Moving into Educational Writing with Chitra Soundar

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books. She has written over 30 books for children and often visits schools, festivals and libraries to share her stories and teach creative writing. (Image © Phil Perry)

Your background is in children’s books, with a range of titles including picture books, folk tales and non-fiction titles aimed at helping kids achieve their goals. Next year will see the publication of your first title for Bloomsbury education. What do these different markets have in common when it comes to the skills required from the author?

I think the fundamental skill is to tell a good story – whether it’s about a butterfly being born or a story of girl who has seven wishes to choose. Then of course the craft and language – the use of words in unexpected ways, the blend of a story from far away with the words of today, perhaps even in a setting that’s more contemporary. The third skill I think is to understand the age-ranges in children’s publishing and studying what’s relevant for different ages regardless of their ability to read.

Of course, the overlap between these markets is broader than simply the author’s writing skills. Tell us about the way in which your trade titles have been used in an educational context.

My trade picture books have been used in classrooms both by teachers and when I visit schools. For example, You’re Safe With Me, a recent picture book published by Lantana Publishing, illustrated by Poonam Mistry, can be used in so many different ways. As a bedtime book, parents will read it to children under the ages of five at home. But in classrooms, it’s a great book to teach water-cycle, thunderstorms and weather patterns, and the use of metaphors in prose and poetry.

My chapter book – A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice, published by Walker Books, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy is a great way to introduce drama, the role of state, the difference between right and wrong through its funny trickster tales. It always initiates discussions in Y3 and Y4 classrooms about fairness.

And finally, picture book Pattan’s Pumpkin, published by OtterBarry Books and illustrated by Frané Lessac, has been chosen by CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) for their Power of Reading programme and is used by teachers across the country to teach the use of language to tell a story. It was also chosen in the US to be on the Notable Social Studies booklist. 

What do you enjoy most about your work?  

For me the best part of writing is telling the story especially when it’s a new idea. I’m usually bursting with enthusiasm when I write a first draft. The fun part is also waiting for the full book to form – when the illustrations come in and the text is placed – to see what was in my head go on paper, that makes it all worthwhile.

But a book and a story realises its full potential only when it meets its audience. So when I go into schools and meet children who tell me how much they enjoyed the story or quote me lines from the book, I’m in heaven.

With increasing pressure on authors’ incomes, there is a growing need for authors to diversify. Do you have any advice for authors of educational materials who are interested in moving into trade publishing?

Trade is a different beast in terms of reach, marketing and distribution. The gatekeepers are not just teachers or librarians anymore. It could be an aunty, grandparent or parents. And therefore choosing topics, and telling the story in a way that appeals to a wider audience is key.

Trade books have to compete with television and video games and hence have to be less didactic. But that also means from a language and themes perspective, there are fewer rules to follow. So let loose and fly the unicorn of imagination.