• Tulika Publishers

The Colour Thief is Here! Q and A with Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar

Hot off the press, this picture book is a riot of colours which have a story to tell! The Colour Thief by Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, is a rich visual extravaganza set in a timeless place somewhere in the mountains.

We spoke to the writers, Stephen Aitken and Sylvia Sikundar for the story behind the story. This is the second part of the two-part interview series. In the first part, we spoke to the illustrator for a peep behind the pages.

Where did you find the idea for The Colour Thief? What sparked off this multi-coloured tale? Was it something that was always on your mind or it appeared out of the blue?

Sylvia: The story idea came from an experience I had at the eye doctor. I was having cataract surgery and I saw the most amazing array of colours. I wondered what it would be like if the world had no colour at all. The Colour Thief was born.

Stephen: When Sylvia sent me the draft I was intrigued. Colour is a passion of mine. I saw a hidden message - the emotional impact of colour on people. Does that require eyes to see or can it be ‘felt’? What if we created an opportunity for children to literally ‘colour their world’? How exciting would that be? What kind of person would want to steal the joy of colour from others? That must be a very unhappy person.

As co-authors, how do you collaborate on writing a book?

Stephen and Sylvia: One of us usually comes up with a seed idea that he/she develops into a first draft. If it is something that we want to collaborate on then it is sent to the other by email (we often live on different continents and at the very least on different sides of the country in Canada). If the idea looks feasible there is a lot of revising back and forth before we settle on the final story. For the last edits we always meet via Skype and read the story out loud, changing words and tweaking the rhythm. Talking directly to each other allows us to discuss word and plot choices, character refinement, etc. We polish our manuscript as much as possible before sending it to a publisher.

The story of the colour thief doesn’t commit to a place or a time. Today, picture books and YA books are becoming more and more local and situated in a sense. What made you go in the opposite direction?

Stephen and Sylvia: We are both interested in stories that speak to the higher side of human nature—compassion, kindness, generosity and oneness. These attributes are universal in nature, not limited to a particular culture or rooted in a specific time. We feel that this gives the stories depth and appeal to a broad readership. We both love India and its wonderful people so many of our characters are rooted in Indian society.

Nature is a big part of your story – the land, the sea, the mountains. Is this something that comes from personal experience? For example, did you grow up in the mountains?

Stephen: I have a studio in the Himalayas so I look at the mountain landscape and himalayan skies daily. Though I was not born in the mountains I loved my first train ride through the Rocky Mountains in Canada when I was 10 years old. When I was a college student I made my way over the French alps into Switzerland and it renewed my inspiration. I was trained as a biologist and have written many books on the natural world and its diversity. I am passionate about conserving our wildlife and the habitats they live in, whether on land or in water.

Sylvia: I live on a small island on the west coast of Canada near the Rocky Mountains that Stephen crossed as a child. When I was young I lived in a rural area in Ghana, Africa, close to nature. My father was an entomologist and the family often accompanied him on field trips into the forest. I was amazed at how some insects mimicked other insects and nature. Some moths had large eye markings on their wings, other insects looked like sticks or leaves. Some insects had the pattern of other insects on their wings – it was all truly amazing. Like Stephen, I am passionate about wildlife conservation and I have a special love for elephants.

Of the many books that you have individually written, which do you consider your personal best and which the most challenging?

Stephen: The book that I am working on is typically the most challenging but that’s what makes it exciting. Some of the best books almost write themselves in the sense that the story idea can come in a flash, like Sylvia’s experience at the eye doctor. It is the revising and editing that is the hard part – that can take months, sometimes years. I am particularly proud of a 4-book series on climate change that I wrote and illustrated for a U.S. publisher, Earth Has a Fever, for students in grades 3-5. You can see more of my books on my website: http://www.stephenaitken.com

Sylvia: The most challenging book is always the one I am working on which is often a young adult novel concerning social issues. However my favourites are picture books as I love to see how an artist interprets words into pictures.

What book/s are you working on now?

Stephen: I am finishing up an educational book for grade 3 readers on how glaciers are melting as global temperatures rise. Everyone should know how climate change is affecting ALL life on our planet.

Sylvia and I are collaborating on a series of environmental books set in India about a fictional family with many animals. ‘The Chelos’ champion a number of environmental issues—rainwater harvesting, water and air pollution, and trade in endangered species. We are working with a publisher to finalise a chapter book for the first story in the series. This series is particularly dear to us because these are the only stories that we actually wrote when we were in the same room. It was in New Delhi about 15 years ago and this remains the one and only time that we met face to face without a computer screen in between. However, to this day we continue to spark creativity in each other!

Sylvia: I am working on the last chapter of a young adult novel on the topic of arranged marriages. A Canadian girl goes to Delhi unaware that her parents want her to get married to a boy she doesn’t like. The story is further complicated by an old unsolved murder and the possibility of her being the reincarnation of that victim.

Stephen, you are both an author and illustrator. Which of these two do you think is more challenging?

To come up with a new, unique and captivating story is always a challenge. I have many more books in print written by others that I have illustrated but the ones that are dearest to me are the books that I authored as well as illustrated. That having been said, I am delighted with the illustrations that Sandhya Prabhat has created for The Colour Thief. Her use of perspective, scale and texture add a lot to the story as do the wonderful characters that she illustrated.

The biggest challenge for me as an artist is to bring my own style and vision to a story written by someone else to add visual layers to the story, develop the characters further and strengthen the story line.

The challenge with writing is to just do it every day, without fail. Like the monkey dropping stones into the river, one day you will be able to walk across. I don’t have to muster the inspiration for art, it comes more naturally. There is so much beauty all around us and I have been trying to capture it since I was a young boy. Stephen, when you are writing and illustrating a book which comes first – the words or the pictures?

One of the great advantages of being both an author and an illustrator is that as a story is developing in my head I tend to visualise it at the same time. Once I have a storyline I make small thumbnail sketches right onto a print-out of the story before developing it into a storyboard. I have the luxury of being able to tweak the text and leave out details that can be shown in the art. A good picturebook is pure poetry. Every word is important. The art should draw the reader back in again and again unfolding more delight on every single read.

Stephen Aitken is a writer-illustrator who is passionate about the natural world. His studio in the colourful Himalayas provides shelter for ants, pigeons, spiders and an odd mouse. Sylvia Sikundar spent her childhood always on the move, making up stories about imaginary friends and pets whenever she got lonely. She likes to write books to share her love of nature and animals.

June 19, 2018