Meenal Patel is an illustrator, graphic designer, children’s book author and ceramics artist. She grew up in Minneapolis but now lives in San Francisco. She has spent more than a decade doing design work at Minneapolis creative agency KNOCK. Along the way she was also working on a collection of personal projects, including authoring, illustrating and publishing her first children’s book: “Neela Goes to San Francisco,” which is now available in stores throughout the area and online. It was a pleasure chatting with Patel about her reasons for writing the book and why the world needs more diverse voices in publishing.
Q: As a mom, I’m constantly on the lookout for great children’s books. What inspired you to write your book?
I went to India with my parents a few years ago for the first time as an adult. I had always wanted to see the country where my family is from with my parents. India is a full-sensory place and I was so inspired by the people, colors, patterns, food, and sounds. I was also struck by how so much felt familiar to things in my life growing up. At the same time, so many things felt foreign. After that trip, I knew I wanted to make a picture book with India as a part of it.
Q: It’s so beautiful visually, in addition to the amazing writing. How long did it take you to put it all together?
After that trip to India, I stewed on what the story would be for about a year and a half. Initially, I thought it would be something related to all the amazing sensory moments that make up that extraordinary place. I started coming up with ideas for the storyline but nothing felt right. Ultimately, I scrapped everything and started over. I took some time to journal about that trip to India and what it meant to me. I wrote about all the things that felt familiar from my childhood. I had to dig deep to find this story. But then as I wrote it, pieces of it fell out of me and felt honest. It came from an honest place and hopefully that means people will connect to it on an emotional level. This story became something really different from what I had set out to make and I think that’s for the best. So to answer your question, from the time of that trip to the publication date was about two and a half years.
Q: I’m honestly amazed at how little diversity exists within children’s books. They simply don’t reflect our society as a whole. How important is it to address that?
It’s a deeply rooted issue and while the children’s literature world is slowly getting more diverse, it still has a long way to go before it full represents the diversity of our population. It is critical for all children to have the opportunity to see themselves and their own experiences in books and other media. They need this as acknowledgement of their existence, as a celebration of who they are, and what they can become. And on the flip side, it’s important for all children to be exposed to experiences that are different from their own to build understanding, empathy and a wider worldview.
Q: You’ve said that you used to put up walls between your American and Indian identities, but you now feel it is important to do the opposite. Why do think this is important?
I’ve learned that dividing these parts of myself meant that I was rarely being my full self and bringing all that I could to the people around me.
Q: In the business world, I advocate for how important it is to take “brand purpose” and turn it into brand action. How important is it that people move beyond basic philanthropy and get involved in advocating for and making the lives of better?
I can only speak for myself. I want people to feel seen and understood. That means digging deep, sharing, and boldly putting myself out there. It’s not always easy and sometimes I fall short. But making an honest attempt is the best way that I can reach out and connect with people.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given from a mentor?
Use your voice. Share your ideas because people want to hear from you.
Q: I think you are a rock star in the literary world. If you were an actual rock star, what would be your stage, or band, name?
My band name would be Twirl & Dip! This is also my favorite ice cream place in San Francisco.