Interview with Archana Mohan, Author of “Extra Chromosome, Extra Ordinary LoveExclusive interview with Archana Mohan, author of 'Extra Chromosome, Extra Ordinary Love' on Frontlist.
on Nov 02, 2023
A former journalist, Archana is happiest in the company of young people. She co-founded Bookosmia with Nidhi Mishra, watching it grow into India's No. 1 publisher for kids, by kids - publishing and showcasing young voices from across 150+ global locations every day. A neurodiversity ally, she is passionate about 'Not That Different', a movement she co-created with Nidhi and BBC 2021 100 women Mugdha Kalra to help children understand their neurodiverse friends better. Archana's latest book -Extra - Extra Chromosome, Extraordinary Love, featuring a lead character with Down Syndrome, has been lauded by the Punjab government. Her previous books include 'Yaksha', a pioneering children's book on reviving Karnataka's folk theatre form of Yakshagana which was adapted for theatre
"Howzzat' and 'Not That Different', a comic book on autism . She is also a creative writing coach, Ted—Ed facilitator and podcast instructor. Archana loves sports, inclusion and giving every child the confidence to express themselves.
Frontlist: Your book's title is quite intriguing. Could you delve into its significance and what it symbolizes within the context of your story?
Archana Mohan: 'Extra' is a play on the extra chromosome that those with Down Syndrome are born with. One of the lead characters in this book, 12-year-old Shreya, has this condition. But this book isn't a handout about disability. At its heart is a simple story about friendship, inclusion, and celebrating each other's unique abilities. The book starts with 10-year-old Sara, who is off for summer vacation to her aunt's house in Anjor, a sleepy but picturesque fishing village. The vacation isn't just a laze in the sand as she predicted when she and her cousins, Shreya (who has Down Syndrome) and Noor discover an object that has been missing for millions of years - The Moon's third eye! Will the girls be able to work together to return the Moon's eye, or will their differences keep them away from the riches promised by the Moon-god to the finder of his eye? The book delves into the sweet relationship between cousins, holiday adventures, and celebrating our unique ways of doing things.
Frontlist: Could you share your experience collaborating with Shivani and her children, who are the inspiration for the characters in the book?
Archana: Writing a children's book is a huge responsibility. As someone with no lived experience of caring for someone with Down Syndrome, it was extremely important for me to get the setting, language, and tone right for the book. The book's publisher, Bookosmia, which has its neurodiversity imprint called 'Not That Different,' has always believed in telling a good story for kids where inclusion is organic to the story. The illustrator of the book, Prarthana Merchant, and I wanted to retain the authenticity of the characters while making it relatable for every child, and that's where Shivani's inputs were crucial. No matter how many books and research articles you read, the real understanding of a condition only comes when you meet people who have experienced it themselves or have cared for someone with the condition. Shivani opened her heart and her home to us, and we had the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with her and her lovely children. From Aviraj, we pieced together the character of the cool big brother. We incorporated Shreya's love for everything Avengers, the youngest, Noor's standout leadership qualities, and Shivani's famous aloo parathas. During each conversation with the family, we took meticulous notes to ensure we had the characters absolutely right. What was most striking to me was Shivani's fortitude. Even when she described some of the traumatic experiences she has faced in the past due to the shocking myths about Down Syndrome, she was practical and hopeful. Her positive demeanor, ability to forgive, enthusiasm to learn, and willingness to do what it takes to create a more inclusive world for neurodiverse children are truly inspirational.
Frontlist: In your book, you mention using the power of storytelling to connect with children and young adults with intellectual disabilities. How did you approach writing for children on such a sensitive topic?
Archana: The word 'story' is misunderstood. We often look at a book and think - that's a story. But stories are so much bigger than these boxed formats. Stories are limitless. How we got our name is a story. Why we chose a particular color for our car is a story. Why a particular song makes us nostalgic is a story. As human beings, every move and decision of ours is influenced by the stories we hear and tell. That is the power of storytelling. As for writing for children, there is one rule every writer knows: the young reader doesn't care about how many awards you have won or how many followers you have on Instagram. Can you write a story that a child will enjoy? That is the only brief you need to consider. As I wrote this book, I put myself in the shoes of the 10-year-old who would read the book. No one wants to be preached to, especially not a pre-teen. My focus was on the story, building a world that most readers could identify with yet present a new development, i.e., meeting someone with different abilities, which many may not have experienced. Like us adults, children too have moments of self-doubts; they have a range of emotions; they feel ecstatic, jealous, and impatient, and the story reflects all of that. When writing on a sensitive topic, it is important to be honest with children as they understand more than we think they do. Beating around the bush with metaphors does not work with the 9+ age group, as at this age they are more aware of their surroundings. They have a bag full of questions, and the only way to address them in a book is by acknowledging their feelings and talking to them in an honest and simple manner.
Frontlist: From your perspective, how does children's literature contribute to the promotion of inclusivity and the transformation of societal narratives?
Archana: The stories we love in our childhood become a part of our existence. That is why the stories of Ramayana or Panchatantra told thousands of years ago continue to enthrall us across generations even today. Children's literature makes magic come alive, it makes you question, it makes you believe you can be anything you want to be, it is uplifting and heartwarming, all of which help an individual feel positive about themselves. In Harry Potter, for instance, Luna Lovegood is shown to be a bit different from others. But that doesn't stop her from making great friends and being an important part of the developments in the later books. The fact is that children are intrinsically inclusive and curious. When they read about someone with different abilities, it helps them understand that while there may be some differences, there are many similarities as well. They also subconsciously begin to learn that our unique traits are what enrich the world around us and that a little empathy goes a long way in making it a happier place for everyone.
Frontlist: In what ways do you believe this book can provide guidance and support to parents and caregivers navigating the journey of raising children with special needs?
Archana: Through my conversations with Shivani and with Mugdha Kalra, 'BBC 100 Women' awardee, broadcast journalist, and mother of teenager Madhav, who is on the autism spectrum, I understood that despite the increasing awareness about neurodiversity, there is still a long way to go. Parents of neurodiverse children have to hear scathing remarks and unkind labels about their children from relatives and strangers. At school and playgrounds, parents and caregivers of neurodiverse children often find it difficult to explain their child's condition to neurotypical children. In such situations, a storybook is the ideal vehicle for parents to make it easier for their friends, families, and other children to understand their child better. Even if a young reader has never met a person with Down Syndrome, the book will help introduce them to the fact that we all have different abilities and that it doesn't take much to take our friends along in whatever we do. For the neurodiverse parenting community, the book is proof that they are being seen, heard, and represented. We know how deeply they are invested as caregivers, and we appreciate their grit. We hope they focus on their own mental wellbeing as well and know that they are not alone in this journey.
Frontlist: Lastly, what are your hopes for the impact of your book, "Extra: Extra Love, Extra Chromosome"? What messages or insights do you aspire it will convey regarding Down Syndrome and neuro-atypical individuals in society?
Archana: I hope that 'Extra' makes everyone a little extra empathetic about the world around them. Often, neurodiverse children and their families are not invited to birthday parties and get-togethers. They get judgmental looks in restaurants, malls, and airports where even staff members are callous towards their needs. While it is not possible to change attitudes overnight, I hope books like Extra help start a conversation about inclusion. One of the biggest challenges about Down Syndrome are the widespread myths about it. Hopefully, this book can dispel them and help the young reader see that playtime is so much more fun when everyone can participate. Publisher Bookosmia's CEO Nidhi Mishra was invited to speak about the book on international platforms such as Stanford, Vanderbilt University, WordPress summit, and the like, and it has been heartening to receive an encouraging response to our belief that children are more than capable of leading the movement for inclusion. As this book's central message shows, there can be no better ambassadors of inclusion than children playing together. We hope this book ignites a conversation about inclusion in every classroom.