Q&A: Children's author Supriya Kelkar on the writing process and the need for diverse books

Q&A: Children’s author Supriya Kelkar on the writing process and the need for diverse books

In her recent children's book "American as Paneer Pie," author Supriya Kelkar tells the story of an Indian-American girl's experience with prejudice in a Michigan suburb.

Headshot by S. Malde (Courtesy of Supriya Kelkar)
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In one of children’s author Supriya Kelkar’s books, ten-year-old Anjali learns about non-violent resistance and caste against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement. In another, the Indian-American Lekha struggles to find acceptance in her small Midwestern town. “I want my kids to be able to see themselves in a book from a young age,” says Kelkar. She’s part of a thriving community of authors of color who believe their work carries a unique responsibility: to promote values like empathy and unity while deepening young readers’ understanding of others.

The Indian SCENE spoke to Kelkar about her writing process, her new book “American as Paneer Pie,” the movement toward diverse representation in children’s books and her favorite parts of being an author. Kelkar, a native Michigander and a graduate of the University of Michigan, lives in metro Detroit with her husband, three kids and their dog.

The Indian SCENE: What motivated you to be an author and specifically a children’s book author?

Supriya Kelkar: I wanted to be a children’s book author since third grade. My teacher had our class write picture books and then bound each of them in hardcover. I thought it was so neat to see my name on the cover of a book. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an author. This past March, I had the opportunity to do a virtual ‘March Is Reading Month’ author visit at that school and nostalgia seeped in.

IS: How long does it take you to write a book?

SK: It depends on the book. For “Ahimsa,” which I started in 2003 and was published in 2017, it took about fifteen years total. Like many first drafts, it wasn’t very good, so I set it aside, and came back to it in between screenwriting projects I was doing for work. I would go back to that manuscript every year and do a total revision on it, throwing out characters, adding subplots, and improving it each time. This went on for over thirteen years until the book won the New Visions Award and with it, a publishing deal. It then went through another year and a half of edits with my editor before it was published.
On the other extreme is a book like “American as Paneer Pie,” (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020), which took just 5 weeks for me to write the first draft. That also, like every traditionally published book, went on to have several more edits over the course of two years with my editor at Aladdin, until it was published.

For my picture books, although they are 500 words or less, some have taken several months of revisions with my critique groups before I’ve gotten them to a good place to be able to show them to my agent.

American as Paneer Pie (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020)

IS: What benefit do you see in revisions? How important are they?

SK: Revisions are the most important part of writing. Everyone’s writing has room for growth, whether they write at home for fun or professionally. In both forms of writing, books and screenplays, it takes several drafts of revisions before the work is done. For every book I write, I revise on my own first, then carry on to revise based on feedback from a friend, next with notes from my critique partners, my agent’s feedback, and finally I revise several times to address my editor’s notes at each publishing house.

IS: Kids tend to fight editing their work. What advice would you give them?

SK: I always emphasize the importance of not being attached to your words and knowing there is always room for improvement. And I tell them that in my experience, my work has always improved with revisions. If I thought the first draft of “Ahimsa” was perfect, I never would have become a published author. It took all those years of revising to fix the story and get it to a place where it could be published.

IS: What has influenced your writing?

SK: I usually write stories about what I wished I had seen or experienced as a kid growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in America. Back then, I never saw a South Asian character in an American book, TV show, movie, or even a commercial. I want my kids to be able to see themselves in a book from a young age, something I and my desi peers didn’t have.

IS: Do your kids give you feedback on your work?

SK: My kids read some of my novels and all my pictures books before I send them out to my agent. It’s helpful to see what they connect to and in the case of a spooky middle grade novel I’m working on, it is helpful to see what thrills them and where I need to tighten the pacing.

IS: If there is one thing that makes you smile as a South Asian author, what would that be?

SK: Well for one, I especially enjoy school visits. It is definitely special when I get to see a desi child’s eyes light up at the recognition that an author shares their cultural background. Today there are several South Asian American authors that I’m lucky to call my friends: Simran Jeet Singh, Raakhee Mirchandani, Saadia Faruqi, Sayantani Dasgupta, Veera Hiranandani, Karuna Riazi, Hena Khan, Darshana Khiani, Rajani LaRocca, Uma Krishnaswamy, Padma Venkatraman, Pooja Makhijani, Tanaz Bhathena and more.

IS: The titles of your books reveal material that may be steeped in Indian tradition. Are there any challenges or advantages you face because of that?

SK: When I looked back at the stories I wrote as a kid, most featured white characters with blonde hair. It wasn’t until college that I really started writing stories featuring desi characters. It took me over a decade to sell my first story, set in India. Over that time, many things have changed in kidlit, thanks to the hard work of We Need Diverse Books, and several people working in publishing. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure every kid gets to see themselves in a book but I’m happy my books can reach readers of all backgrounds who can connect with my stories and characters.

IS: But do you find that challenging to sell? I mean because they have so much of the Indian tradition in them – or is it an advantage?

SK: I don’t think it is an advantage. It can be challenging at times, but I’m lucky that there are so many educators who know how important diverse books are who use my books in school or purchase them for their school libraries.

IS: American Paneer Pie speaks to racism and finding one’s voice. Can you elaborate on how your personal experience shaped American Paneer Pie?

“American as Paneer Pie” has several moments loosely based on my childhood in a small, predominantly white town, that didn’t value diversity.

It is the story of Lekha, the only Indian-American kid in her small town in Michigan. Lekha feels like she has two versions of herself, Home-Lekha, who loves watching Hindi movies and eating Indian food, and School-Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when it comes to being teased for her Indian culture.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Like Lekha, I faced racism and microaggressions and othering on a daily basis. I didn’t find my voice until I went to college at the University of Michigan and realized I could say what I wanted through my writing. I want to encourage kids to find their voice in whatever form it may take, and use it while they are still kids. That’s why my books are usually about finding your voice, a theme that comes from my own life.

IS: If there is one thing that you want your readers to take from your books, what would it be?

SK: I hope readers feel hopeful, joyful, and empowered after reading my books. I hope they are inspired to find their voice, if they haven’t already, and know that their voice can come in many forms. Like Lekha in “American as Paneer Pie,” I was often scared to speak up against the racism I experienced. But there are other ways to express yourself. Some kids choose to speak out against hate through song, dance, art, poetry, holding a sign at a march, etc. I hope kids know they can make a difference after they read “American as Paneer Pie” and my other books.

IS: How do you handle praise and criticism for your books?

SK: When critiques come from my agent or editor, I always listen, think about what they are saying, and then work hard to address their notes. I always tell readers during school visits how important revisions are, how important it is to not be attached to your words, and how I have always found my work has improved with each revision.

I don’t pay much attention to reviews of my books online. I just try to write the best story possible before putting it out in the world.

IS: What advice would you give young aspiring writers?

SK: I would tell young aspiring writers to read as much as they can. Every time I read a book I’m learning something from it, even if it is a book I don’t like, about how they developed their plot, how their character arcs were, how they revealed their theme, and more. I would also say to not be attached to your writing and know it can always get better with each revision. Finally, I would tell them their story is important and to make sure they tell it.

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