An energetic, beautifully imperfect young heroine steals the show in Kiki Kallira Breaks A Kingdom by beloved British author Sangu Mandanna. 12-year-old Kiki has a good life. She and her mom are close, and her best friend totally gets her. There is one thing, though, that troubles Kiki, and that is anxiety. She is a constant worrier and the only way she can escape worrying is through drawing in her sketchbook, where she can lose herself in the fantastical creatures and magical stories that pour out of her active imagination.
With Kiki Kallira Breaks A Kingdom, Mandanna gives children struggling with anxiety and symptoms of OCD an authentic protagonist who battles with real life worries that are entirely relatable. But Kiki is more than just the sum of her worries. Through her elaborate drawings she finds herself magically inhabiting a golden kingdom at the other end of the world and adventures that take her deep inside the Indian folktales and fantasies of stories she was told growing up. Immersed in this mystical world, Kiki must find a way to overcome her fears to vanquish the evil god of her stories before he destroys the entire kingdom.
Mandanna lives in the U.K. and is the author of The Last Girl and A Spark of White Fire and its sequels.
IE: As a mother of three young children, when do you find the time to write?
Sangu Mandanna: Whenever I can! This past year, especially, with the kids home on and off in various lockdowns, I’ve had to find ways to fit my writing in around everything else that’s going on. I am very lucky in that my husband has pretty much quit work temporarily and become a stay-at-home dad this past year, so it’s been a little easier to work than it would otherwise have been.
IE: What or who inspired you to write for children and young adults?
SM: I know how cheesy this sounds, but the honest answer is my younger self. I so vividly remember what it was like to grow up madly in love with books and yet to almost never see characters like me on the page (brown girls having adventures, neurodivergent brown girls living their best lives!) so every time I write a story for children, I feel like I’m writing it for my passionate, eager, easily hurt younger self.
IE: Is Kiki Kallira Breaks A Kingdom similar to any of your previous books?
SM: I love to weave South Asian folklore and mythology into the stories I write, so that’s a common thread in many of my books. My protagonists are also typically brave brown girls who find ways to be creative, kind and strong in worlds that are not necessarily kind to them. And on a lighter note, my books tend to be all about fantastical adventures and magical worlds!
IE: You mentioned that your intention with this book was to make a neurodiverse, anxious child the hero of the story. You capture so eloquently Kiki’s struggles. Did you grow up with anxieties similar to Kiki?
SM: I did! Like Kiki, I struggled with OCD and anxiety from quite a young age, and I didn’t understand why I struggled with things my friends seemed to find so easy. So I retreated into the safety and comfort of stories: reading them, sketching them, and writing them. To this day, I truly believe art can and does save lives.
IE: Kiki’s mom and her best friend are extremely supportive of her when she feels anxious. How was it for you growing up in India where there is more stigma around any sort of neurodiversity?
SM: I do think there’s quite a strong sense in Asian families that mental illness is something to be pushed past. “Just get on with things” is a common refrain. So that’s what I did! I “got on” with things. And this is something that will probably sound familiar to a lot of neurodiverse people, but I learned very quickly to mask the way I was feeling and to match my behavior to the people around me, so for a long time, the stigma was a moot point because I had gotten so good at blending in. It was only later, in my teen years, when I started struggling with depression as well, that it became impossible to hide (and, indeed, I didn’t want to hide it anymore!). My family was loving and supportive, but did believe in the “get on with it” idea, so it’s only now that I’m an adult that I think they really understand how much I struggled then.
IE: Young readers who fall for Kiki will want to know if they’ll meet her again after the book ends. Do you plan a sequel?
SM: Yes! While Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom can be read as a standalone adventure, Kiki and the other weird, wonderful characters will return in another adventure. It’s called Kiki Kallira Conquers a Curse and it’ll be out in May 2022!
IE: What would you most want your readers to experience as they delve into Kiki’s world?
SM: I hope readers are enchanted by the magic, wonder and weirdness of Kiki’s world! I hope they fall in love with the characters. And most of all, I hope readers who struggle with the things Kiki does feel seen, and understood, and are able to come out of the book feeling stronger and happier with who they are.
IE: What advice do you have for writers who are at the cusp of their literary careers?
SM: Always, always do it because you love it. This is a fickle, difficult industry, and it’s heartbreaking to be rejected and knocked back, so I believe it’s only worth it if you love it. If you feel like you need storytelling the way you need breathing, if you know that you’d be writing stories whether or not you ever got published, that’s the kind of passion that will keep you going.