The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Rina Singh
Rina Singh is an award-winning Canadian Children’s Author and Spoken Word coach.
She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University, Montreal, and a teaching degree from McGill University. She has written many critically acclaimed books for children, and she is drawn to real life stories about social justice and the environment. Her books have been translated into many languages.
Rina is the author of: My Heart Beats (2021); My First Book of Hindi Words (2021); 111 Trees: How One Village Celebrates the Birth of Every Girl illustrated by Marianne Ferrer (2020) [which won many awards including the Social Justice literature award]; Grandmother School illustrated by Ellen Rooney (2020) [which won the BC & Yukon Prize for literature affirms the life-changing power of education]; A Meeting in the Sky illustrated by Jordi Vila Delclòs (2019); Holi Colors (2018); Diwali Lights (2018); and Diwali: Festival of Lights (2016).
Her newest picture book, The Forest Keeper: The True Story of Jadav Payeng, illustrated by Ishita Jain (North South Books) releases on April 18th.
Welcome Rina, thank you so much for coming by to talk about yourself and your newest picture book.
Thank you, Maria for having me here.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’ll tell you a little about myself to give you a context to my stories. I grew up in a small town in India which didn’t even have a public library. Imagine that. But the library of the Catholic school I attended was well stocked and the books came from England.
It didn’t matter if I didn’t relate to any of the adventures in castles and rivers I got to read. What were my chances of seeing a castle when I hadn’t even seen a library? None. Children’s Literature as a genre did not even exist in India at the time. There weren’t too many exciting things happening in my small town, so I escaped into the world of books. When I was grown up, I moved to Canada and spent a decade in Montreal where I got an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and a teaching degree from McGill. I moved to Toronto, and I taught in an arts-based school for the next twenty-five years. I taught hundreds of children with a huge focus on writing, poetry, visual arts, and drama. In 2016, I left teaching, hoping to write full time. I’m still trying.
I think you are well on your way! Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?
I try to write every day or do some research related to my writing. I would love to write in cafes surrounded by people and the smell of coffee, but I need total silence when I’m writing. So, my study is where I do most of the writing.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid but it’s more than a couple of decades when I started writing for children.
What is your favorite type of book to write?
I am drawn to real life stories about social justice and the environment. They engage my attention and trigger my imagination. When I read about someone’s account– I live their life momentarily, but the experience changes my perspective forever. A book that requires research is my favorite kind of book to write. I’m a curious person and I love how one thing leads to another while doing research.
I can totally relate to the excitement of an interesting research trail. What do you like to do outside?
I love to walk and take pictures. That’s when I get many ideas for writing.
Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or a book that made an impact on you as a child?
I might have to skip this question because I grew up at a time in India when Children’s Literature did not exist as a genre. But had books been available to me, I think The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein would have been my favorite because when I read the book it changed me forever. The day I read the book as an adult, I promised myself that I will pay my own tribute to trees. It took many years, but I now have three books on trees.
It's interesting to see the symmetry in the covers. Now that we know a bit about you, what was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for The Forest Keeper: The True Story of Jadav Payeng?
In 2016, I heard about Jadav Payeng almost a year after he was honored with Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. At first, it seemed crazy. How could one man plant a forest single-handedly? Then I watched a documentary about him and started doing further research. I was amazed. Finally, I wrote the story in 2017.
That does sound like a really interesting question to research. What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript?
On a solitary walk during lockdown, I passed a field, a school, a playground, a park, and a trail.
They were all empty. A stillness had fallen over the city. I looked up and saw a bird in a tree.
I imagined if it wondered where we all went. I wondered if the birds worried for us.
The story came to me wordlessly. It too was empty of words.
The book called Once, a Bird, comes out this Fall.
Ooh, this is intriguing. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for The Forest Keeper? Was this similar to your other books?
I wrote the story in 2017 and the book is just coming out in 2023. That’s more than five years.
Some books have taken that long but I would say the average time is three years.
Funny how they each do seem to have their own timeline. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Forest Keeper?
Mama Mimi, a reviewer, writes:
This book (The Forest Keeper) inspires children to go out and solve world issues– to become young change-makers. Immediately after reading, my daughter wanted to discuss ways to help the environment and help with other issues, beginning with our community. That's priceless to me!
Showing what one person with limited resources can do to restore the environment, the story of Jadav and his determination should inspire any young reader.
Climate change is everyone's business. I hope my story gives children the courage to protect our planet.
I hope your story does too. You’ve written picture books and board books do you find one easier to write than the other? How much research goes into your board books?
I wouldn’t say easier but if the inspiration strikes then definitely a board book takes less time.
Board books are hard to nail down but when you do the feeling is priceless. I do more research for picture books.
What was the hardest, or most challenging part of writing and/or researching The Forest Keeper?
The most challenging part about writing any book is to sit in the chair and write no matter what, even if it means staring at a blank screen or a blank page.
Connecting with Jadav was a challenge. He speaks only Assamese, and I don’t. I connected with one of the English-speaking persons who worked with him. And I connected briefly with his daughter using Google translate.
That would definitely complicate things. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Ishita Jain’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
I had been following Ishita on Instagram and was already in love with her greens.
Ishita has balanced the greens and the blues with sudden bursts of a red fire or a flaming sunset in a spectacular way. The browns of the tree trunks and the grey of the elephants root the illustrations and depict the story and India in a very authentic and stunning way.
Text © Rina Singh, 2023. Image © Ishita Jain, 2023.
I was confident she would bring the forest to life. I love all the illustrations, but two spreads in the book took my breath away. One is almost at the beginning. Surrounded by the turquoise River Brahmaputra, Jadav is planting a bamboo seedling. The watercolors are beautiful. There is one spread with birds, and the sky is almost red. It is spectacular.
It is a stunning image! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have three other books coming out later this year– A Garden of Grenades, (Greystone Books) told in free verse, reimagines our troubled world through the lens of love and compassion; Once, a Bird, (Orca Books) is a wordless book; and The Lion Queen (Cameron Kids) tells the true story of the first female guardian of the last Asiatic lions in India.
What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I’m sad to say that I have lived in Canada for more than four decades and I haven’t been to Banff National Park yet. It is on my list. With towering mountains, breathtaking lakes, it sounds like a slice of heaven.
It is a magical place! I hope you get to visit soon. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?
I took Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass, and this stayed with me.
On reading your first draft: “The story is an explosion. And you get to the end of it, and once it’s done, then you get to walk around it and you get to look at the shrapnel and the damage it did. And you get to see who died. And you get to see how it worked.” -Neil Gaiman
Interesting viewpoint of a first draft. Thank you so much for coming to talk with me Rina.
Thank you so much, Maria.
Be sure to back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Forest Keeper: The True Story of Jadav Payeng
To find out more about Rina Singh, or contact her: