Priya Kumari Of Eternal Tree Books On How To Write A Book That Sparks A Movement
An Interview With Sara Connell
Reaching out to influencers who read books or share about them on their channels like Youtube or Instagram can also help strengthen the campaign.
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Priya Kumari.
Priya Kumari is an award winning children’s author and the founder of Eternal Tree books, an independent publishing house which creates books inspired by Indian culture and native traditions for global distribution. Born and raised in the scenic foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, she inherited her love of reading and passion for the written word from her father, who owned a bookstore. The rich and detailed history of Indian culture and mythos is the source for her own books focusing on humane values of diversity and connection in the hopes of bringing future generations together. She is also a certified public accountant who lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. Her children’s book, Leaf Talks Peace: Buddha’s Message of Harmony, is the first picture book by an Indian author endorsed by The Dalai Lama.
Thank you so much for joining us! When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story?
Since my father owned a bookstore, I could read many such story books as I wanted. Stories about great characters of Indian epics, lives of great personalities, and kings and queens of India inspired me throughout my childhood. Those books taught me how so many people struggled for generations so we could live happily.
However, two tales specifically come to mind: India’s Panchatantra and Jataka. These tales are known for teaching good values to children and they taught me to differentiate between right and wrong. Also, stories of Lord Buddha and Lord Rama amazed me the most as a child — how both of them left their palaces and luxuries effortlessly and ended up serving the society and spreading peace. In India, we really respect yogis who leave their homes and relegate personal interests simply to serve the society. This value was assimilated into my own life, when my parents taught me how selfless service to society was the highest task of all one could perform.
Over the years, as I read about Yoga, I realized it was about connecting with all that is around us. In other words, it means giving up petty personal interests for the larger good. The short stories I read as a child correlated with what Yoga truly meant. Over the years this has become my foundation and the values of individual peace, social peace, and ecological peace which are close to my heart. I am thankful to all those books I read as a child that gave me the strength to switch my career from being an accounting expert to being an author and publisher. I decided to share the messages of peace and goodness, found in Indian arts, literature, and festivals, with today’s young generation as I strongly believe what our children think and learn today is how our future is going to be tomorrow.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I moved to the United States with my husband about eight years ago. After becoming a mother, my children became my priority. I naturally became concerned about their mental and emotional health. What they ate, what they thought, and what were their questions — seemingly small things seemed very important to me. Seeing the growing anxiety, frustration, and lack of self-confidence in children of today, I realized that it was of paramount importance to teach children how to practice emotional hygiene, how to be inclusive, how to be compassionate towards all beings and nature, and how to be proud of their culture. So came my first major children’s book for self-development, The ABCs of Virtue. One day as I was discussing compassion towards nature with my children, my elder son asked, “what is friendship?” It reminded me of an episode of Buddha’s life. Before attaining enlightenment, when Buddha was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he saw the presence of the Sun, soil, water, time, space, and even a mind in a leaf — all elements happily living together to give it life. He then gave the message of interdependent origination of life — how different elements work together as a team to make life happen. This is how I explained the term ‘friendship’ to my son. When we all work together like these elements, we will give rise to a happier world where people from all cultures, genders, colors, and ethnicities are respected and everyone lives in harmony with nature. I wrote this poem that night and decided to share this beautiful message of Buddha with the world as well. This message, I thought, would inspire children to observe and connect with nature while also gaining the values of compassion and mindfulness. Eventually, it turned into an illustrated book, Leaf Talks Peace.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
I hoped to make people aware that we all come from the same Nature. I wanted to spread the messages of harmony and compassion that are inherent in Nature. Ultimately, we are no different but reflection of the same loving Nature. My newest book, Leaf Talks Peace: Buddha’s Message of Harmony makes children take a moment and simply listen to Mother Nature’s message of peace. I wrote this book to convey to them that friendship and compassion can be observed within various elements of nature — how one element supports the other in the ecology to ensure our survival. So, why not take this message from nature and awaken the spirit of human solidarity in all? And, I wanted to write for children, as they are our hope and future!
Write about your achievements, interviews and school visits.
My author journey has been very rewarding in terms of making an impact at various levels and getting recognition for my work. I am honored to be a proud member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee of IBPA, the largest trade association of independent publishers in the US. However, my biggest achievement thus far has been to get the news that His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a foreword for my book, Leaf Talks Peace. He wrote:
“A beautifully illustrated children’s book that teaches children the importance of living in harmony with nature and with all forms of life”
Among other successes, gaining recognition in my hometown has been the most rewarding. My town, East Brunswick,NJ featured me in their first-ever issue of the newsletter of the Human Relations Council of East Brunswick for Women’s History Month. I was also interviewed on TV by News12 of New Jersey earlier this year, which really helped me get discovered by the local communities. It was an honor to talk about my work and book, Leaf Talks Peace and I am really thankful to Della Crews, the producer, and everyone at News12 for this opportunity. I was delighted to hear how Della Crews of News12 noted that I wrote about living in harmony from the perspective of a leaf!
Coming up with a way of sharing an easy, yet difficult, message of interdependence with children has itself proven to be very rewarding. Though it was difficult to simplify it, I decided to write it in a poem form — lines spoken by an imaginary character, Harmony, who is a leaf of the Bodhi tree — with short sentences and powerful illustrations. I’m happy that the book has come out pretty well and is being enjoyed by parents, educators and children. Some of the Montessori schools have included it in their peace education curriculum, and I am often asked to talk about peace education in schools. The book and my mission were covered by EBC radio, ITV Gold and many other blogs and podcasts. Some Indian actors have also shared about my book out of their passion for Indian values and helped me reach more readers.
Also, many local cultural event organizers invite me for book signings. Each time I go, people from different walks of life appreciate my work. I recently met a pediatrician from New York who mentioned how my books like Leaf Talks Peace can help children suffering from autism and anxiety. Those who want to learn about Indian culture and appreciate Indian values always bless me with the kindest of words and support. Indian American families always show support and appreciate the importance of teaching values to children. One mother stopped by at a recent Holi event and said, “I wish I had such books, when I wanted to learn about Indian Culture.”
Several book advocates and industry professionals have reviewed and recommended Leaf Talks Peace on NetGalley, a major online platform for authors and publishers to help them get their books discovered by readers. I am very thankful to all the parents, educators, librarians for reviewing my books. It is heart-warming to read their perspectives about how my books have the capacity to bring well-being.
I also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and was able to get pre-orders worth seven thousand dollars for Leaf Talks Peace.
Other than Leaf Talks Peace, my book The ABCs of Virtue, won the best book award in the educational category by American Book Fest. I am also coming up with a series of children’s books on Indian festivals later this year and have got good feedback from my beta readers. My first book in the series, My Raksha Bandhan, which is on an Indian festival of celebrating brother-sister bond, won Purple Dragonfly SM Award. I am currently looking forward to the author signing event and mindfulness session at The Tibet House, Manhattan on July 30.
Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?
I started writing and publishing without any expectations, but rather for passion. However, I am forever grateful for what I have been able to achieve in a short span of time. It is truly because of the wonderful readers who support my work. Direct customer approach has worked for me but I want my books to reach public libraries so more children can gain from books on self-development, and also, I can promote better understanding of Indian culture and values. I am working towards it and hopefully I will be able to make it happen.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.
Foreword from The Dalai Lama marked the beginning of this movement of peace education. I knew after getting his letter that this book was truly extraordinary and had the potential of sharing the much-needed message of living in harmony with nature and all beings.
I was also shocked, yet pleased when The Duchess of York read the story on her YouTube channel which gained over 170,000 views in just a few weeks.
On top of that, I had Immense support for my pre-order campaign which gave me the courage and hope I needed as an author who dreamed of making an impact with books.
I began to see many Montessori schools ordering copies of the book. Also, when News 12 ran my TV interview clips in three parts on a weekend, I knew something big was about to happen with my book. And, all this was without any paid promotion, it was just by word of mouth.
As my contact details were shared in the news, I started receiving heart-warming messages from readers and supporters. One message I received from a man who wrote, ‘your book is so beautiful and unique. This is what our children need during this time and age. I would definitely buy this when I have kids.’ So, this guy who doesn’t even have kids somehow came across my book and wants to buy it for his future kids. Another reviewer on Goodreads wrote, ‘A breath of fresh air in the midst of a chaotic world.’ I am very grateful for how we started talking about compassion for children and the importance of peace education to create a happier world.
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
The most common feedback I get is that the story beautifully explains the message of interdependent origination of life to children, which usually was taken as a difficult topic to discuss and explain.
The other thing which almost everyone has told me is that they love the guidance given at the end of the story. It helps them explain further the messages written in the poem. It adds to the knowledge of readers about Buddha and how the book can be used as a tool to start conversations about peace — individual, social, and ecological.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?
For me, every single review — I read online, I get in my email or through social media — makes my heart melt. Sometimes people call me to simply tell me how much they appreciate my work and that they understand its importance. The aim is to spread the message of interdependence and seeing it reach more and more people is the most fulfilling experience I’ve had.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
When we write anything that has the power to bring social change, there are challenges one needs to face. For instance, a woman at an event told me ‘why preach to kids? Let them decide what they choose to become.’ My answer to this was that it is not preaching but teaching the core values of humanity to kids at an early age. When they are rooted strongly in good values there is a high probability that they will turn out to be responsible and peace-loving citizens of tomorrow. They will have even more fulfilling lives as they grow into mindful global citizens of the future.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
Written words are the most powerful. They stay forever and they not only record the messages heard or told but also create a space for the reader to think and introspect. It is like the power of the first step, once the book has been read by one reader, the message will be shared by many more. This is irrespective of whether they read or simply listen to the one who read. Readers often pass their books to other readers and the cycle continues.. Reading a good book is like a powerful ritual performed for well-being and happiness. Books have the power to break out dated ways of working, they are the centres of our lives as they give us the opportunity to constantly evolve and do what is the best at a given time and location. The greatest of thinkers and revolutionaries also wrote powerful books to bring a true change. After all, it is the human thought and action that ensures happiness and goodness.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I am a firm believer of what Swami Vivekananda once said, “In a conflict between your heart and brain, follow your heart.” When I decided to switch careers from accountant to author, many told me why give up a fat paycheck in exchange for something so uncertain. But, my heart always guided me towards my passion for writing about Indian culture and its inner messages of well-being. So, following my heart and persevering to achieve what it says has been my strength. I don’t care much about the narratives imposed by society and I like to find ways out!
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?
The biggest challenge for publishing a children’s book is that it involves a lot of investment. It is pretty expensive to produce a picture book of good quality. Creating the book is one part of the story, and making the book discoverable among millions of books is the second and very investment intensive part of the process.. Given all this work is funded from personal savings it has been quite challenging. Nevertheless, this has taught me to cut down on other expenses and manage funds more efficiently. I am positive that the sacrifices made today by me and my family will turn out to be fruitful as I walk the path I have chosen.
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers need to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?
- A book that would spark a movement will by definition be extraordinary. It will be a pathbreaking first-of-its-kind book. So, it has to be written in an equally captivating way. My book has the message of interdependent origination, which I have conveyed with the help of an imaginary character, which is a leaf. It has beautiful eyes and the whole book has soothing art and many symbols of peace. I am thankful to my illustrator, Anusha Santosh, for putting my thoughts on canvas so beautifully. Such a book must also be relatable to real life, because only then it will resonate with readers and they can help spark a movement. Real life examples showing why the book is important and how it can directly improve lives will be really helpful. For example, I wrote about the importance of elements like water and soil for a leaf to exist.
- Endorsements from organizations or leaders who also work along similar lines as the writer can really help build a strong foundation and starting point. One has to write hundreds of letters and emails to get a couple of important endorsements. I am positive that if the book has the potential, powerful words, beautiful art, and has the right message needed, experts will be more than happy to support and praise the book.
- There would not be a ready interest for such a book but the writer will have to reach out to the relevant communities and explain how the book is important. It will help a lot if the writer can do some leg work and meet librarians, schools, and bookstore owners. I have been going to many events where I have gotten overwhelming responses from parents and children. In this event, it is likely that the writer will find supportive readers who would help spread the word. Author-signings have also helped me a lot in letting people discover my work.
- Media support is the next super important part of this journey. No movement can happen without it being talked about in the media. Media is extremely powerful and can help connect with supportive readers. I joined various social media groups related to the subject of my book and it sure helped me spread the news about it.
- Reaching out to influencers who read books or share about them on their channels like Youtube or Instagram can also help strengthen the campaign.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?
Materialism and greed are a big cause of exploitation of nature, frustration, and depression. Unfortunately, human beings, today, have reached a phase where success is determined by how much one possesses and not by the kind of person one has become over time. Finding a middle path in all walks of life should be the way to solve things. Any extreme is not good in the long run. These values should very much be a part of education so children can have a fulfilling experience of life.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am the founder of an independent publishing company, Eternal Tree Books. My Instagram and Facebook handle is @eternaltreebooks and Twitter handle is EternalTreeBks. My email is priya@eternaltreebooks and I shall be super happy to connect via email as well!
Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.