Showing posts with label Chitra Soundar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chitra Soundar. Show all posts

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Distracted - Joan Lennon

Charlie Chaplin in Pay Day (1922)
(wiki commons)

I am at the two thirds stage of writing a novel, and I am in the sludge.  I recognise this stage.  I know it's just a question of slogging on through.  I am not enjoying the slog.  And I am in the throes of excessive distractability.  So when I saw an article online on Nir Eval's theories about the nature of distraction, I downed tools and had a read.  (Okay, if I'm honest, I read a bit, got distracted, came back and read a bit more, got distracted ...)

I don't buy the whole package Nir Eyal is proposing - for example, I think that not everything we do is "prompted by the desire to escape discomfort." "It's pain all the way down" is not my kind of mantra.  But the nub of the argument - that distraction doesn't start with the technology out there - it starts with us - I certainly recognised.  

"We use these devices as psychological pacifiers as we are looking for an escape from uncomfortable sensations. And if we don't deal with that fact, we will always find distraction somewhere."

Part of dealing with that fact might be to find out what other people are saying about distraction.  There have been, for example, excellent ABBA posts on the topic - have a visit, for example, to Chitra Soundar's Seven Habits of a Highly Distracted Writer, Clementine Beauvais' On Not Trusting Your Future Self, or Andrew Strong's How to Be Creative.  (Go on - it's an educational and entertaining way of not getting down to, you know, the writing.)

But, yup, this distractability I acknowledge mine, to paraphrase the Bard.  Also, I have no magic cure.  I still have to do the slog, in order to get past the sludge.  I break it down into baby steps, use the timer, mark up every 100 words achieved, give myself tons of tiny treats, and distract the other people in the house who are also trying to write/draw with corking* challenges.

This too shall pass.  (Off now to find out where that comes from ...)

* Corking is a not-quite-yet-Olympic sport where you try to throw Prosecco corks into an empty cat food box from a distance.  Feelings run high.  It is eminently distracting.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar

Before I start, I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn't cite newer series. And that's why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.

Early series fiction is the staple diet of a newly independent reader. Graduating from being read to with picture books to early readers, children aged 6-8 years old devour stories about everything – from animals to adventures, school life to sports.

At this age, these newly independent readers are not only reading for pleasure, but they are also understanding the new world of primary school, figuring out social life and coping with every-day challenges.

Transitioning from nursery and reception to the big school in Year 1 & 2, these children are discovering and making sense of the world around them. Series fiction in this new world is like a BFF – best friend forever with characters to get to know, make friends with and to return to again and again. And it is more joyful when they can share these characters with their real-life best friends too – as Lauren Child shows us in her Utterly Me – Clarice Bean.

As Denson puts it, ‘a “system of repetition and variation” is the basic stuff of seriality itself.’ (2011:5)

Characters in such series get into all sorts of interesting escapades not unlike the reader’s own life or at least what they hope they’d be able to do. Series fiction gives the reader the safety of the familiar to explore the unfamiliar.

This could be anything from having a pet (in the Lulu series by Hilary McKay) to finding out you have a new cousin who is very different (in the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look).

As Makowski (1998:2) notes in ‘Serious about Series: Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series’, ‘single texts of fiction are like “one-night stand[s]”, while series aims to provide the reader with “that same grand experience night after night, week after week, year after year, ad infinitum.”’

I wanted to examine the ingredients that make an early fiction series appealing.

As a child, I too devoured every series I could lay my hands on – which in my childhood in India was predominantly R K Narayan’s Malgudi Days, combined with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, Famous Five, Malory Towers and the American Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys collections.

Even though most of these books were set in a different country and in some cases in a different decade, and even though the lives of the characters appeared so different from my own – there was something comforting to return to find out what the characters in these books were up to. This can be compared to children and adults returning again and again to popular sitcoms that revolve around a group of friends or lead characters.

The most conventional narrative series, serials, and sequels for young people are characterized by a constant narrative presence, a common set of characters, the same or similar settings, recurring plot structures, and familiar themes. (Reimer, Ali, England, and Unrau, 2014: 10)

And that is the security blanket that young people want after they have left behind their favourite teddy to go to the big school. Early fiction with familiar characters of family, school and neighbourhood reinforces a child’s understanding of the world. Very often the writer brings the reader into a conspiratorial whisper, perhaps making fun of their family/school situations or the grownups in their lives, just like a best friend does.

It is important that they recognize familiar settings in the stories – so they can learn to read by context more easily. They are newly independent readers and reading and recognizing words through context boosts their confidence immensely.

Philosopher Rolli  (2012:96) observes, “many of our everyday experiences are embedded in a structure of repetition; we believe in the world, we believe that the world will continue to exist even when we close our eyes.”

So what goes into a successful young fiction series?

Almost every series written for this age group is funny. That does not mean they don’t have some serious stuff in them – they do. But the approach to voice, plot and cast are aimed to keep the tone light, the humour irreverent and the plot slap-stick. This is true whether it is Steve Voake’s Hooey Higgins or Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry or Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful or The World of Norm series by Jonathan Meres.

 Almost all of these books use the white space on the page creatively. The illustrator plays a key role in bringing these characters to life. Whether it involves B&W drawings, lists, doodles or use of font face and sizes, these books are not densely written novels – but more often journals filled with doodles. Whether it is a catchphrase, or disasters caused by character flaws of the lead character or one of the ensemble, the humour and tone of the stories showcase the joy of the writer.

 An ensemble cast

A regular ensemble cast supports the main character – either to help or hinder, sometimes both. This includes the friends, family, bully, teachers, friendly and unfriendly neighbours. Some of the cast might come and go. But a few would stay in the core team and in many cases a lead character has a partner in crime.

Cohesive and consistent portrayal of plot and characters

Once the rules of the world are laid out, the characters obey these rules, across different stories in the same series. The characters might discover new strengths and weaknesses as they go along, but they do not contradict themselves across the series.

In the humorous Agatha Parrot series by Kjartan Poskitt and David Tazzyman, there is a cast of characters with specific likes, dislikes and ambitions. Their behaviour in the entire series is driven out of these characteristics and personality traits.

While there is a familiarity and comfort across the series, each book in the series stands on its own. Each story has a beginning, middle and end, with all major plot points tied up. For this age group rarely are crumbs of clues left in to be picked up in a future story. In an early fiction series, when a reader discovers a book out of sequence, he/she finds sufficient introduction of the cast and the premise to follow the story. Of course if they like the book, they go on to read every single book in the set.

A distinct main character with a unique-selling-point
Like all good stories, series fiction is primarily led by character. While the main character has to be distinct and likeable, they must have something special that differentiates them from so many other series. For example, series with girl characters as leads, there are many successful series in print and each main character has to hold her place on the bookshelf.

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, Penny Dreadful by Joanna Nadin, Agatha Parrot by Kjartan Poskitti, Iggy and Me by Jenny Valentine, Ottoline by Chris Riddell are just some of the funny ones with girls as leads. Each lead character is different, special and distinctively funny.

Universal themes

The underlying theme of each story should be universal. Whether set in Africa in the family of Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or the Precious series by Alexander McCall Smith or set in contemporary England in Joanna Nadin’s Penny Dreadful’s life or Horrid Henry in Francesca Simon’s popular series – the themes revolve around the key concerns of this age-group: friendships, new school, losing someone, getting into trouble, dealing with conflict and loss of control.

These books deal with emotions that children of this age group are coming to grips with – from anger and jealousy to empathy, hope and joy; but with a twinkle in the eye, a wink here and a smile there.
Going from here, I also examined what goes into making a successful series with a BAME character as the lead. But as this is my last post for 2018 on ABBA (sorry everyone, life is getting in the way)… I’ve put the part two of my post on my blog. Click here to read, What additional ingredients are required to create a series that is led by a character from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritages?

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and series fiction. Her second book in the Prince Veera series, A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice (Walker Books, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy) has been shortlisted for the Surrey Children’s Book Award. Her latest book out is You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing). Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

A Report from The Golden Anniversary of the FCBG Conference by Chitra Soundar

This year the Federation of Children’s Book Groups are celebrating a big anniversary and I was honoured to be invited to be on a panel with Lantana Publishing who are publishing my next two titles You’re Safe With Me and You’re Snug With Me, both illustrated by the very talented PoonamMistry.

The conference itself runs for three days, each year a different regional group organising it in conjunction with the national committee. I was invited for a panel event on the second day and I was a bit intimidated that we were going to follow James Mayhew and we will be the warm-up act for Jacqueline Wilson, the super-woman of children’s literature, especially writing stories that represent misfits and unique kids, like I was.

So I was proud to collect my badge which said speaker. And then I realised I knew quite a lot of people there, either because I’ve met them before at various school events or friends on Twitter or Facebook. 

We setup our presentation with the help of Stewart Jordan, the amazing theatre manager.

Our panel was made up of three women – Alice Curry, founder and publisher at Lantana Publishing, Mehrdokht Amini illustrator of two beautiful books with Lantana Publishing and yours truly, writer of You’re Safe With Me.

We discussed how books can span from local to global and the other way round and what does that mean to Mehrdokht and me as creators. We discussed how sometimes tensions will arise between commercial appeal in the western markets vs. the authenticity of the content. We also discussed how Alice makes choices for her list – which story, which culture and the creators.

The audience was made up of librarians, teachers and people who love books and they not only listened to us tell our stories, they laughed in the right places too.

They also had a hall full of publishers showcasing their books and I was proud to be on three tables – OtterBarry Books, MMS Publishing and Bounce representing all my books. There was also Brenda’s Bookshop and I got to sign advance copies of You’re Safe With Me. The illustrations by Poonam Mistry were a big hit and everyone could see how excited I was about the book.

It was my first FCBG conference and it was fun to be there on their Golden Anniversary. I got to listen to Dame Jacqueline Wilson speak and it was wonderful listening to the master. I got to meet so many other authors, friends from twitter and wonderful people of the book world. And yes there was cake!

Find out more about FCBG here: and find out about their conference here -

Chitra Soundar is the author of over 30 books for children. Find out more about You’re Safe With Me and all her new books at and follow her on twitter @csoundar

Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Question of Money by Chitra Soundar

 I’m still wrapping up the last of the World Book Day events across the whole month. I visit primary schools and spend time with children across Reception to Y5.

This year when I was visiting a school, I had two Q&A sessions with two Y4 classes that had read my books as part of their lessons. The usual questions came up:

a)    How old are you?
b)    Did you come from India to our school today?
c)     Where do you get your ideas from?

Then came the question that I get once every 5-6 schools, “Do you make a lot of money?”

This boy was immediately cut short by another one who said, “That’s not a proper question to ask.”
 Normally I would smile, and say not a lot and tell them I do my own dishes, took the tube to their school etc.

But I wanted to answer this time (and I’ve been since that day, answering this question seriously).
Doing what I love - 2016

A job to support myself while writing - 2004
I explained how sometimes you might have to do your art alongside other things. I explained how difficult it can be sometimes and how many writers do have another job. I iterated to them a few times that do not give up on writing or any other artistic pursuit because you can’t make a lot of money. There will always be a way to find an opportunity or avenue if you work hard at it. I told them it was hard work but it was also worth it because I enjoy what I do.

The vigorous nod of heads and big smiles told me they would want to become writers and of course they’d have to become engineers, doctors, teachers, firemen, accountants as well. That is fine, I am one of those people who never gave up writing through my life as a teacher and then as a bookworm stuck in corporate plumbing.

Since then whenever the question of money comes up in Junior School I’ve not been evasive or even embarrassed about how little we make. The school is not the place to discuss what Nicola Solomon has written about in last week’s The Bookseller.

But then I do get a series of questions, which after discussions with fellow authors, I’ve concluded has come from celebrity publishing thrust under their noses.
a)    Do you get fans coming up to you in supermarkets?
b)    Do you have a limo?
c)     Are you a celebrity?
d)    Are you famous?
e)    Do you live in a castle?

f)      Do you have a Ferrari?

And that I worry about. When the majority of books they see in a WBD line-up or in bookshops are from celebrities on TV, then it does create an expectation that only celebrities write books or if you write books, you must be a celebrity.

I’m wondering if a part of my presentation now should include photos of me cleaning the house, taking the rubbish out and being squished in a bus with my WBD gig bag to bring the glamour of being a writer down.

I do take my notebooks into schools and then I show them the ones that I’ve been writing for years without any success. When they see my Work in Progress scrap-books and research notes, my multiple drafts of the same story, they hopefully will realise hard work will get the books on the shelves. 

If I also get a TV show before or after, fantastic! I’d love to buy that Ferrari.  

While writing this blog, I wanted to provide some resources for those young people who are interested in arts. Here are a few. If you are sharing this with young people in your life, please do research them thoroughly before taking it further.

YPIA - Young People in Arts -
The Roundhouse Trust -

Impact Arts - Cashback to the Future -

And finally a teenager's view on how to engage young people in the arts -

Chitra Soundar never knew arts was an option as a teenager. She graduated from university with a degree in commerce and accountancy and a diploma in computer science. As an adult, while working 12-hour shifts, she pursued her writing and she's hoping the day will come when she didn't have to work in a corporate firm for sustaining her arts. Follow her on Twitter @csoundar and on Instagram @chitrasoundar

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Thunderstorms and Me by Chitra Soundar

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea. 

-       Robert Louis Stevenson

As I sit at my table in Singapore and look through the window, what I see mirrors exactly the words of Stevenson. I was excited to leave the biting cold of England to fly across continents to enjoy the sunshine and I’ve been blamed for bringing the grey skies and relentless rain to this hot island.

Thunderstorms in Singapore - A view from the 23rd floor
 My relationship with rain and thunderstorms is as fundamental as my roots. I’ve been woken up as a child often to gathering dark clouds and cracking thunder. The stormy winds, the warnings to fishermen and the flooding of our streets are deeply etched in my memory.

Rain has fallen all the day. 

O come among the laden trees: 
The leaves lie thick upon the way 
Of memories.

-       James Joyce

The crack of thunder and the flash of lightning fascinated me as a child. I’ve never feared the ferocious winds that howl and growl. I remember sitting by  my window, listening to the wind, reading a book. I remember making hot pakoras for snacks and hot tea with cardamom and ginger for everyone at home.

Those rains were warm even though they soaked from head to toe in a few seconds. Those rains were welcome on the parched soil, even though they fell in big drops filling the potholes on the street.

Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami and Jamel Akib
But I’ve feared them occasionally. I was perhaps ten and it was one of those monsoon storms and my father hadn’t returned home. The buses had stopped, the roads were flooded and I was worried for him to return. It had taken him four hours to journey the ten kilometres hitching a lift with strangers and walking part of the way.

Another time, I would have been eight, and it was a brutal monsoon. The rains hadn’t stopped in days and a stray dog had given birth to six puppies. She had taken shelter under the roof of our backyard. She was shivering in the cold and her puppies were hungry. Normally dogs were not allowed inside our compound. So I had to fight the elders for permission, to let her stay. We filled a bowl full of milk and put out rice on an old plate. And one of the new-born puppies couldn’t survive the dampness of its surroundings. I cried for days, for a stray puppy, whose life I couldn’t help save.
Photo: C Coxon
These incidents in the rain always find themselves lodged in my memory and turn up in stories. Almost 14 years ago, I wrote a story called Afraid of Dogs – about a little girl who has to overcome her fear of dogs to save the stray puppies. Although I should say the little girl in me is still afraid of dogs generally. It takes me enormous effort to stay calm and friendly even with familiar pets in friends’ homes.

But the fear of the big thunderstorms was washed away long ago when my dad explained to me about parched land, the water under the ground and the well in our back garden. We understood the cycle of rain and the price of crops when my grandmother’s sister visited us from the village. I also valued the rain after many weeks of harsh summers.

The gathering of dark clouds, the rain-bearing breeze and the fragrance of the earth when the first drops of the thunderstorm falls on it will always remind me of home. Scientists call this fragrance petrichor and I agree that it is the fragrance of the fluid that runs inside the veins of gods.

Monsoon Afternoon by Kashmira Sheth & Yoshiko Jaeggi
These thundery rainy days in Singapore, remind me of growing up in India, listening to the crash of the clouds, the unusually grey days and coolness of the air. I remember the croaking of the frogs in the puddles, the flash of lightning and the noise of rain falling on the terrace.

I feel calmer when I hear the thunder and the warm rain doesn’t scare me, it soothes my senses and the dark clouds envelop me in a warm cosy blanket. I would welcome the sunshine for sure. But this thunderstorm doesn’t get me down.

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and junior fiction when she’s not watching the rain through her window. Her next book You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry) with Lantana Publishing tells the story of the thunderstorm in an Indian jungle. Follow her on Twitter: @csoundar