The story of how Roshani Chokshi ended up writing “Aru Shah and the End of Time” is a bit like a modern fairy tale itself. The just-released novel launches not only a four-book series for young readers but Disney Hyperion’s new Rick Riordan Presents imprint, a line of mythology-inspired books curated by the mega-bestselling author of the Percy Jackson series.
Chokshi discovered the imprint was in the works from another author after attending a reading at DragonCon. “When I heard about this imprint I swear to you I started to froth at the mouth,” says Chokshi, 27, who cut her teeth writing “Sailor Moon” fan fiction infused with Indian mythology. “To me, it called back all that nostalgia for the things I had desperately wanted to write, and also it was a chance to redo middle school. So I went home that day and emailed my agent immediately.”
Her agent confirmed that, yes, this was a real opportunity. Chokshi “wrote those first three sample chapters in a fugue state” and sent them in, expecting nothing to happen. A week later, the publisher informed her they were buying the book and it would be the imprint’s first title.
Riordan glows with pride when he speaks about it. “I knew young readers were anxious to explore other mythologies from around the world, and I knew there were a lot of great ‘own voices’ writers out there who deserved the spotlight, but working with Rosh and the other authors of Rick Riordan Presents has been more rewarding than I ever imagined,” he says. “It’s such a great feeling to see Aru Shah out in the world, and Rosh doing such a great job as a brilliant, engaging speaker.”
“Aru Shah and the End of Time” begins with the titular heroine getting called on one of the many lies she’s told other children from her private school — only to discover it’s the one lie that is true. Her mother has told her never to light the Lamp of Bharata because it is cursed, and when Aru does she wakes a sleeping demon bent on the destruction of everything. Aru turns out to be one of this generation’s Pandava brothers (who are obviously no longer brothers) from the Hindu epic “The Mahabharata” who must somehow right this wrong — with the help of a timid yet brave girl, who also shares the Pandava legacy, and a sarcastic pigeon. What ensues is a rollicking journey through the world of Indian mythology.
Like her main character, Chokshi grew up in the Atlanta area and often felt like she didn’t fit in. “I also went to private school, where I certainly felt out of my depth with kids that didn’t get their uniform and books from the consignment shop and all that stuff. And I certainly told many a tall tale,” she says.
Chokshi just turned in the sequel to “Aru Shah,” and the first in a new YA series, “The Gilded Wolves,” is slated for winter 2019. Her bestselling young adult novel “The Star-Touched Queen” and its sequel both feature mythology-infused stories too. Was that part of her readerly DNA growing up? Chokshi says very much so.
“My parents did an incredible job of inspiring me and my siblings to be voracious readers from the start,” Chokshi says. “I think a large part of that is because we didn’t learn our parents’ native languages growing up. We only spoke English at home and so the way that we connected to parts of our heritage was oftentimes just through fairy tales and world mythology books. You couldn’t really understand your own background without that.”
Both her parents were immigrants to the U.S. Her father came here from India at age 8 with his mother and brother and still tells the story of having free orange juice on the airplane. “It must have tasted like ambrosia to him,” says Chokshi, laughing. Her mother immigrated from the Philippines at 26, arriving in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day. “Poor Mom was so confused. She’s just, like, is this every day in America?” says Chokshi, still laughing. “Those were their coming to America stories, which are always hilarious to me.”
Despite growing up with Indian mythology as part of her heritage, Chokshi had to do research for “Aru Shah.” She teased out the core components of the stories she intended to draw on.
“I did inhale this mythology growing up, but India is such a vast country that there are so many different versions of the same tale,” she says.
Then she figured out what she could bring to them from her personal background without changing them in a way that didn’t fit. She added an explanation to the book’s glossary to make clear it’s not intended as a comprehensive guide to the mythology in question. Some people, she acknowledges, will still probably feel she got something wrong. “But we should take out the word ‘wrong’ because when it comes to mythology, especially in Hinduism, our mythology is a living thing. It’s so closely tied to our religious identity. To call something wrong is to cancel out someone else’s truth.”
Although I caught up with Chokshi as she nursed a cold between school visits and bookstore appearances for the book, she was full of excitement. The reading she’d been at when she first heard about Riordan’s new project was one my husband and I were doing from our own just-sold children’s series. “I think you’re good luck for me,” she said enthusiastically.
She realizes that writing for Riordan, with his devoted readers, is a challenge and an unmissable opportunity — like something out of one of their books.
Bond is author of the “Lois Lane” YA series and co-author of the forthcoming “The Supernormal Sleuthing Service: The Sphinx’s Secret.”
Roshani Chokshi and Rick Riordan will be interviewed by Robert Graves at 12:30 p.m. on April 21 at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center.