Friday, October 13, 2017

(Sub)Mission Possible!

A question-answer session live on Facebook with Tulika's Publishing Director Radhika Menon on what makes a good manuscript.

Shyamala Shanmugasundaram of Kahani Takbak invited me to do a live Facebook video chat on the site. I agreed though I was not comfortable at all about being ‘out there’ talking to an anonymous group of people via a blank mobile screen! It turned out to be surprisingly interactive and I was soon past my initial reservations. Being the first to go on video there were glitches and the sound was not clear at all. So I thought I would put down the questions and answers as these are common questions of people sending in manuscripts. The first few were sent by Shyamala to start off the session.

Are there seasonal and evergreen themes?

There are no seasonal or evergreen themes we look for. An imaginative idea, a well-told story, visual possibilities of an idea or story, unusual themes or approaches, are some of the things that make us sit up. Good writing is most often the clincher. We do get manuscripts with a great idea but not written very well. We then work very closely with the writer to polish it up. We tell them at the outset to make sure that they are open to it.

Do international trends affect your choice of manuscripts?

They don’t.

When should you bury or rework a manuscript?

I suppose when your manuscript gets rejected a couple of times you should relook at it and decide to rework it. If you hit a dead end, then maybe you should bury the manuscript. Going back to it a few months or even a couple of years later — we hear of authors doing that — might help.

How to identify red flags in a manuscript?

Gender, class, caste stereotypes are always red flags and there is no compromise on that. But sometimes the effort to break it is so heavy handed and clich├ęd that it can be as off putting!
A common thread in the manuscripts we get are the stereotypical and predictable ways of making a story Indian – festivals, clothes, traditions, food, relationships, nostalgia for the good old way of life and so on. Not that these are taboo – not at all, but they have to be part of a good story and not the story itself! A theme or a topic for its own sake just doesn’t usually work.

When such themes are picked what is often conveyed, inadvertently perhaps, is that they are representative of ‘Indian’ culture.  For instance, by going into the specifics of a festival, say Diwali, and talking only about oil baths and multi-coloured kolams and new clothes and the aroma of delicious sweets, you are talking about an experience only a small section of children can identify with. Diwali is celebrated in so many different ways, and there are many who don’t celebrate it. Good stories reflect this awareness and create the space for a broader understanding. This is where the skill and imagination of a children’s writer comes in.

When you have written a story like that it would be useful to ask yourself some questions.

  • What age group is the story aimed at?
  • Does anything happen in the story that will grab the interest of a young reader today or is it just a description of details with not much of a storyline?
  • If the aim is to ‘educate’ the reader about traditions or a way of life, how relevant is it? Whose traditions are we talking about?
  • Does it allow the reader to understand that there is no one way of doing things? 

§     But writing a good picture book is not about ticking the right boxes. Picture books, by their very nature, offer creative possibilities to writers and illustrators to make stories inclusive, to reflect diversity. Unfortunately very often when you use words like diversity, inclusiveness and so on, it is assumed that such books can’t be fun! That is missing the point about what makes a good picture book.

Our picture booklist has fun and wacky books, informational books, books with thought provoking themes, real and fantasy stories, folk and contemporary stories, as well as wordless picture books and baby board books – it is a very wide range.

Our larger list extends beyond picture books to fiction and non-fiction for pre-teens, teens and young adults.

For our fiction list, we do look for themes that are different, unusual, that tell stories of non-mainstream characters and experiences. But the bottom line for us is a great story not restricted by labels.

Do query letters affect the acceptance of a manuscript?

No, they don’t. We do say that it will take three months for us to review, so would appreciate it if the queries come after that. And I must add that we are not always able to keep to the three month’s promise, much as we would like to, because of our workload.

The next few questions were typed in by the participants who had logged into the session.

What is the ideal length of fiction for the 8-10 age group?

At least 12,000 words.

Do manuscripts have to be submitted in English? Do you accept manuscripts in other languages?

We do accept manuscripts in other languages for picture books. In fact, we welcome it. The stories have a tone and flavour that we don’t find in manuscripts written in English. But we would appreciate a synopsis in English.

How many editors read a manuscript before it is accepted?

At least three – ideally all five.

Do you accept manuscripts every month?

We do.

Do you choose manuscripts based on how well they lend themselves to translation?

That is a strong consideration for picture books.  But if it does not and it is a manuscript that really appeals to us then we do decide to publish it only in English.

How far do trends influence your own choice of manuscripts?

Actually they don’t at all.

What is the word count for a picture book aimed at 5- to 6-year-olds? They seem so picture how long is the manuscript for such a book?

About 500 to 700 words ideally. If it for 7 and 8 year olds we do look at longer texts of about 800 to 1000 words.

What do you think about picture books that rhyme?

We think they work very well. Surprisingly well in translation too. There is a naturalness to the way it translates. Sometimes better than stories with short sentences which work very well in English but seem staccato in languages! This is something we work hard to get around.

Is there a particular format for submitting picture books?

Nothing specific for picture books. Double spaced clean text is what we expect for any manuscript. We actually get manuscripts which show track changes and corrected lines which is really shoddy. Please mention word count. And a synopsis is a must. Not just as information to us. It is also a useful exercise for you to describe concisely what the story is about, what it conveys and what its high points are. This makes you aware of the gaps in the story and gives you ideas of how to rework it.

Do you typically reject picture books that you think are too long?

We don’t. Sometimes we do ask the writer to shorten it to a more suitable word length and send it. Or it is done in the editing process. But it would help make a better manuscript to edit it yourself to the required word length, cleaning and tightening the story in the process.


Update: Our submission guidelines are on our website as well: 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Exciting History, Electrifying History…‘Excavating History’

Most people think that a book on history is a surefire way to guarantee yourself a good snooze. We beg to differ. Excavating History is our attempt to make sure that you are awakened and refreshed and excited by history and archaeology.

Researched and written by archaeologist and writer Devika Cariapa and illustrated by Ashok Rajagopalan, this book packs in nearly 2 million years of human history discovered through archaeological artefacts and stories in only 160 pages!

Excavating History is a genre-bending work that is not only a reference book but also a fun-to-dip-into book, a fun-to-read book and an illustrated history book. Now, how many of these have you come across lately?

The inspiration

Devika Cariapa
The author Devika Cariapa explains what inspired her to write the book: “When I was doing my Masters in Archaeology, I was fascinated that something as tiny and innocuous as a small piece of stone, a shard of pottery or a few random scribbled letters from the alphabet could have a tale from the past hidden in them. Also, so many of the stories of how our history was pieced together read like exciting mysteries or detective stories and I thought that children, especially, would enjoy them.”

A diamond in the making

Out of such musings grew the kernel of the book. It was like a diamond in the rough. With the editorial team at Tulika the manuscript was developed to the book that you see today. The entire process from the fascinating first draft to the final book took two whole years.

The editors at Tulika, Radhika Menon and Deeya Nayar, say that the idea was to keep the chatty tone which is the writer’s USP. So this was a focal point while editing the book. Deeya adds, “It is the most immersing and rewarding book I have worked on.”

Next, a lot of editorial attention was paid to the format. In Devika’s words, “Right from the start, the team at Tulika and I agreed on the rather unique format of an illustrated resource book. That meant we had to … strike the right balance between all the elements — text, illustrations, photos, maps.”

One look at the book and you know it looks quite unlike any other book. A timeline appears at the top of the beginning of every chapter indicating the period to which it belongs. Then, there are these boxes which either give you more information or add a different perspective to the point.

If you skim through the book, these fact boxes are your best friends. Your eye will be drawn to another element on the page — the beautiful maps — which show the presence of prehistoric cultures, trade routes or the extent of empires.

Telling a story

One of the reasons it is not a snooze-inducing book is that it tells a story while juggling facts. For example: the reason why the capital of Delhi in its many avatars kept shifting a few miles here and there. This is fascinating because this was not usually how capitals behaved. They generally stayed put next to rivers. Historically, capitals were built next to rivers because people needed rivers for water and transport. So one theory is that ‘Delhi’ kept shifting its place because the river kept changing its course! (For the curious, this story appears on page 148.)

Overcoming challenges

Of course, like any worthy endeavour, there were challenges. The format alone involved several rounds of discussion. Deciding what to retain and what to leave out was equally if not more tricky. Devika says, “The greatest challenge was to know what to leave out! Too much information would have had the kids reeling in boredom. But at the same time, I didn't want to miss out on interesting details.”

Delightful cartoons

No description of the book can be complete without a word about Ashok Rajagopalan’s delightfully whimsical cartoons that pepper the pages. Of the elements in the book — the text proper, the fact boxes, photographs of prehistoric places or illustrated maps — the cartoons give the book such levity. They reimagine for us what life would have been back then. More importantly they appear to humorously comment on the story being told much like R.K. Laxman’s Common Man. What a delight!

Response in the media

By writing this book, the author Devika Cariappa wanted to write “a fun book that children would pick up without any prompting, dip in and out of, and not feel that they were reading a text book—something they would enjoy for the sake of it.”

From the responses in the media, we think this has been accomplished to a large extent. Anu Kumar’s review in says, “For its part, India Through Archaeology brings alive in a vividly direct way, the magic, the mystery, and the many methods that make archaeology key to understanding history, the past, and thus, our own stories.” To quote the review by Geeta Doctor in The Wire, “…Devika Cariapa has used a rich repertoire of images and anecdotes to tempt her audience to follow her into the rabbit hole of history. She digs through mud, stone and brick to bring alive the story of the people of India by the material remains of their cities and settlements.” Blogger and writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan in The Hindu BLink review mentions, “It’s not often that a children’s book gets taken seriously, but this one deserves all the attention it has been getting. Excavating History is a history of India, but a scientific and comprehensive volume, using archaeological finds to do a quick rundown of what’s been going on in the subcontinent from the Stone Age downwards.”
By creating Excavating History we have tried to get two birds with one stone (no pun intended) — offer the child an introduction to archaeology and pack in enough to delight the adult.


Does this post inspire you to get your copy? Head to our online shop now!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Ambedkar, a Library and a Boy Called Balmiki

WHY do I have to sit separately in a corner of the classroom?
WHY can’t I drink water from the tap like other children?
WHY do the teachers never touch my books?

The ‘Whys’ shout louder in little Bhim’s head as he grows up, trailed constantly by the monster of untouchability. They catapult him into a lifetime of struggle for equality. They shape the remarkable ideas that are the cornerstone of the Indian Constitution, which he drafted as India’s first Law Minister.

 from the blurb of ‘The Boy Who Asked Why’

You know how it is when you have found a book that speaks to you, or better still, sings to you. A book that’s so close to your hearts that you don’t want to ever part from it. What would you do to never let it go?

One boy wrote the book down by hand in his notebook! This is probably the most moving response we have ever received for our books and we are so overjoyed.

Here’s the background. One fine Saturday we came across this beautiful and touching story on the Community Library Project’s Facebook page. The featured story was of Balmiki, who is a member at the Community Library Project — Agrasar (Sikanderpur, Gurugram). In his lunchtime, he hops over to the library to read his favourite book, a biography of Dr. Ambedkar (the NBT Children’s edition). This is an everyday habit. One day his favourite book cannot be found. The library staff search high and low for it. But no luck — the book is just not to be found. So they suggest an alternative, Tulika’s Vah Ladka Jisne Poocha Kyun, the Hindi translation of The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Satwik Gade.

©The Community Library Project

After he leaves, they find the book they were searching for. On Monday when he is back in the library, they ask him if he had read the book. He replies yes and produces the entire book written down line by line in his notebook! He says he liked it!

©The Community Library Project

The story seems to have had a domino effect. The writer Somwya Rajendran was so touched by it when she came across this post that she sent copies to the library and a letter to Balmiki. This means more boys and girls will read the book. Which is always such a  hopeful thought.

A look at the comments section tells us about how the story has touched so many people. Illustrator Manjari Chakravarti commented that it “Brought tears to my eyes”. Another comment was from Radha Harish who said, “These are stories that need to be shared, made viral...Or else we will become a barbaric society.” The poet and library activist, Michael Creighton expressed it best: “O, this is a revolutionary post. Thinking and reading is often a revolutionary act in a world that is not fair or kind.” We cannot agree more.

In Balmiki’s act of writing lies our hope for the future. He found a book he loved and he made it his own. Now, the story is his forever. As Michael Creighton mentioned when he shared the post, “On the surface, this is a feel-good post. But I'm guessing when this member grows up, he and his friends will have questions of his own--and the answers to those questions may make us more uncomfortable than we'd like to admit. A library movement is a movement for access to ideas and thinking, which is to say it is a movement for access to power.”


The Community Library Project reading program has its roots in a volunteer-run after school reading program which began in 2008. The library itself was built over the course of the 2010/11 school year by volunteers from the American Embassy School, and it has been supported since then by many local community members and publishers.

The library has gone through several phases over the years, but currently it is home to 4,000 high quality English and Hindi books for children, and checks out books to over 700 working class and poor children with a volunteer run reading and library check out program. 

Image courtesy: The pictures of Balmiki have been used with permission from The Community Library Project.