Rashmi Sirdeshpande | ‘Factual books have such an essential place’
Posted on October 28, 2020 by Fiona Noble
“In a world where fake news can get spread incredibly quickly, non-fiction has such an important place.” Rashmi Sirdeshpande’s second non-fiction book for children How to …
“In a world where fake news can get spread incredibly quickly, non-fiction has such an important place.” Rashmi Sirdeshpande’s second children’s book How to Change the World, illustrated by Annabel Tempest, will be published by Puffin in January. On the phone from her house in Buckinghamshire, she wants to break the stereotype that nonfiction is just one tool to get children to read before moving on to “real” books: “I think it’s a great honor writing for reluctant readers, but it is so sad to limit nonfiction to a gateway drug because it is fun for avid readers. “
As a child, Sirdeshpande had no connection to the classics, but revered Usbornes Puzzle Adventures, non-fiction books about ancient history or travel, poetry collections and comics about Indian mythology. “I grew up on this really mixed diet of books and that really affected the books I write now.”
Her first non-fiction book, How to Be Extraordinary, published in 2019 and edited by Emily Lunn, was about individuals. Role models, she says, are important and inspiring to children, but they can also feel unreachable. “It can be quite a comfort to young readers to know that you don’t have to change the world on your own, but that people do amazing things when we work together.” This is the premise for How to Change the World, which shows 15 true stories made possible through teamwork. Big themes like the move to end slavery in the British Empire and the election campaigns for women and marriage equality stand alongside quirkier, lesser-known movements like Estonia’s Singing Revolution and India’s Piplantri Treeplanters. What they all have in common is that thousands of people work together. “Hopefully that’s pretty uplifting. If you look at the great challenges we face today, we have done great things in the past and we can do them again if we work together. “
Sirdeshpande wants to take the reader around the world in her books so that everyone has something to connect with and relate to. “That means a lot because I didn’t see myself in books very often when I was growing up.” Stories like the Montgomery bus boycott and the fight to end slavery were the hardest to write and feel especially relevant. “These issues are still very much alive. We feel their legacy now. We had to end on a hopeful note that still recognizes that more needs to be done. “
Although written before Covid-19, the story of the Polio eradication campaign also feels very resonant. “It’s an amazing example of international collaboration that can get over your head every day. We don’t think about it … Vaccines are so routine in this country. “Making the content age appropriate without reducing it was, she tells me, a delicate balance, but she believes readers can handle it. “Children today have this really strong sense of justice. They take care of each other. You have to bring hope, but you also have to highlight the scale of the challenge. “Tempest’s vivid, detailed illustrations skillfully capture the sound, imparting light and energy.
Feel like home
Sirdeshpande, the daughter of first generation immigrants from India, wrote constantly as a child, but “somewhere on the line I didn’t feel that people like me could become writers, and I forgot”. She became a lawyer in town, but quit in search of something more creative and flexible. When her own children were young, she fell in love with books again and rediscovered her love for writing. Coincidentally, Penguin Random House was promoting its WriteNow program, which aims to promote writers from underrepresented communities. It turned out to be crucial. “The PRH call for the first time was: ‘We’re looking for people like you. ‘I needed this. I needed someone who said, “We’re looking for someone like you with stories like yours.”
Sirdeshpande immediately clicked her WriteNow mentor, editor Anna Barnes Robinson, and worked with her on her first fictional picture book, Never Show a T-Rex a Book (Puffin). Her biggest takeaway from the program was confidence. “From the outside, it’s this really opaque industry. The greatest thing WriteNow gave me was the feeling of belonging to the publishing industry. “
At the end of her year, she had a deal for the picture book. Working with an illustrator from an underrepresented environment was key, and Sirdeshpande is clearly excited about her partnership with Diane Ewens on Never Show a T-Rex a Book. “She brought her own magic to it. She put glasses on this T-Rex, a small thing but something so many children can relate to. “The book is incredibly warm and charming, with a sequel in the works.
The scheduled aftermath of the pandemic has created a very busy year for Sirdeshpande. In August, Never Show a T-Rex a Book came out alongside Wren & Rook’s Dosh, a guide to money management for older kids – “How to Earn, Save, Grow, and Give It”. How to Change the World will follow in January, and next summer another very necessary book for our time will be released: Good News: Why the World Is Not As Bad As You Think, published by Wren & Rook. Sirdeshpande covers everything from climate change and politics to global health, arts and culture, and inequality. He calls it a book about hope. “It will set out the challenges but put the focus back on the good things that are happening.”