The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Rina Singh and Review of 111 Trees: How One Village Celebrate
Rina Singh was born and grew up in a small town in India, which didn’t even have a public library. As an adult, she moved to Montreal, Canada and earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Concordia University and a teaching degree from McGill University. Rina fell in love with picture books and wanted to write her own for children.
She moved to Toronto to teach art, drama and writing to children and started to write her own books. In 2016, she stopped teaching to devote herself to writing. Rina is the author of 14 children’s books including – Grandmother School (May 2020), A Meeting in the Sky (2019), Diwali Lights (2018), Holi Colors (2018), and My First Book of Hindi Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Hindi Language and Indian Culture (2016),
Her newest picture book, 111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl, releases October 6th.
Welcome Rina, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.
Thank you, Maria for having me here. It’s a pleasure to share my thoughts with you and your readers.
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?)
RINA: I started writing when I was eleven years old. I used to keep a diary with little poems in them. I still do that. I grew up in a small town in India and there weren’t many exciting things to do. So, I found an escape into the world of reading and writing.
Till 2016, I was a full-time educator and I wrote on weekends and breaks. Unless I had a deadline for a project, I didn’t write that much in summer. That was my travel time. But since I’ve given up teaching, I show up in my study every morning. Whether I am reading, researching, or writing I am here at least six days a week.
I like writing stories that require research. There is something about research that is so fascinating. I’m also curious about everything so I am always stumbling upon the strangest things while doing that.
Research is fun, though it can swallow and entire day without you realizing it. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
That I love Bob Marley.
Interesting. Would you say there is a common thread in your picture books? If so, would you say that A Meeting in the Sky is an outlier?
Looking at my recent publications, you might say the common thread is real life. In that case, A Meeting in the Sky is not an outlier.
But there is another thread that may be apparent - India. If a story excites me, I’ll chase it down all the way to India. All three books that are coming out next are more “global” and all three written in poetry. A Garden of Grenades, a collection of poems about love, courage, and compassion celebrates everyday heroes working to empower their communities around the world. Only one poem is set in India. The two board books that are coming out next year also have universal themes and are written in poetry. Though I must admit an Indian phrase or a photograph taken in India does pop up in the books. I have written other stories but they just haven’t found a home yet. I don’t want to box myself in. On the other hand, being an Own Voices author, I am also very aware that I should only tell the stories that are mine to tell. Depending on what thread you see A Meeting the Sky may or may not be an outlier.
I like how you can find either, or both, the threads of life and/or India running through your books. What was the inspiration for 111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl?
In one line, my inspiration was – nature, culture, and gender equality.
Like countless other people I have been concerned about nature and what we as humans have done to our environment. I got so excited when I heard about this man planting trees which is really a no-brainer to start healing the planet.
I grew up in India and even though I have been away for decades, Indian culture is still a big part of my life. I am deeply troubled when I hear negative stories happening there. So, when I hear a good story, I want to celebrate. When I heard about Sundar and the wonders he had done in his village, I wanted to chase the story.
I was lucky to grow up in a liberal Sikh family. I was never made to feel like a lesser human being than my brothers. But I was aware that not everyone was as lucky. Gender inequality has always been a thorn in my side and I gravitate towards stories that can help restore the balance. In Sundar’s story, everything came together.
The story seemed too good to be true and I needed to see the village to believe it. When I met and interviewed Sundar, I was not sure if it would ever become a book but the story had begun to form in my heart.
It is the perfect melding of caring for the planet and celebrating women. How did the research and writing of 111 Trees compare to the research and writing of Grandmother School and A Meeting in the Sky?
For A Meeting in the Sky, I did my research by extensively reading articles, books and watching videos.
I started thinking about Grandmother School after I read a news clip of a little village in India where the local teacher had built a one-room school for grandmothers. He invited them to attend and they went to school for the first time in their lives. My own grandmother never went to school and I was so in love with the idea that I felt I had to imagine a story happening in that village. So, in writing a story like Grandmother School, I had a starting point. The setting was already there only I had to do my research to make sure my details were authentic. I had to imagine my characters, their relationship with each other and what they were going to do in the story and give a satisfying ending. I also had to be respectful of the cultural details. I have traveled extensively in rural India and that gave me an edge.
The same thing happened with 111 Trees. I had heard about this story but it seemed too good to be true. So, in 2016, I went to India and planned a trip to Udaipur, in Rajasthan, but was unable to get Sundar’s contact. I flew there anyways. (I don’t advise anyone to arrive unprepared like I did). The village where he lived was eighty kilometres away from Udaipur and I arrived there by taxi. I was stunned because I had never seen any village in India this clean. I went to the local school and the principal welcomed me and contacted Sundar for me. He happened to be in town. How lucky could I get? I toured the village with him and then he invited me to meet his family. It was a beautiful day.
I interviewed Sundar and took a lot of notes and Sundar gave me pamphlets to read about the village and showed me his awards. He generously offered to answer any questions on the phone should I need more information. I felt so honored to write his story. I established a rapport with him and got his permission to tell his story. He just received his copy of the book a few days ago and loved it. How cool is that!
A Meeting in the Sky and 111 Trees are based on true stories and Grandmother School was inspired by true events.
It fun how many ways life can inspire both nonfiction and fiction stories. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I grew up in a time in India when Children’s literature in English did not exist as a genre. I attended a Catholic school and so the books we read were mostly by British authors. I remember loving Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Jane Eyre (abridged versions of her books).
But I’d like to share who some of my favorite children’s authors are now if I may. There are many authors I love but Mac Barnett, Oliver Jeffers, Ed Vere, Jen Bryant, Kyo Maclear and Amy Novesky are some of my favorites. They are creating some beautiful books.
All of these are amazing authors. Thank you for sharing them. Who or what is your greatest source of inspiration?
Poetry has and always will be my greatest inspiration. It has the power to change you like no other art form. It helps restore mental grit and courage. I’ll give you an example. One day, while sulking and feeling “ungrateful”, I came upon the following poem by Jane Kenyon. I was never the same again. This is how poetry recalibrates your perspective.
Otherwise by Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.
—Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise: New and selected Poems. Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.
Wow! That is a very powerful poem on not taking anything for granted. There are no guarantees. What was the toughest aspect of writing 111 Trees? (Research, writing, and/or revising?)
I love doing research so that aspect of my writing never feels like work. Looking at my files, I can’t believe how many versions of the manuscript I have. So, definitely the rewriting. That’s where the magic happens but it is also like fighting a demon. Every time.
I love that way of describing it! Since authors rarely have any input into the illustrations, what was your biggest surprise when you first saw 111 Trees illustrated? What is your favorite illustration?
I love Marianne’s work. It’s very contemporary and the use of a limited palette very sensitively captures the evolution of the village.
Text © Rina Singh, 2020. Image © Marianne Ferrer, 2020.
I have three favorite illustrations. The spread where little Sundar is hugging a tree as his mother is taken away tugs at my heart. The one where Sundar is looking at his village as if he’s dreaming of its future fills me with hope. And lastly where the women are tying sacred threads to the trees is so joyful.
I agree that the textures and colors of Marianne's illustrations are stunning. Is there something you want your readers to know about 111 Trees?
I want my readers to know that it is possible for one person to make a difference in the world.
You can’t change the entire world but you can make a change in “your world.” And I also wondered as I was writing the book what if eco-feminism could be the answer to much of what ails our world.
If everyone changed "their" world - planted trees, preserved the environment, treated everyone equally - we could all change the whole world. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?
The time it takes to publish a book! From the time you get an idea and write it, rewrite it, rewrite it hundreds of times, and then your agent reads it and then she sends it out and you wait and wait and wait. Waiting is the most challenging part.
Sometimes it feels like a snail moves quicker. How are you staying creative during this crazy year? Any specific things you are doing to “prime the well”?
These are crazy times indeed and I would love to know what others are doing to survive. I am taking as many online workshops as I can. [Me, too!]
I recently attended the SCBWI Summer online conference. It was amazing. So, I’m investing my time in virtual workshops, masterclasses, webinars, and online conferences. It’s crazy how little one knows and how much there is to learn. And what better time than now? We are stuck at home anyways. And I’m baking. The urge to bake is almost as strong as the urge to write. I just need to create something, I guess.
A woman after my own heart! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am revising a graphic picture book. By May, my spirits were so low, I needed a reason to wake up. I decided to rewrite one of my stories in the graphic novel format. Learning to write in a new genre totally woke me up from my pandemic stupor.
I think you caught me in a revision phase. I am also in the middle of revising a picture book biography.
A lot of people are learning new things during this time. I'm excited to see your graphic picture book. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I wasn’t expecting this question but I love it.
The lion is on top of my list of favorites. My graphic picture book is about lions and I fell even more in love with them while writing about them. They are so majestic and fierce and yet so vulnerable against the forces of man. Definitely, the lion.
Thank you, Rina for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you, Maria! This was so much fun. It made me reflect on all the things I love including baking, lions, and Bob Marley.
To find out more about Rina Singh, or get in touch with her:
Review of 111 Trees:
How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl
I have another sneak for you this week!
It's a book that shows how the actions of one person can make a gigantic difference to the environment and the culture of a village. How taking action to combat greed and ignorance can transform lives, first for one's family, then one's local area, and gradually throughout the world.
111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl
Author: Rina Singh
Illustrator: Marianne Ferrer
Publisher: Kids Can Press (2020)
Ecology, feminism, trees, celebrating girls, and education.
In a small village in India, a boy grows up to make a huge difference in his community by planting trees to celebrate the birth of every girl. Based on a true story, this book celebrates environmental sustainability, community activism, and ecofeminism. This is the story of Sundar Paliwal, who is from a small Indian village ruled by ancient customs. As he grows to be a man, Sundar suffers much heartbreak and decides it is time for change to come to his village. Sundar is determined to live in a place where girls are valued as much as boys and where the land is not devastated by irresponsible mining. Sundar's plan? To celebrate the birth of every girl with the planting of 111 trees. Though many villagers resist at first, Sundar slowly gains their support. And today, there are over a quarter of a million trees in his village, providing food, water and opportunities for women to earn a living. His efforts have turned a once barren and deforested landscape into a fertile and prosperous one where girls can thrive.
Based on true events in the life of Sundar Paliwal, and written in collaboration with him, Rina Singh's uplifting story shows how one person can make a difference in a community. Beautiful illustrations by Marianne Ferrer sensitively bring the evolution of the village to life. With strong links to the science curriculum, this book offers lessons on environmental awareness, sustainability and stewardship, as well as the concept of ecofeminism. It also explores ideas of social development, community and culture, and the character education traits of responsibility and cooperation. A thoroughly researched author's note with photographs and more information about the village of Piplantri is included.
Sundar watches how his mother balances the water pot
on her head. Walking to the well with her every day in the
blistering heat is hard, but it's his favorite thing to do. It's
the only time he has her all to himself. On the way back,
they stop under some trees, and she asks him to collect
pieces of firewood for cooking.
He sees her smile at him through her veil.
What I liked about this book:
This fascinating nonfiction story shows how losing his mother at a young age, working in the mining industry, and then loosing a daughter spurred Sundar to push for change in his community' attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and girls in his Indian village. The glimpse of young Sundar hugging a tree, as he watches his mother's funeral procession, beautifully foreshadows the connection he makes between girls, water, and trees. (Image above in Rina's interview.)
Text © Rina Singh, 2020. Image © Marianne Ferrer, 2020.
After seeing the extent of the environmental damage caused by marble mining near his village, and unable to convince management to plant remedial trees, Sundar left his job and becomes sarpanch, the village leader. A year later, he loses his daughter. Planting trees in her memory, he develops a plan and sets out to convince his village to plant 111 trees for every girl born. As a means of celebrating girls and protecting the environment. But his idea bucks against their traditions.
Marianne's illustrations combine subtle and wonderful textures, bringing to life the changes that Sundar envisions. Refusing to give up, Sundar keeps lobying his village. He even offers to plant the trees himself - if the villagers promise to send their daughters to school and not marry them off until they are 18. As their resistance slowly fades, Sundar brings in engineers to help with water retention and the village women learn about compatible plant pairings and ways to earn additional money.
Text © Rina Singh, 2020. Image © Marianne Ferrer, 2020.
The villagers soon discover that Sundar's plan not only brings water closer to the village, but it increases the food supply and reclaims the mining damage to the area. Now the entire village happily plants 111 trees every time a girl is born.
With a quarter of a million trees planted in, and around, his village, Sundar accomplished his goals of cherishing, educating, and respecting girls and rectifying some of the damage done to the environment. I love the illustration showing how each summer, in celebration, the women of the village tie sacred threads to the trees, renewing their bonds.
Text © Rina Singh, 2020. Image © Marianne Ferrer, 2020.
This is a wonderful book demonstrating the effect one person can have on their community and the change they can inspire. A call for gender equality and environmental stewardship. The almost collage like illustrations are enthralling and offer a glimpse into the environment and culture of Sundar's village. Back matter explores more about Sundar, how he decided on 111 trees per birth, how his village changed, and a call to action to be an "eco-feminist."
- plant a family tree in your yard or join your city or county during your State's (or country's) Arbor Day celebration. See (https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/dates.cfm) or (https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/world-dates.cfm) for interactive maps.
- find ways to reuse or recycle paper products in your house.
1. use the back of paper for notes or to draw on.
2. make seedling pots from paper egg cartons or toilet paper rolls (be sure to fold the bottom) & then bury them with the seedlings in your garden. (more ideas are at -https://www.wisebread.com/22-ways-to-reuse-paper)
- if you're interested, www.onetreeplanted.org offers people a chance to help make a difference by helping plant trees all around the world.