Lavanya Karthik’s latest book for Duckbill is one of the winners of the Children First contest, run by Parag, an initiative of the Tata Trust and Duckbill, to create books featuring kids with special needs as the protagonist. Neel on Wheels, illustrated by Habib Ali, will be published in June 2018.
She is interviewed by Richa Jha, a writer and publisher of unusual picture books.
RJ: Congratulations on this fabulous new release, Lavanya! Neel on Wheels is a path-breaking book on several counts. And it has an infectious energy and an unmistakable feeling of action, not an association a reader usually makes with a book with a disabled child at its core. How did you arrive at the character of Neel? Is he based on a child you know in real life?
LK: Thank you! Neel is pretty much every kid I know – funny, naughty, imaginative, creative, unafraid to see the world in a way that is uniquely his or hers. The fact that he’s in a wheelchair is purely incidental. He popped into my head, fully formed, a few days before the deadline for the Children First contest. Till then, I had started and abandoned two different stories, both of which willfully refused to be contained in the word limit set for the chapter book category of the contest. There I was, gazing mournfully at a blank sheet of paper, while the clock ticked away and the spirit of the deadline perched on my shoulder like Vikram’s vetaal, cackling and making rude noises at me. I was about to give up when in swooped Neel and his magical wheels, to rescue me!
RJ: As the author, what would you say the book is about?
LK: The contest was for stories about kids who were, despite their disabilities, children first, and that is the spirit I wanted the book to celebrate. It’s about some universal themes – our fears, the powers of the imagination, the strong bond between siblings, about hero worship. And, of course, about the heroes that live among us. His rad wheels are just a bonus.
RJ: I love the way the story ends – positive, upbeat, non-judgmental and just so beautiful. How important is any book’s ending in shaping a reader’s engagement with it? What are the ways in which Neel on Wheels achieves this?
LK: I think the ending is the most important part of any book, be it the last paragraph of a novel or the final spread of a picture book. If anything, the rest of the book is just the build up to the big reveal; the ending decides whether a book will be read once, or over and over. I like a story that makes me work a little, and I love an ending that leaves me surprised/shocked/ giggling/ just plain baffled.
Neel on Wheelsis a small shout out to the freedom we all deserve, regardless of age and abilities. We are a society that treats its differently-abled citizens much the same way it treats its children – as simple creatures incapable of independence or free will, who must be protected from the world and themselves. Rather than building an environment that enables freedom, tolerance and inclusivity for everyone, we focus on curbing mobility, segregating spaces, marginalizing people.
I hope readers see that Neel is much more than just his wheels, even if they do seem like his superpower. Without them, he is just as resourceful, creative, quirky and capable of figuring his way out of a problem.
RJ: Tell us something about the spunky ‘normal’ elder-brother-to-the-rescue sibling bond that steals the show!
LK: The bond between the siblings is the real focus of the story. Neel is that larger than life older sibling or cousin or friend we’ve all idolised at some point in our lives, and probably still do – the one who lit up a room just by being in it, was the life of every family get together, the mastermind behind childhood pranks and those epic adventures from long ago summer vacations that we still talk about. Neel’s wheels are cool, sure, but Neel is way cooler.
RJ: This is not an easy subject to write on, especially in a market like ours that is exposed to not very many books on disabilities. What all did you keep in mind when working on it?
LK: In the case of Neel, I didn’t feel I was writing about disabilities at all. It was more important to remember what made my main character similar to other kids his age – his sense of fun, his imagination, his need to look out for his kid brother, his ability to turn pretty much anything into a dragon-blasting, monster-bashing super gadget – a flying one, at that!
RJ: Did you find yourself getting stuck at any critical point in the plot?
LK: No – the story pretty much wrote itself. I did want to keep things simple. With verse, less is always, always more. Also, being a picture book, you want to let the illustrations tell a big chunk of the story. Having a deadline ghoul perched on my shoulder blowing raspberries also helped speed things along.
RJ: How different is the final version from the first draft?
LK: Not very different at all.
RJ: This question (because you excel at both!): what comes more naturally to you – writing prose or in verse? Does your mind think in verse first? Or vice versa?
LK: I would have to say prose, since verse-especially rhyming verse- needs a lot more work. But it’s also determined by the subject – some themes are just better addressed in a poem, despite the restrictive limits of metre and rhyme (or perhaps because of them). Sometimes a line or two will just leap into my head when I least expect it, or a random image or conversation will set my brain off in a giddy spin of word association and, before I know it, I’m waist deep in a poem.
RJ: Rapid fire on first-loves:
Writing or illustrating: There’s a difference?
Picture book or graphic novel: Picture book
Plotter or pantser: Plotter with text, pantser with comics
Morning person or night owl: Morning, definitely. There was a time when I would cheerfully pull an all-nighter – or three – to meet a deadline. Nowadays, I usually keel over, batteries drained and brain turned to mush, by 9 pm.
Marvel or DC: Neither – I steer clear of both. Captain Underpants is my kind of superhero. And a certain geriatric ninja, of course.
Train journey or flight: Train, with road trips coming in a close second.
Sandwiches, triangles or straight: Straight, and sloppy from way too many layers of fillings and spreads. The kind you need to eat leaning over a sink, wearing your oldest shirt.
Evening sky or night sky: Evening sky in the city, night sky out in the wilderness
Dog or cat: Dogs, dogs all the way! I adore cats too but Cat love is cool, detached, delicate, contained, well behaved – I am none of those things. Dog love is exuberant, ridiculous, over the top. It has no respect for boundaries or personal space. It leaves terrible messes; it colonizes your home with shed hair, iffy smells, parasites; is exhausting in its demands on your time and affection and patience. It is, in fact, a lot like being a parent. I am all those things.
Ninja or zombie: Ninja zombie!