Raakhee Mirchandani, SUPER SATYA SAVES THE DAY

Raakhee Mirchandani, SUPER SATYA SAVES THE DAY

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Raakhee Mirchandani who’s the author of children’s book Super Satya Saves the Day, which recently won the Purple Dragonfly Award from Bharat Babies. She’s an award-winning writer, editor, and pediatric cancer crusader. Her work has appeared in Elle, Redbook, HuffPost, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post, among other publications. She’s currently the editorial director of diversity and inclusion at Dow Jones. Raakhee has appeared on The Today Show and on SiriusXM.

I’m here today with Raakhee Mirchandani. We met at the Brooklyn Book Festival. My kids and I have both all fallen in love with you. I’m super excited you’re here. Actually, my younger daughter invited Raakhee to our house and asked her to sleep over.

Raakhee Mirchandani: She did. Day one, minute one, “Hey, want to come over for a sleepover?” Maybe. Why not?

Zibby: Luckily, you weren’t totally creeped out by that. That’s good.

Raakhee: It would’ve been weirder if I asked her.

Zibby: That’s true. That would not have been good.

Raakhee: When she asked, it was okay.

Zibby: I’m sure she will be sneaking in here at some point. She’s so excited to have you in the house.

Raakhee: It’s the best.

Zibby: Super Satya Saves the Day, this is a children’s book. Tell us what this book is about. What inspired you to write this children’s book?

Raakhee: It’s a picture book. I always thought I would write a book. I’m a journalist. I always wanted to be a writer. That was the thing I wanted to do. I was editor of my school paper. I was not going to have another career. I was going to write. I figured I would write newspapers, which is what I did for the last fifteen years or so. I set out. In my brain, I’m going to write a novel one day. This is what I’m going to do. I love to read novels. I have a daughter. She is going to be six. Her name is Satya. She loves the bookstore. She loves books. We spend all of our time and all of our money at Little City Books in Hoboken. She was really into Wonder Woman. This is about two and a half years ago or so. She’d dress up like Wonder Woman. She’d wear Wonder Woman shirts all the time. It was a full-blown obsession.

I thought it’d be great, I’d go get a book, there’s a girl, kind of looks like her, who’s a superhero. Seems like an easy ask. They have books about everything, dragons eating salsa. You name it, there’s a book. I go to the bookstore. I’m looking on the shelves. I come up with nothing. There is one board book, but it’s actually about Wonder Woman, but she’s just a child. I was like, this cannot be. It’s not possible that no one has ever had this thought before. I go on Amazon. They must have it. Maybe bookstores don’t. Zero. Now I’m really frustrated. I didn’t say anything to her because it’s not her frustration. It was clearly mine. I was angry in that moment because I grew up not seeing myself in books. I’m thirty-eight years old. To think that I have this daughter and the same thing was going to happen to her just blew my head apart.

Zibby: Tell us about your heritage and why you’re not finding .

Raakhee: My parents are both from India. My husband is a turban-wearing Sikh. His parents are both from India. We’re Indian Americans. We’re very Indian and we’re very American at the same time. It was really this moment, and it happened so fast on that day, that crystalized. I was very upset about it, much more so than I thought I would be.

Zibby: Were there superhero books about kids who were not Indian?

Raakhee: There were. My only thing, I walked into the store, was I wanted the character to kind of look like her. I didn’t expect the character to be Indian, but kind of look like her. There were none. It was so angering for me in that moment. I remember being upset and then letting it go for a little while, a day or two, and then just writing it. I sat on the train to work. I have a twenty-five-minute train ride every day. I’m writing it. I sat down. It came together very, very quickly.

Zibby: Then what happened?

Raakhee: It’s such a weird story. I now understand, having sold a book after that, this is not exactly how things work. I wrote it. I told my agent, “I wrote this book. Do you want to look at it?” She’s like, “Yeah.” I was like, “I’m going to send it to you.” Then I remembered that I knew this woman who ran this small indie publishing house in Boston. I didn’t know her as a friend. I had used one of her books in a column I had written for Elle. I had liked it very much. I sent it to her. She was like, “I love this book. I would like to buy this book.” I was like, “Okay.” I did not tell my agent. I went fully rouge. Then I was like, uh, oh. I’ve sold this book to her. Now I have to tell my agent who’s going to be like, “What happened here? We had a plan. You write manuscript. You send the manuscript to me.”

Zibby: Wait, the agent that you had, what were you doing with that agent? Had you written a novel?

Raakhee: No.

Zibby: You were doing a lot of magazine and newspaper?

Raakhee: Yeah, I was just exploring, what is it like to have a literary agent? What do you talk about? What does that relationship look like?

Zibby: It can be hard even to get —

Raakhee: — It’s very complicated. A friend of mine, Linda Stasi, who was the long-time New York Post and Daily News columnist, had written two novels. Liza was her agent. Linda and I are very great friends. She introduced me to Liza. We all hit it off. It was fine. When I think about it now, it’s really quite idiotic, the way that it all .

Zibby: No, it’s not. It’s amazing.

Raakhee: Poor Liza, my long-suffering, amazing human of an agent was like, “Okay, Raakhee.” I was like, “Hey, look at the contract.” She was like, “What happened in the time that we spoke and now? What did you do?” I was like, “I told her she could buy it. I’m sorry.” It turns out in the beautiful way that’s it’s meant to. When you really believe in something, the intentions are really pure and really strong and really good, the things just work out. They did for me. Every time I think about the story and I think about Liza, I’m like, what did I do? I would’ve fired myself. Liza didn’t fire me. She was like, “Okay, Raakhee, let me tell you how this is going to work the next time. Don’t ever do this again. I’m glad you did it this time.”

Zibby: The great part — what I’m sure the publisher in Boston responded to is that it’s not just an old-school story about a superhero. It’s so modern. The girl can’t find her cape at the dry cleaner. The dry cleaner is closed. The mom needs a cup of coffee. It’s so of-the-moment and yet timeless at the same time. You can see moms laughing to themselves.

Raakhee: Every time it’s story time, I read that line and all the parents laugh because that is our daily struggle.

Zibby: What was the line? There’s this joke. This is when they’re doing errands on the way on to school. “They did stop for coffee, though. They always stopped for coffee. Mama says if she doesn’t have any coffee, her head will explode.”

Raakhee: That’s our life in the morning. You’ve got to get somewhere. I have no time to do these fifteen things that we’re supposed to, but we have to get a cup of coffee before I take you to school so I can get to work. That’s just how it goes.

Zibby: I keep to-go cups in my house. I fill a to-go cup.

Raakhee: That is genius.

Zibby: They’re not expensive.

Raakhee: This is very smart.

Zibby: It’s a lot less than going out for coffee. Then I hold it all day. I don’t have to wash my mug. I’m sure this is not environmentally amazing.

Raakhee: I get it. Sometimes, life is life.

Zibby: You’re already going to waste the cup at Starbucks. You might as well.

Raakhee: That is right. It’s not a hundred percent.

Zibby: Buying the little pods is so much less than buying — also, it’s not even the price. It is the price, but also the time you’ll spend waiting.

Raakhee: This is every morning. You think she’d learn by now. She doesn’t care. “Can I have…?” No. We’re not here for you. You’re not getting a cake pop. It’s seven thirty in the morning. What do you think your life is? Every morning. One day when I say yes to her, she’s going to be like, what has happened? Who are you?

Zibby: Then she’ll ask the rest of her life. It’s like the study with the mice. It’s intermittent reinforcement. Sometimes when you press the button, you’ll get the cheese. Your poor daughter.

Raakhee: I know. All the people in my life are long-suffering. That’s what you can refer to them as.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding.

Raakhee: No, it’s true.

Zibby: This is a book that appeals to me and also the kids. It’s a perfect combination. It’s amazing. Then how did you come up with the next — you already sold another book.

Raakhee: We did. I listened to Liza. I wrote the manuscript. I sent it to Liza. Liza read it. Then she did all of the proper channels. She reached out to the editor she knew at various houses and however that sausage gets made.

Zibby: Did you pick a different publishing house?

Raakhee: Can I tell you a crazy story about this? At the end of last year, I said to Liza, “I really want to sell a book to Little Brown.” Little Brown, I think they make these really exquisite children’s books. I remember saying to her, “Little Brown, that’s where I want to sell my next book.” She said, like a very supportive, loving woman, “I don’t know about next year, but we’ll get there.” Fine, but we’re going to do it. What do you know? Not six months later, Liza, the wizard she is, we sold the book to Little Brown.

Zibby: Yay! That’s amazing.

Raakhee: I know. It’s awesome.

Zibby: It’s all about setting your intentions.

Raakhee: It feels really weird when it happens. I believe it. I really believe that’s true. When you really have a pure intention and you set it out and then you do the work, it’s coming. It’s going to happen for you. I believe that. Then when it happens, you’re like, wait, how did this happen?

Zibby: Amazing. In my head, I have my dream publishing house and dream editor of the book in my head that I have yet to write. I will get there.

Raakhee: Of course you will.

Zibby: You have to believe it.

Raakhee: You have to believe it. You have to say it out loud to the stakeholders who are going to help you make it happen. I just do. I knew when I said it to her.

Zibby: Because then you gave her a goal.

Raakhee: That’s it. I knew she was going to hear it and it would sit there in her mind.

Zibby: It’s a challenge.

Raakhee: Yes. It was wild. I get to work with this amazing editor at Little Brown, Sam Gentry, who I just love.

Zibby: What’s the next book going to be called? Can you say?

Raakhee: Yeah. The book is called Hair Twins. It’s about a turban-wearing Sikh father and his daughter who are hair twins. In the Sikh faith, generally the practitioners don’t cut their hair, so the dad has long hair just like the daughter. That’s why they’re hair twins.

Zibby: I love it.

Raakhee: It’s a cute story.

Zibby: Did you use the same illustrator?

Raakhee: No. The illustrator for Super Satya is Tim Palin. It’s a beautiful book. Every time we meet people at bookstores or we do events, people are always like, “Who is the illustrator of this book?” It’s really vibrant and lovely. For Hair Twins, it’s Holly Hatam who did Dear Girl.

Zibby: Let’s shift gears a tiny bit to the sad part of your life, if you don’t mind. I’m sorry.

Raakhee: I don’t mind at all. It’s part of the story.

Zibby: You are a pediatric cancer crusader. Tell me what happened.

Raakhee: I sure am. Like I said, Satya is five. She’s going to be six in November. When she was about five months old, she had cancer. She had cancer for five months until just about a year old. She had a tumor called neuroblastoma. It is a very aggressive, scary kind of cancer in infants. We were very, very, very blessed because we caught the cancer so early that she didn’t need chemo. She didn’t need radiation. We needed to watch it all summer and measure it. They wanted her to get a little bit bigger before they did the surgery. They wanted to make sure it wasn’t growing very quickly.

Zibby: Where was it on her body?

Raakhee: It was between her kidney and her aorta.

Zibby: How did you find it?

Raakhee: She was just a tiny baby. They’re very small at five months old. There are two schools of thought. You could say we found it by accident or you could say that we were guided to it. It depends on how you look at things. I went to the doctor three times. I kept saying, “Something’s wrong with the baby. Something wrong with the baby.” The third time, my doctor, Doctor Mahmoud — I will never forget her. I say her name every single night. She was like, “You’re the mom. If you think something’s wrong, something’s probably wrong. Let’s get some blood and some urine. We’ll see.”

Zibby: What were the signs?

Raakhee: All I could describe was that her eyes looked really far away. I felt like she wasn’t locking eyes with me, which sounds exactly like it sounds. It’s not terribly scientific. I was like, something is happening here. She called me back in twenty-four hours. Everything was fine. Maybe it is teething like everyone says. In thirty-six hours, they called me. They said, “Rush her to the hospital.”

Zibby: A test came back?

Raakhee: Yes. They said she has a bacteria type resistant to oral antibiotics. It’s a UTI. She will need IV antibiotics for two months because it’s this crazy, hyper-resistant strain called ESBL. Fine. We get there. When they do a UTI, they have to do an ultrasound. In the course of doing the ultrasound for the UTI, they found the cancer. That’s how they found it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. She did have a UTI also?

Raakhee: It’s unclear what’s related and what was a UTI and what was actually this bacteria. There was a lot going on at the time, but that’s how they found it.

Zibby: Did you freak out?

Raakhee: I’m a very freak-out kind of person. I can go from zero to a hundred and then back to zero. The tech was doing the ultrasound. She walked outside the room. I heard her call the doctor. She called the radiation oncologist and said, “You need to come downstairs. I think that there’s a tumor.” I was like, what? I didn’t say anything to her because I was obviously eavesdropping with my ear outside. They were like, “Just meet the oncologist. It’s probably nothing.” I knew exactly the road we were going to go down. It’s wild that I did not freak out. It is actually wild and very uncharacteristic.

Zibby: Was your husband there too?

Raakhee: He was not there at that moment. He was traveling for work. He came the next day.

Zibby: Then did you go on full-on warrior mode?

Raakhee: It was like I was possessed by another spirit of a human. It was unlike how I am now or in my normal life. It was all about, how do we make the appointments? What do we need to do? How do we get in first in the day? It was total mission oriented. We need to figure this out. We need to figure this out quickly.

Zibby: What did you do with the rest of your life?

Raakhee: I was so lucky. I worked at the New York Daily News at the time. I was so, so lucky to have the kind of editor-in-chief that I did. They were like, “Your job is to take care of your baby. That is your job. We will still be here. Your job will still be here. Take care of your baby.” That is exactly what I did. Having that confidence and knowing that the other parts of your life are not going to fall apart because this part is, is so empowering. You don’t realize it at the time. At the time, you’re like, I don’t care. I’ll never work again. What difference does it make? As you unpack things years later, I understand how fortunate I was.

Zibby: Did you not release your breath for months?

Raakhee: Sometimes, I think I still haven’t. It certainly is easier and better. I don’t panic at the thought of every cold and every cough. That is all true. I also have learned in that experience, I will celebrate every single joy, and I mean every joy. Every tiny, you-could-forget-this-ever-happened moment, I will celebrate it. I will take it because there was a large part of her first year that I was not sure we were going to have them.

Zibby: How do you do that? I say that to myself a lot too. I’m going to savor this moment. How? Do you write it down? How do you remember? I feel like my memory — does that happen to you?

Raakhee: All the time.

Zibby: Do you write it? Do you take pictures? How do you capture the joy and the gratitude when you feel it? I feel like it’s all so fleeting.

Raakhee: I think you’re right about that, by the way. There are two things. One, my friend Hoda — I had said this to, actually, Jo, who wrote How to be Married. My friend Hoda had taught me this practice.

Zibby: The Hoda?

Raakhee: Yeah, Hoda Kotb. She taught me this practice of writing down, every single day, three things that you are grateful for. She does it every morning. I was like, this is useless. I’m not going to do this. It takes so much time. Who wants to do this? I don’t want to keep a diary. I’m never going to do this. She brought it up quite a few times. She would talk about what it did for her. I started doing it. I’m not terribly organized about it in the sense that it’s not always in one book, but I do it every single day now. What it does for me is that it forces me — sometimes gratitude feels like this really large concept that you have to say you are, but it’s hard to wrap your arms around. In the day when you think about the three things that you’re grateful for, there are actually three things every day that you are grateful for. They are not always big things. Sometimes they are small things, like you got a seat on a train when you were really tired. That is a perfectly fine thing to feel grateful for. Sometimes it’s a really large thing, like my daughter’s health, which is always the first thing on my list. Just feeling every single day that things happened today and I’m thankful for them, it’s the way I end my day every day. When you put your head on that pillow, you’re feeling real good about what happened today. As shitty as the day might have been, there were three things that you can be thankful for. There’s that.

The other piece also is — I celebrate these small joys, I do, but I don’t ever intend to carry all of them with me forever. Sometimes, and many times, I celebrate them in the moment. I’m really happy in that moment. It is okay if I don’t remember it again. It is okay for that moment to leave. There will be more moments that come after. I really mean it. If I happen to pick her up thirty minutes early, I’m so much more likely — we do it all the time. We’re like, “Let’s just stay at the park for another forty minutes,” or I made dinner at home — this is a thing we’ve done a few times. Why don’t we sit outside? It’s a beautiful day. We’ll get french fries. Then we’ll go home and eat dinner, just really silly, small things that make me feel like we’re soaking up every single piece of each other.

Zibby: That’s so nice. It’s so sad, but it’s so nice. Do you still lose your patience?

Raakhee: All the time. I lose my patience all the time. That’s the kind of person I am. I’m not a Zen person. I’m not. I have moments of Zen. When I write these three things down, I’m quite Zen. I’m an impatient, loud, brassy person. That’s who I am. I yell a lot at her. I yell a lot at myself.

Zibby: Does your daughter understand what happened to her when she was little?

Raakhee: It’s interesting. My girlfriend just asked me this recently. We do a lot of things together for the hospital. My husband, my daughter, my family, my brother, everyone’s involved. We take her there a lot.

Zibby: What hospital?

Raakhee: It’s Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. We’re going out to St. Jude in a couple of weeks. I take her with me a lot. She’s very involved. We do bone marrow drives. There was a couple of kids who needed bone marrow drives. I would set them up in my town. I would rally the people. I make her come. Sometimes she just hangs out. Sometimes she’s involved. Sometimes she’s entertaining the troops, whatever it is. She is aware. She understands that cancer’s a thing that happens. She asked me recently, “Why didn’t I die if some people die?” They understand things. She’s going to be six. She gets it. I wasn’t expecting her to ask me that. I didn’t have a particularly brilliant answer. I said, “Sometimes some people get to live and some people get to die despite having great doctors and great medical care.” She just looked at me. She goes, “Phew.” In some ways, phew. What else is there? There is no good answer.

Zibby: There’s no good answer. You still go on a mission to help other people?

Raakhee: Yeah. I’m the president of a pediatric cancer charity. It’s thirty years old. It’s called the Tomorrows Children’s Fund. I do a lot of work with the hospital foundation at Hackensack, a lot of work with St. Jude, as much as we can, truly, for as many people as we can. I’ve seen firsthand, especially spending the time that we did on the oncology floor as patients, what happens when you’re there. Your whole world is falling apart. Your entire life is falling apart. To know that there are people out in the world who don’t know you but are willing to lend a hand to let you keep some things together in that moment, it allows you to focus more deeply on the task at hand, which is your child. It’s a tragedy on a million levels that when your child is sick, you’re also worried about paying bills and groceries and mortgages and rent and car payments. All that stuff still happens. The world still spins. It is not stopping. Allowing people to participate in someone else’s life is beautiful.

Zibby: I wonder also about people going through this who have other kids at home. I’m sure every parent has been to the ER, or they will at some point, for some little thing or another. I’m not trying to compare it at all to what you’re going through.

Raakhee: Anyone who’s ever had a sick kid, even with a cold, you know the fear. You understand the fear. What is this? What are we doing?

Zibby: Then you get so drained. A day in hospital, it’s like a time warp. It’s like a prison-y, time warp-y, awful universe. Then to have other people depending on you too, or life in general —

Raakhee: — Think about the other children, though. All of a sudden, the child is sick with cancer. This goes on for years, two years, three years. What happens? Cancer threatens everyone in the family and every relationship in the family. That’s why doing this work, especially with these organizations — the Tomorrows Children’s Fund, it is a holistic understanding of what happens when a family deals with a cancer diagnosis.

Zibby: If people want to help, what should they do?

Raakhee: There are a couple of things. The first thing, and it’s the most obvious, is make a donation.

Zibby: To Tomorrows Children’s?

Raakhee: Yeah, tfckid.org, whatever is the thing that speaks to you. For me, it’s pediatric cancer. Know where your money’s going. That’s what I always say. Know where your money’s going. When people give me money, I make sure — I’m involved with the charity. Even with the Hackensack hospital foundation, I was like, “This money is for patient aid.” That means that the money goes to actually pay these bills for these families, which is the thing that I care about the most because I understand the stress. I was very lucky. My job, they were like, “We’ve got you.” That is not what happens all the time. People have to quit jobs. You spend years digging out of that. That is the first thing you can do. Also, there are other ways to help. There are corporate giving programs. You don’t have to do a ton of work, but the money will still go to the places that need it. Call your local hospital and be like, “What can we do? What can we do in the community? What do you need?” We have a food panty at the Tomorrows Children’s Fund and Hackensack. When patient families go home, they can grab stuff for dinner. Small things like that make huge differences to people. We have the local ShopRite. His name is Larry Inserra. He pays to keep the food pantries stocked. That is such an amazingly generous, beautiful act. You’re actually putting food on the table for people. There’s so many ways. It matters.

Zibby: Why have you not written a book about this?

Raakhee: I think about it all the time. I think it’s because it still is a tremendous place of pain. I just need a little more space. I think about it all the time, all the time.

Zibby: No pressure.

Raakhee: No, I’m so glad you asked me.

Zibby: It seems so natural. You could’ve written that book right now. I could just give you the transcript of this. You could send that off as your proposal.

Raakhee: I know. You know what I think about, though, about this experience that I would really like to write? The thing that I have observed so many times is the relationships between the parents and the child in these moments. I often think about ten tales, twelves tales, whatever it is, of what the parents learn from the children in these moments and what they learn about being parents in these moments. There is so much that changes.

Zibby: If I were your agent, I would probably say, start with an article. That’s what they say.

Raakhee: I know. That’s what they say all the time. I have written so many articles.

Zibby: If I were a publisher, I would want to buy and read the book about your experience. I’m hanging on every word of your story. It’s inspiring. Every parent worries. As soon as you create life, you know that life — I hate to knock wood or whatever. In the act of creating life, you are creating an imminent death. We can only hope that we’re not here to see it. That doesn’t make me feel better. To address it head-on, early, it’s powerful. There’s power in what you’ve learned.

Raakhee: There is also something in — you were asking before about, do you write it down? Do you take pictures? I do. I do all those things, but also being really comfortable with not having to remember and keep everything. You don’t have to be the keeper of all of the memories for everyone’s life. You just don’t. I wonder what happens when, instead of focusing on preserving, we just focus on living and being.

Zibby: Put away the phones.

Raakhee: What does that feel like for us? How does that change our experience being parents, being partners, just being people?

Zibby: Do you speak places? You should be going out and going and doing stuff. We’re going to turn this off in a minute. I’m going to give you a to-do list of what you need because you don’t have enough on your plate.

Raakhee: I’m going to come here for all the things that I —

Zibby: — I know you have a massive full-time job as well, and a mom, and everything else.

Raakhee: I’ve never felt better about myself than right now.

Zibby: Thank you for sharing your story.

Raakhee: Thank you. Thanks, Sadie.

Zibby: You’re welcome to sleep over if you want.

Raakhee: I love it.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for everything.

Raakhee: Thank you. I’m a fan. I’m nerding out being here. I’m excited that my funny Instagram message — the world brought us together.

Zibby: Right. Isn’t that so funny?

Raakhee: That’s how it is. It happens all the time in life. It makes me laugh. When you walked into Brooklyn Book Fest that day, I was like, of course.

Zibby: What did you say? “Great article,” or something.

Raakhee: I was like, “I’m really happy for you.”

Zibby: “I’m happy for you.” I’m like, that’s so nice. Who is this saying such a nice thing? Then you happened to go to Brooklyn Book Fest. I was like, wait a minute. I think this is the same person who DM’d me. I can’t believe it. I’m like, “Hi, I’m here.”

Raakhee: It was so funny. I remember reading that piece. Oprah of New York? Is that what it was? I’m just happy for you. What a moment to be called that. I like this. I remember thinking, cool. That’s cool. That’s so cool. What a day. Then when you walked in, I was like, this is exactly how the world works. It’s exactly how it works.

Zibby: For me too because now this is an amazing experience. Now we’ll be friends. Sorry, you didn’t know this. Now we are friends.

Raakhee: Oh, no. I’m taking over. We’re friends. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Raakhee.

Raakhee Mirchandani, SUPER SATYA SAVES THE DAY