The First Book From Rick Riordan's New Imprint Shows Exactly Why We Need Diversity Across Kid Lit
The Percy Jackson author talks about championing diversity with his new Disney imprint, and we hear from Roshani Chokshi, author of the first book, ‘Aru Shah and the End of Time.’By Abby WestApr 23, 2018 3:37 PM
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Over the last few years, it seems like everyone has acknowledged how important it is for kids to see themselves in their stories and that children's literature needs to better reflect such diversity. That basic belief is what drove Rick Riordan, the best-selling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the Kane Chronicles, and the Heroes of Olympus series to name a few, to launch his new imprint, Rick Riordan Presents. With the stated goal of publishing "great books by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds," last month he released the imprint's first title, Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi.
Riordan, who is also about to launch the third book in his Trials of the Apollo series, Burning Maze, said that while his publisher had been asking him to start an imprint for a while, "I didn't really know what that would look like if I were to pursue it. But then I started thinking about the many comments that I get from kids asking me whether I would ever write a book about another mythology, Hindu mythology, or Chinese mythology, or Native American mythology, or whatever it might be," he said. "I understood why they wanted to see that and I agreed that those mythologies are all phenomenal and fantastic, but I'm not an expert at them. And I also felt like I maybe wasn't the right person to be undertaking the project, since those aren't the stories that I grew up with."
Riordan says that Chokshi, also author of the Star-Touched Queen series, did a great job with Aru Shah, which has been described as Sailor Moon meets Percy Jackson. "[Rosh] has a fantastic sense of humor. She has this spunky young heroine who gets by, by sort of bold-faced lying her way through school, and telling all these fabulous stories about where she went on spring break, and what her mom really does, and how she's a princess, or she's a secret agent. Then when she gets caught by her classmates who come to visit her at the museum where her mom works, she has to think of something really quickly to impress them.
"She ends up doing the one thing her mom had told her to never do, which is to light this cursed lamp that could bring about the end of the world. She lights it and you can imagine what happens from there. I mean, Hindu mythology just comes crashing down on top of her. She learns a lot about her own background and she is drawn into this entire world full of gods, and amazing monsters, and demons, and just, it's just really, really pretty incredible. It's the sort of thing that I would've wanted to write if I knew Hindu mythology, but Rosh does it much better than I could."
Even with all the new work his imprint brings (there's a Cuban folklore book in the works, as well one based on Navajo mythology among those in the lineup), the beloved author isn't slowing down, and in fact he's found that this work has renewed his interest in his own writing. "I think it's been a really great process for me. It's taught me a lot and I've been very fortunate, in that I think that so far we've had this fantastic working relationship with all the writers that we brought on board," he said. "I've tried to be helpful, kind of sort of a mentor role where I can be, but also trying to be very conscious that these are not my stories, and I don't want to step on their narrative. That's the line I try to walk."
Check out our interview with Chokshi as we approached the release of Aru Shah and the End of Time.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
AW: Your book is the first title to come out on Rick Riordan's new imprint. How is that experience?
RC: It is the most surreal experience ever. I'm so happy. I am literally always so happy, but we first got the news last year that the book had even sold on Halloween. And I was just like running around, happily, scattering makeup and stuff all over the place, and running, and jumping, and it has only gotten better from there.
AW: I can only imagine. Had you read all of his books? Just where did he stand in terms of your reading and childhood? I think he's kind of had a big influence on everyone.
RC: Yeah, yeah, I have read his books. I think the ones that really spoke to me the most, of course, were the Percy Jackson series. And I think that a large part of that is because you never get tired as a kid of this idea that you're more than what you imagine yourself to be. And Percy is such a funny hero. He's reluctant. It's not that he's a bad guy. He's a brave person and an awesome friend but he is indistinguishable from yourself and your other friends. And it makes you feel as an ordinary kid that you are just as deserving of adventure and magic, and I just loved that message.
AW: And it seems like you're carrying that through with Aru Shah.
RC: Thanks, I hope so. I mean, Aru is like my wish fulfillment of my middle school experience that I didn't have. She still struggles with all the things I did, like as a brown girl, how come I have facial hair before the other guys in class? That's weird. And don't leave Nair on your face for more than eight minutes or you will get chemical burn mustache and you still have to go to class. There's nothing you can do. But at least Aru gets the lightning bolt, that's much better.
AW: That comes in handy.
RC: It does come in handy. I mean, no one is looking at your face if you're waving around a lightning bolt, it's great.
AW: Distraction, distraction. For our listeners, tell them a little about the plot of the book.
RC: Well, you know, Aru is a bit of a liar as a 12-year-old girl and she's caught in a lie by her classmates who dare her to light a lamp. And she lives in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture with her mom, who's an archeologist. And she knows not to touch it, she knows her whole life she's been told don't do it. Of course, you're going to do it especially when you're stuck in a lie, and it's middle school and it's peer pressure, and you don't have enough money for a bus ticket to move to Florida, grow a beard, and just leave all of this behind.
And what happens is it sparks this magical adventure for her in which she has to save her mom and all the people of the world who are now slowly essentially being frozen in time. And she meets people like her along the way, including Mini who is one of my favorite characters I've ever written and is this germophobic girl. And both of them are supposed to have powers, and their side-kick pigeon mentor who is like, "Are you serious, these are the heroes? Them?" Anyway, and it just has a bunch of stuff.
AW: I think I just found my new favorite phrase, "side-kick pigeon mentor." I love that.
RC: "...to be able to revisit that mythology and to embrace it in a way that's modern and relevant to your own experience as growing up in the United States is something that I desperately wanted when I was in middle school, and that I'm so grateful that I get the chance to be able to write this kind of story now."
AW: How many books are going to be in this series?
RC: Four are planned for right now.
AW: Great. One of the things Rick had said, my buddy Rick, you know [laughs] Rick Riordan. One of the things he'd said about why he created this imprint was that people had been asking him for more fantasy and mythological stories. And he said that there were so many more to be told from different viewpoints that should be told by people who are closer to the history. You're pulling in your family background, your history into the story, aren't you?
RC: Yes, absolutely. I was raised on Hindu mythology and folklore but I'm also not just familiar with Indian culture. My mother is from the Philippines so I have this wealth of stories that have always been at my fingertips. And what I really loved about the experience of writing Aru--and what I'm just so happy that Rick is doing with his imprint--is really tapping into the narrative of other first-generation kids like myself, and many of their friends and my family growing up. We may not speak the native language of our parents, but that does not lessen our connection and the hold of these stories on our hearts, do you know what I mean?
RC: And to be able to revisit that mythology and to embrace it in a way that's modern and relevant to your own experience as growing up in the United States is something that I desperately wanted when I was in middle school, and that I'm so grateful that I get the chance to be able to write this kind of story now.
AW: That's great. Do you go around to a lot of either schools or libraries and talk to a lot of young people particularly?
RC: Oh, yeah, whenever they want me to I absolutely go. You know, for candy. Great. It's fantastic.
AW: It's a good lure, it's a good lure.
AW: Your Star-Touched Queen series has been a hit in the YA department. What's been your feedback from young people on that one?
RC: Oh, they loved it, which was great because I've just been so lucky with both of my publishers. I love them so much and they're not standing on the other side of this room looking at me, I swear. But they let me just tell these stories and assured me over and over again that they would have an audience. Because when I first wrote The Star-Touched Queen and I sent it around for beta reads in the community and I wasn't agented at the time. And all I knew is I really wanted to write this story. I was told that it would not have an audience because it's a mythology that is unfamiliar to readers and that they wouldn't be able to get it.
And I'm so glad that all the readers in the world have proved those people wrong because readers are smart, and they're hungry, and they recognize that within mythology, we are revisiting the same archetypes, the same hero's journey over, and over, and over again. And there's no reason you shouldn't explore that journey across the cultural spectrum and see what else it might teach you.
AW: I think that's the best explanation for why this is appealing for everyone. And I thank you for articulating that, that it is the same thing. And it is just the more you can identify with the characters that look like you or have some familiarity with your family background, it just makes it that much better.
RC: Absolutely, yeah.
AW: But it is the same stories.
RC: There's nothing new under the sun and that's not a bad thing, you know, it's not a bad thing.
AW: That's fantastic. On audiobooks you've had the same narrator. Priya Ayyar. Do you think you'll have her do this one?
RC: I think they've chosen someone different this time. And I've loved all of the people who've been able to work on my audiobooks. But Priya just did a fantastic job in just making The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes come alive. I loved the voice that she used especially for Kamala, who's the flesh-eating demon horse from The Star-Touched Queen. She was a hoot.
AW: I love a hoot. How closely do you work on the audiobooks, and did you talk with Priya or do you just let them do what they do?
RC: I just let them do what they do. And then the great thing about seeing your work interpreted by another artist is that it's a lot like watching someone through one of those two-way mirrors. You know what they're doing, you know there's source material but you just have to allow them to interpret it as they will. And it was really, really fascinating to listen to the audiobooks of The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes and just observe where she decided to stress a word, or to stress a feeling, or with just the tones that she used to bring the world alive in a way that was unique to her. It's wonderful.
AW: Do you ever think about how your books sound being read out loud when you're writing or any part of the editing process?
RC: Oh, yeah. I think especially for writing Aru and the sequel, which I'm working on right now, there's so much dialog that you really have to say it out loud to make sure that it rings true to the voices of these kids. And also just when you're describing any kind of exhibition, like what I loved about writing The Star-Touched Queen and A Crown of Wishes is that I got to play with a lot of fairytale prose, and it has to have this internal cadence to it. And for me, I can't tell what that is until I read it out loud.
AW: That makes a lot of sense. I can see that, for sure. So what are you hoping to happen this year once this goes wide?
RC: Oh, gosh, I don't know. Honestly, I hope it finds its way to these readers. Recently, I got the sweetest message ever from a young girl, young Indian girl who read Aru and she was just talking about how seen she felt. And my mom sent me the picture of it because it got sent to my house and I was like bawling in the gym. It was very attractive. But it just meant so much to me that it would be able to resonate with these kids. And I'm paraphrasing from Jason Reynolds who's a bizarrely award-winning author and just a great guy. And he was talking about how we write these books in service to children....
Yeah, he's great. And there's another book, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. And Dhonielle is just awesome when she talks about just the process of how we incorporate culture in our books and how do we approach it sensitively. She's great.
AW: That's fantastic. Well, Rosh, you are delightful and I just followed you on Twitter.
AW: And now we're going to be best friends.
AW: No, but I really am looking forward to reading the book.
RC: Thank you so much.
AW: And I appreciate how thoughtful you are about the work you're doing.
RC: Thank you, and thanks for hopping on the phone with me. I really, really appreciate it and I had such a great time talking to you.