The first time I shot a balloon with an airgun, I had beginner’s luck. When I wrote the first ‘Gajapati Kulapati’ story, I did not concern myself with plot, theme or moral. I was the resident art-editor at Tulika Publishers, and they had asked me to try writing a story for a storytelling session at their bookstore. I visualised bright-eyed kids waiting hungrily for a good story, and wrote one for them. I made sure there was heaps of slapstick action. I also kept the language very basic. I did not say trunk; I said big nose. And the editors at Tulika threw in those funny sounds that made the book such a hit. Here a ‘pachaak’, there a ‘damaal’.
In India, you really cannot match age to reading or vocabulary level. A Class 7 child from a rural area could have a bigger vocabulary than a metro adult. Or not. My reader could be a 3 year old from a family that speaks English at home or a 5 year old who learns English only at school.
Every artist cannot help drawing a self-portrait each time he or she draws, and every writer writes an autobiography. My philosophies of life and policies of living seep through every story I write, and shape my style. And that is a good thing. It gives each writer a unique voice. It doesn’t make them just a clone of their favourite writer. There is no story that has not been told before, but your way of telling it makes your story special.
Back to elephant stories. More than a decade later, I wrote the sequel, ‘Gajapati Kulapati Kalabalooosh!’ But I was not that irresponsible kid of 35 anymore. I worried about matching the quality of the first. Would the publishers like this one, too? Will the readers laugh? While the first had taken me less than an hour to write, the second took me two weeks. And the process gave me personal rules for writing picture books; rules for writing my kind of books.
- Visualise the story-telling session
- Keep everything pleasant and funny
- Wear the vocabulary to its bone
- Rewrite to make it louder and funnier
Now, I am at work writing the third in the series, and I want to inform those who think writing picture books is just as easy as telling a story to a kid, that it is as easy. Except, it is not as easy as telling a story to your child, niece or grandson. Or even the neighbour’s brat. Try telling the story to juveniles you have just met. If they like it, they do an Oliver Twist and ask for more. If they don’t, they say, “Bo-oh-ring!”
If you call a spade a portable agricultural device, write for grown-ups and spare the child.