The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Navina Chhabria and Review of Raaga's Song: A Diwali Story
Navina Chhabria is an author and illustrator based in Michigan.
Her love of color and strong female characters are a definite nod to her Indian heritage. She enjoys playing with patterns to create interest, textures to create warmth and brilliant colors to create movement in her work. She also loves creating a sense of light and shadow.
Navina aims to give a unique, distinct voice to every illustration she makes. Her work can be described as warm, friendly, charming and fun. And her areas of focus are children’s illustration and editorial work revolving around the themes of women, food and lifestyle.
When she’s not tucked away in her studio, you will find her cooking Indian food, dancing to Bollywood music, or curled up with a book and a hot cup of masala chai.
She’s the illustrator of How Mr. Rat Got His Cheese by Isabelle Burge (2019) and 52 Weeks of Yoga: A Personal Journey Through Yoga by Gwen McCarthy (2018).
Navina’s debut picture book as author/illustrator, Raaga's Song: A Diwali Story, releases on September 26th.
Welcome Navina, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your new picture book and your writing.
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?)
My name is Navina Chhabria and I am an Author/Illustrator. I was born in India. When I was younger, we traveled every couple of years due to my father’s job. While it was tough on the little me, it did give me an insight into different cultures and stories from across the country. I also learnt how to make friends very easily and adapt to circumstances quickly. I was most enamored with folktales from each region we lived in. We have a one year old son so I write most days in my home office as he plays with his babysitter. Writing came much later but I have always used art and drawing as a way to express myself and what I was feeling. I had a rough draft of Raaga’s Song with me for the longest time but I started writing seriously around 2018 when I joined a critique group in an attempt to hone my writing skills. I also became a member of SCBWI and started attending their conferences. I’ve met so many of my writer/illustrator friends through SCBWI. My favorite type of books to write are picture books. We have an incredible responsibility of guiding future generations towards a love for reading, writing, and introducing them to the power of art and culture. We have the ability to bring words and visuals together and create vibrant worlds for young ones to explore.
What do you like to do outside by yourself or with family or friends?
We love to travel and eat. There is something magical about being in a new, unfamiliar place and finding new places to eat cake or homemade ice-cream, a family favorite. We’re hoping our one year old son, Param, enjoys the sense of adventure as much as we do. We also love taking a picnic, going to the park, playing ball, and taking our son to the swings.
It's so nice to meet you and get to know you a little . What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Raaga's Song, A Diwali Story?
I grew up in a country of many paradoxes, a country of brown people, where fair skin is (to this day) preferred. And I was a scrawny brown girl who wanted to be an artist. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, and being a child of immigrants, that was just not an option. I wrote this book because I want the children of the world to know that their dreams are important. It doesn’t matter where they come from or what they look like, they have the power to make their dreams come true. Just like Raaga did!
That's a wonderful message to share with all kids. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The Faraway Tree and Moonface anyone?! I also grew up with the Panchatantra and Jataka Tales and illustrations of Pulak Biswas had the most amazing ability to transport me into those worlds. My very first children’s book was called FireBird, a collection of Russian folktales. Magical fish and a hut with chicken feet - my mind was blown. I didn’t know it then but I always wanted to be a picture book illustrator.
What a wonderful range of books. What do you find most challenging about illustrating picture books?
Striking a balance between what the words are saying and deciding what to leave to the pictures to portray. It isn’t always literal. Also, I think about the pauses and the white space and of course the continuity of the characters.
I think that is a common struggle. How many revisions did Raaga's Song take from the first draft to publication?
I think over 15 revisions. It did take a while to get the story just right from the first draft.
What was the toughest aspect of writing, illustrating, or revising Raaga's Song?
I think the toughest part of writing and illustrating Raaga’s Song was tailoring it for kids around the world. For example, the very first versions had an Indian song bird called the koel. After much deliberation, we decided to rewrite the story without the bird to make the core message easier for a world audience to understand without fixating on a tertiary (and very regional) character.
Interesting. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Raaga's Song? Could you share one or more with us?
It was important for me to incorporate my love for Indian textiles/prints and Indian motifs throughout the book. I’ve lived in the US for 16 years now, I still incorporate these in my wardrobe to this day. I also start the book with Raaga’s grandfather using string puppets to tell Raaga about the story of Lord Rama slaying the ten headed demon, Ravana. Puppets are such an integral part of Indian culture and storytelling that I simply had to incorporate them into the book.
I love this image on the title page! Such a happy moment with her grandfather. Is there a spread you are especially proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text & Image © Navina Chhabria, 2023.
I love the art in the book but my favorite spread has to be of Raaga’s grandfather telling her the story of Lord Rama slaying the ten-headed demon, Ravana, while there is a battle scene in the background. I loved creating the mood for this spread.
It is such a multi-layered and intricate image. I love the side cameo of Raaga hugging her grandfather. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am working on three picture book ideas at the moment. They are only ideas and first drafts at this point but I will say that they are stories based in India. I find it easiest to write about the familiar and the culture that is very much a part of my ethos.
Good luck with these projects! And lastly, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
Gosh, there are so many. I loved the Grand Canyon National Park. Just the expanse of it. I’d love to go to the Yellowstone National Park for the hot springs and geysers. I’d also like to go to the Shenandoah National Park and the Sequoia National Park for its trees.
When we lived in New Jersey, we would go to Central Park pretty regularly. In Michigan, we’re regulars at the Kensington Metropark. In the summers, we take boat rides, walk and do picnics there.
Thank you, Navina, for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you.
To find out more about Navina Chhabria, or contact her:
Review of Raaga's Song: A Diwali Story
A touching story of a young Indian girl who loves to sing working to overcome self-doubts and discrimination to fulfill her dream of singing at the Royal Palace on Diwali.
Raaga's Song: A Diwali Story
Author/Illustrator: Navina Chhabria
Publisher: Running Press Kids/Hachette Group (2023)
Diwali, music, courage, dreams, family, and Indian fables.
Raaga has always dreamed of singing at the annual Diwali mela at the Royal Place. Ever since she was a little girl, her grandfather would tell her the story of how Lord Rama and his army slew the ten-headed demon Ravana (the story for which Diwali is celebrated today). While young Raaga has always suffered from stage fright, the more Raaga practices with her grandfather, the larger her audience grows, like her own little army.
When the day of the audition comes, Raaga takes to the stage in front of her family and friends. But the ten judges tower over her like Ravana and taunt her: "You are the color of a moonless night," one says. "Can you really sing?" It will take all of Raaga's courage and the support of her "army" to summon the strength of Lord Rama and prove them wrong.
Once, a little girl named Raaga lived in a small village in India.
Her name meant melody, and, true to her name, she loved to
sing. She sang to herself while she played. She sang with the
birds in the forest. Many nights, she even sang herself to sleep.
What I LOVE about this book:
Navina Chhabria does such a great job setting the stage for Raaga's biggest dream and her love of singing, as well as her special relationship with her grandfather. I love the music notes that swirl across the opening two spreads, their soft colors, and the accompanying birds. It's quite a contrast with the next two darker spreads which accompany grandfather's stories "from the Ramayana, especially about the hero Lord Rama and his epic battle with Ravana, a terrible ten-headed demon" and the origin of Diwali. (Scroll back up into the interview to see this spread.)
Text & Image © Navina Chhabria, 2023.
Raaga's biggest dream was to sing at the royal palace during Diwali. But, when the time arrives, she's plagued by worries about her age and her skin color. Her grandfather's wonderful advice applies to everyone - “It doesn’t matter how young you are or what you look like. Just as Lord Rama practiced his aim until he was a skilled marksman, you must prepare your voice.” So Raaga practiced and practiced, until her singing had the power to "mesmerize anyone who heard it," including people, animals, and birds.
Text & Image © Navina Chhabria, 2023.
Ragga's joy in singing and her dedication and determination resonate through the next couple of spreads. Along with the loving support of her grandfather. Written and illustrated like a fable itself, Raaga's growing audience (or personal army), family, and friends show up at the audition to lend her their support. But just as Raaga's about to sing, the judges begin heckling her - “You are the color of a moonless night!” .... “Can you really sing?”
Tearful and ready to bolt off the stage, Raaga sees her army of friends and family chanting, waving flags and banners, and shouting encouragement. Sometimes, for all of us it takes 'a village' to fulfill a dream. Taking a breath, and channeling the strength of Lord Rama from her grandfather's stories, Raaga starts to sing.
Text & Image © Navina Chhabria, 2023.
But the audition and her struggle to win over the ten judges was just the tip of Raaga's challenges. The ending is affirming, honest, heartfelt, and beautifully wraps back to the story of Lord Rama and Diwali. It's a touching, gorgeous story about working to make one's dreams come true, family, courage, and the right of all of us to belong regardless of age, skin color, nationality, gender, etc. Readers will come away inspired and hopeful.
- what songs do you like to sing?
- what is a big dream of yours? What do you need to do to make your dream come true?