What inspired you to write Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
The idea first came to me one warm spring evening. As I strolled through the neighborhood with my family, I kept hearing a squishy popping sound. I wondered what it was and tried to find out. No one else seemed to hear it. After many more walks, and research, I learned that I’d been hearing worms!
What if I wrote a story about that? After watching my students on the playground and other kids in the neighborhood, I wanted to capture their imaginative play, and the way they invent whole worlds with very little. Along with memories of my own childhood, playing outside with my siblings, Jayden’s character emerged—though he wasn’t yet named Jayden. The worms didn’t survive the many drafts, but the idea of a kid who noticed those kinds of details in nature, did.
Jayden lives in an urban setting which makes it difficult for him to connect with nature, but you provide ways to make that happen for children like planting runner beans in a milk jug. Where did these great ideas come from?
On my walks, I notice all kinds of planters, bird feeders, and bird houses. The hand made ones usually catch my attention first. I love seeing how others recycle materials. There are lots of great ideas online as well. It’s amazing how many different ways people can use milk jugs!
Growing up, we decorated old cans and bottles and boxes all the time. We used what we had. It’s essential to recycle, but I think it’s important to show children the joy and satisfaction in using your hands to make things.
Jayden forms a friendship with an elder neighbor who also enjoys being out in nature. Tell us why that relationship is important in the story?
Their relationship is special because it’s formed by shared interests. Jayden and Mr. Curtis become allies, each helping the other enjoy the outdoors even more. Their relationship is mutually beneficial. At times, Jayden helps Mr. Curtis. Other times, Mr. Curtis helps Jayden. Jayden is interested in hearing Mr. Curtis’s memories and Mr. Curtis enjoys creating new stories with Jayden. Their intergenerational relationship highlights the respect for elders in African American culture.
The illustrations by Ken Daley are vibrant and colorful. Tell us about your illustrations and working with Ken.
Though I had expressed a few art preferences before production began, typically, authors are not in direct communication with the illustrator. The creative director thought Ken’s style would suit the story best and relayed info and questions through the editor to me and vise versa.
I was thrilled when I first saw Ken’s sketches. They were in black and white, and so energetic and expressive. He conveyed so much so swiftly. But that was just the beginning. I was blown away when Ken added color. His palette is so bright and expansive that Jayden and Mr. Curtis nearly jump off the page!
I loved Ken’s vision of Jayden, Mr. Curtis, Mama, and the neighbors. They were all clearly depicted as individuals that you might actually meet down the street in your neighborhood. Yet his style is also playful. I loved his animals too: the bird at the window, the curious rabbit.
That’s one of the reasons why I love picture books. You get to work with a wonderfully creative team of people, each adding something to produce a beautiful book that young readers can hold in their hands. Ken’s illustrations truly bring Jayden to life.
What do you hope children learn or take away from Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
I hope children see themselves as heroes of their own stories, no matter how fantastical the vision or how humble the actual setting. I hope children gain an appreciation for elders in their life and the role they can have in building relationships. I hope Jayden sparks more creative play and exploration of nature nearby. I hope children are inspired to cultivate community with their human AND nature neighbors.
What are you working on next?
Jayden may have another adventure or two in the works! I’m also working on another picture book biography, this time in collaboration with a poet. And, I’m always researching and writing other topics that bounce into my brain!
Mélina Mangal has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden. Mélina also works as a school library media teacher in Minnesota and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Mélina Mangal please visit her social media links below!
Interview with Sarah Kamya, founder of Little Free Diverse Libraries
by Lisa Stringfellow
I'm excited to welcome Sarah Kamya, the founder of the Little Free Diverse Libraries movement. As a steward of a Little Free Library myself, I was inspired by Sarah's work to build a Little Free Library in my community that served a two-fold need; that of BIPOC children who needed to see themselves reflected in the books they read and that of BIPOC authors and illustrators whose work I wanted to amplify. My library, The Little Free Kidlit Library, launched in April in my home of Hyde Park, MA and I'm so excited to have Sarah here to talk about her journey and what inspired her to start this movement!
Lisa: What was the inspiration behind Little Free Diverse Libraries?
Sarah: I was inspired to start Little Free Diverse Libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. After many weeks in isolation I found myself passing the same three Little Free Libraries on my nightly strolls, and as someone who has always been an avid reader and book lover, I would always stop to see what books were inside. When the murder of George Floyd occurred on May 25th, I knew I had to do something within my community. Fueled by the current tide of civil justice, I had the idea to create and install a Little Free Library to amplify and empower Black and Brown voices within my community of Arlington, MA. I wanted to create a Little Free Library where the only books that filled the library were books featuring diverse characters, written by BIPOC authors, purchased from Black-owned bookstores. I set out to normalize diverse stories and bring diverse narratives to the forefront, especially for Black and brown youth, who so often cannot find themselves represented in literature. My mission throughout this project has been to amplify and empower diverse voices, one book at a time.
Lisa: You're also an educator. How has that influenced your work?
Sarah: As a school counselor at a Title 1 Elementary School in New York City, the majority of the students I work with are Black and brown, and come from low-income communities. My work as a school counselor involves teaching coping skills, helping one build self-confidence, stress management, and more. My work in this field has influenced my work with Little Free Libraries significantly. I strongly believe that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. With a lack of representation of BIPOC characters in literature, the children I work with are significantly being impacted. As I continue to work with future change-makers, leaders, and activists, I am passionate about elevating their voices, and helping them see their worth. This can be as simple as seeing a character that looks like them, that becomes an astronaut for a day or goes on an adventure with their grandmother. When I was growing up I did not have books and resources where I saw myself. This impacted me greatly, and it is not something I want my students, or any other BIPOC individual to face.
Lisa: What’s been the biggest surprise about this project?
Sarah: The biggest surprise about this project has been the outpour of love and support across the United States and Canada. I have connected with a Little Free Library lover or steward in all 50 states, and have been able to send diverse books to fill a Little Free Library in every state. This connection and impact is something that goes beyond me. The books that enter these Little Free Libraries are shared, borrowed, held tight, and passed along. Knowing that these diverse books are in the hands of many across the country is unbelievable. I have also loved connecting with people on Instagram. There are so many incredible humans doing amazing work. I feel so lucky to be connected to other diverse book lovers and those who are continuing to support this project.
Lisa: What books have been popular in your own Little Free Library?
Sarah: In my Little Free Diverse Library in Arlington, MA books are constantly leaving and new books are being returned weekly. Since we live five minutes from one of the elementary schools, the library can be a frequent stop on the way to or from school. Many families can be seen stopped outside the library selecting books, trading books, and promising to return back another day when they have a book to leave. Some of the most popular books have been, Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, Becoming by Michelle Obama, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.
Lisa: How do you select titles to include? How do you keep your library/libraries stocked?
Sarah: When selecting books I like to mix between children’s books, young adult books, and adult books. As of lately there are more children’s books in the library as I am focusing on collecting books for children, and find that there is so much to learn and take away from a children's book. We keep a back-stock of books so that the library is never empty, and thanks to the Amazon wishlist people have been kind enough to send books to our house.
Lisa: What’s your favorite story about the Little Free Diverse Libraries project?
Sarah: This is a hard one! I mean meeting Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Ripa was pretty spectacular…. But I would have to say the day I installed the Little Free Diverse Library. My Little Free Diverse Library is installed in the front yard of my family's home in Arlington, MA. This home is where I grew up, where I was raised, where I was the only Black girl in school until 6th grade, where I learned who I was. Installing the library outside my home was a very significant and memorable moment.
The day of the installation was a beautiful July summer day, and I was surrounded by my family, childhood best friends, and neighbors who have seen me grow up. Seeing the installation of the Little Free Diverse Library signified change for not only the small town I grew up in, but for myself. The library reminds me that the quiet, lonely, isolated Black little girl who never saw herself represented in literature, or the people around her, was making something of herself, and changing the narrative so future little Black girls never have to not see themselves represented, supported, amplified, and empowered in books, or when they walk down our street.
Lisa: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a Little Free Diverse Library?
Sarah: My advice for someone who wants to start a Little Free Diverse Library would be to just do it!!! If you have the passion and the dedication to diverse literature (and the ability to stick something in your yard or community) then why not! When setting up a Little Free Diverse Library think about your community. Who is represented? Who is not? What conversations are missing? How can you foster a diverse space for sharing, communicating, and inspiring? It is absolutely incredible to see how the community has come together because of this library. I see a Little Free Diverse Library as an educational tool and resource for non BIPOC community members, and a beacon of hope for BIPOC authors, children, and adults. There is so much to gain from having a Little Free Diverse Library, and personally it feels like my very own baby.
Lisa: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sarah: I hope to install 10 more Little Free Diverse Libraries before January 2022 (totaling 20 Little Free Diverse Libraries in one year)! I am eternally grateful for the team at Little Free Library for all their support, and the incredible organization that they created that allows others to connect with literature, any day, anytime, for free.
Sarah Kamya is a child of an Ugandan immigrant, has a Masters from NYU in Counseling and Guidance in Schools K-12 and now works at P.S. 191, a K-8 Title 1 Public School in New York City as a School Counselor. It is here she witnessed first hand how hard it is for young Black and brown students to find their own experiences reflected in popular media, especially literature. What started as a passion project turned into a small movement. In the first 10 days LFDL raised over $6,000 to purchase books from Black-owned bookstores. To date, Kamya has raised over $20,000, has sent diverse books to a Little Free Library in all 50 states, and has installed 10 Little Free Libraries at schools in Boston and New York City.
You can find out more about the books Kamya is reading, sharing, and amplifying on LFDL’s Instagram (@littlefreediverselibraries).
Interview with award-winning author, Reem Faruqi
By: Aya Khalil
Aya: Hello and Salam, Reem! First of all I am so excited to be interviewing you. I don't know if I have shared with others before but you were the first author who really inspired me to publish a book, traditionally, after falling in love with your debut Lailah's Lunchbox in 2015. And our books were both published with Tilbury House, and you answered so many of my questions along the way, so thank you for that! You just released a new book called Amira's Picture Day! Congratulations. Would you tell us a little about this book?
Reem: I’m SO glad you were inspired, Aya. I've loved watching your writing journey unfold! I also loved your book The Arabic Quilt and can’t wait to read more from you. And yay for Tilbury House Publishers – I’ve had a great time with them.
Amira's Picture Day is a story about wanting to be in two places at once and speaking up when you want to make a change.
About Amira's Picture Day: Ramadan is over and Amira can’t wait to celebrate Eid. Spotting the new moon, she celebrates because Eid is tomorrow and she gets to miss school to go to the mosque for the Eid prayer and brunch. But then she realizes that tomorrow is Picture Day at school. How will her class remember her if she’s not in the class picture? What will Amira do?
You can order here.
Aya: My kids and I really enjoyed Amira’s Picture Day and gifted a copy to their library! Your MG debut, Unsettled comes out on May 11th! Could you tell us a little about this novel in verse?
Reem: You can see the summary on book ordering sites, but this is what I originally had in my query:
My #ownvoices middle grade verse novel, Unsettled, has a strong, female character and a poetic voice. In my lyrical 14,100 word manuscript, Unsettled, Nurah reluctantly moves continents. In a new land, she sticks out for all the wrong reasons. At school, Nurah’s accent, floral print kurtas, and tea colored skin contribute to her eating lunch alone. All she wants is to fit in. If she blends in enough, will she make a friend? For now, all she has is her best friend brother Owais. In the water though, Nurah doesn’t want to blend: she wants to stand out and be just like her star athlete brother and win a swimming medal. However, when sibling rivalry gets in the way of swimming, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates and Nurah might risk losing the one friend she ever had…
Aya: That sounds incredible! You have a third book coming out called I Can Help in a few months. Would you please tell us about this?
Reem: Zahra often happily volunteers to help a fellow classmate who needs a little extra assistance in school. It is only when she gets picked on by two popular students for helping him, she decides to distance herself from the fellow classmate to fit in more with her popular classmates. Later, she feels regret for her actions, but it is too late. Now, she decides to take matters into her own hands…
You can preorder on Amazon or from Eerdmans.
It comes out in the fall on August 10th just in time for the beginning of the school year.
Aya: Perfect for the beginning of the school year. What inspired you to write these three books and the inspiration behind them?
Reem: I love incorporating real experiences from my life into my stories and each of these 3 books has these elements. Also, I wrote these books all at different times over the past few years- they just all happened to fall for publication in 2021.
Aya: What are some challenges you have faced throughout your publishing journey?
Reem: My most recent challenge is launching two books within one month which is a great challenge to have ☺. Amira's Picture Day release date got delayed so I have two books that will be launched within Ramadan – Unsettled and Amira's Picture Day! I am just trying to get through each day, one fast at a time, while juggling emails!
Another challenge I faced was going many years without any offers. Since Lailah's Lunchbox got published in 2015, I worked and wrote and gave up and prayed and tried again and after six long years, three books are releasing this year! I assumed after having one book out in the world, the rest would be easy and would automatically come, but that wasn’t the case when I waited for manuscripts to sell. The writing journey can be quite rocky at times and sometimes quite smooth. It’s the weirdest thing.
Aya: What a great reminder about how it’s never easy to sell a book but you persisted and made it happen. What advice would you give to writers, especially BIPOC writers, who want to publish a book?
Reem: I would advise you to connect with authors and critique partners who look like you and share your beliefs as well as connect with authors who don’t share your faith and culture and race. That way you can get a wider variety of opinions and insight on your manuscripts. I think it’s important to be in both worlds. I’m in a traditionally published Muslim Author group (you’re in it and we’re both admins, Aya, along with Saadia Faruqi and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow – all authors I admire!) that I really have enjoyed being in and often ask maaany questions there.
Aya: I do love a good support group! What are some of your favorite books recently?
Reem: I love reading but this Ramadan haven’t had the chance to delve into books as much. A recent read I’ve loved, for picture books is Inside My Mosque by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly.
For middle grade, I’ve enjoyed Hena Khan’s Amina's Voice and the way she shares her love for Pakistan with her friends as well as navigates middle school and its challenges .
For YA I just read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and loved it. I happened to watch the movie first! Both were powerful.
Aya: Great suggestions. Tell us more about yourself. Where do you live? Do you have another job besides being an amazing author? What are your hobbies?
Reem: I live in Atlanta. I work for the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta and schedule speakers for a variety of organizations. I am also a seasonal photographer but am finding less time for that!
Hobbies – doodling, NOT COOKING, making messes, napping (does that count?), Pilates
and walking. I recently discovered these Pilates workouts with Robin Long and love them. I love that the Pilates exercises (https://thebalancedlifeonline.com/) are 10-15 minutes and are a nice computer break.
Aya: I love napping too, when I can. Ha. Where can people find you? Twitter, Instagram, website and where can they purchase your books?
@ReemFaruqi on Twitter and Instagram
Please check out my photoblog at www.ReemFaruqi.com .
They can purchase my books at indie bookstores near them or on Amazon with the links provided.
Aya: Thank you for letting me interview you! Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Thank you for having me Aya! I love seeing our books the world and am so happy the younger generation is FINALLY seeing themselves in books!
Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning children’s book author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her toddler, camera, and buttery sunlight. You can find her at www.ReemFaruqi.com or on Instagram or Twitter.
Aya: Hi and Salaam, Susannah! I am so excited to interview you about HALAL HOTDOGS! Would you please summarize the picture book in a couple of sentences for us?
Susannah: The children's book, Halal Hot Dogs, is about an Arab-Muslim boy named Musa who cannot wait to share halal hot dogs with his blended family, which includes his mother, father, sister and grandfather!
A: I looked at some of the preview photos online and noticed some delicious food in the book, which I loved! Can you tell us some of the foods mentioned, and why you included them?
S: I think what makes this book special, is that it features multi-cultural street food which adds depth to the story because not only does it celebrate halal food, but also celebrates foods from all over the world like churros, bao and samosas. The story also includes Middle Eastern specialties, like kufta (spiced meat), riz b'haleeb (rice pudding), and molokhiya. I feel that delicious food brings people together, so really, we celebrate cultures through cuisine!
A: I am getting really hungry now. I love kufta and I mentioned it in my own picture book too! Why did you write this book? Is it inspired by anything?
S: Halal Hot Dogs is inspired by my many years living in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My children are Brooklyn kids. They had all the streets in the neighborhood memorized by the age of four! We loved strolling around Fifth Avenue, getting our shopping done at the many local Middle Eastern businesses, like the halal butchers, grocers, and produce stores. We frequented the local masajid (mosques) often, and afterward, my kids would always ask for halal hot dogs from the many halal food carts around the city!
A: I won't tell my kids this, because they LOVE halal hotdogs! Tell us a little about the illustrations and the illustrator. What emotions did you feel when you first saw the sketches and illustrations?
S: The book highlights the charm of living in a large, diverse city. I feel that Parwinder Singh was really able to capture the magic of that in his illustrations! I was instantly taken by Parwinder's sketches. He is extremely talented, and I love how he gave a comic-style feel to the characters!
A: I love the lively illustrations he did! I've noticed that Palestinian Americans are VERY underrepresented in kidlit. Who are some of your favorite Palestinian American writers? What can we do to help amplify Palestinian-American writers and creatives?
S: It goes without saying that all cultures and religions should be represented in children's publishing. I find it exhilarating to learn about other cultures through picture books. As a librarian, I have parents anxiously calling me, asking for more diverse books. A handful in the library really doesn't cut it. I hope to see more in the near future. I hope to see more Arab authors, I hope to see more Palestinian authors, I hope to see more Muslim authors from countries all over the world! The publishing world has only just scratched the surface in terms of publishing diverse stories.
The best way to amplify Palestinian/Arab voices is to support the authors! Invite them to speak at various conferences, and book events. Include their books in your lesson plans, purchase classroom sets of books, and read them during story-time. Multicultural literature is needed in the classroom. We need every kid to see themselves in books, and that is the goal!
I recently came across a picture book retelling a Palestinian folktale. I was disappointed to know that it was not an #OwnVoices author...not even close! There is a culturally rich heritage to Palestine, and many are not aware of the importance of the oral storytelling; the folktales, lessons, songs, and sayings that have been passed down for many generations. I would love to see more of it in traditional publishing, documented by Palestinian/Palestinian-American authors.
The diverse publishing community is strong, and it is very reassuring when they amplify writers and artists from other underrepresented, or marginalized communities. I am proud to be a part of that community. As long as authors from diverse backgrounds can have a platform to speak, share, and contribute to the publishing/creative world, then we can continue to see change throughout the traditional publishing world. I think the movements that have brought us We Need Diverse Books, and #OwnVoices are amazing, and I think authors supporting these endeavors are critical and have already made some significant, positive change.
Some Palestinian-American poets to note include:
Naomi Shihab Nye
Many of their words have resonated with me
Arab American Authors/Illustrators that I think are great:
Aya Khalil (The Arabic Quilt)
Hatem Fathy Ali ( Illustrator) In My Mosque
Susan Muaddi Darraj (Farah Rocks the Fifth Grade)
Saladin Ahmed (Amulet)
Nadine Kaadan (Arab-British) (The Jasmine Sneeze, Tomorrow)
Muslim Authors that I think are terrific: (To name a few)
Jamilah Thompson Bigelow
Rabiah York Lumbard
A: Thank you for all of these great recommendations. Are you working on any other writing projects that you can share with us?
S: Nothing to share as of yet...but a few things in the works! My best work gets done at random coffee shops that I stumble upon throughout the Tri-State area. As a wanderer, I find that traveling long distances enhances my creative process. I hope coffee shops fully open back up soon so I can get back to a better writing routine!
A: I can't wait to hear more! Thank you so much for answering my questions. Where can people find you and also purchase your books?
You can request Halal Hot Dogs at your local library, and purchase Halal Hot Dogs from any major book retailer.
You can find me and my cats (oh yeah, and kids) on: Instagram
Susannah Aziz is a creative/freelance writer and children's book author living in NYC. She writes stories that focus on Arab and Muslim characters and hopes to see more culturally diverse characters, as well as neurodiverse characters represented in traditional publishing. Her debut picture book, Halal Hot Dogs (Little Bee Books), features an Arab-Muslim character named Musa that enjoys a special treat with his family after Jummah prayer at the local masjid. Susannah is also a librarian with a MSLIS from St. John's University (NYC). She hopes to create more library programs for children with Autism. As an urban librarian, she loves running into patrons all around town. Susannah also spent some time teaching as a middle school educator at an Islamic School. She is an advocate for UNRWAUSA https://www.unrwausa.org/. UNRWA USA National Committee (UNRWA USA) aims to promote a life of dignity and human development for Palestine refugees by informing the American public about UNRWA’s work and generating support for its programs in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Susannah lives in a very old, creaky, squeaky house with her husband, three kids, and two cats. Her favorite summer activity with her kids includes trying to hit every halal hot dog stand in NYC in search of the BEST hot dog! They still can't decide on just one!