Rashmi Sirdeshpande | 'Factual books have such an important place'

Rashmi Sirdeshpande | 'Factual books have such an important place'

"In a world where fake news can travel scarily fast, factual books have such an important place.” Rashmi Sirdeshpande’s second children’s non-fiction book How to Change the World, illustrated by Annabel Tempest, will be published by Puffin in January. Speaking over the phone from her Buckinghamshire home, she is keen to smash the stereotype that non-fiction is just a tool to get children into reading before they move on to “proper” books. “I think it’s a great honour to write for reluctant readers, but to just limit non-fiction into a gateway drug is so sad, because it’s enjoyed by avid readers too.”

Sirdeshpande didn’t connect with the classics as a child, but adored Usborne’s Puzzle Adventures, factual books about ancient history or travel, poetry collections, and comic books about Indian mythology. “I grew up on this really mixed diet of books and that has really fed into the books I write now.”

Her first non-fiction title How to Be Extraordinary, published in 2019, edited by Emily Lunn, was about individuals. Role models, she says, are important and inspiring for children, but they can also feel out of reach. “It can be quite a comfort for young readers to know that you don’t have to change the world alone, actually humans do amazing things when we work together.” This is the premise for How to Change the World, which showcases 15 true stories made possible by teamwork. Big issues, including the move to end slavery in the British Empire and the campaigns for votes for women and marriage equality, sit alongside quirkier, lesser-known movements such as Estonia’s Singing Revolution and India’s Piplantri Treeplanters. What they all have in common is thousands of people working together. “Hopefully that’s quite uplifting. When you’re looking at the big challenges we face today, we’ve done big things in the past and we can do them again if we work together.”

Sirdeshpande aims to take the reader around the world in her books so that everyone has something to connect and relate to; “that means a lot, because I didn’t see myself in books very often growing up”. Stories like the Montgomery bus boycott and the fight to abolish slavery were the most difficult to write, and feel particularly pertinent. “Those issues are still very much live. We’re feeling their legacy now. We had to end on a hopeful note that still acknowledges there is more to be done.”

Although written before Covid-19, the story of the campaign to eradicate polio also feels very resonant. “It’s such an amazing example of international co-operation that may just pass over your head day to day. It’s not something we think about... vaccines are so routine in this country.” Making the content age-appropriate without being reductive was, she tells me, a delicate balance, but she believes that readers can handle it. “Children today have this really strong sense of justice. They care about each other. You’ve got to bring in the hope, but you’ve also got to set out the enormity of the challenge.” Tempest’s vibrant detailed illustrations deftly capture the tone, lending light and energy.

Feeling at home
The daughter of first-generation immigrants from India, Sirdeshpande wrote constantly as a child but “somewhere along the line I didn’t feel that people like me could become writers, and I forgot about it”. She became a City lawyer, but quit in search of something more creative and flexible. When her own children were small, she fell in love with books again and rediscovered her love of writing. By chance, Penguin Random House was advertising its WriteNow programme, which aims to nurture writers from underrepresented communities. It proved to be pivotal. “The PRH call-out was, for the first time saying: ‘We are looking for people like you.’ I needed that. I needed someone to say, ‘We are looking for someone like you, with stories like yours’.”

Sirdeshpande immediately clicked with her WriteNow mentor, editor Anna Barnes Robinson, working with her on what would become her first fiction picture book Never Show a T-Rex a Book (Puffin). Her biggest takeaway from the scheme was confidence. “From the outside, it’s this really opaque industry. The biggest thing that WriteNow gave me was the sense that I belong within publishing.”

Well drawn
By the end of her year, she had a deal for the picture book. Working with an illustrator from an underrepresented background was key, and Sirdeshpande is clearly thrilled by her partnership with Diane Ewens on Never Show a T-Rex a Book. “She brought her own magic to it. She put glasses on this T-Rex, a small thing, but something so many kids could relate to.” The book is incredibly warm and charming, with a sequel in the works.

The scheduling fallout from the pandemic has created a very busy year for Sirdeshpande. In August came Never Show a T-Rex a Book alongside Wren & Rook’s Dosh, a guide to money management for older children—“how to earn it, save it, grow it and give it away”. How to Change the World follows in January, and next summer comes what feels like another very necessary book for our times, Good News: Why the World Isn’t as Bad as You Think, published by Wren & Rook. Covering everything from climate change and politics to global health, arts and culture and inequality, Sirdeshpande calls it a book about hope. “It’s going to set out the challenges but spin the focus back to the good things that are happening.”