• Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Interview with Menaka Raman, Author of “How to Reach Mars and Other (Im)possible Things”

Discover insights from Menaka Raman, author of 'How to Reach Mars and Other (Im)possible Things,' in an exclusive interview on Frontlist.
on Mar 28, 2024
Interview with Menaka Raman, Author of “How to Reach Mars and Other (Im)possible Things”

Menaka Raman is a children's book author and communications consultant. She is the author of picture books, chapter books and two middle grade novels. She has written a parenting and children's books for some of India's leading newspapers.

Frontlist: As a writer, what strategies did you employ to make complex scientific concepts accessible and engaging for young readers, especially when discussing topics like space exploration and missions to Mars?

Menaka: So the first thing is to read as much as possible about the topic. So, I need to do a lot of research from other books, interviews with scientists, interviews with people who work in the space of space exploration, or perhaps writing about space exploration and research. So there's a lot of research that I do.

And I note down the questions that I have and the things that I'm unsure about or I find complicated or complex. I've been very fortunate that with both "How to Reach Mars and Other Impossible Things" and Topi Rockets from Thumba, I was able to speak to retired ISRO scientists who were very patient in explaining these concepts to me. So, I really took a leaf out of their books.

The idea is to present a complex idea in a way that is accessible to young readers but without a quote-unquote, dumbing it down or insulting their intelligence. So, I think the first thing is to do a lot of research to understand it myself. As I do the research, I note the topics that I find complicated and then really keep breaking the explanation down further and further until it's in its most basic essence.

Frontlist: You skillfully blend fiction with scientific concepts to create an engaging narrative. Can you elaborate on your approach to balancing educational content with storytelling, particularly in introducing young readers to complex scientific ideas while keeping them immersed in the storyline?

Menaka: For me, it's always looking for that entry point and looking for the character who will then kind of take the reader or the set of characters and who take the readers from that entry point through the story to its conclusion. So in the case of How to Reach Mars and Other Impossible Things, of course, the idea was not only to highlight the scientific aspects of Mangalyaan but also to kind of put the spotlight on the amazing scientists who worked on the project, quite a few of whom were women, and to kind of talk about how space research and exploration is very much a career option or a calling for people of all genders.

So that was really important. As I was doing the research for this book and kind of reading and trying to think of what that entry point might be, that is when I remembered the Draw a Scientist study, which then kind of formed the entry point into the story. That was kind of the little launch point, I guess, into the story.

And, of course, we had Rabia as the character. But for me, it is very important to, or at least I enjoy, writing stories in which there is an engaging narrative and the science is in parallel with that or kind of blends with that. And the attempt is always to do that in a seamless way. It's just how I enjoy writing these kind of books.

Frontlist: You have crafted a narrative that challenges stereotypes and empowers girls and women. How do you envision literature, like your book, contributing to the promotion of gender equality, and what specific impact do you hope your story will have in inspiring young readers to pursue their dreams regardless of gender?

Menaka: I think one of the main wonderful things about literature and children's books is that they do this wonderful thing of both being able to help a young person kind of hold up a mirror to a young person's own lived realities and experiences and make them feel less alone and at the same time they might also, these books can also help children understand the many possibilities that exist in the world for them.

And I think it is really; my hope is that these books will help children question things that they might see and hear around them, things that are said to them, and not just take them as the truth. I think very often kids get messages from the grown-ups, the adults in their lives, about what it is they can and cannot do, and sometimes they feel like they have to just accept it because, you know, we all have to listen to adults.

Still, my hope is that with this, they can find or know that it is possible to question the status quo. They don't have to accept things that they are as they are. I think in the case of the Mars book, it's also really to show young people that asking questions is fine, curiosity is fine and seeking answers to those questions when those around you do not or cannot provide the answers is also something that they should do.

Frontlist: "How to Reach Mars and Other (Im)possible Things" confronts the stereotype that women can't excel in scientific fields. Can you delve into your approach in addressing this stereotype within the narrative and the challenges Rabia and Dr. Mary encounter as they strive to defy societal expectations and pursue their scientific aspirations?

Menaka: I used the "Draw a Scientist" research study, which, over many decades around the world, asked young children to draw a scientist. When the study was first conducted in the early '60s or '70s, a minuscule percentage of young children drew women; most of them drew men, white men in lab coats. That was because that is what they saw; that is what they saw in the world around them, in popular culture, and in the books they read. So, that is what they drew. Over the years, as they conducted this test repeatedly, they found that, thankfully, the percentage of children who drew women scientists began to increase. This increase was driven by the young girls themselves who were drawing these pictures. It showed that as we had more representation of women in STEM fields, and that was more visible, then girls were able to see that, okay, this is something possible; this is something that I can do.

I think all of us need to be able to see what it might look like for us to do something, what it might look like for a young person to want to be a dancer, or a chef, or an astronaut, or a scientist, or whatever it is. You need to see that role model in front of you in some way to know that it is possible. And I think that is what literature for children can do. It can showcase to them the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of them as they grow up. So, I used that study to kind of say that here is, you know, this is possible, you know, and that women can be scientists, even when people around you are saying that it's not possible, girls can't be scientists, everyone else is drawn as a man; we all know this, and things like that.

Rabia doesn't let that get her down. When she visits the URL satellite center in the book, her own kind of scientific inquiry makes her want to find out if this is true, and she seeks out Dr. Mary. If you've read "Topi Rockets from Thumba," Dr. Mary is actually the young Mary in that story who grows up to be a scientist. The idea is also in "Topi Rockets," Dr. Mary meets Vikram Sarabhai, and he answers all her questions, all her queries, and satisfies her curiosity in a way that is not disrespectful of that curiosity she has. And in a way, it's almost like, you know, that is what allowed her to feel like it was good to ask questions. It's okay to ask questions; it's good to be curious. Then, she grows up to become a scientist. And for Dr. Rabia, then, for Rabia, then, Dr. Mary kind of models that behavior herself. So, we all really need to have those role models in life who we can read about, we can meet, and who can envision the future.

Frontlist: How do you see storytelling as a tool for introducing and navigating complex themes like responsibility and challenging gender roles to shape young readers' understanding?

Menaka: I think it's important that the story takes precedent and that the narrative, the storyline, the characters are the most important thing. And any kind of quote-unquote messaging that you want to give children, if you try and set out to give a message, I don't think that it works. I think children are extremely smart.

They can sense from many miles away that they are being fed some kind of message or moral or, you know, ways of being. And I think that can be off-putting to many young readers. So I think for me, it really is more than, oh, this is the message and this is, you know, what it is that I want. Yeah, it's the story. The story has to be able to do that for you in a very, very natural way and without feeling like a force feed.

Frontlist: In honor of International Women's Day, could you share a message of empowerment or encouragement for young girls who may aspire to pursue careers in fields traditionally dominated by men?

Menaka: I do want to tell young girls and young people of all genders that it can be very, very hard to want to do something that is considered not for you, not for your gender, not from your kind of social class, your economic background, and it can be very, very, very hard to break through those barriers and to go ahead and do what you want to do. So, I think it's really important to kind of really put your heads down and do the work that needs to be done. None of these things, big dreams, aspirations, and hopes are not easy to achieve, which is what makes them so audacious and wonderful.

So, one, I think it's really important to put your head down and do the work that needs to be done and also to really surround yourself with a community of people who support you and support your dreams and respect your dreams and kind of want to be able to help you reach them. And that might look like your friends, that might look like an elder sibling, a cousin. I really hope that looks like parents and teachers; it could be a librarian or a sports coach. But it's really, really important to surround yourself with people who support your dreams and wishes, and it's important to kind of be able to stay steadfast in the face of negativity and criticism.

My real wish is that one day, you know, books like "How to Reach Mars" aren't needed. We don't need books to talk to children about gender equality and that all their dreams are possible. And it should just be something that they can strive and aspire to, but till then, yes, keep reading lots of books as well.

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