We are so excited to feature award-winning author, Reem Faruqi this month on our blog! Her second middle grade book in verse, Golden Girl, comes out this month! She shares below how her experience inspired the book.
It happens slowly yet swiftly. A red lipstick.
A gold necklace.
A makeup bag.
The list lengthens.
My friend is taking my things.
The set is gorgeous. Rubies and pearls. I have never been a big jewelry person, but holding my grandmother’s delicate jewelry and hearing the stories of who passed it on to who, where it was worn, changes everything. Woven into the intricate jewelry are stories I have not heard … yet.
It takes me a while to realize it’s me. Other people are mumbling. My mother tells me I should get my hearing checked. The thing about hearing loss is that it’s typically irreversible, something I never knew. And the cause remains unknown. Currently, my hearing loss is mild and in one ear. I did not realize until masks became a fixture that it has become harder to understand the grocery store cashier, that without the visual cues of seeing someone’s whole face, conversation is trickier.
These three experiences are bits and pieces of what I wove into my latest middle grade novel in verse, GOLDEN GIRL. Real experiences are typically what I weave into my stories. I fictionalize them, but at the base of some of my fiction is something real. Raw emotions that I have experienced. Drawing on these experiences, I can understand what my character is feeling because I may have gone through it.
In GOLDEN GIRL, my character Aafiyah Qamar has mild hearing loss. She struggles with being attracted to pretty little things and may ‘borrow’ them. Jewelry plays a part in her coming-of-age story.
I initially resisted writing Aafiyah’s story. Aafiyah has flaws, big ones, yet I could hear her compelling voice in my head. Through writing GOLDEN GIRL, I learned Aafiyah didn’t need to be instantly likeable, but she did need to be redeemable.
In my story, I infused humor, a strong family dynamic, my Muslim faith, and a lot of heart. After some hard lessons that Aafiyah learns, she learns to move forward and do what’s right, to try again. Because no matter what age we are, we all deserve a second chance.
From the award-winning, ALA Notable author of Unsettled and Lailah’s Lunchbox, this is a captivating coming-of-age middle grade novel in verse about seventh grader Aafiyah Qamar, a Pakistani American girl who hatches a special plan to help her family but finds that doing what’s right isn’t always easy. For fans of The Thing About Jellyfish and Clean Getaway, this is a heartfelt, soul-searching story with laughter, hope, and lessons learned.
Seventh grader Aafiyah loves playing tennis, reading Weird but True facts, and hanging out with her best friend, Zaina. However, Aafiyah has a bad habit that troubles her—she’s drawn to pretty things and can’t help but occasionally “borrow” them.
But when her father is falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed and gets taken in by authorities, Aafiyah knows she needs to do something to help. When she brainstorms a way to bring her father back, she turns to her Weird but True facts and devises the perfect plan.
But what if her plan means giving in to her bad habit, the one she’s been trying to stop? Aafiyah wants to reunite her family but finds that maybe her plan isn’t so perfect after all.
"A story about family, friendship, change, and hope." --Kirkus
“In Aafiyah, Faruqi creates a relatable but flawed protagonist whose road to redemption makes for an engaging, warmhearted story.” --Booklist
"Much like in her previous novel Unsettled, Faruqi’s elegantly crafted verse illuminates a Muslim family navigating and ultimately transcending domestic challenges." --Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“This story [has] a well-characterized, flawed heroine and a lot of heart.” --Publishers Weekly
Book Launch link here.
Reem Faruqi 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. She’s also the author of “Amira’s Picture Day,” “I Can Help,” and a middle grade debut novel in verse, “Unsettled” which all got starred reviews. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her camera and buttery sunlight. Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters.
Instagram and Twitter @ReemFaruqi
Kirstie: Congratulations on your new book AMAH FARAWAY. Reading it was like a trip back to 1994-1995 when I lived in Tianmu with my husband and toddler. We spent a lot of time at the park and visiting the night market where I purchased jade bracelets for friends and family. Your book being about Taiwan was really special for me and brought back a lot of wonderful memories of my time spent on the island.
Margaret: Thank you! I’m so glad you connected with the book. Living in Taiwan sounds amazing! Since the book has been out, I’ve heard from a few people who lived there when they were younger–it makes me wish I had done that too!
Kirstie: Clearly, you were inspired by your grandmother to write Amah Faraway. I love books that tell inter-generational stories because those relationships are so important. Tell us why you wrote this book for young readers.
Margaret: Like Kylie (the main character in Amah Faraway), I grew up in the United States, and my grandmother lived in Taipei. I adored her, but our relationship wasn't easy because we were separated by distance, language, and culture. At times, I felt jealous of friends who saw their grandparents more often and who shared all the things that my amah and I did not. I hope readers who are growing up far away from loved ones will see themselves reflected in Amah Faraway and will take away how special their relationships with their faraway loved ones can be. If they speak Mandarin at home with their family, I hope they will feel proud to see their language reflected in a real book. If they are Asian, I hope they will feel happy to see a character who looks like them. Any of these reasons are why I write for young readers. I hope after reading Amah Faraway, young readers will feel validated, valued and seen.
Kirstie: Amah Faraway is beautifully written in reverse poem, which I imagine is challenging, but it works perfectly for this story. What made you choose this method of writing?
Margaret: The first time I read a reverse poem, I noticed that the meaning changed between when the poem was read normally and when it was read in reverse. I also noticed that the tone seemed dramatically opposite. During the first half of my story, Kylie feels awkward and unfamiliar with Taipei--the culture, the food, the language, even Amah and her faraway family. I chose the reverse structure because I wanted to highlight the dramatic change in how Kylie feels mid-way through the story, when she opens her heart to Amah and Taipei.
Kirstie: You included simple Chinese words throughout the book. Why was that an important addition to the text?
Margaret: Speaking different languages is one major barrier which can cause two people to feel distant from one another. I felt it was important to show how Amah and Kylie are distanced in this way–Amah speaks Mandarin, and Kylie only "kind of understands." In the reverse poem format, Amah speaks Mandarin words while Kylie remains silent in the first half of the story. But in the second half of the story, Kylie speaks the same Mandarin words that Amah spoke. When I was young, even though I knew some Chinese words, I was reluctant to speak them because I was embarrassed -- the words felt unwieldy on my tongue, and I knew my pronunciation was less than perfect. I imagine Kylie having these same feelings. Kylie speaking Chinese without reserve in the second half of the story shows how she's feeling emotionally closer to Amah.
One wonderful side effect of having Mandarin in the text is that children who speak Mandarin at home with family members can feel proud to recognize their language in an actual book. On a recent virtual school visit, a little girl told me a bit shyly yet proudly that she could speak Mandarin. We had an exchange, and her teacher emailed me later that same day to tell me how the little girl's face had lit up during our visit.
Kirstie: At KLIC we value children being exposed to different cultures and peoples and you did a great job of incorporating Taiwanese culture into your book. Did you rely solely on your memory or did you conduct research?
Margaret: One of my inspirations for Amah Faraway came from visiting Taiwan with my own children. I used my memories from that trip to plot out the story. For example, during that trip, my mom took me to a mom-and-pop youtiao (Chinese donut) shop that looked exactly like the one Tracy Subisak illustrated in the book. My mom also planned a huge family banquet for us, inviting 14 tables worth of relatives (12 people each) that we hadn't met before. My children literally only ate rice. I remember this because I wondered what they were going to eat for the next eight days. For the finer details that I couldn't recall, I searched the Internet. For example, I had to search for exactly how many courses are served at a banquet. Even though I've been going to banquets my whole life, I never paid attention to this detail.
I can’t take credit for all the details though. Many of the wonderful cultural details were added through Tracy Subisak's beautiful illustrations. She lived in Taiwan as a young adult, and her visual mind captured so many amazing details!
Kirstie: The illustrations are colorful and fun. How was it working with Tracy Subisak and what is your favorite illustration?
Margaret: Tracy and I worked together through our editor, Sarah Shumway. We never actually met until after our work on the book was done. Now that the book is out and we’re promoting it, we’ve been lucky to share some events.
I'm so pleased with Tracy's heartfelt illustrations. It's hard to pick a favorite spread, but I love the second big banquet scene after Kylie, the main character, has had her big emotional change. She's devouring food at the Lunar New Year banquet. Her mouth is wide open and she's lifting the bowl up as she shovels food in. For readers who don't know, in Chinese culture, we lift the bowl to our mouths when we are eating rather than leaving the bowl on the table and using the utensil to bring food up to our mouths. I also love the expression on Amah's face as she watches Kylie enjoy her food. Finally, I love the Chinese lion dancers in the background meant to set the story around Lunar New Year, but which add to the joy and celebration in the scene.
Kirstie: What is your hope that children will take away from Amah Faraway?
Margaret: I hope Amah Faraway will resonate with readers who have felt disconnected from faraway family and/or their family heritage, and that they will see how one moment of being open to something "new" led to hope, happiness, and connection for Kylie. Maybe they will see Kylie and Amah speaking Mandarin and simply feel proud to speak Mandarin. Or maybe they will get joy out of finding a character who looks just like them in an actual book. Ultimately, I hope that children who read Amah Faraway will come away feeling valued and validated.
Kirstie: Your book is coming out right before Lunar New Year. How will you celebrate the holiday?
Margaret: For the first time, we prepared for Lunar New Year by having a huge cleaning day where we mopped, swept, scrubbed, vacuumed and wiped the house from top to bottom. I have to say I really like this tradition and think it will be something we strive to do before every Lunar New Year. I love starting the year with a clean house!
To celebrate, we did the most important thing–reuniting with family (it’s not hard since we live within thirty minutes of each other) and shared a delicious meal. We also ate lots of yummy pineapple cakes.
Kirstie: What are you working on next?
Margaret: Next up is Hooked on Books about a deep sea anglerfish named Pearl who just wants to finish reading her book. But she keeps getting interrupted. So she swims down, down, down deeper into the ocean to find the perfect place to read.
What are you currently reading?
Margaret: Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids by Susan Cain (Author), Gregory Mone (Author), Erica Moroz (Author), Grant Snider (Illustrator)
Kirstie: When you’re not writing we can find you…?
Margaret: Playing board games with my family, watching my kids play soccer, jogging, reading, or hanging out with friends.
If you told Margaret Chiu Greanias she would be an author when she grew up, she would have said you were dreaming. She dreaded writing open-ended homework questions, term papers, and especially essays—until her last year in college when she fell in love with creative writing. She is the author of Amah Faraway (Bloomsbury Children's, 2022), which was a Junior Library Guild selection; Maximillian Villainous (Running Press Kids, 2018); and the upcoming Hooked on Books (Peachtree Publishing, 2023). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram, or sign up for updates on her website at margaretgreanias.com.
We are happy to reveal the cover of KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling's new picture book, Ride, Roll, Run, which will be published on October 4, 2022 by Abrams. Fellow KidLit in Color author Aya Khalil interviewed Valerie about her book. With sparse text—the book has only 30 words—Valerie has kept her responses to my questions brief, as well.
What does the cover say?
First of all, shout-out to Sabrena Khadija for the amazing illustrations! Doesn’t she have such a beautiful, unique style?
The cover says Community, Diversity, and Joy, which is evident in all of my books. I hope people also feel the characters’ energy and excitement that emanates from the cover.
Why should folks read this book?
Ride, Roll, Run will be a walk down Memory Lane for adults, and children will enjoy seeing activities that they like to play.
I hope people will have fun with the cadence of the rhyme and be inspired to do something fun after reading the book – realizing the possibilities for frolic that surround them daily.
And here is our cover reveal!
Together We Ride (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita and published by Chronicle) will release on April 26, 2022. Next year, there will be sequels to Together We Ride and Ride, Roll, Run, as well as my Scholastic early reader series.
Currently, I’m revising my first chapter book and hoping to get the series published.
Valerie Bolling's debut, Let's Dance! (SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner and Connecticut Book Award finalist), was published in 2020, and she’s happy to welcome Together We Ride (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita) and Ride, Roll, Run: Time for Fun! (illustrated by Sabrena Khadija) in 2022. Sequels to these books as well as a Scholastic early reader series (illustrated by Kai Robinson) are slated for 2023.
Valerie has been an educator for almost 30 years, teaches classes at Westport Writers Workshop, and is a WNDB mentor. She is deeply immersed in the kidlit writing community, particularly involved with SCBWI, the 12X12 Picture Book Challenge, and Black Creators HeadQuarters.
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was excited to interview KidLit in Color author Lisa Stringfellow. This is an interview you don’t want to miss! So, let’s begin …
HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, Lisa, on your middle grade debut, A Comb of Wishes, which releases today! I’ve been waiting for this book to be published ever since it won the manuscript critique award at the annual Kweli conference in 2019, which is when you and I first met.
Thank you, Valerie! That conference seems like it was just yesterday!
What’s your one-liner to describe A Comb of Wishes?
I think it is best summed up as "Mermaids, Monsters and Black Girl Magic!"
I love it, especially the alliteration. Share a little more about your book.
A Comb of Wishes is about twelve-year-old Kela who is grieving her mother’s recent death when she stumbles on an ancient box in a coral cave. Inside is a beautiful hair comb and when she touches it, she opens a magical connection to a dangerous mermaid named Ophidia. The mermaid offers Kela a wish in exchange for her comb’s return, so Kela wishes for the thing she wants more than anything else...for her mother to come back.
How did this book come to be? Feel free to talk about your inspiration, your publication journey, and anything else you want to share.
I started writing the manuscript in 2013 and my inspiration came from thinking about two middle grade books I loved, The Tale of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
For the characters and setting, I drew on my family’s culture. Kela lives in St. Rita, which is inspired by Barbados where my father was born. The story is rooted in the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of the islands.
I wrote the manuscript along with my students as part of NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, the challenge which encourages writers to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.
After completing the manuscript in 2014, I worked on revisions for several more years with the help of critique groups and wonderful mentors I gained through Author Mentor Match and Writing in the Margins. In 2018, I received an offer of representation from my agent Lindsay Auld of Writers House and we revised until the manuscript was ready to go on submission. Once on sub, the novel quickly moved to a five-house auction and was acquired by Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books in December of 2019.
What a wonderful journey, Lisa. Please tell us more about the refrain in A Comb of Wishes: “Crick Crack. The story is put on you.”
Throughout the book, the chapters that are told from the mermaid Ophidia’s point of view start with the phrase “Crick Crack.” It is a cue for the reader and part of an important cultural tradition in the Caribbean. In the Black diaspora, storytelling is a participatory event that requires interaction from both the teller and the hearer of the tale. Another place you can see this in the call and response structure of sermons within the Black church.
In the Caribbean, many islands have traditional ways of beginning and ending a story, story frames, that serve as signal for listeners. “Crick, Crack” (sometimes written as “Krik Krak”) is the frame that I use throughout my book, and it is common on islands like Haiti, Grenada, and others. A popular ending phrase in storytelling in the Caribbean is “De wire bend, De story end.” The tags sometimes are just a signal of ending, like writing “The End” at the end of a story, but other times the tags invite the listener to consider some deeper meaning in the story.
The call and response nature of that refrain truly drew me in as I read. Now tell us about yourself and the type of writer you are.
Of course! When I write, I usually start with a concept or premise. I have some scenes in mind and may even choose to write out of order at times.
I would consider myself somewhat between a plotter and a pantster. My favorite part of the writing process is definitely revision. Drafting can be hard at times, but I get the most enjoyment from looking at words on the page and being able to shift and shape the ideas.
What’s your involvement in the writing community?
Having strong relationships in the writing community is important for all writers. When I first began writing, I looked for organizations where I could meet other writers and learn. My first critique group met bi-weekly at a Barnes and Noble to share our work and give each other feedback. They read early manuscripts of A Comb of Wishes and helped me develop the characters and voice.
Since moving, I’ve transitioned to mostly online communities (some have connected me with writers who are close to me geographically). I’m part of several communities such as Inked Voices, The Writers’ Loft in Hudson, MA, Grubstreet and Writers of Color (Supported by Grubstreet), Black Creators HQ, KidLit in Color, and a few Slack groups. The Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference has led to many friendships and craft learning opportunities. My debut group the 22Debuts has been especially valuable to me over the past two years leading up to my book’s launch. I’ve met many wonderful writers who I know I will stay connected to past our debut year.
I think learning is a lifelong process, and as a writer I continually look for ways to improve my craft. I frequently take workshops and classes, and I attend writing conferences to develop a deeper knowledge of writing craft. One silver lining of the pandemic has been increased opportunities for online classes and seminars that make it possible to study from home.
As a picture book writer, the idea of writing a middle grade novel is daunting to me. What advice would you give to someone new to writing this genre?
I would advise aspiring writers to take the time to learn their craft. The best thing you can do is to read widely within the age category and genres that interest you. It’s important to read recent books and not rely on our nostalgia for books published when we were young. The needs and interests of children have changed and reading current books will help you understand the nuances of craft, such as style and voice.
Writers also must understand something about what’s important to children that are of middle grade age (8-12). They are learning who they are in the world and starting to explore their independence. They also care deeply about family and friends and the relationships that matter to them.
Observing and listening to kids is a great window into their world, but if you’re not normally around children that age, YouTube channels created by kids and children’s programming (think Disney, Nickelodeon, etc.) can provide great fodder for research.
Those are great suggestions, Lisa. One thing I’ve noticed about middle grade books is that there are multiple threads interwoven throughout the story. In A Comb of Wishes these threads make the story captivating, begging the reader not to put the book down. Is there a thread you enjoyed developing most? Was there one that was particularly challenging?
When I began working on A Comb of Wishes, Ophidia’s character came to me first. She is a complicated creature and I loved writing her. In her past, she once had been hopeful and found friendship with a human girl, despite warnings from the Sea, but that risk backfired and she lost that friend and all trust in humans. When crafting her character, I wanted to keep her emotions in the forefront, because it's such a strong part of her motivation. That emotion is also what eventually causes her to listen to Kela and begin to trust again.
What was challenging about writing her character was that doing so broke one of the “rules” of middle grade storytelling, which is not to have adult point of view characters. I went back and forth over whether to include chapters in Ophidia’s voice, but ultimately decided it was what the story needed and wanted.
How do you hope young readers will experience A Comb of Wishes?
I hope readers will see a positive representation of Black girlhood and family in the novel. Even though Kela is dealing with sadness, she is not alone. In the Black experience, community is vitally important. Eventually, she confides her feelings to her father, her best friend, and others.
What book can we look forward to next from you?
I’m currently working on my second middle grade book which will be another stand-alone fantasy novel. I like to call it my “princess in a tower” story, but it won’t be like other fairy tales readers might imagine.
My hope is that it will be an exciting book and one that empowers young readers to be brave and stand up for what is right.
Lisa, I have no doubt that your second book won’t be like other fairy tales and that it’ll be just as fantastic as A Comb of Wishes. Thank you for allowing me to interview you, and congratulations on being a Brown Bookshelf honoree!
Thank you so much, Valerie!
A Comb of Wishes is available wherever books are sold, including:
For more about Lisa Stringfellow and her books ...
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @EngageReaders
Interview By: Tonya Abari
TA: How did you birth this beautiful story, Stella Keeps the Sun Up? We want juicy details. Does art imitate life? Did this story come to you in a coffee shop or dream? Fill us in!
CE: First, let me say thank you. I am so happy you enjoyed it. There were so many iterations of this book…picture book, chapter book, dream sequences, but I loved the idea of exploring a story about sleep. I’ve been lucky throughout this process to work with a critique group through SCBWI and workshop different ideas with my own family and fellow parents in the trenches. And, this felt like the perfect first story to explore.
The bedtime struggle is real in our house. I have memories of sleep training, sleep regression and more recently trying everything from refusing entry into our bed and having our kids sleep on the floor to bribing them with promises of movies or Lego sets if they sleep in their bed uninterrupted for 30 straight days. Right when we think we have it figured out, things change. One thing that seems consistent is that neither of our kids seem particularly phased that their parents are sleep deprived!
TA: Stella, the book’s narrator, has such a strong and relatable voice. What inspired you to write the story Stella Keeps the Sun Up in first person? To expand on this question, why do you think it’s important to consider point of view in picture books?
CE: My children go to a Montessori school and one of the greatest lessons we have learned as parents is how capable our children are – this is true when it comes to using actual glassware at 3-years-old, getting dressed by themselves at a young age, but also in expressing themselves and their desires. I really wanted to write a story that honored a child’s voice and agency.
So often we talk past children, assuming that an adult is better equipped to speak on their behalf. I recall a recent trip to the grocery store and my seven-year-old daughter was practicing ordering from the deli counter. After she placed her order, the person she spoke to confirmed her order with me. I noticed what happened, but more importantly she noticed and wondered why the person didn’t speak to her instead.
While there are many picture books that I love that are in the third person for most of the storytelling, it was important for me to celebrate this joyful, little Black girl’s voice.
TA: The illustrations of Stella are so vibrant and joyful. I love how even her clothes (tee shirt with sun, cute afro puffs) really reflect her personality. Did you have any input on the details of this artwork?
CE: Lynn Gaines did an amazing job! I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her. The one thing that was important to me was that there was no ambiguity about her race. While we are beautiful shades of brown, I was inspired by my desire to bring mirrors to my children and so I very much wanted to see Stella a deep brown.
While we did speak early on about how I envisioned Stella, I will give her all the credit. The fact that she is wearing a tutu AND athletic tube socks, with slippers is spot on. Stella exudes joy and such comfort in her own skin. She marches to her own beat and seeing her on the page makes me smile each and every time.
TA: We love Stella’s fun new rules. Who wouldn’t enjoy dessert before dinner?! How important is it for parents to encourage this free-spirited inquisitiveness?
CE: I had a great childhood, but am also part of the generation where our parents could more easily answer a question with “because I said so.” That doesn’t fly as easily with our children. They want to know the steps that got us to a particular answer and are often ready to express an alternate point of view, which can help justify why ice cream, which is made from milk for example, would make a great pre-dinner appetizer.
There is a lot we can learn from them and frankly some of it involves getting back in touch with the “I can do anything” attitude. I often find myself in awe in conversations or in observation of my own children as they work to figure out the world on their terms. They don’t subscribe to the same rules that dictate why or how things are done. Some of that is because they don’t know them yet, but some of it is also because they don’t care. That innocence can be really freeing.
TA: Stella shows great emotion throughout the entire book. What advice would you give to a new picture book author who is crafting an emotional arc for their main character?
CE: Remember to have fun and to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good as you get started. Even if you want your book to have a certain feel, be a certain length or word count, put it all out there and see what is working along the way. You will have plenty of opportunity to make cuts as you move along. Have fun with characters and voice and be ok with the idea that your final draft may look nothing like your first. If this is for a picture book for children, try to honor a child’s voice and perspective. Big feelings for example are ok sometimes and age appropriate. I have also found it helpful to set an intention for my stories and then to try and figure out how to see that through a child’s eyes.
TA: You dedicated this book to your village as well as your children. Parent writers often find inspiration from their own children. Can you elaborate on how your own children awakened your sense of innocence and adventure? And do you have any advice on how parent writers can tap into these senses if writing for children?
CE: I was looking through my writing journal recently and so many of my notes came from offhanded conversations with my children and my wonder at their kid logic in action. Oftentimes, we as adults, have a tendency to overcomplicate things. It’s not always that deep. One of the blessings of the pandemic for my family was being forced to slow things down. While the various lockdowns have been challenging for different reasons, we also managed to have a lot of fun doing simple things like building forts with pillow cushions, going on scavenger hunts around our neighborhood, taking out the old polaroid camera, seeing firsthand how yeast works and how to make our own slime. There can be wonder in what we so often take for granted. There can be stories in those chance adventures and dialogues.
TA: 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?
CE: I feel so grateful to Denene Millner and the Simon & Schuster team who saw promise in Stella and who committed to making her a series. My children loved reading the Eloise and Fancy Nancy series and the fact that I can be a part of bringing Stella, a character that looks like them into the world is so exciting. Our next book is about Stella and Roger’s hunt for a missing tooth and I have a few more up my sleeve that I can’t wait to share with the team.
Clothilde Ewing has spent her career communicating through journalism as an assignment editor and producer at CBS News and as a producer at The Oprah Winfrey Show, through politics as a member of the press team for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and with nonprofits, where she currently leads communications efforts at The Chicago Community Trust. She was inspired to write the Stella series, after reading a New York Times opinion piece by her now-editor, Denene Millner, titled: “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.” Her goal is for children, whether they look like hers or not, to see children of color in books that have nothing to do with race or struggle and have everything to do with belonging and joy. A graduate of Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Communications, she currently lives in Chicago with her husband and two young children.
KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis interviews Amina Luqman Dawson about her new middle grade novel, Freewater, which explores a little-known part of Black history.
What’s the story behind your story, and what inspired you to write about it?
I first learned about enslaved people who escaped and lived clandestinely in the wilderness while taking a Latin American studies course in college. They are known as maroons. In that course we discussed maroons in the Caribbean and South America. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known this history before. I thought of the story of two children escaping enslavement and finding a secret maroon community way back in 2002. However, it took years for me to seriously begin writing it. Having my son was my inspiration. Being a parent made how I would share the story of my son’s enslaved ancestors with him a pressing question. Freewater was my answer.
How much of the setting sprang from your imagination and how much was based on research you were able to locate?
There is so much we have yet to learn about maroons in the United States. In part, because maroonage was on a much smaller scale here than in other countries in the Americas. Also, because smaller instances of maroons are harder to find given that their very survival was built on being clandestine.
Still, while writing Freewater, it was fun intertwining bits of information I garnered from maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, maroons in other parts of the American South and those in other countries. Here are a few pieces of history I loved including. The character, Suleman, a skilled marauder, is based on maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp and those in other swamps and forests in the American South. Marauders who stole from plantations were pretty common. They would steal everything from corn to cattle for their survival. I appreciated including patrols or “Tree People” as Ada called them. In Freewater, these people camouflaged themselves in leaves and vines to blend into the swamp. They watched over Freewater and offered protection. Well, among the maroons of Jamaica, there were maroons who used the same strategy to make themselves unseen.
You use multiple viewpoints to tell your story. Can you share why you chose this device? Did you add viewpoints during the revision process?
Multiple viewpoints allowed me to share numerous voices of children, each with their own story to tell and challenge to overcome. My very first draft only had a couple of characters, over time I layered on character voices one by one. When their voices come together it creates a tapestry. It’s in that rich fabric that the humanity of these children comes to light. We see how each brings their own personality and point of view to the story. I loved that I was able to do this for enslaved children. I love that we get to hear their voices. Too often depictions of enslaved people stop at the pain of their bondage. I hope that these multiple viewpoints help the reader to see beyond that pain.
Only one character, Homer, speaks in first person. Why?
Homer is my protagonist. He’s spent his life trying to make himself invisible. As a result, he keeps much of who he is inside and hidden. I liked the idea of being able to hear that inside voice and the journey he goes through to learn that he matters and that he can and must be seen.
Nora, the plantation owner’s daughter, is the only white character whose perspective challenges the status quo. You compare her realization of her father’s cruelty to “a first small crack setting into a sheet of lake ice.” Why was it important to include her point of view?
Nora has her own journey. It’s a journey in what it means to be an ally. From a place of privilege, first learning to recognize injustice, then striving to do something about it. Yes, beyond Nora the other white characters chose the status quo. That’s a reality I wanted to convey. Enslavement of African Americans was an accepted norm. I wanted Nora to show that allyship is a choice, sometimes it’s a hard one that goes against everything everyone around you claims to be true. Ultimately, Nora had the courage to make some good choices. For readers, I think there’s something children of privilege can still learn from Nora’s journey.
Suleman is such an enigmatic character. One of my favorite passages is when he says: “None of those are good questions…Here are some questions: Can you spot bear tracks in mud? Do you know how to keep snakes off you at night? Do you know how to hunt?” What purpose does his character serve in the novel?
Suleman is my superhero. He invokes the most courage and comes across as almost having super powers. So much of what enslaved African Americans overcame has been lost. Yet, the truth is that they survived and sometimes found ways to thrive against almost insurmountable odds. Suleman helps depict the amazing essence of who they were in a language children can understand.
Many of the young characters come to realize unexpected strengths towards the end of the book. It’s a great reminder to children that our gifts develop in their own time. What other jewels do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope they feel a bit of excitement and thrill when they think about the enslaved souls they came to know while reading this book. I hope they leave the book with a feeling of connection to these characters that can translate to a connection to this important history.
Thanks for sharing your inspiration and insights, Amina. How do you plan to celebrate your book birthday?
With COVID my plans are modest. I’m having a virtual book launch. Since the COVID lockdown in 2020, my family does a weekly Facetime call. I imagine we’ll have some sort of virtual celebration during the one we have on my book launch week. Mainly, I’ll just try to pause and be thankful to have made it this far with a book that only started as a dream.
Can you share what you’re working on now?
I am working on a new book. I’m not quite ready to say what it’s about, although I think it will have some connection to Freewater.
Amina Luqman-Dawson loves using writing to tell stories and to build an understanding of race, culture and community. Her published writing includes op-eds in newspapers, magazine articles, travel writing and book reviews. She’s authored the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia Publishing). She’s worked as a policy professional, researcher and consultant on issues of education and criminal justice. She has a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Master of Public Policy from UC Berkeley. She’s a proud mother of a 13-year-old son. She, her husband and son reside in Arlington, VA
To learn more about Amina, please visit her website and social media pages.
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Freewater is now available in bookstores and online.
Join Amina at her Book Launch on Feb 3rd!