We are thrilled to publish an essay from the author of the picture book, Anni Dreams of Biryani, Namita Mehra. Read her inspiration and why she wrote this beautiful picture book below:
One of my previous roles as a freelance food writer was to write articles for Michelin Singapore. A small, local Biryani restaurant in Little India Singapore caught my attention when it received a Michelin Bib Gourmand honor. Biryani is one of my favorite foods in the whole world! I LOVE rice and rice dishes but biryani is incredibly hard to make, and even though I’m a cookbook author, a spice business owner, and a decent cook, I hardly make biryani myself at home. I was keen to try the Michelin honored biryani and ended up researching the restaurant and learning about the owner as well. It turns out, he was quite a character! In Singapore, we use “Uncle” and “Aunty” with endearment and respect – the biryani restaurant “uncle” and his story…plus his delicious biryani of course, inspired me to write ANNI DREAMS OF BIRYANI.
My story is also based in Little India and purposely didn’t mention Singapore specifically, because Little Indias all over the world, whether New Jersey or Singapore, are inherently the same—the colors, the crowds, the energy, the excitement for food!In the story, Anni, who lives in Little India with her Ma & Grandma, loves to cook! She’s a proper little foodie and happens to live across the street from a biryani café owned by a grumpy uncle. Biryani is her favorite food and Uncle’s is the best! Every Friday is biryani night, and every Friday, Anni runs into the café with questions for Uncle so that she can figure out his biryani recipe. No matter how hard she tries, Anni’s biryani never tastes as good as Uncle’s. Is there a secret ingredient he’s not telling her about?
I’ve always been obsessed with recipes, and cookbooks. And the idea of secret family recipes, heritage recipes, and secret ingredients, is not only exciting and mysterious, but also true to many cultures. In India, for example, wives often joke that even their mother in-laws won’t tell them all the ingredients in their son’s favorite dish . . .Biryani has an interesting and royal heritage and history, and because it is a very complex recipe, it made sense in my story that this was the recipe Anni was after. Uncle was cooking his biryani from a 200-year-old secret family recipe – I imagine many chefs might have such treasured recipes . . .and many of us might have treasured recipes from grandmas, and recipes passed down from loved ones which we hold dear to our hearts. Often cooks like Anni, have a dream to open their own café or restaurant, and I wanted to portray Anni’s character as one with great determination, ambition, and agency. She is persistent and despite Uncle’s grumpy character and unwillingness to share his secrets, she doesn’t lose hope. My daughter loves to cook and spend time with me in the kitchen—she’s a true foodie like her mama and I hope one day, when she discovers her dream, culinary or otherwise, she pursues it with a passion and never gives up!
Namita Moolani Mehra is a children’s book writer, cookbook author, and freelance food writer. She is the author of children's cookbooks, The Magic Spicebox and Superfoods for Superheroes. Anni Dreams of Biryani is Namita’s first picture book.
Namita is the founder of a social-impact business, Indian Spicebox, that helps fund hot meals for underprivileged children in India. You can read more about her products and programs at https://indian-spicebox.com
Namita was born in Nigeria, grew up in England and India, and moved to the United States for graduate school. She has an MS in Marketing Communications from Northwestern University, and spent 12 years in New York working at advertising agencies and was also a creative strategist at Facebook.
Namita lives in Singapore with her husband and two young children. www.namitamehra.com Twitter @namstwit Instagram @indianspicebox
We are so excited to share a new interview! Kidlit in Color member, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow interviews Linda Sarsour about her newest book, We're in This Together.
Linda Sarsour is a Brooklyn-born Palestinian Muslim American community organizer and mother of three. Recognized for her award-winning intersectional work, she served as national cochair of the Women’s March, helping to organize the largest single-day protest in US history. She is the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and cofounder of the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPower Change, as well as Until Freedom, a national racial justice organization working with Black and Brown communities across the country.
Jamilah: With stories from your personal life, stories of injustice and stories of protest movements, and stories of your activism, We’re In This Together has a lot packed into roughly just 200 pages! Even so, I’m going to ask you to do the impossible: If a young reader asks you what this book is about, what’s your answer in one sentence?
Linda: My book is about the moments in my young life that helped shape who I am today. It provides lessons and tools for us to navigate a difficult world, show up as our whole selves and to work together to build a more just and equitable society! Yes, even young people have the power to do that.
Jamilah: This book is a young readers edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders, which is a memoir written for adults. Why is it important that young readers also have access to your story? Linda: Growing up I wish I had contemporary Palestinian/Arab/Muslim American women autobiographies to read. I am proud knowing that now girls everywhere will read my story; one of resilience, pride and solidarity that inspires them to step in their full identities. Youth are not just the future, they are our present and we live in a complicated world that must engage young people in conversations about racism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and also justice and solidarity so they can be informed and equipped to react and respond in productive ways. I wanted to write for young people so they would feel seen and to inspire them to action.
Jamilah: A refrain throughout We’re in This Together is that life requires us to be upstanders or people who stand up against injustice and help others. I think this message may be especially resonant for young readers in the chapters about your own children. What are you hoping young readers will gain from reading the stories of your children’s budding activism, especially as it relates to being upstanders vs. bystanders?
Linda: I hope We’re in This Together demonstrates that no matter how old you are you can have a great impact on those around you. Young people have the power to inspire others and call people to take action against injustice. You do not need to be trained to believe that everyone deserves respect and dignity. Anyone can use their voice and talents to make their schools and communities a more informed and welcoming place. Jamilah: This book is aptly titled, We’re In This Together, as you repeatedly show throughout your life how you came to see the interconnectedness of ways different peoples are oppressed. Some examples especially struck me: seeing over policing and inequity in your Brooklyn high school and relating it to a childhood visit to Palestine, the influence of the Selma protests and March2Justice, and the way Palestinians showed solidarity with Ferguson protesters. Could you speak about one of those experiences and how they underscore for you that “we are in this together”?
When Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missiouri, it galvanized the nation. People were outraged at the murder of this innocent young Black man. As young, mostly Black people protested the police, Palestinian teenagers in Gaza living under siege took to social media to share messages of solidarity with the people of Ferguson and shared lessons and techniques on how to protect oneself from tear gas and police oppression. It was an incredible act of love and concern between two different communities experiencing similar struggles and it reminded me of the power of solidarity and that we truly are in this together, hence the title of the book.
Jamilah: Your reflections on your cousin Basemah brought me to tears. Without revealing all of the details before readers have had a chance to read the story, could you share why Basemah is so special and how she lives on in your work?
Linda: Basemah was the older sister I never had. She believed in me and loved me throughout the formative years of my life. She was my guide and I am courageous and brave because of her. I wish that everyone can have a mentor like Basemah.
Jamilah: I instantly connected with the section on 9/11. Like you, I was a college student in New York at the time and I have vivid memories of your descriptions of that moment, including the many fliers of missing people, the feeling of being surveilled, and weighing with my other young Muslim girlfriends whether to de-hijab. My non-Muslim aunt convinced me I had every right to wear it. You, however, had such a resolve that you wouldn’t remove your hijab from the start. Can you talk about that time and why keeping your hijab on was so important then?
Linda: Growing up without my hijab in my younger years made my identity ambiguous. People weren’t quite sure what I was and even when I identified myself as Palestinian it was unfamiliar to so many. When I decided to wear a hijab, it made me feel whole. It gave me an identity to be proud of, one that was visible to everyone who saw me. I was not going to allow myself to give up an identity that I yearned for, that made me complete to be taken from me because of the horrific acts of a few who claimed my faith. During that difficult time, I saw my hijab as an armor and I became even more resolved in my identity and with my hijab.
Jamilah: As an educator-at-heart, I appreciate how your book outlines the historic details of various struggles, whether it's the Palestininan struggle, or Civil Rights, or Eric Garner, or even DACA. How are you hoping educators will use these sections in the classroom?
Linda: I am a product of the New York City public school system and truly believe that I had an excellent education. My teachers cared deeply about their students and afforded us an education that was relevant to the society in which we lived. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for students and I hope that my book becomes a venue, a tool, an approach to teaching young people about the current issues impacting our communities within the context of teaching about the civil rights movement of the 60’s. We are living through our own civil rights movement in America and I think connecting the dots and generations can be a very powerful and transformative experience for students.
Jamilah: I love the descriptions of your bond with Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez and even the name Carmen gave the three of you: “social justice Voltron.” What I found especially compelling is how your very different struggles united you all in an awareness of a “responsibility to care for and protect people” and also how you seem to inspire and feed off of each other. What do you hope young readers will learn about the role of friendship in activism?
Linda: We’re in this together is the central message in this book. What connects me so deeply to Carmen and Tamika is that we believe our liberation is bound up with one another, that when one of our communities is experiencing an injustice, we must stand up for them. Being an activist is exhausting and hard and friendship with people who understand your struggle makes it a little easier and less lonely.
Here is a quote that I love that speaks to this from Lila Watson, an aboriginal activist, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because you believe your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.”
Jamilah: Your recollections of the Women’s March are especially poignant, especially when you talk about what it meant for you as a Palestinian American. Could you speak a bit about that? Linda: Since the horrific attacks of 9/11, we continue to work towards more visible positive representation of Muslims in all sectors. My presence and leadership at the Women’s March was groundbreaking for so many. To see a Palestinian Muslim American woman in a hijab leading a movement for racial justice and women’s rights was a proud moment for me and the communities that raised me. I knew that little Muslim girls around the country would be inspired and empowered by my voice and courage and that meant the world to me.
Jamilah: Ultimately, although this is a story of your life, this is also a handbook for young activists. What are three takeaways for young developing activists?
Linda: Here are some steps to begin exploring and engaging in activism as a young person: Choose an issue that really means something to you. Research the issue and learn as much as you can about it. Once you feel very knowledgeable about the issue, create a presentation to teach others about it so you can expand the number of people who care about this issue. Think about something you can do to help contribute to addressing this issue. This could mean raising funds for an organization that has solutions about this issue. You can organize a bake sale or some other activity that can raise small dollars. You can also organize a rally and invite your friends and their families to share solutions and demand that people in power do something about it. You can organize this rally with the help of adults at your local City Hall or somewhere else that is symbolic. Stay connected to an organization that works on this issue. Volunteer with them if there are open opportunities.
You can purchase Linda book here and follow her on Twitter here.
Kirstie Myvett interviews Tameka Fryer Brown about her latest book, TWELVE DINGING DOORBELLS!
KM: Hi Tameka, I’m super excited to talk with you about Twelve Dinging Doorbells! I have a soft spot for holiday books and stories that feature intergenerational families and TDD has it all.
TFB: Thanks, Kirstie! Family, food, humor, and bright colors. That's everything you need for a joyful picture book, right?
KM: This book is obviously inspired by the popular Twelve Days of Christmas song, but please tell us the details of how this story came about? Also, did you set out to write a counting book, a holiday book, or both?
TFB: Believe it or not, the book was actually inspired by #ThanksgivingwithBlackfamiles. I search out that hashtag every year as the holiday season approaches, just to laugh and feel in community with Black folks throughout the country about all the various things our families and family gatherings have in common. I wrote the first draft of Twelve Dinging Doorbells in December of 2017, just a few days before Christmas. So when I think about it, the story itself may have been inspired by the Thanksgiving hashtag, but the framework I used to tell it was inspired by the time of year that I started drafting it.
For me, it was never about writing a counting book, per se, though I did realize that would be an added feature of the structure. Nor was I ever focused on any particular holiday. My intention was always to honor Black family gatherings in general.
KM: You mentioned that Twelve Dinging Doorbells is filled with humor, family, food, and all the things that make holidays so special. How much of your own family traditions and experiences did you weave within this story?
TFB: A lot. When I was growing up, my granny’s house was the place to be for all major family gatherings—holidays, monthly birthday celebrations (if you know, you know), and even Sunday dinners. Extended family members would often swing by on Sundays for a plate—usually one to eat and one to take. Looking back, I am amazed at how many of us would be squeezed into that small house of hers. Whenever my family got together, the vibe was always loudness, laughter, and love. It was accompanied by the most delicious food, including my granny’s sweet potato pie. Granny was not capable of cooking anything not-delicious, but her potato pies were my absolute favorite.
KM: The illustrations by Ebony Glenn are beautiful. What were your thoughts upon seeing Ebony’s final depictions? TFB: knew when Ebony signed on to be part of the project that the book would be gorgeous. She’s Ebony Glenn, after all. And of course, she didn’t disappoint. Even in the sketch phase, the joy, love, and silliness in her drawings had me smiling at my computer screen. The energy is palpable and the diversity of personalities shine through in every scene. Add the rich, vibrant colors on top of all that--using cut paper collage (!!)—and there’s no doubt that Ebony has created a masterpiece.
KM: I think this book is sure to become a classic Black family holiday book. But I also think children and families in different cultures will enjoy and relate to it because the themes of family, food, and love are all universal and transcend race. What do you hope children will take away from this book?
TFB: I wholeheartedly agree with you, Kirstie. I hope children will glean from it whatever it is they need from it: laughter; pride; a sense of being seen, celebrated, and valued; insight; connection; entertainment and education; and joy. Infectious joy. I also hope they’ll read and enjoy it the whole year through.
KM: What is your advice to authors interested in writing a holiday picture book?
TFB: Come at it from a place of impactful memory, I suppose. Reflect on the holiday memories that are most emotional for you and start crafting from there. Which is really the advice I’d give on writing about any subject. Identify the emotional impact you want to have and create based on that. KM: How do you plan on celebrating your launch?
TFB: My official book launch was at Park Road Books on October 22nd. On November 15th, we plan on doing a virtual gathering where myself, Ebony Glenn, viewers, and a few special guests will come together to share a virtual meal (or a favorite dish), laughter, memories, and the importance of connection. Keep an eye on my social media for more details on our virtual gathering in the coming weeks.
KM:What’s up next for you?
TFB: I have two more picture books coming out very soon: Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change (illustrated by Nina Crews; published by Millbrook Press, November 1, 2022) and That Flag (illustrated by Nikkolas Smith; published by HarperCollins, January 31, 2023). In the fall of 2024, I will have another picture book coming out with FSG called You Are (Ode to a Big Kid), and that will be illustrated by Alleanna Harris.
Tameka Fryer Brown is a picture book author whose titles include the Charlotte Zolotow Honor-winning My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood and Brown Baby Lullaby, winner of the 2021 Anna Dewdney Read Together Award. Her work is also featured in the widely-acclaimed anthology, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices.
Brown’s forthcoming picture books include Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm's Fight for Change; and That Flag, a story about best friends divided over the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag.
KM: Hi Ana, congratulations on your latest book, If Your Babysitter Is a Bruja. What inspired you to write this Halloween story?
AS: This story is based on a real story that happened to me, but it wasn’t during Halloween. I guess the Halloween was something I included to add some spookiness, but I believe this is a book you can read the whole year. My story: One day I was at the beach with my three-year old daughter. She didn’t want to leave. I had to use my teacher’s voice to say - We need to leave NOW! And that’s when she started yelling and crying for three blocks - walking - that I was not her mom. I was a witch. Imagine my embarrassment. So that was the inspiration for my story.
KM: Holiday stories seem to be very popular. How long were you on submission with this book and what was the process in getting it signed?
AS: I revised this book while taking a class at Children’s Book Academy. In the end of the class, there was a showcase. Alyza Liu, the editor from Simon&Schuster asked to see it. My agent submitted it to her. She replied within a month. We closed the deal a few weeks later and after a few months everything was signed.
KM: There are many Spanish terms in the book that children will have fun learning. Is this something you include in all of your stories? If so, why? AS: I am a Spanish teacher and my blended family speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. I believe learning Spanish in this country is so important. So my goal is to 1: motivate everyone to learn this beautiful language 2. Make the children who speak this language to be proud of their cultural and heritage.
KM: Halloween is often categorized in the scary holiday category but you’ve depicted a really fun story for children. Tell us why you chose that depiction vs. scary/horror?
AS: I wanted to show that we shouldn’t judge people or brujas based on stereotypes. I believe in this book, each reader can decide if the babysitter is a real bruja or it’s all imagination. But no matter what, they will see she is nice and sweet. So, don’t judge a bruja by her sombrero.
KM: Irena Freitas’ illustrations are bright and lively. What did you think when you first saw them and did you offer illustrator notes for this project?
AS: I had some art notes since the girl is an unreliable narrator. But Irena did much more than I expected. Through all the details and the character’s expressions, Irena made us dive into her imagination and live an aventura with her.
KM: How are you spending Halloween this year? Are you having any public readings or signings?
AS: I have a lot of events at libraries, bookstores and schools. It will be super fun. I will be doing an event online with the Miami Library, if anyone is interested in coming.
KM: What project(s) are you working on next? AS: I have some other books coming out. But the project of my heart now is a story, based on my experience as a domestic violence survivor. And yes, it’s a picture book. I believe we can write about any topic if we can make it understandable and relatable to the little ones.
Ana Siqueira is an award-winning author from Brazil who cackles but doesn’t wear hats. When not flying with brujas, she teaches Spanish to adorable little ones, where she casts a learning spell that nobody can resist. Some of her books are BELLA’S RECIPE FOR DISASTER/SUCCESS (Beaming Books, 2021) IF YOUR BABYSITTER IS A BRUJA/ CUANDO TU NIÑERA ES UNA BRUJA (SimonKids,2022), BOITATA: SNAKE OF FIRE (Capstone 2023), ABUELA’S SUPER CAPA/LA SUPERCAPA DE ABUELA (HarperCollins 2023), OUR WORLD BRAZIL (Barefoot 2023), ROOM IN MAMI’S CORAZON (HarperCollins 2024).
KM: Tell us about how you landed this exciting opportunity to write a children’s board book about Egypt?
AK: So the way I landed this awesome board book deal is pretty unique! On Twitter one day, an Egyptian illustrator (Hatem Aly and I love his illustrations - dream illustrator for one of my books one day for sure!) tagged me after a Barefoot editor, Kate DePalma, asked if there were any Egyptian authors out there. A couple more people tagged me also. I connected with Kate right away before the holiday season of 2021. She explained the Our World board book series and I fell in love. What I love the most about the series is that Kate sought out both authors and illustrators whose backgrounds are from that country.
KM: What kind of timeline or deadline were you given? Was it difficult to work in such a short amount of time?
AK: I think I was given a few weeks. I was brainstorming over winter break and jotted down ideas. Kate sent me the layout, another work-in-progress for an Our World book and more information about the series. We sent each other edits throughout a couple of weeks. The most challenging part was getting the English pronunciation of the Arabic words correctly. I also tend to write longer picture books, so I loved the challenge of keeping the board book very short!
KM: Were there any experiences you had while visiting Egypt that are included in the book or helped shape the book in any way?
AK: I didn’t get any inspiration from when I was there recently, but I got ideas from when I used to visit in the summer as a child and teenager and even young adult. I looked at old pictures I took and even videos I used to record. I remembered specific details of walking along the busy streets of Alexandria with my cousins, and stopping by the fruit stands. I even tried to remember the smells and sounds. It was a lot of fun using my childhood memories in this beautiful book.
KM: There’s an intergenerational connection in the book. What made you include that representation for young readers? AK: I feel like all of my books have some type of intergenerational connection (and food!). I would say it’s part of my author brand now ha! I loved the dad and daughter joy presented in the book. Grandparents are highly valued in Arab society, and it’s very common for adults and their children to visit the grandparents often in Egypt. Some even live in the same building or neighborhood. While I don’t live in Egypt, I still obviously visit my parents and I love the connection between grandparents and grandkids, so I wanted to include that.
KM: What were your thoughts when you saw Magda Azab’s illustrations for the first time? Which one is your favorite?
AK: I couldn’t stop smiling and screaming “THIS IS SO CUTE!!!!" The colors, the lines, the faces. Everything was so perfect and magical. She truly brought my words to life in the most beautiful way. She’s also Egyptian but lives abroad, like me, so we both brought our personal experiences into this board book. There’s so many favorites. I love the grandparents scene, because there’s so much joy in it, but I also love the simplicity of the toddler and her dad walking along the corniche, enjoying the little things in life.
KM: How have your children and family reacted to this book?
AK: They loved it. My youngest is now three, so it’s such a perfect book for her and she thinks the main character is her. Everyone else was so excited to see it digitally and I can’t wait for them to see it in print
KM: Do you have plans to celebrate the release? If so, what are your plans?
AK: I’m not quite sure yet! I was invited as a guest at a local farmer’s market so I’ve been coordinating with my local bookstore and publisher to see if we can sell it a week before the official release date and I hope it works out!
KM: What’s up next for you?
AK: The Night Before Eid comes out in March 2023 from Little, Brown and it’s illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh. The Banned Books Bake Sale comes out in 2023 from Tilbury House and it’s illustrated by Anait Smeridzhyan. Readers can find out more about these upcoming titles at www.ayakhalil.com Make sure you enter our Instagram giveaway to win an advanced copy before it officially launches in October!
Freelance journalist and blogger Aya Khalil, holds a master’s in Education with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Yahoo! Book Riot and other publications. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others. She’s done sensitivity readings for DK Publishing/Penguin.
Aya is a picture book author and is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US Agency. Her debut picture book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story was published February 18, 2020 by Tilbury House.
She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Toledo. Besides writing and teaching, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and exercising.
She does author visits at libraries and schools and sensitivity readings. Contact her for details.
Aya Khalil: Salam Alaikum, S.K. Ali! I am so excited to be interviewing you again for Kidlitincolor.com. I just finished reading Love from Mecca to Medina and I needed a few days to process it all! Wow, what an amazing book. First thing's first, can you tell us how long it took for you to write it and any challenges along the way?
S.K. Ali: Walaikummusalam! Excited to be back at Kidlitincolor.com! Brewing this book took a year but the writing itself took a few months, with two intense months of marathon writing (see below why this is my process!) The challenges were juggling the expectations of writing a romance in which the couple were already in love at the start of the book, as well as the sacred nature of their journey. That was a hard feat!
AK: I personally have been to Mecca and Medina twice, and I love all of the descriptions in the book. If I'm not mistaken, I believe you also went recently? Were you writing the novel at the same time? How was your experience there while writing it, or writing it after you came back.
SK Ali: Actually, my most recent trip to Mecca and Medina was a while back in 2015. But I have a trove of cumulative memories from having visited periodically over the years since I was a child; I relied on these while writing, as well as the efforts of kind people who recorded their trips and uploaded them onto YouTube. This visual research was especially important to make notes on more recent developments at the holy sites. I didn’t want to get things wrong so I verified and cross-referenced my memories with current video evidence from other pilgrims. Watching such precious, personal vlogs revived the feelings of awe I felt during my own visits in years past and, I feel, contributed to infusing Love from Mecca to Medina with vivid emotional and visual descriptions. So, thank you YouTubers!
AK: I love the many layers in the book; the struggles Zeynab faces in college: trying to do it all as a college student but also facing microaggressions and struggles in her love life. I love that she's not the "perfect Muslim" and actually didn't really want to go to Umra at first, and even when she did, she didn’t really enjoy it at first. That really resonated with me personally because we're not perfect humans (lol!) and sometimes book reviewers will point that out. Can you tell me why you think it's important to have Muslim characters with flaws?
SK Ali: I love that you loved that! I choose to write characters struggling because when you’re committed to ideals/ways-of-living that vary from the greater society around you, struggling on a grand scale is part of the equation. In any kind of fiction, it’s unrealistic to write characters who get it right all the time or who don’t need to grow; actually, that would be a pretty bad book, lol. In terms of Muslim characters, especially Muslim characters who are trying to be committed to their faith, it’s important to communicate the struggle as it is. It brings in all the elements of good storytelling: conflict, tension and finding something and someone to root for. It’s just honest and compelling art to record our – often lowly – humanness.
AK: I am interested to know, as I'm sure many readers, what your process is like in writing your novels. Do you have everything planned out? Do you use mood boards, sticky notes? Please tell us how you geniusly write these novels, including Love from Mecca to Medina.
SK Ali: I’m a reformed Pantser – and that capital “P” is there for a reason! (My reformation came due to multiple DEADLINES – all caps! – happening simultaneously soon after my debut novel.) This new reformed-me must know all the major beats in a story, almost every character’s arcs, themes, framing elements, etc. before I start writing. I find doing all of that work upfront (that is what I meant when I said Love from Mecca to Medina brewed for a year) makes the writing process quicker and tidier. I absolutely love free-writing scenes and letting my creativity take the characters places but now I allow that freedom within little assigned descriptors that aid in the completion of the plans I have for the story. Some people find the story after they cough up a messy draft, honing in while writing multiple drafts, whereas I find the story in the midst of messy notes and doodles (I use storyboarding to work out beats and important scenes) and images I gather. This allows me to deliver a pretty clean manuscript with most (not all, of course) of the kinks worked out beforehand (in the planning stages) on time. This is how I’ve written all my novels, except for Saints and Misfits.
AK: What's next for you? Any more books following Zeynab? How about Janna? I love that Janna made an appearance in this book and the role she played, and the ending (ahh!)
SK Ali: Zayneb’s and Janna’s stories came to a conclusion in Love from Mecca to Medina – I spent a lot of time planning that season finale in the epilogue! As for what’s next: I’m switching gears and in the process of finishing a speculative fic duology, as well as a humorous historical fiction YA novel I’m co-writing AND an adult rom-com. (But, I’m not going to lie, Adam, Zayneb and Janna’s books are always going to be my favorite children!)
AK: Would you like to add anything else about you or your book?
SK Ali: Just something that I get asked often: what order should we read your novels? To get the full, immersive experience in this universe I’ve created for these characters (which fans call the “Zaydam” universe, to which Janna interjects with, “ahem, it’s the ‘Janna-Zaydam’ universe” because her story was first!): Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z, Misfit in Love, The Eid Gift(a free novelette available at Rivetedlit.com) and then Love from Mecca to Medina. I hope you get a chance to read them all!
AK: Where can readers find you and purchase Love From Mecca to Medina?
SK Ali: They can find me at my website, skalibooks.com, on Instagram and TikTok at @skalibooks and on Twitter at @sajidahwrites. Love from Mecca to Medina can be purchased here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Love-from-Mecca-to-Medina/S-K-Ali/9781665916073
KidLit in Color members Kirstie Myvett and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow discuss Jamilah's latest picture book, Hold Them Close: A Love Letter To Black Children.
KM: Hold Them Close, A Love Letter To Black Children, touches on the complexities of Black children’s feelings in a poetic but very real way. You open with examples of happiness then seamlessly delve into the heavier stuff that Black children must, unfortunately, face. Tell us why embracing both the happy and sad is so important for Black children.
JTB: When I began writing this book, it was in response to Black pain. I wanted a way to help children manage their feelings about our collective and ongoing traumas. Yet and still, I wanted to affirm that they are deserving of joy. I wanted to affirm that at heart, we have always been a people who find and make joy in spite of the most unimaginable cruelties. We are a people who have created and continue to create culture and beauty in spite of oppression.
KM: I believe this book is powerful and that it will be a tool to help children explore their feelings alongside their parents, teachers, and classmates. When you wrote HTC, did you think about the potential dialogue that would take place around it because you so eloquently address what I imagine children are feeling during difficult, “bigger than sadness” times?
JTB: I did write with a hope that this book would serve families and communities in having necessary conversations. Unfortunately, I know we will need ways to navigate continued racism, and I do hope this book is a support in doing that work. It’s hard to talk about “sadness bigger than sadness” in picture books because we want stories for children that are light. Our kids need that. Nevertheless, there are moments when life just isn’t light and when it’s impossible to shield our children from heavy realities. I wrote this book for those moments, wanting it to be a comfort and a tool in those moments.
KM: The illustrations and photography really drive your message home. While looking at the cover, I was overcome with memories of my own sons when they were little. I became very emotional looking at the stunning images throughout the book. Please tell us about illustrator Patrick Dougher and photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose artwork and images grace your book. JTB: I sometimes tear up when I look at the images. Patrick Dougher is an acclaimed Brooklyn-based fine artist who works in many mediums including major city murals and has also worked with youth in his community as an art therapist. While this is his first book, he’s his own institution in the art world. Jamel Shabazz is a legend. He has documented New York City neighborhoods for decades. He is from Brooklyn and his photography has been shown in books, documentaries, and exhibitions. I adore his loving portrayals of the models in the book, especially the children. I still can’t believe I was able to have both of these artists work on my book.
KM: What is the message you want Black children to get from this love letter?
JTB: You are loved, you are worthy, you are heard, and we got you when times are hard. Hold on to who you are, hold on to your joy, and always, always, ALWAYS hold on to hope.
KM: I feel children of other races will also benefit and gain empathy from reading HTC. What is your message for non-Black children who, out of curiosity, pick up this book with its compelling cover? JTB: I think the message above could apply to them as well. In addition to that, I hope they are inspired by Black resistance and resilience. I hope they see our shared humanity.
KM: What do your boys think of Hold Them Close?
JTB: The oldest has told me it inspires him, which is heartening. The youngest seems to appreciate the language and images. I hope it builds up their sense of self.
KM: Lastly, how will you celebrate your launch? JTB: I’m excited that I’ll be celebrating on launch day with the community organization, Start Lighthouse Foundation, because it will mean celebrating with many children in the Bronx. While I’m not from there, I have done multiple school visits in that borough, and it always feels like home when I go there. I also am looking forward to upcoming events local to Philadelphia, including a story time with Children’s Book World during launch week and an event with the African American Museum of Philadelphia later this fall (date TBD). KM: Thanks so much for stopping by Jamilah and congratulations on your latest book!
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. As an inaugural AMAL fellow with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), she developed foundational curricular frameworks for youth and adult anti-racist programming. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, and NPR. These works include Mommy’s Khimar and Irma Black Award Honor Book, Your Name is a Song. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books: Black Creatives Fund and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a committee member.
Hi Valerie, I’m so excited to talk with you about your new book, Ride, Roll, Run: Time for Fun! published by Abrams.
VB: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Kirstie. I’m happy to tell you and readers about my newest book.
KM: How did the idea for this book come about?
VB: I was thinking about the games that children enjoy playing outside with their friends, many of which I loved as a child. There’s no need for expensive equipment or electronics. Friends + imagination = a fantastic time!
KM: The cover grabs your attention immediately. It’s colorful and features a diverse group of children. What were your thoughts when you saw the cover and inside images for the first time?
VB: From the initial sketches, I loved Sabrena Khadija’s illustrations. They have a unique style that’s so appealing. The vibrant colors and energy that their art conveys are perfect for a book about children having fun together.
KM: The children in the book engage in various forms of riding, rolling, and running. Will you tell us about a few of the activities featured in your book?
VB: Yes, Kirstie, the children in this book are riding on bikes, rolling on skateboards, and running on a basketball court. They’re also jumping rope, playing hopscotch, and making art on a sidewalk. These are few of the activities highlighted in the book.
KM: Your book is an easy-read in rhyme, but for many authors, writing in rhyme is difficult and hard to sell, yet you make it look effortless. Tell us about your writing process and how you get those perfectly rhyming words to flow.
VB: Thanks for saying I’m able to get “perfectly rhyming words to flow.” I enjoy writing in rhyme, and I think part of my success is because I use few words. That allows me to keep my rhyme and meter tight. If I were writing longer sentences that rhymed, it would certainly be more challenging.
As for my process, I get the words down on the page. Fortunately, most of the rhymes flow easily, but I do use rhymezone.com as a tool when I’m struggling with a rhyme or want to explore other options.
KM: What do you hope children will take away from your book?
VB: Children should play! So, after reading Ride, Roll, Run: Time for Fun!, I hope young readers will go outside and play with their friends. I wouldn’t even care if, in the midst of reading the book, they said, “I want to play now!” and decided to head outdoors and finish reading the book later.
KM: There are so many outstanding books coming out this fall, including your own. Will you share with us any children’s books you’re looking forward to adding to your collection?
VB: Kirstie, I’m looking forward to books by our fellow KidLit in Color members, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (Hold Them Close), Tameka Fryer Brown (Twelve Dinging Doorbells and Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change), and Aya Khalil (Our World: Eqypt).
Valerie Bolling is the author of the 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award-winning and CT Book Award finalist, Let's Dance!, and has been an educator for almost 30 years. When she taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. Thus, she is passionate about creating stories in which all children can see themselves and feel seen and heard and valued and validated. Valerie has two books scheduled for release in 2022 (Together We Ride/Chronicle and Ride, Roll, Run: Time for Fun!/Abrams) and two more slated for 2023 (Together We Swim/Chronicle and Neighborhood Jam/Abrams).
A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie currently works as an Instructional Coach. Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing.
Interview with Allysun Atwater about I Am Thinking My Life By Rashmi Bismark
RB: Hi Allysun! Congratulations on your gorgeous debut picture book, I Am Thinking My Life, illustrated by Stevie Lewis and published by Bala Kids, an imprint of Shambhala Publications. As a mindfulness + yoga facilitator and mom, there is so much I absolutely love about this story. It’s empowering and life-affirming. It so beautifully depicts the power of intention, thought, mindfulness, and action through the heart of a child. Tell us some of your inspirations behind creating a story like this. AA: Sometimes I just get the tiniest spark of an idea - usually just an idea for the title of a story. Then I start writing and a story takes shape almost fully formed. When this happens, I often don’t know what I’m creating or really where it comes from. It just arrives, and suddenly it seems like it’s been there all along. This was the case with I Am Thinking My Life.However, I can think of a couple of concrete moments of inspiration for the book, retrospectively. One is that my daughters attended a play-based school called Bing Nursery School on Stanford’s campus, when I was in law school. The thing I loved most about Bing was that it was this beautiful indoor and outdoor wonderland for children with a cornucopia of elaborate opportunities for activities. Bing gave children the agency to choose how they could spend much of their time each day. I appreciated how empowering that was in an age when children are so scheduled and helicoptered. It had such a strong impact on both of my daughters who have always been very introspective and creative. Once I Am Thinking My Life was born, I fell in love with the idea that it featured a character who had that power to choose how she would actively engage herself, and also to marvel at the joy of having that freedom to think and dream.
The other inspiration is my observations of all of the life-building and creative energy that goes on around us. People are constantly “thinking their lives” in really unique and compelling ways, and I feel more positive in my own mindset just from experiencing and witnessing other people’s thoughts manifesting as all kinds of amazing creations.
RB: Stevie Lewis’ art is stunning! Through your beautiful words, we learn about the power of being with and envisioning one’s life. Through Stevie’s artwork, we also learn so much about the main character’s personality, her family, and her dreams for herself. What influenced some of the artistic choices? Were you able to have input on how the art was telling the story as well?
AA: I agree. Stevie’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. I feel fortunate to have been able to contribute many of the ideas for the artwork. I actually wrote extensive art notes detailing the plot and narrative structure of the illustrations. Stevie based the majority of the book’s illustrations on them. Of course, she added her own interpretation to the illustrations. The characters’ appearances are all her creation, and I was delighted to see that the main character and her mother had locs, because we definitely need to see that representation in picture books.
What I was hoping for was just to see our main character in the excitement and, sometimes frenzy, of discovery regarding the power of her thoughts. There is some experimentation, and some amazing introspection happening. I wanted to see the character experiencing that realization not only for herself, but for the way it positively affects her family and friends, and the way it impacts her future.
I also wanted to work in the realization that no matter how positive our thoughts are, there will be storms, whether those are moods or events that create a negative experience. Sometimes we have to ride those negative emotions out, and experience them for what they are. But the goal should be to get back to a place of positivity when that becomes possible, even if it takes some time and effort to access that inner light and those inner resources again.
RB: I love that reminder that even through the storms, we can search within and uncover illumination. Can you share with our readers, what are some ways you nourish yourself in stormy times?
AA: That’s such an insightful question. I went through quite a few stormy times before I wrote this book. From having to reroute my career due to illness, to losing my baby brother – my only sibling, the summer before I wrote my first draft of this book, I had what felt like some monsoons happening in my life. But storms are a part of life, and they have their own humbling beauty. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family and amazing friends. Spending time with them is definitely one of the main ways I nourish myself in stormy times. Also, I love story. And, fortunately for me, story is everywhere— in poetry, in picture books, in songs, in paintings, in television shows and in movies. I love to get absorbed in a transporting story, whatever the medium. I love a gorgeous sunset too. I try to watch the sunset every evening that isn’t too overcast. Nature can really put life’s metaphorical storms into perspective, and soothe and help heal us. I also try to meditate often. And, of course, there is writing, which is an amazing, cathartic outlet for those of us who want to unleash its power.
RB: The book closes with a heartfelt letter from you and a wish for dreams, hopes, and continued belief in ourselves. What are some of your dreams and hopes as you now enter the field of children’s literature? What thoughts are you currently thinking for your life?
AA: This is another lovely question. I absolutely hope to continue writing books and, hopefully, reach the readers that need my words and stories the most. I think every writer would love to write an award-winning bestseller and experience phenomenal success, and I won’t claim that I’m any different. I love to dream big! I think the most important thing, though, is to answer the call of creativity and share my creations with the world. I’m a bit of a recluse, and I have a tendency to want to hide my talents away, but writing this first book has forced me to set some of those tendencies aside and bring myself out into the open. And it has come with some beautiful rewards. Readers that have read I Am Thinking My Life have started reaching out to me in meaningful ways, telling me how much this book has meant to them, and sending me pictures of their darling children with the book, and I can’t even begin to describe how much that means to me. Also, to go to a Barnes & Noble, a library, or an independent bookstore and see my book on the shelf is probably always going to be a pinch me moment for me – especially in light of the reverence I’ve always had for bookstores and libraries. So that is already a beautiful dream realized. Now, “I am thinking my life” as a (someday) seasoned author, and hoping for more opportunities to continue to engage in this inspirational work.
RB: Thank you, Allysun, for joining us on the KidLit in Color Blog! Is there anything else you’d like to add? AA: Thank you so much for inviting me, Rashmi! This has been an amazing honor. I wish you and the rest of the Kidlit in Color authors all the best!
Allysun Atwater is the author of I Am Thinking My Life, illustrated by Stevie Lewis and published by Bala Kids. She is an educator, and non-practicing attorney. Allysun grew up in Odessa, Texas where she was a quintessential 80s latchkey kid and an avid reader with an insatiable love of the library. Allysun is a graduate of Southern Methodist University (SMU) with a bachelor’s degree in English, Stanford Law School with a juris doctorate, and Stanford University with a master’s degree in education. Allysun lives in the Houston area with her husband, twin daughters, her mother, her nephew and two spirited Shih Tzus.
Aya Khalil: Thanks for letting me interview you for Kidlit in Color. I read your beautiful upcoming picture book, The Moon from Dehradun, illustrated beautifully by Tarun Lak, and was completely blown away. This picture book is loosely based on your own family's story from the partition 75 years ago. Can you briefly explain this more to our readers?
Sharon Shamsi: THE MOON FROM DEHRADUN was inspired by my mother’s personal experience of the Partition of 1947, when my grandparents – and 15 million people – were forced to flee their homes in what is known to be history’s largest forced migration. AK: Why did you write this picture book and when did you start writing it? SS: I wanted to write this story for my children, for them to know their family’s history. I realized there was not much information about such an important historic event. After thinking about it for many years, knowing how important it was to share this story with all children, I finally began writing it around 7 years ago. AK: Seven years ago, wow! Tarun's illustrations are incredible. What did you do when you first saw sketches and then the final illustrations? Any favorite spread? SS: I was blown away by Tarun’s illustrations. When I first saw them I burst into tears. I was so overcome by emotion, at seeing my words brought to life by such beautiful illustrations. It was an overwhelming moment, and I am so grateful to Tarun for reaching out to me, to ask details about my grandparents. I absolutely love the cover illustration – it simply takes my breath away! AK: They are truly incredible. What do you hope readers learn after reading your beautiful new picture book? SS: I hope readers learn about this particular period of history and become curious to know about their own family history. It can be very empowering.
AK: I learned a lot! Your other picture book, Zahra's Blessing, featured a stuffed animal. Was it coincidental that both picture books had dolls/stuffed animals or is there a reason? SS: It was totally coincidental. I wrote them both at different times, and it just so happened that they were released in the same year. The reason for having a doll or a teddy bear, is that most children have a toy they are attached to, and perhaps it makes the story more relatable. AK: I love that. This topic is obviously serious and may be a bit scary for young readers, but you did such an amazing job making it kid-friendly. Do you have any tips for authors or writers who write about serious/scary subjects for children? SS: I try to put myself in a child’s shoes. I dig deep into my own memories to gather the emotions I felt as a child. So my only advice would be to try and remember your own childhood, in order to convey the emotion authentically. AK: Beautiful advice. Where can our readers find you and purchase your books?
SS: My books are available wherever children’s books are sold. You may purchase directly from Simon and Schuster through the link below: