For writers and illustrators of books for children, the pandemic has changed lives in ways different from those for adult authors. Of course, books have moved or stalled, for some contracts have been arbitrarily cancelled. Yet, if anything, the interaction with children has continued to be a constant, often with no concomitant book sales. And there has also been a sustained effort at community building.
Six children’s authors – Anushka Ravishankar, Asha Nehemiah, Natasha Sharma, Venita Coelho, Siddhartha Sarma and Devika Rangachari, two illustrators – Priya Kuriyan and Shilpa Ranade, and one author illustrator Lavanya Karthik – talk about what the creation and publishing of books has been like since March 2020, when the pandemic struck.
How has the pandemic affected your work life?
Devika Rangachari: At the start of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown, my writing life was affected quite profoundly. I found myself unable to focus, and even when I forced myself to sit before the computer, my mind kept wandering and worrying, and it was difficult to write anything much. However, as the days wore on, I decided to take another look at my writing deadlines and began to work – slowly, at first. I have now reached a stage where I am able to write much more, but my output is nowhere near what it used to be. I have had to push back at least one major publishing deadline and the thought is unsettling.
Asha Nehemiah: The lockdown made it necessary for me to work in a houseful of adults, all of whom were on work calls at the same time. But I found that when pushed into it, I could actually shut a door and write.
Priya Kuriyan: In the initial months of the pandemic, I found it difficult to concentrate considering the news cycle and the fair amount of anxiety it brought with it. There’s absolutely been no time to do anything “extra” like sketch for leisure or just make something that’s not for a client, which I miss very much (Also, things have been busier thanks to dad’s small adventure with a ladder.)
Shilpa Ranade: I am an academic and am currently involved in teaching an online semester, rather than regular in-person classes. This is a challenge since we have students from all over the country, who do not necessarily have uninterrupted connectivity. The distant nature of teaching and curtailed peer contact and learning is affecting the students with detrimental results. This form of teaching is stressful and saps you. Given that illustration and animation, which are my specific areas, need hands-on learning, it is all the more difficult to meet teaching goals in such a mode.
Lavanya Karthik: What did change was the sudden presence of the rest of my family, in what used to be exclusively my workspace while they were away at work or school. The first few weeks were chaotic as we learnt to work, relax and even exercise indoors. We gradually found our rhythm, over the last few months, learnt to share our devices and household chores.
I have worked on a bunch of projects – illustrated a few picture books, written a novel, begun work on a chapter book, plotted several others.
Venita Coelho: Nothing much changed for my writing rhythm or process. What it really affected was your choice of topics. In a world that has been thrown upside down like this, what really matters? What stories now deserve to be told? That was difficult. You had to craft a new world view.
Anushka Ravishankar: What it has done (after the first few months when I was honing my baking skills and learning how to make chapatis that didn’t resemble chewing gum) is made me face the fact that I am not writing. There’s no “too much travel” excuse to hide behind. I have the time. I just am not using it for writing, because the gloom and doom somehow inhibits my ability to write.
Has the pandemic affected any of your books currently under publication or in editing?
Siddhartha Sarma: My latest novel, Twilight in a Knotted World, was published during this period, and barring some minor changes to the launch date, there was no impact on the timeline concerning it.
Devika Rangachari: I was working on three books at the start of the pandemic. One has just been published, the other is set to be released early next year, but I am working at a painfully slow pace on the third.
Asha Nehemiah: My publishers have been more tentative about committing to publishing schedules. Contracts have specified that advances will be paid when the book is published instead of when the contract is signed.
Priya Kuriyan: There were some hitches in being able to acquire/experiment with paper options for one of the picture books I was working on. Things seem to be slowly inching back to normal though.
Shilpa Ranade: I have a book to illustrate but have had to delay it owing to the added home and work responsibilities with little house staff help.
Lavanya Karthik: Several books intended for release this year have been pushed to 2021 and even 2022.
Venita Coelho: I had three books all lined up to be published end of the year. All three have been postponed. It’s a big hit.
Anushka Ravishankar: I believe one book didn’t go into print when it should have – so it’s been delayed a few months. It will be out this month though, so yay! Another book, which is going into a new format, has been put off to next year. Yet another book may have benefited from the situation because the designer working on it had more time than usual, but this is a guess.
How has the experience of releasing new books been different?
Devika Rangachari: There was a virtual launch on Instagram – incidentally, an entirely new media interface for me – and I had to take a crash course on navigating it two days before the event. I have, subsequently, been emailing answers to questions that newspapers and magazines have been posing. It has been a slightly eerie, even surreal, experience – my book is out there in the world and has already reached many hands, and I haven’t met a single person in the process.
Priya Kuriyan: Children’s books almost never have big releases – pandemic or no pandemic, so the status quo remains :).
Lavanya Karthik: Both books have had virtual launches, with none of the activities, school visits, or book signings that are usually part of an event like this, and which are so critical to an author’s experience of getting their book out into the world. And how does one even reach the vast numbers of children without the means to attend a virtual launch or to access ebooks, or who are just plain jaded from all the hours spent online in virtual classrooms?
Anushka Ravishankar: It was different the way life is different now – everything is online, which makes it easier in some ways. The logistics only involves moving to a desk and looking decent from the waist upwards. I’ve also become an expert at churning out videos; I’m really fast, mainly because I can’t bear to look at myself on screen, so I want to get it over with quickly.
Asha Nehemiah: It feels strange to plan all the promotions and launch online. This is a loss not in terms of book sales (fairly negligible in my experience) but in terms of media visibility and, even more important, in taking away the opportunity for others in the kidlit community to share the happiness of a writer friend. That said, I was really happy to listen to some amazing conversations at online launches which would normally have taken place in a city other than the one I live in. Like the one between Devika Rangachari and Siddartha Sarma at the launch of Devika’s Queen of Earth.
Children’s book creators have seized the changed circumstances to interact with audiences online, not just in terms of book promotion but also to create opportunities for kids to have something fun to do when they are stuck at home. Have you done many such sessions? What do you feel about these?
Devika Rangachari: I have done a few book-related sessions with children and one creative writing workshop on historical fiction for adults. Online interactions are a poor substitute for real-life sessions. Network issues regularly disrupt the session flow and it is a strange feeling to be holding forth on names and/or frozen images on the screen. The spontaneity and enthusiasm of physical interaction is completely diluted in its virtual counterpart. This is, perhaps, the reason I haven’t done too many of these sessions.
Venita Coelho: What an explosion of on-line sessions there was! I have done several but I’m starting to become very uncomfortable with them. They seem to be by the priviliged for the priviliged. Basically children who have a laptop/phone and net connection are swimming in a sea of plenty. I am trying to figure out how I can do things that reach out to the less privileged.
Anushka Ravishankar: I have done many sessions with children – readings, writing workshops, a session on nonsense,... The first ones were fun and well attended, but I think screen fatigue has set in, so my last session had very few children. What I have been enjoying are the workshops with writers. I have done a few of those and they were really satisfying. The fact that these can be done online means that theoretically at least, people from all over the world can attend, so that’s good.
Siddhartha Sarma: I have had one interaction session with a school audience in India, and another with a creative writing club in the UK. Online interactions give one the opportunity to meet people one would perhaps normally not have done. This is one of the few positives from the Age of the Virus.
Asha Nehemiah: I have done only one and it was fantastic. This was with a school where two of my books are used as supplementary readers so all the children I spoke to had read one or both books. I was actually able to show them – quite clearly, thanks to the nature of online interaction – my early notes and large foolscap sheets where I had plotted the book. And the children went “oh wow” instead of giving a “whatevs” kind of shrug! Online sessions make it possible for authors to connect with readers in other cities very easily. And I hope these sessions will move to simple, heartfelt conversations with readers rather than being some kind of performance or game-show that has come to be expected at events with with children.
Priya Kuriyan: I have to admit I’ve been extremely reticent about sessions. Partly because I feel I have the personality of a wilted plant in a flower pot during zoom meetings and partly because there’s just been very little time at hand
Lavanya Karthik: I was never very active on social media prior to the lockdown and am no different now. I have done a few online sessions, mostly on Facebook and Zoom. They are definitely no substitute to being physically present in a room with the kids. My sessions with children are never really about my books. They always become about the kids, about giving them space to be heard, and about giving them license to air their silliest ideas, their worst fart jokes and about letting them see me as the kind of grown up who revels in potty humour and underpants puns as much as they do. Kids also need the proximity of other kids – you see it in sessions where they huddle together on the floor even when there is plenty of room, even when they are squabbling over elbow room and who took whose favourite pencil. And you see it in the way they speak up, in the quick glances around the room to see who laughed at their jokes, who rolled their eyes. For all its interactive features, Zoom is still a poor substitute for a simple mat on the floor.
The children’s book community has notably come together during this period with many discussions and skill-enhancement sessions. Have you been a part of this?
Devika Rangachari: It is heartening to know that one is not alone both in terms of the overall situation as well as in what seems to be a general reluctance to write and read while the pandemic rages on. In this sense, the children’s book community seems to be doing its best to step forward, and dispel fears and doubts among its members.
Asha Nehemiah: The children’s book community, especially creators of books, had actually been interacting even before the pandemic and lockdown. The realisation was that the pandemic has impacted our industry and slowed down our interactions. But sharing information and providing support has been very useful.
Venita Coelho: The community has kept me sane. It is so good to have a tribe you can reach out to when you begin to despair that the stories you were writing have become irrelevant, and the stories you hope to write are not born yet.
Lavanya Karthik: The Indian kidlit community has always been a friendly and supportive group, and it has rallied together wonderfully these past few months. It has been heartening to see the efforts put in by writers and illustrators to reach out to children and to one another during the pandemic. I can’t think of any other group so generous with advice, support and encouragement.
Do you see yourself creating work about the pandemic at any point in future? Do you feel an urge to do so now?
Siddhartha Sarma: I researched extensively on historical pandemics for a chapter in my most recent non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings. The patterns of social disruption, not to mention the morphology and the virological characteristics of Covid-19, are neither unusual nor unprecedented. In terms of a subject for a story, the pandemic is not of interest for me, either for a fiction or non-fiction work. Also, I would really hope that other writers resist the urge to write about it in fiction for a while, till the world stabilises and the deaths are countenanced. Give it a decade or so, consider the long-term implications, remember how hard this virus will have to work to match superstars like Yersinia Pestis. As a fictional narrative device, it’s rather a low-hanging fruit.
Lavanya Karthik: Am I plotting an epic dystopian trilogy about a plague / zombie / vampire infested world, struggling bands of survivors, corrupt politicians and evil wizards, and the teenaged Chosen One who will somehow lead the world towards peace and equity without once needing a bathroom break? No.
Do I find myself dwelling on the suddenness with which the world changed, the huge inequalities it has created, the uncertainty of it all? Have I noticed how my daughter and her teenaged friends are responding to the sudden isolation, how Zoom has invaded our lives and what it has meant for students and educators, how masks could become fashion statements? Have I wondered how romances would bloom, murders be solved, adventures occur in a world holed up indoors? Yes.
Will all these thoughts find their way into future books of mine? I hope so.
I like to think I have already written a “Lockdown Book”. I was working on the fourth in a series of middle grade novels in the early days of the lockdown. Unlike its three predecessors, this one took a while to take form – I wrote and rewrote three separate drafts, all of which left me dissatisfied and angry and close to throwing in the towel. But draft four eventually emerged, and it is a book I think I could only have written in lockdown, with the world going berserk outside. The story turned inward and, while it is a madcap caper like its predecessors, it is also about the little joys of hope and friendship, of old friends reuniting, of collective strength in facing trouble. It’s also a book about food, something I never really thought much about pre-lockdown, but is now my single biggest preoccupation everyday.
Is there anything about the experience of living through the pandemic that you feel is going to affect your work now?
Asha Nehemiah: I feel deprived of being able to people-watch, interact, eavesdrop, chat aimlessly – just live in a way that will make my writing more connected with people and life. That’s a real loss. Hopefully only temporary.
Priya Kuriyan: I think if I make more picture books of my own, nature will have an even stronger presence in them.
Lavanya Karthik: I think these past months have been useful in showing me how little I really need to get by. I have tried to pare down my possessions – given away clothing and books, repurposed things into art or utility. The huge bother of sanitising and social distancing has meant trips to shop are fewer and far between which, in turn, has led me to eat less junk food, drink more water, attempt making bioenzyme cleaners and grow an edible garden.
I learnt to exercise indoors (yes, you can run a half marathon at home if your family doesn’t come unhinged from all your wheezy shuffling and murder you first), and I learnt that pretty much anything can be baked in an ancient microwave with only one functioning button (30 seconds) if you are persistent.
Will this affect my work? I’ll tell you just as soon as I’m done jabbing at this microwave button.
Venita Coelho: My life before and after lockdown sailed serenely on, exactly the same. I am a freelance writer. I homeschool my daughter. I spend hours sitting at home writing...I lived a lockdown life before the lockdown!
Anushka Ravishankar: The one thing that might affect my writing is my newly-developed addiction to Netflix and Prime series – Korean dramas for instance. I’m an erratic writer at the best of times and now I’m afraid I’ll spend even more time doing non-writing things. I’m hoping to reach the nausea stage soon. That’s the hope.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.