When the manuscript for Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary hit her desk, it was like daybreakfor Namrata Tripathi.
“I had never acquired a book set in my part of the world before,” Tripathi says of the revelatory middle-grade novel, which depicts the 1947 Partition of India through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, “and [I receive] a lot of them, you can imagine, because when someone sees a name like ‘Namrata Tripathi’ on a [submissions] list, they’re like, ‘I’ll send this book about brown kids to that brown lady.’ ”
Tripathi, an Indian emigrant who lived in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Canada, Pakistan, Germany, and Poland before settling in New York City, was the editorial director of Dial Books for Young Readers at the time. She contacted Hiranandani’s agent, Sara Crowe, with a hard-line pitch—“You will not find another editor better suited for this particular book”—which led to a deal-making talk with the author.
“My family is Hindu and Sikh,” Tripathi says. “Hers is Hindu and Jewish, and in The Night Diary, the character is Hindu and Muslim. They come from Pakistan to India, and my family made the same journey at Partition as well. The main character lives in Sindh, and I lived there in my childhood....It was this wonderful conversation. We talked about hybridity and identity and questions we often grapple with, and it shows in the book.”
That’s the kind of book—and the kind of talk—Tripathi seeks as vice president and publisher of Kokila, a new imprint at the Penguin Young Readers Group. (Kokila is the Sanskrit name for the Koel bird, whose song is thought to herald new beginnings.) Beginning in summer 2019, Kokila will publish multifaceted stories from the margins that “add nuance and depth to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it,” an official statement reads.
“Beyond the books, in starting an imprint, I felt very intentional about recognizing that we are also creating a culture,” says Tripathi, who leads a team that includes editor Joanna Cárdenas, art director Jasmin Rubero, and editorial assistant Sydnee Monday, who are also women of color. “We’re starting something from scratch. If we’re building something from the ground up, we must interrogate every procedure.”
That goes for everything from the way Kokila’s meetings are run to a decision to accept unrepresented manuscripts four months a year (Sept.-Dec.) and plans to host webinars that will answer remote authors’ publishing FAQs. They hope ameliorating accessibility issues whenever possible will lead to the discovery of more authors, more stories, and more unforgettable characters of all races, ethnicities, religions, classes, genders, sexualities, abilities, and backgrounds.
“I think what we can agree on is we need more everything,” Tripathi says. “If I could just put my request for where publishing will go, in terms of really advancing marginalized voices, in the simplest and most inelegant way I could, it would just be: more—better. That’s it. That’s all. We just want more voices, and we want books to be better, and when there’s more, that’s better for all of us.”
Authors and illustrators that have signed with Kokila include Randy Ribay, Matthew A. Cherry, Vashti Harrison, Isabel Quintero, Zeke Peña, John Corey Whaley, Eve Ewing, Jessica Kim, Celia C. Pérez, Calista Brill, and Nilah Magruder. The Night Diary will move from Dial to Kokila for its paperback publication, and Hiranandani’s next novel, The Sound of Summer,set against the sea change of Loving v. Virginia, is anticipated in 2020. Pablo Cartaya, author of 2018 Pura Belpré Author Honor Book The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora and Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish,will debut with Each Tiny Spark,a father-daughter story that deals with redistricting, colorism in Latinx communities, the transition from active duty to civilian life, and the art of welding.
“What I love about it, and what I hope will be consistent across the Kokila titles,” Tripathi says, “is something that we kind of joke about, especially for this debut list: What we have on the surface—here, a book about a daughter and her father coming together—has another layer. And then this next layer. And, oh! Then there’s this other layer. And all these questions and insights buttressing it. And then another layer.
“There’s always more to talk about, because no child experiences life in a single dimension,” she says. “No one goes through life like, ‘Ah! All I feel today is this relationship with my dad.’ ”
Acquiring a manuscript, however, may in fact hinge on a single criterion.
“No matter what the story, the thing I look for most is, Did you tell me something true?” Tripathi says. “You do it because you believe it, your heart is in it, and when a reader sees truth on a page, they know....I’ll read anything that takes me anywhere, as long as I feel there’s truth there. As a reader, you always crave that electric connection.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.