The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jyoti Rajan Gopal & Review of American Desi

Jyoti Rajan Gopal is a writer, mom and Kindergarten teacher. Growing up, she lived in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India and China. She moved to New York twenty-eight years ago and lives in a quirky old Victorian with her husband, where they raised their two daughters, who are now 23 and 25.


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.


Jyoti’s debut picture book, American Desi, releases June 21, 2022. Her second picture book, My Paati’s Saris, releases Nov. 8, 2022.

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


Thank you so much for having me Maria!


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?)


Growing up I never thought of myself as a writer. In fact, creative writing assignments were torture for me.


I wrote my first non-fiction manuscript about twelve years ago, but at that time I didn’t belong to any writing organization or critique groups - in fact, I didn’t even know they existed! So it sat on my computer until four years ago, when I decided to take the leap into the publishing world and figure out what it takes to get published. I was writing about women whose stories had not been told, stories that I thought were important for children to know. Non-fiction was my interest, my niche, it was where I thought I could fill some missing spaces in kidlit. I had no idea at all that I would also end up writing fiction!


I discovered that I could write in rhyme when I wrote American Desi. It came as a total surprise to me! My first manuscripts were all narrative non-fiction and were rooted in prose. Now, I write in rhyme, lyrical verse, and prose. I’ve discovered that I like writing in different styles. I just have to figure out what’s needed for the story I’m working on. Sometimes I know right away but sometimes, I struggle to find it.


Funny how you stumbled into writing in rhyme. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


Thai was one of my first languages, along with Tamil and English! While I can’t speak it anymore, I can still count to 100 in Thai.


Interesting. I wonder how fast you'd pick it back up. What was your inspiration for American Desi?

American Desi was inspired by my own experiences navigating multiple cultures and trying to figure out where I fit in. It was also inspired by my daughters Vedika and Keerti, who grew up straddling being Indian and American.


Definitely following the advice to - write what you know or perhaps where your heart is. Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?


Having started writing stories so much later in my life, I feel driven to explore this new side of myself and see what I am capable of. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time!


So, how many revisions did American Desi take from first draft to publication?


It took eight revisions, six of which happened before it was acquired. None of those revisions required major structural changes. They were more about word choice and flow. After LBYR bought it, I revised it one more time based on notes and a conversation with the acquiring editor, Esther Cajahuaringa. She loved the revision, and I thought I was done. But then she came back to me a couple of months later and asked if I would be willing to add four more couplets to make it a 40-page picture book. Of course, I said yes. That was the version that finally went to copyedit.


Always say "yes," and then figure out how to do it. What was the toughest aspect of writing American Desi?


The toughest part for this book was not the writing, or even the revising. The writing for this pretty much flowed out of me, even through all the revisions. The tough part was going through an acquisitions process at one house, getting an offer, waiting on a contract, and then getting pulled from that house many months later because of behind-the-scenes publishing business mergers. No one’s fault, just the way it goes sometimes in the business. And because that was the first book I sold; it was rather tortuous. My agent and I had already decided that we should maybe try to find another house for it, so I was prepared mentally and not devastated when we got that news. It was rather liberating actually, because it had been stagnating for so long, but of course, we had to repeat the whole process of submission and waiting. So, all that was pretty tough. Ultimately though, it landed exactly where it needed to be.


Wow. I love your mindset for dealing with getting so close the first time - shaking yourself off and diving back into submitting. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

Growing up in Thailand and Indonesia, we didn’t have access to a lot of picture books. I do remember reading Dr. Suess and Richard Scarry and loving both. My parents would get us Amar Chitra Katha comic books from India that told stories from Hindi mythology, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. I loved those and still have all of them. Tinkle comics from India were a big hit. Enid Blyton was a staple. James Herriot, PG Wodehouse and Alexander Lloyd were some favorites. In 4th grade, our teacher read Watership Down by Richard Adams to us. We couldn’t wait for the end of day to listen to the next chapter. I read it to my daughters when they were old enough and it remains one of my favorite books!


What a great diversity of books. Is there anything you want your readers to know about or gain from American Desi?


I hope that when readers of any age read this book, they see themselves in it, that they feel seen. Yes, it’s a love letter to young American desis, but it’s also a love letter to anyone straddling identities - cultural, religious or in any way that they feel pushed and pulled apart.

In writing American Desi, I wanted to acknowledge the truth of what it means to wrestle multiple identities, the switching back and forth, the moments of tension and dissonance that can be a part and parcel of that. I also wanted to share the joy and potential, the richness that straddling two or more worlds opens us to, and encourage readers to see the possibilities in that.


When you first saw Supriya Kelkar’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Jyoti Rajan Gopal, 2022. Image © Supriya Kelkar, 2022.


It was all amazement and wonder and I have so many favorite spreads, it’s hard to choose one! There are so many details that reflect my own home and daily life, and since Supriya and I never spoke at all until after the F&G arrived, that was kind of wonderful. The spread with the grandma putting coconut oil on the little girl’s hair, the father making dosas, the spread of a feast and the utensils used, the hanging lamp in the spread where the family is praying, all of it resonated so deeply. And recognizing myself and my daughters in the adorable little girl that Supriya created, that was priceless!


The illustrations are exquisite. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I sold a picture book that has not been announced yet so that’s all I can say about that! I can’t wait for it to be out in the world, but of course, that won’t be for at least two years! I have two non-fiction manuscripts that I’m so excited for. I went down rabbit holes of research for both of them and had so much fun doing it. For one, I found the structure very quickly. For the other, it took me more than two years to figure out the structure. My agent, the amazing Wendi Gu, and I are hoping we’ll find editors who love them as much as we do!


Best of luck and we'll keep our eyes open for their announcements. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

There are so many National Parks that I want to explore. My husband and I recently visited the Arches National Park and Canyonlands in Moab, Utah. WOW- absolutely breathtaking! The landscape felt like something out of this world and the trails and climbs were spectacular. I’m also lucky to live in New York – a very different landscape – which has some pretty amazing trails with beautiful views of the Hudson River. We explore those trails every chance we get.


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


Thank you so much for having me – it was such a pleasure!


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

Website: https://www.jyotirajangopal.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JyotiGopal

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jyotirgopal/?hl=en


Review of American Desi


I'm excited to introduce you to a joyful and affirming book celebrating all of the unique and wonderful facets of our cultures and families which make us each interesting and colorful individuals.

American Desi


Author: Jyoti Rajan Gopal


Illustrator: Supriya Kelkar


Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (2022)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Self-identity, bicultural, courage, and confidence.


Synopsis:

For fans of Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, this poetic story filled with expressive art empowers South Asian children living in the United States and celebrates being bicultural.


Pavadais in bright gold colors

Jersey shirts and faded jeans

Swapping, changing, feeling seen...

Which is the color of me?


A young girl longs to know where she fits in: Is she American? Or is she Indian? Does she have to pick or can she be both? With bright, joyful rhyme, and paired with an immersive art style using American and Indian fabrics, American Desi celebrates the experiences of young children growing up first and second generation Indian American: straddling the two cultural worlds they belong to, embracing all they love of both worlds and refusing to be limited by either.


This story is a powerful tribute to the joy of being South Asian and for every reader who aspires to bridge their worlds with grace, grit, and confidence.


Opening Lines:

Festive henna, garnet red

Bindis, bangles, desi queen


Fantasy hair,

seafoam green...


Which is the color of me?


What I LIKED about this book:

After examining the various textures and colors of both her South Asian heritage and American life, beautifully illustrated with Supriya Kelkar's vibrant and textural physical and digital collages, a young girl contemplates who is she and which version is really "her." Written in an interesting rhyme scheme - with the last line either echoed or rhymed throughout the book - it seems to flow back and forth between the two cultures.

Text © Jyoti Rajan Gopal, 2022. Image © Supriya Kelkar, 2022.


Rhythmic stride, jaunty step

Jangly yellow, Bollywood moves

Shimmery blue, hip-hop grooves...

Which is the color of me?


For me, one spread stands out as the embodiment of the themes within American Desi. This spread juxtaposes two images which draw from the initial three spreads of the book. Wrapping together the henna, bare feet, textiles, bangles, and traditional dances of her South Asian heritage and symmetrically opposing it against the image of sneakers and American traditions (in this case, softball). A vivid representation of a child "torn in half" - with one foot solidly lodged in each culture. Wondering where she belongs and if she has to choose - as she loves aspects of both.

Text © Jyoti Rajan Gopal, 2022. Image © Supriya Kelkar, 2022.


As she continues to compare the sports, textiles, languages, and foods, which she cherishes from both cultures, she finds that these strands weave, intertwine, and collide forming "The many colors of me." As an outward manifestation of her composite identity, she creates her costume for a school performance which celebrates all of her many facets and colors. Wait until you see her joyful presentation of her costume and the fun final spread.


The lyrical text and gloriously textural and vivid illustrations carry the reader along on a joyous quest as the young girl discovers that she needn't choose between cultures, that both cultures mesh and mingle, forming the unique, amazing person she is. This is a wonderful beginning introduction to South Asian culture for young readers and a help for anyone feeling torn or caught between cultural identities.


Resources:

- with paper, and /or fabric scraps, make your own individual or family collage that represents the colors of YOU.

- did you see where the girl wears a henna design on one hand and a friendship bracelet on the other? Trace your hand and follow easy steps to make your own henna design (YouTube kids tutorial) and try making a friendship bracelet.

- pair with Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin for another look at straddling two cultures.

Decorative scroll design
Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Decorative scroll design

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