I really enjoyed being MC at Sandhya Parappukkaran’s launch of THE BOY WHO TRIED TO SHRINK HIS NAME on the weekend. This was a book I connected with on a personal level, since I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with my name.
The event was at the back of the Avid Reader and Where the Wild Things Are bookshops in West End, Brisbane. Since COVID restrictions had been lifted, the turn out was large, with a big contingent from our writing group, WriteLinks. There were lots of kids as well. Fortunately, Sandhya and I were sitting out the front in the open air, so we could talk without masks. I did a bit of emcee-ing and then knuckled down to ask her a few questions:
Z: First of all, I’m really happy to see only the second picture book featuring a South Asian-Australian main character, that I can think of. What inspired you to write this story as your debut picture book, Sandhya?
S: The pronunciation of my name is something that is always on the back of my mind. Because our names are from other languages which have sounds that are not present in English it’s always going to be tricky. But that creates, for me, a moment of awkwardness where I brace myself knowing the other person is probably uncomfortable having to say my name. When I was writing this book, I was attending school assemblies and my kids were called out for awards, as all kids are. I always knew by the ‘pause’ that they were next.
Other kids’ names were also being awkwardly pronounced. I always asked my kids if anyone asked them how to pronounce their names – and it was always a “no.” Except at my daughter’s year 12 graduation; she was asked. I had one school mum say to me that her son’s first name was pronounced wrongly at a school assembly and later he was teased in the playground. So, it does matter to kids, it can deflate their confidence. Often these names we give our children are entwined in culture and meaning and instances of teasing or feeling there’s something wrong with your name.
I remember 18 years ago when I was attending the antenatal clinic at the RBWH one nurse called me over and asked me to sound out my name slowly. She then wrote it in phonetics – both my first and last names. I was so grateful that she reached out like that, and it was such a relief!
But I continued not to correct people when my name was mispronounced until more recently when a colleague showed genuine interest in learning how to say my name and really taking time and effort to hear the sounds and say it properly. So, I hope the readers reading this book will be empowered to say, ‘This is my name and here’s how you say it,’ and on the other side, that people won’t hesitate to ask and take the time to learn how to say names correctly.
[I didn’t ask this question, but I think the activity Sandhya did with the kids answers the question I had about how to make up such a long name as Zimdalamashkermishkada. Look carefully at the photo. Can you see how she did it?]
Z: The illustrations by Michelle Pereira are outstanding. What was it like to work with Michelle?
S: Yes, Michelle’s illustrations are amazing and glorious. As picture book creators would know, and there are several in this room, often there is no contact between author and illustrator. I did get a peek at some of Michelle’s initial sketches, and I fell in love with them immediately. When I saw the final spreads, I was so thrilled. I love the colour palette she’s used – the oranges and greens are gorgeous.
Z: I’m glad she dressed the kids in school uniform, and that banana leaves feature in the book. I feel like this is a very Australian, even a very Brisbane, book, but that it has very universal themes. Is it available overseas?
S: I agree with you. I love all that too. Did you notice the kookaburra in the opening spread? And yes, the theme is one that many people around the world can relate to. It is available in New Zealand and the UK right now, and the United States, Canada, and South America – all next year.
Z: I hinted at some of your other manuscripts. Is there something in the pipeline for you?
S: Yes! My second picture book Amma’s Sari will be out in April 2022, by the same illustrator-publisher team as this book. I really want to thank the team at BrightLight and Hardie Grant Children’s Books, especially Alyson O’Brien, my publisher. And thanks to Jo Foster for the flowers and attending today.
Z: Well, good luck with it. I predict you will have a very fruitful career as a children’s author. I hereby declare your book launched!