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  • Manasi Patil

Interview: Divya Thomas

Beyond Fairytales: Addressing Real-World Issues Through Children's Stories


Divya Thomas


Manasi meets Divya Thomas, the data-marketing expert turned author and advocate, who takes us through her remarkable journey from Chennai to the UK and the US, before returning to India amid the pandemic after nearly 2 decades.


The stark contrasts and social issues she encountered upon her return, combined with her personal experiences, inspired her to write her debut children's book, "I'm So Much More Than the Color of My Skin." Through storytelling, she seeks to tell stories that shed light on topics seldom discussed openly with young girls and create content that can be understood by children and also resonates with adults.  


Manasi with Divya's book

Divya on growing up and getting into writing: 


"I grew up in Chennai, India, and after living globally, including 15 years in the States and 3 in London, I returned to India. My career began in advertising, focusing on behavioral change through content. Moving back to India, I shifted towards impact work, particularly on gender rights and elevating young girls' voices, driven by my personal experiences in a patriarchal society. My work evolved into creating movements for gender equality and climate change for brands.

The pandemic inspired me to address its complexities in a simple, accessible way, especially for children. Drawing from my advertising background, I illustrated a book on COVID-19 for kids, simplifying the message without dumbing it down. The book, shared initially with friends, went viral globally, receiving immense positive feedback. This unexpected success, including translations and endorsements from various individuals and organizations, reinforced my interest in storytelling for children, a passion I had sidelined for practical career choices earlier.

My subsequent work, driven by frustrations with societal issues like skin color discrimination, led to another book aimed at addressing these concerns through storytelling. HarperCollins published this book, emphasizing inclusivity and diversity in its illustrations and narrative."


Diviya on defining what she does: 

“When introduced as a children's book writer, I clarify that I'm actually a data-driven marketer, a campaigner, and a movement builder. To me, all these roles revolve around storytelling, be it through data, marketing insights, or books aimed at changing hearts and minds. They're all facets of the same mission.”


Manasi on starting to write: 

"I've been writing since I first started reading Enid Blyton books, writing reviews and letters to the characters. This love for writing grew from my childhood, surrounded by books and newspapers in a home where my mother, a professor, fostered a rich literary environment. My journey into writing began earnestly during the lockdown, when a small project evolved into a full-length book. Encouraged by my father, I explored self-publishing, fascinated by the idea of sharing my work globally from my study table, despite the challenges of formatting and publishing."


Diviya on who she would write letters to: 

Reflecting on my inspirations, Enid Blyton's works, particularly 'The Faraway Tree' series, hold a special place. Growing up in India, where Blyton's influence was pronounced, these stories captivated me. The idea of a vast tree housing an entire community of diverse characters sparked my imagination. This theme of community and the ever-changing landscapes above the tree has deeply influenced my creative outlook. Interestingly, my personal art, primarily pen and ink drawings of trees, echoes this fascination, serving as a creative outlet that harks back to these early inspirations.


Manasi:

The imagery of 'The Faraway Tree' and its hidden worlds has always resonated with me, sparking a fascination with the unseen and ever-changing realms. Drawing creatures like little mushrooms and spiders, I've found a way to express this enchantment. While I've not thought of writing to these characters, if pressed, I'd pen letters to inquire about their experiences across the different lands, capturing the essence of those magical, shifting landscapes.


Divya: 

Creativity serves as an escape and offers new perspectives, much like my experiences with writing and drawing. During three months alone in my flat, I sought to flee reality and craft a new one through my work. This process, full of frustration and yearning for change, reflects a full-circle moment in our conversation, highlighting how interconnected our desires for escape and creative expression truly are.


Manasi on books growing up: 

Books opened up entire universes of mystery and magic, especially series like the Famous Five and Secret Seven. My brother and I, inspired by these adventures, would create treasure maps with coffee stains and hidden clues in our grandmother's backyard, filled with trees and hidden spots. We'd bury treasures in the mud, trying to live out the adventures we read about. It was our way of bringing the stories to life, immersing ourselves in a world of exploration and mystery.


Divya on what’s missing in Indian children’s literature: 

Reflecting on the influence of Western literature in India, it's clear that authors like Enid Blyton and Judy Blume have been significant. Judy Blume, in particular, has broken traditional boundaries by addressing taboo topics, becoming one of the most banned authors in conservative America—a testament to her impact. This discussion highlights a gap in Indian children's literature, especially the lack of strong brown female leads. It points to a need for content that reflects the modern Indian child's experiences and challenges, aiming to engage not just the children but their parents in meaningful conversations.


"It's interesting how Western culture dominates our reading during formative years, mentioning things like mental health counselors in schools, something not common in India. Reflecting on your school experience and introduction to mental health awareness, how has this shaped your perspective on content for children?"


Manasi: 

"Indeed, my teenage years were filled with Western books, highlighting aspects like mental health support in schools, a concept unfamiliar in India. My real awakening to the importance of mental health came later, online, spurring a wish to introduce such themes to children directly and normally, through accessible and illustrated books."


Divya: 

"This topic resonates with me too. I've been working on a project, 'Mind the Octopus,' aimed at 4-7-year-olds. It's about a girl learning to emotionally regulate with the help of an octopus, teaching through simple, fun rhymes and activities without being preachy. The book includes practical tools for emotional regulation, aiming to engage both kids and parents in understanding and naming their feelings, encouraging a healthy discussion about mental well-being."


Manasi: "I'm curious, are you currently working on any projects, perhaps something beyond the book you've mentioned about self-publishing?"


Divya: "Yes, actually, I'm exploring writing for children's television, focusing on creating representative characters for young audiences. I'm also considering expanding 'I Am So Much More' into a series addressing various important issues for kids, presented simply and engagingly."


Divya: "For aspiring writers, my advice is to remain open to learning and exploring new platforms. Engage with the community, seek feedback, and never underestimate the power of a well-told story."



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