Nidhi Chanani is probably best known for her 2017 debut graphic novel Pashmina, but she is one of most prolific working artists out there, having since illustrated (and even written) picture books like What Will My Story Be? and graphic novels including Jukebox and her upcoming Super Boba Cafe, and, of course, Shark Princess.
Chanani's first Shark Princess book tells a delightful story about sharks who are also princesses and also friends. Now, it’s time for the sequel, Shark Party. In anticipation of the newest installment of the Shark Princess saga, Popverse had a chance to chat with Chanani-- not only about sharks and parties, but also about genre, her other acclaimed work in different forms of visual storytelling, and cat names.
Popverse: Shark Party a.k.a. Shark Princess 2 is coming out soon. What can fans expect from Mack and Kitana this time?
Nidhi Chanani: So they are continuing on in their adventure. This time they are going to a party. The first book they went on an adventure to a shipwreck, and this time they're going to a party. But you know as we continue on in our knowledge of Kitana and Mack, we realize they have two very different personalities, and so Mack is super excited about a party and Kitana isn't quite so sure. So it's really exploring a lot of things about the ocean, a lot of facts about how many different sharks there are, and also, just that kind of social emotional piece of-- how do you navigate a friendship when the both of you are pretty different?
What drew you to sharks?
I love the ocean, and I love sharks. I think that they are grossly misrepresented, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. There's a lot of activists and a lot of people who are close to the ocean and studying the ocean who are trying to fight against this idea that sharks are to be feared. My favorite fun fact that I add to every school visit is that you are more likely to be hit on the head with a falling coconut than you all are to be bitten by a shark. It was a combination of being fascinated by sharks and kind of the wealth of knowledge about sharks and all the things that we don't know still about the ocean and marine life and just the idea that it hadn't been done before.
My daughter is actually the reason that I had the idea. I was getting ready for a birthday party for her, and she asked me to draw a shark princess. I kind of just bookmarked it in my mind and went back to see if it existed.
It didn't really exist as a book, so I just started thinking about what would make a shark want to be a princess and what would make anybody really want to dress up in a crown. It's really that idea that we have like these special unique qualities and the idea that a princess isn't necessarily something that's fixed.
I do think that is something that is worth challenging and worth pushing back on, and so that's what I do in the first book. You know, princesses can be dangerous. Princess can be scary, and princesses can also be shy. So it's a lot of that that I tried to put into this series.
So a lot of your stories, including your upcoming Super Boba Cafe, and Jukebox and your debut Pashmina have this element of fantasy. What draws you to these big adventures?
I just take one idea, and I kind of just start thinking about it. Like I thought about what would be like to have a giant jukebox and immediately that idea became magical to me, and Super Boba Cafe actually came because I was reading a Neil Gaiman book. I can completely and totally tie the roots of Super Boba Cafe to reading Neverwhere. Neverwhere is very much about underground London. I was only a few chapters in, and I thought to myself what is underground San Francisco? What would be under there? And immediately, for some reason, the answer in my mind was 'Well of course there would be monster under there, and the monster would create earthquakes.' Because, you know, California is so earthquake prone. Then this story developed from there.
I guess it's just the idea of there being magic in this world. I really actually do firmly believe that magic is all around us in nature. And I think that there's also the magic of being able to create something from nothing and, you know, letting our imaginations and our minds go to places that maybe reality can't.
That's really interesting because while there is this throughline in your graphic novels, you also do picture books and editorial cartoons as well as illustration-- which are all very different types of visual storytelling with very different types of traditions and expectations. How do you switch between these different types of visual art?
I was just hanging out with the bunch of authors, and I felt relieved to know that I'm not the only one who, once I'm in a space that I find comfortable and I feel like I kind of understand it, I immediately want to do something else. I think that's part of having a creative soul and an artistic soul. I want to be constantly challenged and engaged.
I definitely think that one of the reasons I wanted to pursue shark princess-- actually there's a multitude of reasons really. It's like that idea that there's a 'boy book' and a 'girl book', and hopefully now there's a middle-ground book too, you know, a non-binary/trans book. I really thought that Shark Princess would be that book you could hand to anybody, and I wanted to push that idea.
The other thing is that the work that I do, and the things that I get offered, often are very tied to my identity, and I wanted to break free of that and take that space. That shelf space, but also just that space as an author, as a creator, to say, 'I am not just your Indian author.'
I am that, and I'm super proud to be that, but I also am other things. And so that's kind of how I make the choices that I make. That's how I pursued Shark Princess. That's why I'm pursuing some of the editorial work. That's why I do some of the ink drawings and wood burnings. My interests are so vast. I dont want to pigeonhole myself, because the world will do that for me. I don't need to do that for myself.
You mentioned Shark Princess and this kind of boy book/girl book binary. I couldn't find the tweet, but I remember when Shark Princess came out, you were tweeting about an issue with a boy being pulled out of a classroom during a visit. Is that a response that you had often with Shark Princess?
That was something that was shared with me after the visit. Luckily, it wasn't before the visit. I think it would have thrown me off. In the course of Book One, we have Kitana, who is a girl shark, and she already has her crown and she's very happy to be a princess. And then eventually Mack, her best friend who's a boy shark joins her. And he also puts on a crown, and he is a princess too.
And so that idea of 'we can all celebrate princess fun and playing dress up'-- I believe the parents took issue with it and had pre-read the book and didn't let their kid participate in the author visit. I mean, every parent has a choice that they make for their own kid and their own family.
I'm really fortunate in that it didn't affect the whole visit. I know many friends, many authors, who, if one parent objects... I'm really fortunate that it didn't affect the whole school getting the visit. Is it disappointing? Absolutely. It's disappointing that that kid didn't get to see my presentation which isn't just about princesses, it's about sharks and a lot of science facts.
But that's one thing that happened to me. I don't know about the people that aren't allowed to go to my visits, you know, [this situation] I only came way of because the teacher was really into the visit and super excited and sent a thank you note, but also included that fact.
And I would say that I'm not disproportionately affected by it. I don't want to take up any space-- you know, there's so many queer books that are being banned and, you know, my rage for that is pretty palpable, and I really wish that we weren't in this space.
I feel at such a loss for what to do. I guess the only thing that we can do is keep doing what we're doing. And asking people not make decisions for an entire community, when really what you want to do is just want to make a decision for your own family.
I also have a memory of you looking for cat names on Twitter for Super Boba Cafe. Did you get a favorite cat name that you ended up going with?
My favorite cat name was Jorts.
So during the pandemic that whole [Jean and Jorts] reddit thing was highly entertaining and really did brighten my day for many, many days. It was just like neverending, that whole Buttered Jorts thing. And then now Jorts is like a total social media presence that's pro-worker, and I love that whole trajectory, it's just phenomenal. So yeah, one of the cats' names is Jorts.
Read an exclusive excerpt of Shark Princess: Shark Party! below: