By Edie Ching
Today we’re pleased to welcome Gita Varadarajan and Archana Sreenivasan to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book My Bindi, out August 16, 2022! We previously revealed the cover for the book here.
In this moving and lyrical picture book debut from Gita Varadarajan, Divya is scared to put on the bindi for the first time. What if she gets made fun of? What will it feel like? But Amma assures her that her bindi will bring protection. After Divya looks inside Amma’s special box to find the perfect bindi to put on, she gazes in the mirror and discovers a new side of herself, and it gives her strength.
My Bindi is a universal message of the importance of finding oneself and celebrating the unique beliefs and experiences that make us who we are. Author Gita Varadarajan crafts a powerful story about belonging, embracing your heritage, and believing in yourself. Archana Sreenivasan’s vibrant and magical illustrations bring to life this journey of self-discovery.
Interview with Gita
You mention several times the influence of your grandfather, with whom you grew up, as a storyteller, but his stories seem very fanciful and of days gone by, while yours are very much set n the present in real life situations. What influenced you to write stories set in school situations that your readers might experience?
My grandfather was a master storyteller. On Sunday afternoons he would gather all his grandchildren and tell us stories. I still can hear the rise and fall of his voice, the dramatic pauses, the descriptive language. What he taught me was the art of captivating your audience. I am a teacher now and love kid-watching. I am fascinated by how kids navigate the world. They inspire me to explore their world, and put myself in their shoes, and then story ideas begin to take shape in my head.
Your first book Save Me A Seat was co-authored with Sarah Weeks. My Bindi is your first picture book. What were the challenges of writing each book, and do you have a preference for one genre over the other?
Save Me a Seat was a unique writing experience for me. It was my first novel and as I co-wrote with Sarah, I discovered my voice. My Bindi, on the other hand, is my first solo venture and it was a very empowering experience. In a way, Divya’s story in My Bindi reflects my writing journey. Just as Divya is reticent to wear the bindi to school, I was also reticent and doubtful about my abilities as a writer, and just as Divya felt supported at the end, I too felt affirmed that the story I had written by myself was one that would relate to and capture the hearts of many kids. I enjoy the lyrical style of writing, and picture books tend to naturally lend themselves to this style, so I do love writing picture books. A novel in verse is definitely something I am toying with as well.
In My Bindi Divya’s family seems to blend Hindu traditions with more secular ways. Is that true in your own life as well?
Absolutely!! While on one hand I was brought up with Hindu traditions, on the other it is by no means my only identity. I was born and brought up in India, a secular nation, and hence being secular was a value that was important to me and my family. Our national holidays included not just Hindu celebrations and festivals like Diwali and Dussehra, but Christmas, Easter, Eid, Bakreed, Milad-Un- Nabi, Guru Poornima and so on. I have friends and family who follow different religions and are from different parts of the world. Whether it is fanfare around Diwali celebrations, or getting together as a family during Thanksgiving, whether it is putting up a Christmas tree in our home or enjoying a lovely Eid biriyani with friends, relationships and traditions have always been more important than religion to me. So yes, Divya’s family definitely reflects my own beliefs.
The illustrations combine Hindu customs and traditions with Divya’s everyday life. Did you interact with Archana to make some suggestions, like mother’s arranging lilies or wearing traditional dress?
Archana and I discussed the classroom scenes a bit, regarding the students and the teacher Ms. Gonzalez, but other than that the illustrations were completely her interpretation of the story and the characters. It is uncanny how she captured the essence of the family exactly the way I had pictured them. The idea that we all have multiple identities and interests, that we cannot be boxed into one category has come out so beautifully in her illustrations, especially of the mother.
You have a goal of helping students bring their “authentic selves” to school every day. How do you feel My Bindi does that?
People’s self esteem and self-worth comes from being authentic and showing up as their true selves. If one has to hide who one really is, if one has to hide certain identities in order to feel included, it can feel very suffocating. Yet, so many kids come to school hiding parts of themselves they feel will make them stand out. They are scared to be different, as they feel an invisible pressure to blend in. Divya’s courage to wear her bindi to school and then share it’s significance with pride can be an inspiration to all kids who feel this pressure to blend in. My hope is that My Bindi will show kids that when you embrace all your identities, and show up as your true authentic self, you will be appreciated.
What are you working on now? Will we meet Divya and her family in another book?
I just finished work on the sequel to My Bindi, entitled My Saree, and yes, you will meet Divya, her family and her classmates again. In this story Divya wants to wear her Amma’s saree to Heritage Night at school. Her Amma tells her that the saree is too long and too wide for a little girl like her. This disappoints Divya and spurs her mother to think creatively, so Divya’s culture and heritage can shine on Heritage Night. Scholastic is the publisher and publication is slated for Spring 2024.
What question should I have asked you and didn’t?
What is my artistic process?
Writing to me is instinct and not habit. I write when I feel the need to, when I must, when I can’t stop myself. Like I had mentioned earlier, I have the gift of being able to observe kids close up, and stories begin to swirl as I watch them navigate life. Then I begin narrating the story to myself. So I guess a lot of the composition work begins with storytelling. I rehearse orally and when I like the sound of something I am narrating, then I know I must write it down and then the story begins to flow.
Interview with Archana
Your attention to detail is very evident in your illustrations, from the use of lilies the mother is arranging on the first double page spread, the mother’s bangles and traditional dress, the magnets on the refrigerator, one being the Taj Mahal. Did any include affirmations for fellow Hindus?
Except for the Bindi itself, and the doll of the dancing girl in the beginning, there isn’t a lot in the art that is exclusively Hindu. Most of the little details and artefacts included in Divya’s home are generically Indian and not religious in nature. They are what I imagined an Indian family living in the US might have and cherish in their home. Mother’s clothes and bangles etc. are also not exclusive to Hindus. India is a melting pot of religions and cultures, and that’s what I’ve tried to reflect in the art.
Tell us a bit about your process, using pencil first and then digitally coloring. The illustrations seem so fluid, especially as power radiates out from Divya once she puts on her first Bindi. How is that achieved digitally?
Thank you for your appreciation. I use a Cintiq, and so I can draw directly onto the Cintiq screen using my stylus, and that feels pretty close to actually drawing/painting onto paper. I use regular paper and pencil to work on all the initial explorations of character design, thumbnails, etc. Once the drawings get closer to the final form, I scan them in and work digitally using the Cintiq.
Your human figures are fairly simple but you convey incredible warmth and love between them, especially Divya and her Amma. Which parts of the illustration process accomplished that?
A lot of what I want to convey in the art happens through choices I make instinctively. Scale, composition, contrast, and how busy or not a page is, etc. are all choices that contribute to what an image conveys. But I’ve been paying more attention to the colors I use in the recent years, and I’ve found that color conveys a lot at a subliminal level, and can be a powerful tool. For instance, in the very first spread where mother is arranging lilies, the choice of colors is not random. I wanted to create a sense of tranquility and deep connection and something very quietly alive. Sort of like the feeling of being in a forest glade. So I chose deep greens, warm, light yellows and the oranges for color pops/contrast. I’m not sure if it would convey the same thing to everyone, but that’s what I was going for ☺
On your web page you mention your upbringing in India and your reluctance to wear a Bindi or traditional dress and that now you are getting “more comfortable in your own skin”. Does illustrating a book like My Bindi help with that process for you?
I grew up in India, and still live here. For me, getting comfortable in my own skin is a consequence of growing older and growing up (which is an ongoing process ☺). Illustrating books like My Bindi certainly do contribute to that sense, because I’m revisiting so many aspects that make me, me. And when I’m illustrating books for non-Indian markets, I’m paying more attention to the details that depict India in my art. In India, I’m a fish in the ocean, who doesn’t remember she’s surrounded by water at all times. It’s just everywhere so it becomes invisible. But when I work on books like ‘My Bindi’ I get to delight in the little drops that I choose to include in my art to make a little ‘pool of India’. And what I choose to put into my art tells me something about myself too. And I know that being Indian, being raised in a Hindu family, being a Tamilian, studying in a convent school, living in a metropolitan city… and so many other such aspects are all part of me, irrespective of whether I wear a Bindi, or a Saree, or have my hair cropped short and wear jeans and a t-shirt. For me, knowing my roots doesn’t mean I need to stay bound or limited by them. In fact, it helps me branch out in any direction I please, knowing where my roots are.
What are you working on next?
Currently I’m working on 2 picture book projects. One is a lovely book by Varsha Bajaj about the joys of learning and making Henna palm art. The other is one that I am writing and illustrating myself.
Gita Varadarajan was born and raised in India. My Bindi is her first picture book. Gita is also the co-author of the novel Save Me a Seat. She has a Master’s degree in Literacy Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and has taught all over the world, including in India, the U.A. E and currently teaches at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, New Jersey. She is part of many organizations that promote reading and writing in the US and India. She lives in Plainsboro, New Jersey.
Archana Sreenivasan is an illustrator based in Bangalore, India. Her star reviewed books include Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman and the multi-award winning Seven Golden Rings by Rajani LaRocca. She has worked with Penguin, Simon & Schuster and Scholastic among others, and her art from Where Three Oceans Meet by Rajani Larocca was exhibited in the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show, 2021. She lives with her husband, two cats and a dog.
Edie Ching, a former school librarian, now teaches courses for librarians in the I School at the University of Maryland. She is an active member of Capitol Choices and former president of the Washington Children’s Book Guild. She has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and Notable Children’s Book Committees and will serve on the 2023/24 Coretta Scott King Jury.