We are happy to reveal the cover of KidLit in Color author Kaitlyn Wells's new picture book, A Family Looks Like Love, which will be published on May 31, 2022 by Penguin Random House. Fellow KidLit in Color author Lisa Stringfellow interviewed Kaitlyn about her book.
Lisa: What were your thoughts when you first saw the cover?
Kaitlyn: First, all credit goes to my wonderful illustrator, Sawyer Cloud, who did a beautiful job honoring my vision for this book. She breathed life into these characters and imbued warmth and love from the very first page. As for the cover itself, I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s simplistic and refined. By focusing on the characters sans a distracting background, the reader is subconsciously reminded that love—that invisible yet tangible element—is all around. Even if you can’t see love, you feel its presence when you’re surrounded by those who care the most about you.
Lisa: What would you like everyone to know about A Family Looks Like Love?
Kaitlyn: I wrote A Family Looks Like Love from the broken pieces of my heart. It wasn’t easy discussing race as a biracial kid who grew up surrounded by people who “don’t see color” or only see color. Sometimes I felt like I had to accept other people’s assumptions about who I was and who my family should be. I felt silenced in order to make room for the louder (and fallacious) voices in the room. And when I did speak up, it hardly led to acceptance. On easier days, people assumed I was lying when I pointed to the white woman in the room as my mother. On harder days, my extended family decided it wasn’t worth knowing their Black relatives, and refused to shake my hand in greeting. And as a little girl, I found myself looking for ways to fit into the mold these people told me I needed to be in to gain their acceptance.
It’s taken a long time to realize I didn’t do anything wrong—their shortsightedness was the toxicity destroying my self esteem. Still, no one should have to go through that experience. A Family Looks Like Love reminds every young reader (and even young readers at heart) that what other people say about who you are and who your family should be is irrelevant. The only perspective that matters is your own. And it’s normal (and amazing!) for no two families to look exactly the same. I learned these lessons and more from my parents and friends who reminded me that love transcends skin color (or, in this case, fur color). I hope anyone who picks up A Family Looks Like Love feels empowered to shed any notions of self-hate, and embrace only the goodness that surrounds them.
Lisa: If a bookseller were hand-selling A Family Looks Like Love, what might they say to a potential reader?
Kaitlyn: A Family Looks Like Love is a heartwarming tale about a young pup who looks different from her doggy siblings, and has to work through her own feelings with inadequacy when other animals in the neighborhood doubt her legitimacy because of her appearance. A Family Looks Like Love reminds everyone that there’s more than one way for a family to look, and the more diversity, the better. While the inspiration for this book was based on the author’s experiences growing up mixed race, the message is meant for anyone who’s been told their family isn’t their own. All are welcomed and loved, no matter if your household includes adopted kids, multiracial parents, a single dad, two moms, multiple generations, non-traditional members—or all of the above!
And here is our cover reveal!
Lisa: Kaitlyn, please finish the following sentence starters:
Sutton Button… looks like my own little dog named Sutton, who doesn’t resemble her littermates either! Genetics, even in the doggy kingdom, can be wild!
Did you know… the flowering tree in the story is an apple tree?
Families are… beautiful, no matter what they look like. Family is the home you can always return to; the journal that knows your most embarrassing secrets; the light on your darkest days; and the heart that always beats for you.
You should have asked me…what I’m writing next! I have so many stories inside of me, especially stories full of joy. I’m working on picture books about a Black viral immunologist who saves the world (true story!), a sassy cat (hey, my cat Tanzie needs her own book too!), and a little girl just hoping to make her mother smile on one of her darkest days. I just hope I get to see these books in readers’ hands one day!
Lisa: Kaitlyn, thank you so much for sharing your cover on our blog today. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Kaitlyn: I’d love to stay in touch with readers. People can join my mailing list, and connect with me on social media.
Lisa: Thank you again, Kaitlyn!
Kaitlyn Wells is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her commentary on diverse literature can be found in The New York Times Book Review, BookPage, and Diverse Kids Books. Bring her chocolate or ask about her pets to become fast friends. A Family Looks Like Love is her debut children’s book. She lives in New York City with her wonderful husband, rambunctious dog, and demanding cat.
You can learn more about Kaitlyn at https://kaitwells.com.
Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and sign up for her newsletter.
KidLit in Color author Tonya Abari interviewed author Anne Wynter about her new picture book, Everybody in the Red Brick Building, illustrated by Oge Mora.
Tonya: What inspired you to write the story Everybody in the Red Brick Building?
Anne: I grew up in a house, but I spent most of my adulthood in apartments. So I was always noticing the unique aspects of apartment living - especially the relationships between apartment neighbors. For a long time, I tried to write about that theme in a full-length play for adults. I loved the idea but my scripts kept falling flat.
Once I started trying to write picture books, Everybody in the Red Brick Building was the second manuscript I wrote. The writing process was relatively quick, probably because I had spent so much time thinking about these themes and working through plot possibilities. It turned out to be a much better fit in a picture book.
Tonya: This picture book is rich with onomatopoeia. Can you explain your process for selecting which middle-of-the-night sounds to use for this book?
Anne: This was one of the hardest parts. I tried to pick onomatopoeia that was a little truer to the actual sound - in the way that a “woof” is usually closer to the sound a dog makes than a “bark.”
I also wanted to make sure the sounds didn’t have too many similarities when it came to assonance and consonance. This was challenging because, for the quiet sounds, it was tempting to use multiple sounds with “shhh,” so I had to play around a lot to make sure the text had enough variety.
And I took several nighttime walks for inspiration!
Tonya: You captured such an intricate moment (waking up and going back to sleep in the middle of the night) so beautifully. Regarding this manuscript, does art imitate life?
Anne: Thank you! And yes, definitely. I wrote this when I had an infant and a toddler, and there was a lot of waking up in the middle of the night. When each of my kids were babies I would think about the person on the other side of the wall in the apartment building. I’m sure they could hear the baby crying - and I always crossed my fingers that they were heavy sleepers or were able to fall back to sleep fairly easily.
I think about sleep a lot because it’s one of my favorite activities!
Tonya: What advice would you give to a new picture book writer who is mining their world for smaller moments to write about?
Anne: If there’s something that really captures your attention or imagination, make note of that and don’t automatically dismiss it because it seems too silly, strange or trivial. If you’re around kids, notice what fascinates them. Kids are wonderful at picking up on the smallest details and moments.
Tonya: Oge Mora’s collage-style illustrations really compliment your words perfectly . Tell us about the author/illustration process for this book – working with Oge Mora.
Anne: I didn’t work directly with Oge for most of the process, and we only (virtually) met and communicated after the final artwork was done. Getting to talk with her, pick up on her energy (she’s a great presenter and speaker) and receive practical tips from her - it has been inspiring and invaluable.
Tonya: Many authors have said that their debut picture books are the ones they least expected to be published first. As a debut picture book author, was this the manuscript that you expected to debut first?
Anne: When I sent out Everybody in the Red Brick Building to agents, I only had one other picture book manuscript, and I knew Everybody in the Red Brick Building was the stronger one. So if my querying process was successful, I expected that one to be my debut.
But I have to say, I had practically zero expectations for this manuscript. I was hopeful, of course, but after years of submitting for short story and playwriting opportunities, I learned not to expect anything. So getting an agent and a book deal was a wonderful and surprising ride!
Tonya: We all know that publishing is very top secret, but can you give us the scoop – or at least a subtle hint – on what you’re working on next?
Anne: I have two board books coming out in January - One Big Day and Hands On! - both illustrated by Alea Marley. After that is Nell Plants a Tree, a picture book illustrated by Daniel Miyares that’s scheduled for 2023.
I have two more unannounced picture books coming out (I’ll give you one hint about the first one - it has to do with Texas) and I’m also working on chapter books - which feels a bit scary because it’s new to me. But I’m having a lot of fun.
Originally from Houston, Anne is an author and playwright who currently lives in Austin, TX with her husband, her two children, and her cat. Her debut picture book, Everybody in the Red Brick Building, is illustrated by Oge Mora and will be published on October 19, 2021 by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. She also has two board books coming out in January 2022 - One Big Day and Hands On!, both illustrated by Alea Marley - and a picture book that will be published in Winter 2023 - Nell Plants a Tree, illustrated by Daniel Miyares.
To learn more or say hi, follow Anne on Instagram (@anne_wynter) or visit annewynter.com.
Interview with Sheetal Sheth on Bravo Anjali!
By Rashmi Bismark
Rashmi: Hi Sheetal - We are so excited for the continuation of your Anjali series with Mango and Marigold Press! This is the first picture book series featuring a South Asian American main character. How thrilling! So in Always Anjali, we saw Anjali navigate issues of bullying as she reclaimed meaning and pride in her name. What can we expect from her in your latest book, Bravo Anjali!, which was released on September 21, 2021?
Sheetal: In this installment, we see how Anjali deals with being the only girl in the room. She has to decide if she's going to take her space and own her excellence.
Rashmi: Wonderful, and we see Anjali really come into her own in Bravo Anjali! as she faces some challenges with her peers around sharing her talents unapologetically. While she plays her musical instrument with more confidence and finesse, it seems like the kids in her class resent her. She wonders how to balance her friendships with her burgeoning creative strengths. This is such an intriguing conflict to explore. Plus you have added some gender dynamics into it as well. What led you to highlight these issues?
Sheetal: I wrote Bravo Anjali! during the height of the #MeToo movement. The Hillary/Trump election really took things to a whole new level and I was disturbed at the level of misogyny and sexist vitriol I was seeing 24/7. I decided I wanted to tackle this, but in kidtalk. How can I bring this conversation to our kids? It’s abundantly clear we need to be having these conversations with our children. Young. It’s the only way we will move the needle forward. So in this book, Anjali is the only girl in her class (which is quite common) and she’s the best. The boys don't like it. And so the story begins...
Rashmi: Can’t wait to see what unfolds! Bravo Anjali! showcases Anjali's relationship with classical Indian music, particularly with a beloved percussion instrument - the tabla. Were there any experiences in your own life that inspired this exploration? Why the tabla?
Sheetal: I LOVE the tabla and so wish I could play it! But really, any excuse to bring music into the conversation and celebrate the tabla! Even though I don't play the tabla, it really bloomed from the idea that I wanted a way to talk about the themes of misogyny and friendship and delve into the everyday microaggressions that can happen. The tabla is a traditionally male dominated instrument so it was the perfect entry point.
Rashmi: In addition to writing, you are a very talented actor, producer, and advocate. How has your work in film and activism with organizations like Equality Now and others enriched your writing?
Sheetal: It's impossible to separate. I am a storyteller and all of my life's experiences and values are poured directly into my writing. I am always going to want to center the traditionally marginalized. I will always want to share and champion the stories that come directly from all my other work as I know it's imperative. And I will also push the narratives. I think there is nothing we can't talk about with our children. I know they want 'in' on these conversations. They crave them and need them. So I am always looking for ways to layer in something more while also keeping the books accessible and entertaining.
Rashmi: I love that. So what message do you hope readers come away with after reading Bravo Anjali!?
Sheetal: To 'never dim your light!!' But also, I wanted to give our boys and girls language and space to talk about these big feelings they may have.
Rashmi: I just have to ask... Is there another Anjali book in the works? What can we expect from Anjali as the series continues?
Sheetal: YES! I have already written the third book and it is slated to be out next fall. You will see Anjali's world continue to expand in many ways!
Rashmi: I’m sure there are lots of Anjali fans out there (including me) who are happy to hear that! Anything else you'd like to add?
Sheetal: Thank you for this community. I love this tribe and appreciate you all so much.
Rashmi: Thank you, Sheetal, for joining us, and thanks for all the work you do.
Bravo Anjali! by Sheetal Sheth, illustrated by Lucia Soto, and published by Mango and Marigold Press is available now. Always Anjali (illustrated by Jessica Blank) is Sheetal’s multi-award winning debut and the first book in the Anjali Series.
More about Sheetal Sheth: Despite being told she’d have to change her name to work, Sheetal persevered to become an award winning actress and producer, known for her provocative performances in a wide range of memorable roles on film and television. Sheetal puts a spotlight on under-represented groups, not only through her trailblazing work as an actor, but also by being an outspoken advocate. Sheetal served in President Clinton’s AmeriCorps, is on the advisory board of Equality Now, and is an ambassador for The Representation Project. She believes if you can dream it, you can be it - even if you don’t see it. Sheetal, her husband, and their two kids live in New York and Los Angeles.
KidLit in Color author Tonya Abari interviews Ashley Franklin about her new book Better Together, Cinderella released September 9, 2021.
Tonya: What do you hope children and adults will gain from reading Better Together, Cinderella?
Ashley: I hope that they gain a new appreciation for the power of a child’s imagination. Tameika not only imagines a magical evening for herself, but one that encompasses her family.
I also hope that kids with siblings realize that their personal, shining light doesn’t diminish just because the sizes of their families have changed.
Tonya: Just like in Not Quite Snow White, you seamlessly include a classic fairy tale into a modern, yet timeless narrative. Can you explain your process for selecting which parts of the classic fairy tales to feature (and how much you wanted to include) in your own manuscripts?
Ashley: Both fairy tales have oodles of retellings, so I wanted to focus on their most memorable components (in my opinion)—beauty & acceptance for Not Quite Snow White and family dynamics & acceptance for Better Together, Cinderella. I wanted those to be the driving forces behind each of my manuscripts while also exploring Tameika’s princess state of mind.
Tonya: So many children can relate to welcoming new siblings into the family (and Tameika has double duty on her hands!). How did your own experience as a parent and/or sibling inform the crafting of Tameika’s struggle to find her place as a big sibling?
Ashley: I am nine years older than my next sister. In my mind, I was clearly cemented as my mother’s only child, so I was not a fan at first. My bitterness grew when my mom dressed us alike. She’s my best friend now though.
My own boys are 2.5 years apart. For the entire time that they’ve occupied Earth at the same time, I’ve seen them fight hard yet love harder. I’ve helped them navigate their misunderstandings and stood aside as they have aired their grievances. Capturing the complexities of sibling relationships was foundational in how I shaped Tameika’s emotional journey.
Tonya: I just love how Tameika’s best friend and uncle help her navigate becoming a big sister. Can you expand on the theme and importance of community stepping in to help children understand their feelings around life’s changes?
Ashley: Honestly, I hate the idea that picture book characters are expected to solve their own problems. I wasn’t raised like that. There was always a relative, friend, or even a neighbor I could turn to.
I always think back to the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The guidance of a safe, protective, and enlightened community helps a child to grow to their full potential. Feelings are big—even for adults. The moments between Tameika and Uncle Derrick where he helps her figure out her feelings are some of my favorites. Why not show the beauty of that bond in a picture book?
Tonya: You are back for the second time working with Ebony Glenn’s lively and colorful illustrations. Tell us about the author/illustration process for this second book – working with Ebony and co-illustrator, Saba Joshagani.
Ashley: It was simple! I was able to ask for things to include (like the girl in the wheelchair and for Khadija’s hijab) and they were great about it. All in all, I really just had no problem putting this story in their more than capable hands.
Tonya: After the success of Not Quite Snow White, did you feel any pressure drafting Tameika’s next adventure in Better Together, Cinderella?
Ashley: Absolutely! I wanted to keep Tameika’s sweetness but also show her frustration with her new big sister role. It was hard to make sure that she didn’t come across as bratty. Instead, I needed her to come across as lost. In essence, she’s a star who feels lost without being center stage.
Tonya: We all know that publishing is very top secret, but can you give us the scoop – or at least a subtle hint – on what you’re working on next?
Ashley: Sigh. So many NDAs 😞. I can mention that I have at least one picture book scheduled for 2023, and that’s Xavier's Voice with Innovation Press. I’m also trying my hand at writing a middle grade novel. It’s a wonderfully terrifying experience to branch out from picture books.
Ashley Franklin is a writer, mother, and adjunct college professor. She received her M.A. from the University of Delaware and B.A. from Albright College, both in English Literature. Ashley is the author of Not Quite Snow White (2019), “Creative Fixes” from the anthology Once Upon An Eid (2020), “Situationally Broke” from the anthology What We Didn't Expect (2020), and Better Together, Cinderella (2021). She’s also had several pieces published on popular online platforms such as Romper, Complex, About Islam, Medium, and more.
Ashley grew up in Maryland, but she has also called Pennsylvania, Delaware and Louisiana home. She currently resides in Arkansas with her family.
Interview with Saadia Faruqi on Trauma, Islamophobia and 9/11
by Aya Khalil
Aya: Hello, Saadia! I am so happy I get to interview you for Kidlit in Color about your new upcoming middle grade book, Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero, which comes out on September 7 from Quill Tree Books/Harper Collins! Can you please tell our readers a brief summary of your book?
Saadia: Thank you for interviewing me! This book is about 9/11 and the experiences of the Muslim American community in the last twenty years. The main character, eleven-year-old Yusuf Azeem is looking forward to starting middle school and participating in a regional robotics competition. When school begins and bullies start coming out of the woodwork, he realizes that this year is going to be more difficult than he thought, because it’s the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A group of white supremacists are riling the townspeople up, harassing Yusuf’s community, and protesting the new mosque. Yusuf begins to read his uncle’s journal from 2001 to understand the September 11 attacks and how they changed life for Muslims like him before he was even born. As tension escalates, and his friends and family get more scared, Yusuf has to chose whether he will ignore the hostility or stand up and be a hero.
Aya: This is such an important topic to discuss in books. Especially from a Muslim perspective. I absolutely loved reading an arc of this book a couple of months ago and it took me back to 2001 when I was in high school during the 9/11 attacks. Can you tell us where you were on that awful day and what feelings crossed your mind?
Saadia: Everyone probably remembers where they were on September 11, 2001, what they were doing and feeling. It’s such a visceral, traumatic memory for most people, even those who lived far away from New York City because we were watching things unfold in real time on television and radio. I was in college that year, and I remember my husband calling me from his office to ask if I’d watched the news because he couldn’t figure out if it was a joke or not. I went to campus and everyone was so quiet and serious, not just on that day but for days afterwards, as if all the laughter had been snatched up from the halls. I don’t remember much about how I felt, just that quiet stillness, a wondering of what would happen next.
Aya: Many of us were silent out of shock, that’s for sure. I could really relate to Yusuf in this story because I grew up in two small towns: I went to elementary school in North Dakota and I went to middle school in Lima, Ohio. This was pre-9/11 but Islamophobia didn't start after 9/11, so I remember a lot of micro-aggressions and racism then. Why did you write this story and why is it important to tell? What about Muslims kids who are growing up small towns now and facing similar experiences; what do you want to say to them?
Saadia: Islamophobia has been prevalent in the U.S. since the first Muslims arrived on these shores. It’s human nature to fear and hate what we don’t understand, and media always twists how people are represented in ways that are very negative and hurtful. I wrote this story because I was tired of these media depictions, especially around the anniversary of 9/11 each year. I wanted to highlight all the ways Muslims have been demonized and misrepresented, bullied and hated, in the last twenty years. It’s personal to me because as a Muslim mother, raising Muslim kids, the prejudice is too close to home and just cannot be ignored. I want to tell Muslim kids that I see the bullying you endure, and the ways you feel unwelcome in your schools and neighborhoods just because of your faith. I want to tell them that your experiences are valid, and that you’re not alone.
Aya: Yes, so important to validate those feelings. I don't want to give too much away or for spoilers, but there's a central part in the story that made me emotional. It was when the Muslim families were working hard to build the mosque and they were faced with lots of hate and pushback from the community. It reminded me when my friends and I gave a presentation at a local place to "convince" people to build a mosque in our community. We were faced with so much hostility and the city turned our proposal down. I still think about it often. Why did you choose to write about this and is this based on any experiences you have faced?
Saadia: One of the central plot points of this book is obstructing the construction of a mosque that Yusuf’s Muslim American community is building. After many attempts at stopping construction through intimidation, a white supremacist group complains to the city government and holds a zoning meeting to achieve its aims. Although I don’t have personal experience in this, I learned while I was exploring 9/11 and its repercussions that this happens throughout the U.S. on a regular basis. In fact, the ACLU monitors anti-mosque activity including violence, vandalism and the use of city zoning laws to block construction. More examples are available here (https://www.aclu.org/other/mosques-and-community-centers).
Aya: Thanks for sharing that link. What do you hope readers will gain or understand after reading Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero? Both Muslims and people of other faith?
Saadia: My biggest hope is that readers will understand the long-term repercussions of 9/11 in our culture and society. When we discuss 9/11, we mostly talk about the attacks themselves, or the victims who lost their lives. We forget about the things that came after: the wars and the government policies, and the prejudice against all those who looked like “the enemy.” For my Muslim readers, I hope they see themselves in this book and take heart that someone is telling their story, acknowledging their pain. For non-Muslim readers, my hope is that they’ll walk a mile in my shoes and see what it’s like to be Muslim American in a post 9/11 world, not so that they can pity us but so that they can demand change from their communities and governments, and so that they can learn to be true allies the way the characters in the book do.
Aya: I know it will make readers think and reflect. How long did it take you to write this and what are some challenges, if any, you faced while writing it?
Saadia: I’m a pretty fast writer. I think it took me 4-5 months to write this book. My biggest challenge was that once I started writing, I realized I didn’t have all the information I needed to write the historical parts of this book accurately, so I had to pause and conduct interviews of several people to bridge those gaps. Another challenge was writing really emotional and difficult scenes in a way that wouldn’t traumatize young readers but feel authentic at the same time. With time and a lot of revisions, I think I was able to capture the essence of the story.
Aya: Thanks for letting me interview you! Fun questions time! Your favorite food?
Saadia: Biryani and pizza, but not together.
Aya: Your favorite color?
Saadia: All shades of blue.
Aya: Your favorite city?
Saadia: That’s a difficult question. It’s wherever I have loved ones.
Aya: What are you currently reading?
Saadia: I’m getting started on The Samosa Rebellion by Shanti Sekaran.
Order Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero here.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series Yasmin and other books for children, including middle grade novels A Place At The Table co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and A Thousand Questions (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children.
by Reem Faruqi
Read to the bottom to find out how you can win a copy of I Can Help!
I’m often asked why I wrote I Can Help and I wish my answer was different, that I didn’t have to say it was inspired from real life experiences.
Like my main character Zahra, I used to help a classmate who needed a little extra help.
Although, my character Zahra is an elementary school classroom, I was in middle school. I was in 8th grade and enjoyed helping my classmate. One day, two popular girls started talking about him behind his back. They said he looked weird and was such a baby. I didn’t want to listen, but it seemed like I was listening harder. Then all of a sudden, they looked directly at me and asked me, why I helped him.
I wanted to have a good response, but I didn’t. I remember the wistful look of pity they threw at me, the way they leaned closer to each other and exchanged glances like I was weird too, before they walked away.
I made a decision. I decided to stop helping him and being his friend. Instead, I became mean to him. I hated how my voice sounded when I wasn’t kind. I didn’t recognize it.
My teacher noticed that I wasn’t my usual self and moved me from the table we shared to far across the room. I wish she had had a conversation with me instead. The worst moment was when my classmate looked straight at me and said that I’d become mean. I remember how hard it felt to shrug it off and act like I didn’t care, when every fiber of me did care.
Like my character Zahra, I wish I’d apologized, but I never did, and when I did want to, it was too late. I was moving away to a different continent.
Sometimes life doesn’t have a neat happy ending. However, I remembered that experience vividly and tried to make up for it, practicing kindness whenever I could.
Years later, when thinking of a picture book idea, I remembered this experience, and how I wished it had a happier ending. I wrote I Can Help from an honest and raw place. I didn’t create the magical happy ending, but rather I showed how regret can be heavy, but that it can be fueled for change, and in this case, kindness.
I hope that readers will be inspired from this story to do better, that they will see Mikela Prevost’s dreamy illustrations and connect deeply to Zahra and believe that they too can make a difference in being kind.
More about I Can Help and the author:
Fully Booked podcast by Kirkus: I Can Help is featured here at the 36 minute mark as an Editor’s Pick, and I love how they dissected my book, saying that it forces the children to do the heavy lifting, and that it's unique.
Interview with Children’s Book Author Reem Faruqi – Eerdlings Blog, story behind I Can Help.
Interview with Reem Faruqi by Aya Khalil on Kidlit in Color
Order I Can Help here.
Want a copy of I Can Help? Comment below on your favorite ways to be kind to others! U.S. only.
Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning children’s book author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her toddler, camera, and buttery sunlight. You can find her at www.ReemFaruqi.com or on Instagram or Twitter.
Interview with author Summer Edward
by Lisa Stringfellow
KidLit in Color welcomes author Summer Edward to our blog to discuss her picture storybook, The Wonder of the World Leaf, a heartfelt story that also reflects the rich, vibrant culture of the Caribbean.
Would you please give our readers a brief summary of your picture storybook?
Eight years ago, when I was battling an illness, this young girl appeared in my mind. Her name was Wygenia and she kept hanging around, so I paid attention to her and it turned out that she was sad because someone she loved was ill. I felt that Wygenia needed something in order to help the person she loved, but I didn’t know what.
At the time, I took an extended trip back to Trinidad where I grew up, and my mother took me to this wonderful wellness center on the island where I saw a naturopathic doctor and master herbalist. My visits to the wellness center inspired me to start learning more about the island’s medicinal plants, and when I read about the medicinal uses of Wonder of the World leaves, I suddenly knew what Wygenia needed—a leaf. Not a fig leaf of shame, or a four-leaf clover of luck, but a wondrous leaf of possibility.
I started to write and as I followed Wygenia through the story, I discovered that she also needed the presence and help of people who cared for her. That’s my long-winded way of telling you how The Wonder of the World Leaf ended up being the story of a young Trinidadian girl who, with the loving support of her community, grows a Wonder of the World plant, and uses the leaves to help her beloved grandmother recover from illness.
Is your picture storybook based on any real experiences?
My own experiences using traditional healing practices showed me the importance of tending to the human being in the same fashion that a gardener tends to her plants. Any gardener will tell you that there are many variables involved in plant care. Likewise, at the wellness center I visited, they give weight to the idea that the social, cultural, emotional and moral roots of illness must be treated, along with the physical symptoms. It’s the responsibility of the community to address all of these variables so that the sick person can flourish again. I wrote what I learned about, and experienced with, traditional healing practices into The Wonder of the World Leaf, which is on a surface level, a story about plants and gardening.
In her determination to help her Grannie, Wygenia turns to the traditional healing practices of Trinidadian people, and she, her friends and family tend to the things that truly matter. In doing so, lots of good things sprout in their collective lives.
In the book, Wygenia is part of a vibrant island community. Can you share more about the relationships she has?
Wygenia, like many Caribbean children, has a strong bond with her grandparents. One of her grandfathers has recently died at the beginning of the story, and although it’s left unsaid, one can imagine that his death is partly what fuels Wygenia’s resolve to help her grandmother heal. Wygenia’s classmate, Sanjay, who also happens to be her next-door neighbor, and Sanjay’s aja (‘aja’ is a Trinidadian Hindustani word that means ‘grandfather’) are also significant people in Wygenia’s life. They share in Wygenia’s concern for her grandmother and play important roles in the old woman’s convalescence. There are other community members in the story whose succor and goodwill provide a buffer for Wygenia and her family during their time of difficulty.
Wygenia’s faith is also a kind of relationship. She’s in a relationship of trust with something bigger than herself. Whatever that ‘something’ is, it keeps her hoping and believing that her grandmother can get better.
Your book includes many Trinidadian words and phrases. Talk to us about the importance of language and dialect in your story.
Writing in a blend of Trinidadian English and British English is natural for me; I don’t really see it as a choice. I grew up speaking Trinidadian English at home and with my friends, but I was educated largely in British English. I’ve taken ownership of both varieties of English and see them both as equally belonging to me. I still speak both, which is something that’s rooted in the Trinbagonian experience. The language in The Wonder of the World Leaf is a reflection of that, which is what makes the story authentic.
There are some things that can’t be sufficiently expressed in British English, and so for the characters in the story, Trinidadian English is the language of emotions, humor, intimacy, national identity, and cultural solidarity.
By the way, because I moved to the U.S. as a teen, I also speak American English, so constantly negotiating three languages is my jam.
You're also an editor. How has that influenced your work?
Editing children’s books and short stories for children is something I’ve been doing since 2011. I currently work as a children’s fiction editor at Heinemann. A literary agent once advised that I should either give up writing or editing because I couldn’t do both simultaneously. I’ve learned to distrust that idea.
Before I started editing, I read voraciously but more narrowly. As an editor, one is forced to read very broadly, to engage deeply and seriously with all kinds of stories that lie beyond one’s usual tastes and predilections. Also, when you’re an editor, reading stories is your job; there are no lulls in your reading life; an on-again, off-again relationship with literature isn’t an option. There’s also no respite from the difficult work of wrangling with words, or to be frank, from wrangling with one’s ego. As an editor, one’s ego is constantly being tamped down and held in check by the nature of the job. Also, an editor doesn’t have the writer’s luxury of procrastination and creative resistance. All of this has made me a better writer. The best way to explain it is that working as an editor is like taking a never-ending intensive in writerly discipline.
What do you hope readers learn or take away from The Wonder of the World Leaf?
The reason I write anything is so that readers feel heard and seen.
In the Western world, there’s social stigma derived from both popular and medical views of illness. Illness is something to be feared, something to be dealt with privately and individualistically, something fraught with shame, something that people feel uncomfortable talking about. That’s why in Western societies, so many ill people tell stories of friends and even family abandoning them at precisely the time when they need community the most. I hope that the way Wygenia deals with her grandmother’s illness helps readers realize that there is another, much better way.
When it comes to living a healthy life, often the old ways are the best ways. Gathering with friends and family, telling stories, laughing together, sharing a meal, simply listening to another human being, sitting in silence, planting a garden, connecting with nature…all of that simple stuff really works. They’re the remedy for all the loneliness, pain and sadness out there. Simple human interactions, in which you merely give another person the gift of your presence, are what keep people healthy, and what sick people in particular are desperately in need of. A seven-year-old who reads the book already knows this, but capturing it in a story is my way of making sure they never forget.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sayada Ramdial created the illustrations for The Wonder of the World Leaf and she did a wonderful job. Sayada is a fellow Trinidadian-American, and I think our collaboration has enabled the telling of a truly Trinidadian story that’s also universal, one that I hope readers everywhere enjoy reading.
Summer Edward is a Ginkgo Prize longlisted author who writes for all ages. Her children's book debut, The Wonder of the World Leaf, was recently published by HarperCollins UK. She has six more children's books forthcoming, to be published by Heinemann (USA) in summer 2021 and spring 2022. She created Anansesem, an online magazine covering Caribbean literature for young readers, which was published for a decade. When she is not writing, she works as a children's fiction editor at Heinemann and reviews children's and young adult books for The Horn Book Magazine. Born in the Caribbean island of Trinidad, she grew up in Trinidad and Philadelphia, and currently divides her time between the U.S. and Trinidad. Learn more at her website: www.summeredward.com
Interview with author Alexandra Alessandri
by Aya Khalil
Isabel and her Colores Go To School author, Alexandra Alessandri shares the importance of bilingual picture books and how her experiences are weaved into her writing.
Aya: Hi Alexandra! I am so excited to interview you today for our blog. Your second picture book, Isabel and her Colores Go to School, comes out on July 15th. Would you please tell our readers a brief summary of your picture book?
Alexandra: Thank you so much for having me on the blog, Aya! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is about Isabel, who’s nervous about starting school and making friends because she doesn’t speak English. Isabel is artistic and processes emotions and language through color, both of which help her navigate—and ultimately bridge—the language divide.
Aya: I love that the book is bilingual and when I read the advanced reader copy, I was filled with so many emotions. I have a background in teaching English as a second language, so I've taught many English Language Learners. You're an educator yourself. Is this picture book based on any real experiences?
Alexandra: This made my day—thank you! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is based on my own experience of starting kindergarten in New York City while not knowing English. My story was slightly different—I literally got lost in school because I didn’t understand the teacher—but I tried to bring those emotions to Isabel’s story. And, as an educator at a college with a large number of students who are English Language Learners, I know this is a story that is true for many immigrants and children of immigrants.
Aya: I love that it's written in both English and Spanish. How was the process like? Did you write the manuscript in both languages or did you need a translator? How was it like going on submission with a bilingual book?
Alexandra: I’m incredibly excited that this will be a bilingual book. I wrote and submitted Isabel and Her Colores in English with Spanish sprinkled in, as this code-switching is a natural part of my own way of speaking. My wonderful editor suggested it be published as a bilingual text, and it was everything I didn’t realize I wanted. I had the opportunity to translate the story then, and I’m grateful to have had my family and fellow Spanish-speaking authors who helped me where I stumbled.
Aya: Wow I love that your editor made that suggestion! I’ve noticed there are some recurring themes in your picture books that I definitely relate to. Being introverted, finding your voice and being multicultural. Why do you think these themes are important nowadays?
Alexandra: As a shy introvert who is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, these themes are personal to me, and I think (hope!) they speak to many others. Often, kids who are shy and introverted aren’t receiving the message that their voices and ideas matter, too, and I think it’s important for them to know their voices matter, too.
As for the theme of being multicultural, one of the reasons it’s important for me personally to write about Colombian American characters is because I grew up with the microaggressions that came with being Colombian in the 80s and 90s—the jokes, innuendoes, and stereotypes—and I hated it. It’s perhaps why I’m determined to share other stories of the Colombian and Colombian American experience. Nowadays, it’s more important than ever that we push back against the “single story” and show the beautiful tapestry of the human experience.
Aya: I absolutely agree! What are some challenges you have faced in the publishing world, or just in general, as a Colombian American?
Alexandra: I think I’ve been lucky in terms of how my characters and stories have been received in the publishing world, though that might be in part because I embraced writing from my cultural identity around the time that the push for diverse stories grew. However, when I first started writing (with a YA fantasy!) I didn’t see a place for my reality in that genre. Even now, the number of Colombian/Colombian American stories are limited, especially in the fantasy genre. I’m hoping to see that change.
Aya: It’s definitely because you’re a great writer! Why do you write children's books?
Alexandra: Because I want to help raise readers. Books were always a refuge for me as a kid, and I want to offer children stories a place of solace in a world that is often hard.
Aya: What would you tell writers of color who are nervous to put their words out there for the world to see and get their work published?
Alexandra: It can be scary because it’s so easy to think our stories don’t matter, that no one’s going to want to read about our realities. But they do! Our stories and experiences are important, they’re enough, and they can be that lifeline for a child who might not see themselves in the literature they read. (On the flip side, we don’t only have to write about our lived realities. We should not be boxed in!)
Aya: Yes, absolutely! Is there anything else you're working on that you're allowed to tell our readers?
Alexandra: I have some exciting things happening, but nothing I can say right now. I’m hoping to be able to share soon, though!
Aya: Fair enough - publishing is so secretive ha! Where can people find you on social media?
Alexandra: I’m infrequently on Twitter and Instagram, but I love connecting with readers, teachers, and authors!
Aya: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I can’t wait until I get my physical copy of this beautiful book that is much needed in the world!
Alexandra Alessandri is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman) and Isabel and Her Colores go to School (Sleeping Bear Press). The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also an Associate Professor of English at Broward College and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.
People often ask me about my writing process for a picture book (PB), including this question, which always trips me up: How do you go from an idea to a complete draft of a PB? I know the person asking is often looking for a strategy, but I never know how to simply describe my strategy in a clear way except to call it “gathering.” This article is my attempt to lay it out. Maybe, it will be useful to some writers out there. At the very least, I hope it will be entertaining.
Strategies That Don’t Work for Me: Pantsing or Outlining
Lots of PB creators simply dive in and draft. Theoretically, pantsing a PB of less than 1000 words is easy compared to a 50,000+ novel. Yet and still, it has a lot of the same pitfalls for writers like me: it leads to unfocused, meandering writing. For me, it means never getting to the end of the story and probably getting bored.
Other authors outline. Hundreds of great PB templates exist on the internet. However, I’ve always found outlining a picture book painstaking. If I try to structure a new story idea, I experience a lot of creative blocks and can’t figure out how to move forward. I need some messiness to generate ideas.
My Strategy: Gathering
Because the two methods above don’t work for me, I gather. Another way to explain my process is intensive brainstorming–it’s days of brainstorming–and gathering or collecting my notes from that brainstorming.
To show what I mean by this, I found old notebooks where I gathered brainstorms for Your Name is a Song and took pictures.
Yeah... I wrote pieces for Your Name is a Song in four notebooks... on random pages, interspersed with diary entries, random lists, and brainstorms for other books!
Did I mention I struggle with organization?
Through looking back at these old scribblings, I was able to figure out just what I am doing during my process, and I’m proud to say I did organize that process here!
1. A Very Long Free Write (maybe multiple)
I started out knowing that I wanted to write a book called, Your Name is a Song, but had no idea what the story was about. That title came to me as I was reflecting on a child’s beautiful name, and I decided to write a story that could fit that title.
These are some pages from an almost five-page free write I did to get ideas. Free writing means quickly writing all of your ideas during a set time period without stopping to edit those thoughts. I find writing without self-censoring a therapeutic way to start a book. It took me at least two free writing periods to have a clear direction for Your Name is a Song.
2. Writing Down Words, Phrases, and Sentences I Want in the Book
Once I pinned down that Your Name is a Song would feature many names from multiple cultures, I was constantly making random name lists.
In addition to important words, or in this case names, I will write sentences, phrases, and major ideas I want to put in any book. I don’t necessarily know how or where these will fit in the narrative but I jot them down. Here, I was focusing on language around made-up names.
3. Notes of Encouragement
Finding old notes to myself made this dig into old notebooks pretty special. I, like many authors, often doubt myself while writing a book. I write myself encouraging notes when I’m having those moments. I think they’re an important part of the process.
I hesitated to share the note I found in the middle of my brainstorming. It makes me blush. The language is so lofty, and it talks about my work as genius . However, when I’m having a moment when I don’t feel good enough to write something, I need a note to lean into grandiosity. (And authors, if the note is helpful to you in your own writing, please use it!)
There are no limits to genius. Because it [genius] isn’t yours. But you can hold on to and grasp as many pieces of this infinite mass [of genius] if you want it enough. If you crave it enough. You can create this work of art because it is there to be created.
4. Asking Myself Questions
My questions are interspersed throughout my brainstorming pieces. They are in my freewrites. They are in places where I wrote about scenes. An important question to ask yourself again and again throughout this pre-writing process is “why?”
Here I ask myself: Should I give [my MC] a name? I answer: Shaherazadrina. Of course, I later changed that!
5. Write Messy Versions of Two Key Scenes (typically from the beginning and the end)
I write quick and short versions of scenes. From this photo, you can see just how short sometimes. The important thing at this stage is not that I’ve written a long detailed complete scene but that I have a clear idea in my head of the complete scene.
Here I am teasing out the beginning scene of the book when the girl stomps and say “I never want to go back there again!”
Time to Draft!
After gathering ideas, words, and scenes, I have a good sense of my picture book. I know where it’s going and what it needs to do. I know and love my characters. And I am DYING to finally write the thing. When I have to write the story, I know my idea gathering is done.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based educator and children’s book author. Her works, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She writes picture books and middle grade fiction. Her books include Mommy’s Khimar, Once Upon an Eid (contributor), Your Name is a Song, and Abdul’s Story. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years.
What inspired you to write Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
The idea first came to me one warm spring evening. As I strolled through the neighborhood with my family, I kept hearing a squishy popping sound. I wondered what it was and tried to find out. No one else seemed to hear it. After many more walks, and research, I learned that I’d been hearing worms!
What if I wrote a story about that? After watching my students on the playground and other kids in the neighborhood, I wanted to capture their imaginative play, and the way they invent whole worlds with very little. Along with memories of my own childhood, playing outside with my siblings, Jayden’s character emerged—though he wasn’t yet named Jayden. The worms didn’t survive the many drafts, but the idea of a kid who noticed those kinds of details in nature, did.
Jayden lives in an urban setting which makes it difficult for him to connect with nature, but you provide ways to make that happen for children like planting runner beans in a milk jug. Where did these great ideas come from?
On my walks, I notice all kinds of planters, bird feeders, and bird houses. The hand made ones usually catch my attention first. I love seeing how others recycle materials. There are lots of great ideas online as well. It’s amazing how many different ways people can use milk jugs!
Growing up, we decorated old cans and bottles and boxes all the time. We used what we had. It’s essential to recycle, but I think it’s important to show children the joy and satisfaction in using your hands to make things.
Jayden forms a friendship with an elder neighbor who also enjoys being out in nature. Tell us why that relationship is important in the story?
Their relationship is special because it’s formed by shared interests. Jayden and Mr. Curtis become allies, each helping the other enjoy the outdoors even more. Their relationship is mutually beneficial. At times, Jayden helps Mr. Curtis. Other times, Mr. Curtis helps Jayden. Jayden is interested in hearing Mr. Curtis’s memories and Mr. Curtis enjoys creating new stories with Jayden. Their intergenerational relationship highlights the respect for elders in African American culture.
The illustrations by Ken Daley are vibrant and colorful. Tell us about your illustrations and working with Ken.
Though I had expressed a few art preferences before production began, typically, authors are not in direct communication with the illustrator. The creative director thought Ken’s style would suit the story best and relayed info and questions through the editor to me and vise versa.
I was thrilled when I first saw Ken’s sketches. They were in black and white, and so energetic and expressive. He conveyed so much so swiftly. But that was just the beginning. I was blown away when Ken added color. His palette is so bright and expansive that Jayden and Mr. Curtis nearly jump off the page!
I loved Ken’s vision of Jayden, Mr. Curtis, Mama, and the neighbors. They were all clearly depicted as individuals that you might actually meet down the street in your neighborhood. Yet his style is also playful. I loved his animals too: the bird at the window, the curious rabbit.
That’s one of the reasons why I love picture books. You get to work with a wonderfully creative team of people, each adding something to produce a beautiful book that young readers can hold in their hands. Ken’s illustrations truly bring Jayden to life.
What do you hope children learn or take away from Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
I hope children see themselves as heroes of their own stories, no matter how fantastical the vision or how humble the actual setting. I hope children gain an appreciation for elders in their life and the role they can have in building relationships. I hope Jayden sparks more creative play and exploration of nature nearby. I hope children are inspired to cultivate community with their human AND nature neighbors.
What are you working on next?
Jayden may have another adventure or two in the works! I’m also working on another picture book biography, this time in collaboration with a poet. And, I’m always researching and writing other topics that bounce into my brain!
Mélina Mangal has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden. Mélina also works as a school library media teacher in Minnesota and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Mélina Mangal please visit her social media links below!