Kill Your Darlings: A Sangu Mandanna Interview About Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom
Today, we’re gonna start off with a bang. I interview a fair number of folks on this blog. Why? Because I honestly enjoy it. I mean, I’m in the incredibly privileged position of getting to dive deep into the heads of book creators. Content providers! And you know what?
Not enough of them are engaged in the kicking of butt.
Awwwwwwwww yeah, baby! This is why I love fantasy. Girls. With swords. Slaying the gods they created. What could be better?
The book’s title is Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom so here’s a bit of a plot description for you:
Kiki Kallira has always been a worrier. Did she lock the front door? Is there a terrible reason her mom is late? Recently her anxiety has been getting out of control, but one thing that has always soothed her is drawing. Kiki’s sketchbook is full of fanciful doodles of the rich Indian myths and legends her mother has told her over the years. One day, her sketchbook’s calming effect is broken when her mythological characters begin springing to life right out of its pages. Kiki ends up falling into the mystical world she drew, which includes a lot of wonderful discoveries like the band of rebel kids who protect the kingdom, as well as not-so-great ones like the ancient deity bent on total destruction. As the one responsible for creating the evil god, Kiki must overcome her fear and anxiety to save both worlds—the real and the imagined—from his wrath. But how can a girl armed with only a pencil defeat something so powerful?
I mean, how could I resist talking to Sangu Mandanna? Clearly the woman loves her work.
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you so much for joining me today! I’d love to start off with you giving me a sense of where Kiki Kalira comes from. What’s the origin story of you writing this book?
Sangu Mandanna: Thanks so much for having me! Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom reimagines and remixes South Indian folklore through the eyes of a young girl who, while struggling with OCD and anxiety, has to become a hero, save a kingdom, and find her own unique kind of courage and strength. So there’s quite a bit going on there! Kiki is British-Indian, like me, which gives her a sense both of belonging to two worlds and of not quite belonging to either, which is a story I absolutely wanted to tell–and the magic of a portal fantasy is that you can tell that story in so many different ways. And like me, Kiki has OCD and is neurodiverse, so it was important to me to write her in a way that would speak to my younger self, to me now, and to young readers who feel the way she does. And finally, of course, there’s the mythology. I love retelling the stories of my childhood, so it was an absolute no-brainer that my first middle grade novel would bring to life and hopefully do justice to one of my favourite myths!
BB: Kiki is joining such popular Indian mythology fantasy series as the books by Sayantani DasGupta and Roshani Chokshi. The appetite for these series is bottomless. What do you ascribe to the popularity? What is it about Indian mythology that makes it adapt so well to middle grade heroic novels?
SM: Mythology is always appealing to middle grade readers (of any age!) and stories about the battles, trials and shenanigans of gods, monsters and mortals are timeless. For a long time, the mythology reimagined and retold to western readers was almost always Greek, Roman or Norse, but I think given how enthusiastic readers are and how eagerly we devour these stories, it was inevitable that the stories of other cultures would find their way to the light, too. In that sense, Indian mythology is no different: it has the gods, the monsters, the mortals, the heroes and villains that we all love to read about. It also has a certain whimsy and fun that really lends itself well to middle grade tales of adventure and heroism. These are stories of both great adventure and great silliness: a goddess might be riding a lion into battle, but just over the river, you might find a monkey busy tricking a crocodile out of mangoes. Young readers seem to really love the combination of adventure, heroism and humour!
BB: Because you’re drawing from such a vast well, how do you decide what mythical elements best suit your story? How can you even choose? There’s so much to pull from!
SM: Drawing from Indian mythology isn’t new for me, so I know exactly what you mean when you say there’s so much to pull from! Normally, it’s incredibly hard to pick which stories to tell and which don’t (yet!) fit, but with Kiki, for once, I actually knew exactly where to start! I think that’s mostly because I grew up in Karnataka, the state in South India where Mysore, Bangalore and Coorg all are, so Kiki’s childhood folklore was also my childhood folklore. The story of Mahishasura, Chamundeshwari and Mysore is so specific to that one part of India that it’s one of the stories least retold and shared around the world while also being incredibly meaningful to me. I’m so excited to share it with readers who may not have heard it before!
BB: Along the same lines, was there something you wanted to include in the book that you just couldn’t fit in?
SM: As it happens, there was! There was something I included in my first outline for the story that I ended up cutting out because it didn’t really fit in. I can’t tell you what it was, though, because it’s going to be a huge part of the next Kiki book!
BB: You’ve written YA novels like The Lost Girl and A Spark of White Fire. Writing for teens vs. writing for kids uses a lot of the same muscles, but there are significant differences. Was this book a breeze to produce or did you find yourself running into challenges you hadn’t anticipated?
SM: When I first started working on Kiki, I did find myself falling into habits that were familiar from writing YA. It was usually the angst! This isn’t true for all YA authors, of course, but I’m a very angsty YA author, so I had to catch myself a few times. Once I settled into Kiki’s voice, though, that wasn’t a problem anymore. Kiki struggles with anxiety and obsessive thoughts, so I didn’t abandon the angst altogether, but she has a very different voice from Eva in The Lost Girl or Esmae in A Spark of White Fire. Mostly, I’d say the biggest difference for me in writing Kiki was the humour and joy. Kiki’s story is much less dark and a lot more of an adventurous romp than either Eva or Esmae’s stories!
BB: You’ve answered this a bit already but do you see Kiki as a standalone novel or part of a larger series?
SM: A larger series! Kiki 2 is already drafted and will be out next summer. I think there’s so much more of Kiki’s story to tell, so much more of her magical Mysore to explore, and so many more stories from my childhood that I’d love to share.
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
SM: Up next for me is getting Kiki 2 into shape, but I’m also working on my first novel for adults!
Large heaping helpfuls of thanks to Sangu for answering my questions and to Kaitlin Kneafsey and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for arranging this interview. Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom is newly on shelves everywhere right now.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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