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The novel The Bridge Home by Padma Venkataraman has just won the Global Read Aloud prize for middle grade readers.

I wanted to learn more about this award-winning author and started our conversation with “it Is a tough job to choose books with appropriate themes for middle schoolers.” Also, reaching adolescents through writing is a tough task for any author, I say and Padma agrees wholeheartedly. “I chose to write a middle-grade novel n part, because I have an eleven year old child, and so many books are not really appropriate for her because of the themes they handle,” she said.

Her motivations for writing the book speak to the current political moment too. “In this day and age, It is so very important that children know that instead of building walls, breaking walls in your mind and heart is much more powerful. The ability to relate to people far different from you is the very basis on which humanity survives.”

With a clear sense of conviction, she asserts, “a book is indeed more powerful than a movie. Through the pages of a book, a child can look into the heart, mind and soul of a character. Words allow the child to look at situations through the character’s eyes. And, through this process,  they can watch and identify with that character, building empathy and compassion. When you are very young, if you are exposed to a different culture then, you can respect differences in that culture. That is indeed the most important task of global children’s literature – to be honest and authentic – books can literally shrink the globe by changing perceptions and thoughts at an impressionable age.” 

Her book – The Bridge Home – endeavors to create empathy for children who deal with a tough situation. The story takes the reader to the author’s hometown of Chennai in India, and it handles the difficult theme of how street children survive in the city. “Handling a theme as tough as the lives of street children, and trying to reach adolescents through writing brought up a whole set of issues. The question becomes – ‘how do you make an impression on the adolescent reader, without showing them everything in terms of adult themes like sex and violence?’ As an author, it is hard to elicit a deep emotional response without stating everything. Also, at the end of the day, there will be adults – librarians, and parents who are above the target age of the book who will read the book and make decisions about including the book for the children in their care.”

Rereading books that had made a deep impression as a child and drawing on her childhood experiences of growing up in Chennai helped her write this book. From living a very privileged moneyed life, Padma’s mother made the tough decision to raise her as a single parent and her own childhood was filled with daily experiences of connecting with children who led underprivileged lives. Many of them came to her mother in search of a sense of direction and help with school lessons, and, as a child, she regularly played and interacted with children who faced violence, abject poverty and related issues in their lives.

“My life in Rhode Island today is beautiful – the West can have very sanitized spaces whereby it is difficult to see a child go hungry in my neighborhood. So it is very difficult for children growing up here to have a connection with children drawn from a different socio economic status. In India, regardless of where you grow up, the physical setup of homes sets up a situation where lives and destinies clash, by virtue of how everyone lives on everyone else’s doorstep,” she says. The unusual circumstances of her life also found her understanding at a deep level the value of education, as it was her mother’s education that helped them survive tough times and circumstances. Padma’s journey to being a full-time author has been a circuitous one with her moving from being a scientist and an oceanographer who wrote for various publications part-time to finally transitioning to becoming a full-time author.

The best part of the interview was when she shared how deeply touched she was when she received fan letters from American children living very different lives than the child protagonists of her novel. That, in itself, shows how her primary objective of helping children break walls in their minds while building bridges of understanding has been achieved. What more can a passionate writer ask for?

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine. She has a smile on her face when she relives the joys of her childhood spent with books in her lap.

 

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