This month is AAPI heritage month. Please tell us what it means to you.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are an integral part of the American cultural mosaic, encompassing a wide range of diversity. There are many different Asian diasporic cultures and experiences, and we need more stories that span all reading levels and in different genres. I hope more AAPI authors will feel compelled to write stories for our young people. I hope agents and editors will solicit our stories from our talented writers and illustrators. And I hope librarians, educators, and parents will work hard to connect young people with our stories.
As an educator, how do you address Asian American Pacific Islanders missing from books or being depicted using stereotypes?
I encourage educators to reflect on how they are presenting AAPI history, cultures, and communities within their classroom. All students need to develop positive self-identities and learn to understand and respect the identities of others. In my debut picture book, Meena's Mindful Moment, young readers are introduced to a diverse story that reflects some of their experiences and/or exposes others to the wider world. We need more books that celebrate diverse AAPI cultures, communities, and people.
Tell us about your MG historical fiction book, Orange For The Sunsets.
We see a lot of Historical fiction written by AAPI writers. These books are how we acknowledge our past. We see that in my MG book about the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda. It is not merely my history but a living, vital part of our present...how that historical event shaped a community. These stories are an attempt to capture the texture and richness of a wide scope of experiences, recent or distant, and to share the future we hope to see.
What does the phrase "We Need Diverse Books" mean to you?
We hear that phrase quite a lot in the book industry and in the education environment. However, when we say, "we need diverse books," we don't mean books by marginalized people that are only for marginalized people. Everyone needs diverse stories. Being able to imagine someone else's life vividly enough to feel it within yourself is how we reshape culture and unlearn false ideas.
As an educator for over thirty years, how do you feel about the fight for the removal of books in school districts and public libraries?
All children have a right to quality education and access to books that reflect their communities. Books can be used as tools to develop anti-racist foundations and help students think critically. Across the county, school boards are removing, or fighting to remove, books by non-white authors instead of diversifying our stacks. Presently, marginalized groups are absent from our K-12 public education core curriculum or represented by a very small percentage. How can we move forward and build a more cohesive world, if we cannot see all of us in it together?
Tina Athaide was born in Uganda and grew up in London and Canada. While her family left Entebbe just prior to the expulsion, she has memories of refugee family and friends staying with them in their London home. The stories and conversations she listened to through the years became the inspiration for her book Orange for the Sunsets. Tina now lives in California with her husband, Ron, and their daughter, Isabella.
You can learn more about Tina at https://tinaathaide.com/tinaathaide.com/
Kirstie Myvett interviews author Michelle Coles on her debut novel, Black Was the Ink.
Congrats on your debut Black Was the Ink! I’m a HUGE historical fiction fan and I’m so glad I read your book. It’s now one of my favorites. Tell us what inspired you to write this book.
Black Was the Ink was inspired by the Mother Emanuel massacre that took place in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. At the time of the massacre, I was on maternity leave from my job as a civil rights attorney, and I struggled with how to prepare my infant son to enter a world filled with so much inexplicable hatred towards people who look like him. I was surprised to learn that Denmark Vesey, the leader of one of the largest attempted slave rebellions, founded the congregation that became the Mother Emanuel Church, and Pastor Richard ‘Daddy’ Cain, one of the first Black members of Congress, led the church during Reconstruction. Also, Booker T. Washington spoke there, and Coretta Scott King led a protest on behalf of striking hospital workers from the church’s steps where she was met by bayonet-wielding members of the South Carolina National Guard. Suddenly, the link between slavery, the collapse of Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and present-day racial injustices crystallized for me, and Black Was the Ink was born.
Your transitions from modern day scenes to the 19th century flowed so naturally. Did you set out to write a contemporary/historical book or did it just happen that way?
I did. Because I wrote Black Was the Ink with my children in mind as the audience, I wanted to write something that they could relate to while gaining a deeper understanding of how the past influenced the present. Having a kid from the present travel to the past so he could see for himself what it was like for Black people as they were emerging from slavery seemed like the perfect way to do that.
Readers will certainly appreciate the rich historical stories weaved throughout the book. (I especially enjoyed seeing one of the Downing’s mentioned since I’ve been working on a book about the patriarch for some time.) I know your background as a civil rights attorney played a role in your vast historical knowledge, but tell us about your process and how long it took you to compile all this research for the book?
Surprisingly, I hardly knew anything about the Reconstruction Era before I started writing Black Was the Ink. I figured that if I, as a 9th generation Louisianan, civil rights attorney, and HBCU law graduate, didn’t know this history, who would? I loved writing this book because I was able to unearth a fascinating and extremely consequential period in American history and present it in a way that was both entertaining and easy to understand.
I spent about 9 months researching the Reconstruction Era before I began writing. Some of my resources included:
· Philip Dray’s Capitol Men, a non-fiction account of the first Black members of Congress;
· W.E.B. Dubois’s groundbreaking Black Reconstruction, which was one of the first books to challenge the dominate narrative that white supremacists peddled which claimed the Reconstruction Era was an abject failure;
· Several books by Eric Foner, the preeminent modern scholar on the Reconstruction Era;
· A first-hand account of John Roy Lynch, a Black Congressman from Mississippi in the 1870s, called The Facts of Reconstruction
· Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died about the Colfax Massacre
· But my favorite resource was the Library of Congress’s Congressional Record because it gave me access to the actual words of the first Black member of Congress from floor debates.
Although these came out after I had written my manuscript, Henry Louis Gates’ documentary Reconstruction and Netflix’s Amend are also excellent.
I truly loved and cared for the protagonist, Malcolm, a lot. He’s such a well-rounded kid, and you captured his voice perfectly. I had many laugh out loud moments, especially when he would use modern lingo in the 19th century and catch himself. I’m curious how you nailed that voice down so well.
Thank you! My husband was a big help. He would read drafts and sometimes say, “A guy wouldn’t talk like that!” Also, I am a mom of 4 boys. They are all young, but I tried to imagine their teenage selves. And I have been blessed with really great friendships with guys my whole life, including my twin boy cousins that are the same age as me. Tragically, one of the twins died in a car accident right before the book went to print, so I changed the name of Malcolm’s cousin to Kliff (one of Baton Rouge’s finest) in honor of him. Their voices were all with me as I wrote Black Was the Ink.
Malcolm’s relatives embody southern hospitality. Did you rely on your own memories of visiting family in the south to create that familial bond?
Definitely. I was born in Baton Rouge and most of my extended family still lives there, so southern hospitality is natural to me and what I embody no matter where I am physically. You come to my house, you’re gonna be treated like royalty and eat good!
What do you want young readers to get from Black Was the Ink?
I hope this story makes Black children feel proud and empowered from witnessing the strength of their ancestors. I want them to know that no matter what they are taught in schools, Black people have always been more than slaves. The Reconstruction Era is proof because we came out of slavery READY: ready to learn, ready to reunite our families, ready to innovate, ready to own land and businesses, and ready to participate in democracy. I want them to know that the inequalities and injustices that they see and experience are not their fault. It’s not because Black people didn’t work hard or try. It’s because some people used the immense power of our government to keep Black people from enjoying the privileges of American citizenship.
For white children and children of other races, I want them to feel empowered to be a part of the change that is necessary to make America a more just nation. I want them to look at the pervasive racial inequalities that exist and question their root cause. I want them to use their voice as part of the American Majority to demand that we undo the harm caused by denying Black people equal citizenship rights for centuries.
Malcolm’s illustrations throughout the novel are really special. Tell us about the illustrator and what were your thoughts when you saw those sketches.
My publisher, Lee and Low, found the illustrator Justin Johnson, and I think he is incredible! He is a middle school art teacher in Washington D.C., which was perfect since Malcolm was from Washington D.C., and he captured Malcolm’s style and essence beautifully. His interior art was magical and really helped to bring the past to life. When I saw how everything came together, I was overjoyed!
What are you working on now?
I am writing a historical fiction novel about the Haitian Revolution that also has a past to present angle. My husband is Haitian-American so my children are half-Haitian. I’m excited to write something to help them understand this part of their background better.
What are your favorite writer tools, apps, etc.?
I am really bad at keeping up with technology. My phone and computers are usually at least 5 years old, and I only got on social media last year to help spread awareness about my book. I’m not aware of any apps (but please let me know if you have a recommendation), but I do use excel. Since my stories involve multiple timelines, an excel spreadsheet is really helpful to keep those threads organized.
When I’m not writing you can find me….?
Hanging out at home with my husband and four sons. They are my pride and joy and whom I am doing all of this for.
What are you currently reading?
I’m grateful that someone recommended that I read Stephen King’s On Writing. What a great resource for writers! I’m also reading several books about Haiti including The Black Jacobins, Haiti: the Aftershocks of History, and Dear Haiti, Love Alaine.
Do you have any advice for aspiring MG/YA authors?
I would suggest that they think about what kinds of stories they needed when they were young that would have had a positive impact on their development and worldview and then get to writing!
Michelle Coles is a debut novelist, experienced civil rights attorney, and mother of four. She is a proud graduate of Howard University School of Law and the University of Virginia. As a 9th generation Louisianan, she is highly attuned to the struggles that African Americans have faced in overcoming the legacy of slavery and the periods of government-sanctioned discrimination that followed. Her goal in writing is to empower young people by educating them about history and giving them the tools to shape their own destiny.
You can keep up with her work by signing up for updates on her website: www.michellecoles.com or following her on Instagram @michellecolesauthor. For speaking engagements, Michelle is represented by The Lavin Agency: https://www.thelavinagency.com/michelle-coles.
Congratulations on your debut book, The Juneteenth Story! Please give us a brief summary of the book.
Thank you! The Juneteenth Story is a picture book highlighting the events and circumstances that led to the day that came to be known as Juneteenth, and follows the progression of Juneteenth until it became a national holiday in June 2021.
The Juneteenth Story starts with the position and treatment of Black people in the United States starting in the 18th century until present day. What was your research like for this project? What tools did you rely on and how did you organize it all?
Based on previous knowledge, I had a loose outline of how I envisioned the book flowing and started filling in some of the blanks with whatever information I could get my hands on. I learned so much, but of course, I couldn’t include everything.
I was conducting research during the pandemic, so most of what I did was through resources I accessed online and through my local library. But I found so many treasure troves of information, especially some excellent primary sources. These included the Library of Congress’ recordings of interviews with formerly enslaved people, articles, interviews, and video clips of Juneteenth celebrations throughout the country, and even news articles from Texas shortly after Emancipation Celebration. This information and more helped create a more nuanced narrative than I could have imagined.
From a tools perspective, I keep it simple. I’ve been a Google Docs girl since it launched. I found it to be the easiest thing to use to build out my outline, keep facts and sources organized, and to work on the book on multiple devices. For digital resources, especially, it was nice to be able to link directly to the source in case I needed to go back for additional context.
The book is formatted in a present/ past manner with a modern Black family learning about Juneteenth with illustrations and historical information to match. Did you set out to write The Juneteenth Story that way or did it organically flow into this version?
I didn’t initially set out to do it this way, but my editor and I were talking about using a visual device to keep kids connected to the story since it does take a number of twists and turns throughout. One idea was to put a little girl and her grandparents talking about Juneteenth into the illustration- and for those folks to be inspired by me and my family.
I was excited about the possibility, and my grandfather ultimately was, too! Unfortunately my grandmother passed away in 2015, but my grandfather is 90 years old and sharp as a tack. I provided some older photos of us that were then used to inspire the illustrations.
My grandfather was surprised at how well Sawyer captured his essence, and my absolute favorite illustration of my grandmother is the one in the author’s note where she’s wearing a beautiful green dress. Plus, Sawyer’s kids are always adorable, so I’m honored little Alliah and her giant pigtails received the Sawyer Cloud treatment.
Did you uncover any surprising facts during your research for A Juneteenth Story, especially anything you wanted to include in your book but couldn’t?
Oh so many. I had limited space, so I couldn’t share all I learned, but here are some of the most fascinating.
4. Also, while Al Edwards was known as the one who helped make Juneteenth a Texas state holiday, from a federal perspective, there were a number of lawmakers and activists who were advocating for it for decades, such as Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Opal Lee [not related], known as ‘The Grandmother of Juneteenth.” Although the closing illustration took a different, albeit powerful direction that I love, I would have loved to figure out how to incorporate the image of them helping sign Juneteenth into a national holiday.
The cover of The Juneteenth Story is so vibrant and joyful. What did you think when you first saw the illustrations by Sawyer Cloud?
Sawyer did an unbelievable job with her illustrations- and she’s booked and busy. I personally know two other awesome authors who released books with her this year! In some parts of the story, the material is very difficult. Her vibrant images and the adorable children she depicted throughout the book help balance it out. She has a gift for bringing so much emotion and movement to still images. Some images were so vibrant I honestly felt like I could hear them.
This was a challenging book because it covers centuries of material, different styles of dress, etc., not to mention the fact that she is illustrating people I know and love- but she did it masterfully!
Juneteenth is a special holiday for your family. Please tell us about your personal connection to the holiday.
It is! My grandfather was part of BUILD, an activist organization in Buffalo, NY (my hometown). In 1976, while much of the nation was busy planning for America’s bicentennial, the BUILD organization planned to make a ‘culturally relevant’ alternative freedom celebration for those who didn’t have 200 years of freedom. The celebration became one of the largest in the nation. But as I said in one interview, I was probably in utero during my first Juneteenth! We were at the festival every year when I was growing up.
What are your plans for Juneteenth this year?
This year I’ll be in Buffalo! (I now live in New Jersey). I’m looking forward to it. My grandfather and the Juneteenth Festival committee are just as excited as I am about the book coming out, so I can’t wait to be on-hand at the festival and in my hometown to celebrate.
Do you have any advice for debut or aspiring authors?
Your first draft is probably bad, let it simmer. Be a relentless reviser.
Read a lot. Especially in your genre.
Feeling stuck and looking for inspiration? Sometimes inspiration is right in front of you. Don’t take your lived experiences for granted. Someone else may find them fascinating.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve got a couple in rotation right now! Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley - so good. I also just read the ARC for Tameka Fryer Brown’s holiday PB Twelve Dinging Doorbells– that book made me hoot and holler! Can’t wait until it’s in the world.
When not writing you can find me….?
Visiting bookstores, playing Uber driver to two kids, deliberating if I should hop on the Peloton, listening to podcasts, and cracking jokes on one of my many group text chats.
Tell us about your next project that’s scheduled to hit shelves in 2023.
My next project was actually my original book baby! It is a fiction rhyming picture book called Big Tune, scheduled to launch with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Winter 2023. Big Tune is a story of Black boy joy, featuring a tenacious, thoughtful, dance-loving Jamerican boy in early 1990s Brooklyn. The illustrator is the incredible Shamar Knight-Justice, who is also a school principal! He’s absolutely one to watch.
Alliah L. Agostini grew up celebrating Juneteenth in Buffalo, NY; Her grandfather was one of the co-founders of the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo. Founded in 1976, it grew to become the third-largest Juneteenth celebration in the world.
A trained marketer with a passion for children's literature, Alliah writes with a commitment to spread joy, truth, and to help more children see themselves on the page. Alliah lives with her family in New Jersey, and has both an A.B. and an M.B.A from Harvard.
Learn more about Alliah at http://www.alliahagostini.com
Instagram + Twitter: @alliago
Congratulations on your new book, Together We Ride! Please tell us what inspired you to write this picture book?
The inspiration for Together We Ride is the children my husband and I saw riding bikes in our neighborhood during the COVID shutdown. In particular, during our daily walks, I witnessed a girl who had just learned how to ride a bike; I noticed her progression as she became a better, more confident rider. Learning to ride a bike – without training wheels – is such an exciting milestone for children that I decided to write a story about that experience.
Bike riding is a rite of passage for young people and one I clearly remember as a child. You perfectly capture the glee, inevitable falling, and decision children face of “do I get back on or forget about this.” Did you draw from your own childhood memories when writing this book?
That’s a great question, Kirstie. I remember that I enjoyed riding my bike with my cousins and friends. We’d ride up and down my street and also over to my elementary school playground, which was around the corner from my house. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact moment when I learned how to ride a bike. I think these memories are embedded within me though, which is why I was able to portray the experience and feelings in this book. We all know that riding a bike takes practice – falling, getting on and off again – to be able to ride independently and successfully.
The text is really simple and easy for early learners and readers. But we all know the simplest text is often the hardest to write. What was that process like for you and how long did it take you to finish Together We Ride?
Surprisingly, this is the book for which I wrote the fewest drafts. I think I had three. Since I maintained the same end rhyme throughout (with one exception), I was limited with the words I could use, so I think that’s what made it quick work. I shared it with my critique partners twice, and then it was “done.” When I signed with my agent, this is the first book with which he went out on submission. It went to auction and resulted in two two-book deals.
Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s authors?
Kirstie, this is a question authors are often asked. I think the simplest response is that if you want to write, do it, and don’t give up. Also, study, meaning read, read, read in the genre you’re writing. Read to study (think mentor texts), not just for pleasure. Also, read books about craft, and attend classes and webinars. Equally important is to immerse yourself in the writing community by joining a critique group and writing organizations.
The illustrations by Kaylani Juanita are so detailed and captivating. Did you have a lot of illustration notes and what were your thoughts when you saw the beautiful pages Kaylani created?
I didn’t even envision it as a father/daughter story, per se; that was my editor’s vision, which worked for me. Therefore, the only illustration notes I had were to denote which words were attached to the child and which connected with the adult. My ending illustration note expressed what/who we should see on the last page.
When I saw Kaylani’s first sketches, I was very pleased because, as you can see, she’s a talented artist. When I saw the actual color spreads and then held the book in my hands, however, I was especially thrilled. She certainly captured all of the special moments associated with a child learning how to ride a bike.
As an educator, your commitment to children was recently honored with a SERC Equity Award. Please tell us about that honor.
Kirstie, it was indeed an honor to be recognized for my commitment to equity. I believe that all children – all people – need to feel welcome and that they matter. In my work as an educator, I want all students to feel welcome in classrooms and to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. When reading books, I want children to have that same experience – to see themselves, those like them, those who share similar experiences. Schools and books also offer opportunities for us to learn about those who are different from us and have different experiences. If everything around us only reflects one type of person, one view, one story, how will we learn about, enjoy, and appreciate the diverse world in which we live?
Here’s an article I wrote about why representation matters in children’s books.
How are you celebrating your second book release?
I’m going to celebrate by taking a personal day from work on release day and visiting my elementary school alma mater to read to kindergarten and first grade students. I’ll also visit the Barnes & Noble in my city – Stamford, CT – to sign books.
I want to be able to celebrate with everyone who wants to celebrate with me. Thus, I’m having two launch events. One will be in-person, which should be super fun for kids with a lot of activities, and the other will be virtual. For that one, I’ll read my story at the beginning of the program, so kids can tune in, and then a conversation will occur that will be of more interest to adults – especially parents, educators, and writers.
When not writing you can find me….? Teaching, walking or reading.
What are you working on next? I’m working on my books that will release in 2023. I’m also trying my hand at a chapter book series.
Valerie Bolling is the author of LET’S DANCE!, a 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award winner and CT Book Award finalist. In 2022 Valerie is happy to welcome TOGETHER WE RIDE (April) and RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN! (October). Sequels to these books (TOGETHER WE SWIM and BING, BOP, BAM: TIME TO JAM!) as well as a Scholastic early reader series, RAINBOW DAYS, are slated for 2023.
A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie has been an educator for almost 30 years. She currently works as an Instructional Coach for Greenwich Public Schools and is on the faculty at Westport Writers’ Workshop. She is also a WNDB mentor and deeply immersed in the kidlit writing community, particularly involved with SCBWI, the 12X12 Picture Book Challenge, Black Creators HeadQuarters, and Diverse Verse.
Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing.
KM: Congratulations on your new book, Wei To Go! Please tell us what inspired you to write this middle grade book?
LM: Thank you so much, Kirstie, for having me. My inspiration for Wei To Go! came from seeing children in multicultural families who’ve been in America for several generations. Depending on where they live or their family dynamics, they sometimes may not know one part of their heritage very well.
My main character Ellie and her brother Kipp are third-generation Americans who are part Chinese. They’re pretty much all American and know little of the language. Ellie isn’t always obedient, and English is her forte, not math and science. Her brother Kipp is good in competitive sports.
Traveling to Asia for the first time opens their eyes and gives them a tie to their heritage. I had fun capturing their reactions in a new environment and couched it in a mystery involving international business.
KM: The story is based in California and Hong Kong. What type of research was involved in creating the setting for these locations?
LM: I lived for many years in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area with tiny neighborhood parks and athletic fields for schoolkids. Ellie’s neighborhood and house is based on that locale, including the stunning jacaranda trees that bloom for a weeks in the spring.
Previous business work took me to Hong Kong a number of times. My kids and I also visited Asia for a few humid weeks one summer long ago. While I had studied a little Mandarin Chinese in college, the Cantonese Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong was unfamiliar. Through Ellie’s voice, I tried to capture this reaction to the bewildering language. I also showed her comical attempts to do normally simple things like navigating mass transportation.
KM: Ellie and her brother have a typical love/hate sibling relationship. Was this in any way representative of your own sibling relationships?
LM: Being close in age to my sisters, we probably had the same dynamics of both conflict and loving support while growing up. As a parent, I saw sibling relationships more clearly with my own kids and those of their friends. I tried to incorporate that in my book as humorously as possible.
KM: What do you hope children get from Wei To Go?
LM: I love this question! Middle schoolers who are curious about the world may like this novel. If they’re on the cusp of being independent and enjoy competitive sports, maybe they’ll also see parts of themselves on the pages.
American children may not realize that people overseas are as curious about us as we are about them. My character Ellie encounters people who tell her she speaks with an American accent or are perplexed that she’s unfamiliar with certain customs, even though outwardly she looks Chinese.
KM: The cover illustration is colorful and lively. Tell us about the illustrator and your thoughts on the cover scene?
Penny Weber is my fabulous illustrator. After I gave her a rough sketch of a cover idea, she drew my imagined faces of the characters with the Hong Kong skyline in the background. Moreover, she perfectly captured their playful banter as they team up to solve a mystery.
Please check out Penny’s website on https://pennyweberillustrations.com/.
KM: What are your favorite writing tools and resources?
I have several books on middle-grade writing. However, for day-to-day writing, I rely on a Scene Structure Checklist by C.S. Lakin which includes a handy checklist. I also use two writing tools I made for myself. One is a basic (I’m low-tech!) Excel spreadsheet with the chapter titles and page count. For each chapter, I add the goal, conflict issues, characters involved, and any miscellaneous notes.
My second tool is a plain old Word document to type in impromptu notes. I also include a list of all the characters and their features. For example, for Ellie, I wrote she wears a AAA shoe size and for Kipp, that his best friend is named Wynnie.
KM: When not writing you can find me….?
LM: Concerts, travel, and spectator sports are my favorites. I also love taking walks with my dog, curling up with a favorite book, and spending time with family and friends.
KM: What are you currently reading?
I have a wonderful TBR list of mostly middle-grade books. Three that are on top of the pile are Midnight at the Barclay Hotel by Fleur Bradley, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, and A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow.
KM: What are you working on next?
LM: I’m at the revision stage with a related book about Cat, Ellie’s friend, in Wei To Go! She’s a dead ringer for a lady that Raphael painted during Renaissance Italy. Like Ellie, Cat hasn’t thought much about where her mom’s family came from ages ago. However, she’ll have to solve the art mystery to be more acquainted with her ancestry.
Lee grew up in a small Pennsylvania town with a fabulous library. After studying international relations in college, she worked for a magazine in New York City and then went on to graduate studies in business. Her California-based international banking work included a stint in Asia for a few years. Eventually, she became a freelance writer and editor for grades 6–8 English language arts and social studies and then pivoted to writing middle-grade fiction. She lives with her family in New York.
Learn more about Lee at www.leeymiao.com and Instagram @leeymiao.writer.
Interview By: Tonya Abari
TA: How did you birth this beautiful story, Stella Keeps the Sun Up? We want juicy details. Does art imitate life? Did this story come to you in a coffee shop or dream? Fill us in!
CE: First, let me say thank you. I am so happy you enjoyed it. There were so many iterations of this book…picture book, chapter book, dream sequences, but I loved the idea of exploring a story about sleep. I’ve been lucky throughout this process to work with a critique group through SCBWI and workshop different ideas with my own family and fellow parents in the trenches. And, this felt like the perfect first story to explore.
The bedtime struggle is real in our house. I have memories of sleep training, sleep regression and more recently trying everything from refusing entry into our bed and having our kids sleep on the floor to bribing them with promises of movies or Lego sets if they sleep in their bed uninterrupted for 30 straight days. Right when we think we have it figured out, things change. One thing that seems consistent is that neither of our kids seem particularly phased that their parents are sleep deprived!
TA: Stella, the book’s narrator, has such a strong and relatable voice. What inspired you to write the story Stella Keeps the Sun Up in first person? To expand on this question, why do you think it’s important to consider point of view in picture books?
CE: My children go to a Montessori school and one of the greatest lessons we have learned as parents is how capable our children are – this is true when it comes to using actual glassware at 3-years-old, getting dressed by themselves at a young age, but also in expressing themselves and their desires. I really wanted to write a story that honored a child’s voice and agency.
So often we talk past children, assuming that an adult is better equipped to speak on their behalf. I recall a recent trip to the grocery store and my seven-year-old daughter was practicing ordering from the deli counter. After she placed her order, the person she spoke to confirmed her order with me. I noticed what happened, but more importantly she noticed and wondered why the person didn’t speak to her instead.
While there are many picture books that I love that are in the third person for most of the storytelling, it was important for me to celebrate this joyful, little Black girl’s voice.
TA: The illustrations of Stella are so vibrant and joyful. I love how even her clothes (tee shirt with sun, cute afro puffs) really reflect her personality. Did you have any input on the details of this artwork?
CE: Lynn Gaines did an amazing job! I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her. The one thing that was important to me was that there was no ambiguity about her race. While we are beautiful shades of brown, I was inspired by my desire to bring mirrors to my children and so I very much wanted to see Stella a deep brown.
While we did speak early on about how I envisioned Stella, I will give her all the credit. The fact that she is wearing a tutu AND athletic tube socks, with slippers is spot on. Stella exudes joy and such comfort in her own skin. She marches to her own beat and seeing her on the page makes me smile each and every time.
TA: We love Stella’s fun new rules. Who wouldn’t enjoy dessert before dinner?! How important is it for parents to encourage this free-spirited inquisitiveness?
CE: I had a great childhood, but am also part of the generation where our parents could more easily answer a question with “because I said so.” That doesn’t fly as easily with our children. They want to know the steps that got us to a particular answer and are often ready to express an alternate point of view, which can help justify why ice cream, which is made from milk for example, would make a great pre-dinner appetizer.
There is a lot we can learn from them and frankly some of it involves getting back in touch with the “I can do anything” attitude. I often find myself in awe in conversations or in observation of my own children as they work to figure out the world on their terms. They don’t subscribe to the same rules that dictate why or how things are done. Some of that is because they don’t know them yet, but some of it is also because they don’t care. That innocence can be really freeing.
TA: Stella shows great emotion throughout the entire book. What advice would you give to a new picture book author who is crafting an emotional arc for their main character?
CE: Remember to have fun and to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good as you get started. Even if you want your book to have a certain feel, be a certain length or word count, put it all out there and see what is working along the way. You will have plenty of opportunity to make cuts as you move along. Have fun with characters and voice and be ok with the idea that your final draft may look nothing like your first. If this is for a picture book for children, try to honor a child’s voice and perspective. Big feelings for example are ok sometimes and age appropriate. I have also found it helpful to set an intention for my stories and then to try and figure out how to see that through a child’s eyes.
TA: You dedicated this book to your village as well as your children. Parent writers often find inspiration from their own children. Can you elaborate on how your own children awakened your sense of innocence and adventure? And do you have any advice on how parent writers can tap into these senses if writing for children?
CE: I was looking through my writing journal recently and so many of my notes came from offhanded conversations with my children and my wonder at their kid logic in action. Oftentimes, we as adults, have a tendency to overcomplicate things. It’s not always that deep. One of the blessings of the pandemic for my family was being forced to slow things down. While the various lockdowns have been challenging for different reasons, we also managed to have a lot of fun doing simple things like building forts with pillow cushions, going on scavenger hunts around our neighborhood, taking out the old polaroid camera, seeing firsthand how yeast works and how to make our own slime. There can be wonder in what we so often take for granted. There can be stories in those chance adventures and dialogues.
TA: We all know that publishing is very top secret, but can you give us the scoop – or at least a subtle hint – on what you’re working on next?
CE: I feel so grateful to Denene Millner and the Simon & Schuster team who saw promise in Stella and who committed to making her a series. My children loved reading the Eloise and Fancy Nancy series and the fact that I can be a part of bringing Stella, a character that looks like them into the world is so exciting. Our next book is about Stella and Roger’s hunt for a missing tooth and I have a few more up my sleeve that I can’t wait to share with the team.
Clothilde Ewing has spent her career communicating through journalism as an assignment editor and producer at CBS News and as a producer at The Oprah Winfrey Show, through politics as a member of the press team for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and with nonprofits, where she currently leads communications efforts at The Chicago Community Trust. She was inspired to write the Stella series, after reading a New York Times opinion piece by her now-editor, Denene Millner, titled: “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.” Her goal is for children, whether they look like hers or not, to see children of color in books that have nothing to do with race or struggle and have everything to do with belonging and joy. A graduate of Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Communications, she currently lives in Chicago with her husband and two young children.
KidLit in Color author Gabriele Davis interviews Amina Luqman Dawson about her new middle grade novel, Freewater, which explores a little-known part of Black history.
What’s the story behind your story, and what inspired you to write about it?
I first learned about enslaved people who escaped and lived clandestinely in the wilderness while taking a Latin American studies course in college. They are known as maroons. In that course we discussed maroons in the Caribbean and South America. It blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known this history before. I thought of the story of two children escaping enslavement and finding a secret maroon community way back in 2002. However, it took years for me to seriously begin writing it. Having my son was my inspiration. Being a parent made how I would share the story of my son’s enslaved ancestors with him a pressing question. Freewater was my answer.
How much of the setting sprang from your imagination and how much was based on research you were able to locate?
There is so much we have yet to learn about maroons in the United States. In part, because maroonage was on a much smaller scale here than in other countries in the Americas. Also, because smaller instances of maroons are harder to find given that their very survival was built on being clandestine.
Still, while writing Freewater, it was fun intertwining bits of information I garnered from maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, maroons in other parts of the American South and those in other countries. Here are a few pieces of history I loved including. The character, Suleman, a skilled marauder, is based on maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp and those in other swamps and forests in the American South. Marauders who stole from plantations were pretty common. They would steal everything from corn to cattle for their survival. I appreciated including patrols or “Tree People” as Ada called them. In Freewater, these people camouflaged themselves in leaves and vines to blend into the swamp. They watched over Freewater and offered protection. Well, among the maroons of Jamaica, there were maroons who used the same strategy to make themselves unseen.
You use multiple viewpoints to tell your story. Can you share why you chose this device? Did you add viewpoints during the revision process?
Multiple viewpoints allowed me to share numerous voices of children, each with their own story to tell and challenge to overcome. My very first draft only had a couple of characters, over time I layered on character voices one by one. When their voices come together it creates a tapestry. It’s in that rich fabric that the humanity of these children comes to light. We see how each brings their own personality and point of view to the story. I loved that I was able to do this for enslaved children. I love that we get to hear their voices. Too often depictions of enslaved people stop at the pain of their bondage. I hope that these multiple viewpoints help the reader to see beyond that pain.
Only one character, Homer, speaks in first person. Why?
Homer is my protagonist. He’s spent his life trying to make himself invisible. As a result, he keeps much of who he is inside and hidden. I liked the idea of being able to hear that inside voice and the journey he goes through to learn that he matters and that he can and must be seen.
Nora, the plantation owner’s daughter, is the only white character whose perspective challenges the status quo. You compare her realization of her father’s cruelty to “a first small crack setting into a sheet of lake ice.” Why was it important to include her point of view?
Nora has her own journey. It’s a journey in what it means to be an ally. From a place of privilege, first learning to recognize injustice, then striving to do something about it. Yes, beyond Nora the other white characters chose the status quo. That’s a reality I wanted to convey. Enslavement of African Americans was an accepted norm. I wanted Nora to show that allyship is a choice, sometimes it’s a hard one that goes against everything everyone around you claims to be true. Ultimately, Nora had the courage to make some good choices. For readers, I think there’s something children of privilege can still learn from Nora’s journey.
Suleman is such an enigmatic character. One of my favorite passages is when he says: “None of those are good questions…Here are some questions: Can you spot bear tracks in mud? Do you know how to keep snakes off you at night? Do you know how to hunt?” What purpose does his character serve in the novel?
Suleman is my superhero. He invokes the most courage and comes across as almost having super powers. So much of what enslaved African Americans overcame has been lost. Yet, the truth is that they survived and sometimes found ways to thrive against almost insurmountable odds. Suleman helps depict the amazing essence of who they were in a language children can understand.
Many of the young characters come to realize unexpected strengths towards the end of the book. It’s a great reminder to children that our gifts develop in their own time. What other jewels do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope they feel a bit of excitement and thrill when they think about the enslaved souls they came to know while reading this book. I hope they leave the book with a feeling of connection to these characters that can translate to a connection to this important history.
Thanks for sharing your inspiration and insights, Amina. How do you plan to celebrate your book birthday?
With COVID my plans are modest. I’m having a virtual book launch. Since the COVID lockdown in 2020, my family does a weekly Facetime call. I imagine we’ll have some sort of virtual celebration during the one we have on my book launch week. Mainly, I’ll just try to pause and be thankful to have made it this far with a book that only started as a dream.
Can you share what you’re working on now?
I am working on a new book. I’m not quite ready to say what it’s about, although I think it will have some connection to Freewater.
Amina Luqman-Dawson loves using writing to tell stories and to build an understanding of race, culture and community. Her published writing includes op-eds in newspapers, magazine articles, travel writing and book reviews. She’s authored the pictorial history book Images of America: African Americans of Petersburg (Arcadia Publishing). She’s worked as a policy professional, researcher and consultant on issues of education and criminal justice. She has a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Master of Public Policy from UC Berkeley. She’s a proud mother of a 13-year-old son. She, her husband and son reside in Arlington, VA
To learn more about Amina, please visit her website and social media pages.
Facebook: Amina Luqman-Dawson
Freewater is now available in bookstores and online.
Join Amina at her Book Launch on Feb 3rd!
My Inspiration for Writing Fly
By: Brittany J. Thurman
My great-grandparents lived in a two-room white house on a hill. I still hear tires against the gravel of their driveway. I still feel the tremor of the mesh screen door slamming, then bouncing, then slamming shut as I stepped inside. This was a home full to the ceiling with memoires. Thick with phantom laughs and steamy cheese pudding on top an oven half open to cool off.
My great-grandmother, Grandmommy, sat in the back room, which was really the front room. This- adjacent to the front porch, which I always assumed was the back. A porch swing with rusty metal chains clanked against the rail. This was the sound of homestead.
“Come ere, give me some sugar,” Grandmommy said. As I scooted up to her orange recliner, Grandmommy’s lips sailed into a smile. The closer I got, the more I smelled snuff. The metal tin she kept beside her recliner for (if ya know, ya know) had my stomach churned. Grandmommy always pulled me into a hug and kissed my cheek, then my forehead. It was as if she wanted to imbed her love, adoration and might (all of it) into me. And I always, always, always stiffened, then pulled away because…snuff.
One of my favorite spreads in Fly is that of Africa looking up to her grandmother, Nana, who is surrounded by a flight of birds. Look closely, one of them has flown away, off on its own. We don’t know if Africa’s Nana is still with her, or if Nana has been gone as long as my own great-grandmother. Now a memory full to the ceiling.
What we do know on this spread of purple is that Africa and Nana, no matter how far apart, have a bond. It is one comprised of love. It is a bond composed of giving up a little of ourselves for those rising up in the next generation.
While writing Fly, there were so many aspects of my own life that inspired me. I thought through and cried over my struggle with identity and anxiety. Fought to show a Black girl cool, confident, collected - on her quest to fulfill her goal. I delved into the communities that surrounded me growing up as a Black girl from Louisville’s West End. For me, community has and was always about showing up for your neighbor. Giving, even when you don’t have much to lend.
But, what I thought about as much as these other themes are my ancestors and my elders. Those whose love seeps deep. Whose eyes told stories without saying words. And those words, “Come ere, give me some sugar,” and “I have a gift for you.’ echo through my head to this day.
Even though I always, always, always pulled away from Grandmommy’s kisses, I understood at seven how lucky I was to know my great-grandmother. Now older, I understand. My Grandmommy recognized how special it was that she had a relationship with her great-granddaughter.
I envision that at some point, Africa and her Nana also had a moment like that. And in that moment, Nana knew how quick time slides, how vital it was to impart what we know onto the generation next. What we love onto those who are rising up, so those gifts are not lost forever. Equally as important, I wanted to emphasize that sometimes, from one generation to the next, to the next, to the next…things do get lost. Recipes, Songs. Photos, Memories. Double Dutch and the feeling of flying, gone. At some point, we have to reclaim what has seeped through the cracks from one generation to the next.
This is what Africa recognizes in Fly. This is what she does. She reclaims. She rediscovers. She reimagines, through the help and memory and strength of her Nana (ala my great-grandmother). She can, she is, fly.
I have always had an affinity for stories told by my grandmother. Those same stories hold space in my writing today. My love of writing comes from my love of reading. As a kid, I could not get enough of going to bookstores and libraries.
I am a former children’s specialist, and I am dedicated to ensuring children’s literature truthfully reflects the world in which we live. I hold an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University, where I studied Dramatic Writing. I hold a BA from Kingston University, London, England, where I studied theater.
I’m not sure how many books I’ve read as a children’s specialist, but I estimate hundreds of stories to thousands of kids across the City of Bridges. Currently, I reside in my hometown of Louisville, KY. You may find me biking along the waterfront, enjoying a musical or play, hanging out with my family, grilling in the backyard or snuggled up with a good book.
Follow Brittany on Instagram
Twitter - @janeebrittany
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.