Chitra Soundar: Magic of the wonder years

The award-winning writer discusses her new books, the importance of children’s literature and key advice for parents. 

Chitra Soundar

Asjad Nazir

BEING a voracious reader from a young age and growing up in a family of storytellers first connected Chitra Soundar to writing. This led her towards making up stories as a young child and being part of comedy plays directed by her improv dramatist mother during summer holidays.

 Being able to read, write and speak three languages, along with connecting to lyrics in Tamil and Hindi films, immersed her further in the power of words. The firm foundation enabled Soundar to forge a career as an internationally acclaimed author of over 60 books for children.  

The beautifully crafted stories inspired by her Indian heritage and experiences across the world have ignited the imagination of young minds. She has added to her impressive body of work with recently published books It’s Time to Hush and Say Goodnight and Ballet Besties: Yara’s Chance to Dance.

Eastern Eye caught up with the award-winning writer to discuss her new books, the importance of children’s literature and key advice for parents. 

 Why do you love being a writer? 

 I’m a writer. I don’t think it’s something I do. I have a need to write, to play with words. Ideas pop up in my head. 

 I’m always making up stuff and rhyming couplets dance on the page. It’s a compulsion. Also, books are the best ways to communicate my joy and wonder of the words I have strung together, or a world I’ve created with children across the globe.  

What drew you towards writing children’s books? 

 I think my storytelling brain is stuck at seven. I used to make up and tell stories to my cousins during sleepovers and holidays. My sister and cousins recall those stories were funny.  

In the beginning, I wrote lots of different things, including published newspaper articles, and short stories for adults, which I still write. But my imagination soars writing children’s stories – where I can play with words, create wonder and open the door to imaginative worlds. 

 How does it feel to have been able to write so many children’s books?

I’m grateful that a lot of my stories have been published. But this is also the tip of the iceberg. I have a thousand more stories stuck in my computer wanting to be freed. 

 I love creating characters and worlds, but also like shorter forms. I love to tell a story in a poem. My love for short stories and poetry has never left me.  

While I write books of varying lengths, for the sheer joy and pleasure, I always choose to write verse. 

 Where do you draw your inspiration for the various books from?  

Every series or book has a different source of inspiration. I draw from my own experiences, and those around me, my culture and stories I grew up with. 

 Beyond that, the world is my oyster – reading across fiction and non-fiction and keeping on top of current affairs and the world. Everything adds into my creative well.  

Tell us more about that.

 My perspective on the world and life will show up inside a story through characters, situations and dialogue.  

I often choose Indian children as the protagonists and put them in families similar to mine, so I can tell stories not often told enough. But the emotions of the children in my stories are universal. 

 Every child feels happy, sad, disappointed, and upset, and I draw on my own feelings at that age.  

What inspired your book It’s Time to Hush and Say Goodnight? 

 It is inspired by Tamil lullabies I grew up with. I was also inspired by lullabies in devotional songs sung to Baby Krishna. Those reference the universe and its glory – I wanted to bring that to children, here and now. 

 I also wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a father. We don’t give them enough credit. I remember my dad, putting my baby sister to sleep, holding her on his chest as she slept, almost scared of breathing heavily, lest he should wake her.  

This book is a tribute to all dads and their daughters. 

 Is there a message you want to convey through this book?  

It’s Time to Hush and Say Goodnight accepts children will have tantrums and tears at bedtime and through the references to nature, I hope I inspire parents and children to stop and smell the roses.  

Tell us about your other new book Ballet Besties: Yara’s Chance to Dance.  

The Ballet Besties series follows five children who are good friends and attend ballet class together. 

 It was inspired by Yasmine Naghdi’s experience of learning ballet, going to a ballet school and becoming the principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet.  

We chose an inclusive group of children, not just in terms of their backgrounds but also in terms of their interest. 

 Tell us more about the book.  

As Yasmine often says, dance will teach you more about life – it gives you focus and keeps you healthy all at the same time. In this series, the character Indu is an Indian girl who has big academic ambitions. Her mum teaches her Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dancing. She joins ballet to make friends and enjoy dancing, even if she will never become a professional dancer. It’s a book about friendships, hopes, dancing and cake. 

 You put across subtle messages through your children’s books really well, including teaching children about dealing with anxiety, friendship and sustainability… 

 There is no inherent message required in any book.  

While a book read purely for enjoyment is sufficient, children’s books always have subtle messages. Every story tells us something about ourselves or the world, if we listen carefully and children are very good at finding truths without explicitly stating them.  

How important is it to have great illustrations in your books?  

I write for three to 10-year-olds predominantly and illustrations are hugely important. I’m a big believer that books for nine plus and even adult books should have illustrations.  

Visual literacy is equally important and even without going to a museum or an art gallery, books bring you wonderful art that children can decode and learn from. 

 Also, stories set in faraway places or of cultures not often represented in books benefit from pictures helping a reader visualise something unfamiliar to them. 

 What according to you makes for a great children’s book?  

A great story with great characters that shows us a perspective that we have not had before and asks questions that keep us thinking long after we have put down the book.  

What advice would you give parents selecting books for their children? 

 Firstly, let children choose the books. Don’t stop them from choosing graphic novels or illustrated books even if they are older.  

Second, find their interests and search for books that feature that interest.  

From football to birdwatching, from time-travel to mysteries, children’s literature has it all. You can turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader if you’re patient and find the story that captures their imagination.  

How important are the right books for the development of young minds?  

Reading fiction is as important as reading non-fiction. Fiction is the most fun way to build and grow one’s imagination. An imaginative scientist will find a cure or invent a new gadget or build a new app. Without imagination, information is static.  

What can we expect next from you?  

I’m currently working on the next three books in the Ballet Besties series. I also have Deepavali and Holi picture books coming out right in time for this Deepavali and Holi in 2025.  

Why should we pick up your books? 

  For good fun adventure stories for sure. I also want all readers to see that Asian children can be heroes of their own stories too. By making Indian children the protagonists, I want the world to see that they too can be heroes and save the day. But also, where else are you going to find references to laddus and pooris?