From Artist to Writer
The journey I went on while writing and illustrating Hair Oil Magic (Bloomsbury, 2024) was one full of risks, periods of imposter syndrome, stubbornness, and an eagerness to see things through.
Hair oiling has been practiced by millions of people in different parts of the world for centuries. For me, it was something my mom would do for me when I was younger. It was a hair maintenance routine, but it was also a type of love language, one that I know is prominent within a lot of South Asian families between parents and their children. I created a small comic as an ode to this practice on Mother’s Day back in 2017. It was in this comic that I drew the first version of Meenu and her mother.
Before I ever pitched this book, I convinced myself for months that it would never get picked up, and that it was probably better off remaining as the little conceptual comic I shared on social media. It’s sad to look back and acknowledge how I felt, but picture books were not as diverse as they are starting to be now, so while I was frustrated about the lack of representation, I started to doubt if anyone would make space for a story about a cultural tradition practiced by a multi-generational Punjabi-Canadian family. However, space was indeed starting to be made thanks not only to brilliant diverse authors and artists, but also agents and editors who were interested in bringing in new stories and perspectives.
I’m so thankful to my agent, Thao Le, who found my work on Twitter and reached out to me during a period when I was actively looking for representation. She is a huge supporter of diverse stories, so I was immediately excited to work with her. She was really endeared to the pitch, which gave me a huge sense of motivation to push ahead.
However, there was one thing I was quite worried about—I was a professional artist, but I had never written a story before! What the heck was I even trying to achieve? Did I have it in me to do this? Thao’s encouragement was instrumental as I began to study storytelling and writing for children’s stories. Don’t let anyone tell you it is easy, it took many, many iterations and drafts for me to write a story that felt good reading aloud (an important key that I never really factored in the beginning!)
Our first stab at pitching the book ended in rejections across the board, and while my initial reaction was to lament that my book simply was “not marketable,” or “too niche” according to publishers, I’m so glad I did not give up on it. After stepping away and coming back to it, it was clear to me that the core concept was strong, but the story honestly just needed to be re-worked. The initial draft had a lot going on, and Thao and I realized that a softer, gentle storytelling approach would be best.
The time to pitch the new draft finally came, and I was delighted that Noella James from Bloomsbury really resonated with the story! I was so happy to hear that she was reminded of the times she had spent having her hair oiled as a child. Though she ended up moving on from Bloomsbury after I signed, I am immensely grateful to her for giving this book a chance.
My dream for this book is for readers to find it relatable and warm. So much of this book is an ode to my childhood, and the memories that I had with my mom and my grandma. I wish for kids to be able to feel that happy sense of togetherness, and for parents, especially those who have memories of similar moments, to feel nostalgic and excited to pass down hair oiling rituals to their own kids.
Hear Anu Chouhan’s Audio Name Pronunciation
Listen to a Meet-the-Author Recording for Hair Oil Magic
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Text and images are courtesy of Anu Chouhan and may not be used without express written consent.