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Interview: February 26, 2019

Demon Queens and Serpent Kings, oh my! The world of Sayantani DasGupta's Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond is a lush middle grade fantasy series inspired by Bengali fairytales. The second book in the series, GAME OF STARS, hits shelves today. Kiranmala is tired of solving problems in an alternative dimension, so when the Demon Queen shows up in her bedroom, 12-year-old Kiranmala is uninterested. It's been weeks since she last heard from her friends in the Kingdom Beyond, the alternate dimension where she was born as an Indian princess. But then Kiran decides that she has to once again return to her homeland, where everyone is running scared or imprisoned following the enactment of sudden and unfair rules of law. Kiran must once again solve riddles and battle her evil Serpent King father --- all while figuring out who her true friends are, and what it really means to be a hero. We are so excited to dive into GAME OF STARS, but first, we talked to Sayantani about world-building, writing #OwnVoice middle grade fantasy and creating incredible, strong characters who are also kids! Your series, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond, began last year with THE SERPENT’S SECRET, an action-packed, magic-filled adventure featuring Kiranmala, an interdimensional demon-slayer. For readers who are not familiar with Kiranmala, can you briefly introduce her?

Sayantani DasGupta: Kiranmala thinks she’s just an ordinary sixth grader from Parsippany, New Jersey. Yes, okay, her parents are always telling her she’s a “real Indian princess” from another dimension, but that’s just because they’re a little weird (like all parents), right? Well, that’s what Kiran thinks until the morning of her twelfth birthday when she discovers that her parents have been magically whisked away to another dimension by a drooling, rhyming, long fanged and sharp horned rakkhosh demon, who is now in the process of demolishing her kitchen! With the help of some new princely friends who show up on winged pakkiraj horses, Kiran must accept her identity as an intergalactic princess, and travel to the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers to save her parents, New Jersey, and maybe the entire multiverse!

KRC: Without giving away too many spoilers, it is safe to say that Kiranmala undergoes quite the ordeal in THE SERPENT’S SECRET --- from learning the truth about her parents’ stories, journeying to the Kingdom Beyond, and battling demons. Where do we find her in book two, GAME OF STARS?

SD: Well, it’s a little bit of a spoiler, because GAME OF STARS finds Kiranmala back in New Jersey (so I guess New Jersey was saved in book 1!). She’s bummed out though because she hasn’t heard from her new friends from The Kingdom Beyond in months. But then the Demon Queen shows up in her bedroom telling her that her friends are in danger, and the Serpent King comes on intergalactic TV to announce a new reality TV game show competition called Who Wants to Be a Demon Slayer? The Kingdom Beyond is upside down --- with unfair new laws and regulations --- and Kiran realizes that she will have to travel across the dimensions to compete as the Kingdom Beyond’s champion on Sesha’s twisted game show and save her friends!

KRC: Your books are a positively delightful blend of Bengali folklore, pop culture and, of course, fast-moving fight scenes. Can you tell us why you wanted to bring Bengali folklore to the forefront of the middle grade fantasy scene?

SD: When I was Kiranmala’s age, the ages of the readers of this series, I didn’t have many books or stories where I could see myself being brave and heroic, or saving the world! And it’s hard to be what you can’t see. At some level, I convinced myself that because there were no characters who looked like me, or were immigrant daughters, in the books and movies I loved, that maybe I wasn’t worthy of being a protagonist --- even of my own life! But it was in the Bengali folktales that I’d hear from my grandmother on my long summer vacations to India that I could finally see brown skinned kids being awesome and heroic, having adventures and saving the day. So when my own kids were becoming avid middle grade fantasy readers and still didn’t have access to many stories about kids who looked like them, I reached back to those old Bengali folktales I loved and started writing THE SERPENT’S SECRET for them. I also love that now that the series is published, I can share these wonderful stories about rhyming rakkhosh, flying pakkhiraj horses, evil serpent kings and wises cracking birds with kids from other backgrounds too!

KRC: Can you tell us a bit about how the stories and characters you represent in Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond differ from other cultures and mythologies readers have seen in other books?

SD: The Bengali folktales that inspired this series are just that --- they are folktales. As opposed to myths, which tend to have more spiritual or religious aspects (so think Jack and the Beanstalk or Goldilocks vs. stories about Zeus and Osiris), these are folk stories that are shared by people of lots of religious traditions and multiple countries! Bengali speaking people from Bangladesh, West Bengal, India, and all around the diaspora know and love these stories --- and they’re shared and loved by people who are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, atheist --- basically, everyone! In this day and age, when there are so many tensions between religious groups, in South Asia and all around the world, I feel proud to base these novels on stories shared by people of many faiths.

KRC: Speaking of different cultures, it is impossible to ignore the timely need for stories like Kiranmala’s in today’s divisive world. With children learning about things like racism, immigration and prejudice very early, how do you think books like THE SERPENT’S SECRET and GAME OF STARS can help introduce these topics? Is this a goal of yours when you write?

SD: I think fantasy can be an amazing window for exploring things like prejudice, oppression, and injustice. The poet Emily Dickinson had that wonderful phrase, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I love that fantasy allows you to explore serious issues, but sometimes just a little displaced. So we’re talking about racism, but in the context of, say, rakkhosh demons! As an immigrant daughter myself, a mother of multicultural brown skinned kids growing up in the U.S. today, I can’t help but be deeply affected by everything going on right now --- be it the upsurge of prejudice and anti-immigrant feeling, or how children are being separated from their families at the border. I think middle grade readers are really sensitive and smart readers --- they understand about unfairness and they understand about justice. In fact, I think that young people are the heart of so much positive change in this country and around the world, so it’s an honor for me to write for them. In these books, I consciously am addressing things like immigration, identity, adoption, prejudice, difference, stereotypes, acceptance and fighting against injustice. I’m addressing all those issues in the context of a fast paced fantasy, but they are very much the beating heart of these stories, what drives the series altogether.

KRC: As an #OwnVoices writer, you have talked a lot about the need for more fantasy, science-fiction and other genre books featuring diverse characters. How do you strike the right balance between writing exciting fantasy, and making sure you do service to the characters, stories and cultures you represent? What do you hope readers will take away from seeing more children of color fighting monsters and slaying demons?

SD: It was the novelist Toni Morrison who said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And so I wrote this series as a lifelong lover of fantasy who never got to see someone like me in the speculative stories that I loved so much as a young person. Science fiction and fantasy stories have given us wizards who fly on brooms and Wookies who drive outer spacecraft, but have historically seemed to find it more difficult to imagine heroes who are people of color. There’s also this funny expectation sometimes in children’s publishing that stories about kids of color have to be a certain way --- teaching the mainstream about our communities, our history, or our hardships. And while those books are important of course, it’s really important to have stories about happiness and bravery too. Joy is a kind of resistance! And besides, to solve all the problems of the world, we’re clearly going to need as many heroes from as many different backgrounds as we can get!

KRC: Kiranmala is a true hero --- sassy, courageous and confident. But at the start of the series, she is really just a regular kid, and her journey to becoming a demon-slayer is not without resistance. Did you base her on anyone you know in real life? What do you hope young readers will take away from her story, especially in GAME OF STARS?

SD: I hope we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Kiranmala --- whether it’s thinking our parents are sometimes weird, or yearning for adventure, or being a little scared once that adventure shows up on our doorsteps! In THE SERPENT’S SECRET, I was really trying to portray Kiran’s journey of self acceptance --- her realization that it was only when she accepted all the parts of herself that she would really find her superpowers. And that’s something I think many of us can relate to --- whether because we’re from immigrant families, or because we’re adoptees, or simply because there are parts of ourselves that we’re still grappling with. With GAME OF STARS, I’m really trying to explore the idea of prejudice, and how we human beings tend to demonize certain groups just based on appearance or unfamiliarity or belief system. Kiran’s journey is partially figuring out that being a hero or a monster doesn’t have to do with what you look like or where you come from, but rather, the decisions you make each and every day.

KRC: The response to THE SERPENT’S SECRET was tremendous --- we’re big fans here at Kidsreads! Have the responses from readers and critics affected how you approached GAME OF STARS? Do you have a favorite young reader interaction?

SD: I have the best readers and have had amazing responses to THE SERPENT’S SECRET. I’ve gotten such heartfelt letters and am often sent pictures of fun fan art, or home made Halloween costumes. I adore all that! (More Kiranmala cosplay please!) What I really love is that some of these responses are from readers who share Kiranmala’s background as South Asian, but many of these responses are from kids who don’t necessarily share Kiran’s ethnic identity but see themselves in her in other ways. I have one young fan who lives near me who has decided that she is going to be a writer and leaves notes and short stories in my mailbox now all the time. Is there anything better than feeling like your work has inspired someone else to find their passion for writing?

KRC: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a doctor, teacher and mother! Do your other roles ever inform your writing? Do you ever ask your children for feedback as you work?

SD: I know that being a pediatrician, a professor of something called narrative medicine and now a children’s writer seems like they’re really different careers --- but in the end, they’re all about giving and receiving stories. In fact, when I was in practice as a pediatrician, I’d often write prescriptions for reading along with handing out age appropriate books for families to read together! And of course being a parent is too largely about sharing stories. I started the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series for my kids, and they’re so very supportive of my writing career. I often ask them for advice or read jokes or riddles out loud to them. They give me the best advice! (And being a writer mom means sometimes being able to say, “Enough homework! Read this chapter for me, will you?”)

KRC: Last of all, can you give us any hints about what you’re working on now, or where we might see Kiranmala next?

SD: There’s a Kiranmala book 3 in the works, due out February 2020! At this point, the title is THE CHAOS CURSE. The Serpent King is trying to destroy the diversity of the multiverse’s stories by collapsing all different stories into one; Kiran and her friends must stop him before it’s too late for the Kingdom Beyond and for all the varied stories of the multiverse!