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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jyopti Gopal and Review of Desert Queen

Jyoti Rajan Gopal is a writer, mom and Kindergarten teacher.

Author photo of Jyoti Gopal

Growing up, she lived in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India and China. Twenty-eight years ago, she moved to New York and now lives in Yonkers in a quirky old Victorian, with her husband and two daughters. Her favorite place in the house is the wrap around porch where she loves to gather with family or friends, read, write and drink coffee.


Jyoti writes stories that speak to her heart, that reflect her multiple identities, that she wishes her daughters had growing up, that she wishes her students had now.


When not writing or teaching, she loves to work in her garden, dance, and explore the many New York State Park trails.

Collage of the covers of Jyoti's two published books.

Jyoti’s the author of American Desi, illustrated by Supriya Kelkar (2022) and My Paati’s Saris, illustrated by Art Twink (2022).


For more information about Jyoti, see our earlier interview (here).


Her newest picture book, Desert Queen, released on October 24th.


Jyoti, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing.


I am so delighted to be here Maria!


What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Desert Queen?

Book cover - dancer with arms raised looking as spreading wings with cherubs flying on either side.

My inspiration was the Queen herself. I saw her perform when I was visiting the Thar desert in Rajasthan with my family. The love and respect she showed my parents during the performance (she invited them on stage to dance with her to celebrate my dad’s 80th) and the joy and charisma she radiated were just inspiring. I knew right away that I wanted to write about her.

That must have been an amazing experience. How many revisions did Desert Queen take from the first draft to publication?


Not that many! I had one narrative prose draft which a week later transformed into a lyrical draft. There were 7 more drafts, mainly tweaks and revisions at the line-level. I submitted it as a Kweli critique and was incredibly lucky to have Arthur Levine assigned to critique it (he was my dream editor for this manuscript!). He gave me some global notes. I revised again and it went to him as an exclusive. So, eight revisions from first draft to publication.


Wow, seems like this was one of those books 'that was meant to be.' What was the toughest aspect of writing Desert Queen? And though we don’t often ask, what was the most fun?


Queen Harish was killed in a car accident six months after I met her, a beautiful, bright light cut short. The toughest part as I tried to figure out how to capture her electric presence and her courage, was deciding the arc of her storyline. I didn’t want to write a birth to death story, nor did I want it to be a tale of trauma. But I didn’t want to sugarcoat the very real obstacles Harish faced (the early death of parents, the care of two sisters, the need to earn money, and the prejudice of the Jaisalmer community). I had to decide where to begin and where and how I wanted the story to end. That took me a while to figure out. I’m very happy with where I landed.


Writing that first lyrical draft was just SO AMAZING – it just flowed out of me in one sitting, and feeling that buzz, that flow was incredible. I really could feel the creative spirit channeling itself onto the words on the page. I also loved revisiting Queen Harish’s performances, hearing the audience react to her, and remembering what it was like to see her live on stage.


I think you created a musical text that does justice to her life. Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from Desert Queen?


I was inspired to write this story because of my response to Queen Harish on stage. I knew nothing about how she came to performing drag, or anything about her life story. I just loved her spectacular dancing and the way she interacted with her audience. Once I started researching her life story, I felt even more compelled to share it.


Once a story I have written is out in the world, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the readers. So my hope is that for each reader, they find something in this book to connect with. I hope they enjoy it, love it, pour over the gorgeous illustrations and want to read it over and over again. I hope they are as inspired by the book as I was by Queen Harish!


I love your approach to wishing each reader a wonderful individual experience with the book. When you first saw Svabhu Kohli’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - boy dressed as Lord Krishna.for a school play.

Text © Jyoti Gopal, 2023. Image © Svabhu Kohli, 2023.


The first round of sketches I saw were black and white pen and ink illustrations. Oh, my goodness, they took my breath away! Every subsequent round was more breathtaking. And I can’t possibly choose my favorite spread, I love them ALL.


Jyoti, you have a couple of picture books coming out in 2024, including One Sweet Song, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Book cover - with a girl playing a triangle on her balcony while others listen from their windows and balconies.

I’m working on several different projects, none of which have been announced, so I cannot share much. One is a non-fiction picture book project about a very special place in South Asia and the other is an ABC fiction. I’m also out on submission with another manuscript that has taken many years to figure out the structure for – hopefully, it finds an editor that likes it!


Best of luck with these projects and your books releasing in 2024. What is the best advice you’ve received, whether about writing or not?


Arthur Levine, my editor for Desert Queen, said to me as I worked on a revision of the story, “Write the story that needs to be written, don’t worry about word count and pages.” I just love that so much! I have taken that to be heart and now I try to focus more on telling the story with the best words possible in the best order 😊.


Perfect advice! Thank you, Jyoti for stopping by and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


So great to be here with you. Thank you so much for having me!


To find out more about Jyoti Rajan Gopal, or contact her:


Review of Desert Queen


A stunningly gorgeous and touching lyrical biography of a boy from Jaisalmer, India who with compassion, grit, and grace became the celebrated “Whirling Desert Queen of Rajasthan.”

Book cover - dancer with arms raised looking as spreading wings with cherubs flying on either side.

Desert Queen


Author: Jyoti Rajan Gopal


Illustrator: Svabhu Kohli


Publisher: Levine Querido (2023)


Ages: 4-8


Nonfiction


Themes:

India, love of dance, music, and acceptance.


Synopsis:

This picture book biography in verse follows the life of beloved Rajasthani drag performer Queen Harish, known as the Whirling Desert Queen of Rajasthan. Lit by an inner fire and propelled by a family tragedy, Harish defied the gender conventions of middle class Indian life, battled discrimination and intimidation, and eventually grew up to dance with Bollywood movie stars and on stages across the world.


Jyoti Gopal’s rhythmic phrases evoke the particular sounds and beats of the music Harish danced to, and capture the passions and conflicts of his life. The poignant and inspiring tale is interpreted by internationally acclaimed Rajasthani artist Svabhu Kohli in kohl-black lines and shapes and brilliant jewel-like colors.


Opening Lines:

There is a boy…

who lives in the Thar Desert.


Thumris and ragas soar in his mind.

Rhythms pulse through his body.

The music sings clarion clear in his heart.


What I LIKED about this book:

The music and rhythms that surround young Harish entice and enchant him, appealing to his soul and radiating through his fingers and feet. But always softly and quietly, "so no one sees" because in the Thar Desert "there are lines in the sand/ that keep you in your place." When he has the opportunity to play the Hindu god Krishna in a school play, he rejoices in the “flowing fabric/ and dazzling jewels” dancing and feeling “shiny and/ glittery and/ NEW.” (see the image above in Jyoti's interview).


Then his parents suddenly die, leaving him to support his sisters, Harish channels Krishna and begins dancing drag in the evenings to make money to support them. Stunning, bold illustrations have swirls of music and notes, geometric shapes, and symbols, weaving through and around images of silks and jewels and mirror shards of her costume. Culminating in a stunning image of Harish shedding a night sky cloak and emerging as Queen Harish, finally able to dance and fully express his joy and deep love for the music.

Internal spread - boy dressed as a girl, in five different costumes dancing to Indian music on stage, with as trand of music & notes swirling around each portrayal..

Text © Jyoti Gopal, 2023. Image © Svabhu Kohli, 2023.

Svabhu Kohli's vivid illustrations are loaded with symbolism, movement, kaleidoscope collages, and textiles. They are such a feast for the eyes. I love the end papers which are a stunning set up, and bookend, the concept of the dichotomy within Harish/Queen Harish. The split in his life between his daytime responsibilities and her nighttime joy.

End papers - on left, sun and desert depicted in center of a geometric design of statutes and shapes. On right -same deign, but featuring the moon and desert in the center.

Text © Jyoti Gopal, 2023. Image © Svabhu Kohli, 2023.


Although she delights the crowds in the evenings and her worries vanish when she dances, each day he slips back into Harish and "Harsh,/ cruel,/ ugly words/ are thrown at him/ like stones./ Taunts that pierce and jab." This, and the next image, gorgeously explore this duality in his/her life. Despite the prejudice, discrimination, and misunderstandings, Queen Harish continues to dance in the evenings - entrancing growing audiences.

Internal spread - divided into triangular panels, on left is the moon and Queen Harish. On the right is Harish and the sun.

Text © Jyoti Gopal, 2023. Image © Svabhu Kohli, 2023.


The lyrical text beautifully conveys the freedom and joy Harish feels as she dances in the evenings. As well as the relief to earn money to support his sisters. "In the spinning, twisting turns,/ fear is tucked away./ Worry quiets." For two years, Harish/Queen Harish lives a split life studying the history and melodies of the desert folklore and dancing. Surviving "Jeers and insults in the day./ Acclaim and applause at night." The image of the day night split as two parts of an hourglass, is stunning and ingenious. The bright colorful, geometrically patterned images are amazing. They capturing Queen Harish's angst and joy and blend so perfectly with Jyoti's lyricism.


Refusing to quit, to surrender what makes her happiest, eventually Queen Harish discovers "the taunts and slurs fade away… / vanquished by grace and grit." A wonderful author's note offers further insight into Harish Kumar's life and beloved stature as Queen Harish and the artist's note provides a hint at the complexity involved in the creation of these stunning illustrations. This is a wonderful biography of a talented, radiant dancer who persevered in following her passion until her talent was finally acknowledged and celebrated. An encouragement for everyone to pursue their dreams and passions and treat others with respect and compassion.


Resources:

Photo of a multi-colored, striped paper roll kaleidoscope.

- make your own kaleidoscope.

Collage of three sponge printings on paper plates and a black and white kaleidoscope drawing example.

- create a kaleidoscope sponge painting or using a pattern or your own design, create a kaleidoscope image the like ones in the book with crayons, markers, or tissue paper.


- what music do you like to dance to? Make up a dance of your own to that music.

- is there something you like to do most of all? Something you would be sad about if you weren't allowed to do it - like drawing, running, climbing things, a sport, reading, building things, or making cookies?

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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