KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis Interviews Andrea Loney about her middle grade biography, VIP: Stacey Abrams, releasing January 18, 2022.
Hi, Andrea! I am thrilled to chat with you about your new—and very timely—middle grade biography. Can you give our readers a brief overview of your book and how you came to write it?
VIP: Stacey Abrams – Voting Visionary is a part of the HarperCollins VIP series of chapter book biographies about innovators and trailblazers throughout history. My book covers Stacey’s life from her childhood, to her educational pursuits and political career, and it ends with her triumphant victory in the 2020 election and its shocking aftermath. I also include information on the historical context of the book’s events including the history of civil rights, voting rights, and more.
This project came to me as a work-for-hire assignment from HarperCollins. They gave me the topic, a projected word count, and a very tight deadline, then they asked for a sample chapter. I gave myself a day or so to panic because as a picture book author, I’d never worked professionally on a project that long, and my previous biographies had taken me years to research and write. But my agent had faith in me, the editor had faith in me, and I’d always been dazzled by Stacey Abrams’ work. So I decided to take a chance and try it out.
Young readers might be surprised to learn that outspoken and indefatigable Stacey Abrams was once a shy, quiet child. Did you discover any other surprising things about her?
I think my favorite Stacey Abrams fact that wasn’t included in the book is this: her one and only school fight took place in the first grade and it was over her admiration for Jimmy Carter, one of the kindest and most conscientious presidents our country has ever elected. I love that Stacey was literally fighting for social justice before she’d even lost all her baby teeth.
What was your research process like?
Since my deadline was so tight on this project AND since we were in the pre-vaccine thick of the pandemic, I was unable to travel for research. I made great use of my library cards, digital archives, and Google.
I found every book, article, website, documentary, and video I could on Stacey Abrams, and other topics in civics, such as the voting process, voting rights, civil rights, the census, and more. I managed the information in OneNote, Scrivener, and a clipboard stacked with articles. Whenever possible, I downloaded the Kindle version of books so I could easily search for my notes and annotations
I created a timeline of the lives of Stacey and her family, and a parallel timeline of historical events. I also kept a spreadsheet of facts, quotes, events, and other important information with the citations, page numbers/urls/timecode of my source information.
Lastly, I followed Stacey Abrams on social media and checked the internet regularly for any news that might affect the book (for example, after the Capitol Building Insurrection took place on 1/6/21, I had to make changes to the book reflecting its significance in the history and future of voting rights in the United States).
Your book mostly highlights Stacey’s activism and political accomplishments; however, the first couple of chapters focus on her proud, close-knit family. Why was it important for you to include this information in the book?
In general, when writing biographies for kids, I think it’s important to start with the main character’s childhood. Kids might not always be able to relate to powerful politicians or charismatic media personalities, but they get what it means to be a little kid navigating the small world of their own home and the bigger world outside of it. The Abrams family history, values, and mission inform and drive Stacey’s life’s work. The whole idea that we’re not just individuals, but important parts of a greater community that works together for the common good? For Stacey, that mindset began in her family home, but it echoes through every chapter of her life as she grows up and establishes her place in the greater local, state, and national community.
You include a story about how Stacey learns to not be intimidated by people who are smarter or more accomplished than she is, but instead to be open to learning from them as a way to grow and improve. That’s such an important message to share. What else do you hope readers will take away from this biography?
As a teacher, I meet many awesome young teens who are quiet, shy, and nervous about being judged by others – and with cell phones, social media, and everything else out there, I do understand. But I really want kids to see that Stacey’s confidence did not come instantly, and that even though she’s an extremely intelligent individual, she knew she’d still need to learn from others if she wanted to progress in the world. Sometimes she was scared, sometimes she was confused, and sometimes she was even embarrassed, but she took a chance and tried anyway. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from Stacey Abrams’ journey is that even if you feel like an outsider, you can accomplish astounding things in this world just by being yourself. In fact, the more you lean on your individual strengths and passions, the more powerful you can become.
Illustrator Shelley Rodney does an excellent job of capturing Stacey’s passion and determination as well as the strong foundation provided by her family. Did you have a chance to offer input or to work with her directly? If so, what did that process look like?
Isn’t her work amazing! I adore the artwork for this book! But as a rule, I don’t interact with illustrators directly – the editor moderates those communications so we can both do our best work. Once we had some sketches, I made a few comments on the PDFs, but not many. And when the final copy of the book was done, I went through the entire PDF to make sure that there was nothing amiss with the images and words.
Your publishing credits include acclaimed fiction and nonfiction picture books. This is your first middle grade work. What advice would you give to picture book writers looking to expand into middle grade?
Ooh, that’s a good question. My first piece of advice for anyone would be to read at least 20 – 100 middle grade books to get a feel for the voice, structure, and mindset of middle grade readers. So much of picture book writing is about placing the perfect words in the perfect order for 32 pages. But the writing process is very different for a 10,000+ word manuscript. While the individual words are still important, the structure is even more important. You definitely want to set the story up in a way that will keep young readers turning the page. As I was writing this manuscript, I tried to keep the language clear and conversational, so it almost felt like I was just gossiping in the hallway with a sixth grader about the adventures of our friend Stacey.
Is there anything else you’d like to share—about this or any upcoming works?
I am so excited for kids to read this book! I also have three more books coming out this year – a chapter book series called Abby in Orbit about a third-grade Afro-Latina-American girl living on the International Space Station in the 2050s, and Curve and Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams, which is a picture book biography of the famous Black “Architect to the Stars.”
Andrea J. Loney’s picture books include TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE (Lee & Low Books New Voices Award), BUNNYBEAR (ALA Rainbow List), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Caldecott Honor). Her upcoming works include the middle grade biography VIP: STACEY ABRAMS VOTING VISIONARY (HarperCollins, January 2022, the futuristic chapter book series ABBY IN ORBIT (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2022), and picture book biography CURVE AND FLOW: THE ELEGANT VISION OF LA ARCHITECT PAUL R. WILLIAMS (Knopf, Fall 2022).
To learn more about Andrea, please visit her website and social media pages.
To Order VIP: Stacey Abrams: Click Here!
Kathlyn J. Kirkwood - Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day- Kathlyn J. Kirkwood
Interview by Alliah L. Agostini
I had the pleasure to interview Kathlyn J. Kirkwood, debut author of middle grade memoir, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day. Ms. Kirkwood shares more about deciding to tell her story, some surprising tidbits about the making of MLK Day, her thoughts on inspiring activism in our children, and more.
Collectively, your story and book were decades in the making. How does it feel to finally be able to share your story with the world?
WONDERFUL! I feel wonderful and eternally grateful that I am able to share not just my story, but really the story of millions of unknown foot soldiers who have given of their time, energy, money, and bodies to effect change in the United States and across the world.
You didn't always intend to write a book about your experience. How were you ultimately compelled to do so?
It was a church friend, Jeanne Arradondo, who first suggested I write the book. At the time, I was presenting to teens and young adults at various workshops about my time in the Civil Rights Movement in a segment titled “How Dr. King’s Day Came to Be.” Jeanne attended one and afterwards recommended that I write a book. Even with that, it was still MANY years before I sat down to actually write it. In fact, I was working on another book—that’s still sitting on my shelf—when my first-born daughter told me that I needed to focus on what is now known as “Ain’t Gonna.” She told me I would be upset if someone else wrote my story.
How did you decide to tell your story in verse?
Throughout this book writing and publishing processing, I have been blessed with many mentors and angels. One of those was one of my Highlights Foundation editors, Deborah Hopkinson. After reading an early manuscript that was written in prose, she recommended that I try writing the book in verse. That was such a magical moment for Ain’t Gonna because in prose, the story wasn’t landing in the way I wanted, but once I started writing in verse, everything really clicked into place.
Your book is targeted toward middle grade readers, who are a little younger than you were when you were involved in the movement, and I understand you work with 3rd and 4th graders, as well. What about this age group do you find particularly inspiring?
They are still young and eager to learn and are receptive to new things. Part of what makes the Team Kirkwood Literacy Lab so much fun is watching how our kids, some of whom are dealing with very mature situations in their personal lives – homelessness, abuse, poverty – continue to have childlike wonder at experiencing new tastes, ideas, and concepts.
I was so moved by some of the personal artifacts you included in the text, including your photos and the letter to persuade your parents to allow you to go to the march. When you decided to keep them, did you have an inkling these were going to be part of history?
Not at all! I’ve always been one to keep records and not throw much away. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t even remember that I had these things. Both the letter to my mom and the petition in the book were found somewhat randomly—I was cleaning out the garage with my husband and happened to walk down memory lane looking at some things in my college trunk. Lo and behold, I opened a planner from decades ago and to my utter surprise and joy was the petition that can be viewed on page 74 in the book.
The book contains some incredible facts about people whose involvement many probably didn't realize were so instrumental to shaping the holiday. Whose names do you think need to be better amplified as the story of making the King holiday is told?
Definitely, Katie Hall. As the book describes, it was her bill proposing having MLK Day on a fixed Monday that overcame a lot of the cost-related objections. Another name is Stevie Wonder. Obviously, he’s a well-known musician and philanthropist, but I can’t tell you how many people, after reading the book, were surprised at his contribution to the cause and the role of his much- beloved “Happy Birthday.”
As both an author and an educator, how would you best recommend teachers (and families) use your book as a resource?
I wrote this book with my own literacy program in mind. Under my non-profit, Better B, LLC, my husband and I “bring books to life” to our kids by taking aspects of the books we read and creating interactive and sensory experiences. I wanted to make sure teachers and families would be able to do the same. The book contains a lot of historical and educational information that can serve as a launching pad for lessons around activism and legislation – I must call out the wonderful Chenjelani Whatley for the How a Bill Becomes a Law infographic – and the importance of advocating for change.
This is a two-part question. You acknowledge your family's commitment to social justice and activism as part of your own inspiration to get involved in the movement, and even brought your own daughter along as you fought for the King holiday as an adult. How would you encourage families to inspire a spirit of activism amongst their children?
For me, activism is part of civic duty. We owe it to each other to push for change that makes the world in which we live a better place. I would encourage families to find causes that matter to them and their children – whether it is water preservation, climate change, education, animal rights, food deserts, library funding, etc. There are so many causes out there. Helping children to understand at an early age that they can shape the world they live in is the best way to inspire long-lasting activism.
And for children who are interested in activism but may not have the same level of parental interest or engagement, how would you suggest they help get involved?
One of the lessons that I hope my young readers take from “Ain’t Gonna” is that activism can take many forms; they can shape what their own activism will look and feel like. With that in mind, they can get involved by learning all there is to know about a particular subject and its impact. They can share that information with family and friends. As they get older, they can talk to their parents about volunteering their time and other ways they can increase their own activism.
There are likely many other people who have important narratives to share, but may not decide to write a book. How might you encourage others to see the importance of their own narratives and make sure they, too, are remembered?
We all know the adage: “History is written by the victors.” It’s important for our stories to be told so that history does not forget. If people choose not to write a book, I would encourage them to share their story so that others may document it and maybe someday, someone else will write their story. Whether it be in diaries or journals, or through the passing down of an oral history, the most important part is the telling and sharing.
How do you think we should best honor Dr. King both on his birthday, and in our daily lives?
By adhering to two of his statements. First, “[o]ur lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As I mentioned earlier, we have an obligation to find a cause that matters to us and work to make change for the better. We honor Dr. King when we fight for change and don’t let obstacles or fear, stop us from speaking up against injustices and wrongs that we see. This leads directly into a second quote that I think sits at the foundation of all activism: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?’” By changing our perspective to a focus on how we are helping others, I think we would honor Dr. King who lived this principle and ultimately made the ultimate sacrifice to a purpose and cause larger than himself.
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Kathlyn J. Kirkwood is a retired college professor who now focuses on writing for children and volunteering with underprivileged third and fourth grade students in the Nashville area through her nonprofit Better B, LLC’s Literacy Lab. She has developed several innovative workshops that help young people learn about the world beyond their immediate surroundings and inspire in them a love of reading.
Visit Kathlyn online at https://www.kathlynjkirkwood.com and Instagram, @kathlyn.j.kirkwood
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day is available now in bookstores and online.
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview prolific picture book author, Alice Faye Duncan. This is an interview you don’t want to miss! So let’s begin …
CONGRATULATIONS, Alice, on your twin book birthday! Two books releasing on the same day – TODAY, January 11, 2022 -- is truly special and a reason for celebration.
I’m curious to know how these books, EVICTED! — THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE (Astra Publishing), illustrated by Charly Palmer, and OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE (HarperCollins), illustrated by Keturah Bobo, are connected and what makes them different. In other words, why should we have them in our personal, public, and school libraries?
My books amplify unfamiliar moments in American History.
EVICTED! — THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE is the story of Black sharecroppers in Tennessee, who laid the foundation for Freedom Summer and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Children are unaware of this critical history (adults too). I live fifty miles from what was called the “Tent City Voting Rights Movement.” The dead would not let me rest until their story was written. EVICTED! is composed of poetry and narratives for middle and high school students. The main character is James Junior, a selective mute, who learns to raise his voice for justice.
OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE is the official children’s biography of the Texas activist and grandmother, who petitioned Congress to vote and make Juneteenth a National Holiday. The book is also a history of Juneteenth written as a “call and response.” To engage readers further, the text includes a recipe for red Juneteenth punch. OPAL LEE is suited for ages PK- 3rd grade.
Here are summaries of both books composed as Diamante Poems.
What a creative, poetic way to summarize your stories, Alice. In addition to being a poet, you’re a master of nonfiction. Why do you love this genre?
Non-fiction is a boon to my soul because research for each book starts me on a journey to places unknown. I am sure of one thing. During the writing process, I will meet people (dead and alive) who have something urgent to say for now and later. The message is for me, first. Then I pass it on to the reader. Here is a Golden Shovel poem. I wrote it to inspire writers from all genres. The reference source is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson.”
I’m loving these poems! And it’s clear you love research. What, specifically, did you learn that you didn’t already know before researching these books?
Writing OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE gave me an understanding of how the Union Army won the Civil War. When the Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved living in the Southern states, Black soldiers joined the Union. And research supports that because of the additional Black forces—the Union prevailed.
Writing EVICTED! —THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE gave me a full understanding of Ella Baker and the “herstorical” impact she made to the Civil Rights Movement. I call Miss Baker a “King Maker” because she “discipled” Dr. King, encouraged him to build on the momentum of the Montgomery Bus boycott, and to use that energy to abolish legal segregation completely. Dr. King listened … and it worked.
What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers to help young readers engage further with your books?
Here are some ways to make my two books INTERACTIVE AND FUN:
EVICTED! —THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE
OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE
I agree with you, Alice: “Every day is a good time to celebrate liberation and democracy.” Please let us know what we can expect next from you.
I have two new picture books in the works. They include YELLOW DOG BLUES (Fall 2022—Eerdmans Press) a fable about love and loss illustrated by Chris Raschka. And there is CORETTA’S JOURNEY (Fall 2023—Astra Publishing) a cosmic biography of Mrs. King and her life as rebel, activist, and prophet.
I look forward to reading those books and anything else that you write, Alice. Thank you for sharing details about your most recent books, insights about nonfiction, and a poetry lesson. Again, Happy Birthday to both of these wonderful books!
Farah Rocks Florida by Susan Muaddi Darraj, illustrator Ruaida Mannaa - Farah's little brother is in the hospital with a heart problem that needs surgery, so her parents send sixth-grader Farah off to stay with her grandmother in a retirement condo in Florida; Sitti Fayrouz does not speak much English, has a lot of rules, and does not understand Farah's interest in geology, so Farah is not happy with the move--but despite being the only child in the community, Farah finds that the people are nice, and despite getting off to a bad start (she accidentally dumped a soda on his lap) she forms a friendship with Dr. Fisher, who shares her interest in science.
Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrator Ekua Holmes- Welcome to Dream Street--the best street in the world! Jump rope with Azaria--can you Double Dutch one leg at a time? Dream big with Ede and Tari, who wish to create a picture book together one day. Say hello with Mr. Sidney, a retired mail carrier who greets everyone with the words, "Don't wait to have a great day. Create one!" On Dream Street, love between generations rules, everyone is special, and the warmth of the neighborhood shines.
Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi, illustrator Renia Metallinou- When Maya moves to a different country, she feels lonely and lost. Everything―and everyone―seems so unfamiliar here, and she wonders if she will ever find a way to fit in. Longing for her home, she holds tightly to the special seeds her grandmother gave her, afraid to plant them. Can she take the risk that they―and she―might grow and bloom in this new place?
Meena’s Mindful Moment by Tina Athaide, illustrator Åsa Gilland- Meena is excited to visit Dada and explore all the exciting sights and sensations of his home with him. But Meena has so much energy, it becomes a whole imaginary character she calls her hurly-burly hullabaloo. With playful art and engaging characters (real and imagined), this charming story all about mindfulness will be wonderfully relatable to anyone with a rambunctious hurly-burly hullabaloo of their own.
Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles- Exploring community, gentrification, justice, and friendship, Take Back the Block introduces an irresistible 6th grader and asks what it means to belong--to a place and a movement--and to fight for what you believe in.
Dancing in Thathaa’s Footsteps by Srividhya Venkat, illustrat or-Kavita Ramchandran- A heartwarming picture book about a multigenerational Indian-American family discovering a shared love for bharatanatyam, an ancient classical dance that continues to fascinate dancers worldwide.
Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara- Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.
Root Magic by Eden Royce- It’s 1963, and things are changing for Jezebel Turner. Her beloved grandmother has just passed away. The local police deputy won’t stop harassing her family. With school integration arriving in South Carolina, Jez and her twin brother, Jay, are about to begin the school year with a bunch of new kids. But the biggest change comes when Jez and Jay turn eleven— and their uncle, Doc, tells them he’s going to train them in rootwork.
Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi- With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?
Jump at the Sun by Alicia D. Williams, illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara- Zora was a girl who hankered for tales like bees for honey. Now, her mama always told her that if she wanted something, “to jump at de sun”, because even though you might not land quite that high, at least you’d get off the ground. So Zora jumped from place to place, from the porch of the general store where she listened to folktales, to Howard University, to Harlem. And everywhere she jumped, she shined sunlight on the tales most people hadn’t been bothered to listen to until Zora. The tales no one had written down until Zora. Tales on a whole culture of literature overlooked…until Zora. Until Zora jumped.
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh- Junie Kim just wants to fit in. So she keeps her head down and tries not to draw attention to herself. But when racist graffiti appears at her middle school, Junie must decide between staying silent or speaking out.
King Sejong Invents an Alphabet by Carol Kim, illustrator Cindy Kang- In 15th-century Korea, King Sejong was distressed. The complicated Chinese characters used for reading and writing meant only rich, educated people could read―and that was just the way they wanted it. But King Sejong thought all Koreans should be able to read and write, so he worked in secret for years to create a new Korean alphabet. King Sejong's strong leadership and determination to bring equality to his country make his 600-year-old story as relevant as ever.
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson- Ten-year-old Anthony Joplin has made it to double digits! Which means he's finally old enough to play in the spades tournament every Joplin Man before him seems to have won. So while Ant's friends are stressing about fifth grade homework and girls, Ant only has one thing on his mind: how he'll measure up to his father's expectations at the card table.
Areli Is a Dreamer by Areli Morales, illustrator Luisa Uribe- When Areli was just a baby, her mama and papa moved from Mexico to New York with her brother, Alex, to make a better life for the family--and when she was in kindergarten, they sent for her, too. Areli’s limited English came out wrong, and schoolmates accused her of being illegal. But with time, America became her home. And she saw it as a land of opportunity, where millions of immigrants who came before her paved their own paths. She knew she would, too.
Tu Youyou’s Discovery by Songju Ma Daemicke, illustrator Lin- Tu Youyou had been interested in science and medicine since she was a child, so when malaria started infecting people all over the world in 1969, she went to work finding a treatment. Trained as a medical researcher in college and healed by traditional medicine techniques when she was young, Tu Youyou started experimenting with natural Chinese remedies. The treatment she discovered through years of research and experimentation is still used all over the world today.
Jada Jones Skywatcher by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrator Nneka Myers- Jada is excited to do a school project about her hero Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut and the first Black woman to travel to outer space. She even gets to pretend to be her for the presentation in front of her teacher, parents, and friends! But when Jada's research reminds her how accomplished her hero truly is, she suddenly feels like she's made a mistake. How can she portray someone who seems to have everything together when she feels like she's falling apart?
When Langston Dances by Kaija Langley, illustrator Keith Mallett- Langston likes basketball okay, but what he loves is to dance—ever since he saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform. He longs to twirl into a pirouette, whirl into a piqué. He wants to arabesque and attitude, grand battement and grand jeté. When he walks, the whole street is his stage. With his neighborhood cheering him on, will Langston achieve his dream?
Halal Hot Dogs by Susannah Aziz, illustrator Parwinder Singh- Every Friday after Jummah prayer at the masjid, Musa's family has a special Jummah treat. They take turns picking out what the treat will be, but recently the choices have been . . . interesting. . . Finally, it's Musa's turn to pick, and he picks his favorite-halal hot dogs! But actually getting to eat this deliciousness turns into a journey riddled with obstacles. Will he ever get his favorite tasty treat?
Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland-Daffodil Manor, like the wealthy Caruthers family who owns it, is haunted by memories and prejudices of the past—and, as Ophie discovers, ghosts as well. Ghosts who have their own loves and hatreds and desires, ghosts who have wronged others and ghosts who have themselves been wronged. And as Ophie forms a friendship with one spirit whose life ended suddenly and unjustly, she wonders if she might be able to help—even as she comes to realize that Daffodil Manor may hold more secrets than she bargained for.
Isabel and Her Colores Go to School by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrator Courtney Dawson-English, with its blustery blues and whites, just feels wrong to Isabel. She prefers the warm oranges and pinks of Spanish. As she prepares for class at a new school, she knows she's going to have to learn--and she would rather not! Her first day is uncomfortable, until she discovers there's more than one way to communicate with friends. This is a universal story about feeling new and making new friends.
We Can: Portraits of Power by Tyler Gordon- Here is a debut picture book by partially deaf prodigy Tyler Gordon, featuring his bold paintings of over 30 icons―musicians, artists, writers, civils rights leaders, sports legends, change-makers, record-setters, and more―alongside short explanations of how these people inspire him.
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi- When her family moves from Pakistan to Peachtree City, all Nurah wants is to blend in, yet she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. And in the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais—who is going through struggles of his own in the U.S. Yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.
By: Gabriele Davis
Whether or not we celebrate major holidays this month, our days can fill up with end-of-year activities and obligations. The more tasks we simplify, the more space we create to recharge and spend time doing what we love, like reading great books to our favorite little ones—and writing them. In that spirit, here are a few time saving tips:
Gabriele Davis is the author of Peaches and Our Joyful Noise, both releasing in 2024.
Share your favorite time-saving tips on Twitter and tag us at @KidLitinColor!
Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write Tu YouYou’s Discovery, and how long did it take you to complete this project?
My inspiration for writing this book was from a TV show. At the beginning of 2019, I watched a BBC program called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century. Tu Youyou, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing, were the four candidates in the scientist category. I was excited that Tu Youyou had been selected. I also realized that most Americans had never heard of her, even though Tu Youyou had saved millions of lives and had won the prestigious Nobel Prize. As a proud Chinese American, I had to share her remarkable journey.
For this particular story, it took me months to do the necessary research before writing. The first draft took me about two hours. The revising process took me over one year.
I enjoyed learning about natural remedies to illness and the benefits of plants in healing. I would imagine you had to research not only Tu Youyou’s life but Chinese medicine as well. Tell us about the research you did for this book.
There is very little material about Tu Youyou available in the US. Luckily, I can read Chinese and found a lot of Chinese books and material about Tu Youyou on the Chinese internet. I did extensive research about Tu Youyou’s experiment process and learned so much about qinghao (sweet wormwood). Even though I can’t cover many details in my book, I gained a lot of health knowledge about qinghao, which is the grassy plant that artemisinin is extracted from. I always had a special taste for a Chinese vegetable named tonghao, which is related to qinghao. Now I plant it in my garden every year and have plenty to enjoy, not only for its taste, but also for its medical benefits. I use it on salads, stir fry, even dumplings.
As a former software engineer, your career path probably correlates in many ways with Tu Youyou’s. Share the importance of children seeing themselves in non-traditional roles.
I grew up in China. There, like a lot of the world, the male has the dominant role in society and the family. My family has four girls and one boy. The reason that my mother had four girls is because she was determined to give my father a son to pass on his family name. In my family, my younger brother was always more important than the four girls. My parents actually wished I would become a teacher or a doctor, which are more in a female domain. I wanted to be a scientist or engineer because that was where my interests were. Throughout my engineering career, there have always been more men than women in my working place. Statistically, only 25% of those in a STEM career are women. Tu Youyou is a great role model. I hope Tu Youyou’s story will inspire young girls to study Science and Engineering. These fields are not for boys only. As a former engineer myself, I can tell you that engineering is a fun job and women make great engineers.
Tu Youyou is 90 years old now and received a Nobel Prize in 2015. Have you had an opportunity to speak with her or her representative?
Tu Youyou is retired and she is a very private person. She doesn’t accept any interviews. I did try to connect several times with Professor Tu Youyou through her working place, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. I haven’t yet received a response. If I ever have the opportunity to talk with her, I would love to know more about her childhood. I would ask about her favorite memory of her childhood, her favorite color, game, book, and food as a child. These facts would have added more color and personality to the book.
What’s an interesting fact you learned about Tu Youyou that you weren’t able to include in the book?
During the process of researching the book, I was deeply touched by the personal sacrifices Tu Youyou had made for this project. She volunteered to be the first human tested with the extract of the sweet wormwood to prove it was safe before a clinical trial. It was truly a selfless and brave deed. I wrote this incredible fact in my draft as I wanted to show what a courageous scientist she was. Eventually, however, this was removed from the book. My editor considered that talking about this personal medicinal testing by Tu Youyou was probably not a good idea for young readers as experimenting with drugs in any way could be very dangerous for them.
Tell us about Lin and her illustrations.
The illustrator Lin did a wonderful job of bringing Tu Youyou’s story to life with her gorgeous illustrations. Unfortunately, for a long time, I was unable to communicate with her because she lives in China. Recently, I finally was able to connect with her through Instagram. I am excited to get to know her more.
What are your must-have writing tools?
I write on a desktop PC. Microsoft word is my must-have writing tool.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript about an extraordinary Chinese American activist named Grace Lee Boggs. She went beyond class and racial boundaries, fighting for a more just and fairer world.
Songju Ma Daemicke, a former software engineer with Motorola, grew up in China and is an award-winning children’s book author. Her picture book Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant was a Best STEM book, and the Winner of the 2018 CALA Best Juvenile Literature. When she’s not writing, she loves attending to her garden and shooting her next special photograph. Songju lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and their daughters.
To learn more about Songju please visit her website and social media pages.
Order: Tu Youyou's Discovery
KidLit in Color authors Kirstie Myvett and Rashmi Bismark sit down with fellow member Tina Athaide to discuss her new book, Meena's Mindful Moment.
What inspired you to write Meena’s Mindful Moment?
Meena's Mindful Moment is inspired from visits to Goa, India when I was a child. In the afternoons, my grandfather and I walked through the village and visited some of the same places that Meena goes with her grandfather. I brought my own imaginary hurly-burly hullabaloo on those walks and Grandpa patiently welcomed it on our adventures.
The idea of a young child being scolded isn't usually explored in picture books. You have a scene where the villagers wag their fingers and shake their nets to show they are frustrated with Meena. Why did you choose to include that scene?
I have been a special education teacher for thirty years. Every year, I have students who share Meena's exuberance. Their behaviors are well intended, but not always viewed that way. Meena represents that group of students and shows them that they are not alone. It shows them that there is someone else like them who understands how they are feeling.
As Meena connects with calm, she meets a sense of her own agency. She learns how to use her attention and breath to relate with her Hullabaloo energy. She remembers she can guide her body, feet, and mind. Do you or your students enjoy any mindful yoga practices in particular?
I work with students in TK all the way to grade 12 and a phrase I use with all of them is "finding our calm place". In Ian Wright's book, Dynamics of Stillness, he explores ways to bring the nervous system to a state of quiet. Our school environments are hectic and can be over stimulating at times. I use mindful yoga practices to help my students find their "calm place" or state of quiet.
We close our eyes, which helps block what is happening around us and calm our energy.
We take deep breaths, like Meena and Dada, to shift our focus on ourselves and allow our bodies the space to settle.
When we are shifting from one subject to another (i.e. math to science), we will incorporate some yoga stretches, which wakes up our bodies and gives our brains that break it craves. My students love the strength of warrior pose and the challenge to maintain their balance in tree pose.
It is all about teaching my students how to take their awareness of their bodies back to a place where they feel stillness and quiet. It is what Meena does when she guides her Hullabaloo energy.
This is your first picture book. What was that process like in comparison to your middle-grade book Orange for the Sunsets?
A picture book is so different from a MG because the words are only half of the story. I was very lucky that the team at Page Street invited me to be a part of the book-making process. My daughter and I even picked the image for the hurly-burly hullabaloo character.
The illustrations by Åsa Gilland are vibrant and fun. Tell us about your illustrations and what it was like working with Asa on this project.
Åsa’s art is incredible and she captured the spirit and soul of my characters. It was important to me that the people and culture were portrayed accurately and Åsa made that a priority, too.
What are you working on next?
I love taking kids on a journey to other countries. I am working on a picture book set in La Fontainhas--a colorful colonial neighborhood in Goa--and a middle-grade story set in London in the early 1970s.
KidLit in Color author Kirstie Myvett interviews illustrator LaTonya Jackson about her upcoming picture book.
Congratulations on the cover for Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit written by Esau McCaulley due for release in May 2022. It’s beautiful, colorful, and detailed. Please tell us a little bit about the book.
Thank you so much! I view this project as my interview to get into the illustration industry. My background is in the fine arts, so I have a lot to prove in terms of showing that I can do more than create standalone pretty pictures.
I want to go on record to say that I painstakingly drew those braids on the cover one by one because I wanted them to be as exquisite as I could possibly get them to be from afar and up close. I can hardly wait for little hands to pick up this book, and dive into its words and pictures.
Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit is about a little girl who has reservations about being different—her hair isn’t straight like the other girls at her school. On an outing with her dad to shop for a new red dress and to get her hair braided for Pentecost Sunday service, Josey learns a valuable lesson about the beauty in our differences and how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Those braids are beautiful, by the way. Tell us how you started this project and what mediums you worked with.
I always start with reading the story carefully—highlighting and taking notes on very specific descriptions mentioned in the text, for example, the color of the characters’ clothing and the characters’ behaviors. After that, I create a storyboard to map out my initial ideas in quick pencil sketches on paper. I also create a mood board—a la Pinterest boards—that serves as style and color scheme inspiration. For this project, I chose to work digitally using the Procreate app.
Did you have models for this project or was it free-formed in your head?
No, I didn’t have any models per se for this project. However, Esau sent me a picture of his daughter who is around the character’s age, so I took my inspiration from that.
This is your illustration debut and I know you must be so excited. How long did it take you to complete this project?
I am over the moon! This is a lifelong dream that dates back to third grade when I was writing and illustrating my own stories about unicorns on pieces of copy paper stapled together. I still have a couple of them, by the way.
From conception to final color illustration edits, it took about 5 months. I did a lot of overtime work on it during the summer. I knew that once school started and I had to return to work, subsequently, my progress would slow down. Therefore, I woke up at 6am daily the entire summer (which, under any other circumstances, is summertime blasphemy). In retrospect, I am so relieved that I did!
Did you collaborate with the author Esau McCaulley for input and if so how was that?
Yes, this project was a collaboration from start to finish. I appreciate Cindy Kiple, the art director, Esau McCaulley, the author, and the rest of the team working on this project for allowing me some creative license, trusting my aesthetic, while also giving me those necessary nudges about certain elements of the story. Fortunately, it worked out that they approved of most of my ideas. I know sometimes, imaginatively speaking, I can get a little carried away with my head way up in the clouds. Sometimes, I need to be wrangled a bit and brought back down to earth.
What, if any, lessons did you take away from this project?
One lesson I learned was to throw away nothing! All of those “bad” drawings or drawings that were not approved could be reworked and used as assets for other illustrations in your book project.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on refining some of my manuscripts that have been sitting on my desk. I am also working on a dummy for an informational fiction picture book, an adventure tale that I wrote about animal tails. This particular story is evolving into a wordless story which makes the dummy even more important in communicating my vision.
When you’re not drawing or painting we can find you?
You can find me playing with my son, reading, or sleeping!
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
1. There are many outstanding artists in this field. Believe in your special gift and know that there is room for your unique voice, experiences, and vision in this industry.
2. Always remain a lifelong student of your craft—sketch daily, study the work of those artists that you admire, experiment, work on your areas of weakness, and go about living (your best ideas come when you are away from your desk and simply living life).
3. Share your work! It’s scary (we artists are often sensitive about our work), but do it anyway.
4. Start where you are with what you have.
That's great advice. Thank you LaTonya and best of luck.
Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I first heard about King Sejong and how he invented the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) from my father. In 2013, the year after my mother passed away, my father announced to me and my brother that he wanted to visit Korea. This was rather surprising because my father 1.) does not enjoy traveling and 2.) he had never been back to Korea after moving to the US in the 1950s.
While discussing the trip, my father told me he could only read and write Hangeul at about a 3rd grade level. I was so puzzled by this, and it was then he told me about the history of Hangeul. Although King Sejong invented it in 1443, it took 600 years for it to be adopted as Korea’s official alphabet--in 1946. At that point, my father was 18 years old!
Up until that time, my father had lived in Korea under the Japanese occupation. So his education was conducted in Japanese. He didn’t grow up using Hangeul. When he told me about King Sejong and Hangeul, I wasn’t seriously trying to write for children at the time. But I remember immediately thinking, “This would make a great children’s book!”
Not only is the story of Hangeul fascinating, it is a story that directly affects my family. I love that there is this direct connection between my father and King Sejong.
How do you tackle research on a person and subject matter from the 15th century?
Admittedly this can be a huge challenge! One of the great things about writing about a king is that someone recorded everything King Sejong did, said, or wrote. So there are a lot of written records about him. I personally don’t read, write, or speak Korean (the irony, I know!) so I could not rely on sources written in Korean. But fortunately for me, many people wrote about and studied King Sejong, so there are many books and scholarly articles about him and Hangeul.
I live in Austin, home to the University of Texas, which was a huge help. I was able to use their library which had many fantastic resources. Museums and universities in Korea were also a source of information, and many resources were online and in English.
I am pretty sure if King Sejong were not such a major historical figure, it would have been quite a challenge to find enough good sources to write a purely nonfiction book about him. If I had run into trouble, I could have tried writing an informational fiction book, which allows you to take more liberties.
How long did it take you to write this book?
There are a couple of ways I could answer this question. During our trip to Korea, I was on the lookout for information about King Sejong. I found one wonderful book at a museum that they were actually giving out for free! It was part of a program to expand cultural awareness of Korea, and the book was all about King Sejong. I did a little more research after we returned home. And then I sat on my research for years.
When I finally decided to seriously try to write and publish a children’s book, one of the things I did was take a course on picture book writing with the Children’s Book Academy (which I recommend!). In the course, we were encouraged to write story pitches, and get feedback on them. I had a draft of another book I was working on at the time. But when I pitched the story of King Sejong and Hangeul, many people told me: ”that’s the story you should write!” I knew they were correct--but it meant digging into more research and trying to draft a story in just a few weeks.
But I did it! I was also able to get feedback from my mentor at that time, Katey Howes. I also got a paid critique. At the end of the course, we had an opportunity to pitch our stories to a group of editors and agents. Two editors were interested in the story, and asked for the full manuscript. So then I really had to buckle down and get it polished. Altogether it took me about three months to write the manuscript and get it ready for submission.
You included a story from King Sejong’s childhood that many children today would probably find unimaginable and funny. How important was it for you to link a childhood story in a book primarily about his adult years and accomplishments?
I think if you can include scenes from your main character’s childhood, it makes for a stronger children’s book. Young readers can relate to the character better, because they often forget that grown-ups were once kids just like them! I think it can also help kids imagine how they could grow up to be like the main adult character. In the case of King Sejong, I also wanted to show how he was a lover of books during his own childhood. This trait stayed with him throughout his life, and may have contributed to his deep desire to make reading available to everyone.
The illustrations are beautiful and really depict the character’s emotions throughout the book. Tell us about working with illustrator Cindy Kang? Did you provide any images you discovered during your research?
As is often the case with many publishers, I didn't have any involvement in the illustrator selection process. So I was thrilled when they told me they had found Cindy Kang, and that she had agreed to illustrate the book. I felt Cindy’s illustration style fit well with my vision for the book. Plus, Cindy is also Korean, which I believed would be very helpful for ensuring the accuracy of the illustrations.
My editor did consult with me on some illustration decisions, such as the cover, which I appreciated. I think with some publishers, the authors don’t really see the illustrations until the final stages. But my editor shared drafts of Cindy’s work with me, and I was always so pleased with how she chose to depict the different scenes. I didn’t really need to help with any of the research for the illustrations--which I was actually kind of relieved about!
What do you hope children learn or take away from King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I think it would be hard for kids to imagine what it would be like to not have access to reading at all. And not only them, but their entire family, and even all of their neighbors. Reading is such a gift and I hope this story helps them reflect on how wonderful it is that books can be such a big part of their lives. I also hope children can be inspired by King Sejong and how compassionate he was. As a king, he had so much power, and he chose to use that power for the good of all.
What are you working on next?
In addition to KING SEJONG, I have been very busy this year writing books for the educational market. I love writing educational books, and a lot of opportunities came my way, and I kept saying “yes!” As a result, I wrote about 10 books in the last twelve months--which kept me pretty busy!
I’m finishing up the last of these books. After that I am eager to start working on some story ideas that have been brewing in my mind for quite awhile. At the top of my list are a couple of nonfiction picture books--so stay tuned!
Carol Kim believes books and words have a magical ability to change the world for the better, and she writes for children with the hope of spreading some of that magic. She is the author of the picture book biography, King Sejong Invents an Alphabet as well as 20 fiction and nonfiction books for the educational market. Carol relishes unearthing real-life stories and little-known facts to share with young readers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Carol Kim please visit her social media links below!
MakeaLivinginKidlit.com (for those interested in writing kidlit and making a career of it)Twitter: CKimWrite4Kids
Comment on the blog for a chance to win a copy of King Sejong Invents An Alphabet!
We are happy to reveal the cover of KidLit in Color author Kaitlyn Wells's new picture book, A Family Looks Like Love, which will be published on May 31, 2022 by Penguin Random House. Fellow KidLit in Color author Lisa Stringfellow interviewed Kaitlyn about her book.
Lisa: What were your thoughts when you first saw the cover?
Kaitlyn: First, all credit goes to my wonderful illustrator, Sawyer Cloud, who did a beautiful job honoring my vision for this book. She breathed life into these characters and imbued warmth and love from the very first page. As for the cover itself, I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s simplistic and refined. By focusing on the characters sans a distracting background, the reader is subconsciously reminded that love—that invisible yet tangible element—is all around. Even if you can’t see love, you feel its presence when you’re surrounded by those who care the most about you.
Lisa: What would you like everyone to know about A Family Looks Like Love?
Kaitlyn: I wrote A Family Looks Like Love from the broken pieces of my heart. It wasn’t easy discussing race as a biracial kid who grew up surrounded by people who “don’t see color” or only see color. Sometimes I felt like I had to accept other people’s assumptions about who I was and who my family should be. I felt silenced in order to make room for the louder (and fallacious) voices in the room. And when I did speak up, it hardly led to acceptance. On easier days, people assumed I was lying when I pointed to the white woman in the room as my mother. On harder days, my extended family decided it wasn’t worth knowing their Black relatives, and refused to shake my hand in greeting. And as a little girl, I found myself looking for ways to fit into the mold these people told me I needed to be in to gain their acceptance.
It’s taken a long time to realize I didn’t do anything wrong—their shortsightedness was the toxicity destroying my self esteem. Still, no one should have to go through that experience. A Family Looks Like Love reminds every young reader (and even young readers at heart) that what other people say about who you are and who your family should be is irrelevant. The only perspective that matters is your own. And it’s normal (and amazing!) for no two families to look exactly the same. I learned these lessons and more from my parents and friends who reminded me that love transcends skin color (or, in this case, fur color). I hope anyone who picks up A Family Looks Like Love feels empowered to shed any notions of self-hate, and embrace only the goodness that surrounds them.
Lisa: If a bookseller were hand-selling A Family Looks Like Love, what might they say to a potential reader?
Kaitlyn: A Family Looks Like Love is a heartwarming tale about a young pup who looks different from her doggy siblings, and has to work through her own feelings with inadequacy when other animals in the neighborhood doubt her legitimacy because of her appearance. A Family Looks Like Love reminds everyone that there’s more than one way for a family to look, and the more diversity, the better. While the inspiration for this book was based on the author’s experiences growing up mixed race, the message is meant for anyone who’s been told their family isn’t their own. All are welcomed and loved, no matter if your household includes adopted kids, multiracial parents, a single dad, two moms, multiple generations, non-traditional members—or all of the above!
And here is our cover reveal!
Lisa: Kaitlyn, please finish the following sentence starters:
Sutton Button… looks like my own little dog named Sutton, who doesn’t resemble her littermates either! Genetics, even in the doggy kingdom, can be wild!
Did you know… the flowering tree in the story is an apple tree?
Families are… beautiful, no matter what they look like. Family is the home you can always return to; the journal that knows your most embarrassing secrets; the light on your darkest days; and the heart that always beats for you.
You should have asked me…what I’m writing next! I have so many stories inside of me, especially stories full of joy. I’m working on picture books about a Black viral immunologist who saves the world (true story!), a sassy cat (hey, my cat Tanzie needs her own book too!), and a little girl just hoping to make her mother smile on one of her darkest days. I just hope I get to see these books in readers’ hands one day!
Lisa: Kaitlyn, thank you so much for sharing your cover on our blog today. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Kaitlyn: I’d love to stay in touch with readers. People can join my mailing list, and connect with me on social media.
Lisa: Thank you again, Kaitlyn!
Kaitlyn Wells is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her commentary on diverse literature can be found in The New York Times Book Review, BookPage, and Diverse Kids Books. Bring her chocolate or ask about her pets to become fast friends. A Family Looks Like Love is her debut children’s book. She lives in New York City with her wonderful husband, rambunctious dog, and demanding cat.
You can learn more about Kaitlyn at https://kaitwells.com.
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