Bhakti Mathur is the writer behind the acclaimed and hugely popular Amma Tell Me series of books. These picture books on Indian festivals and mythology are written in rhyming verse with colorful images that delight readers – big and little alike.
After writing about Diwali, Holi, Krishna, Ganesha and Hanuman, Mathur has penned her first book on an Indian Goddess and the festival of Durga Puja, we interviewed the author about her latest book and her fascination with Indian mythology.
What led you to write your latest book “Amma tell me about Durga Puja”?
I can’t believe that it has taken me ten books to get to my first Goddess, Durga! I have been fascinated by her since I was a child. As a daughter, mother and wife she is ‘saumya’ or ‘gentle’ and as a warrior goddess and battle queen she is ‘ghora’ or terrible.
She did what no man could by defeating the shape shifting demon Mahishaura. She is the embodiment of ‘shakti’ the universal feminine power and teaches us that all the strength we need lies within us. I thought that this would be a great example to share with children and children love any story with a demon in it!
The Amma series of books retells classic Hindu festivals and mythology in a way that is accessible. Is that what you wanted to do?
The motivation for writing the ‘Amma Tell Me’ series was to share with my sons the fascinating stories from Indian mythology that I had grown up with. But I found that there were no resources that were simple to understand and that captured the rich imagery of mythological India that is such an integral part of these stories for me. I decided to write the books because I couldn’t find books on Indian festivals and mythology for my children that appealed to me.
So I went ahead and started writing the stories in a style that I think kids find fun and non-preachy and collaborated on the illustrations to bring out the imagery that I want my stories to convey.
I set up my own publishing company, called ‘Anjana Publishing’ (the inspiration for the name came from Hanuman as Anjana is the name of his mother and Hanuman is my favorite God) to publish the books.
Having two guinea pigs (my 8 and 6 year old) helps. In fact, the name of the two children in my book – Klaka and Kiki came from the kids. My older son, when he was three years old came back from school one day and declared that he had changed his name to ‘Klaka’ and henceforth should be addressed thus.
They serve as rather blunt story consultants (often more than I want)! This has helped me to keep the writing simple and hopefully engaging for a child! I think the combination of beautiful illustrations and simple storytelling has been appealing.
Why did you feel the need to self-publish? As a self-published author have you found any challenges in terns of mainstream publication and distribution of your book?
Self-Publishing was my first choice and set up my own company ‘Anjana Publishing’ to publish the books, I chose to self-publish for a few reasons:
- I wanted to do it my way. It was a labor of love and I didn’t want any publisher to change things around and modify them.
- I wanted full control of the creative process and wanted to own all the rights to my work.
- I wanted my mistakes to be mine and my successes to be mine as well. Perhaps a little bit of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way…”
A publisher does three important roles – invests capital in printing the books and does the distribution and the marketing. I thought if I could do it all myself then why go to a publisher. The printing and the marketing bit was easy but the distribution took time. Luckily bookstores and distributors liked my books and that made it much easier for me. I sell through distributors in the following markets now – India, US, UK, Singapore and Australia.
There were a few bookstores like Full Circle in Delhi, India, Kahani Tree in Mumbai and Kitaabworld in the US who loved the books and actively showed it to their clients. They really helped the Series get known and I am very grateful for the interest that they took in the ‘Amma Tell Me’ Series.
Why rhyming verse?
As a child, Dr.Seuss was my favorite author. I loved ‘Horton Hears A Who’ and have fond memories of my mother reading the book to me. That inspired me to write in rhyme. I also thought it would be fun for kids to read in rhyme and would keep their interest alive.
Are your books mostly for ages 3-9 sort of an introduction to mythology? Are you planning only to stick to mythology? Is there still a lot of ground to cover?
Yes the age group for my books is 3 to 9 years old. Parents of the younger kids read the books to them whereas the older kids read it themselves. Indian mythology is endless and there is a lot of ground to cover indeed-which is good for me!
You don’t shy away from telling the not so pretty parts of the stories – Holika trying to devour Prahlad, putting him with serpents, sending Rama into exile, war with Ravana, demons and rakshasas how do kids respond to that?
Believe it or not – kids love drama, gore and flights.But that’s not the reason I put the not so pretty parts.Children are extremely intelligent and perceptive and should not be undermined.They are emotionally stronger than we think. And if a story has a not so pretty part so be it, it should be laid out for them. Real life is not pretty all the time either and what better way to convey that but through stories?
What’s the funniest response you’ve got from a child?
While reading ‘Amma Tell Me About Ramayana!’ at a school in Hong Kong I was asked, “When two boys love the same girl, then what happens?” I was speechless for a moment and recovered in time to answer “It is always the girls choice!”
For most immigrant parent often there are no grandparents, help or extended family at hand to fill the kids knowledge of culture and stories. Do you think immigrant parents have to work twice as hard to get introduce their children to their culture and stories?
This is true not just for immigrant parents but for all nuclear families – immigrant or non-immigrant. When I was a young schoolgirl, after I came home from school, my grandmother and my nanny would catch hold of me and tell me stories from Indian mythology for two hours every day!
There were no IPads or IPhones to get distracted with! Today grandparents don’t stay with the grand kids and there are way too many distractions. So we do have to work much harder to keep our children and ourselves connected to our roots.
At KitaabWorld we have a focus on bilingual books and explore books that have fun and engaging ways to introduce children to their heritage, are you planning to print your books in any languages other than English?
Yes! As a matter of fact I am printing three of my books in Hindi (not bilingual though) and am very excited about that. The books are – Amma Tell Me About Holi, Amma Tell Me About Diwali and Amma Tell Me About Ramayana.
Thanks Bhakti! Wishing you lots of success with this new book.