Nani’s Walk to the Park —The charm of a place celebrated in a picture book
What happens when you see a regular neighbourhood through Nani’s eyes? The everyday becomes extraordinary.
Open ‘ Nani’s Walk to the Park’ and you’re immediately absorbed. The book is a portal to a neighborhood at once familiar and magical, reminding you just how beautiful it is to be alive.
Deepa Balsavar, the author and illustrator, takes you by the hand before leaving you to stroll at your own pace, gently allowing your eye and mind to wander and create its own stories while Nani’s story weaves through them.
Here’s a conversation with Deepa Balsavar on how this gorgeous book was created.
Me -How did the idea for this book come about?
Deepa — Sometimes, the idea for a book comes in a flash, and it is there, laid out before you in its entirety.
This is what happened with Nani’s Walk to the Park. I was approached by the Parag Initiative of Tata Trusts. They were considering funding some large format books for children. Would I be interested in submitting a few stories?
I spent a few days mulling it over and just letting the idea stew, considering things like: what kind of story justified a big book format? And, what should be the impact of the big book? Things like that.
And one night — the best ideas come just before sleep or when out walking the dog — I saw my neighbourhood laid out before me and thoughts of friendship, beauty, magic and books came to me. By morning I had my story written out. It took many drafts to finalise it but that was just the fine tuning. I also submitted two other stories. One of them — Achoo! was about the animals in an Indian jungle and things sometimes being contrary to what you expect.
I had been telling Achoo! with great interactive success for several years and knew that it would make a fantastic big book. The third story was about migration and construction workers. Finally, both Nani and Achoo! were selected for production.
Me -How did the book take shape?
Deepa — I started with the pull –out poster, placing nine A3 sheets together — a giant combination of all the frames to figure out what went where, what overlapped and which stories had connections in other frames. The floor was a flurry of paper and my dog Lulu thought it was great fun.
That was the starting point. I moved elements around looking at the overall balance and only when I was happy with the big poster did I start the individual frames.
Me -Did the scale of the book influence the style of the illustration?
Deepa — Yes it did indeed. I could put in tiny details and the sense of geography because I had this luxuriant size to play with. Can you imagine this as an A4 size book?
And the poster at the end which is crucial to the story would not occasion the aahs and oohs of excitement it does now, if it were itty-bitty.
Me -The pull-out poster is such a lovely surprise! Did children have something to say about that in your storytelling sessions?
Deepa — The poster of course is a huge ahaa moment, not only because of its size (I carry a giant one around for sessions) but also because children and adults suddenly realise that all the separate frames put together, form a picture of Nani’s neighbourhood.
I use the lanes to talk about things that I consider important in life — the local market, traditional crafts, caring for animals, laughter and mischief, love and friendship, books and the magic of nature.
In one school, two youngsters informed me that they were going to rename all the lanes from their homes to the school.
A mother sent beautiful maps that her daughter had drawn of the rooms in their house. Other parents have told me about the search and locate games their children play on the map.
In one school, I asked children what month it was when Nani went to the park. When do we have Gulmohurs and Laburnums in full bloom? When do you see carts loaded with litchis and mangoes, I asked. It’s strange how little in tune with their environment those children were, but this gave me an opportunity to talk about the world around us and what was blooming outside the window.
I find myself learning something new at every storytelling session.
Me -That’s fantastic. I wish I had such sessions in my school when I was growing up. You also make neighbourhood pictures with them. What are those?
Deepa — I join sheets of chart paper together and draw roads criss-crossing the sheets. Children draw and stick images that they think are important for their community so there have been lions and tigers roaming streets and aliens landing on houses, and that’s just wonderful.
When we make neighbourhood pictures every child draws something so that the resulting collage is a collective effort.
Me -The book makes you want to keep reading it over and over because of the small details that it is filled with. Do you think details are important in children’s books?
Deepa —Children notice things that no one else does. A parent recently wrote in to tell me that the little girl with a mask on her face (this was pre-covid times) being carried by her father in the Lane of Friendship occasioned much thought from her young daughter who wanted to know whether the little girl was ill and what had happened to her. The pages are full of such side stories that adults may have no time for, but children recognise.
Their unfailing logic and constant questioning makes putting in details an absolute delight.
Me — Oh that’s one of the most intriguing spreads (The little girl with the mask) — I remember wondering about it too. In fact, I was also marveling your ability to give room for such side stories with just gestures and body language. Do you think simplifying them makes them more memorable?
Deepa — I’m afraid that’s more due to my lack of skill! I look around at the amazing talent around me and wish I could draw better!
Me -And I wish I could draw lively characters the way you do! How do you create characters that everyone can relate to?
Deepa — Characters I guess, have to be people you know, with lives and stories outside the book. If they are real to the author and illustrator, they become real to the audience because you then let their attitudes and thoughts spill over in many different ways, even when you don’t write specifically about such things. Nani is a composite of people and values that are important to me.
Me -Tell us more about Nani. I loved how her saree is so eye-catching and distinct from all the other characters in the book.
Deepa — Nani’s saree is taken from a dress I own. I wanted Nani to be recognisable in every frame among the multitude of people. I wear that dress each time I tell the story and at some point one child will suddenly see the similarity and exclaim “You’re Nani!” It causes much astonishment and mirth.
Me -So, It’s like a little cameo appearance of the dress in a book : ) How exciting. The saree has elements of digital collage isn’t it? I personally loved how you combined digital collage and watercolors.
Deepa — Thank you for liking the combination of digital and hand drawing. Honestly, I am rubbish at technology, working only with the most basic knowledge of photoshop. There is much that I want to do but my skills are greatly lacking so I muddle along.
Me -Do you think colour plays an important role in picture books?
Deepa — Colour and black and white, each has its place in the telling of a story. This one could not have been told without the colours popping on every page.
Me -Is the vibrant neighbourhood inspired by Mumbai?
Deepa — When I was much younger, I thought there was nowhere else in the world that I would like to live.
Now as I grow older, I despair at the lack of planning and the growing economic disparity; at the skyscrapers where all sense of community is lost and there is increasing communal and religious animosity.
Where are the lending libraries of my youth? Where is the kulfiwalla who came around on hot summer nights and knew each child on our road by name? The postman knew when our annual results were due and when the familiar self-addressed envelope appeared he would wait for the results to be read to rejoice or commiserate.
We’ve lost that time when holidays were truly holidays and one didn’t go for extra classes or competitive hobbies.
Later while in college, how many afternoons were spent browsing through books on the pavements around Flora Fountain or in the dusty innards of Smokers Corner or Yunus bhai’s rickety first floor Aladdin’s cave called Fort Book Stall!
Forgive me for sounding old, but this book is a tribute to an older Bombay. It seeped out of me almost without knowing. After finishing the illustrations I was looking them over and realised that I hadn’t drawn a single cell phone or dish antenna. It was astonishing! And not intentional.
Me -That affection and regard for Bombay really comes through in each page. Like you said about characters, I guess places also need to be real to the illustrator and author, to be real to the reader.
What is also real about this book is the way it is written. I think it can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone! How does one achieve a level of simplicity so that all ages can enjoy it?
Deepa — I don’t set out to write a book for a four-year-old or a seven-year-old. The story should appeal to me as a reader first. It should be logical within whatever context it dwells and it should say what it wants to in the best possible way.
If this happens, then the story flows seamlessly, it doesn’t talk down (because after all, I am the reader) and it hopefully becomes enjoyable to a wider audience.
Me -Did the text go through changes as the book progressed?
Deepa — The text was complete before I began the drawings. I usually go through many drafts of my stories, each draft separated by a day or two.
I read aloud everything I write so I know what it sounds like. When I hand in a story there has to be a pretty compelling argument to make me change any words.
Me -How do you decide on the visuals for a book? Is the process very different when you are both the writer and the illustrator?
Deepa — When I illustrate my own books, I start seeing images while I am writing. There are things I don’t need to write because I know the picture is going to say it for me. Illustrations should carry the story forward, tell us more than the words reveal. When I draw and write, I have some pretty crazy conversations with myself!
Me -Is making books for the young different from books for older children?
Deepa — Each kind of book has its own challenges. I just gravitated towards books for young readers. I would like to write a chapter book though (sighing wistfully).
Me -What has influenced your illustration practice?
Deepa — I think everything we see and experience influences the work we do — political events happening around us, the instagram posts of other artists, the expressions on children’s faces when I tell them a story. I also listen carefully when a child says he or she doesn’t like a picture or story and I look closely at something a child adores.
Me -Apart from children’s books, you have also worked on developing curriculum and educational material. Tell us more about that. How different is the process then?
Deepa — When developing curriculum and educational material, it is always as a team. Each person brings a different expertise to the job. Debate and discussion are central to the process and though each person has a distinct responsibility, the final outcome is a synchronised team effort. Working alone can be more undisciplined and chaotic. There’s a lot to be said for feedback and other points of view.
Me -How did you begin your journey illustrating for children?
Deepa — I started illustrating for children when I joined the Avehi-Abacus Project in 1991. I was with the project for almost 20 years. As part of the core team, we developed a three-year foundation course that is now being used in all the upper primary municipal schools of greater Mumbai, as well as schools elsewhere.
That period was undeniably the greatest learning arc in my development both as an artist and as a person. During those years the programme took up most of my time but in 2005 I wrote and illustrated my first book for Tulika called ‘The Seed’. There have been several books for various publishers after that.
Me -Yes. The Lonely King and Queen, The sea in a bucket, One and many are some of my favourites. Do tell us about illustrators you admire.
Deepa — Gosh, the artists I admire are legion! Mickey Patel, Srividya Natarajan, Priya Kuriyan, Bindiya Thapar, Durgabai Vyam, Lavanya Naidu, Ruchi Mhasane, Rajiv Eipe, Proiti Roy, Sandhya Prabhat, Atanu Roy, Taposhi Ghoshal, Pulak Biswas, Shachi Kale … I could go on and on. Pick up any of their books to be delighted.
Me -What are some things children’s book illustrators could keep in mind?
Deepa — One should have no assumptions! But do show your pictures to a child and ask what s/he thinks. You’ll get an honest reply.
‘Nani’s Walk to the Park’ won the Publishing Next Book award 2019 in the Printed Book of the year in the 0–8 years category. It has also won the Best of Indian Children’s Writing (BICW) Contemporary Awards 2019.
The story is also available on storyweaver — the wonderful open-source repository of multi-lingual children’s books by Pratham Books.
The idea behind this series of interviews is to give readers a glimpse into the world of children’s publishing and picture book illustration in India — what illustrators actually do and how they work their magic. Stay tuned!