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Spreading Love and Care Through Picture Books with Inda

Interview of Inda Ahmad Zahri by Freya Bennett

Hi Inda, how are you?

I must admit I’m not at my best. My mind is on Rafah at the moment, where the ongoing genocide seems to be increasing in violence and intent. Like a lot of people, I’m praying hard and trying to hold it together. Thank you for asking.

What inspired How to Measure the Ocean

I feel like a bunch of different ideas and intentions collided when I wrote this book. On the surface, I was trying to find a story that would match a series of illustrations I made of my daughter releasing a paper boat into the waves. But deep down I had always wanted to write something that would come close to how much the ocean means to me, and I liked the idea of the story being outside the scope of a traditional narration. My daughter was 5 at the time, and my twins were just born, and she was very inquisitive and loved testing out numbers and sums. She said, ‘What I love about numbers is that they go on and on and on forever,’ which was a simple, childlike observation, yet applicable to other aspects of life. What else can we learn from numbers? What else can we learn from the ocean?

Have you always wanted to write a children’s book?

To be honest, no. I’ve always wanted to be a published author, and I dreamt of writing some grand work of literary fiction, which were the kind of books that held me rapt as a young bookworm. But then I had my daughter – it recalibrated the way I looked at the world, it reshuffled my perspectives and priorities. It gave me an excuse to read a lot of picture books, and I fell in love with the interplay between words and images that could so completely capture young readers that they begin to know their favourite ones by heart. I couldn’t help wanting to write some of my own.

How has having children yourself informed the way you went about writing your book?

My children are my muse, and there are bits of them in almost all my titles. ‘Twice the Love’ is very clearly about my twins, ‘The Month That Makes The Year’ is modelled after the experiences my daughter and I have with Ramadan, ‘Night Lights’ was written after visiting my kampung in Malaysia with my daughter for the first time, and ‘How To Measure the Ocean’ is an ode to curiosity and features them in the illustrations.

I want to preserve something about their childhood in my stories, and give them something to laugh or ponder about. Since I started illustrating my own stories, I’ve had more chances to hide Easter eggs for them to find one day.

To me, writing stories for children also means championing children. I very much wanted to somehow spread love and care into the world with ‘Salih’ which is about a refugee child’s journey away from danger and towards safety, especially when I feel it’s lacking in the world. I feel this ever more keenly now with the genocide in Gaza, where children are being harmed and killed at a staggering rate. I feel very strongly as a parent, a doctor, and someone who crafts words and art for children that we have a massive duty to speak up against these kinds of atrocities, and that is a subject of one of my future projects.

What do you hope kids and parents alike will get from your book?

I hope they’ll like it enough to cuddle up to the pages, and pull it off the shelves a couple of times. I hope they point out their favourite sea creatures, and start planning their next trip to the seaside, and I hope it gives them courage to ask questions and permission to make mistakes, but to always stay curious about all the ways they’re connected in this world.

What advice do you have for those interested in writing books for children?

It’s a whole wonderful world out there in children’s literature, so make sure to have fun diving in! It really depends on your aims – some people want to dip their toes in and have a bit of fun while some want to get fully immersed – and the good news is that there are more resources out there than ever. Keep writing down your ideas, take courses and workshops that will teach you how to make a story delectable, and join a writing group – more often than not, they are filled with friendly, clever people who are really generous with their time and knowledge.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I’m constantly working on a carousel of projects, whether it’s book-related or not. At the moment, I’m finishing up a redraft of a middle grade novel while also revising a picture book manuscript based on a publisher’s feedback. I started an art challenge with 30 ocean-related prompts called #oceanartmay to coincide with the release of ‘How To Measure the Ocean,’ so I’m creating a piece of art daily while marvelling at entries from others online. A huge part of my energy, art and writing in the past 7 months, however, has gone towards raising awareness on the genocide in Gaza and advocating for a free Palestine, and until there’s a ceasefire, which really needs to happen immediately, I’ll continue to do whatever I can.

How to Measure the Ocean is out now through Allen & Unwin

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