Monday 25 June 2018

Writing an accidental Picture Book Series • Chitra Soundar

I didn’t start out to write a series of picture books. But now I realise I’ve one successful series and another one edging in that direction.
I’ve always been a fan of series fiction – whether as chapter books or as picture books. When I fall in love with a character, be it Elmer or Lulu, I love to read other stories about them. I want to see them do different things.

 But as a writer, I always knew that a series is something you can plan for, but actually getting to publish one, is not up to me. So even though I never intended to write one, I stumbled on to a series.

The Farmer Falgu series originated in India and is now available worldwide in many languages. And this is how it started.

I wrote a story about silence and the joyfulness of noise set in an Indian farmer’s life. I wanted the story to have musical elements and I wanted my farmer full of positivity. I didn’t have an idea that I was creating a friend for myself.

After I submitted the story and it was accepted, I happened to realise another one of my story ideas will fit this character. So I asked the publisher if they would accept another story for the same character. Now this was even before an illustrator was chosen for the first. While the first one focussed on sound, the second one was all about food.

It was a gamble but the editor said yes and to my delight both Farmer Falgu Goes on a Trip and Farmer Falgu Goes to the Market is available in many different languages – from French to German to Japanese and American English.

The success of the first two books both in India and abroad, triggered a commission of two more stories. And a series was born.

But the thing about series is, especially one that has become popular is, there’s more at stake. I wrote so many different stories for the same character, trying to find the third and the fourth I was commissioned.

But the 3rd and 4th book would not have been possible if I wasn’t doing extensive research on both Farmer Falgu and India in particular looking for stories.

Farmer Falgu was completely a product of imagination and a series of accidental events. So after I created the character, I did a lot of research on his back story. I had chosen a name that happened to have historical significance. And that was a happy accident. The illustrator had set him in Rajasthan and that was another happy accident for me (although she would have made a conscious choice).

So I researched the background of the state, created resources and activities for kids. This led to my researching the kite festival, which then turned into an idea for Book 4.

Researching India and having a discussion with the publisher gave me another idea – the Kumbh Mela – the biggest festival on earth. I loved that it had all the elements I love in a story and in life – rivers, trains, food, elephants and a Farmer Falgu who couldn’t catch a break. Or did he?

So as I wrote Book 3 and 4, I learned some key things about writing an unplanned, accidental series.

a)    The character now has a life of his own. And therefore the story has to fit this life.
As the illustrator Kanika Nair made him a Rajasthani farmer, the new stories needed to fit his new life in Rajasthan and what happened there.

b)    The throughline – the first two stories had unconsciously created a personality, a theme and an ethos for my character. He was a glass-half-full guy and therefore any new story needed to fit his ethos.

c)     The Economics: Three or four books of the same character, the same author-illustrator duo is an investment for a small independent publisher from India. They had to be really sure that the 3rd book and the 4th book would work. So there was a lot more scrutiny, review and discussion before these stories were even written.

d)    The expectations: These stories showcased India in a small way and with the first two books having sold in many foreign territories, a need to show some wonderful events or places in India within Farmer Falgu’s life was tempting. We zoomed back from his farm out into a bigger world for Book 3 and 4.

e)    Series guidelines: These weren’t written down – but there was a sense of how long the book would be, the pattern, the setting and the title. The first two titles had “Farmer Falgu Goes…”. So I had to make him go somewhere in each story.

As a writer, suddenly I had to work within a framework. Sometimes it felt as if the story didn’t come first, the series guidelines did. But then pushing the story to the forefront and making the character centre-stage helped me plot Book 3 and Book 4.

Available in the UK soon through Red Robin Books

As much as there is a pre-defined framework when you work on a series, there are benefits too. If parents and teachers like one of the books in the series, they’re more likely to buy the others. The characters turn into friends. I have Farmer Falgu talking to me at odd times when he sees something through my eyes. But also as a writer I start seeing the world through his eyes.

Available in the UK soon through Red Robin Books

And now I’m standing on the edge of another series. Fingers crossed!

You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry) was met with so much love even before it was published that the publisher, Lantana Publishing, commissioned a companion story, You’re Snug with Me. Although it is not the same characters in the second book, a pattern has emerged. Whether there’s a third book, only time will tell.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer of picture books and junior fiction. When she's not writing stories, she can be seen telling them to both children and grown-ups across libraries, festivals and schools in the UK and worldwide. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter at @csoundar.


Pippa Goodhart said...

I love Farmer Falgu, so its a treat to learn how he came about and then evolved. Did you have any hesitations about making your main character an adult, Chitra? Of course he shares much of his attitude to life with young children. Good luck with the new series!

Katie Weymouth said...

Thankyou Chitra. So interesting and great to get an insight into the creation of a series. I would love my Audrey character to grow like this!

Candy Gourlay said...

That's amazing – and VERY interesting. Thank you for sharing that!

Chitra Soundar said...

For India it was ok - we tell stories about grandparents and adults. But UK wouldn’t touch it. And now there is a flurry of books wij older characters.

Chitra Soundar said...

Good luck

Chitra Soundar said...

Thanks Candy

Chitra Soundar said...

Also the reason why Eila his daughter came in was my Publisher’s suggestion to tempt western publishing gods

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Good luck with Farmer Falgu!