Author Madhvi Ramani has brought us three delightful, globe-trotting journeys featuring mystery solving, elementary school protagonist Nina who goes on adventures around the world in her aunt’s magical travelling spice shed. The child of immigrant parents from India, Nina is a first generation Brit trying to excel at school, avoid bullies and define her cultural identity in a way that honors who she really feels she is and isn’t too offensive to her family. In the first two books, Nina’s trips to India and China helped her solve some extraordinary problems. In the third novel, Nina travels to Brazil.
Today, the author reads us the first chapter of the third book in the series: Nina and the Magical Carnival, which gets released in the United States today, just in time for winter holiday gifting.
In addition to reading us the first chapter of her new release, Ramani took the time to discuss diversity in children’s literature and her debut novel, Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed.
Support diversity literature and give the young readers in your life some great reads by buying all three titles or just the new release, Nina and the Magical Carnival.
Our Conversation with Madhvi Ramani, author of the “Nina” Books.
Introduce yourself. Tell us a little about yourself.
Hello! My name is Madhvi. I’m the author of Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed, Nina and the Kung Fu Adventure, and Nina and the Magical Carnival.
I grew up in London, where I studied English Literature and Creative Writing. Currently, I live in Berlin, where I spend my time drinking coffee, speaking terrible German and making things up.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve always loved writing but have been doing it seriously for about 10 years.
Why do you write chapter books—you tell stories so well I’m certain you could have chosen any genre from picture book to literary novels?
When I get an idea, I start to sketch it out and as I do that I figure out which form best suits that story. So, for example, the Nina stories were fun and adventurous, with a fantastical twist that children would appreciate, which could be effectively told in short chapters, hence the chapter book form.
In general, I don’t restrict myself to one particular form or genre – I also write short stories, plays and screenplays. I just choose the best way to tell the story I’d like to tell.
What was your inspiration for Nina, the character?
She’s the girl I would have liked to have been; smart, feisty, conscientious and kind. Of course, she also has her faults, but I tried to make her as rounded as possible. Often children’s book characters are reduced to a type – the naughty girl, or princess, or tomboy – I tried to make Nina more complex.
What was your inspiration for Nina and the Travelling Spice Shed?
The initial idea came about when I was studying creative writing. My fiction teacher kept telling me to write an ‘Indian book’ – something exploring my family’s immigrant background. I found this limiting and frustrating, as if I was being pigeonholed. So I came up with a story in which a British-Indian girl faces the same kind of problem; everyone keeps forcing her ‘Indianness’ on her, when really, her identity and interests are more complex than that. When she visits India, she gets to confront her identity as well as her own stereotypes about India – and have a fantastic adventure and meet some interesting characters along the way.
Comment on the critical friendship between Nina and her Aunt Nishi.
I grew up surrounded by aunties. The loving friendship between Nina and Aunt Nishi is a reflection of those critical relationships. There’s an image of a typical Indian aunty – someone who wears saris, cooks great food, and pulls your cheeks – but every aunty is unique and smart too. Aunt Nishi is a combination of these qualities – she can make a great curry, but she can also invent a fantastic travelling machine and teach Nina some important things.
This question is a spoiler but I don’t want your answer to be: Even after her adventures, Nina is not attached to India –she still prefers the USA– but to a person in India. Why this story choice instead of the idyllic conversion to love of her ancestral motherland?
It goes back to the question of complexity. Making Nina choose India over the USA after one trip to her motherland would be contrived and simplistic. By the end of the book, she – and her parents – have come to accept her identity as an individual, who appreciates the fun of the Holi festival, but also Disneyland. The ending reflects her situation between east and west, old and new.
Who do you perceive as your reading audience? What do you hope they get out of reading your work?
I think all children who like fantasy / adventure stories would love these books. I hope they are thrilled by the stories, empathize with the characters, and learn about different cultures and countries along the way.
What are your thoughts on the diversity of texts in libraries and schools and how that impacts the literacy and educational interest of students?
There’s clearly a lack of diversity in texts in libraries and schools. Books are a critical part of our education and understanding of the world, and if children do not see themselves and their lives reflected in them, it could put them off reading or make them think that they do not deserve to be represented in books.
Any parting thoughts for the adults choosing books for middle grade readers ?
I think, a lot of the time, teachers and librarians choose diverse books only to highlight particular issues, or cultures. However, it’s important to treat diverse books the same as any other children’s book, and not just bring them out during Eid or Diwali. Books about all sorts of characters should sit on the same shelves and be read equally. When this happens children will not only be able to gain a better understanding of different kinds of people, but also of our common humanity.
Any parting thoughts for middle grade readers?
Read lots! Reading is one of the great pleasures of life, so read what you like, and try new and different books too – you might be surprised!