Q: What inspired you to write My Dadima Wears a Sari?
A: The biggest inspiration was my family. My mom wears a sari and my two daughters were fascinated by it. Even though they were familiar with saris (as my South Asian friends and I wore them occasionally), they only saw their grandmother wearing it all the time.
As they grew older, my daughters also began to wear saris on special occasions and loved the vibrant colors, variety of fabrics, and intricate patterns. More than anything else, they loved the rich history that each sari carried with it.
Some of the saris belonged to their great-grandmother, others were purchased on trips to different parts of India. There were saris that were part of their grandmother’s marriage trousseau or given to her when she was expecting her first child.
One sari they loved was pink silk with gold. It belonged to their great-aunt and was a dear older sister of their grandmother. Unfortunately, she had passed away many years ago, but that sari kept her memory alive.
A sari is much more than a piece of fabric or a garment to wear. I wanted to capture the feelings of history, connection, and tradition in this story.
Q: What do you think Yoshiko Jaeggi’s illustrations add to the story?
A: A picture book is a partnership between a writer and an artist and I am fortunate to have Yoshiko Jaeggi as the illustrator for My Dadima Wears a Sari. She was able to bring the story as well as the saris to life. She was also able to capture emotions and the relationship of the two girls and their grandmother beautifully.
My favorite illustration is the one in which the grandmother unfolds saris. I gasped when I saw that. Whenever I open the book, I always linger on that page.
On the cover Yoshiko has used Dadima’s sari pallu to bring in movement and joy. Including a kitten in the illustrations was also Yoshiko’s idea, and it brings a lovely playfulness and variety to the pages.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “A strong depiction of family, this story shows how meaningful traditional clothing can be.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I do think that it is an apt description. Each culture has many special things to offer: food, clothing, celebration, dance, language, etc. They are all part of a culture’s milieu.
Saris are a part of South Asia’s culture. Wearing a sari goes back centuries and can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilization that flourished between 2800-1800 BCE. The word sari comes from a Sanskrit word śāṭī meaning a strip of cloth.
As a mother of two daughters, I wanted to make sure that they not only knew this part of their heritage but also admired and enjoyed it. I wanted to capture that feeling in a story so that the readers who share something meaningful from their cultural or a family tradition could see themselves in it.
I especially enjoy taking a sari to my school visits and showing students how to drape one. The students as well as the teachers and parents are intrigued and interested in it. (In the back of My Dadima Wears a Sari, there is demonstration as to how to wear one.)
My hope is that, in reading the book, kids are inspired to find out more about their heritage from their elders and are open to sharing and celebrating it with the world.
Q: How did you first get interested in creating children’s picture books?
A: Growing up I had seen very few illustrated books. I was delighted to discover the treasure trove of picture books when my children were young. Reading books with them inspired me to share stories from my cultural and emotional perspective and I wrote Blue Jasmine, my first novel.
My Dadima Wear a Sari was my first picture book. As I sat at my kitchen counter the words sang in my head. “My Dadima wears a sari, she wears them in the morning…”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I am concentrating on a middle grade chapter book series titled Nina Soni (also published by Peachtree Publishing Company). Nina is a loveable, distractible, list-making Indian American girl. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her family and friends.
There are four books out in the Nina Soni series so far and the fifth one, Nina Soni, Snow Spy, will come out in October and the sixth one will be out next spring.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I feel very fortunate to be able to write and share stories with young readers. I remember very vividly how much I enjoyed reading when I was young and how those books still delight me.
During the pandemic the writing has been therapeutic for me. I do miss in-person school visits. As isolated as we have been in the past two years, a book can bring us closer. Sharing them, discussing them, celebrating them is a great joy.
Each child deserves to see his or her story reflected, rejoiced, and treasured. It is wonderful to see so many new and diverse voices telling unique and yet universal tales. They create empathy, build bridges to other cultures, inform and entertain us. I hope we continue to see more of them.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb