Richa Jha tells that her overwhelming love for children’s books turned her into a reviewer, a writer and a publisher
Richa Jha loved children, stories for them and pictures so much that she created an online review site for picture books called Snugglewithpicturebooks.com. The colourful website, featuring write-ups on picture books from around the globe along with attractive graphics was an instant hit. It is not at all surprising that Richa became a writer herself and then a publisher of children’s books. While her first book called Best Friends Are Forever was published by Wisdom Tree, her second and third picture books, The Unboy Boy and Susu Pals, were brought out by her own company.
“It calls for a celebration,” says Richa. “But to be honest, I am happier being a creator than a publisher. It is something that I have been doing for a long time.”
The Unboy Boy tells the story of Gagan, a boy who loves ants, enjoys painting and dislikes war stories. While his friends play pranks on old people, Gagan chooses to flip through colourful story books and stick stamps in his album. So, everyone calls him a sissy and chooha (rat), which upsets him. But every night, his mother reassures him that he is the gentlest and loveliest boy, who makes her proud.
Richa says her teenage son was in her mind as she penned the story. “He is also like Gagan, gentle and comfortable with himself. The common phrase, ‘boys will be boys’ infuriates me. I shudder at the thought of these children growing up with a sense of entitlement, just because they are boys,” says the mother of two.
Picture books are the best way to make children aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping at a young age, says Richa. “The visuals in a picture book leave a lingering impact on a child's mind, more than mere words. Children love to dwell on the unsaid. A well-made picture book will leave enough spaces for them to explore, discover and interpret.”
While Gagan is the lonely sort, Rhea and Dia of The Susu Pals are spunky and mischievous girls. They wear matching clothes and play with the same teddy. But things change when a third person enters their lives. The book, is filled with mischief, jealousy and squabbles, so common in childhood.
The illustrations complement the text, at times filling gaps left by the words. For instance, in The Susu Pals, illustrator Alicia, a dog lover, has added a dialogue boxes for the pet dogs of Rhea and Dia. Alicia says she had a ball working for this book. “I travelled back in time when I used to walk around with my best friend in school! My sister and I were the ‘chaddi buddies’. Some of the instances in the book were so similar,” she says.
In The Unboy Boy,the lifelike sketches stand out. One is immediately pulled into the story. Gautam Benegal, an award-winning animation film maker, has illustrated the book. He has illustrated for Satyajit Ray’s children’s magazine, Sandesh, at the age of 16. “There is gender stereotyping across children’s books. We wanted to break that mould. Richa and I took over a month to finish the book.”
The chemistry between the author and the illustrator is crucial to the success of a picture book, says Gautam. “Ideally, the illustrator and the author should be on the same page. They should get into each other’s heads. That rapport has worked out between me and Richa. I feel this is a book people would enjoy owning.”
Richa says she could not think of anyone but Gautam to portray Gagan. He did it with sensitivity and grace. “I had worked with Gautam before for my first book. I knew he was a genius. And Alicia’s illustration style has everything that the second book needed. Her verve, playfulness and love for dogs, come through in each page. For me, it has been fun working with them.”
Richa says her biggest critics are her son and daughter. “My daughter is a great source of ideas. I always listen to her feedback. In fact, my kids are my litmus test. I would like to create picture books that they will be proud to show off to their friends. If they don’t flaunt them, then I know the books are not good enough.”