Today’s interview is with an author illustrator about her debut picture book.
Navina Chhabria grew up in India. An experienced world traveler, she is particularly drawn to stories that showcase cultural diversity and shatter gender stereotypes. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
RAAGA’S SONG: A DIWALI STORY is a story that weaves together the story of a young girl, Raaga, who dreams of singing at the annual Diwali mela at the Royal Place to celebrate Diwali AND a bit of the story for which Diwali is celebrated. It’s a very clever frame for explaining some of the history behind the holiday without being didactic and the heart behind Raaga’s struggle and persistence in pursuing her dreams will definitely pull the young reader into the story. It’s a different approach to the holiday and I love that it includes some of the history.
Me: This is your author-illustrator debut. Congratulations! Can you share about your artistic journey? When did you start creating art? How did that bring you to where you are now as an author-illustrator of this book?
Navina: Thank you, Jena! I’ve always been an artist, even when I didn’t know it. There’s something to be said about waking up at 5AM as a little girl to mess with paint and pattern. I took it seriously after taking a sabbatical from my graphic design job and traveling to Sydney, Australia to study. We had a wonderful illustration teacher who is also a picture book illustrator. It was the first time I truly saw the infinite possibilities of this art form and I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
A rough draft of Raaga’s Song has been with me for a number of years. We only began the process of refining it when I signed with my literary agency DG&B in 2018 and here we are. During the process, I learnt the picture book format, the beats and page turns, what to keep and eliminate to make the process of storytelling effective and engaging.
Me: This story is so interesting! What a unique take on Diwali and bravery to find one’s own voice. What gave you the idea for this book?
Navina: I had the good fortune of traveling extensively in India as a child due to my father’s work. Every place we lived in, we met people from different walks of life, ate local foods and heard the local folklore. The idea for the story came from my experiences as a child and that I absolutely love the folktale format.
The underlying theme of this story is how a little girl overcomes her inner (and outer influences) demons to sing and emerge victorious. The first drafts of the story had an Indian Song bird, a koel, who became Raaga’s constant companion and champion and while the gist of the story was the same, it felt one note and a lot of the events were happenstance. It just wasn’t feeling right.
Little by little, and reading lots of picture books, I realized there needs to be universal appeal. To be able to tell a well rounded tale, the effort needs to come from the main character. This changed everything for me. Raaga, showing up for her dreams and facing her fears seemed to fit in perfectly with the theme of Diwali and Lord Rama’s battle with Ravana. Around the same time, a supportive figure in the form of her grandfather emerged in the story. Someone who believes in her and tells her he is proud of her. I think all children need to hear this from the grownups around them. Just like Lord Rama shot the arrow to take down a mighty demon, each one of us has the power to tap into that inner strength and overcome the demons in our lives.
Me: I love that. I also love the character of Raaga who is both eager to celebrate and anxious about singing in front of the judges at the palace. What inspired her as the main character? Was she based on anyone you know?
Navina: Raaga’s Song is the story of every child who has ever been bullied, who has been told they’re not good enough because of where they come from or what they look like. It came from personal experience – a brown girl navigating a world where white skin is coveted and worth is decided based on background. For me, I realized my worth and my potential (and my beauty) only when I traveled and saw the world beyond what I knew. Learning from world cultures has been pivotal and enriching for me.
Me: Diwali has a lot of traditions associated with it and I love how you tell some of the history of the holiday. How did you decide which elements to include in the story?
Navina: Picking what goes in the book and what doesn’t make the cut was one of the most difficult decisions and honestly I struggled with it a bit. But in the end, it became abundantly clear that I had to choose what moves the story forward, what is in service of the story and eliminate what is extraneous. There is a mention of Rama defeating the ten-headed demon, Ravana, as well as the preparation it took, how that he collected his army before setting foot, and upon his return as rightful king,
Me: I know many children love to celebrate holidays, especially those with wonderful traditions like Diwali. Why is telling Raaga’s story and her Diwali experience important to you?
Navina: The one thing I hope children take away from Raaga’s Song is that they are not alone. It doesn’t matter where they come from or what they look like—if they put in the work and stay the course, they can achieve anything they put their minds to.
Me: What was one thing that surprised you in the creation of this book?
Navina: While I knew deep inside that I had a strong story, I was really surprised at how long it really took to finesse the manuscript. For me, the art was the easy part. I am forever grateful to my agent who had the same faith I did and held my hand through the process. I am also grateful to the editors at Running Press who believed in art and my vision for this book.
Me: What projects are next for you? What can we look forward to reading?
Navina: I am in the process of working on three picture book manuscripts. They are stories based out of India and the culture I grew up with. While I now have a worldview, being an Indian is deeply embedded in my ethos. I hope to dispel myths and tell stories about Indian heroes to give them the spotlight they truly deserve.
I love that. Good luck Navina and thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book was released in September. If you haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, I recommend it. It’s a great blend of heart and folktale to explain and celebrate Diwali.