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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Hacket


Dr. Amitha Jagannath Knight joins The Backstory today with the scoop on her picture book, USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER (Charlesbridge, 2021) with illustrations by Sandhya Prabhat. Read on to discover what inspires Amitha and for your chance to win a copy of her book.

Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER.

First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.

Usha and the Big Digger is about three girls: Usha, her big sister Aarti, and their cousin Gloria, who see different shapes in the same 3 stars of the Big Dipper and have to learn to see things from each other’s perspectives--literally, and figuratively.

This is a very sweet premise and a great introduction to geometry and spatial reasoning. I love the dual take on perspective taking and I look forward to using this book in math lessons as well as social emotional and classroom community lessons. And I have to comment on what an out of this world job Sandhya Prabhat did with the illustrations. They are the perfect companion to your words.

What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?

Usha is named after my mother, who was a programmer for NASA in Houston when I was growing up, and she was one of three girls (though she was the middle child). My mother’s name is actually Manjula, but her nickname on one side of her family was Usha, which means “dawn” because she was born early in the morning.

The cartwheeling subplot (that becomes key to Usha understanding the rotations in the sky) was inspired by my kids! I’d gotten feedback from my editor that I needed to go deeper with the characters, and I felt the story was lacking some action, and since I was revising during my kids’ gymnastics class, the idea of learning to cartwheel kind of came to me.

From the name to the plot, it seems like your mother was a great inspiration for this story. And I love how your real life provided the solution for adding that extra layer to the manuscript. It fits just right and was a great way to add in that fabulous onomotopeia.

How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?

This process for this book was a little different since I actually started with a pitch. I sent my editor and the math expert a few story ideas and drafts, and this one was the one they picked. The rough draft was a book about a girl who was stargazing with her parents and connecting the dots in the sky of the few stars that she was able to see in the sky, but eventually through feedback and through revisions, the draft grew into the story it is now.

The wonder of feedback! It is always a fun exploration to compare first drafts to finals and see the evolution of the story and also to reflect on the many, many people who often help make the revisions possible.

Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?

Usually they just pop into my head--the best time for ideas I’ve found is before falling asleep or when I’m in the shower. Those are the times when my brain seems to connect the dots of things I’ve experienced and sentences or images start to form. Sometimes, though, I’ve also had ideas just through brainstorming and following ideas on the page, or thinking very deeply about general ideas in other books that have resonated with me that I can make my own.

Yes! Those quiet moments are exactly what we need for our brains to process all it has taken in. The trick is making sure you get them written down before they drift away or you fall asleep.

What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?

I know many authors can point to books specifically that have helped their writing, but honestly I think everything I read or watch on TV--whether I liked the story or not--influences my writing.

So true! I like how you include even the things you don't like. Recognizing our dislikes and why a book or show doesn't resonate with us can be a useful tool to apply to our writing.

What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?

I have a lot of things at my desk from scissors to pencils to fountain pens to washi tape--I also have a stick-on white board-- but the actual must-haves are very simple: a writing instrument, paper, and a laptop.

Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?

Something that I keep in my mind is advice I first heard from Jane Yolen early on in my career, but I’ve since heard from many other authors: it’s not necessarily the most talented people who get published, it’s the most persistent. Keep going!

Great advice! There are so many ups and downs that it can be easy to want to quit. That persistence you mention is the only way to ensure you reach your goal.

Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?

Nothing yet, but I’m always writing and submitting, so fingers crossed!

I will keep my fingers crossed for you as well. I'm sure great things are ahead!

Where can people connect more with you?

The best place is my website, but I’m also on social media:

Readers be sure to connect with Amitha and don't forget to check out her wonderful book, USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER (Charlesbridge, 2021) with gorgeous illustrations from Sandhya Prabhat.

Amitha, thank you so much for joining us and sharing the story behind USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER!



Amitha is generously giving away a copy of USHA AND THE BIG DIGGER to one lucky winner. (US only)

Ways to enter:

1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!


2. Leave a comment on this post.


3. Like our FB page and comment on this week's post.


4. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.

Each method earns an extra entry!



Dr. Amitha Jagannath Knight is a graduate of MIT and Tufts University School of Medicine. She is also a former social media manager for We Need Diverse Books. In 2012, she won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. While her parents were originally from South India, she and her siblings (including her identical twin!) were born in the United States. Dr. Knight has lived in Texas and Arkansas, and now lives in Massachusetts with her one husband, two children, and two cats.



Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.

A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.

While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.

Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.

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What unique take on the typical space story. And I love hearing how much a story evolved from pitch to polished. Definitely a reminder to get down those terrible first drafts haha. Who knows where they'll end up!



Great reading about Amitha's "backstory"! I always love learning authors' stories behind their stories! Congratulations!

Thanks. Andrew! :)



Great interview, Andrew and Amitha. It's inspiring to learn the backstory for books. Continued success to you both!

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