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Checking in with Chitra Soundar
We recently spoke with Chitra Soundar. She’s an award-winning children’s author who’s written over 65 books. She also writes for children’s theatre and TV, and alongside her writing is the founder of The Colourful Bookshelf.
What does well-being mean to you?
Quiet! Not having any external commitments, any events to go to or any meetings to dial in to, so that the whole day is mine. Just that uninterrupted time to be creative, to do what I want and not limit myself. Time I can spend playing with words, whether I'm writing something specific for a book, creating something totally new or writing in my creative journal. That’s my mindful space.
What’s one habit or routine that improves your life?
Definitely getting up early in the morning. I'm a morning person. Back when I was working full-time alongside writing I used to get up very early. Even now as a freelancer I still get up at five in the morning, am at my desk by six and done by eleven. That’s my best routine. If I have to write in the afternoon then I’m not productive and have to re-write a lot the next day, so I prefer to write in the morning and move anything that isn’t creative to the afternoon.
What one thing makes you the happiest?
Being with my nephews. We play a lot outdoors, telling stories, imagining together and playing with all their teddies! Also playing in my creative journal, coming up with creative ideas even if they’re complete rubbish. That’s my happy space.
What helps you to feel healthy?
I’ll go for walks along the river I live near, as many days as I can. I also go to the gym to lift weights. I’ve learned that if I don’t do any weights my hands seize up at some point, so to outdo RSI I’ll do weight training for my arms and shoulders. I’ll balance that with the walks for thinking and listening to podcasts, along with some running and jogging in the gym. With food I'm vegetarian, eat at home 90% of the time and don’t really eat chocolate, which all adds to my health. I find the trick is to not buy the stuff you will binge on. If it's in the house I will eat it! I always give in to temptation so I don't keep anything unhealthy in the house. I also quit alcohol four years ago which has been very helpful. I found if I drank at a social event, it killed my early morning the next day, which meant I’d lose a whole day of writing.
How did you get into what you do now?
I’ve always written, even as a kid. I did writing competitions in school but I actually started out as an oral storyteller, because it was something we were always doing in our family, and still are. My mum used to write plays that were more improvised, which we’d then go and act out on stage. So that was how I started out in storytelling but I was always writing, though not necessarily with a view to publishing. When I moved to Singapore from India I had an opportunity to meet with a publisher who wanted folktales to be retold, which I know thousands of! I started working with them and eventually came over to the UK. I’ve always written for kids though - I don't think I’ve ever thought that I’d like to write for adults. I think my brain is actually only eight years old!
What project are you most excited about right now?
That's very hard because there are so many going on at the same time! I'm writing my fourth book in the Sona Sharma series. The third one is currently being illustrated and is in production at the moment so I’m starting the fourth one. I'm super excited because there’s a wedding in it and it's a more family oriented story, though I don't have a title for it yet.
I'm also working on a ballet series with the principal ballet dancer from the Royal Opera House. I've written the first book, and although we don't know who will publish it yet though that’s another exciting project on the horizon. It was a great meeting of minds when they reached out. It's a friendship story about ballet but it's also about inclusiveness and ballet in everyday life, without everybody having to become the principal dancer.
What are you proudest of in your career?
I think my proudest moments are usually when readers, especially Indian or South Asian children in the UK, see themselves in the book. I go into schools and get hugs from all these children who tell me “your character’s just like me” or “my mummy cooks the foods in the book” or “my parents are from India just like these characters.” When they start identifying with the story you realise how much they have missed that representation. I saw this with my oldest nephew when he was seven. He picked up one of my older books which has two boys in it. We've got a huge bookshelf so he’s read so many children’s books but I did not realise how he’d never seen himself in a book. After reading it he came to me and said “This is the best book ever. It’s got an Indian boy as the main character and the food in there is the same as the food grandma makes for us.” He ended up reading this book three times over, consumed the audio book a million times and will even quote from the book! But I think it’s also about other children understanding that they don't have to be the centre of everything. That there are other stories to listen to, other stories to read and other experiences to relate to.
What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
To read your stories, or anything you write for somebody to read, out loud. It's still an oral art so you're hearing the words in your brain, which means when I'm writing I’ll read every draft aloud. It lets you feel the rhythm of the sentences and spot if all the sentences are of the same length - which will just make you fall asleep. You need that break of shorter and longer sentences. I think it was David Almond who reminded me of this but because I'm an oral storyteller, I’m always thinking can I tell this as a story? With children, even if their spelling or writing isn’t great, when I ask them to come and read out loud you can see the amount of pride they have in their work. They'll just make up the words if they can't read their own spelling but it gives them the confidence to face a group.
What’s your relationship with reading?
I read a lot. When I grew up I was a huge bookworm. I didn't play sports, which I do regret a bit now. We couldn't afford our own books and India didn’t have public libraries, though there are a few now, so my mum used to take me to a private library about 10 miles away. She’d get me big digest editions and bound copies of every comic book I wanted to read. My mum read a lot in multiple languages, so we’d all read and write in three languages. I read a lot of memoirs of people I like and I read lots of crime, more mysteries though as I can't do gore anymore!
I obviously read a lot of children's books as well. I like to keep up and see who's writing what but a lot of authors are also friends, so I like to read their books so I can tell them how much I enjoyed them.
What role does reading play in your mental health and well-being?
Going into another world and being in that world gives me the detachment from reality I need. I always give this tip to others who feel stressed - read something funny and it completely distracts you from your stress. I read a lot of comedians memoirs. If people are funny, by extension their memoirs are funny as well. Mindy Kayling’s is amazing.
What role do you see books playing in children’s mental health and well-being?
It’s huge. Developing that habit of reading, whether they're just flipping through the pictures or actually reading, it’s so important for children to be able to step away from their life, go into a different world and improve their imagination. I always tell kids, if you can't imagine a different solution to a problem, how will you become a scientist or an inventor or anything else? To imagine, you need to learn to imagine and you learn to imagine through stories. Books are also a great tool for empathy. They help children understand the viewpoint of their younger brother, younger sister, friend or neighbour, all through that story, and that changes them.
Can you recommend any books we should check out?
”Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar, and “No Rules Rules” by Reid Hastings. They’re both great books. They are management books but Creativity, Inc specifically talks about how to work with creative people.
Also “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes - It’s about saying yes to new opportunities and to jumping in and trying new things.
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The Check-In is put together by the team at Mindfuel. Mindfuel produce fun, engaging well-being programmes for KS1 & KS2, providing teachers with everything they need to confidently teach well-being skills for positive mental health.