By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
The Leaping Laddoo by Harshita Jerath and illustrated by Kamala M. Nair is a whimsical and colourful window into life in India. With the sites, sounds and colours of everyday aspects, readers will learn a unique and playful take to the popular folktale of the Gingerbread Man. With hot chai in hand and my homemade laddoo in the other, today we’re thrilled to welcome Harshita to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book, The Leaping Laddoo out March 1, 2022!
Thank you so much, Harshita, for taking time out to do this interview with WNDB. Tell us a bit about yourself, and what compelled you to write your book, The Leaping Laddoo.
First of all, thank you for hosting me.
I’m a children’s book author. I spent more than half my life in India, where I was born and raised. Though I always wanted to write, writing was not considered a profession that could earn money. As a result, I pursued to become a business analyst. After I moved to the US and became mom, I took a ‘raising the children’ break from my profession, and that’s when I thought why not do something I always wanted to do—WRITE.
That’s when I started my blog; that was in the year 2015. I would surround my kids with books and the same time I discovered about writing for children. I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and found out about local writer groups. I followed signs from the universe, and soon I started writing children’s books. That’s how my writing journey started.
As for The Leaping Laddoo and how it came to be, the idea came to me while I was making laddoos for my son’s 8th birthday. He loves laddoos (a round-shaped Indian dessert). While I was making and shaping one in my palms—the laddoo fell. That’s when I thought, aha, an Indian Gingerbread Man! So the idea was was very very organic, and I quickly wrote it on my kitchen notepad.
But when I see the completed book, I feel the inspiration was much deeper. I would take my children to India so they could meet their family and stay connected with the culture. These overseas flights are more than 20 hours long. For my stay in India to be as uneventful as possible, I used to introduce my kids in advance and tell them what to expect in India. So I would share the imagery, “You know what, kids, when you get out of the airport you’re to see cows lazying on the streets, the chai wala…” This was just to give them a picture of everything they could encounter, because it’s so different from the US.
So this story was brewing inside me for a long time and the retelling of the Gingerbread Man offered a perfect platform to introduce the street imagery of India. This is the background behind this book.
Harshita, as I read through your book, I just thought to myself—what a clever take on the Gingerbread Man! You used aspects of what life is like in India: the sites, colours, and the sounds. You integrated the rickshaw driver, the chai wala saying, “Garam garam chai—Hot hot tea”. My heritage is from Pakistan and a lot of what you described is very similar to the Indian experience. The way you portrayed your story was very well done.
My four-year-old son knows about the Gingerbread Man, and I thought, let’s test the story out with him. As I read the story to him, he stopped me and said, “Mommy, this is just like the Gingerbread Man story you told me about, but I don’t know what laddoo is.” At that moment I thought, well then let’s make it! You included a recipe of how to make laddoo at the end, which was great because there was a practical element linked to the storyline as well. He also appreciated the characters in the story where he said, “Mommy, the boys who are playing cricket are kind of like me!” and I said yes, they are. It was really cool to see that he was able to make that connection.
Aww, this makes me so happy to hear this.
The other day, I was telling someone about the game cricket, and their response was, “…but cricket is a bug!” I was surprised because some people don’t know about this game. It’s so integral to India, Pakistan, many of the South Asian countries that play cricket. I wanted to get all these aspects into the story.
Chai is so integral! Every important discussion happens over a cup of chai. This is why I wanted to put all of these elements together in the story.
Why Laddoo? Why not Gollab Jamaan, or Rasgulla?
The story idea first came to me while I was making laddoo. Secondly, I was able to visualise a Laddoo Man rather than a Gollab Jamun Man dripping with the sugary syrup. Also, I didn’t give too much thought to changing the dessert since laddoo came naturally.
Why did you come up with the title, The Leaping Laddoo?
I initially titled the story The Run Away Laddoo; that was what the title was. However, at the time I was taking a writing course and I wanted to have some fun with language using alliterations. Suddenly this word “leaped” to me! The leaping laddoo goes so well, and that’s how the title came about.
How did you draw upon your own experiences to write this book?
The entire imagery of the book is drawn from my growing up memories in India. I’d note the elements that charmed me when I think of India. I closed my eyes, and visualised the streets, the sounds I heard, while growing up there. I saw children playing cricket on the corner of a street, the chai wala in the mornings and evenings brewing tea.
Also the tongue twister in the book brings back childhood memories. I remember as a kid, we always used to say if you’re that smart say this tongue twister! And then one day I actually caught both my boys saying, “Oh yeah! You think you’re that smart then try doing this!” And I used the same conversation style in my book.
English is my second language. I grew up speaking my native language, which is Hindi. And you’ll see lot of Hindi words sprinkled throughout.
It was nice to see the Hindi words, and it’s great there is a glossary in the back with the phonetic pronunciations. This is a form of intercultural exchange of who you are, and with other languages as well. Part of who we are is what we say in our language.
Absolutely, and my hope is that people will feel grounded with the known folktale, The Gingerbread Man, and think, “Ah I know this!” At the same time, the cultural aspects add a level of freshness and excitement.
Did you have any input in the illustrations and how it was put together? Did you have a say in what the Laddoo Man, Mrs. Kapoor, and the formulation of the other characters in your book would look like?
Yes, my input was considered for the illustrations. The initial draft sketches were sent to me. My amazing illustrator, Kamala Nair, is from Bangalore, India, which is in South India. And I’m from North India. These two parts of India are very diverse in language, culture and dress. So there were a few changes based on this diversity to keep the images in line with my vision. The art team and publisher, Albert Whitman, were very receptive to making sure the book was authentic in every way.
It was a great collaboration.
Yes, India is very diverse with the many regions and languages, so I can imagine the diversity in clothing as well.
I feel very fortunate, because I’ve heard stories where there’s very little or no collaboration between the writer and art team. Luckily it didn’t happen to me and my experience with my publisher, Albert Whitman, was excellent.
What are some of your favourite picture books?
It’s difficult to pick favorites as there are so many. Surely, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Every time I read it, it tugs at my heart. Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour, and I also like Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. Another one is Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho.
Why did you decide to write children’s picture books?
Writing for children came about naturally. When I decided to write, I started a blog, as that’s what I knew writers do. Also, my children were of picture book age and I used to surround them with books and read to them all the time. Around the same time my husband gifted me a writing course for children on my birthday. Perhaps all of these elements, my children being the picture book age, my husband gifting me a children’s writing course, and most importantly my desire to write—all of this contributed towards me writing for children.
Do you anticipate writing another book? I don’t know if there could be a sequel to Leaping Laddoo. Do you foresee future books coming out maybe for middle schoolers or YA? Is that something you’ve considered?
The Bouncing Barfee! (She laughs. Barfee is another Indian dessert)
On a serious note, I have another picture book coming out in March next year called Cooler Than Lemonade from Sourcebooks. I’m also writing in different genres such as early reader categories, and a chapter book.
The simpler the book, the more challenging it is to write. You look through these books, and then you think, how easy it must be to write this text. Why does it take authors so long to write something so simple? I’d say, simplicity is most challenging to create. It takes a lot of time.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give aspiring writers?
Don’t give up! If you have a story in your heart, put it to pen and paper and pursue it. To bring a story to the world requires grit. It’s a passion project combined with perseverance, which gives results. For me it took many years and so many rejections.
Another thing that comes to my mind is, do not hold back, and write the story you want to tell without skewing it for the audience. I wrote this book with an open heart. So for children who don’t know about India, I hope it will be a window into a new culture. And for other readers I hope the story will provide the comfort in the known imagery. If that happens, this book is a success.
How long did it take to publish The Leaping Laddoo?
From idea to print…about five years. The “yes” takes longer than a “no”. Getting a “no” is faster, but when editors are looking at your story and thinking of acquiring, that takes longer.
What are three words you would use to describe your book?
I would say joyful, vibrant, and adventurous.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of WNDB?
I am extremely grateful to WNDB for this interview opportunity, where I can share my experience and book with the world. I love what WNDB is doing to spread the word about diversity and inclusion. Giving us authors a platform to talk about it. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Harshita, because we need authors who have the courage and grit to present another perspective. When I shared your story with my son, he saw aspects of himself in the story. It is so important that our children don’t grow up with one perspective, when in fact there are so many ways to see something. You took a popular story and presented it in a unique manner and beautifully as well.
Harshita, congratulations on the publishing of your book, and all the best in your writing journey.
Harshita Jerath (pronounced her-SHE-ta) loves writing stories for children. She draws inspiration from her growing-up memories in India and the colorful world around her. She’s a science graduate in Industrial Microbiology with a Master’s equivalent in Hospital Administration. She lives with her family in Arizona.
Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi is an international educator who is passionate about inclusive education. She has taught various age groups from primary all the way up to Grade 12. She is a trained teacher in Special Education, English as an Additional Language, Geography, Science, and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Teacher. Yasmine strives to advocate for inclusive practices, promotes and supports diversity, and speaks up for injustices no matter how small they may be. She’s a Canadian at heart, born in London, England, but a global traveler who has lived in the Middle East and the US. She currently resides in Switzerland.