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The little boy who decided to write (and publish!) his own book

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When you promote a love of reading in your child, you never know where it might lead, mama! Here’s how one mama’s questions and encouragement inspired her son to start writing a book… at age 3!

Many a child has amused parents with fantastical (sometimes non-sensical!) stories dreamed up in a way only a toddler could manage, and surely many have also “written” books with a few drawings or scribbles on paper. Rishav Gupta (now age 8), took things a bit further.

“I want my own storybook!” Rishav told his mother Srinanda, an early years teacher at Chatsworth International School, when he was just 3.

At this stage he wasn’t writing, though he’d demonstrated a love of storybooks and a keenness for drawing.

“It all started with doodling,” Srinanda recalls. “Pay attention to the doodles: every scratch can have a story behind it if you just ask. Every curvy line can have a story.” If I wasn’t a teacher I might not have known that, but as a teacher you have an awareness that it’s something truly authentic worth paying attention to.

Such was the case with Rishav, whose very first story started with a picture of a tiger in the bathtub and consisted of just four sentences (as told to Srinanda):

“A cub went to his bath. He saw bubbles. He played with the bubbles. He liked it.”

Srinanda, who was more than happy to encourage Rishav’s interest in books and reading, bound a few of his illustrations together and laminated a cover. While he was delighted to hold his very own book in his hands, he also told her, “I want a real storybook, with a hard cover, on the shelf, in the shop.”

By age 4, Rishav had picked up a pencil and started writing in earnest. Srinanda continued to encourage his writing, storytelling and illustrating. Her expertise in early childhood education really came in handy, as she always knew just the right questions to ask that would get him thinking about what came next.

But even as the stories Rishav dreamed up became more complex, he held fast to his dream of publishing a real book. For years Srinanda and Rishav carefully saved his stories and drawings (“We go through sketch pads like you wouldn’t believe!” says Srinanda, who suggests Daiso and Value Shop for cheap art supplies), and last year after a chance meeting at a friend’s event she happened to meet a local publisher who recognised Rishav’s talent and vision.

The result: Dreamagination, a collection of stories and illustrations Rishav did between the ages of 3 and 7. Each story is also accompanied by a teaching tip or suggested provocations from Srinanda, and there are also some fun suggested activities for kids at the back. A majority of the proceeds from each book also support educational initiatives in their native India.

Says Srinanda, “The main message is that parents have to encourage. The process is more important, not this book. This is a journey, and it doesn’t stop with writing. It could be reading, it could be singing, it could be dancing. Anything that you dream about, just chase it! Chase it to the best of your abilities. You don’t have to be perfect. Rishav’s not perfect – he wasn’t born to be an author or anything, anybody can be like him. It’s just the encouragement and the support you give to the journey.”

We recently sat down with Rishav and Srinanda to learn a bit more about this process, and got some tips on how to develop of love of reading and writing in your own little ones, mama!

[To Rishav] What inspired you to start writing stories, and to want to write your own book?

I was reading this book about places all around the world, and I kind of felt like, I really need to write my own. It feels so cool reading other people’s books. I read about animals all around the world and really wanted to write about them myself.

[To Srinanda] When did you start reading to Rishav and telling him stories?

Six months. When I was expecting I tried reading to him in the womb but I didn’t get much out of that – I needed someone tangible in front of me!

Rishav, do you have a favourite storybook?

Harry Potter. I’m on the fifth book.

[Srinanda] And that’s where it has to stop for now! We weren’t sure if we should allow him to read that one [which features dark themes like death and murder], but he’s showing comprehension and he managed the fourth book fine. And we asked if he had nightmares, and I think he did. But he loves it, and his father is a freak about it, so they love having conversations about it.

I also like Roald Dahl and Tintin. And I like Geronimo Stilton.

What did you like to read when you were younger?

Julia Donaldson, and I loved to read books about penguins. Julie B. Jones. And I like Enid Blyton a bit. Not too much, but a bit.

[To Srinanda] What kinds of questions and prompts did you ask Rishav to encourage his storytelling and writing?

Being a teacher, I know how you formulate questions can be so important. The way you ask a question can bring about so many different responses from the kids.

For instance his first stories were all about places. But then it came to a point that he was doodling or drawing. He might not come up with a story, but I might say, So there’s the cat. What happened next? Where would it go? Who else was there? What do you think would happen at the end?

Sometimes there were other stories where he wrote first and there were no drawings. But the conversation was always happening, and of course reading was always happening. It’s a ritual between us.

There are some stories that we’ve revisited over the last four years, but from the moment he told me about his desire to write a book, I was alert to which stories had the scope for expansion, the potential to bring in teaching skills.

[To Srinanda] I love the “Teaching Tips” that accompany each story in the book. What brought that idea about?

As this was all happening, I began to think, as a teacher, At what point in time would I suggest he use punctuation? At what point in time should he try to introduce dialogue between two characters?

Some stories have just three or four sentences and that’s it, because he was just three years old. With each story there’s been to-and-fro collaboration, listening, trying to figure out exactly what he wants to stay.

Mistakes were encouraged. Some educational systems are so rigid, and children are made to feel like they can’t make mistakes. In this case, we just want to emphasise, Oh my gosh, you’ve done it! You’ve published a story!

You’ll see in the book there are no full stops, many times there are run-on sentences. It is his work, and you can’t take away his work. It has to be authentic.

Rishav, do you have a favourite story in the book?
The last story is my favourite. I like writing long stories, and that one’s the longest. I also like the drawings.

What’s your next book about?

It’s a chapter book. The first chapter was my birthday gift to my mum.

Do you like to draw more or write more?

I’d probably say I like to draw more. I’ve got my own style and don’t take lessons.

[Srinanda] I consulted a few artists I know and they all recommended against giving him art lessons. They said just give him coloured pencils, give him charcoal, and let him explore different textures.

[To Srinanda] How do you feel about screen time?

I don’t think it’s bad, we introduced it very young. But usually it’s in moderation, typically limited to 30 minutes per day, and he follows the rules. But for anything and everything, balance is key.

[Rishav] Do you write your stories by hand, or on the computer?

For this it was all written by hand, but for my new stories I’m typing them on the computer.

Where did the name ‘Dreamagination’ come from?
[Srinanda] This actually came from my husband. We were talking about Rishav and he never used to only dream at night, he was always daydreaming – that’s why there are both a sun and moon on the book cover.

[Rishav] One night my mum said, “Why don’t you go to bed and you can dream, and try to imagine the book title.” Then I said,“Dreamagine!”

[Srinanda] For many months we went back and forth trying to come up with a title, and we had a couple other ideas but it turned out they’d already been taken. Dreamagine was a word Rishav had always hung onto, so we decided to go with that.

Where is the book available to purchase?
[Srinanda] For now it’s available globally on Flipkart; in Singapore you can buy it through the publisher Kitaab. We’re hoping for Amazon but they’ve got their own restrictions. Following the launch on 11 February, we may be selling it at stores in Singapore, but in the meantime just contact us directly and we can arrange a copy.

[To Srinanda] Tell us more about the teaching workshops you and Rishav recently led in India?
When the book got published, the response was overwhelming. Whoever thought about the message of the book – which is to inspire kids to write or chase their dreams – they all wanted to know what was next. Starting a few years ago whenever I go home to India I lead some teacher trainings, as educators have more limited resources there than we do here. So this year I thought, Okay, Rishav, why don’t you help out? This time I was actually more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person, he was leading the teacher workshops!

[To Rishav] What was that like?

It was pretty cool! They all listened, and in one of the workshops there were over 100 teachers. I liked that one the most – I like speaking in front of a lot of people, teaching them. Every time there’s an assembly at school I love talking about the lines of enquiry. No stage fright!

Any final thoughts?

[Srinanda] I really hope people understand the vision, and I hope I can reach out to many. Honestly, if it was just about selling books, we wouldn’t be doing workshops for teachers. What’s most important is that we want to reach out to parents – we’re hoping to do workshops with parents in Singapore in the coming months (watch this space!). I think it can help parents guide their children along with reading and writing.

Thank you, Rishav and Srinanda, and congratulations on such a wonderful collaboration and accomplishment. To purchase Dreamagination online in Singapore, visit the publisher’s website.

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