With the holidays approaching, we're reminded how intrinsic the connections between food, culture, and family can be. The feelings evoked by the aroma and taste that comes with certain dishes are some of our most ingrained and deeply personal associations.
Priti Birla Maheshwari's picture book Chaiwala! (Owlkids, illustrated by Ashley Barron) gets to the heart of that association, celebrating a simple family moment when a young girl and her mother stop for a cup of chai in a train station.
Waiting for their fragrant tea, they take in the sights, sounds, and smells that swirl around them. The busy chaiwala's cheerful voice, the scent of ginger and cardamom, the clink of cups; it's all part of the landscape of the mother and daughter's day together, a day that is at once ordinary and deeply special. Barron's cut-paper collages bring the magic of Maheshwari's text alive, making for a picture book that will warm readers to the last page—or drop.
We're speaking with Priti today about her charming debut book, which she wrote after working for more than 20 years as a teacher. She tells us about drawing on her own family memories to write the book she's been dreaming of since high school, how she hopes her young readers will use the book to find the beauty of their own ordinary, special days, and what it was like to see her writing interpreted by an illustrator for the first time.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Priti Birla Maheshwari:
I knew since I took my first creative writing course in high school that I wanted to publish a picture book. This book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting India as a young girl. I wanted the reader to immerse themselves in experiencing having a cup of chai through the words, the sights, smells and sounds.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
I hope kids take away the idea of creating and appreciating the small moments that come their way. The little girl in the book shared her small moment with us at a busy train station in India. It was one moment for a short period but one that she cherished. Finding your own moment and slowing down to appreciate it allows for some wonderful observations and reflections.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
For me the most memorable moment was seeing the text come together with the illustrations. That was just so incredible as it brought the book to life! As I flipped through them, I could imagine the reader being taken to the chaiwala stand by the illustrations as they swirled and popped out on the pages.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
For me writing is meditative, frustrating, thrilling, and exciting! When I have setbacks such as feeling stuck with how to show the growth of a character or the plot, I usually take a break from the story. Sometimes it’ll be for a few days or sometimes for weeks. Like most things in life, stepping away from something and coming back to it may allow you to see it differently or notice things that you hadn’t before. Another strategy that I use is talking about it with my family. They may not have any solutions but just saying it out loud helps me clear my head a little and every now and then, offer a new perspective.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
I think that many people have this idea that writing a picture book is a very easy thing to do. It looks deceptively simple but is the complete opposite. You have to create a story that encompasses all the parts that every good story should have but in only 500 hundred words or less! Every word on the page has to matter; it has to be there for a reason.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on several different picture book manuscripts and am also working on my first nonfiction picture book manuscript. Hopefully one (or all) will be coming out in the future!
Priti Birla Maheshwari was born in New Delhi, India. She moved to Canada when she was six years old and has also lived in the United States. A teacher for more than 20 years, Priti lives with her husband and daughter in Cambridge, Ontario. Priti savors the tender moments and conversation that happen when people connect over a cup of chai. Chaiwala! is her first picture book.