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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A is for Arohan/ PHOENIX SONG

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The story behind the book:

When Alice Curry, the Founder/Director of Lantana Publishing (UK), contacted me by email on 12 November 2014 about the possibility of writing a children's picture book, I didn't quite believe her. I mean it was too much of a good thing - whoever heard of a publisher actually asking you to write a book for them?  It's usually an endless round of submissions... 

I asked her how she found out about me and she said that it was through my blogpost on The Jugra Chronicles . 
Wow! So all those stories were true - you can get a book contract from a blog!!!

I googled Alice Curry and found out that she was with the Commonwealth Children's Book Trust, among other things. The brief was a contemporary story for a children's picture book in 500 - 1,500 words, drawing on traditional Asian folklore. 

A week or two of research, followed by a proposal and finally a draft manuscript, entitled The Singing Bamboo Flute, and the contract was eventually signed - all by email. 

But it wasn't all that easy. The original manuscript had 2,000 words - far too long. I went through every sentence, deleting as many words as I could until the mss was down to 1,500 words. If you think this is easy I dare you to take out 500 words from a 2,000 words story - without changing the story line. But even at 1,500 words, the mss was still too long. So I had to remove a chunk of the story. The sub-plot which had to be removed, was about the Penunggu - the Guardian of the Bamboo Grove. The story was now down to about 1,000 words and the title was changed to Phoenix Song.

I named the main protagonist, Arohan; an 8-year-old Malaysian boy of mixed parentage. I had no idea why, it just seemed like the right name for him. Apparently, Deepika Mukherjee's (a Facebook friend) son is also called Arohan. The real surprise behind this name later.

Original cover of Phoenix Song
Once the manuscript was finalised, illustrator Martina Peluso came on board. Her illustration style uses bold simple lines and figures tend to be smooth and rounded. Martina's paintings remind me of modern art and sculpture with their almost 3-D effect. 

I wasn't expecting any more changes to the text at this stage, but I was wrong. When the sketches came, some pages were crammed with text and others were empty! How could this be? As Alice Curry explained, sometimes the illustrator can take the story in an entirely different direction... so more text had to be deleted in certain parts and entirely new text written for other parts. I didn't really mind because I knew in a picture book, (ideally) 50% of the story is told through the text and 50% through the illustrations. The colour palette for Phoenix Song is vibrant and jewel like, and really suits the tropical Malaysian setting. 

Since someone asked me this question about the book, I think I should explain : in a picture book, royalty is split 50 - 50 between the author and the illustrator. The other point is that, the publisher chooses the illustrator, the author doesn't really have a say. In fact, I never communicated directly with Martina; I always went through the publisher (for fear of riling anyone up ;) )

But the real surprise about Arohan, came from Facebook friend, Nadine Gregory. According to Nadine, the name Arohan or Aarohan actually refers to the ascending scale of a raga (Indian classical music scale), while Avarohan refers to the descending scale! I was genuinely surprised. It's possible that I may have come across this term while researching on the Internet but forgot about it completely.

The synopsis:

Arohan is desperate for a guitar. What eight year old boy isn’t? So when Arohan’s grandmother gives him a plain old bamboo flute for his birthday, he is understandably a little upset. But the xiao is no ordinary flute. An instrument steeped in the myths and legends of China, the xiao has its own special magic, as Arohan is soon to discover. When his brothers go missing on the slopes of the hill behind their home in Malaysia, Arohan embarks on a fantastic journey to ensure that they return safe and sound. But does he have what it takes to placate the guardian of the bamboo grove and summon the mythical phoenix? A touching and courageous story of a young boy’s love for his family and the magical things that can happen when you listen to your heart.

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