Indian American illustrator and writer Nidhi Chanani has published several books for young readers, including YA graphic novel Pashmina, and her illustrations have been featured at Disney Parks. Born in Kolkata, India and raised in California, she holds a degree in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her second graphic novel, Jukebox, about a girl who travels to important moments in music history to find her music obsessed dad after his disappearance, celebrates her love of music history mixed with magic. PW spoke with Chanani about her writing and research process, where the inspiration for the story came from, and what readers can expect from her next.
Before becoming an author-illustrator, you started as a literature major and then went to art school. How does your background influence your approach to storytelling? Did you always want to be a graphic novelist?
I’ve always loved storytelling and books. I was an avid reader and still am—art came much later. I always thought I would end up being a writer, which is why I studied literature. But I never got into comics in my young life. It was just the funnies like Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes. The Caped Crusaders and superhero comics were what I had understood as [the form]. When I looked at them, they seemed very much designed for men. I wasn’t their target audience. But in college, friends of mine introduced me to Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. I found this way of looking at comics as another storytelling format fascinating because it wasn’t designed to attract male readers.
After I finished my degree, I was reading comics and trying to figure out my life. I ended up taking out another set of loans to go to art school because I had been introduced to art that I really loved. There, I started formulating this idea of, “I love storytelling, I love drawing, maybe I can combine the two.” Growing up in the Indian community, it was: you become a doctor or a lawyer, you go to an Ivy League school. And then there I was, studying literature, loving art, and I realized art could be a job. I thought, “Oh my God, what if I could make people happy as my job?”
I think what’s interesting about [the Indian] community is the idea of pursuing something you’re passionate about is very nerve-wracking. My parents immigrated here, so it’s very fresh in their mind that if you pursue the wrong thing, you could end up unable to take care of yourself. It’s super understandable but also very frustrating. [The experience] ends up being relatable across immigrants and children of immigrants. Obviously, there are specific things that are very different community to community but [it is also] the idea of understanding yourself while living in this whole new culture and feeling very much in between. I didn’t always want to do this and I think that it’s all been this lovely surprise.
Your stories capture the whimsy and magic that come with being a kid. Jukebox features a time-traveling jukebox and a music-obsessed father. Where did the inspiration for the book come from? Is there an era of music that you would like to travel to?
Jukebox was very much born of my husband’s obsession with vinyl records; I think we now have 2,000 in our house. Music is a conversation that is constant between us. It’s such a part of our life that I sometimes forget people don’t talk [about music] the way we do. One of the interesting things he told me was how reggae is slowed-down ska music because it was too fast for people to dance to. And I was like, “Do people know that?” Music is a huge part of our lives and I think it’s a huge part of many people’s lives.
For the book, I wanted to select albums that changed music in a certain way or changed history. [Music] is a commentary on history and politics in this country, and I kept coming back to the ’60s and ’70s. There was so much going on and there were so many musicians taking a lot of risks to say something politically with their music. I found that really fascinating. [My husband and I] were talking one day and I asked him why jukeboxes only play singles. He made this comment, “Well, if a jukebox played a full 12-inch record it would be humongous and people wouldn’t be able to put it into diners.” It was one comment and this lifetime of talking about music together that sparked this idea of “What if there was a giant jukebox? Why would somebody make that?” Music is so powerful, and the idea of an object [with] so much power immediately felt magical to me.
What kind of research did you do to portray the environment and the feel of the era accurately?
My husband has been an amazing resource when picking albums or when I’m thinking about music’s combination with history that I wanted to bring out in the book. This book would absolutely not exist if he wasn’t in my life. I [also] love Google Images and am thankful for the historical photos that are available online. When creating a book that has magic in it, I always make sure that I know what the rules are. [My] rules are that when you put in a record, it takes you back in time [and] that same record is playing in history but it has to be in a crowd. [When I decided that, I did not [account for] the fact that I would have to draw crowds throughout the whole book. At the end of Pashmina, [I thought], “I’m never going to draw or write a book where they’re in the car so much.” And at the end of Jukebox, I thought, “I’m never going to create a book where I have a rule that they’re in crowds.”
But what was wonderful about the research is, crowds end up being big events and tying into history. I looked up old video footage and photographs to get the backgrounds right. More than anything, I wanted to make sure I got the clothing right. Sometimes I drew [the exact] clothing I saw in a reference photo or combined clothing from different photos from the [same] era. And I watched a lot of documentaries. I watched the James Brown concert at least 50 times because I took actual dialogue from that closing chapter in the documentary, where the news anchor says this piece about televising his concert the day after MLK was shot. I wanted to make sure that there were concrete historical elements in it.
Are there any exciting projects you’re looking forward to doing? Would you be open to doing something similar to this historical graphic novel?
I have three books releasing this year. I had a picture book, Kong & Me [by Kiki Thorpe], released in March, Jukebox is out this month, and at the end of the year, my debut author-illustrator picture book is coming out, called What Will My Story Be? It’s about a creative girl who is influenced by her aunties’ stories. I have another picture book coming out for Pride next year called Strong, about the first gay strong man, Rob Kearney, and it’s been amazing and wonderful to draw. I drew a lot of muscles, which isn’t something I’ve done before. And I have quite a few comics coming up in the future that are middle grade and some early reader. I let the stories tell me where I need to go.
There are no historical elements in anything I am working on at the moment, but I wouldn’t prevent myself from doing that, at some point. In my family history we had a freedom fighter and I’ve always been fascinated by that. But I haven’t gone through the process of finding out more beyond family stories. I think it’s one of those things that I don’t see enough in graphic novels. When I’m approaching stories, I think about what we haven’t yet seen represented. Because if you’re taking up space on a shelf, I want to make sure that I’m adding something to the world that takes up space in a way that’s meaningful.
Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani. First Second, $21.99 June 22 ISBN 978-1-250-15637-2