Author, illustrator, and animator Divya Srinivasan made her debut with the 2011 picture book Little Owl’s Night, which became a bestseller and the start of a popular series. Srinivasan’s new book is What I Am, an uplifting tale with deeply personal origins. Srinivasan spoke with PW about microaggressions, her family’s conversations, and the significance of identity labels.

You mention the catalyst for What I Am in your author’s note. What made you decide to make it into a book?

It was a couple of years ago. I had come home after dropping my daughter off at preschool, and I was getting ready to work on a manuscript I’d been revising for months. But first I had dishes to wash. My mind wandered, and I started thinking about an annoying interaction from the weekend.

My daughter and I had gone to a park. She started playing with another little girl who was there with her grandparents. After maybe 10 minutes of conversation with them, the man looked at me with a huge smile and said, “Your English is very good.” I was stunned. It was so out of the blue. I said, “That’s good, since it’s the only language I’m fluent in.”

The man stared at me with that smile, not getting it, still so pleased with his compliment. I could feel my head getting hot. I was angry that this stranger had made a judgment about me based on his (incorrect) idea of what an English speaker looked like, or didn’t look like, and also of what an American looked like or didn’t look like. It was ignorant, and I wanted him to know. I told him that I was born in New York, my parents have lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years, that they had learned English as children in India, that many people in India know English, that my mother knows English along with four Indian languages.... I just went on and on.

So, I was thinking about this irritating interaction, and that led to me thinking about 20 years earlier, when a stranger asked my sister, “What are you?” which had elicited a similar feeling for my sister, of being seen as someone who doesn’t really belong.

I hoped my daughter would never be asked a question that would make her feel that way—my daughter, my niece, friends’ kids, any kids, anyone, not just kids. Then I started to imagine the different ways a child might answer, “What are you?” I figured a child might be justifiably confused by the question and start listing ways she would describe herself.

So I went to my desk and quickly started writing “I am ____” statements. I thought about how people cannot be easily summarized, about how labels are fluid, and dependent on so many factors: situation, comparison to others, comparison to ourselves at other times, our mood at the time.

Can you talk a bit about your process as an author-illustrator? What came first for this book, the art or the writing? How did you narrow down the girl’s qualities selected for inclusion?

The writing came first for this book. I did picture the main character as a combination of my daughter and niece; most of the descriptions are inspired by those two, along with myself and my sister. I was excited to have qualities represented in a book that I’ve tried explaining so many times: loving to look at animals but being awkward around them, being labeled as shy though it’s really that you take time to get used to new people and places.

I think when I did my first draft of the manuscript, I wrote lines to fit the number of spreads in a picture book. If the text or visuals for a spread didn’t end up feeing compelling, or if I later came up with something I thought was better, I switched it out, until I finally had a list I was excited about. I really wanted the girl’s qualities to be specific and hoped they would feel universal.

Did the book change much during revisions?

There wasn’t too much revision overall, but a few spreads were added, taken out, changed. One example, while I was working on the final illustrations, I came up with the line, “In summer, I’m different colors,” probably in the shower, staring down at my tan-lined feet. I recalled how a few years earlier, when I pointed out to my then-toddler all the different shades my legs were from being in the sun, she had gasped in amazement, “You’re magic, Amma! That’s magic!” It was the best reaction! I really wanted to include that idea, so I took out something else.

The most significant revision was changing the title from What Are You? to What I Am. My editor [Tracy Gates, editor-at-large at Viking Books for Young Readers] had mentioned it once in a while, but I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to change it. “What are you?” is the question that kicks off the book, after all. But when I was very close to being finished with the illustrations, I showed it to my sister, who showed it to my niece. It was only when I found out that my niece was confused about the book’s title that I realized that I needed to write an author’s note, and that “What are you?” needed to be at the front of the book somehow, but the book’s title should match the optimistic, joyful feel of the interior. What I Am felt right. And we shifted “What are you?” to the title page. I’m so grateful for that change and for my editor’s patience.

What was your family’s reaction to the book?

I probably showed my sister the manuscript the same day I wrote it. She and I hadn’t had to put into words why being asked “What are you?” felt so bad. At times I felt annoyed that I had to explain why it’s not a good question—wasn’t it obvious? But also, it was just difficult for me to put into words, which was frustrating. In one author’s note revision, I had written dialogue that I thought my sister had recounted to me [right after] the incident, but she didn’t recall what had been said since it’s been 20 years, plus it made her feel as if she were a character in the book. I hadn’t thought of that, and she was right. I was so grateful she told me and that she helped me. It was important to me that she was good with how her part of the story was told, and I finally got it to a place where we were all happy with it.

I hope that the book might serve as a starting-off point for discussions about how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how other people's perceptions and judgments might affect our
sense of self.

I didn’t show the book to my parents until after I received proofs. I hoped they would like it, and was nervous that they wouldn’t understand why it was such a big deal for someone to ask, “What are you?” They came to this country at a time when there weren’t as many Indians in the U.S. and it felt important to assimilate, and if that meant laughing it off when your work colleague yet again ribbed you about your lunch of yogurt rice with fried mustard seeds, saying you were eating bugs, well, so be it. My dad had enough pride in his homeland and love for his homemade lunch to withstand dumb jokes. And he wanted to be a good sport.

After my parents finished reading the book, we talked for a bit. Maybe it was seeing micro-aggression through the lens of my sister’s experience, or the idea of their granddaughters being faced with behavior that they tolerated as immigrants, I’m not sure. But they told some stories that I hadn’t heard before.

I hope that the book might serve as a starting-off point for discussions about how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how other people’s perceptions and judgments might affect our sense of self. I’ve always loved my parents’ stories about being new immigrants to the United States, but the book got them talking about seemingly small incidents that still stung a bit after so many years, and I feel like it helped make them realize that they weren’t being silly or petty for feeling that way.

How do you think your book resonates in the present moment?

I’d love if the book gets people—the kids who read it, the adults who might read it to them—to think about how they see themselves and why, and how much of your self-identity is based on what someone else has said about you. Who is that person? What did they base their judgment on? Is it representative of who you are as a whole? How is it different from what all that you think you are?

Then, thinking about how we see others: What is our description of another person based on? On what we’ve heard about them? On our own interaction with that person, and if so, one or many? Maybe this book can be a reminder to be less judgmental of others and to try to be more empathetic and thoughtful.

What I Am by Divya Srinivasan. Viking, Aug. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-20401-6