Be Kindly Curious: An Interview with Alumna Meenal Patel

Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala cover

Growing up, there weren’t many picture books where Meenal Patel (B.S. ’06, Graphic Design) could see herself, a lack of representation that persists to this day.

After witnessing first hand the impact picture books had on her nieces, this alumna decided to pursue her dream of becoming a children’s book author.

Patel discusses her journey to become an author and the inspiration behind her latest release Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala in the interview below.

How long have you been writing and illustrating children’s books?

I started my first children’s book, Neela Goes to San Francisco, back in 2012 but didn’t publish it widely until 2016. That initial version of my first book was just intended for my niece, Neela, as a one-off gift to her. I wanted her to have a memory of visiting me in San Francisco as she grew up and I loved reading to her so it seemed like a good present. Watching her absolute delight in seeing a character in a book that resembled her was really powerful and made me want to dive deeper into children’s books.

What drew you to work on children’s books?

After seeing Neela’s reaction to that first book, it made me think more about how powerful imagery is for kids and how important it is for them to see themselves reflected in the imagery and stories around them. Growing up, I didn’t have many books where I could see myself in. I also really like the challenge of saying as much as you can in as few words as possible and then supporting it with imagery.

What experiences did you draw from to write Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala?

My family is from India but I was born and raised in the United States, mostly in Minnesota. I went to India with my parents a couple of years ago for the first time as an adult. I had always wanted to see the country where my family is from with my parents, so it was a really special trip for me. India is a full-sensory place and I was so inspired by the people, colors, patterns, food, and sounds. I was also struck by how many experiences were familiar, and at the same time, so many things felt really foreign. After that trip, I knew I wanted to make a picture book about India. Something related to all the amazing sensory moments that make up that extraordinary place. I stewed on it for about a year and a half but when I finally started writing nothing felt right. I scrapped everything and started over. I took some time to journal about that trip to India and what it meant to me. I wrote about all the things that felt familiar from my childhood in a place that was halfway around the world. I had to dig really deep to find this story. But then as I wrote it, pieces of it fell out of me and felt really honest. This story became something really different than what I had initially set out to make and I think that’s for the best.

Why was it important for you to write this book?

I grew up in a city that wasn’t very diverse. This book made me dig deep about my experiences feeling so different from the people around me. I had a wonderful life as a child but I put up walls between all of my identities because I was afraid of being different. It was lonely trying to be “American” enough in some scenarios and “Indian” enough in other scenarios.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how important it is to allow all parts of my identity to mix and to share all parts of me with people. It’s an ongoing effort, but making this book helped me unpack some of these things. And I think a lot of other people can relate to these feelings. I hope this book inspires kids to take pride in all their identities and inspires them to be kindly curious about other cultures.

How did you apply what you learned as a graphic design student to the creation process of this book?

The value of iterating is ingrained in my creative process from design school. It’s so important for so many aspects of the book-making process. You need to be willing to try a bunch of things over and over again, whether that’s rewriting drafts, sketching out character studies and illustration compositions, or exploring cover designs. It’s also extremely helpful to have the ability to design my own books so that I can consider illustration and design together.

What advice do you have for fellow College of Design students and alumni who want to write and/or illustrate children’s books?

Apply everything you know about the design process to the book writing process. It all overlaps! And embrace that making a children’s book is a long process. Even though it’s a short book, that doesn’t mean it will come together quickly.

Learn more about Patel and view her work at meenalpatelstudio.com or on Instagram @meenal_land. You can request Priya Dreams of Marigolds and Masala at your local independent bookstore or order it online.

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