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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Varsha Bajaj

Varsha Bajaj's story began in Mumbai, India. The books she read as a child by Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, and Mark Twain sparked an interest to travel and explore these strange distant worlds she and her sister found in these books. Arriving in the U.S. for grad school, she felt welcomed by the Mississippi river, as if she'd found an old friend. (Check out her web page for more about Mark Twain and her biography).

I'd like to introduce you to Varsha. In addition to her sweet picture books, she has written a MG novel set in Bollywood. This Tuesday, Varsha welcomes her third picture book, The Home Builders.

Welcome Varsha,

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

VARSHA: I had always written little things, Poems, diary ramblings, that kind of thing.

The dream of publishing a children’s book was born around 2000. We had moved to Houston and I had taken what I thought was a short break from my day job as a therapist. I worked at the St. Louis University Medical Center prior to our move in 1998. My children were young.

I sold my first picture book, How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? Illustrated by Ivan Bates, (Little Brown 2004) in 2001 at an SCBWI conference and then there was no turning back.

I typically write in the morning when my mind is sharp, and the day stretches ahead of me with potential.

(*Curious about timing in this business? Notice that the manuscript sold in 2001 & published in 2007!*)

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I love Indian music and old Bollywood songs and used to sing as a teen.

The premise of comparing animals based on the homes they build is ingenious. What was your inspiration for The Home Builders?

The Home Builders was inspired by my own empty nest. After my daughter went to college in 2015, I was reflective of the experience of having built a home, had babies, and a family. How fast those years fly by.

So, it took about four years work to get this book published. you have two other published picture books – This is Our Baby, Born Today (2016), and How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (2007). Would you say there is a common thread that runs through your picture books?

How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight?, This is Our Baby, Born Today and The Home Builders are all written in verse.

But, here’s the thing, I don’t see myself as a poet. I love poetry. Writing in rhyme is challenging and I promised myself that I’d never do it again after How Many Kisses. You can see how that worked out.

You have to be very mindful of rhythm and beats to ensure that rhyme works. The first lines of all three books “came” to me and I had to follow their lead.

I'd say it worked out very well. Did your experience with The Home Builders, either the writing, research, or publishing, differ from your other books? If so, how?

I was working with Nancy Paulsen, my editor extraordinaire at Penguin for the second time. We had worked on This is Our Baby, Born Today. I was therefore just a smidge less intimidated but just as grateful for the opportunity.

The Home Builders required research to ensure that I was depicting the animal homes accurately.

I love all the extras that Simona Mulazzani added to the pictures (like plant roots, other animals, etc.) that helped make the homes accurate. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Home Builders?

I’ve structured The Home Builders with questions which invite the child and the adult reader to search, find, and interact with the words and pictures. The parents, teachers, and authors reading to the children may find the “hidden” pattern. The first line of the verses/answers refers to the turtles. Then comes the fox, the beaver, the owl, the mole, the bees, the deer and the eagle.

Maintaining the order in rhyme made it a bear to write. But it allows a child to follow a favorite animal. I also chose not to name the parents, only the babies.

Ultimately I hope the text makes a child feel safe.

It is a very soothing rhythm and story, I think you accomplished your goal. How different was it to write your middle grade novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (2015)? Do you prefer one genre over the other?

Picking a genre is like picking a favorite child. I can’t.

I’m not strictly a pantser or a plotter. I fall somewhere in the middle. I “plot” the main events of the story and then let my characters lead me to them. I’m more of a plotter with a middle grade novel. Middle grade novels allow you more time and space to develop your character and narrative arc. With picture books, you have to make that same emotional connection within very few words.

What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

Between 2006-2010 I dealt with a boatload of rejection, both from agents and editors. At some point, I realized I needed to hone my craft so I could tell a story in a compelling way before I could grab someone’s attention.

Having an agent you trust makes the journey less lonely. I’m grateful to have had first Jill Corcoran, and now Caryn Wiseman as my agent.

Working with Nancy Paulsen was that crazy, ridiculous dream, I never thought would happen. Three books later I still pinch myself. So dream big y’all.

My advice is Read, read, read everything you can find. It’s the only way forward.

Great advice - read & be sure to study your craft. Any projects you are working on (picture book or middle grade) now that you can share a tidbit with us?

My middle grade novel, Count Me In, comes out in August 2019 with Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s the story of a community that bands together when one of their own is the victim of a hate crime. It’s told from the viewpoints of friends, Karina Chopra and Chris Daniels and I am very excited to share it with the world.

I do have a couple picture books that I’m working on too. Fingers crossed.

We'll be looking out for these. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

Publishing is a marathon not a sprint. Make sure you stay hydrated for the long haul.

Rejections hurt but they are opportunities. Learn from every single one.

A long haul, indeed! What is your favorite animal? Why?

I am an unabashed lover of dogs. My dog, Scamper is by my side as I write every word. I wonder if we humans even deserve them.

Thank you, Varsha for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to meet and chat with you.

Be sure to stop by Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Home Builders.

To find out more about Varsha Bajaj, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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