Six Questions with Namita Mehra
Namita Mehra's journey into writing began with children's cookbooks: Superfoods for Superheroes (HarperCollins) and The Magic Spicebox (Scholastic India). Her picture books, The Light Within You and Anni Dreams of Biryani, are published by Two Lions. Namita is agented by BookEnds and has four additional picture books under contract. Namita is the founder of Indian Spicebox, a social-impact platform that has funded half a million meals for underprivileged children in India. She was born in Nigeria, raised in England and India. Namita studied at Northwestern University and worked in the U.S. for a decade. She now lives in Singapore with her family. Visit Namita's website to learn more about her and her work.
1. Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow down your ideas?
Because of my creative background (I worked at Ogilvy and Facebook as a creative strategist for 10 years) I usually have lots of ideas! I am especially inspired by travel and my kids and I spend a lot of time on both! Every trip to back home to India sparks new ideas for picture books—not all of them are good, but India with all its sights, sounds, colors, noise, wakes me up and stimulates me creatively.
I absolutely LOVE author Tara Lazar's Storystorm and have been doing it every single year. Most of my ideas are listed out on a single word document that starts with Storystorm in January and I keep adding new ideas to it. I love that Storystorm is at the beginning of the year as it gives me a good well of ideas to tap into for the year. I usually have at least 30 ideas and I always have an instinct right away which ideas are the strongest. I’m not always right about this in terms of editors actually liking those ideas ‘as they go on to become manuscripts,’ but as author Kate Messner says, it’s a numbers game….you just have to write as many manuscripts as you can and see what happens…some ideas will ultimately be better stories than others. . . .this is why the 12x12 Picture Book Challenge is great too. You just have to keep writing!
2. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
When the words just come….they flow easily and quickly, I know I might be on to something. I know when I’m in a charged creative zone and I’m typing fast and furiously. I feel a certain kind of light and sparkly energy. It has taken me years to understand this shift in energy but after exercising my creative muscle for many years, I now recognize when it’s fired up! Also it usually helps me to share an idea, and usually everyone can tell by my voice — the pitch and volume haha — if I’m excited about an idea. Is it a good idea? Potentially, yes. Will it be a good book? That is not certain! If it’s a good idea, then it is a good concept, and good concepts usually make good books BUT it will all depend on the writing. Has the idea been executed beautifully and does it connect with the reader? Has it been produced well? There are also factors out of our hands as writers.
3. Once you’ve created a first draft, what’s your next step? Critique group? Check in with your agent? Tuck it away to let it age?
I am usually on draft 4 or 5 before I take my manuscript to my critique groups. I am grateful to have an incredible critique group whom I meet with in-person once a week here in Singapore. Many of us have been together for 8 years! I also have a few online critique groups that I am part of. My first drafts are for my own eyes only, usually because they are just too raw! But I like to get to my critique group after a few quick iterations and once I have a more developed arc. My writing has evolved over the years and I’ve learned a ton from my critique groups and partners but that first draft is usually still a mess! Some of my early drafts do get tucked away because there’s just no spark there . . . or I can’t get a full character developed or arc completed. I do a lot of pantsing, so sometimes I will come back to an abandoned draft if a plot comes into my head at a later time. My agent usually hears of my manuscripts further down the line – more like version 10 or beyond is when they will actually see it and provide their editorial input and feedback.
4. Where did you get the idea for The Light Within You? What was your inspiration?
I really wanted to write a Diwali story that all children — both Indian and non-Indian — could connect with and relate to. I have been going into my kids’ schools for Diwali celebrations for more than 8 years now and making up my own stories …and so it was a dream for me to have my own Diwali book to read. Diwali books for children have traditionally focused on Hindu mythology and religious aspects of the festival. Other Diwali books highlight the light and fun stuff that appeals to children, like decorations and fireworks. I wanted to dig into the spiritual essence of Diwali and distill some of the things we’ve grown up hearing, like, ‘good over evil,' and what that means in a modern context. I wanted to create a layered story that features multiple angles and emotions with universal appeal, like missing a grandparent, finding a sense of belonging, feeling post celebration blues, and sharing our rituals and culture with others.
5. What was the timeline for this book, from idea to publishing?
This was the second book in a two-book deal with Two Lions (children’s imprint of Amazon publishing) I was really nervous because it took my editor and I a while to figure out what Book 2 would be (Book 1, Anni Dreams of Biryani, won me the contract). But once I shared with my editor my dream of writing a Diwali story, she was super excited for a holiday story with a fresh angle. It took just over two years from discussing the concept with my editor to publishing. The dream of having a Diwali book was born many years ago!
6. If you read this book to a room filled with kids, what message would you want them to leave with?
Diwali is not just a festival, it’s the light within you. Inside each and every one of us lives us a special spark. What is this inner light and how does it shine bright? It’s about believing in yourself, being yourself, and showing up with kindness. Sometimes that light dims, and that’s okay.