Interview by: Susan Muaddi Darraj
SUSAN: Congratulations on this newest picture book! I loved learning about Abdul’s storytelling talent, as well as his encouraging interaction with Mr. Muhammad. What inspired you to write it?
JAMILAH: My inspiration for stories almost always comes from specific experiences in my life and the inspiration for Abdul and Mr. Muhammad is no exception. While working for a community center, called Mighty Writers, I was teaching a writing workshop to early elementary aged students. Most of the children were enthusiastic about this workshop and filling up their little notebooks–most of them except one student. We’ll call him “H.” H wrote one sentence and then told me he was done. When I prodded him, asking him if there was more he wanted to add to the story, he eventually told me “I’m not a writer like them,” referring to the other kids in the workshop. H was maybe six at the time, and I remember thinking how does a child that young decide that about themself?
I ended up coaching him through adding more and more to his story, and I remember him continually wanting to stop and correct his handwriting and spelling. This is something I’ve noticed quite a bit as an English teacher and writing workshop leader: kids stopping and self-correcting so much they don’t get their ideas out. I had to push him to not care and to keep going. I had to keep emphasizing that more than anything, I was excited to hear what happened next and I was not looking at his mistakes. He needed to know that the story he had to tell was what made him a writer. When our workshop time was over, he had filled up his notebook and couldn’t wait for his dad to pick him up so he could show what he had done. H had never had the experience of writing so much.
SUSAN: Abdul has some anxiety around the fact that he flips letters when he reads and writes. How did you decide to build this into his character?
JAMILAH: Having taught young children writing, I’m very aware that many children, with or without diagnosed disabilities, struggle with writing, and that regardless of diagnosis, they can all be very self-conscious about it. I left whether Abdul has a specific disability open for a few reasons. One is that there are multiple disabilities that could lead to his struggles. Within my own family, we have Abdul’s same issues with writing but these are due to autism, not dyslexia or dysgraphia, which are the more obvious disabilities that could be at play in this story.
The other is in my experience these issues are often not tied to a disability at all. Letter flipping for example is still within the range of typical development through second grade. I wanted kids with all kinds of learning differences that lead to writing challenges to feel at home in this book, and I wanted those children to understand their writing challenges as a common experience and not something to be ashamed of.
SUSAN: Mr. Muhammad shares his writing journal with Abdul and points out how writers always write "messy" at first. Do you keep a journal like this? Can you share with us your own messy process?
JAMILAH: Messiness is definitely a part of my process. I can’t create something new without creating a mess first so then I can organize my mess. I talk a lot about this process here. I’m definitely not a complete pantser but I need to be a messy pantser for a while before I can start plotting and organizing my ideas. My notebooks have my crazy scrawlings (and sometimes doodles), often out of order, and my most obnoxious habit (it gets on my nerves that I do this) is writing in random notebooks for the same story. I’ll have bits and pieces of stories in multiple notebooks. When I need to get an idea down, I grab the closest notebook and just start writing. I do work to at least label the bits and pieces and make sure that each of them has a specific purpose. Like Abdul, drafting for me means writing a less messy mess.
SUSAN: The illustrations by Tiffany Rose are remarkable. I love the depiction of Abdul's neighborhood and school and classmates. What was it like working with Tiffany Rose?
JAMILAH: Honestly, we didn’t communicate a lot during the process except about the initial character sketches. I did wish for Abdul to look like my sons with tall hair and skin “the color of an orange-brown sunrise.” She also asked if it would be okay to make Abdul a lefty like herself, which I thought made perfect sense. However, other than that, we didn’t talk much at all. I think artists should be trusted as professionals to own the picture books they illustrate, and she definitely owned this book!
I knew looking at her previous book, M is for Melanin, that Tiffany would create beautiful, diverse Black children and communities of color. I’m in love with seeing the beautiful depictions of Philadelphia children and adults. I also love how she depicted aspects of the Philadelphian neighborhoods I know well. She captured a corner of South Philadelphia that’s close to one of my favorite Philly mosques and the community center that inspired this book! She put in the El train that I traveled on a lot as a kid and young adult. All of this was without even speaking with her.
SUSAN: We always use Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s metaphor – that kidlit should provide mirrors and windows for children. What are the mirrors and windows being provided to young readers in Abdul’s Story?
JAMILAH: In a lot of ways, this book is a mirror for me as a girl, for my children, and for people like us. We are neurodivergent, Black, Muslim, and from a specific urban context. Even down to little things it is a mirror–I struggled with sloppy handwriting (although strangely, people now compliment my handwriting) and as a girl was made to feel very self-conscious about it. So, this book is for that child who has been made to feel self conscious about the way they express their learning too. I didn’t struggle with writing but I’ve known and loved a lot of kids who do and wanted this to be their mirror.
In a lot of ways this book makes me feel very vulnerable because it is so much me and my loved ones on the page. When I write, I don’t like to think about the window that I’m opening because it can take away the focus from the kids inside who need the mirror–the kids who are in my in-groups. However, I do hope now that it’s coming out into the world that other children will find these experiences relatable and empathize even though they might not know Black Muslims or might not struggle with writing or might not have experienced living in cities.
I also want them to see value in the stories of these kids who are different from them. One of Abdul’s biggest lessons to learn is that being different doesn’t mean his stories don’t have value in the classroom. In fact, in many ways, his differences make his stories more valuable.
Interview by: Alliah L. Agostini
ALA: What ultimately compelled you to make your sweet tofu-making memories into a story?
HW: The inspiration for this story was born of my tofu-making experience with my treasured grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat nearby and watched as she cooked—a process that sometimes involved tofu.
She would wash vegetables, chop meat, stir porridge, and cook all the meals for our entire family. It was during these times that she would share stories that transported me to faraway places and other eras.
After I moved to the US and had my own family, my kids would ask many questions about the process and tools we used to make tofu together: serving as a warm reminder of the sweet time I spent with my grandma in the small kitchen across the ocean. Hence, a story began to take shape.
ALA: This book is not only about creating tofu, but all of the items (and concepts) used to create it. How did you decide to integrate a more holistic experience into the text?
HW: A great book calls for multiple layers with varied messages readers can take away from the story. Though the idea behind the book was grounded in the tofu-making process, I knew the story must involve a bigger concept that is more relevant to kids.
When I cooked with my own kids, I noted their preoccupation with imaginative play and occasional complaints about the time required to cook a proper meal, which inspired me to weave the topic of patience into the text.
In examining the tofu-making process in a more imaginative way, I discovered an assortment of inherent elements that connect with nature and even the universe at large. I’m now so happy to have found a sweet spot that includes food, culture, patience, nature, and intergenerational love all tied into one story.
ALA: I loved your integration of auditory cues into the text, especially since smells and tastes are more predominantly used in stories of food. Why did you decide to use sound cues to engage your readers?
HW: In some tofu-making steps, the use of onomatopoeia comes naturally: such as when blending beans with water and boiling soymilk. It was during the revision process that I realized using onomatopoeia would add a pattern to the structure, making it fun and predictable and more satisfying for young readers to read aloud while adding another layer to the storyline. It’s for this reason that I added sound cues to each tofu-making step as well as in preparing for meal time together.
ALA: Julie’s illustrations are so cheerful and whimsical. Did you incorporate many illustration notes into your manuscript, especially for the more succinct ‘And it takes…’ spreads, or did she just run with the text? And are there any fun ‘easter eggs’ hidden in the illustrations that readers should look out for?
HW: I didn’t add many art notes at all. Though I am an illustrator as well as an author, I didn’t have many specific thoughts regarding the illustrations in this case. There were so many different ways to interpret the text, and I felt it best to leave this task to the illustrator, editor, and art director to do so per their preferences. This required high levels of trust—among the author, editor, and illustrator—to believe in one other while working together to bring the story to life.
When NaiNai and Lin read a book together, Julie’s corresponding illustration reflects so many imaginative and cultural elements: including traditional Chinese symbols, home goods, and natural components. Readers should look out for these intriguing details.
ALA: What do you hope children and families ultimately take from the book?
HW: I hope readers will enjoy this multi-generational tale that explores the magic of patience in making tofu (a food consumed in China for over 2000 years), using sights, sounds, and lots of imagination. As an ode to patience and delayed gratification, this book supports the mindset that good things take time—a concept both children and families can apply in many areas of life.
ALA: What is your favorite memory of passing time while you made tofu with your grandmother?
HW: Above all else, I value the time spent listening to my grandma’s stories. Many of these were about life in the Chinese countryside, which is where she spent most of her life. Since I was born in the city, I didn’t know much countryside living—especially in the decades before I was born. So, I was always curious to learn about something so seemingly close to me yet unfamiliar as well.
ALA: What are your favorite ways to eat tofu?
HW: I love Mapo tofu with ground meat; but since my kids don’t like spicy food, I only occasionally eat tofu prepared in this manner.
ALA: As an author, illustrator, and associate publisher of Yeehoo Press, you wear many hats within kidlit, alone. Which role has been your favorite so far?
HW: My two favorite roles are author and associate publisher. As an author, I can tell the stories I want to tell while gaining a first-person perspective about the type of support an author needs in publishing: helping me understand how a publisher can better collaborate with authors.
As a publisher, I enjoy access to inside industry information including multiple ways books and book-related products are developed and sold. This inspires me to become a better entrepreneur. My ultimate goal is to produce successful books, which I believe requires a combination of compelling storytelling from the author and the illustrator as well as publisher contributions with respect to sales, marketing, and distribution platforms.
ALA: Your book trailer and the theme song are adorable. Have you convinced your children to do a dance to it yet?
HW: Thank you for your kind words. It in fact took me some time to arrange a dance for the song, which called for fun, easy-to-learn moves that aren’t too simple. I did convince my children to perform the dance, and I’ll release a corresponding video soon!
Tofu Takes Time - Picture Book Trailer - Helen H. Wu
ALA: Can you share a bit more about your previous books - and any to come?
HW: The first picture book I ever wrote was a rhyming book, GOOD NIGHT, GOOD NIGHT. Back then I didn’t know anything about meters, beats or patterns. Part of me was embarrassed and part of me was pretty proud that I wrote a rhyming book even before I had the concept of these rules. Sometimes it just takes passion and courage to start a journey!
My next picture book, LONG GOES TO DRAGON SCHOOL, illustrated by Mae Besom, will be published by Yeehoo Press in February, 2023.
Inspired by my experience as a minority immigrant student, this picture book follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. Wrapped in Eastern and Western dragon lore, this fantasy tale celebrates perseverance, self-acceptance, and cultural differences.
Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author, illustrator, translator and publisher. She is the author of TOFU TAKES TIME, illustrated by Julie Jarema (Beaming Books, 2022) and LONG GOES TO DRAGON SCHOOL, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press, 2023). Helen is the Associate Publisher of Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publisher. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that can empower children to understand the world and our connections.
Currently, Helen lives in San Diego, California, with her family and two kids.
Learn more about Helen Wu at:
Cover Reveal! Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change by Tameka Fryer Brown; Illustrated by Nina Crews
It's Women's History Month and today we are happy to reveal the cover of a new picture book about the trailblazing icon Shirley Chisholm!
Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm's Fight for Change is written by KidLit in Color author Tameka Fryer Brown and illustrated by Nina Crews. It will be released on November 1, 2022 by Millbrook Press.
Lisa Stringfellow talked with Tameka and Nina about their book, which was edited by Carol Hinz and designed by Danielle Carnito and Nina Crews.
Lisa: Thank you Tameka and Nina for sharing your gorgeous new book with us. Tameka, can you share how this wonderful story came to be?
Tameka: In 2017, author Kristy Dempsey alerted me to the tweet of a certain editor who had requested a picture book manuscript on Shirley Chisholm. At the time, though I knew it was an outstanding idea, I was convinced that fictional stories were my lane. Still, every now and again I would think about it, what my approach might be if I were to make the attempt. Two years later, after reading her autobiography, reviewing other books and articles, and watching hours of video footage, I felt like I knew and understood Mrs. Chisholm much more intimately. I focused on channeling her no-nonsense, can-do spirit, and that’s when I finally figured out how to enter the story.
While I was apprehensive about writing nonfiction at first, I’m so glad I decided to give it a try. I am exceptionally proud of this book.
Lisa: Nina, tell us about about the art in the book! What was your inspiration for the cover? What was the process you used in developing your ideas?
Nina: Tameka’s wonderful writing and Shirley Chisholm herself were the inspiration for this image. The cover is always the last illustration to be created. This is good, because by the time I get to it, I’ve got the overall look of the book figured out. This is the first non-fiction book that I have illustrated, and I began by combing the internet for images of Shirley to use as reference. Her energy, intelligence, passion, and humor really shine in those photographs. My challenge was to reflect that in my digital collage illustrations.
The cover is a collaboration with the art director and editor, and we went through a bunch of ideas. First the art director sent me some suggestions. Then I sent back a few ideas of my own. We knew the image needed to reflect how Shirley Chisholm used her voice to fight for change. This is a central theme of this book. Each exchange brought new thoughts about what image to use and how to design the title type. The finished illustration is based on sample art I created to be considered for this project. What a delight to have my first response to Tameka’s manuscript transform into the final cover art!
Lisa: And here is what we've been waiting for! Cover reveal time!
Lisa: Tameka, what were your thoughts when you first saw the cover?
Tameka: I thought, Oh my goodness! This is GORGEOUS! I love it so much! WOW! I love it, I love it, I love it!!
That’s pretty much an exact transcription of my thoughts…the first time I saw it and all the times I’ve looked at it afterwards. I couldn’t be happier with Nina’s art, both on the cover and the interior spreads. Nina’s passion for Mrs. Chisholm—her character, her impact, and her legacy—shine through in every illustration. The bright colors and bold graphic design channel Mrs. Chisholm’s spirit perfectly. It’s the type of cover that will grab a kid’s attention. I absolutely love it.
Lisa: And Nina, now that we’ve seen your beautiful work, can you share any advice for aspiring illustrators?
Nina: Get inspired! Spend time looking at other illustrators’ work. If you’re interested in creating books, dedicate some time to reading picture books cover to cover in your local bookstore or library. Pay attention to blogs and follow folks you admire on social media. Remember that there’s a lot more out there than gets shelf space at the major bookstore chains.
And be sure to play! The best work we make comes from the joy we bring to it. So, look for ways to find joy in your practice. Experiment! I’ve found that ideas I play around with can show up in paying projects down the road. The time taken to explore new ideas is never wasted and keeps me inspired.
Lisa: Tameka, what would you like everyone to know about this picture book?
Tameka: Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change is written as a narrative free verse poem with themes and details that are accessible to younger and older readers alike. The back matter, including an extensive timeline and a diverse list of additional resources, make it the perfect book for all ages to learn about this trailblazing icon. Between the lyrical text and the vivid illustrations, Not Done Yet is both educational and captivating, which makes it a worthwhile title for every collection.
I truly love this book. I hope you will too.
Lisa: Thank you Tameka and Nina for sharing the inspiration and work behind your upcoming book!
Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm's Fight for Change will be released on November 1, 2022 from Millbrook Press and is available for pre-order from Bookshop, Amazon, and other retailers.
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.