Shelf Care Interview: Nidhi Chanani

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Macmillan.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Ronny Khuri talks to author and illustrator Nidhi Chanani. Nidhi was born in Kolkata, India, and raised in California. She creates illustrations that capture love in everyday moments, which are often featured at Disney parks. In 2012, she was honored by the Obama administration as a Champion of Change. She is the author of the graphic novel Pashmina and the board book Shubh Ratri Dost/Goodnight Friend and is illustrator of the picture book I Will Be Fierce. Nidhi draws and dreams in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and kid. Here she discusses her latest graphic novel, Jukebox, which is available now.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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RONNY KHURI: Would you mind kicking things off for us by introducing our listeners to Jukebox?

NIDHI CHANANI: Jukebox is a story about two brown girls who go on a time-traveling adventure. They’re cousins, their names are Shaheen and Tannaz, and they go by Shahi and Naz. They are looking for Shahi’s dad, who went missing, and come across a jukebox. When they put a record on the jukebox, it takes them back to the time period that the record was made.

This book blends a lot of different elements—including science fiction, history, and music nerdery, among many other things—and I want to touch on all of those elements, starting with the jukebox itself, which in my mind is this kind of sci-fi time-travel version of C. S. Lewis’ wardrobe. It’s a really cool and colorful visual concept. Can you talk about how that idea originally came about?

The initial inspiration was a conversation I had with my husband, who is a vinyl collector; I live in a house with 2,000 records. Music, vinyl, and all of these things are part of the language of our marriage. Being creative is also part of that, but definitely music is a huge part of how we connect and what we talk about, and so one of the times we were chatting, I was talking to him about why jukeboxes are these things where you pick only one song, and he said, “Well, jukeboxes only play singles. They play single records.” And I said, “Oh, they don’t have the full-length album in there?” He’s like, “No. If they had a full-length album in there, they would be humongous, and nobody would be able to have those in their building.”

It was just that one comment, and in my mind, I started visualizing what a giant jukebox would look like and how powerful that would be. I started taking notes. That was one of the first times when I had that thought, so I was going through this idea of what would cause somebody to find it. Long story short, I went and sketched something, and that was in 2014, so that was the initial seed of the whole idea.

This book is fiction, but it also rubs up against the world of nonfiction a bit, in that your characters are traveling back in time to notable moments of music history—and just history in general. How did you choose those particular moments of history, or those musical artists that you featured?

It was really hard! It was so hard to whittle down the eras, whittle down the musicians. I knew for a fact that I wanted to feature Black American musicians, mostly because I think it’s interesting. At the time that I was making Jukebox, I think that the awareness around these topics was very different. Even when I was pitching it, I was so nervous making that conscious decision, because I do think that so much of American music is tied to Black music and Black culture. That was one way that I selected, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the choice was simpler, because there are so many amazing musicians to choose from. The other thing that I looked at was albums or musicians that are not represented as much but that were highly influential.

One the first conversations that you read is when Shahi and her dad are talking about Rosetta Tharpe, who is somebody that I discovered late in life, and she was the basis of rock ‘n’ roll, but because she didn’t sell as many records, many people don’t know about her. So that was one of the ways that I chose the musicians. For the historical moments, I wanted to cover a lot of different decades, because each decade has been influenced by music, and I think that the political climate influences music and that music influences politics. It’s this amazing way of weaving in history, music, and American politics—and how much music and musicians made a stand and made statements and how risky it was at the time. So there were a lot of different factors, but those were the guiding principles.

You paid so much attention to detail in every time period, visually and in the dialects and more. What kind of research went into it all?

I have so many notes. I went and looked at historical footage, so I watched concerts, I watched marches. I also looked and fully stole clothing from historical photos and put that into the backgrounds when we were in the ’60s and the ’50s and ’70s. And the other thing that I found really fun—one of my favorite things—is I had this huge list of slang from different decades. I was really cognizant of not forcing the slang, so if I didn’t feel like it served the story, it got nixed, but I wanted to put in a decent amount of slang, because slang has changed so much over the course of time. And it gives you a strong sense of interacting with somebody who’s not from your time period.

That was definitely one of my favorite parts of the research, but a lot of the research was looking at how people dressed, what kind of tones and colors I could combine. I knew that Jukebox would be full color. I played with the idea of having each decade kind of have its own color hue, but in fact what I ended up doing, because I wanted it to retain full color versus just being tonal, was to give each decade its own overlay, which is a fairly arty-nerdy thing, but for instance, when they’re in Chicago, I did a yellow overlay, so the yellows are kind of brought forward more. Each decade that they visit has kind of a different tone.

I wanted to ask how you see the connection between your art and music—and evoking music on the page, which to me seems like it has to be one of the most difficult things to do, whether you’re writing or drawing. Because I think you hit on a sort of synesthetic connection between the way the book looks and the way the music feels. I don’t know if that’s something that was conscious for you or not, but I wonder if you can speak to that.

Yeah, it was definitely conscious. It was one of those challenges going into making a graphic novel, where music in and of itself needs to be a character and needs to take up space, but it can’t take up space in the way that it does in our lives. So how do I do that? How do I portray that visually? And I started to think about how music will be in your space while you’re having a conversation, while you’re experiencing things. The idea of those ribbons that flow through Jukebox came up, the idea of making them transparent so that they’re in the panels but they’re not necessarily the focus of the panels. Sometimes they are, of course, like when Shahi and Naz first go back in time, plus every subsequent time that they go back. But then the ribbons are just there, and I felt like there had to be a way in a graphic novel that is so focused on music’s importance to not continue panels without having them there.

So I was trying to wrap my head around how to make it work. They’re still images, and there is no music; you can’t open up a book and have it singing to you, so how do I make those pages sing? That was very much something I thought long and hard about, and I did a lot of research to see how music was depicted in still images. I felt like, as a non-musician, as somebody who’s a huge fan of music and that art form, it is very much a love letter to how music is this thread through our entire lives, something that takes up space almost in the background, but is so essential. It’s got to be there; it’s got to take up space.

Last question, which I have to ask: if you could travel back to any moment in music history, what would it be?

I love answering this question. It is the late ’60s and ’70s, because that was such an exciting time for music. It was such a pivotal time in American history, where music and American politics were getting so tied up. And there was this consciousness that was happening through music and through the things that people were identifying with. And also it was this time where the things that you did, the clothes that you wore, the people that you were around indicated the music you were into—whether you were a punk, you were a hippie, you were into soul music. So the clothes you wore as you walked down the street would automatically tell somebody that you’re listening to Marvin Gaye, or you’re listening to The Doors. I love that idea, and I would have loved to see it.

I still remember this story my father-in-law told me. He’s a Bay Area native, and he was in a restaurant, and Jerry Garcia walked in, and he said the entire restaurant stopped and looked. And I was like, “I find that hard to believe.” And he said, “I think it’s really hard for you to believe because you had to be there. People didn’t dress like that. People weren’t like that then. So to see somebody who had such a unique flare for his dress, with his look and everything that he was, you absolutely would be like, ‘Okay, this person is not like the rest of us.'” And I was like, “I don’t know what that’s like.” So I would love to see what that would be like.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Macmillan, publisher of Jukebox, available now.

About the Author:

Ronny Khuri is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. His dæmon is a Siamese cat named Tiger Lily.

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