Interviewer: Uma Girish
Published in Chatterbox magazine, 2003.
1. Why does science always fall into the 'difficult subject' category in school?
I think it’s because all science involves mathematics, and mathematics is abstract, which can be frustrating to some people. Also, if you don’t understand the fundamentals which are taught very early, it becomes very hard (though not impossible) to do well in it later on.
2. How did you fall in love with science? Was it a wonderful science teacher who encouraged it?
I’ve had many good teachers, which was certainly the main factor. The other two important things that sparked my interest in science early on, were my love for nature and my love of books. Like many other children, I liked to dream about exploring new worlds and wanted to become an astronaut or a marine scientist. I read a lot of books about astronomy at the house of an uncle who worked at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research. I really enjoyed physics when I was young. I also love animals and natural beauty and I spent my formative years at the Krishnamurthi Foundation School in Madras, where concern for the environment was greatly encouraged. When I was in college, I was introduced to Professor Gadagkar by a relative. He is at the Indian Institute of Science and I got my first taste of research when I worked under his guidance. I chose marine science rather than astronomy, because I felt a real need to help save the environment.
3. In your 10-book series 'The Amazing Animal Kingdom', you weave fact and fiction so cleverly that a serious message you slip in is absorbed and remembered by the child with such ease.
Thank you. I have strong views and sometimes they slip into my stories without my noticing that it has happened.
4. How does one make science fun for kids?
First of all, one has to love science and feel comfortable with the subject. If you don’t have a thorough grounding in science, then you may communicate a feeling of fear or inadequacy to the child, rather than sending the message that it is fun. One of the most exciting things about science is the aspect of discovery. Questions come naturally to children, and this is also very important in science. It’s easy to make science fun for kids if one has a thorough knowledge, because kids are naturally fascinated by nature and objects and phenomena around them. Their natural curiosity and urge to discover things on their own needs to be nurtured and guided. I also think that something we really need to do a little more, is expose children to hands-on experiments. Conducting a simple experiment is like playing a game, which is always fun for kids.
5. What does it take to simplify a complex subject like science and make it great reading for kids?
To make science into great reading, you have to enjoy writing. The science itself is secondary, in a sense. Writing has to be your first love, something that comes naturally. Secondly, you have to take writing very seriously and work hard at doing it to the best of your ability. Sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children is simpler than writing for adults, but this is just not true. Children are extremely critical and will not read a book that is not interesting. When you write for kids, the responsibility you shoulder is immense. If a child reads a book and gets put off, he or she may decide that reading is boring, or else that the subject (in this case science), is boring. The impact you make on a child can be much more intense and long-lasting than any impact you make on an adult. When you try to simplify a scientific concept and make it into enjoyable reading for kids, you need to check the accuracy of your facts, and then try different approaches and re-write the same story (or article) in different ways to see what’s best. I find it is more demanding to write for children than for adults.
6. When did you discover that you could use your knowledge of science to tell stories for kids?
Earlier, I used to write just poetry and fiction for adults (which I still continue to do). For a very long time, I thought that my involvement with science and my love for creative writing were two distinct worlds. My friend Iwan was the first to suggest that I could combine the two and write lyrically about science. Although he was referring to this at a different level, it was probably the first time I even thought of putting the two together. I grew up with Target, and always wanted to write for children someday. In 1995, I met Sandhya Shridar, who was the editor of Gokulam. She helped me start writing for children and suggested that I could weave my knowledge of science into my work. Mini Krishnan, who worked at Macmillan India, also encouraged me greatly. She convinced me that there was a real need for authors who wanted to try new approaches in the area of science writing for children.
7. Where did the idea for the series come from?
Lots of places! Farida was written before I had the idea for a series. I work in an oceanographic institute where people study marine animals like seahorses and oysters so I had ideas for stories about sea creatures. Then, I met Chandralekha, the editor of Neve, and she invited me to write a series for children. I always liked bats and Balan was a creature that was in my head already, waiting to be fleshed out with a sketch pen. Thangam comes from turtle walks and working at the Madras Croc bank.
8. You write and illustrate for children. That must be a terrific advantage as you see the book in complete form in your mind's eye, and you have full control over how it turns out.
I suppose it is an advantage, because it makes you see the balance between the text and the drawings more clearly, but I think all writers see pictures in their minds. I can give thought to the presentation as a whole but the only person who has full control over how the book turns out is the editor. She (or he), often decides how to package and market the book, how the cover should look, what should be on it, the general layout, etc. So each book is a co-operative effort in which a lot of people work together as a team. An author gets input rather than control, I think. Perhaps more established authors have greater say, but I am relatively new at this, and I feel I have a great deal to learn. I hope to improve as a writer in the years to come, as I gain experience and get feedback from different sources. I plan to concentrate on writing in the years to come, and leave illustration to others with greater talent.
9. Shouldn't authors like you really be writing science textbooks to make it creative and fun for school curriculum?
I’d be more than glad to write a textbook that’s creative and fun. I have been talking to the editor of Neve about bringing out a series which will be a little like a set of creative textbooks. I hope to have the opportunity to do more projects along these lines but there are some unique problems faced by Indian publishers (through no fault of their own), that I don’t want to expand on.
One thing all of us can do to help to increase the quality and quantity of creative books including text books, is to buy innovative books written by our own authors. Actively seek out Indian authors when you are in a bookstore. Take pride in Indian authors who work hard to write for Indian children! Encourage them by buying their work and talking to others about how much you like their books!
9. You are a marine scientist. Would you tell our readers what a marine scientist studies and works at?
I’m an oceanographer (marine scientist), who specializes in environmental chemistry – that means physical chemistry, really, with aspects of environmental engineering. Unfortunately, when people hear the word marine, they automatically think it goes with biology – but it doesn’t have to. In my case, it doesn’t work at all – I’m about as far away from biology as I can be – and not a biologist by any stretch of the imagination.
Oceanography is the study of the oceans. It is a really exciting field, which combines physics, chemistry, biology and geology. The “distinct” areas of science are linked and oceanographers have to be able to understand and make connections among the different disciplines. You can’t ignore any of these fundamental sciences if you are an oceanographer. For example, if you want to study what happens to an oil spill (chemistry) in the oceans, you need to know about water movement (Physics) as well as whether or not bacteria can chew up some of the chemicals (biology) and so on. Oceanographers often go on ships to gather data. Some of them dive or study the ocean in underwater vehicles. If you don’t enjoy working outdoors, you can still become an oceanographer, and work in the laboratory or use remote methods to study the oceans or do computer models – but I think working on (or in) the water, is one of the best things about oceanography.
10. Do you have one (or more) favourite title(s) in 'The Amazing Animal Kingdom' series? Why?
I enjoyed writing each and every one of them. I guess I am a little partial to Balan, Farida and Bharathi. Balan, because I wish he would walk off the page so I could stroke his fur! Farida and Bharathi, because the stories came into my head so easily. Those stories wrote themselves effortlessly. The science and the story just fit in perfectly. I do like them all, though. When you write a book, even a little tiny book, the characters become real in a way, so I don’t enjoy picking favourites!