May 1, 2018

Put Down That Smartphone: THE MANIC PANIC Is Here!

If you are reading this on a digital device, ignore my directive in the title and continue reading, please. After you've read my review and a delightful interview with author Richa Jha, I hope you'll purchase this new picture book or request it from your local library. It's a cautionary tale of what will happen when WiFi goes down, even for a day. But it is SO much more than that.

THE MANIC PANIC, written by Richa Jha and illustrated by Mithila Ananth, Is Richa's first picture book published in the USA, but certainly will not be her last. If Richa's name sounds familiar to you, it may mean you've read about her dynamic efforts and thriving talent in a previous post, here. 
It's ironic that I first "met" Richa through social media several years ago. That's also one of the best examples of the reality we face: WiFi and digital connections are a double-edged sword in our lives. In my case, that virtual meeting via social media has allowed me to follow Richa's career in the world of kids' books from the advent of her earliest publications in India through this latest release. I'll continue to enjoy sharing her journey in the years ahead. 
Before learning more about Richa's story in the interview, I must share my thoughts about THE MANIC PANIC in the review that follows. The you can read for yourselves what a charming and exhuberant person she is, and recognize that she deserves her success. Note her name well, and stay tuned for many more books to come.

I first read THE MANIC PANIC in a shared online file, fully aware of that irony, too. At that stage I loved it and knew I'd feature it here and send questions to Richa soon after. Then I was thrilled to receive a physical copy to read. Everything about the book's art and design expanded my appreciation of the story immeasurably. The characters and humor shine through while allowing subtle details on each page to enrich the story, anchoring it in specific yet universally recognizable places and experiences. The paper quality and linen binding make it a pleasure to hold, with both hands, reducing screen-induced temptations to swipe through pages with minimal attention.
And we NEED to pay attention to the wise-for-her-age narrator, a girl using first person voice and rare future-tense warnings to readers that "the day the internet stops working" they must be prepared to lead adults back to reality. In this delightful role-reversal from a typical narrative,  the girl drags her parents outdoors, connecting them with actual real-life shared experiences. Eventually, after many anguished pages, they reawaken to the joy of life itself.
Illustrator Mithila Ananth

Every detail and nuance of Ananth's  illustrations enriches the layers of humor and insight, including the ubiquitous and delightfully young-at-heart grandma. The combination of Jha's text and Ananth's images develop cleverly satisfying twists, including eventual recognition of the real cause for such an unexpected interruption in WiFi service in their formerly addicted family home. You're safe- no spoiler alerts here.

Richa's ambitious publishing company, Pickle Yolk Books, has gained recognition in the world of English language picture books in India, including titles featured here and here. In very few years Richa has gained footing in her own country but also in the international world of children's publications. I asked her about that in the interview that follows. Richa's responses are in BLUE.

Richa, thank you for allowing me to share in celebrating the launch of THE MANIC PANIC and your debut USA market launch. I adored this book and particularly chuckled at your author note. You indicated in it that your children have threatened to flush your mobile/handset while you sleep. Has it happened yet? Do your children have their own handsets/WiFi devices? Have you had to make the same threat to them? In other words, would you share a bit about how mobile/WiFi activity affects your family’s life? 

RJ-The handset is safe with me; so far! And in the past few months, I have undertaken steps to ensure that my children are not provoked to the brink of carrying out their threat (more on this later)! 

I’m both intrigued and troubled by the way mobile phones have taken over our lives in just a matter of years. Actually, it’s more the smart phones rather than a regular simple mobile phone itself that has changed the way people now have become slaves to their virtual lives.

I made a late switch to smart phones, about five years ago. But I can already see the kind of damages it is capable of unleashing. 

Screen addiction today is real and universal. But ever since I became aware that I was allowing it to rule (and ruin) my life in many ways, I have consciously tried to curb the usage of not just the handheld but also my laptop and iPad. The notifications are disabled for all the apps; this prevents me from lunging at the mobile with every ping every waking moment. I have stopped sleeping with the handheld on the bedside table; I’ve discovered my quality of sleep has improved because of this. There are periods ranging from weeks to months when I have unplugged completely - deactivated my Facebook account, stopped checking my twitter feeds, but these extreme measures are only temporary correctives.  I eventually do inch back to these because the nature of my work is such that I can’t lock myself up in an ivory tower and grow or expect people to discover my books! I am still struggling to find the right balance but I am happy to see the progress I have made over the past couple of years. 

As a postscript, I sheepishly must add that I am keying all this on my handheld as I wait here for my daughter’s concert practice to get over!
My children, 17 and 13, both have their personal handsets, despite my best (somewhat firm) intent to keep them away from it. It’s just the forces around us and them that make living without one next to impossible. Today’s lifestyle is so tuned towards taking for granted a mobile phone’s presence in our lives that if you are an anomaly, you’re in for a bumpy ride. So I had to yield to their persistent requests. While my younger one shows remarkable restraint using hers, my older one is clearly addicted to it. This, despite clear rules and limits that we laid down right at the outset. Some of it is also to do with how their school curriculum is designed. For both my children, nearly 90% of their academic assignments, submissions and assessments happen online. Which means that they are working on their laptops for homework and constantly checking their social media feeds because that’s where all their friends ‘hang out’ discussing group projects. What I find even more surprising is that even when they do physically hang-out as a group, they are still glued to their respective screens. That’s their idea of having fun. 

 So yes, as a family, we are far from what I would ideally want us to be! 

The core issue of your story has become a global one, not only because WiFi and handheld devices are now available globally (at least in many areas), but because  the addiction that follows such access seems universally true. How do you cope when WiFi goes down- with groaning or adapting?

 RJ- We have always been a family of book lovers, something which sadly lays somewhat forgotten in these constantly wired times; but come an outage and we immediately sink into our cozy corners with a book in hand. I think we secretly welcome a network failure (unless there's an important online deadline that I am about to miss; I end up getting hysterical then)!

The lovely conclusion of the clever child’s need to complete a book report enjoys a wordless resolution on your author note page. Was that designed in your original story or was that strictly the illustrator’s addition?

RJ-As a bookmaker, I always like having a little back story and front story on the end-papers. These help in adding that extra layer of depth and fun to a book's narrative. With this book, I knew I wanted to show the family before the events in the main story begin on the front end-paper. The back endpaper would have to show the family as a sort of post-script. This was also meant to be the space that reinforced that the joys the parents experienced on the day of the outage left a lasting impact on them (and therefore showing how the characters have grown over the course of the book). The girl discovering the joy of doing her report manually - all thanks to Nana's resourcefulness - seemed like a strong way of showing the growth in the girl's character, too.

However, while the book report vignette was a part of the original plot, the specific situations in which we find the parents on both the end papers is very much illustrator Mithila Ananth's additions. I love the perfect comic timing in her deceptively simple illustrations!

Your role reversal has a delightfully comic effect and will be a big hit with young readers. Adults may cringe a bit, but might also be nudged to shift their own patterns. Have you had reactions from readers in your local release events? Can you characterize or contrast the reactions from adults versus those from young readers?

RJ-The young readers love to see someone their age holding forth and being in charge with her firm resolve to not give in to her parents' tantrums. The adults, on the other hand, enjoy the joke on them with a sheepish grin. I had a dad's throaty laughter fill the room at one of the reading sessions. At another, a young mother walked up to me and said that if this funny book didn’t   'reform' her, nothing else would!

You’ve been experiencing wonderful success and recognition for your lively impact on the world of picture books in India. What are your hopesand expectations from this initial picture book release in the American market?

RJ-Thank you, Sandy! I’m happy to be making my tiny contribution to the Indian picture book landscape. Every new book nudges me up my learning curve, but with The Manic Panic’s USA edition, the learning has been immense!

Over the course of the several email exchanges I’ve had with the brilliant editor and publisher Marissa Moss, I haven’t tired of telling her how my one meeting with her at Bologna last year changed so much for me in a most special way! Ever since I began writing for children about six years ago, I had always dreamt of being an internationally published author. But I never could follow it through with the required hard work and tenacity of the submission process because of the demands of my writing and publishing works here in India. Therefore, Creston Books acquiring the world English rights to the book ended up being more than a dream come true!

Ms. Moss is an exceptional editor and a reservoir of inexhaustible energy! Working closely with her on the book’s text and artwork has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my book-making journey, not least because in her I find a role model I’d love to emulate. She’s an author, editor, publisher, businessperson, children’s book champion, all rolled into one. It’s a similar path I have chosen for myself in the Indian context, so each time I interact with her, I’m like a thirsty sponge covertly absorbing every ounce of book making wisdom I can from her! 

At the same time, I’ve also learned a lot about the streamlined ways in which the children’s publishing industry works in the US. If (and I hope) there is a second time in the US with a new book, I know I will do a significantly better job at promoting it. With The Manic Panic, I hope to create warm, lasting associations with the broader global kidlit ecosystem of reviewers and picture book enthusiasts. The initial pre-release love and response to the book has been heartwarming; I am naturally already over-the-moon! I hope the US readers embrace this book like their own rather than seeing it as an Indian import.   

Richa, will you share with us any hints about your current projects, what we can expect to see from you in coming months and years?

RJ-As an author, there are two projects that I’m particularly excited about- a picture book celebrating a voracious reader’s inevitable itch that pulls her towards becoming an author (the reader to author journey is something that so many of us will identify with). I’m teaming up with an acclaimed Spanish illustrator for this. The other book explores the myriad shades of motherhood; I’m doing it with Gautam Benegal who I have collaborated with on several other books.
The annual Bologna (International) Children's Book Festival connection has made a dramatic difference in your publishing journey. Will you share a bit about that?
RJ: I have been attending the BCBF for the last three years. I had reached out to Ms. Moss last year for an appointment at the fair to share some of our Pickle Yolk Books titles. Her prompt response stunned me (something I soon recognized as her characteristic trait). So when I finally got to my half-hour slot with her at Bologna, I was both excited and nervous. I showed her The Manic Panic in a semi-done state there. A couple of months later I heard from her saying she was interested in buying the world English rights to the book. I remember being on the phone with illustrator Milthila Ananth discussing the visuals of the same book when her email popped up in my inbox. I guess Mithila is the right person to ask how I screamed and nearly choked on my words mid-sentence to her! 
Once the paperwork was done, Ms. Moss and the Creston Books art director, the brilliant Simon Stahl, were constantly in touch with us with their feedback, both textual and visual, until we got to a stage where we had the best possible version of the book with us. Each time I look at the book, I’m filled with gratitude; The Manic Panic couldn’t have found a better home in the big wide world out there.    
Richa with Sylvia Hayes
I can’t overlook thanking Sylvia Hayse. She runs the Sylvia Hayse Literary Agency that handles the world rights to The Manic Panic. Ms. Moss had so thoughtfully sent her several copies, and she was kind enough to carry those author copies from the US to me  at the 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair. 
I’m full of gratitude for everything and everyone who has played such important parts in this journey.

Richa, I'm really grateful to have you in my life, too, even if only in my virtual life (for now). Your journey as an author, an editor, a publisher, and a life-changer for your readers across the globe is an inspiration to me. I hope the same is true for readers who "meet" you here. 
THE MANIC PANIC releases MAY 1, 2018 from Creston Books. Thank you to Richa Jha for participating in this interview, and to publisher Marissa Moss for sending a copy of the book for my review.


  1. Dearest Sandy,

    In you I have found my most trusted well-wisher! Thank you for always being there to share my book journey joys!


    1. Following you on your journey (cheering all the way) has been one of the best benefits of social media in my life. Enjoy and continue, Richa. You have gifts to share.


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