Mitali Perkins, the author of Tiger Boy was interviewed by Sejal Mehta. Sejal is a writer, editor and content consultant with a strong focus on wildlife and conservation. She is Editor, Web, for National Geographic Traveller India.
SM: Congratulations on Tiger Boy. A book about conservation is just what kids need more of. I will read it to my niece.:) Which brings me to my first question.
Why this sort of book. Children are not easily interested in conservation stories. Is this book to start a conversation in that age group?
MP: I hope I told a good story that will engage my readers. Perhaps they will be interested in a boy who could be their friend and is on the hunt for a lost tiger cub. The readers are free to take away any message they want to integrate into their lives.
SM: Why the Sunderbans?
MP: It is such a fascinating ecosystem, with animals adapting to drinking salt water, roots that poke out from the mud to draw in oxygen, and the last man-eating tigers on the planet. All so close to the enormous city of Kolkata, my birthplace.
SM: There are some lovely descriptions of the landscape, and of the river systems. How much time did you spend in the Sunderbans. Can you give us a few of your own references in the way Neel navigates these?
MP: We took a boat trip through the Sunderbans and I spent time listening to experts, villagers, and forest rangers. Thankfully, I still speak Bangla. I also watched films, read widely in libraries and online, and scoured YouTube and Vimeo for video footage.
SM: There is a lot of emphasis on education in the book, sometimes even more than conservation. Is there a conscious idea to discuss the issue of education in that region as well?
MP: Not solely in that region, but everywhere. The theme of using and investing our gifts on behalf of our communities will hopefully resonate with all readers, whether in India or in other countries.
SM: Which brings me to my favourite character: Rupa. 🙂 Is Rupa based on someone you met there? She’s a really strong character. Tell us how you wrote her.
MP: I met many girls like Rupa, eager for education, and yet at risk of being trafficked. I also have supportive and loving older sisters myself, so she was easy to imagine.
SM: Are you thinking of translations at all? So the children of the region can also read it?
MP: I would love to see it translated into Bangla, but I don’t have the power to make it happen.
SM: What is the hope? What thought do you want the kids to leave the book with?
MP: I want kids to be immersed in the story and take away the bits that are important to them. The power of a story is always shared between writer and reader, and lasting impressions are defined mostly by the latter, not the former.
SM: The research for this book… can you tell us a bit about it. You’ve quoted references but can you say what channels proved most effective and which ones were most exciting or immersive for you?
MP: I spoke with several experts in the area along with villagers, but the most exciting encounter was a long conversation with one of the rangers about the habits of tigers and whether or not my plot twist was plausible. He made some excellent suggestions that I incorporated into the story as I revised it.
SM: I’d have loved to see more of the tiger’s life, more about that. Is there a reason you stayed away from a larger conversation on the lives of tigers in the Sunderbans?
MP: If a child reader wants to discover more about tigers, other books and kid-friendly sites are plentiful. I wanted to stick to fiction, but if kids fall more in love with tigers after reading Tiger Boy, there are many sources where they might learn more about these beautiful creatures. I really enjoyed reading The Spell of the Tiger: The Man-easters of the Sunderbans by Sy Montgomery, for example, and browsing sites like Panthera, TigerTime, and the World Wildlife Fund.
SM: In the end, things seem very neatly tied up. No loose ends. 🙂 Real life is rarely like that. Did you want to leave children with a positive attitude and outlook?
MP: Neel is on a hero’s journey, and I did want a resolution that was satisfying to me. That’s one gift of writing fiction–you’re in charge of the quest and the narrative arc. The loose end I left for the reader is Rupa’s future. Will she be able to pursue her dreams? Some children have already asked wistfully about her, and I don’t know how to answer them. I wish I did.