Subhadra Sen Gupta on writing complex concepts in simple stories

Subhadra Sen Gupta on writing for children and on how hard it is to be simple

December 28, 2020 02:49 pm | Updated December 29, 2020 01:00 pm IST

Subhadra Sen Gupta

Subhadra Sen Gupta

In the year of the pandemic, there has been good news for writer Subhadra Sen Gupta and illustrator Rajiv Eipe, who were honoured with the Big Little Book Award 2020 for their significant contribution to Indian children’s literature. An initiative of Parag (Tata Trusts), The Big Little Award aims to create a platform for parents, young readers, schools and publishers to connect and spread the joy of reading good children’s books.

Every year, one Indian language author is chosen for the award; in its fifth edition this year, English is the selected language. Subhadra was among two people selected from 318 nominations by the jury.

Subhadra’s forte is historical writing, which reflects in her books. In her three-decade journey as a writer, she has written over 60 books, a majority of them for children. Balancing her career in advertising (for two decades), she has been able to carve a niche with her inimitable writing style. Explaining complex concepts in a simple but engaging way is a hallmark of her books in different genres — fiction, non-fiction, travel, scripts, and comics.

Edited excerpts from an email interview:

For someone who has been writing for children for so many years, it must have been an amazing feeling to win the award .

Oh yes. It was a beam of sunlight after a very cold, grey year. I was surprised at how happy I felt. It’s a great feeling of validation of all your work. Most importantly, it is about children. For 30 years, I’ve been talking to children and it has been worth it. For years, not many people took children’s writing seriously. There were no awards, and even commissions from publishers were difficult. I have gone through all that. So now, the more awards we have, the better. I am happy to be a part of the work that Parag and Tata Trusts are doing.

Your latest book The Constitution of India for Children (illustrated by Tapas Guha) deconstructs the constitution in a simple language. Tell us, what about your writing process is both challenging and exciting?

You have to be conscious all the time that you are talking to a child and keep in mind their level of understanding. For example, complicated concepts like democracy or secularism needed to be explained. But I do not preach to them. Even a 10-year-old notices and understands much more than we think. There is a clarity and logic in children that helps me present complex subjects and know they will understand. I have discussed everything from the caste system to religious tolerance and have been amazed at how they respond.

Most of your books have your email id at the end for your young readers to give feedback. Has this interaction given you new insights ?

A few years ago, I began to save the mails in a separate folder and it has nearly 300 mails, some from adults, and from all across the world. I just helped an American high school student with her project. The feedback helps me gauge what they liked and what they did not because kids are, thankfully, not polite and tell me. No kid will ever say my book was ‘nice’. Also, if they like my books, I become a friend and they write freely.

Book cover The Teenage Diary of Jahanara by Subhadra Sen Gupta

Book cover The Teenage Diary of Jahanara by Subhadra Sen Gupta

Has your writing style changed over the years?

Oh yes. I have become simpler and as Ruskin Bond once said, it is very hard to be simple. Also my storytelling skills have improved.

Who are the writers that you admire?

The one I am thinking of right now is John Le Carre. I am addicted to detective fiction and at one time dreamed of being the Agatha Christie of India. I read a lot of history, especially Ramachandra Guha, Upinder Singh and my favourite: Abraham Eraly.

Most of your books revolve around history. What would be your tip for budding writers on writing history that people want to read?

First, e-mail me. I’ll guide you so you don’t see a fat history book and have a panic attack. There are ways to research and ways to use the information cleverly. I am offering my experience of 30 years of panic attacks.

Did you write through the pandemic?

In the beginning, I froze. Somehow the silence and isolation got to me. I realised how much I needed my family and friends, and just getting out of the house to freshen my mind. Yet, one book is nearly done, again around the life of people in the past like Let’s Go Time Travelling . This time by request from the children. One kid wrote to me ordering I ‘make’ a book about people in the past. So I obey.

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