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Winning Over With Books- The Hindu

Arundhati Venkatesh is happy spreading the joy of reading among children

By the time Arundhati Venkatesh finished telling her stories, many of the Second graders gathered for a reading workshop at Lakshmi School in Madurai had already stepped into another imaginary world. Their smiles and joyous laughter, enthusiastic responses, shrieks in awe and spontaneous clapping said it all.


For a person who attended school in five towns and worked in four Continents, who has a penchant for observing things and people around, who loves words and reads voraciously, who has made libraries and books stores her second home, story telling perhaps is not as daunting.


It is not so easy either when it comes to engaging children, says the IT professional-turned-kid lit enthusiast, whose latest book Bookasura has been nominated in three categories (best cover, best publication for children and best children’s writer) at the Comic Con-2015. The awards will be announced in Bangalore today when Arundhati will be travelling in Tamil Nadu. But she is not anxious. “I already feel honoured to be nominated along with Ruskin Bond,” she smiles.


All her books made news last year. Her first picture book, Junior Kumbhakarna, won the Rivo Kids Parents and Kids Choice Award 2014 for the best book by an Indian author for ages 0-5 years and was subsequently translated into eight languages. Her next two-chapter books, Petu Pumpkin Tiffin Thief and Petu Pumpkin Tooth Troubles, were at No.1 and 3 of Flipkart’s Best of 2014 for children aged 5-9 years. The last one Bookasura - The Adventures of Bala and the Book-eating Monster, was launched at the Bookaroo Children's Literature Festival in Pune and travelled to the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai, receiving fantastic response everywhere including her hometown Bangalore. Earlier this year listed her as one of the top eight Indian writers children must read.


And when she read out parts of her now-famous stories and enacted a few scenes with her eight-year-old son, Pranav, in front of the young audience, it appealed even to the adults as Arundhati continued to fuel the imagination of her listeners. When they began to fall in love with the characters and the world she created in her stories, she dropped it after adequately building up the curiosity and making them wonder what next.


A writer is like a magician and should be able to transport a child to the world that he or she while reading would not want to leave, she says, and adds, a child should be able to relate to the theme and turn more curious and interested in turning over the page to find out what happens next. Enid Blyton inspired her when she was six but as Arundhati says without any qualms, picture books enticed her when she turned 30. It was her few months’ old baby for whose sake she discovered the wonderful picture books in London’s public libraries.


Since such books were not available back home, she felt an urge to write and decided not to return to her job after the maternity leave. Her first draft for a picture book was initially approved by a publisher but never went for printing.


“I will revive it some day,” she says, talking of how possessed you feel once an idea enters your head. “Something that you have seen or read triggers it and then words start tumbling out and lines go in a direction as you start adding and developing the story,” she says.


According to Arundhati, “what if” is the biggest tool for any writer. What if the hero of your story is not a superman or a superwoman but a time telling super dog? What if it rained food suddenly and not raindrops? What if once upon a time there was an ill-mannered king? The children fell silent. “Each of you is blessed and has ideas that need to be recognised,” she said.


When her son turned five, she found Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster, the first chapter book for kids by an Indian author. As a mother, she was delighted to see him sail through the 100-odd pages effortlessly, often giggling and laughing at the bits he found funny. Itching for more reading choices, she began to create children’s stories in the Indian context.


Just because she was good in Maths, says Arundhati, she was compelled to retain her engineering seat and later follow it up with a job in the IT sector.


But a writing workshop with Duckbill, brought out the full time writer in her.


There is a sense of nostalgia in each of her books. “All writers put a bit of themselves in their creative works,” she says. Likewise her stories are inspired by her growing up years and the enriching experiences.


The greenery in Vikaasa school campus in Madurai where she studied briefly, the British bungalow she stayed in Karnataka and the waterfall within the compound, the well at Srirangam Temple in her ancestral town of Tiruchi, classroom activities and politics, all lend a distinct impression to her writings. Not only are the children able to relate easily but even the adults go down memory lane with her stories because, as she points out, fantasy or the world that she creates in her stories has roots in the real world.


Arundhati is particular about her choice of words and the way she frames her sentences. “You don’t dumb down the language for a child, she says, but it has to remain simple with an occasional tough word and humorous situations thrown in here and there,” she notes. A relatable plot and a dramatic language that draw a child to solve puzzles and problems in the story line, Arundhati feels, are the best ways to capture a child’s fancy and inspire imagination.


Gadget-addicted children don’t bother her as much because she believes if parents set an example by reading themselves and also keep lots of books lying around in the house then even the child gets bored of being online all the time and eventually takes to reading.


Arundhati says though she is bursting with ideas she may find it more difficult to get published. “Expectations are high,” she says and also feels the children’s book market in the country is yet to be fully tapped by the Indian publishers.

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