Interview with WIP Grant Winner and Member Jyoti Rajan Gopal

Photo credit: Alison Sheehy

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

You recently were awarded the Work In Progress Grant for Underrepresented Voices from SCBWI. How did you feel when you received the news?
All I could think was “WHAT?!” I had submitted other manuscripts in previous years for other SCBWI awards and grants with no success, so I didn’t have any serious expectations. But you can’t win if you don’t put yourself in the game, so I knew this was an opportunity I had to go for. The application was due in March—I had submitted it and then promptly forgotten it because you know, life.

The day I received the news, I opened my email as I do every morning, and the first one I saw was from Lin Oliver herself!!! Gaaah—I was literally gobsmacked and could not believe it. I had to read the email several times before it hit me. It was such a thrill! I was able to share the news with my family and of course, my agent, but I had to wait to share on social media because SCBWI wanted to share the information first. That was very hard to do.

You received the grant for “A Pottu is a Promise.” What is the book about? 
Pottu is the Tamil word for bindi, the mark that many South Asians wear on their forehead. In this story, as an inter-generational Indian-American family gathers and prepares for their baby’s naming ceremony, his big sister celebrates what the pottu means to the different members of her family and finally, what the pottu means to her. The story invites a deeper understanding of the pottu than is popularly held in Western culture, while highlighting the pride the little girl has in her heritage, the sense of community that holds her up and the love she shares with her baby brother. 

You have several picture books coming out between 2022 and 2024. Tell us about them. 
I have seven books under contract, six of which have been announced.

AMERICAN DESI (LBYR, June 2022) illustrated by Supriya Kelkar, is a rhyming picture book that celebrates the experiences of young children growing up Indian-American: straddling the two cultural worlds they belong to, embracing all they love of both worlds and refusing to be limited by either. This story reflects my own journey, and that of my daughters, as children navigating multiple worlds and trying to figure out where we belong.

MY PAATI’S SARIS (Kokila, Nov. 2022) illustrated by Art Twink, explores a child’s love for his grandmother and her saris, exploring the sari in all its versatility, while challenging the gender expectations of the wearer. 

DESERT QUEEN (Levine Querido, March 2023) illustrated by Svabhu Kohli, is a picture book biography-in-verse of drag performer Queen Harish, known as the Whirling Desert Queen of Rajasthan. Lit by an inner fire and propelled by a family tragedy, Harish defied the conventions of middle-class Indian life, battled discrimination and intimidation, and grew up to dance with Bollywood stars and perform on stages across the world. I met Queen Harish in Rajasthan at one of her performances and was blown away by her talent, charisma and warmth. I knew right away that I wanted to tell her story.

ONE SWEET SONG (Candlewick, Fall 2023) illustrated by Sonia Sánchez is a counting story of community members in a city neighborhood, slowly pulled to their windows and balconies by the sound of music. One by one, each joins the medley as notes gather, counting from one to ten, and back again. Written at the height of the pandemic, this was inspired by the many videos of communities singing and playing music together to combat the isolation of lockdown. As I wrote this story, it moved beyond its beginnings to become an expression of hope that all communities, whatever their struggles, come together to heal.

SISTER DAY (FSG, Winter 2024) illustrated by Fanny Liem, follows two sisters and the rhythms of sisterhood—how despite their inevitable fights and disagreements—sisters will always find their way back to each other. This story was inspired by my two daughters.

LOVE IS HERE WITH YOU (Candlewick, Fall 2024) illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, was just announced and is a bedtime book inspired by a Malayalam lullaby and Carnatic classical devotionals from my South Indian heritage.

And then I have one more which is unannounced, so all I can say is that it’s an ABC book!

You’re a kindergarten teacher, how has that influenced your work?
It has been a HUGE influence! In so many ways.

1. I have been a kindergarten teacher for a very long time, and so picture books have been a part of my life forever. I have lived and breathed them in my work, and without even realizing it, I think I began to develop a feel for the way stories are written and how pictures and text come together to create magic for young children. 

2. I also got a real sense of what stories were not being told, what I had to hunt down for my students, what I could not find, what was missing, what I wished was available! 

3. A school day can be filled with the most unexpected inspiration. A story that is out on submission now was inspired during a nature walk in the woods with my students. I have other stories in my files (some that will probably go nowhere!) that were written because of a moment that happened with a student.

Can you give a brief capsule of your writing career—how you got started to having your first book ready to be published this year?
I started seriously writing for children recently. I have written articles for teacher magazines and monographs but never considered myself a writer. I had written one picture book biography many years ago, but it sat on my computer for years because I did not know whether it was any good and I had no idea how to find out. Every time I ventured into researching the world of publishing, I would become overwhelmed by the obstacles that seemed to be everywhere. 

Four years ago, I decided to take it step-by-step. I imagined a published book and then I worked myself backward thinking about all that would need to happen to get to that point. Then I got to work.

I researched authors who offered critiques and reached out to Lola Schaefer  for a critique. She was wonderful and offered me not only constructive feedback and advice, but hope—I could write!  It wasn’t just my family and friends that thought so.

I joined SCBWI right away, including this chapter. Joined 12×12. Started attending workshops. Became a member of The Authors Guild. Got on Twitter (the first post was terrifying!) to connect with the writing community. Joined a critique group thanks to the Westchester Chapter (shout out to Kimberly Marcus who created that opportunity). And just started writing, writing, writing.

I found my first agent at a Highlights workshop. We spent a year shopping my PB biography which went nowhere, but thanks to her I got another story in front of a publishing house. At the end of our year together, we parted ways, but I am so grateful to her for believing in my writing and giving me the confidence to move forward. 

I spent a ton of time researching agents, looking at their MSWL, reading interviews they gave, but also reading interviews by authors who were repped by them and listening to podcasts they were on. I created my dream list and went into the querying trench with a new manuscript. That led to being repped by the amazing Wendi Gu. Publishing is such a subjective business and can be so slow, it’s really important to have an agent that believes in your work and can be a partner on your journey. Seeing that first announcement in PW for my debut was surreal. And it wasn’t even for the first thing I wrote. That PB biography is still stilling on my computer waiting for its time!

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