A few weeks ago I was visiting a writing class and mentioned a podcast called Story Seeds. At first I thought maybe I was doing a bad job explaining it, but then I realized the collective silence of the room wasn’t confusion – it was utter amazement.
“Is this real?” someone finally asked.
Is it ever! And today I’m sharing my interview with Story Seeds creator and executive producer, Sanhya Nankani. She told me all about the development of this quite amazing project, as well as her path toward producing content for young readers.
CL: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Sandhya! Let’s start with your journey to children’s media – can you give us a glimpse into the path that led you to the work you do now?
SN: Well, I have a pretty non-traditional background and don’t quite fit into a box or a linear path in terms of my path! I studied history, got my masters degree in International Affairs, and once upon a time, planned to work in international development…but I was always passionate about the written word, media, and communication. I finally joined the “publishing” world in 2004 when I was almost 30 – at Weekly Reader Classroom Magazines, where I was part of the literacy magazines group. I edited a magazine called Writing for Teens and also got to work on some proof of concept digital experiments; this was the time when digital magazines were just making inroads.
From there I moved to more formal educational publishing at Scholastic, where I worked in the English Language Arts group on some iterations of their successful product READ 180. This is where I cut my teeth on developing curriculum and teacher materials and parsing standards and began thinking about how to create engaging kids content that can also support curriculum.
Then, in 2008 or so, I ventured out on my own and started my studio Literary Safari!
I’ve always been interested in the intersection between print and new media and how innovations (whether it’s POD, digital content, audio, or apps) can be applied to the content that children engage in and consume, I guess — and playing and experimenting with it.
CL: What a cool journey! So one of the things coming out of your studio is Story Seeds, which is all about taking an idea and helping it grow into something bigger. That seems to be true of the podcast itself, as well – can you take us through the beginnings of that idea and how it blossomed into a fully produced show?
SN: As an editor of Writing for Teens magazine, I worked with lots of young writers and authors, and there was one project I’d helped launch called The Weekly Writer where an author started a story and kids helped them continue it on a weekly basis — we would pick a paragraph each week. This was a web-based project, but I’ve always thought about the collaborative nature of it and loved working on it. Then, a few years ago, Literary Safari worked as vendor for an educational publisher where we commissioned diverse trade authors to write leveled chapter books for the classroom market. Ideas (what I called story seeds) were provided to us by the publisher and I worked closely with authors to help them grow the seed into a story. During this project – we created 75+ books, including graphic novels – I started thinking about this wonderful author network that I had built over the years and what joy I derived from it, as well as about how the seeds were sometimes not that great and one day I remember saying to myself, “I wonder whether kids would have better ideas than this!”
When we finished the project, I was eager to continue working closely with authors – I had enjoyed it so much, especially the process and challenge of matching authors to story ideas – we worked with Jerry Craft, Derrick Barnes, Traci Sorell, and several more award-winning authors on that project — and I was eager to find a way to do that for a wider audience.
CL: So collaboration has obviously had a big role in your creative life – can you share a bit more about the role collaboration has played in your various pursuits?
SN: When my daughter was little, we used to do what I called “studio” time, where we would collaborate — she would tell me a story or the beginning of a story, and I would ask her guiding questions and she would talk and I would write and she would draw. I’ve always looked back on that experience and thought about how it was empowering for her as a child to be heard, to get to illustrate and think out loud even when she couldn’t write, and what it meant for us to put our heads together and collaborate — and all of those things definitely inspired the “seed” for Story Seeds – because as a mom, as a creative, as a producer and as an educator, I really believe that young people need spaces where they can be empowered and have their voices heard and centered.
I’m also very interested in interdisciplinary collaboration – as I’ve seen how people from different technical backgrounds and fields create rich experiences when they come together. I’ve created some apps for kids such as HangArt, for example, and the development of that was driven by the intersection of art & words in the formation of literacy, and showing how they are not separate from each other but support one another in learning and in play.
CL: Well, your list of collaborators in Season 1 of Story Seeds is pretty impressive – names like Dan Gutman, Jason Reynolds, and Veera Hiranandani just to name a few. How did you connect with so many talented people?
SN: I have always had a radar for noticing new talent and diverse voices. Early in my career I received a grant from the Asian American Writers Workshop for example to help diversify a collection of grades 9-12 Language Arts textbooks published by then Holt, Rinehart and Winston Elements of Literature textbooks. Since then, I’ve also worked with authors, commissioning them to write original works for the publishers that employed me.
Connecting with authors took a bit of digging and detective work to figure out how to reach them and who would be a good match for what. That was something I always loved, but mostly it takes being brave enough to bring an idea to them and ask them if they want to be a part of bringing it to life. That is what I did with Story Seeds – once we had selected ten story seeds and kids to feature on our first season, I made a list of authors who would be good matches for them (it was a bit like matchmaking) and then tracked down the authors or their agents and shared the idea about the show. We were super lucky to have uber librarian Betsy Bird as our podcast host, and she was an incredible
resource to us in the match-making process as well, with suggesting authors when as well. I feel very fortunate that most of the authors we approached signed on right away and felt connected to our mission of empowering kids and were excited to collaborate with them.
CL: So with that said, do you have a favorite episode of the podcast?
SN: That is like asking a mom to name her favorite child!!! I love them all and each one, like one of your favorite books, had a special story behind the story – whether it was how the kids were matched up with authors, a production adventure, or the way in which the author and kid connected. What I found amazing was the deeper level of connections each of our “matches” had when they finally met up — that was something none of us could have predicted.
For example, Jason Reynolds and Irthan both had a deep love of music and commitment to social justice which you hear on Episode 10, and Sulaf and Susan Muaddi Darraj both love Agatha Christie on Episode 8, on Episode 1, Dan Gutman and Hannah were finishing each other’s sentences, and on Episode 7, Carlos Hernandez and the twins Siri and Zarana collaborated in a way that went beyond what we had imagined as producers of the show, and well, Veera Hiranandani and Willa were such deep thinkers who shared a common experience of school on Episode 2 and so on.
CL: Well, one of MY favorite things about the podcast in general is the activity book that goes with it. Can you explain a bit about what the activity book is and how it works?
SN: Yes! IMAGINATION LAB: Experiments in Creativity is a companion to Story Seeds and features QR codes that kids can scan to listen to an episode of the podcast, then launch their own creative experiments in writing, reading, and STEAM. It’s techie yet screenfree! For each episode, we have created activities and printables that go hand in-hand and that showcase themes, author’s craft and tips, and draw listeners into their own imaginations. We tried to tie the activities to different disciplines because we strongly believe that storytelling is a doorway to learn about EVERYTHING in the world. It has made me immensely happy to hear early praise for the book from many teachers and parents, as well as Geek Dad!
CL: As you know, our focus here at Mixed Up Files is middle grade books and resources for the middle grade audience – do you have a favorite middle grade book? How has it shaped your thinking as you work on projects in the media world?
SN: The middle grade books that I’ve recently been drawn to are ones that tell stories that I never had access to as a young person growing up in the United States – or as an immigrant coming here at age 12. Over the past few years, it has been extremely gratifying to read the books of authors Saadia Faruqi (A Place at the Table), Rajani LaRocca (Midsummer’s Mayhem), Veera Heeranandani (The Night Diary), Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington), Roshani Chokshi (Aru Shah series), Varian Johnson (The Parker Inheritance) whose stories reflect my experiences, my middle grade dreams and ambitions (mystery solver, sleuth, etc.!). But I would have to say that the book I most recently read that just knocked me over is Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue which I wrote about here at my Instagram.
CL: SO many great books! My TBR list is already a mile high, but I may have to climb up there and add Daniel Nayeri’s new book to the top 🙂 So what’s next for you, Sandhya? Any new seeds you’re planning to cultivate this coming year?
SN: I always have my thinking cap on about new ways to meet kids & families at the interaction of print and digital media — and am brewing some ideas that are growing out of this pandemic experience and my thinking about where we can go from here in terms of the lessons and opportunities around storytelling and learning.
I’m also actively working to figure out how to make a second season of Story Seeds. The response to the show has been so incredible – it does require resources to continue producing a show that has this production value and to continue to bring authors of this caliber together with kids and to have a host like the wonderful Betsy Bird. So we are looking for sponsors who see the value in reaching kids and families and understand that the power of a podcast is not just as a new media form that is growing, but also that it provides the opportunity to reach listeners directly in their ears and to communicate with them in a meaningful way. We are also shopping around some ideas for an “interactive” book series that features the original stories that appeared on Season 1.
At my studio Literary Safari, we’ve been creating a collection of culturally responsive lessons to support teachers in literature instruction for McGraw Hill Education. That has been very gratifying and it’s good to be involved in a project that will have impact and give teachers a permission slip to talk about race, social justice, and inclusion in a meaningful way.
Until next time!