An interview by Kirstie Myvett and Ana Siqueira
KM: Hi Ana, congratulations on your latest book, If Your Babysitter Is a Bruja. What inspired you to write this Halloween story?
AS: This story is based on a real story that happened to me, but it wasn’t during Halloween. I guess the Halloween was something I included to add some spookiness, but I believe this is a book you can read the whole year.
My story: One day I was at the beach with my three-year old daughter. She didn’t want to leave. I had to use my teacher’s voice to say - We need to leave NOW! And that’s when she started yelling and crying for three blocks - walking - that I was not her mom. I was a witch. Imagine my embarrassment. So that was the inspiration for my story.
KM: Holiday stories seem to be very popular. How long were you on submission with this book and what was the process in getting it signed?
AS: I revised this book while taking a class at Children’s Book Academy. In the end of the class, there was a showcase. Alyza Liu, the editor from Simon&Schuster asked to see it. My agent submitted it to her. She replied within a month. We closed the deal a few weeks later and after a few months everything was signed.
KM: There are many Spanish terms in the book that children will have fun learning. Is this something you include in all of your stories? If so, why?
AS: I am a Spanish teacher and my blended family speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. I believe learning Spanish in this country is so important. So my goal is to 1: motivate everyone to learn this beautiful language 2. Make the children who speak this language to be proud of their cultural and heritage.
KM: Halloween is often categorized in the scary holiday category but you’ve depicted a really fun story for children. Tell us why you chose that depiction vs. scary/horror?
AS: I wanted to show that we shouldn’t judge people or brujas based on stereotypes. I believe in this book, each reader can decide if the babysitter is a real bruja or it’s all imagination. But no matter what, they will see she is nice and sweet. So, don’t judge a bruja by her sombrero.
KM: Irena Freitas’ illustrations are bright and lively. What did you think when you first saw them and did you offer illustrator notes for this project?
AS: I had some art notes since the girl is an unreliable narrator. But Irena did much more than I expected. Through all the details and the character’s expressions, Irena made us dive into her imagination and live an aventura with her.
KM: How are you spending Halloween this year? Are you having any public readings or signings?
AS: I have a lot of events at libraries, bookstores and schools. It will be super fun. I will be doing an event online with the Miami Library, if anyone is interested in coming.
KM: What project(s) are you working on next?
AS: I have some other books coming out. But the project of my heart now is a story, based on my experience as a domestic violence survivor. And yes, it’s a picture book. I believe we can write about any topic if we can make it understandable and relatable to the little ones.
Ana Siqueira is an award-winning author from Brazil who cackles but doesn’t wear hats. When not flying with brujas, she teaches Spanish to adorable little ones, where she casts a learning spell that nobody can resist.
Some of her books are BELLA’S RECIPE FOR DISASTER/SUCCESS (Beaming Books, 2021) IF YOUR BABYSITTER IS A BRUJA/ CUANDO TU NIÑERA ES UNA BRUJA (SimonKids,2022), BOITATA: SNAKE OF FIRE (Capstone 2023), ABUELA’S SUPER CAPA/LA SUPERCAPA DE ABUELA (HarperCollins 2023), OUR WORLD BRAZIL (Barefoot 2023), ROOM IN MAMI’S CORAZON (HarperCollins 2024).
KM: Tell us about how you landed this exciting opportunity to write a children’s board book about Egypt?
AK: So the way I landed this awesome board book deal is pretty unique! On Twitter one day, an Egyptian illustrator (Hatem Aly and I love his illustrations - dream illustrator for one of my books one day for sure!) tagged me after a Barefoot editor, Kate DePalma, asked if there were any Egyptian authors out there. A couple more people tagged me also. I connected with Kate right away before the holiday season of 2021. She explained the Our World board book series and I fell in love. What I love the most about the series is that Kate sought out both authors and illustrators whose backgrounds are from that country.
KM: What kind of timeline or deadline were you given? Was it difficult to work in such a short amount of time?
AK: I think I was given a few weeks. I was brainstorming over winter break and jotted down ideas. Kate sent me the layout, another work-in-progress for an Our World book and more information about the series. We sent each other edits throughout a couple of weeks. The most challenging part was getting the English pronunciation of the Arabic words correctly. I also tend to write longer picture books, so I loved the challenge of keeping the board book very short!
KM: Were there any experiences you had while visiting Egypt that are included in the book or helped shape the book in any way?
AK: I didn’t get any inspiration from when I was there recently, but I got ideas from when I used to visit in the summer as a child and teenager and even young adult. I looked at old pictures I took and even videos I used to record. I remembered specific details of walking along the busy streets of Alexandria with my cousins, and stopping by the fruit stands. I even tried to remember the smells and sounds. It was a lot of fun using my childhood memories in this beautiful book.
KM: There’s an intergenerational connection in the book. What made you include that representation for young readers?
AK: I feel like all of my books have some type of intergenerational connection (and food!). I would say it’s part of my author brand now ha! I loved the dad and daughter joy presented in the book. Grandparents are highly valued in Arab society, and it’s very common for adults and their children to visit the grandparents often in Egypt. Some even live in the same building or neighborhood. While I don’t live in Egypt, I still obviously visit my parents and I love the connection between grandparents and grandkids, so I wanted to include that.
KM: What were your thoughts when you saw Magda Azab’s illustrations for the first time? Which one is your favorite?
AK: I couldn’t stop smiling and screaming “THIS IS SO CUTE!!!!" The colors, the lines, the faces. Everything was so perfect and magical. She truly brought my words to life in the most beautiful way. She’s also Egyptian but lives abroad, like me, so we both brought our personal experiences into this board book. There’s so many favorites. I love the grandparents scene, because there’s so much joy in it, but I also love the simplicity of the toddler and her dad walking along the corniche, enjoying the little things in life.
KM: How have your children and family reacted to this book?
AK: They loved it. My youngest is now three, so it’s such a perfect book for her and she thinks the main character is her. Everyone else was so excited to see it digitally and I can’t wait for them to see it in print
KM: Do you have plans to celebrate the release? If so, what are your plans?
AK: I’m not quite sure yet! I was invited as a guest at a local farmer’s market so I’ve been coordinating with my local bookstore and publisher to see if we can sell it a week before the official release date and I hope it works out!
KM: What’s up next for you?
AK: The Night Before Eid comes out in March 2023 from Little, Brown and it’s illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh. The Banned Books Bake Sale comes out in 2023 from Tilbury House and it’s illustrated by Anait Smeridzhyan. Readers can find out more about these upcoming titles at www.ayakhalil.com
Make sure you enter our Instagram giveaway to win an advanced copy before it officially launches in October!
Freelance journalist and blogger Aya Khalil, holds a master’s in Education with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Yahoo! Book Riot and other publications. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others. She’s done sensitivity readings for DK Publishing/Penguin.
Aya is a picture book author and is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US Agency. Her debut picture book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story was published February 18, 2020 by Tilbury House.
She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Toledo. Besides writing and teaching, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and exercising.
She does author visits at libraries and schools and sensitivity readings. Contact her for details.
You can learn more about Aya at http://ayakhalil.com.
Aya Khalil: Salam Alaikum, S.K. Ali! I am so excited to be interviewing you again for Kidlitincolor.com. I just finished reading Love from Mecca to Medina and I needed a few days to process it all! Wow, what an amazing book. First thing's first, can you tell us how long it took for you to write it and any challenges along the way?
S.K. Ali: Walaikummusalam! Excited to be back at Kidlitincolor.com! Brewing this book took a year but the writing itself took a few months, with two intense months of marathon writing (see below why this is my process!) The challenges were juggling the expectations of writing a romance in which the couple were already in love at the start of the book, as well as the sacred nature of their journey. That was a hard feat!
AK: I personally have been to Mecca and Medina twice, and I love all of the descriptions in the book. If I'm not mistaken, I believe you also went recently? Were you writing the novel at the same time? How was your experience there while writing it, or writing it after you came back.
SK Ali: Actually, my most recent trip to Mecca and Medina was a while back in 2015. But I have a trove of cumulative memories from having visited periodically over the years since I was a child; I relied on these while writing, as well as the efforts of kind people who recorded their trips and uploaded them onto YouTube. This visual research was especially important to make notes on more recent developments at the holy sites. I didn’t want to get things wrong so I verified and cross-referenced my memories with current video evidence from other pilgrims. Watching such precious, personal vlogs revived the feelings of awe I felt during my own visits in years past and, I feel, contributed to infusing Love from Mecca to Medina with vivid emotional and visual descriptions. So, thank you YouTubers!
AK: I love the many layers in the book; the struggles Zeynab faces in college: trying to do it all as a college student but also facing microaggressions and struggles in her love life. I love that she's not the "perfect Muslim" and actually didn't really want to go to Umra at first, and even when she did, she didn’t really enjoy it at first. That really resonated with me personally because we're not perfect humans (lol!) and sometimes book reviewers will point that out. Can you tell me why you think it's important to have Muslim characters with flaws?
SK Ali: I love that you loved that! I choose to write characters struggling because when you’re committed to ideals/ways-of-living that vary from the greater society around you, struggling on a grand scale is part of the equation. In any kind of fiction, it’s unrealistic to write characters who get it right all the time or who don’t need to grow; actually, that would be a pretty bad book, lol. In terms of Muslim characters, especially Muslim characters who are trying to be committed to their faith, it’s important to communicate the struggle as it is. It brings in all the elements of good storytelling: conflict, tension and finding something and someone to root for. It’s just honest and compelling art to record our – often lowly – humanness.
AK: I am interested to know, as I'm sure many readers, what your process is like in writing your novels. Do you have everything planned out? Do you use mood boards, sticky notes? Please tell us how you geniusly write these novels, including Love from Mecca to Medina.
SK Ali: I’m a reformed Pantser – and that capital “P” is there for a reason! (My reformation came due to multiple DEADLINES – all caps! – happening simultaneously soon after my debut novel.) This new reformed-me must know all the major beats in a story, almost every character’s arcs, themes, framing elements, etc. before I start writing. I find doing all of that work upfront (that is what I meant when I said Love from Mecca to Medina brewed for a year) makes the writing process quicker and tidier. I absolutely love free-writing scenes and letting my creativity take the characters places but now I allow that freedom within little assigned descriptors that aid in the completion of the plans I have for the story. Some people find the story after they cough up a messy draft, honing in while writing multiple drafts, whereas I find the story in the midst of messy notes and doodles (I use storyboarding to work out beats and important scenes) and images I gather. This allows me to deliver a pretty clean manuscript with most (not all, of course) of the kinks worked out beforehand (in the planning stages) on time. This is how I’ve written all my novels, except for Saints and Misfits.
AK: What's next for you? Any more books following Zeynab? How about Janna? I love that Janna made an appearance in this book and the role she played, and the ending (ahh!)
SK Ali: Zayneb’s and Janna’s stories came to a conclusion in Love from Mecca to Medina – I spent a lot of time planning that season finale in the epilogue! As for what’s next: I’m switching gears and in the process of finishing a speculative fic duology, as well as a humorous historical fiction YA novel I’m co-writing AND an adult rom-com. (But, I’m not going to lie, Adam, Zayneb and Janna’s books are always going to be my favorite children!)
AK: Would you like to add anything else about you or your book?
SK Ali: Just something that I get asked often: what order should we read your novels? To get the full, immersive experience in this universe I’ve created for these characters (which fans call the “Zaydam” universe, to which Janna interjects with, “ahem, it’s the ‘Janna-Zaydam’ universe” because her story was first!): Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z, Misfit in Love, The Eid Gift(a free novelette available at Rivetedlit.com) and then Love from Mecca to Medina. I hope you get a chance to read them all!
AK: Where can readers find you and purchase Love From Mecca to Medina?
SK Ali: They can find me at my website, skalibooks.com, on Instagram and TikTok at @skalibooks and on Twitter at @sajidahwrites. Love from Mecca to Medina can be purchased here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Love-from-Mecca-to-Medina/S-K-Ali/9781665916073
KidLit in Color members Kirstie Myvett and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow discuss Jamilah's latest picture book, Hold Them Close: A Love Letter To Black Children.
KM: Hold Them Close, A Love Letter To Black Children, touches on the complexities of Black children’s feelings in a poetic but very real way. You open with examples of happiness then seamlessly delve into the heavier stuff that Black children must, unfortunately, face. Tell us why embracing both the happy and sad is so important for Black children.
JTB: When I began writing this book, it was in response to Black pain. I wanted a way to help children manage their feelings about our collective and ongoing traumas. Yet and still, I wanted to affirm that they are deserving of joy. I wanted to affirm that at heart, we have always been a people who find and make joy in spite of the most unimaginable cruelties. We are a people who have created and continue to create culture and beauty in spite of oppression.
KM: I believe this book is powerful and that it will be a tool to help children explore their feelings alongside their parents, teachers, and classmates. When you wrote HTC, did you think about the potential dialogue that would take place around it because you so eloquently address what I imagine children are feeling during difficult, “bigger than sadness” times?
JTB: I did write with a hope that this book would serve families and communities in having necessary conversations. Unfortunately, I know we will need ways to navigate continued racism, and I do hope this book is a support in doing that work. It’s hard to talk about “sadness bigger than sadness” in picture books because we want stories for children that are light. Our kids need that. Nevertheless, there are moments when life just isn’t light and when it’s impossible to shield our children from heavy realities. I wrote this book for those moments, wanting it to be a comfort and a tool in those moments.
KM: The illustrations and photography really drive your message home. While looking at the cover, I was overcome with memories of my own sons when they were little. I became very emotional looking at the stunning images throughout the book. Please tell us about illustrator Patrick Dougher and photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose artwork and images grace your book.
JTB: I sometimes tear up when I look at the images. Patrick Dougher is an acclaimed Brooklyn-based fine artist who works in many mediums including major city murals and has also worked with youth in his community as an art therapist. While this is his first book, he’s his own institution in the art world. Jamel Shabazz is a legend. He has documented New York City neighborhoods for decades. He is from Brooklyn and his photography has been shown in books, documentaries, and exhibitions. I adore his loving portrayals of the models in the book, especially the children. I still can’t believe I was able to have both of these artists work on my book.
KM: What is the message you want Black children to get from this love letter?
JTB: You are loved, you are worthy, you are heard, and we got you when times are hard. Hold on to who you are, hold on to your joy, and always, always, ALWAYS hold on to hope.
KM: I feel children of other races will also benefit and gain empathy from reading HTC. What is your message for non-Black children who, out of curiosity, pick up this book with its compelling cover?
JTB: I think the message above could apply to them as well. In addition to that, I hope they are inspired by Black resistance and resilience. I hope they see our shared humanity.
KM: What do your boys think of Hold Them Close?
JTB: The oldest has told me it inspires him, which is heartening. The youngest seems to appreciate the language and images. I hope it builds up their sense of self.
KM: Lastly, how will you celebrate your launch?
JTB: I’m excited that I’ll be celebrating on launch day with the community organization, Start Lighthouse Foundation, because it will mean celebrating with many children in the Bronx. While I’m not from there, I have done multiple school visits in that borough, and it always feels like home when I go there. I also am looking forward to upcoming events local to Philadelphia, including a story time with Children’s Book World during launch week and an event with the African American Museum of Philadelphia later this fall (date TBD).
KM: Thanks so much for stopping by Jamilah and congratulations on your latest book!
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. As an inaugural AMAL fellow with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), she developed foundational curricular frameworks for youth and adult anti-racist programming. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, and NPR. These works include Mommy’s Khimar and Irma Black Award Honor Book, Your Name is a Song. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books: Black Creatives Fund and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a committee member.
You can learn more about Jamilah at http://jamilahthewriter.com.
Illustrations by Patrick Dougher and photography by Jameel Shabazz and copyrighted.