Having spent most of her career in the non-profit sector, Zenia Wadhwani has been a long-time lover of books and an advocate for literacy. She sits on the board of a local charitable organization called the Children’s Book Bank that helps build the personal libraries of children who can’t afford books of their own. From Toronto, Canada, this mom to an eight-year-old girl (going on 16!) is also a promoter of emerging writers, having co-edited three anthologies that encouraged writing from the diaspora – ‘Bolo! Bolo,’ ‘Desilicious,’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in Bollywood.’
Wadhwani recently published a children’s book ‘‘Twas the Night Before Diwali,’ which has been an instant hit with her readers. We caught up with Zenia Wadhwani to talk about the book and the intriguing ‘Mithai Monster!’
DissDash: What inspired you to write this book?
Zenia Wadhwani: The book was originally inspired by a big tray of mithai nine years ago around this time, when I was pregnant with my daughter and playfully took a picture of me gobbling the whole thing down. I joked to my husband that I looked like a ‘Mithai Monster’ and at that moment I knew I had a character that needed to come out in a book. That idea was reinforced by the fact that there’s such little diversity in children’s literature and I felt that needed to change. It was only last year that I came up with the idea for the book though (previous attempts at other story ideas just didn’t materialize) and then the pandemic hit, priorities came into focus and I started working more seriously on the book.
DissDash: What do you hope children will learn from this book?
Wadhwani: To me, the book is more about entertaining kids than necessarily teaching them something. Yes, some of the cultural elements of Diwali are conveyed and for those that don’t celebrate the festival, they’ll get a flavor of what it’s about; for those that do celebrate, it’s a reflection of them in a book which they may not see often enough. More than anything, I’m hoping South Asian kids will have their own version of Cookie Monster or Santa Clause and have fun with that idea!
DissDash: Why did you choose the festival of Diwali?
Wadhwani: While there are multiple occasions over the course of the year, Diwali is perhaps one of the most widely celebrated ones and for that reason, I felt many would be able to connect with it as the vibrant, colorful, and fun celebration that it is. But ‘Mithai Monsters’ love all kinds of occasions to eat mithai (sweets) (or no occasional all!), so maybe the next book will celebrate something else!
DissDash: Why a ‘Mithai Monster’?
Wadhwani: I just felt it was playful and fun. I didn’t start writing the book and then come up with the monster. The monster came to me first and I needed to find a way to introduce her character. To be honest, when I first started writing the story, I didn’t realize that this would be the perfect debut for her; I was just writing. I think it worked out pretty well though.
DissDash: Do you think your book will help people from other cultures know more about South Asian culture and festivals?
Wadhwani: I think they’ll get a flavor. I purposely didn’t speak to the details of Diwali, nor much of the religious elements. I really wanted this to be entertaining and fun. Hopefully, it gives them enough of a spark to want to learn more.
DissDash: Where can one buy the book?
Wadhwani: It’s available on Amazon! I am hoping it will be available in other places, including local book stores by next year.
Not competent enough to sit idle and stare as the world goes by, Pallavi is optimistic to a fault and believes in building her world on her own rather than depending on others to make things right.