Today we are happy to share an interview with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen! She has written over 30 books for children and also runs the blog Nerdy Chicks Rule. I had the privilege of illustrating one of her latest picture books called Orangutangled. Three of the Z-Girls and I chatted about the book, and then Sudipta joined in for an interview about the origins and inspirations behind Orangutangled. As is typical, writer and illustrator didn't interact at all during the creation of the book, so this interview is the first time we've ever actually talked together. Thanks for the conversation, Sudipta! (portrait by Gracie)
Evangeline (age 6): Some monkeys wake up and are looking for food. They see some mangoes. They reach and try to grab them, but they all fall down.
Lily (age 11): And when they fell out of the tree, it splatted all the mangoes.
Gracie (age 14): Juice everywhere.
Evangeline: The monkeys all get sticky’d and tangled up. Then they rolled, and some more persons got tangled up too. More and more and more persons.
Evangeline: Well, not persons.
Gracie: A yak and a boar...
Dad: So is that it? Tangled up. The end.
Evangeline: No, no, no, no, no. That’s not the end. Because we still have to tell the part where there is a tiger, and they are all like, “Ahh! Teeth! The teeth are making me scared!” The animals just don’t like the look of the scary teeth.
Gracie: He’s going to eat them.
Evangeline: They rolled and rolled and rolled, and the tiger gets knocked in the water.
Lily: And at the end he’s floating away on a log in the ocean. It’s kind of sad. Poor little tiger.
Evangeline: It’s an awesome story.
Lily: Where does the tiger go?
Dad: He’s going to look for Pi.
Gracie: (rolling eyes) Gosh, Dad. That was bad, Dad.
Lily: He means, “The Life of Pi,” Grace.
Gracie: I know. That was such a bad joke.
Dad: What’s your favorite part of the story, Evie?
Evangeline: I like the biggest tangle. When everybody is tangled, even the tiger.
Gracie: The tiger is adorable.
Lily: I think this story must have been fun to illustrate.
Gracie: I like the baby yak and the little bird and the expression on the tiger’s face.
Lily: I like the fact that the yak is a mom and not just a plain yak.
Gracie: The yak’s a woman.
Dad: That’s something I would love to ask the author. Why did she write “mama yak”? She could have picked any adjective. Hairy. Sleepy. Happy. Why “mama”? The fact that she’s a mom really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. But it led to big ramifications for the illustrations.
Lily: Well, I think it makes sense. Because a mother would be more likely to come help out than some random lady would.
Gracie: A mom would be the first person to help. A mom would be the most sympathetic. She’d be the first person to say, “Oo – I have to help those poor people.”
Lily: It makes sense.
Dad: Alright, we’ll ask and see! Now, have you guys ever gotten tangled up before?
Gracie: I got my head stuck in a chair once when I was little.
Dad: I remember that!
Gracie: Actually, it wasn’t my head – it was my whole body. My waist got stuck between the rungs of a chair. You had to use butter to get me out, and that didn’t work. So you put shampoo in there, and that didn’t work. And we didn’t want to cut up the chair because it was one of our nice dining room chairs.
Dad: How did we end up getting you out?
Gracie: You just kept putting more and more butter and shampoo on me.
Lily: Hee hee hee!
Dad: I think that sounds like a new book idea!
Gracie: There were large clumps of butter all up and down my waist.
Lily: Once at church I got my hair snarled around a button on Ashleigh’s shirt. A teacher had to come save us.
Dad: Was it a mama teacher? Let’s put your theory to the test.
Lily: Actually, yes it was.
Dad: Any last words about the book before we start the interview?
Gracie: It’s fun. I think children would really enjoy this. Kids love rhymes. Kids love brightly colored animals. And what kid doesn’t love juice?!?
And now for our interview with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen!
Gracie: Hi!!!Dad: How are you?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Hello, I’m doing well. There are a zillion of you…
Dad: Well, three of the kids are here… Three nerdy chicks...
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: It feels like a zillion to me. I’m so happy with the way the book came out, and I hope you are too. When my son saw the book, he said “I want to draw like that.”
Dad: Aw, that’s cool! A great compliment, especially coming from a family member of the author. Well, does someone want to launch in with a question? Do you want to go first, Evie? This is the first time Evie has joined us for an interview.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I’m so excited – this is the first time I’ve joined you for an interview too.
Dad: Go ahead…
Evangeline: When did the idea for Orangutangled start?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I came up with the idea many, many years ago. I really like wordplay, and I was sitting down with a list of zoo animals. I got to “Orangutan” and thought, “What word could I change a little to make something funny out of this.” And when I found “Tangled,” I immediately had this idea of orangutans with their big long arms all tied up in a ball. But it’s a big journey from an idea like that to a finished story.
Gracie: It takes a long time.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Two years is a long time to spend on one story that can be read at bedtime in 7 minutes. But it’s super cool that when I publish a book, my name is on the cover. I think it’s important that when your name is on something, you are really proud of it. You need to take the time until you get the right ideas.
Gracie: I’m not a rusher.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Good for you. So I had the idea of being tangled. And that made me think about a big mess. And a big mess made me think of a bad day. And when you have a bad day it can feel like it’s rolling and snowballing out of control. Sometimes when things look terrible, it’s really hard to remember that it gets better. You can be covered in mango juice… and tangled up with an orangutan… and a tiger… and it looks like you are going to drown in the ocean… but then everything works out. It’s about keeping the faith. It’s easy to do when things are going well. But when things are tough, it’s really hard to believe that it's all going to work out.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Hah ha ha…
Dad: Did you realize the story was so deep? A picture of hope?
I know there are books like that out there with a bunch of symbolism. But I never really expect that from children’s books.
Lily: It sounds all spiritual.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: There are a lot of things that authors do that no one else is aware of.
Gracie: Sometimes we interview people and talk about silly things like giraffes on jet skis. And sometimes we interview people, and within the first two seconds it’s like, we’re going to have to have an adult conversation...
Lily: In a LOT of your books there are people who make messes. I was wondering if that is inspired by your kids. Or were you messy when you were younger?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I’ll tell you a secret – I’m still messy. My kids’ bedrooms are pretty clean because they have a mom who is yelling at them saying “Go clean up your room!” But my room is just mess because no one yells at me in my house.
Dad: Any messes around our house?
Evangeline: Uh, yes.
Lily: In every single room of the house.
Dad: And whose fault is that?
(Everyone points to Evie)
Dad: Oh! All the fingers are pointing the same way... And Evie doesn’t appear to be denying it...
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I have three kids, and yeah – there’s a lot of mess. And different kinds of messes. You can literally drop paint all over the floor, but you can also make mistakes that make a mess of things. What is great about family is that when you’re with the people who love you, they can help you through the mess. I think I try to work with that theme a lot in my writing because as a parent it’s what I’m telling my kids. But as a person, I have to remind myself of that too. It’s okay when I make mistakes; it’s not the end of the world.
Gracie: Woah, more deep symbolism... Family! Love!
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: We all have those moments -- in my life I’ve had a LOT of those moments. In many of my stories I try to highlight the mistakes people make. Not because I am trying to put them down -- I’m actually trying to show that in real relationships these mistakes shouldn’t matter. A lot of times we can look back and laugh them off. When you guys make a mess, even when your parents are upset, do you ever feel that they are going to stop loving you?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Isn’t that awesome? Doesn’t that feel great to know there are people who are always going to love you no matter what you do?
Gracie: Are any of the characters in your books inspired by someone specific that you know?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Yes. Although most of the time... the character is me. I write about the people - and for the people - who are close to me.
Gracie: I never really thought about it, but I do that too. My friend Katie and I write stories for each other. And we write about things we know a lot about.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I write about things that are important in my life. They are important, even if they are things I don’t like. For instance, when I pick names for the bad guys in my books, I think about kids who are mean to my children, and I use their names. That’s a lesson kids should learn! If you are mean to my children, I’m going to make you a bad guy in my book!
Gracie: Ha ha ha ha…
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: So that’s something important to me in a different way. I don’t like what those kids are doing, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t go tell someone else’s kids how to behave. In life you get what you get. But when you write a story you have complete control. You can give your characters the ending they deserve. Sometimes they deserve to be happy. And sometimes they deserve...
Dad: …to be floating on a log in the middle of the ocean.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Exactly! That’s really powerful. We can’t control the world. That’s not what life is. But when we write, we can make the world what we want.
Lily: Which character are you in Orangutangled?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I am… the shorter orangutan…
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I guess I am the orangutans. I’m definitely the characters who start the problems.
Evangeline: Do you like mangoes?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I do. I do. My parents are immigrants from India. And when I was growing up we would go to India almost every summer to see their families. They had big families – my mother had 11 brothers and sisters, and my father had 9 brothers and sisters – so there were cousins and aunts and uncles and all sorts of people. And gosh, the mangoes in India are so luscious and juicy and sweet. But for me, mangoes don’t just taste sweet, but they remind me of a lot of really sweet memories.
Gracie: So writing about mangoes was more than just a random choice?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I don’t think I sat down and said, “What is my favorite childhood fruit?” When we write, we don’t think about… what is the most significant thing about my 2nd grade year? Our minds just automatically go to the important things. I think that happened here a little bit.
Lily: Why did you put a yak and a boar in the book instead of other animals? Were they more than random picks too?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I am really, really nerdy. Even though I’m writing a fictional book about orangutans that get tangled up and roll down a hill, I researched orangutan’s natural habitats to pick animals that would appear with them. I didn’t want them to be chased by a lion, because lions don’t live in the same places -- but tigers do. I am already asking you to believe something that doesn’t make any sense – that these orangutans would go rolling down a hill instead of finding something else to eat. Since I’m asking you to believe one thing that’s unbelievable, I feel like it helps my readers if I give them a nice logical basis. So the first step is to identify all the animals in the habitat; the second step is to pick which animals are easy to rhyme with. Yak rhymed really well with things like “back” and “thwak.”
Lily: Why was it a MAMA yak instead of just a normal yak?
Dad: That was a question I had as an illustrator. Why that adjective...
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I needed another word for the syllable count. So what’s the adjective to put in there? She could have been a silly yak… some other adjective like that. But I also thought her action seemed very maternal. It seemed very much like what a parent would do. A parent would come in and say, “Oh my goodness, I’m just going to fix this for you.”
Gracie: That’s what we thought! We thought it was motherly instinct.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Good for you! That makes me happy. Sometimes I talk about my inspirations and motivations, and people look at me like… Really? The book’s about that? So I like that you understand why I wrote it that way.
Dad: I had just approached that word from the art side. Okay, she’s a mama yak. What are the ramifications for me as the illustrator? Well, I have to show that she’s a mama. Which means I have to introduce a baby. But I didn’t want the poor little baby to be left all alone when everyone else gets tangled up. So I gave the orangutans a frog friend that could later keep the baby yak company. But if they both have buddies, the boar should have a buddy too -- so I gave him a bird. The number of characters in the book multiplied, all because of one little word, “mama.” None of those other little characters would have existed if you’d picked a different adjective.
Gracie: So it’s a good thing you wrote “mama” yak!
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I love how you did that. For me it also added another layer. You had all these characters watching from the fringes, but in the end they share in the reward too. And when I read this book to younger kids, I’ve seen them identify with those little characters. Younger kids aren’t always in on their family’s adventure, but they do want to feel like they are part of things. And those characters give them a proxy in a way that I didn’t think of – well, you know it wasn’t in the manuscript – you added those. I think it added such a beautiful extra layer.
Evangeline: What is your favorite part of the book?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: My favorite scene is when the tiger gets all tangled up.
Evangeline: That’s my favorite part too!
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I think it’s funny and unexpected. And you don’t know what’s going to happen – a little bit worried about how this is going to turn out... Is there only going to be one orangutan at the end?
Kids: Ha ha heh hah!
Dad: That would have been a very different book.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: And let me show you my favorite picture… I love this spread. How you’ve got the tiger out there floating in the ocean. In my head, I thought the tiger was going to be eating the mangoes with them. But the truth is, that doesn’t make any sense. Tigers wouldn’t do that! So I think it solved the logical problem of the book. But it also made me think of that movie, Life of Pi –
Lily: Dad said that! I was like, where is the tiger going? And dad said “He’s going to find Pi.”
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Oh my goodness!
Dad: And they all groaned at me! The kids all made horrible noises.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: No, I totally thought that too! I even called the publisher at one point and said, “I love the Life of Pi reference.” And they were like…“We don’t know what you are talking about.”
Dad: It wasn’t an intentional reference when I drew it. This was just something I said RIGHT before we called you. And the kids all groaned and shook their heads.
Gracie: He was making jokes. “Dad Jokes” are not funny jokes.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: You guys would get along with my kids just fine… “My mother is not funny at all.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding? I go to schools and I’ve got 300 kids laughing – everyone thinks I’m funny!”
Kids: He hee hee ha…
Lily: I have one more question. I noticed that in a lot of your books the words rhyme. Is there a reason for that? Is writing in rhyme easier for you? Or do you just like the way it sounds?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: I love the way rhyming sounds. And actually, yes, it is easier for me to write in rhyme. It gives structure. I know I want one verse per spread, so it forces me to write short and to really focus on the important things in the story. When I’m not writing in rhyme and can put as many sentences as I want into a paragraph, I find that I write stories that are 10 times too long. So for me, it’s easier to be a good writer when I have rules. Probably because I went to school to be a scientist. I’m used to following rules and procedures.
Evangeline: I like rhyming stories better.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: You can have a lot of fun with rhymes.
Dad: Well thanks so much for talking with us!
Evangeline: Yeah thanks!
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: It was very cool to talk to you guys.
Evangeline: It was good, it was good, it was good.
Evangeline: She gave good answers!
jumping tiger, swinging ape; by Evangeline
sticky orangutans, by Lily
the little buddies, by Gracie
Author: Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Illustrator: Aaron Zenz
Published 2014: Two Lions
Like it? Here it is!!!
Time for a Giveaway! Leave a comment below about the interview for the chance to win 2 copies of Orangutangled - one for you and one for you to give to a friend - both signed by author and illustrator. We'll announce winners at the end of October... Good luck!