KitaabWorld presents the first in our "Meet the Author" series, where Sadaf Siddique, KitaabWorld's co-founder, interviews Amy Maranville, the author of Amal's Ramadan about diversity, representation and the creative writing process.
Amy Maranville can weave a great yarn. Whether it is about a little girl who hears the story of the monkey-god, Hanuman for the first time, a young boy celebrating Eid, or a rough and tumble girl who sees herself as powerful, children’s writer Amy Maranville’s stories are lively whimsical reads full of playful imagery and vivid illustrations.
As author of three titles - Hanuman and the Orange Sun, Amal’s Eid and Padmini is Powerful for Bharat Babies, a publisher specializing in designing and producing age-appropriate books on India’s heritage, you might say, telling a good story comes with the territory.
Though, she has a great story too about how she landed that role.
Amy Maranville met the founder of Bharat Babies Sailaja Joshi, through a mothers group. Many playdates and conversations were peppered with conversations around the frustrations of not being able to find diverse representation in children’s books.
Maranville’s background and degree in children’s literature proved to be a great sounding board for Joshi’s nascent idea of starting a publishing company. A meeting over coffee spilled into Maranville tossing in tough questions about the direction Joshi wanted to take.
Little did she know that precisely those questions would lead Joshi to offer her a job as author on the flagship book for Bharat Babies, ‘Hanuman and the Orange Sun’.
Amal’s Eid and Amal’s Ramadan
Her fourth and latest title, ‘Amal’s Ramadan’ is a sequel to Amal’s Eid, a story about a young Bengali-Muslim boy celebrating Eid with his family and sneaking off with a sweet treat of chum-chum or two. Why did she feel the need to go back to this story?
“One of the things children literature does is to encapsulate childhood in motion. Childhood doesn’t stay in the home, childhood wants to move outside as kids push into adulthood” she explains. Amal’s character was at the edge of that in Amal’s Eid, looking to participate more fully in Ramadan and keep his fasts.
With every character however, there are growing pains, Amy is quick to point out. And (spoiler alert!) fasting for a young child, staying without food and water the whole day, is not an easy thing. Amal has his own struggles with this rite of passage.
While most children’s books on Ramadan have skipped over this very real challenge, kudos to Maranville and Bharat Babies team for creating room in their narrative for an explanation of this idea. There is an acknowledgment that not only is fasting in Ramadan hard for adults, it is a huge transition for someone younger.
Of late however, there seem to be a lot of books with a focus on Ramadan so what makes this book different?
Maranville agrees that while people are familiar with Ramadan as a Muslim holiday, there is little understanding of what goes into living Ramadan everyday. “We had a great chance to sink our teeth into this holiday and create a full story. Both books in this series are quieter books and this slower pacing also comes from the fact that Eid and Ramadan are introspective holidays that focus on the home as well as internally” she elucidates.
More importantly, she feels, these books give an opportunity for others to peek into the lives of Amal’s family and that can change misunderstandings about Muslim culture and what is it to live life as a Muslim.
Most narratives on Ramadan and Eid tend to focus on majority communities (such as North Indian, Pakistani or Middle Eastern traditions and delicacies, even though the Bengalis beat everyone hands down in the sweets section!), Amal’s Bengali Muslim family is a fairly underrepresented South Asian community.
Was this unique representation an intentional choice?
Maranville confirms that it was intentional, and also very tricky. “Finding the terminology, making sure we were consistent, and addressing things properly was not as easy as it might have been if we had chosen a bigger subset” she says.
The choice to feature a Bengali family was also to delicately balance out under representation with creating a connection to that family and their world. This conscious focus on a spectrum of South Asian diversity comes across in a lot of her other writings as well.
Harini, the character in Hanuman and the Orange Sun is clearly a young dark-skinned desi girl, who lives and moves within two cultures. There is also a play of Telegu words and Indian foods in her writing. Does she intentionally seek to showcase this diversity?
“One of the touchstones of Bharat Babies is to have an authentic representation of the culture and the community without any appropriation. We want to be careful to represent who we are representing and acknowledge that those groups of people are separate and are unique and have their own individual identities Each of these cultures is varied and diverse and it is incredible to help represent them“ she iterates.
"This is also why what you do at KitaabWorld is so important" she adds. To have a space that showcases this diversity, makes it accessible to both the South Asian community as well as the mainstream and really energizes the idea that this can be done in a fun and engaging way.
How then does she ensure that the characters and stories are culturally appropriate? How does someone who isn’t well-versed in the culture tune into the nuances?
Maranville acknowledges that a lot of the stories begin as conversations with the entire Bharat Babies team. “Sailaja’s mother is an incredible resource. We have sessions where we just sit and talk. She tells such interwoven stories that I sometimes need a diagram to keep it straight!” she laughs.
The Creative Process
Once they settle on a story, she takes a stab at the text and despite her research some things always turn out to be incorrect. This is where Bharat Babies’s advisors from the Hindu American Foundation as well as the Muslim community come in to vet texts with a religious focus.
As for her own creative process she says, “My process is then to add the child, connect the child to the text and make the book entertaining. After all that research, I am very focussed on the language, plot line and making sure the pacing is accurate to a children’s book. So if we have 32 pages, we want to make this book really fun and entertaining so that a kid can sit through the whole book!”
So what other exciting books do we have to look forward to? Maranville is clearly excited and animated about her latest release, ‘Amal’s Ramadan’ as well her new projects, which include a book on yoga ‘Harani and Padmini say Namaste’ and mythology “Hanuman Moves a Mountain’. Both books are currently being illustrated by Tim Palin whose colourful and playful pictures complement her rich stories.
We’ve already cleared out space on our bookshelf because we know each of these will be a spellbinding tale in itself!
Order your copy of Amal’s Ramadan today @ KitaabWorld!