The illustrations by Kamala Nair also manage to capture the magic of light in the darkness so wonderfully well. This is a book that just glows.
Me: What gave you the idea to write a book about Diwali? What made you want to write this book?
Namita: As an Indian mom living in Singapore, every year I am invited to my children’s international schools for Diwali celebrations. I’ve been doing this for 8 years now– my kids are 10 and 5 years old. I usually read a Diwali story to the children, and then we do an activity like rangoli or diya (traditional clay lamp) painting. The children are usually from different backgrounds- mostly non-Indian, and I found the traditional Diwali books weren’t really connecting with them….and so I started making up my own stories over the years. I would share about the non-religious aspects of the festival, what ‘good over evil’ means in a modern context, and focus on the spirit and essence of Diwali . . . and there began the dream for my own Diwali book!
Me: I love the character of Diya who is both eager to celebrate and anxious about her new home. She is so well developed and has such heart. Was she based on anyone you know? What inspired her as the main character?
Namita: She is a combination of all the women in my family . . . including me! She is a third-culture, immigrant-kid like me . . . struggling with making friends and a sense of belonging (I’ve lived in 5 different countries and moved dozens of times), she has the warmth and resilience of my mom, the kind and generous heart of my sister, and the special spark of my daughter!
Me: Aww! What a wonderful combination. Diwali has a lot of traditions associated with it. How did you decide which elements to include in the story?
Namita: I focused on the ones my children enjoy the most! Diwali is such a colorful and fun festival, and I knew my illustrator would beautifully bring to life the gorgeous Diwali markets and bazaars, the stunning clothes and jewelry, the delicious food and colorful rangoli . . .and the night scenes with the sparklers and fireworks are incredible! Decorating, dressing up, eating – these are holiday rituals most children can relate to, whether you celebrate Diwali or not!
Me: You are also a well-known food blogger. I loved the foods you mentioned in the book (especially the coconut laddoos), and a bit sad to not see any recipes at the end of the book. Did you make that choice intentionally? Or was that an editorial decision?
Namita: I have published a few cookbooks for children and while I love sharing recipes and recipe-writing, the focus of this book is not the food (sorry fellow foodies!)
Of course, food is central to all festivals, and we eat a TON of delicious food during Diwali… but because it’s not a food story we needed to prioritize other content because my stories tend to run quite long and they had already assigned me 40 pages haha! We needed a back matter that would go into more detail about Diwali and explain the traditional and religious aspects of the festival. This would be important for many educators and parents. I also really wanted to include a Diwali affirmation as it truly speaks to the main message of inner light, and so we had a lot of content for the back of the book already! No room for a recipe unfortunately. By the way, Coconut laddoos are SO easy to make…just mix together desiccated coconut and condensed milk! I will share the recipe right here!
- Add the dry desiccated coconut powder in a bowl and add in the condensed milk and vanilla extract
- Mix nicely using your hands (don’t forget to wash them first!)
- Using an ice cream scoop or tablespoon, place the mix into your hands (you can grease your palms with ghee first to prevent the laddoo mixture from sticking to your hands) squeeze and pack like a snowball and mould into a round shape using your hands
- Roll the laddoo in a flat plate of sprinkles if you like or you can enjoy them plain! Eat at room temperature.
Me: Ohh! Yay! I can’t wait to make some. Thank you SO much for sharing that! I know many children love to celebrate holidays, especially those with wonderful traditions like Diwali. Why is telling Diya’s story and her Diwali experience important to you?
Namita: I think for many children, like me and my children, growing up away from your home country, away from family and grandparents, can be hard. Festivals and Holidays are a time when you can really re-connect with your roots, own your culture and traditions… a chance to celebrate who you are and where you come from. Not everyone gets a chance to visit India during Diwali, but wherever you are on the Festival of Lights, it’s an opportunity to be with friends and family, to feel that warmth and love from the Diwali diya and around you, to be surrounded with beautiful decorations and feel joy, and even a chance to be blessed by “a Goddess or two” . . . these are the things that fill our cup, and light us up from within.
And more than the rituals and traditions that we focus on, which ultimately come to an end when Diwali is over . . .the magic of it all stays with us and lights us up from the inside. Festivals like Diwali help us fill fulfilled, blessed, grateful and complete. And that Diwali light has the power to glow all year round! Diwali is not just a festival, it’s the light within you.
Me: I love that! Kamala Nair’s illustrations in this book are wonderful. There is so much light throughout the whole story! Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Namita: Kamala is a genius! Her illustrations literally glow on the page and bring so much love, light and magic to the story. My favorite spreads are the ones at the bazaar- when Diya and Nani go shopping. I also love when Diya and Nani get dressed up together in their Indian clothes. Of course I also LOVE the scene where all the diyas are lit up on Diwali night…. gosh, I adore each spread so much!
I think the last spread was a surprise in the sense that I wasn’t sure how she would visually handle my refrain ‘Diya was ready’ but Kamala put Diya right back in the classroom with her classmates and all the gifts she’s brought back. You can see the delight and bonding that is happening. . . it is a perfect resolution, and you can feel Diya’s joy, purpose, and sense of belonging.
Me: That is one of my favorite parts of the book. What projects are next for you? What can we look forward to reading?
Namita: I currently have four more picture books in the pipeline. My next book is a story about a girl’s journey during the Partition of India and is based on my family’s story and experience as refugees. After that, I have a book coming out about the Holy River of India and the power of nature to heal. I also have a fun story about a small and zippy mode of transportation in my hometown –it’s for younger readers with lots of onomatopoeia. I can’t wait to share all these books with you!
Those sound wonderful. I can’t wait to read them. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you’re looking for a heartfelt book full of light that celebrates the Festival of Light, this is a book you must read. It celebrates without explaining too much. It draws the reader into Diya’s experience and emotions so easily that you’ll want to study it. And the illustrations are simply gorgeous. Trust me, this is a book you won’t want to miss!