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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

A Garden in My Hands is a poignant story for children, that helps explore Indian culture by narrating the experiences of a mother and daughter applying henna for special occasions. In an exclusive interview, Sandhya Prabhat (illustrator) and Meera Siram (writer) spoke to Sanjana Karthik of India Currents about the inspiration for their book.

Sanjana Karthik: What is the intent of A Garden In My Hands?

Sandhya Prabhat: “Enjoyment”

Meera Siram: A Garden in My Hands emphasizes the value and importance of family stories while celebrating maternal love and the ancient tradition of henna. The book also offers a ‘mirror’ to children and families in South Asian communities.

SK: What inspired this story?

The picture shows a smiling Indian woman
Meera Sriram, author, A Garden In My Hands, (image courtesy: Random House)

MS: In Spring 2020, when the world was drowning in fear, pain, and hate, I was trying to stay afloat. Just like everyone else! I turned to creativity for comfort, often keeping my mind busy writing and editing, along with]meeting with children worldwide over Zoom. I missed my family back home in India and especially my mom. Growing up, Amma always ground henna leaves and applied them carefully on my palms. She would later hand-feed my dinner and prepare a ‘straw-mat’ bed on the open terrace.

Inspired by these childhood summer nights back in Chennai, I now try to recreate them with my own daughter here in California, I started writing this story in a desperate effort to find joy and to hold on to hope and fond memories.

SP: I’m honored to have gotten the opportunity to illustrate this book. Meera’s text was relatable, joyous, and I couldn’t wait to get drawing once I read it!

SK: Tell us how the book was born

MS: The first draft was born in May 2020 before a virtual writing retreat—the words had sort of poured out quite organically. I shared the draft with my peers. They thought it was in pretty good shape but offered additional feedback. A few weeks later, after about three or four iterations, the manuscript seemed polished and ready, the fastest turnaround times in my writing experience.

That summer, my agent submitted it to editors at different publishing houses. Ultimately, it sold to my current, wonderful editor at Knopf for Young Readers at Penguin Random House. After a few months, we started editorial work.

Meanwhile, Sandhya Prabhat was also brought on board. She’s the talented artist behind all the gorgeous illustrations. Finally, the book blossomed on bookshelves in Spring 2023!

SP: I received the script from the editor, which I loved! I then handed one or two sample illustrations. I took feedback, incorporated these, and made some final illustrations. These served as the bases for my creating sketches for the rest of the pages. Finally, the last step was to paint all the pages. Overall, this took about six months from beginning to end, with the last stage of painting all the pages taking the longest time.

The picture shows a woman with long hair smiling
Sandhya Prabhat, illustrator, A Garden In My Hands, (image courtesy/ Random House)

SK: What makes this book unique?

SP: The book is lyrical, nostalgic, and is about an experience very familiar to those who grew up in an Indian Household!

MS: I believe this book is unique because of the several layers packed into a seemingly simple storyline. A mother shares stories from the family’s past as she does henna on her daughter’s hands.

The little girl deeply cares for the ‘garden of stories’ on her palms to bloom in the brightest shade of red. Through this plot, we come to celebrate the passing of stories and treasured memories. At the same time, this book is an ode to the age-old and well-loved tradition of henna usually passed across generations.

SK: How does it convey the importance of cultural diversity?

MS: The little girl in this story is having henna done, a tradition […] commonly celebrated in many cultures—from countries in the Middle East to communities in South Asia and Africa. This tells us how we are more alike than different. The family is portrayed as Indian American, with the main character wearing a lehenga and her mom and relatives in traditional clothing. Besides, there’s a beautiful spread that shows a South Asian wedding. All of these offer a joyful affirmation for children of Indian descent.

SK: Why is it important to talk about cultural diversity?

MS: Talking about the richness of our cultural diversity is extremely important [in] helping kids develop an understanding of the lives of people in communities outside their own. They get to step into someone else’s shoes and enter new spaces. These stories show kids that no matter our differences—regardless of how we look, what we eat, the faith we follow, and where we live or what we do every day—we have much in common [regarding] our shared emotions and experiences as humans. Normalizing this idea helps nurture empathy among children.

SP: It’s powerful for children to relate to characters in books that look like themselves and read stories that remind them of their own lives!

SK: Does the book have a central message?

MS: At the heart of the story lies the value of family stories and traditions. They connect us to our roots and inform us of our past. Passing down stories and traditions is a beautiful way to honor our ancestors and enrich our lives simultaneously.

SK: What‘s been the response to Garden In My Hands?

MS: A Garden in My Hands received a star from Kirkus reviews that called it ‘An intimate, lyrical story about an ancient, artistic tradition.’ Another reputed trade reviewer, Booklist said, “Vibrant colors and traditional South Asian motifs complement the narrative.” A Garden in My Hands continues to garner praise from readers, librarians, educators, reviewers, and social media influencers.

SP: The book is just about to be released but has already received great reviews, including a Kirkus-starred review, which speaks about the writing, the subject matter, and the illustrations very positively! We’re thrilled!

SK: What‘s next?

MS: I’m excited for my next picture, The Spice Box, a story very close to my heart. And I’m truly thrilled about how the art is turning out. The story is about a little boy, Rishi, who wants to help make potato curry for his Paati using the heirloom spice box that holds so much more than the colorful spices. It’s illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (yes, the illustrator of A Garden in My Hands!) and published by Knopf, Penguin Random House. Look out for it in Spring 2024! Meanwhile, my agent is in the process of submitting a couple of projects to publishers. We’re crossing[our] fingers they find a home soon. I’m also thoroughly enjoying my school visits—nothing brings me more joy than standing in front of curious faces that never fail to surprise me.

SK: Do you have a favorite excerpt?

SP: I love that Meera chose to refer to Mehendi/Henna as ‘a garden in my hands’. This phrase fueled my imagination for the entire book and helped me pick motifs and make design choices to reflect it.

MS: My favorite spread in the book is Sandhya’s illustration of our ancestors. I pause to stay a little longer on that page, and it moves me to tears every time. I think it beautifully complements my words,

Mama adds thorns to roses—she tells me of ancestors long gone.

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Sanjana Karthik

Sanjana Karthik has her own writing organization – Your Words Matter To Us, a mental health app – myEsprit, and is the host and co-founder of the Shawmulticultural show – The Reality Is. Her poetry...