Muslims throughout the world begin Ramadan this week. The formal definition of Ramadan is that it is the 9th and holiest month of the Islamic calendar and is marked by daytime fasting, Quranic recitation, and increased prayer and charity. I had the pleasure of asking Muslim children’s book and YA authors to weigh in about Ramadan and am excited to share their responses with you all.
Ramadan is eating together.
"Ramadan is sleepy-eyes suhoor and iftar smiles.” –Susannah Aziz
"Ramadan is faces full of peace, hearts full of smiles, and bellies full of rice… I swear we eat our weight in biryani.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is long nights and sleepy days. Ramadan is tangy chutneys and crispy samosas.” –Marzieh Abbas
"Ramadan is my mother’s ginger rice pudding.” –Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
"Ramadan is when we all gather together and eat dinner at the same time...for once!” –Reem Faruqi
"Ramadan is spending the night at the masjid. Communal suhoors of halal bacon, cheese grits, and pancakes... or at least it used to be...you know before Covid.” –Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins
Ramadan is a new beginning.
"Ramadan is starting over, family traditions and excitement.” –Aya Khalil
"Ramadan is a blissful renewal, a chance to self-observe, reflect, and ground. The perfect excuse to intentionally initiate the best in you, and to appreciate what is occasionally taken for granted.” –Hatem Aly
"Ramadan is a chance to feel whole again.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is also a lot about new beginnings and resolutions. I find so much barakah in time and effort- it's amazing how projects started in Ramadan have this blessing. Alhamdulilah...” –Marzieh Abbas
Ramadan is giving and having and being thankful.
"Ramadan is giving; giving thanks, giving prayers, giving food, giving charity, giving time. Ramadan is having; having strength, having endurance, having remembrance, having blessings, having faith.” –Razeena Omar Gutta
"Ramadan is days spent in gratitude for things we have and things we don’t.” –Sana Rafi
Ramadan is heart and soul, joy and tears, journeying and stillness.
"Ramadan is love in action.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is heartfelt sacrifice, a journey towards righteousness and joy.” –Saadia Faruqi
"It’s also a time for learning- soaring, journeying to Divinity. I cant quite explain it in words. But it is truly so much more than the decor and the iftaar. Ramadan, and especially the last few nights... are an aura, a magic, 'peace, until the rising of the dawn.'" –Marzieh Abbas
"Ramadan is closeness - to others, to the Lord, and to your soul.” – Omar Abed
"Ramadan is an opportunity to dig deeper, make big bold duas and connect with essence of Islam.” –Rahma Rodaah
"Ramadan is the tears cried in night prayer.” –Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
"Ramadan for me is my “Ghar-e-Hira” time. I find myself gravitating toward isolation and introspection (although the pandemic has been one long period of isolation) I choose to focus on the internal and try to cleanse myself spiritually. Throughout the year, we are so caught up in the world and all it’s preoccupations. This is my month to focus on my relationship with my Creator. It’s quiet, peaceful and replenishing for my soul.” –Shirin Shamsi
“Ramadan is the stillness of our souls, weeping in the night, asking for guidance and forgiveness.” –Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins
"Ramadan is the stillness before fajr after a simple meal fills us with gratitude.” –S. K. Ali
Rhonda Roumani, a journalist, MG writer, and 2019 Pitch Wars winner, captures so much in this poetic response:
Ramadan is friends and family; large, happy iftars and sleepy suhoors
Ramadan is empty tummies and full hearts
Ramadan is dates and nectars and yummy foods
Ramadan is no sleep
Ramadan is happy kids and tired parents
Ramadan is a time to realign, reset and renew
Ramadan is about turning inward and remembering we are all one in our hunger,
in our needs, in our rights
Ramadan is about community and the individual soul
Ramadan is hard; and every year, we do it again and are in awe that we did it again.
I am thankful that we’ve been asked to do it only once a year…
For the reminder of both our weaknesses and our strengths as humans
For the reminder that Allah (swt) has bestowed so much upon us
And that we must continue to do more for those who have less.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based educator and an award winning 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.
Kirstie: I was looking through old emails and saw that we started our group at the end of December last year. Wow. I can't believe that much time has passed. Initially we were called Diverse Debuts and we were more focused on marketing and promotion.
Would you like to share why you wanted to start this group?
Aya: I really wanted to connect with authors who had similar experiences in the publishing world and understand how it's extra difficult to break into the publishing world as a BIPOC. We had similar feelings about issues we faced and agreed that having like-minded individuals share their experiences and support each other would be helpful!
Kirstie: We have such talented authors in our group. I give you credit for that because you made many of those connections and you're on Twitter promoting our group every day.
What do you think the members bring to our group that makes it unique?
Aya: I love our group! You do an incredible job on Instagram and create the best content and graphics! The members are awesome and so supportive. I remember feeling comfortable sharing and asking how much advances they made because that helps us grow and ask for more advances in the future! The authors are beyond talented and many of them have critiqued my manuscripts and I am truly grateful for their support! We are like one big family!
Kirstie: I remember the book advance discussion. That was such an eye-opener and really helps those of us that are new to this moving forward. It wasn't long after our discussion that this topic was trending on Twitter and we saw the poorly paid advances BIPOC authors received, even those who had sold quite well and had big followers.
What are your goals for our group moving into 2021 and beyond?
Aya: Continue supporting each other. I love that we can ask for advice and people are genuine and truly we want each other to succeed. I hope we can do more Instagram Lives together and Instagram Take-overs because that's always fun!
Kirstie: Yes, that is fun. My biggest goal for the group is we do a retreat or conference once it's safe. I think connecting in person is our next step.
What are some things you have learned while in KidLit In Color?
Kirstie: I learned firsthand how supportive the writing community is. I can call or email any of our members and ask for help and they make themselves available to me. My book was last to debut in November 2020, and I remember reading that authors who debut last are oftentimes cheated out of support from their fellow members because the year is nearly over and people are over it, but that wasn’t the case with our group. I felt very supported by our members. Everyone went above and beyond to promote me and my book.
What are some of your favorite moments in 2020 from our group?
Kirstie: I have several favorite moments. I enjoyed attending member virtual events and our NYE Zoom party was big fun!
One favorite or special moment that really stands out is also a painful moment. The protests were happening in response to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality, and our group was a safe space where we could openly share our pain. I remember we were scheduled to do a panel and collectively our spirits were so heavy that we couldn’t do it. I remember you sending a text just checking in on me and that meant the world to me in case you didn’t know.
KidLit in Color is a group of traditionally published BIPOC creatives. We nurture one another, amplify diverse voices, and advocate for equitable representation in the industry.
Creativity helps to support our mental health and well-being by allowing for a connection to self-expression. Modern research suggests mindfulness-based meditation practices can help us contact creative flow by:
Age-old yoga and mindfulness philosophies have always reminded us that when we intentionally pay attention to present moment experience with kind curiosity and care, we create the space to connect with our innate strengths, including creativity. When we can bring a caring, mindful presence to whatever it is we are doing, we naturally create the conditions necessary for creative intelligence to flow through us.
Looking for a quick creative boost in the middle of your day? Consider trying this mindfulness meditation practice known as the Sky of Awareness. Invite a fresh perspective, and explore what arises. Enjoy:
by Rashmi Bismark, MD, MPH, Mindfulness educator and author of Finding Om
The events of this past year have certainly amplified the importance of self care and community care for all. As a kids yoga teacher, one of your priorities has been family wellness. What does that look like for you at home, and where does yoga fit into it?
Family wellness has definitely been the core inspiration behind all that I do. It's a work in progress and often changes. I talk to my family about eating a balanced diet, hydration and exercise to maintain a healthy body, but we also talk about maintaining the spirit within our body. We talk about how breathing can change how you feel, and we practice different ways to do it. The conversation about wellness is continuous in our home. This helps because kids will call you out on just about anything! So when I slip into a funk and am not being mindful of what I am providing for nourishment, or if we haven't moved our bodies in an intentional way they say, "Hey Mom..." One thing that stays pretty consistent is our breath.
What inspires your relationship with yoga?
My relationship with yoga is inspired by the memory of how I felt before beginning a practice with meditation and the difference in how I felt once it became a lifestyle. I was at a breaking point, and not only did I benefit from my practice but my whole family did. My relationship with my husband improved. My interaction with my kids improved, and my perception of things completely changed. When I reflect on the trauma that has affected generations of Black people and the lack of access to heal, I am inspired to share my passion for yoga.
Part of your mission is expanding the face of wellness for Black kids and families. Tell us more about your vision and the @blackkidsdoyoga Instagram movement.
My vision of expanding the face of wellness for kids wellness started with our social media pages, helping others to acknowledge that representation is a problem and supporting the cause to change the media. It extends to providing resources and a community through our books and Black Kids Do Yoga Club. My goal is to flood various platforms with positive images of black children learning, understanding and being empowered by mental and physical wellness. I want those children to have available access to resources that support their practice. Finding books, videos and communities that mirror and embrace parts of your identity should not be a research project.
Your work has also led you to self-publish a picture book called Our Family’s Doing Yoga and start a YouTube channel to explore yoga as a family. What were some of your inspirations for this book and your YouTube channel? How do you hope kids (and their adults) will be impacted?
As a child I was blessed to have images of people who positively resembled my reflection presented to me in my home. Outside of my home it took more work to find. Books that showed positive images of the Black community weren't readily available. Images on television often portrayed us negatively, and even within our own community we faced internalized racism. When I envisioned motherhood one of my top priorities was to be a mother whose children felt seen and heard. When my children took interest in my yoga practice, I wanted them to know that this practice was for them. I wanted them to visibly see it in the books and videos we used as support but the options were slim. Writing Our Family's Doing Yoga was a way to share our story and empower my children to embrace their practice as theirs. As we began to influence others, I was often asked about YouTube videos that showed children of color. Once again our children were underrepresented in the industry on the platform, so we began creating videos to share. I am a mother and an educator. It is woven in my make up to nurture and nourish. That's what I hope my work is doing.
This is such a fun story. What inspired you to write Luna’s Yum-Yum Dim Sum?
This book was a little bit of a departure from how my books usually get written. Generally, I create a story that I want to write then try to shop it around to publishers to see if anyone is interested in acquiring it. However, on Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum, it was actually my editor at Charlesbridge Publishing, Alyssa Mito-Pusey, who contacted me and asked if I was interested in submitting a story. I was intrigued by their goal of focusing on diversity and building math concepts into fun stories in non-didactic ways. Of course I said, ‘yes’.
I was a little nervous going in because math was never my strong suit growing up, but how I wished I had fun math stories to read. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so intimidated by math as a child. I was all on board for writing a book that children would love to read and that can engage them in the math concept without it being just another math book!
How long did it take you to write this book?
Alyssa first asked me to submit a story in Feb. 2018. I think I wrote and sent Alyssa my first draft in July 2018. However, although she liked the setting and the writing, she said they weren’t looking for a straight counting and shape book. She wanted the characters to actually solve a math problem in the story.
So, it was back to the drawing board for me. I consulted with Marlene Kliman, the math expert at TERC about various math concepts and this very informative discussion led me to explore the idea of Luna and her brothers having to split 5 pork buns among the 3 of them, which would introduce early fractions to the picture book audience, and the question of what does sharing fairly mean (obviously, it meant different things to Luna and her brothers), and is sharing fairly the same as sharing equitably? I re-wrote the entire story in a month (while on vacation on the East Coast for part of that time) and re-submitted it to Alyssa in August 2018.
She and Marlene loved the story, and she sent it up to acquisitions in September. I was offered a publishing contract for Luna in November 2018.
The siblings really brainstorm to figure out how the dim sum would be split. Is math your favorite subject?
No! I hated math in school. I felt very intimidated by it because I never felt I was good at math. But math is all around us! I remember taking my children on walks when they were little and counting the petals on a flower, or clouds in the sky. Whenever we ordered pizza, we counted the pizza slices (there are 8 slices of pizza, but 5 of us so how many do each one of us get?), and invariably, it always came down to who gets the last piece? Math can be incorporated in so much of our daily lives. When you bake cookies with your kids, they can help measure ingredients and here is an opportunity to discuss simple math concepts (how many half cups make one cup? How many quarter cups in a cup? etc.)
Math for me growing up in Southeast Asia was by rote learning - math problems, worksheets, formulas, memorization. It was very boring! And math books were dry and uninteresting to me too. The Storytelling Math books turn that around - the story comes first, and the math learning is a byproduct. But if kids enjoy the story, they’ll get the math concept as well. At the back of each book in the series, there is backmatter on how readers can further explore the math in the book through simple activities.
You incorporated the Chinese horoscope and Chinese food in your story. How important is it for you to share your culture with children?
In all my books, except my first one, sharing the culture my story is based upon is extremely important. Most of the time, that’s my own Chinese culture. I believe kids do need to see themselves in books, and learn and engage in stories that connect them to their culture. Not every child may be familiar with everything about their own culture. A Chinese child born and raised in the US may not necessarily experience the same cultural traditions and rituals as a child born in China or Taiwan does, so they may actually learn something new about their own culture. It’s also important for them to learn about other cultures. This creates great opportunities for meaningful discussions in the classroom and at home - what’s similar about these traditions and rituals? What’s different? It’s a great way to celebrate diversity.
In my first book, Otto’s Rainy Day, I told a story about a boy who wanted to go outside and play in the rain, but I didn’t have any specific ethnicity in mind. The illustrator drew him as a boy with blonde curls. They’re really cute illustrations, but after that book, I wanted to personally connect more with my own heritage, and subsequently, I wanted to connect kids with my culture and show them the many wonderful rituals, traditions, and celebrations I enjoyed as a child.
What do you hope children learn or take away from Luna’s Yum-Yum Dim Sum?
That math doesn’t have to be boring. And math can be found in so many daily tasks and rituals that they may not even know about. They’re doing math every day (and hopefully having fun with it!) Who doesn’t like baking (and eating)chocolate chip cookies?
Natasha Yim is a children’s author, and freelance writer. She has published seven picture books including Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014); The Rock Maiden (Wisdom Tales Press, 2017), and Mulan’s Lunar New Year (Disney Press, 2018). Her most recent picture book, Luna’s Yum Yum Dim Sum (Charlesbridge Publishing) was just released on Dec. 22, 2020. She has written for the children’s magazines, “Highlights for Children”, “Faces”, “Appleseeds”, and “Muse”, and is a regular contributor to Mendocino Arts Magazine. Natasha is currently working on two picture books and two middle grade novels. She has just signed on with Disney Press to create a picture book based on the as-yet-unreleased Pixar film, “Turning Red.” Publication date is Spring 2022.
If you’d like to learn more about Natasha Yim please visit her social media links below:
Mark your calendars for World Read Aloud Day 2021, also know at WRAD! It will take place on Wednesday, February 3, 2021.
LitWorld started the event in 2010 to celebrate the power of reading aloud and to advance literacy efforts around the world. In support of this work, many authors and illustrators offer free 20-minute virtual read alouds to teachers and classrooms. This year, several members of KidLit in Color are available to read with you!
Most WRAD virtual visits will go something like this:
1-2 minutes: Author gives a quick introduction & talks a little about their books.
3-5 minutes: Author reads aloud a short picture book, or a short excerpt
5-10 minutes: Author answers a few questions from students about reading/writing
1-2 minutes: Author book-talks a couple books they love (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for the kids
Before you sign up, you'll need to be able to provide:
Please check your scheduled time carefully. All times are listed in Eastern Standard Time.
To sign up, go to our form on SignUp Genius and choose an available slot.
#OwnVoices, #OwnVisions: Writing and Illustrating an Arab American Character
When I began writing FARAH ROCKS FIFTH GRADE, my debut chapter book series, I was excited that Capstone books had taken a chance on the idea. It was thrilling to know that I was writing the first chapter book series to feature a Palestinian American character -- Farah Hajjar, who is modeled on my own childhood and some of the experiences I had growing up.
Growing Arab American was difficult because there are so many negative stereotypes in the media about our community - and very few books and films with authentic representations to counter them. So while writing FARAH ROCKS was fun, it was also worrisome: I felt the pressure to present a character who felt real and who would be embraced by Arab and non-Arab kids alike.
Part of my worry was about how Farah would be illustrated. I still have memories of seeing stereotypical representations of Arabs in movies like Aladdin. Nothing was more vital than making sure Farah was portrayed in a realistic, positive way.
Enter Ruaida Mannaa, a talented artist and my wonderful illustrator! When I first saw the initial sketches of Farah-- a character who had, until then, existed only in my mind -- I knew Ruaida understood what mattered to me about capturing Farah’s essence.
Ruaida is of Lebanese origin, which makes FARAH ROCKS a book series written by AND illustrated by Arab women. Recently, I interviewed Ruaida about how she developed the look of Farah!
Susan: You have an interesting background. Where did you grow up? Tell me about your cultural background.
Ruaida: I was born in Colombia, and my background is Lebanese. Both my parents are first generation born in Latin America (mom in Brazil and dad in Colombia). So I definitely grew up in a multicultural environment! Listening to Arab and Brazilian music, eating delicious foods, attending the loudest parties and hearing different languages.
Susan: How long have you been an artist? When did you first know you wanted to make this a career?
Ruaida: I’ve always been creative and passionate about art. This passion became my career very organically. I studied graphic design, worked as a designer and teacher for a few years and then got my masters in illustration from SCAD. I love that my job allows me to always learn something new, each project takes me on a new path and pushes me to think outside of the box.
Susan: What did you think about when you were hired to illustrate a book about an Arab American girl?
Ruaida: This was my first project with my current agent, and I was so excited when I learned about it and even happier once I got the gig. I instantly connected to Farah and her family and really loved the Arab words thrown here and there in the dialogues! Growing up I didn’t have any characters I could relate to in terms of cultural background, so being part of this project is a tremendous honor.
Susan: How did you go about sketching the character and the designs (such as the tatreez, etc)? Do you work in a specific program or by hand? Did you do any research?
Ruaida: Farah went through a few different stages to get her to look the right age, get the right expression and bring her personality to life. I used my niece as reference for the shape of her face, eyes and eyebrows, so she would look more like a real Arab girl. I always try to include some elements of Palestinian art in her clothing and in the decorative elements of the pages. I did a lot of research on Palestinian embroidery and ceramics, each book has a pattern that I create using traditional symbols from images that I collect. Everything is created digitally using Photoshop.
Susan: Who are some of your influences? What types of things inspire you?
Ruaida: There are so many! I love the work of Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt, especially their approach to design and the use of color and patterns. But I also follow a lot of contemporary illustrators like Carson Ellis, Julia Sarda, Leo Espinosa and the list goes on. I love seeing different styles and ways in which artists interpret reality. But most of my inspiration comes from researching different cultures, traveling and reading. Creativity is fed by curiosity, so I'm always trying to learn new things and visit new places, paying lots of attention to folk art and traditions.
Ruaida Mannaa is a Colombian/Lebanese Illustrator and Designer. Her background includes several design projects as well as experience as a Digital Design professor. Ruaida believes that creativity comes from curiosity so she is constantly exploring and visually interpreting the world around her. Ruaida grew up in a multicultural family, surrounded by different languages, loud parties and delicious food! So culture and cultural exchange are definitely her greatest inspiration.
Ruaida graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a Master of Fine Arts in Illustration. She is currently based in Barranquilla, Colombia, where she works with clients all over the world.
You can learn more about Ruaida at her website.
As writers we spend so many months and years in our little bubbles writing that we're often clueless when it comes to marketing and promoting our books. This was the primary reason KidLit in Color was started a year ago. Many of our members had limited social media and marketing experience, and the group was a great way to support each other. Even though 2020 was a tough year to release a book, we learned a lot this past year that we hope helps you on your publication journey in 2021.
"Writers love doing the work of writing, but there's a business side to it as well. Spend a couple of hours a week networking, looking for publishing opportunities, attending face to face or virtual conferences, and spending time on social media promoting your own work and that of others!" Susan Muaddi Darraj, author of the Farah Rocks series.
"Do what works best for you to promote your book (connecting with bloggers and podcasters, doing events, building your social media presence, or updating your website and adding a newsletter). Most of all all, adhere to self-care measures, and enjoy the journey!" Valerie Bolling, author of Let's Dance.
"Make connections and engage with book bloggers, authors, and Instagram book reviewers before your book comes out! Engage with them and share their content. They’ll most likely share your book when it comes out plus you’ll make new friends!" Aya Khalil, author of The Arabic Quilt.
"My book debuted last in our group so I was able to watch and learn from everyone else. It's impossible to do everything so make achievable goals and work toward them. For example, instead of 50 blog interviews you may aim for 5. Instead of spreading yourself thin on all social media outlets you may choose to only participate on 1or 2. It's okay to find what works for you and do that unapologetically." Kirstie Myvett, author of Praline Lady.
2020 was your debut year. How was it?
My debut year started off strong, with From the Desk of Zoe Washington releasing on January 14. I had a couple of in-person launch events at local bookstores, and was able to attend Winter Institute, ALA Midwinter, and the North Texas Teen Book Festival. And then the pandemic shut everything down. Despite that, it’s still been a mostly positive debut year for me. Readers are discovering and enjoying Zoe’s story. Now, From the Desk of Zoe Washington is appearing on several “Best of 2020” book lists. I’m so grateful!
With the pandemic many authors were unable to do the school and in-person bookstore visits they had planned. How did you navigate that?
One disappointing moment this year was when the book tour my publisher had planned was canceled due to the pandemic. I had been looking forward to visiting those bookstores and meeting readers in person! I had no choice but to pivot. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do a lot of virtual panels and school visits. Also, three of my middle grade debut friends (Shannon Doleski, Lorien Lawrence, and Tanya Guerrero) and I planned an online book festival called Middle Ground Book Fest. It was a great opportunity to connect with other middle grade authors and help them reach teachers, librarians and readers during a difficult year. We had a lot of fun with it! The video recordings are still available on our YouTube channel.
What does your writing schedule look like?
Before the pandemic, I had a schedule. I woke up early a few times a week to write. (I could never quite make it to #5amWritersClub, but I’d write from 6 - 7:30 am). My day job is three days a week, so on the other two days, I’d write while my daughter was in school. I also wrote a lot on the weekends. But now that my daughter is doing remote learning, I don’t have those quiet days to write anymore! Now, I have to try to squeeze in writing whenever I can.
What are you currently working on?
I recently completed copy edits for my second book, A Soft Place to Land, which comes out on September 14. Now, I’m getting to work on what I hope will be my next published book - another standalone contemporary middle grade.
Do you plan on venturing into YA? (I know your debut initially started out as YA if I’m not mistaken?)
I did start out writing young adult books! The three (unpublished) manuscripts I wrote before From the Desk of Zoe Washington were YA, and I even thought Zoe’s story would be at first. I started out with her as sixteen years old instead of twelve. But a critique partner who read pages early on helped me realize that the book would be stronger as a middle grade. It was an adjustment to make the shift from writing YA to MG, but I’m so happy writing MG now! I do want to venture back to YA at some point, if I find the right idea.
What are some free or inexpensive resources you use that help you as a writer?
One free website that I like to use to track my progress when I’m drafting or revising is www.pacemaker.press. I like all the ways it lets you customize your plan, and it adjusts if you miss a day. Also, some authors and publishing professionals share fantastic writing tips for free on their website and newsletters: Susan Dennard, Patrice Caldwell, and Erin Bowman, to name a few. Finally, I love listening to writing podcasts like First Draft with Sarah Enni, 88 Cups of Tea, and Deadline City.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
What is your favorite quote?
One of my favorites is, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” - Maya Angelou. I even incorporated it into From the Desk of Zoe Washington!
What are you hoping for in 2021?
I really hope that the COVID-19 vaccine will allow life to return to “normal” sooner rather than later!
Last but certainly not least, how is Zoe doing?
I don’t want to spoil the book by saying too much, but if Zoe were in this pandemic, she’d absolutely use all her extra time at home to bake. In addition to cupcakes and other sweet treats, she’d join in on the bread-baking trend!
Janae Marks is the author of the critically acclaimed novel From the Desk of Zoe Washington and A Soft Place to Land (9/14/21). She grew up in the New York City suburbs, and now lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. She has an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School.
Visit Janae online at http://janaemarks.com.
The first time I’d ever heard of the praline ladies was in reading your book. What inspired you to write this story? Do you have a personal connection to it?
I was inspired by the actual praline ladies who sold pralines in New Orleans once upon a time. When I look at the black and white photos of them, I feel a connection that I can’t explain. Sadly, they’re often overlooked in the telling of NOLA praline history. My maternal grandmother was also an inspiration. She owned a shotgun house like the Praline Lady and she also made pralines for me when I was a child.
How long did it take you to write Praline Lady? (Btw, is it PRAY-leen or PRAH-leen?)
In New Orleans we say prah-leen, but in other regions they say pray-leen. I have a friend that calls it pecan candy.
I wrote Praline Lady over a decade ago, but life got in the way and I put it to the side. I would occasionally revisit it and do some edits, but it wasn’t until 2016 I was determined to finish it once and for all.
How difficult was it to distill all your research down into such spare text? What was your process for doing so?
I certainly collected more research than I would ever be able to use, but most importantly, the research helped me to gain a better understanding of what life was like in New Orleans during the 19th century. Once I was able to comfortably inhabit that place, I was confident in telling the story.
You employ literary devices like onomatopoeia masterfully and your text engages all five of the senses throughout the entire story. Would you say this is a hallmark of your writing style?
I do aim to engage all of the senses when writing especially for children so yes, you could say it is a hallmark of my writing style. When the Praline Lady plop, plop, plops the mixture onto the pan, I vividly remember seeing and hearing my Grandmother doing the same, except hers was on wax paper laid out on the counter. That was the best way for me to convey that memory and those sounds. By the way, I still stumble saying “onomatopoeia” sometimes, whereas my fifteen year-old says it effortlessly.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
The most surprising thing I learned was that some of these women were able to self-purchase their own freedom or that of their loved ones. That was profound to me. Pralines meant liberty for some of them.
Was there something you had to cut from the text that you really wish you could’ve been able to keep?
I wish we could have included a recipe or some of the black and white photos of the Praline Ladies.
What do you hope readers gain from reading your book?
I hope readers understand that these Black women were entrepreneurs at a time when the odds were stacked against them. They weren’t educated and they didn’t have much, but they’re the reason pralines are interwoven in the fabric of New Orleans food history. This is their legacy and they deserve recognition.
What are you working on next?
I’m revising a middle grade novel and researching a biography picture book topic.
Do you have advice for aspiring authors?
Your talent will make room for you so don’t give up!
Finally—the most important question of the interview: Who makes the best Pralines in New Orleans and how far do they ship?
Well that is a tough question. I always like when friends or colleagues make pralines and share at holiday parties, but for those who aren’t as fortunate I’d recommend Loretta’s Authentic Pralines. Her pralines and especially her beignet pralines are DELICIOUS.
Kirstie resides in the rich cultural city of New Orleans with her family. She enjoys foreign films, visits to the beach, and playing board games. Her debut picture book, PRALINE LADY, was published in November 2020 by Pelican Publishing. Her work has also been featured in Country Roads Magazine.
If you’d like to learn more about Kirstie Myvett please visit her website at kirstiemyvett.com