Cover Reveal: STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME, by Supriya Kelkar

Hi, Supriya! Thank you so much for coming back to the MG Book Village to reveal the cover of your new novel, STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME!

Thank you so much for having me here! I’m so glad to be back.

Before we get to the cover, can you share what the book is about?

STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME is the story of Meera, a young girl in British East India Company-controlled India in 1857. Meera is a child bride who escapes the life she has no say in only to end up a servant to a British officer in the East India Company. When the Indian rebellion spreads, Meera must choose between a life where she still doesn’t have a say in what happens to her, and fighting against the colonists. 

I got the idea for this book when I thought back to the only time I saw even the tiniest bit of representation in a book as a child. It was in THE SECRET GARDEN, and I remember feeling very uncomfortable knowing the Indians in the story were in the backdrop of the main character’s story in their own land. I wanted to challenge who we center in stories and so-called classics from this time period and make readers think about who is being left out. 

I know that, originally, the novel had a different title. Can you tell us how and why it changed, and how you felt about the change?

Because the original title had the word “pyre” in it, there was some concern not everyone would recognize what that word meant at the middle grade level. When we finally came to the title STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME, I loved how empowering it was and how it captured the theme and a simile in the book. 

Your debut novel, AHIMSA, was also a work of historical fiction. Your most recent novel, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, was contemporary. Now, with STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME,  you are back to historical fiction — and a bit further back in time than AHIMSA. Can you discuss your process, and how it differs, if at all, when you’re writing about the past or the present?

I think the biggest challenge for me when writing historical fiction is all the research it takes to make sure it not only works from a plot standpoint but that it is also historically accurate. With AHIMSA, I was able to ask my relatives who lived through that time period in 1942 in India. But STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME takes place almost 100 years earlier, in 1857, when the sepoy mutiny against the British East India Company began in South Asia. Because I didn’t have the luxury of asking relatives to confirm details, I had to rely on a lot of historical texts. A family friend is a professor who gave me several old books written by East India Company officials from the 1600s through the 1800s. I found old writings by British Memsahibs, the wives of officers living there. All of those texts were at times really difficult to read because of the racism and because they were documenting all the looting that was done through colonization but they were valuable in describing how colonists felt and what they thought about the people whose land they were draining of its resources. There were smaller details, like what would someone from this part of India wear in the 1850s or whether it would be henna or alta on a bride’s hand in this part of India back then, that I just couldn’t confirm from books so I found a professor of fashion history in India who was really kind and helpful and filled in the details I needed. So I guess that was a long way of saying, historical fiction takes me a lot more time to write because it has to be historically accurate while also being an entertaining, moving story whose plot makes sense.

Why do you think it’s important for young people to read about the past? Is there anything that, when exploring history, fiction is particularly adept at doing?

I think it is so important for young people to read about the past to understand how we are where we are today. The industrial revolution didn’t happen the way we were taught in a short chapter in history class in school. The industrial revolution and many of the advances that happened in part because trillions of dollars were being stolen from colonized countries and sent over to the west. We can see the effects of colonization in so many countries, including our own. And we can also see how much has changed by reading about the past and how much hasn’t. For instance, child marriage, one of the topics covered in STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME, still takes place around the world. Child marriage still takes place in America. The racism covered in the book, the centering of certain stories and the erasure of others still takes place today. I love how fiction can make readers really connect to someone’s experiences, even if they took place almost 200 years ago, and get a reader to care about the issues they dealt with, all of which are still around in today’s world, in the reader’s real world.

All right — let’s get to the cover! Who did the art? And how did you react when you first saw it?

The cover was designed by Sheila Smallwood, and the art is by Kate Forrester, who also did the cover art for AHIMSA. I was so thrilled to hear she was doing the cover for STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME and couldn’t stop staring at that stunning cover when I saw it. I still stop to stare at it. I love the palette and how powerful the cover is with the flames behind Meera and the strength in her face. It shows the devastation of colonization in the background and has some of the metaphors for freedom from the book on it, like the kite and the birds. And I adore the lotuses and the plants showing Meera’s growth. It is a piece of art and I can’t wait to hold the finished book with this gorgeous cover on it.

Okay, let’s take a look!

WOW! It is remarkable! When can readers get their hands on STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME, and where can they go to learn more about you and your work?

STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME releases on February 24, 2021 and is available for pre-order today! Readers can learn more at my website, www.supriyakelkar.com.

Here are preorder links for STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME:

Amazon
Bookshop.org
BN.com

And check out the book trailer for STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME below!

Interview: Supriya Kelkar

Hi, Supriya! Thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your latest novel, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE!

Thank you so much for having me! I love MG Book Village and am thrilled to be here.

Can you tell us a bit about AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE is about Lekha, the only Indian American kid in her small town in Michigan. Lekha feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too. Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

Food is present throughout the book, and is often carefully, even lovingly described. There’s even a recipe section in the back! Would you care to discuss why you chose to weave it throughout the novel (even including it in the title)?

Food plays such an important role in Lekha’s life because she often feels she has to hide her culture’s food because of the looks and comments she got when she did bring it to school when she was younger. A lot of those feelings came from my childhood, when classmates would make fun of the Indian food I brought to school. I finally stopped bringing it and would only eat it at home or in cultural spaces. I wanted to take the time to describe the food with love and show how much it means to Lekha at home so that the readers would feel this sense of loss when she doesn’t bring it to school and feels ashamed of it.

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE tackles some of the toughest, most timely and important topics. Can you talk about the development of Lekha’s story? What drove you to write and share this story now?   

I got the idea for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017. Anyone who has experienced hate knows it hasn’t ever gone away but something about that year felt different to me. I felt hate was being emboldened and encouraged by people with a lot of power and suddenly found myself terrified that my young kids were going to face the same things I did when they went to school, and that nothing had changed despite decades passing since I was their age. I got the idea for the book and began to dig deep and uncover these memories and experiences of othering, microaggressions, and hate from my childhood that I had buried over the years. The words in the racist incident in the book are words that have been shouted at me before. The othering and microaggressions Lekha experiences are from my childhood as one of the few Indian American kids in a small town in Michigan. It became obvious to me how deeply I felt this story when I was able to churn the first draft out in five weeks and everything was just clicking into place. I hope readers really connect to the story and recognize that the issues that are taking place in the book are real life issues that they can make a difference in.

The novel is balanced by numerous moments of warmth, lightness, humor, and beauty – particularly when it comes to the home life and family scenes. It was wonderful to see so much of the adults in Lekha’s life, and to understand them as complex characters in their own right. Were the adult characters always so present in the book? Was it important to you to make sure to include them as you did and as much as you did?

Thank you! The adults were always this present from the very first draft. It was important for me to include them at this level for several reasons. I remember when I was in middle school I didn’t really think of my parents as individuals. They were just my parents. I didn’t really stop to think they had their own goals and wants and fears. So I wanted to make the parents in this book really fleshed out and involved so readers could see that even though they were parents, they all had their own fears, needs, wants, and were all motivated by different things at different times. Since the book is also about empathy, I wanted readers to see that these adults could be flawed, they could make mistakes when it came to really big issues, but they could also grow and learn and change the same way the kids do. 

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

I hope the book provides hope to those who need it and empowers readers to stand up for what they believe in, speak out against hate, and be allies. I know when I was Lekha’s age, I wasn’t able to speak up for myself or against racial bullying. I hope the book encourages readers to find a way to express themselves through whatever means is best for them. Some people use poetry, or art, or music, or dance, and some, in my case, write. The possibilities are endless and I hope young readers are inspired to find the method best suited for them from this book and realize just how powerful they are.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to their classrooms and libraries?

I’d like to start with a huge thank you! Thank you for everything you’re doing for our kids right now. You are heroes. And thank you for planning to add AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE to your classrooms and libraries. It is a story about a Marathi-American, Hindu girl in a small town in Michigan in an election year, and it is also a timely, universal story about belonging and hope that can empower kids and grow empathy. Also, there are puns. Who doesn’t love a good (bad) pun? Thank you for considering it for your classrooms and libraries and I hope you enjoy it!

When can readers get their hands on AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE?

AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE will be out on June 9th!  

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

You can find me online at www.supriyakelkar.com, on Twitter @supriyakelkar_, and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar 

Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AHIMSA, THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (Sterling, 2019), AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), BINDU’S BINDIS (Sterling, 2021), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  

Book Review: AHIMSA by Supriya Kelkar

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Based on India’s history before independence, Ahimsa is a fully immersive novel and I truly enjoyed reading it. While turning the pages, you’ll envision yourself walking down the dusty roads with main character Anjali, petting her family’s milk cow Nandini, and experiencing her life in the year 1942.

Anjali, age 10, is part of the top Hindu caste of India—called Brahmins—and her life with her parents is stable and happy until her mother stops working at a British Captain’s office, in their small fictional town called Navrangpur.

Believing her mother was fired, Anjali decides to paint the letter ‘Q’ on the Captain’s office property. The ‘Q’ stands for “Quit India,” a phrase coined by Gandhi, directed at Britain’s rulers to give India back to its people, to rule themselves. Anjali’s closest friend is Irfaan, a boy from a Muslim family, who is more hesitant to draw unwanted attention to himself. I think it’s because he understands, more than Anjali, that he may not even be welcome in a free, majority Hindu India. Even if Anjali and Irfaan are wonderful friends, not every Hindu and Muslim in India are able to see past their differences.

After Anjali’s mother joins in the Indian freedom fight, practicing the nonviolent principle of Ahimsa, her life changes dramatically. Anjali is resistant to it at first before following in her mother’s footsteps. Supriya Kelkar isn’t afraid to deal with the tough topics. I also appreciated the sensitivity Kelkar used while presenting views of characters from different religions and different castes.

There’s another great lesson in the story: Sometimes our zealousness can overshadow the true wishes of the people we are trying to help. The only way to learn is by asking the opinions of those very people. Anjali and her mother learn this as they try to change communal prejudices.

Anjali’s mother, Shailaja, is eventually arrested, and fasts while in prison. This is hard on Anjali as she debates whether she and her mom should have been so involved with the freedom movement in the first palce. It’s that internal struggle between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. I love that Shailaja’s character was based on the author’s own great-grandmother and her involvement in the freedom fight.

Ahimsa shows what it truly means to take a stand. Sometimes that involves doing away with your own cultural prejudices and preconceived ideas. It means giving up personal security and comfort. For some, it means giving up your own life. Anjali encounters various hardships, from being insulted by a British official to losing friendships due to associating with people in the lowest caste of India, sadly called the “untouchables.” Some mentions of death and violence during riots may be difficult for younger, sensitive readers and should be discussed with an adult.

This story is a wonderful tool for teaching not only the history of India’s struggles for independence, but also the internal struggles India has had, which is still present in many forms today. Before I can point fingers as an American, I must accept the parallel to these problems in my own society. The messages in this book resonate for us on the other side of the world.

My husband is from India and speaks Hindi, so that gave me an advantage of knowing some of the terms used in this story. I have been to India several times, and have learned about the culture as much as I can, but there is always something new to learn.

For anyone who feels confused while reading Ahimsa, there’s a helpful glossary in the back of the book, and a note from the author. If those don’t answer your questions, you can always look for books about India at the library, or google (kids, ask your parents for help and permission first!).

Some tips before you read: In Indian culture, it’s generally considered polite, and expected, to refer to non-relative elders as Uncle and Auntie. That is why Anjali refers to neighbors and friends’ parents that way. There are also different ways to say aunt and uncle, for your actual relatives, depending on if they are related to your mom or dad.

If you looked up the meaning of my married last name, you’d learn it’s also a Brahmin last name, like Anjali’s. I do not find significance in that for my life, but for many people, last name still gives them an important role or place in society, for better or worse. When people can move past it like Anjali and her parents did, even when it was hard, then good things can happen in the world.

Coincidentally, I read this at a great time of year. Not only is India’s Republic Day on January 26th, but it’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day on January 27th, the same day as my husband’s birthday. Jai hind!

Republic Day celebrates the date when the Constitution of India went into effect on 26 January 1950, several years after their 1947 Independence.

 

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Born in Queens, NY and raised in sandy Florida, Christina Dwivedi wanted to be a mermaid when she grew up. When reality kicked in, she pursued a degree in Sociology from USF in Tampa. After a few years in Birmingham, AL, she now calls Apex, NC home. Her heart lies with reading and writing children’s fiction. Traveling with her husband and two sons is a special part of her life, whether it’s locally or to India to visit her in-laws.