The Zombie Wizard-Cat of Oz (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Remya Padmadas on September 22, 2017

Vinayak Varma, writes and draws things. He has written, guest edited and art directed STEM picture books for Pratham Books. Visit him at

Give nine people the exact same brief, and there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with nine different kinds of output. I’ve always been curious to know what happens on that journey between idea and execution, and what makes similar stories live out such different lives in the minds of different artists and writers. This is perhaps the only thing that motivates me to collaborate with others, speaking as a cranky hermit type who prefers working alone.

I write and illustrate for a living (a large part of which has lately been in aid of PB StoryWeaver). Every new project I take on is invariably a triathlon event that begins with a plunge into the Bottomless Pool of Procrastination, followed by a deathly plod across the Minefield of Migraines and a bicycle race through the No-Man’s-Land of Forgotten Deadlines. Somewhere along this crazy path, the odd conceptual tangents that inform the best parts of my work tend to sneak up on me like little ninjas. I'm usually too annoyed or preoccupied while I’m working to make note of precisely how any of it happened, and once the moment has passed and the job is done -- provided that job has any depth, truth or beauty to it -- it's easy enough to shrug and pretend like I'd been hit by some Joycean haiku moment.

But mastery of one’s art comes from understanding the mechanics of these creative accidents. If you can unpack it, you can duplicate it. However, the trouble with writing stories or making art is that they require you to exist in an isolated, meditative bubble where you're engaging deeply with the problem at hand, whereas the route to this bubble is through much distraction and muddled thinking. In order to parse the finer workings of this process, you need to be able to slip outside of your bubble at will (while maintaining an accessible distance), catch yourself in the act of being creative, and then be detached enough to pause and document what's happening. It’s a dilemma akin to that of Schrodinger’s cat -- the creative moment exists in a sort of delicate half-alive, half-dead state, where the very act of observing it risks killing it.

Of course, there are other, loftier parts to publishing, from where one can gain an interesting new vantage of some these abstract areas of book-making: hello and welcome to the Highlands, where clowders of editors scour the hillsides for errant adverbs like goats looking for tasty trash. These are cold, dry places where many authors and illustrators don’t dare venture for fear of losing their precious senses of self. Well, I do go there every so often, because I’m foolhardy like that. Here’s what I discovered up there: nothing returns your inner moggie to its quantum state like stage-managing the creation of picture books (as opposed to being one of the actors out in front). Editing and art directing let you view and gently influence the many moving parts of a project, watching creativity in action, without the blinding pressure of being the primary authorial voice. You get to observe the zombie cat but, also, you ARE the zombie cat. I recommend this exercise to all writers and illustrators at least once in their careers: not only does it let you see how other people make things, thereby enriching your own work, but it also acquaints you with the terrible power and omnipotence that commissioning editors have to live with daily. This can build empathy, if nothing else.

I got my most recent taste of this awesome power last year when I was hired to commission a set of nine STEM picture books for Pratham Books' StoryWeaver. I planned, ideated, edited and art directed four of these, which were on science. I got to art direct another four, from editor Bijal Vachharajani’s set of environment-themed stories. And I wrote and illustrated the ninth, themed on emotional intelligence, which meant that I too got to make, even as I guided and observed others in the act of making. In sum, I got to pull back the curtain and see all the wheels turn at once, to catch the decaying particle as it sped towards the poison vial, to expose the regular dude masquerading as… as…. a wizard… no, a dead cat… no, a living cat… no, a mountain goat... Look, the point is: this scarecrow has a fresh, insight-filled brain now. Chew on that, zombies.

I’m going to try and share some of that insight (or at least a bit more about the merits to following my particular path to such insight) in part 2 of this post, next week. Meanwhile, let’s look at some of the books that I just mentioned:

The Science Books

For the set of science books that I had to both edit and art direct, I was asked to come up with a few interesting themes and story ideas, and, once they'd been approved in-house, to farm them out to freelance writers and illustrators who were best suited to each idea. Four stories were then shortlisted from the seven or eight ideas that I suggested to my commissioning editors at Pratham Books (yes, even commissioning editors like me have commissioning editors, who in turn have other, bigger, older commissioning editors, who answer to still larger, greyer commissioning editors, etcetera, etcetera, all the way down, like the proverbial Jenga-stack of cosmic turtles).

I'm going to show you exactly how rudimentary these four early ideas were, so that you can gasp and grow silent with awe when you see what they ultimately became in the hands of my talented gang of writers and illustrators. Hold onto your seats.


"Dear Commissioning Space-Turtle #X,

Here are some ideas:

1. A kid has a cold. S/he then gives it to everyone else in his/her class via sneezes and things. Because epidemiology, boss.

2. An old lady heads out with a walking stick and her grandkid in tow. She uses her stick in various fun ways during the walk, pushing, pulling, propping up, etc., thereby demonstrating how simple machines work. Because physics and stuff, boss.

3. On birds devolving into dinosaurs, a la the chickenosaurus conjecture. Cluck, roar, repeat. Because why the hell not.

4. Crocodiles? Reptiles? Rom Whitaker? Because conservation biology, kids.

+ a few more that probably aren't worth going into given space(!)-constraints in this fake-email-within-an-already-interminable-blog-post.


Commissioning Space-Turtle #Y"


As you can see, the whole scheme began with a pith of one-liners that bore a 50-50 potential to go either way: to turn into something halfway-decent, or utter trash. What emerged at the end of their gritty evolution into book-hood, though, would you believe it, were these beauties:

Sniffles: in which Sunando C used bold, striking illustrations and crisp storytelling to turn a sad and lonely germ of an idea into a full-blown epidemic of football and high-fives and cool hats and general cuteness (plus, in a more literal sense, a sustained spray of sneezes, sickness and snot, so keep your antiseptic soaps handy). And those colours! Those characters! Those compositions! Those Norman-Jewison-esque split-screens! Killer stuff!


Ammachi's Amazing Machines: It’s like that original walking stick idea has been sliced up and Frankensteined by a mad surgical team consisting of Rube Goldberg, Professor Branestawm, Mr. Bean and Sathyan Anthikkad. Here’s what I’m interested in knowing: is there anything Rajiv Eipe can't do? Seriously, is there? I've asked everyone, and no one seems to have the answer. I'm willing to pay good money for this information. (Also: simple-machine barfi, FTW.)


Kaakasaurus: Terrifying, scaly, toothy, large, angry, feathery, strange, destructive, and hungry are all adjectives that one could apply to Shalini Srinivasan and Prabha Mallya (but I’m told it would be impolite to do so). Their picture book, however, is all of those words, but also happy, shiny, funny, smart, and crunchy like a hot bajji. There’s a Jurassic Park spin-off script in there somewhere, by the way, and Spielberg (or Robot Shankar) would be well advised to quickly option it while this crow is still a crow.


Ghum-Ghum Gharial’s Glorious Adventure: Now here is a story you can lose yourself in; a deeply affecting bildungsroman about the meaning of family, about love, loss and self-actualisation. The story and art by Aparna Kapur and Roshan, respectively, are so rich with truth, heart and lyricism. It ticks all the right literary / artistic boxes, I tell you. What makes this book truly stand apart, though, is that it’s also filled with an incredible polyphony of nose-wart-blasted fart-noises. Beat that, Odysseus!

You should go read these books, and share them with your kids, if you haven’t already. Did I mention that they’re all free? No? Well, they are too. The links are in the book titles (above). This is your cue to leave this page. GO!

Next week, in part 2 of this post: Four more picture books, more monstrously mixed metaphors (and other atrocious alliterations), an angry, angry, angry kid, and the Final Fate of Quantum Limbo Cat!