KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was excited to have the opportunity to chat with her KidLit in Color sister Tameka Fryer Brown about her latest book, THAT FLAG, which released a week ago on January 31.
Tameka, you’ve been on roll! At the end of last year, we welcomed your books, TWELVE DINGING DOORBELLS (illustrated by Ebony Glenn) and NOT DONE YET: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM’S FIGHT FOR CHANGE (illustrated by Nina Crews), and now we get to celebrate THAT FLAG (illustrated by Nikkolas Smith).
What’s your one-liner to describe your newest release?
Thank you so much, my dear sister! THAT FLAG is a story about best friends divided over the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag.
How did this book come to be?
I wrote THAT FLAG after the murders of nine church members in Charleston, SC by a 21-year-old white supremacist whose social media showed him posing with a weapon of war and a Confederate flag. I, like so many others, was angry at the atrocity, and distressed by the subsequent debate as to whether the Confederate flag was indeed an emblem of hate…or merely a symbol of Southern pride. I decided to write a picture book about that flag, as opposed to a story for older children, because the longer we wait to share these kinds of truths with our kids, the more embedded the influence of racism will be in their hearts. We can’t keep doing the same old, same old and expect this societal plague to disappear on its own. We must all be intentional about doing our part to dismantle white supremacy. Writing books for our future adults, leaders, and changemakers is mine.
Tameka, all you’ve said is so true. We must be intentional about fighting racism and other types of oppression, and the truths we share with children are a part of this necessary work.
Can you tell us a bit about your publication journey?
Though THAT FLAG was first written in 2015, the book didn’t sell until 2020, after the nation’s so-called “racial reckoning.” I now consider that delay divine providence, because I could not imagine a more perfect illustrator than Nikkolas Smith or editor than Luana Horry to help bring this story to life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with either of them had it sold earlier.
What a wonderful shout-out to your illustrator and editor who are both deserving.
What changed about THAT FLAG from acquisition to publication?
The main thing that changed was giving Ms. Greyson a more active role at the story’s climax. Originally, the plot involved a direct conversation between Keira and Bianca about the origins of the Confederate flag, but my editor suggested that for this story, it might be better to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating—not a Black child. It was very insightful feedback, so I gave Ms. Greyson that role in the story, which makes all the sense in the world as she is their teacher!
Yes, teachers play an important role in children’s lives, and I think Luana’s suggestion “to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating” was a smart one.
What did you learn that you didn’t already know as you did research for this book?
Through research I did for the backmatter, I learned about the original Stars and Bars version of the Confederate flag, namely how it was a source of confusion for the Confederacy on the battlefield because it looked so much like the American flag. Subsequently, there were several battle flag designs used by various Confederate units, including the one we most often call the Confederate flag today—also known as the Dixie or Rebel flag.
It was also eye-opening to read Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, as well as re-read the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, both of which are listed in the book’s Recommended Reading section. Those documents clear up a lot of misinformation about the main reason behind the Civil War, much of which came as a result of the Lost Cause Myth, which is something I learned more about as well.
Thanks for giving us a bit of a history lesson and sources we can read to find out more.
Share your thoughts with us about the illustrator Nikkolas Smith. I actually remember how excited you were when you told me that he would illustrate this book. Do you have a favorite page or spread?
I am a ginormous fan of Nikkolas’s art and artivism! I was already familiar with his work because of his many viral Sunday Sketches, so when Luana asked what I thought about approaching him to illustrate, I was like, “YEEESSSSSS!!!!” Nikkolas’s work is stunning and brave and, per his stated purpose as an artivist, inspires so many people to seek positive, societal change. I was and still am honored that he chose to be part of this project.
Of course, I can go through each page and point out all the fabulous things about Nikkolas’s artistic choices, but from an emotional standpoint, I think the last spread is my favorite. It embodies all the hope I have in the power of truth—both the telling and embracing of it.
How do you hope young readers will experience this book? What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers who read this book to children?
After reading THAT FLAG, I hope young readers will feel enlightened by the more holistic sharing of history, empowered to ask their hard questions, and emboldened to speak out for what they believe is right.
To parents and teachers, I’d say familiarize yourselves with the backmatter and information found in the suggested resources, which will be very helpful in answering the insightful questions kids are sure to have. Most of all, just be honest. Honesty is the best way to engage kids about everything, including the more odious aspects of our history.
Yes to honesty! Children need to know the truth of our history, just as adults do.
What book(s) can we look forward to next from you?
My next book is YOU ARE: ODE TO A BIG KID. It will be illustrated by the phenomenal Alleanna Harris and published by FSG in 2024. It’s a lyrical ode to growing up and believing in yourself. I’ve seen the sketches and oh my heart!
I know it’s going to be a beautiful book, Tameka, with your lyrical language and Alleana’s gorgeous art!
For more about Tameka Fryer Brown and her books, connect with her in the following ways:
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN is a picture book author who writes to sow seeds of self-love, pride, connectivity, and inclusion in the hearts of children. Her books have won awards like the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award and the Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, and have been honored on best book lists by NPR, Parents Latina Magazine, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, New York Public Library, Bank Street College, The Little Free Library, and more. Tameka’s picture books include Brown Baby Lullaby, Twelve Dinging Doorbells, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change, and That Flag. She is also a member of the Brown Bookshelf, WINC, and BCHQ. tamekafryerbrown.com
Tamika Burgess - Sincerely Sicily
As a Black Panamanian, I grew up confident and fully aware of who I am and my racial and cultural background. But it wasn’t until I was asked, “What are you?” that I realized I didn’t know how to explain what I’d always known.
When I asked my mother about it, she told me, “Tell them you are a Black Panamanian” (which I knew). But that response only worked when I was a child. The older I got, the people who asked that question wanted more, and I found myself also needing more-- in terms of understanding fully.
My debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, was born solely from this experience. Loosely based on many of my experiences growing up, the main character Sicily Jordan embarks on a self-discovery journey to fully understand, for herself, how she is Black with a Panamanian cultural background. In addition to her self-identity journey, Sicily experiences hair discrimination from an unexpected relative and deals with plenty of new experiences involving a new school, friendships, and her first crush.
As the publishing industry continues to push for diversity in children’s literature, I have seen a slight improvement. But there are still cultures and countries that lack representation, including Panama. With that, I felt compelled to tell my story and do my part by filling this void. Mainly because I think readers desire to read about something new and different. And readers of Panamanian descent can finally relate first-hand and enjoy seeing their culture displayed in fiction.
Overall, I hope all readers can take a few things away from Sicily’s story. The first is the difference between race and culture. This message is conveyed in a scene when Sicily is doing research and realizes that while her ancestors are from Africa and the Caribbean, her parents were born in Panama, and she was born in the US. The cultures changed, but the racial makeup of her family did not. Thus, displaying to the reader that race and culture are not dependent on each other; the two can mutually exist, as one has nothing to do with the other.
The next takeaway would be gaining the confidence to advocate and stand up for oneself. Through Sicily’s example of resolving a hair discrimination conflict with her abuela, my hope is for that interaction to be a blueprint for young readers on how they, too, can express their feelings to adults constructively and appropriately to gain resolution.
Sincerely Sicily was indeed a labor of love, written to appeal to the targeted audience, but people of all races, ages, genders, and cultures will be able to find a few relatable elements of the story that will entice them to keep on reading.
Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels.
When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping, sipping lemon ginger tea and reading, or listening to a podcast. Read more at TamikaBurgess.com
Glenda Armand - ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN
Interview by Gabriele Davis
Hi, Glenda! Congratulations on your TWO new picture books releasing this month: ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN! Both books are captivating and eye-catching. Can you give our readers a brief overview of each and the inspiration behind them?
Thank you! I am excited about both books, though their beginnings were quite different. ICE CREAM MAN is about a free-born black man in pre-Civil War America who had the self-confidence, creativity and initiative to overcome overwhelming odds to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur. Augustus Jackson also happened to work as a chef in the White house, serving under three presidents! I had not heard of Augustus Jackson until my editor asked me if I would co-author a book about him with Kim Freeman. Kim gets credit for “discovering” Jackson. Once I learned about him, I knew that he checked all the boxes as to the kind of person I like to write about.
ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOLTRAIN is much more personal. However, I do have to thank Isabel Wilkerson for writing THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. In her epic narrative about the Great Migration, Wilkerson shares an anecdote about children in 1920s rural Mississippi forming a “walking train” to get to their one-room schoolhouse. That inspired me to ask my mom if she had had a similar experience having grown up during that era in rural Louisiana. Her eyes lit up as she recounted to me the basic elements of what became this story.
I love that ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN was inspired by your mother’s childhood experience and that you got to include some wonderful family photos in the back matter. What was your family’s response to this book? Can you speak to how writers can tap into their own family histories for inspiration?
I certainly hadn’t planned on using my family’s pictures in the book. That was my editor Tracy Mack’s idea! Her vision for my cute little story transformed it into a 48-page work of true historical and cultural meaning. I am honored that it received a starred KIRKUS review.
My family helped me remember certain facts and provided pictures. In that sense, it was a group project! My Mom would be very proud. To aspiring writers, I would say that the first place you look to for stories is home. By “home” I mean your own life and family, where you grew up, what books you read, what fascinates you. Take the inspiration you find there and see where it leads you. It could take you to another world. For instance, Suzanne Collins, who loves Greek mythology, was at home flipping the TV between the Iraq war and reality TV shows when she got the inspiration to write The Hunger Games.
You’ve authored other picture book biographies. Having been both a history teacher and a librarian, it’s no surprise that you love writing books spotlighting the stories and accomplishments of people who deserve a wider audience. What do you hope readers will take away from these books?
You are right. I enjoy introducing my readers to unsung heroes. IRA’S SHAKESPEARE DREAM is about Ira Aldridge, who was a contemporary of Augustus Jackson and who, like Jackson, was born free. Aldridge became a world-famous Shakespearean actor, noted for his portrayal of Othello. In SONG IN A RAINSTORM, I introduce readers to Thomas Wiggins who, born enslaved, blind and autistic, went on to find fame and fortune as a musical prodigy. I would like children to know about the diversity of the African American experience.
Both ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN have great kid-appeal. Ice cream and children are a natural combination, and you draw readers through both books with catchy refrains. Can you share your tips for making stories engaging and relatable for young readers?
You know, I had not thought about how they both have refrains. I do like to write in rhyme, so any chance I get, I will do so. Also, when I write picture books, I imagine them being read aloud by a teacher, parent or librarian. Kids like to participate in the story and love repeating a catchy refrain. It keeps them engaged and it helps with their memorization skills. I am a proponent of having kids memorize poems and songs and even times tables (I know that dates me.). It’s exercise for the brain.
I enjoyed the fascinating details you include in the afterword for ICE CREAM MAN. Kids will be surprised to learn that people once ate bizarre ice cream flavors like Parmesan Cheese and Asparagus! What research tips can you offer writers interested in crafting fascinating picture book biographies?
I like to give lots of details in the afterword that I hope the adult reader will find helpful in sharing the books with children. Kids like weird and amazing facts. If the facts also have a yuk factor, all the better. So I would say to new writers, find some fascinating detail about your subject that children will find interesting. I like to begin the bio with an anecdote from the subject’s childhood that immediately draws the child in.
Both Keisha Morris and Keith Mallett do an amazing job of bringing your stories to life with their illustrations. I especially like how Morris captures the joy of the school train winding through town and how Mallett conveys the pride Jackson takes in bringing sweet treats to his community. How involved were you in the visual development of these books? Did you include many illustration notes in your manuscript? Were you able to provide feedback on rough sketches?
Yes, I was involved to some extent with the illustrations, and both artists were a delight to work with. I saw sketches along the way, making suggestions that were well-received. For instance, Thelma in SCHOOLTRAIN, is inspired by my mom. When Keisha, who loves cats, gave Thelma a pet cat, I asked her to change the cat to a dog. Mom was a dog person. For ICE CREAM MAN, Keith had to make sure not to show ice cream being eaten from a cone. Ice cream cones were not invented until 1904!
You have referred to school libraries as “the heart of the school.” What is it that makes school libraries so vital?
In the library, students can come and relax, play board games, maybe work on a puzzle. It’s a place where everyone fits in and you can be yourself. And, of course, it’s a place to read. I love helping a student find a book. I have to get to know the student and make that connection. When a student tells me he or she doesn’t like to read, I just say, “You haven’t found the right book yet.” Whether the right book is Gone With the Wind or Captain Underpants, I just want the student to become a reader.
You have another book releasing in 2023. Would you like to offer readers a preview of this book? Any other titles on the horizon?
Sure! I have a book being released by Crown Books in May, THE NIGHT BEFORE FREEDOM, about Juneteenth. I mentioned that I enjoy writing in rhyme. The story follows the same meter as Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas. And I am very excited that this will be my first rhyming picture book.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Glenda! I look forward to reading much more of your inspiring work in the future!
Thank you so much, Gabriele. I enjoyed it. And congratulations on your upcoming books! I look forward to reading them!
Glenda Armand has had a long career as a teacher and school librarian. She enjoys writing picture book biographies that inspire children to read, learn and dream big. Glenda lives in Los Angeles and has a son and daughter. When not writing or practicing the piano, she tends a garden full of roses and succulents. Drop by her website at glenda-armand.com or connect with her on Twitter: @GlendaArmand.
Natasha Anastasia Tarpley - KEYANA LOVES HER FAMILY!
Interview by: Gabriele Davis
Hi, Natasha! Welcome to the KidLit in Color blog and congratulations on your newest picture book, KEYANA LOVES HER FAMILY!, the first in a new series about Keyana. Reading it evoked fond memories of my own childhood movie nights—though they were never as extravagant as Keyana’s! Can you share your inspiration for this story?
As a kid I was, and still am, a big dreamer. I wanted to create a series that features a little Black girl who not only dreams big, but who also makes big plans to bring her ideas to fruition. However, sometimes Keyana’s plans don’t go exactly as she hoped–which also happens in our real lives. But Keyana doesn’t give up. Instead she comes up with new, and sometimes better ways to manifest her vision.
I also wanted Keyana to be surrounded by a loving group of family and friends, complete with its own cast of quirky and fun characters. These are the folks who believe in Keyana and her dreams, and are there to support and help her to make them reality.
Lastly, like you, I was also inspired by my family movie nights. Ours weren’t as elaborate as Keyana’s either, but we did have certain rituals–like going to the video store (when there was such a thing) to pick out movies, setting up our snacks, and jockeying for the best spot on the couch.
Yes, loving support and family rituals are everything! What overall message do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Encouraging young people to cultivate a sense of resiliency, of openness to trying again, or exploring new approaches when something doesn’t work out the way you planned, is a fundamental theme/message of the book. There are so many discouraging forces in the world that can thwart plans or stunt our ideas. I want kids to believe in their ideas and dreams, but also to become comfortable with the experience of failure–not to expect failure, but to have the fortitude, inner-strength, and confidence to keep going, even when the world tells you no, or that you can’t do the thing you set out to do. There are multiple paths to success.
Related to this, I wanted to inspire kids to dream big, even when they have no idea how they will bring those dreams to fruition. I always credit my mother, but she taught us from an early age to “go to the top,” to go after what we want and not short-change ourselves by thinking small. This is not always easy, because the world often only shows us a narrow slice of what’s possible, especially when it comes to images of Black folks and our accomplishments and experiences.
I love Keyana’s confident voice. Was it a natural choice for you to use a first person point of view? Or did you experiment with different perspectives? What else can you share about your writing process for this new series?
Keyana’s character is inspired by the protagonist of my classic picture book, I Love My Hair! In fact, the series was initially envisioned as a continuation or spin-off from that book. So, in this new iteration of Keyana, I really wanted to bring her whimsical and creative personality, which we get glimpses of in I Love My Hair, front and center. First person point of view was a natural choice to achieve this. And just like Keyana uses fantastical imagery to describe her hair, I wanted to showcase the ways that Keyana finds and creates magic in the things that she does in her everyday life.
When I started the series, I looked at series characters like, “Fancy Nancy”, to get a sense of how other authors developed their characters and stories over time. Then, I came up with a whole list of ideas for adventures that Keyana could have. I also thought about some of the underlying themes that I wanted to embed in the stories, with the evolution and growth of the character in mind. This kind of gave me a roadmap for the series.
When it comes to writing, I am a dedicated outliner. I use outlines as a way to develop the story. This takes a good amount of time, but by the time I’ve finished my outline, I know the story so well, I am able to write it very quickly. It’s worth investing that brainstorming and development time up front.
The illustrations by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow are vibrant and expressive. How did you feel when you saw the final layout? Do you have a favorite spread?
I loved Charnelle’s fun and whimsical illustrations. I felt that they really captured Keyana’s personality, as well as the warmth of her family members. I also appreciated the level of detail that Charnelle included that showcased Keyana’s home life and cultural elements, e.g Keyana’s bedtime bonnet. I think my favorite spread was the movie spread where all of the family members are shown together.
Your publishing credits include other acclaimed picture books. Can you talk a bit about your journey as an author?
I started writing when I was seven years old, and started publishing (poetry) when I was a freshman in high school. Although I knew I would always write, I didn’t have a sense of how to actually build a career as a writer. Therefore, the winding path of my career has enabled me to have diverse professional experiences: attending law school (finished but never practiced), becoming a reporter at Fortune magazine, working at a nonprofit mentoring youth in journalism and the publishing process.
I finally figured out that what I really wanted to do was to write books. After writing two books for adult readers, an anthology called, Testimony: Young African Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity, and a family memoir, Girl in the Mirror: Three Generations of Black Women in Motion, I decided to narrow my focus to children’s literature.
I have written several picture books. I have also published an acclaimed middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade (Scholastic), and am currently working on a new middle grade series with a supernatural theme, which will come out in 2024. I have also branched out into writing for children in other mediums. I am the writer and co-creator of a children’s mystery podcast, “Opal Watson: Private Eye” (Pinna). I am also working on a new podcast adaptation of my novel, The Harlem Charade, as well as developing a new animated television show for preschool-aged kids. I am passionate about telling great stories that inspire children, and I enjoy exploring multiple media platforms to do so.
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors?
I always suggest that aspiring writers read as many books as they can in the genre that they want to write. This is especially true of picture books. I find picture books to be very challenging to write sometimes, because you’re packing a lot of story into such a compact format. I always get a lot of ideas from reading other picture books, because the writing can be so unique and creative–seeing how other authors make the most of these small spaces.
I would also advise others to get comfortable with the revision process. I always write out all of my ideas in early drafts, and then pare the manuscript down as I go along.
I love the name of your new media company, Voonderbar! Can you tell us about its origin and mission?
I studied the German language from second grade up through college. Voonderbar is a play on the German word, wunderbar, which means wonderful. My mom and I started this company together. The mission of Voonderbar is to create exciting, inspirational, and educational stories that help kids to discover, celebrate and actualize the many facets of who they are. We wanted the name of the company to literally embody that sense of joy and wonder. We took a long hiatus, but are now starting up again, developing projects that incorporate new technologies and tell stories across multiple media platforms.
As an acclaimed and bestselling children's book author, who has been writing for over 20 years, Natasha Tarpley is passionate about telling engaging stories that both entertain and educate audiences across multiple media platforms. She uses her writing as a tool to change and expand narratives around Blackness and Black people, to create spaces where kids of color can relish in their reflections on the page/screen/airwaves, and to inspire children of all backgrounds to envision themselves in new ways and to tell new stories.
Natasha is the author of the classic picture book, I Love My Hair!, an ode to Black childhood and natural beauty, which is a favorite among readers and educators around the world. Natasha is also the author of Keyana Loves Her Family, which is book one of a new picture book series. Her other titles include the award-winning picture book, The Me I Choose To Be, and the social justice-themed middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade. Natasha is also the Writer and Co-Creator of the award-winning children’s narrative podcast, Opal Watson: Private Eye (Pinna.fm), and is currently developing new children’s podcast and television projects with major media outlets. Natasha is also the founder of Voonderbar! Media, an independent children’s media company.
Learn more about Natasha at:
Facebook: Natasha Tarpley
Tameka Fryer Brown- Twelve Dinging Doorbells
Kirstie Myvett interviews Tameka Fryer Brown about her latest book, TWELVE DINGING DOORBELLS!
KM: Hi Tameka, I’m super excited to talk with you about Twelve Dinging Doorbells! I have a soft spot for holiday books and stories that feature intergenerational families and TDD has it all.
TFB: Thanks, Kirstie! Family, food, humor, and bright colors. That's everything you need for a joyful picture book, right?
KM: This book is obviously inspired by the popular Twelve Days of Christmas song, but please tell us the details of how this story came about? Also, did you set out to write a counting book, a holiday book, or both?
TFB: Believe it or not, the book was actually inspired by #ThanksgivingwithBlackfamiles. I search out that hashtag every year as the holiday season approaches, just to laugh and feel in community with Black folks throughout the country about all the various things our families and family gatherings have in common. I wrote the first draft of Twelve Dinging Doorbells in December of 2017, just a few days before Christmas. So when I think about it, the story itself may have been inspired by the Thanksgiving hashtag, but the framework I used to tell it was inspired by the time of year that I started drafting it.
For me, it was never about writing a counting book, per se, though I did realize that would be an added feature of the structure. Nor was I ever focused on any particular holiday. My intention was always to honor Black family gatherings in general.
KM: You mentioned that Twelve Dinging Doorbells is filled with humor, family, food, and all the things that make holidays so special. How much of your own family traditions and experiences did you weave within this story?
TFB: A lot. When I was growing up, my granny’s house was the place to be for all major family gatherings—holidays, monthly birthday celebrations (if you know, you know), and even Sunday dinners. Extended family members would often swing by on Sundays for a plate—usually one to eat and one to take. Looking back, I am amazed at how many of us would be squeezed into that small house of hers. Whenever my family got together, the vibe was always loudness, laughter, and love. It was accompanied by the most delicious food, including my granny’s sweet potato pie. Granny was not capable of cooking anything not-delicious, but her potato pies were my absolute favorite.
KM: The illustrations by Ebony Glenn are beautiful. What were your thoughts upon seeing Ebony’s final depictions?
TFB: knew when Ebony signed on to be part of the project that the book would be gorgeous. She’s Ebony Glenn, after all. And of course, she didn’t disappoint. Even in the sketch phase, the joy, love, and silliness in her drawings had me smiling at my computer screen. The energy is palpable and the diversity of personalities shine through in every scene. Add the rich, vibrant colors on top of all that--using cut paper collage (!!)—and there’s no doubt that Ebony has created a masterpiece.
KM: I think this book is sure to become a classic Black family holiday book. But I also think children and families in different cultures will enjoy and relate to it because the themes of family, food, and love are all universal and transcend race. What do you hope children will take away from this book?
TFB: I wholeheartedly agree with you, Kirstie. I hope children will glean from it whatever it is they need from it: laughter; pride; a sense of being seen, celebrated, and valued; insight; connection; entertainment and education; and joy. Infectious joy. I also hope they’ll read and enjoy it the whole year through.
KM: What is your advice to authors interested in writing a holiday picture book?
TFB: Come at it from a place of impactful memory, I suppose. Reflect on the holiday memories that are most emotional for you and start crafting from there. Which is really the advice I’d give on writing about any subject. Identify the emotional impact you want to have and create based on that.
KM: How do you plan on celebrating your launch?
TFB: My official book launch was at Park Road Books on October 22nd. On November 15th, we plan on doing a virtual gathering where myself, Ebony Glenn, viewers, and a few special guests will come together to share a virtual meal (or a favorite dish), laughter, memories, and the importance of connection. Keep an eye on my social media for more details on our virtual gathering in the coming weeks.
KM: What’s up next for you?
TFB: I have two more picture books coming out very soon: Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change (illustrated by Nina Crews; published by Millbrook Press, November 1, 2022) and That Flag (illustrated by Nikkolas Smith; published by HarperCollins, January 31, 2023). In the fall of 2024, I will have another picture book coming out with FSG called You Are (Ode to a Big Kid), and that will be illustrated by Alleanna Harris.
Tameka Fryer Brown is a picture book author whose titles include the Charlotte Zolotow Honor-winning My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood and Brown Baby Lullaby, winner of the 2021 Anna Dewdney Read Together Award. Her work is also featured in the widely-acclaimed anthology, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices.
Brown’s forthcoming picture books include Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm's Fight for Change; and That Flag, a story about best friends divided over the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag.
You can learn more about Tameka at tamekafryerbrown.com.
Images from Twelve Dinging Doorbells, published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC Text copyright © 2022 by Tameka Fryer Brown, Illustrations copyright © 2022 by Ebony GlennImages from Twelve Dinging Doorbells, published by Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
Ana Siqueira - If Your Babysitter is a Bruja
An interview by Kirstie Myvett and Ana Siqueira
KM: Hi Ana, congratulations on your latest book, If Your Babysitter Is a Bruja. What inspired you to write this Halloween story?
AS: This story is based on a real story that happened to me, but it wasn’t during Halloween. I guess the Halloween was something I included to add some spookiness, but I believe this is a book you can read the whole year.
My story: One day I was at the beach with my three-year old daughter. She didn’t want to leave. I had to use my teacher’s voice to say - We need to leave NOW! And that’s when she started yelling and crying for three blocks - walking - that I was not her mom. I was a witch. Imagine my embarrassment. So that was the inspiration for my story.
KM: Holiday stories seem to be very popular. How long were you on submission with this book and what was the process in getting it signed?
AS: I revised this book while taking a class at Children’s Book Academy. In the end of the class, there was a showcase. Alyza Liu, the editor from Simon&Schuster asked to see it. My agent submitted it to her. She replied within a month. We closed the deal a few weeks later and after a few months everything was signed.
KM: There are many Spanish terms in the book that children will have fun learning. Is this something you include in all of your stories? If so, why?
AS: I am a Spanish teacher and my blended family speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. I believe learning Spanish in this country is so important. So my goal is to 1: motivate everyone to learn this beautiful language 2. Make the children who speak this language to be proud of their cultural and heritage.
KM: Halloween is often categorized in the scary holiday category but you’ve depicted a really fun story for children. Tell us why you chose that depiction vs. scary/horror?
AS: I wanted to show that we shouldn’t judge people or brujas based on stereotypes. I believe in this book, each reader can decide if the babysitter is a real bruja or it’s all imagination. But no matter what, they will see she is nice and sweet. So, don’t judge a bruja by her sombrero.
KM: Irena Freitas’ illustrations are bright and lively. What did you think when you first saw them and did you offer illustrator notes for this project?
AS: I had some art notes since the girl is an unreliable narrator. But Irena did much more than I expected. Through all the details and the character’s expressions, Irena made us dive into her imagination and live an aventura with her.
KM: How are you spending Halloween this year? Are you having any public readings or signings?
AS: I have a lot of events at libraries, bookstores and schools. It will be super fun. I will be doing an event online with the Miami Library, if anyone is interested in coming.
KM: What project(s) are you working on next?
AS: I have some other books coming out. But the project of my heart now is a story, based on my experience as a domestic violence survivor. And yes, it’s a picture book. I believe we can write about any topic if we can make it understandable and relatable to the little ones.
Ana Siqueira is an award-winning author from Brazil who cackles but doesn’t wear hats. When not flying with brujas, she teaches Spanish to adorable little ones, where she casts a learning spell that nobody can resist.
Some of her books are BELLA’S RECIPE FOR DISASTER/SUCCESS (Beaming Books, 2021) IF YOUR BABYSITTER IS A BRUJA/ CUANDO TU NIÑERA ES UNA BRUJA (SimonKids,2022), BOITATA: SNAKE OF FIRE (Capstone 2023), ABUELA’S SUPER CAPA/LA SUPERCAPA DE ABUELA (HarperCollins 2023), OUR WORLD BRAZIL (Barefoot 2023), ROOM IN MAMI’S CORAZON (HarperCollins 2024).
Aya Khalil - Our World: Egypt
KM: Tell us about how you landed this exciting opportunity to write a children’s board book about Egypt?
AK: So the way I landed this awesome board book deal is pretty unique! On Twitter one day, an Egyptian illustrator (Hatem Aly and I love his illustrations - dream illustrator for one of my books one day for sure!) tagged me after a Barefoot editor, Kate DePalma, asked if there were any Egyptian authors out there. A couple more people tagged me also. I connected with Kate right away before the holiday season of 2021. She explained the Our World board book series and I fell in love. What I love the most about the series is that Kate sought out both authors and illustrators whose backgrounds are from that country.
KM: What kind of timeline or deadline were you given? Was it difficult to work in such a short amount of time?
AK: I think I was given a few weeks. I was brainstorming over winter break and jotted down ideas. Kate sent me the layout, another work-in-progress for an Our World book and more information about the series. We sent each other edits throughout a couple of weeks. The most challenging part was getting the English pronunciation of the Arabic words correctly. I also tend to write longer picture books, so I loved the challenge of keeping the board book very short!
KM: Were there any experiences you had while visiting Egypt that are included in the book or helped shape the book in any way?
AK: I didn’t get any inspiration from when I was there recently, but I got ideas from when I used to visit in the summer as a child and teenager and even young adult. I looked at old pictures I took and even videos I used to record. I remembered specific details of walking along the busy streets of Alexandria with my cousins, and stopping by the fruit stands. I even tried to remember the smells and sounds. It was a lot of fun using my childhood memories in this beautiful book.
KM: There’s an intergenerational connection in the book. What made you include that representation for young readers?
AK: I feel like all of my books have some type of intergenerational connection (and food!). I would say it’s part of my author brand now ha! I loved the dad and daughter joy presented in the book. Grandparents are highly valued in Arab society, and it’s very common for adults and their children to visit the grandparents often in Egypt. Some even live in the same building or neighborhood. While I don’t live in Egypt, I still obviously visit my parents and I love the connection between grandparents and grandkids, so I wanted to include that.
KM: What were your thoughts when you saw Magda Azab’s illustrations for the first time? Which one is your favorite?
AK: I couldn’t stop smiling and screaming “THIS IS SO CUTE!!!!" The colors, the lines, the faces. Everything was so perfect and magical. She truly brought my words to life in the most beautiful way. She’s also Egyptian but lives abroad, like me, so we both brought our personal experiences into this board book. There’s so many favorites. I love the grandparents scene, because there’s so much joy in it, but I also love the simplicity of the toddler and her dad walking along the corniche, enjoying the little things in life.
KM: How have your children and family reacted to this book?
AK: They loved it. My youngest is now three, so it’s such a perfect book for her and she thinks the main character is her. Everyone else was so excited to see it digitally and I can’t wait for them to see it in print
KM: Do you have plans to celebrate the release? If so, what are your plans?
AK: I’m not quite sure yet! I was invited as a guest at a local farmer’s market so I’ve been coordinating with my local bookstore and publisher to see if we can sell it a week before the official release date and I hope it works out!
KM: What’s up next for you?
AK: The Night Before Eid comes out in March 2023 from Little, Brown and it’s illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh. The Banned Books Bake Sale comes out in 2023 from Tilbury House and it’s illustrated by Anait Smeridzhyan. Readers can find out more about these upcoming titles at www.ayakhalil.com
Make sure you enter our Instagram giveaway to win an advanced copy before it officially launches in October!
Freelance journalist and blogger Aya Khalil, holds a master’s in Education with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Yahoo! Book Riot and other publications. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others. She’s done sensitivity readings for DK Publishing/Penguin.
Aya is a picture book author and is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US Agency. Her debut picture book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story was published February 18, 2020 by Tilbury House.
She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Toledo. Besides writing and teaching, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and exercising.
She does author visits at libraries and schools and sensitivity readings. Contact her for details.
You can learn more about Aya at http://ayakhalil.com.
Aya Khalil: Salam Alaikum, S.K. Ali! I am so excited to be interviewing you again for Kidlitincolor.com. I just finished reading Love from Mecca to Medina and I needed a few days to process it all! Wow, what an amazing book. First thing's first, can you tell us how long it took for you to write it and any challenges along the way?
S.K. Ali: Walaikummusalam! Excited to be back at Kidlitincolor.com! Brewing this book took a year but the writing itself took a few months, with two intense months of marathon writing (see below why this is my process!) The challenges were juggling the expectations of writing a romance in which the couple were already in love at the start of the book, as well as the sacred nature of their journey. That was a hard feat!
AK: I personally have been to Mecca and Medina twice, and I love all of the descriptions in the book. If I'm not mistaken, I believe you also went recently? Were you writing the novel at the same time? How was your experience there while writing it, or writing it after you came back.
SK Ali: Actually, my most recent trip to Mecca and Medina was a while back in 2015. But I have a trove of cumulative memories from having visited periodically over the years since I was a child; I relied on these while writing, as well as the efforts of kind people who recorded their trips and uploaded them onto YouTube. This visual research was especially important to make notes on more recent developments at the holy sites. I didn’t want to get things wrong so I verified and cross-referenced my memories with current video evidence from other pilgrims. Watching such precious, personal vlogs revived the feelings of awe I felt during my own visits in years past and, I feel, contributed to infusing Love from Mecca to Medina with vivid emotional and visual descriptions. So, thank you YouTubers!
AK: I love the many layers in the book; the struggles Zeynab faces in college: trying to do it all as a college student but also facing microaggressions and struggles in her love life. I love that she's not the "perfect Muslim" and actually didn't really want to go to Umra at first, and even when she did, she didn’t really enjoy it at first. That really resonated with me personally because we're not perfect humans (lol!) and sometimes book reviewers will point that out. Can you tell me why you think it's important to have Muslim characters with flaws?
SK Ali: I love that you loved that! I choose to write characters struggling because when you’re committed to ideals/ways-of-living that vary from the greater society around you, struggling on a grand scale is part of the equation. In any kind of fiction, it’s unrealistic to write characters who get it right all the time or who don’t need to grow; actually, that would be a pretty bad book, lol. In terms of Muslim characters, especially Muslim characters who are trying to be committed to their faith, it’s important to communicate the struggle as it is. It brings in all the elements of good storytelling: conflict, tension and finding something and someone to root for. It’s just honest and compelling art to record our – often lowly – humanness.
AK: I am interested to know, as I'm sure many readers, what your process is like in writing your novels. Do you have everything planned out? Do you use mood boards, sticky notes? Please tell us how you geniusly write these novels, including Love from Mecca to Medina.
SK Ali: I’m a reformed Pantser – and that capital “P” is there for a reason! (My reformation came due to multiple DEADLINES – all caps! – happening simultaneously soon after my debut novel.) This new reformed-me must know all the major beats in a story, almost every character’s arcs, themes, framing elements, etc. before I start writing. I find doing all of that work upfront (that is what I meant when I said Love from Mecca to Medina brewed for a year) makes the writing process quicker and tidier. I absolutely love free-writing scenes and letting my creativity take the characters places but now I allow that freedom within little assigned descriptors that aid in the completion of the plans I have for the story. Some people find the story after they cough up a messy draft, honing in while writing multiple drafts, whereas I find the story in the midst of messy notes and doodles (I use storyboarding to work out beats and important scenes) and images I gather. This allows me to deliver a pretty clean manuscript with most (not all, of course) of the kinks worked out beforehand (in the planning stages) on time. This is how I’ve written all my novels, except for Saints and Misfits.
AK: What's next for you? Any more books following Zeynab? How about Janna? I love that Janna made an appearance in this book and the role she played, and the ending (ahh!)
SK Ali: Zayneb’s and Janna’s stories came to a conclusion in Love from Mecca to Medina – I spent a lot of time planning that season finale in the epilogue! As for what’s next: I’m switching gears and in the process of finishing a speculative fic duology, as well as a humorous historical fiction YA novel I’m co-writing AND an adult rom-com. (But, I’m not going to lie, Adam, Zayneb and Janna’s books are always going to be my favorite children!)
AK: Would you like to add anything else about you or your book?
SK Ali: Just something that I get asked often: what order should we read your novels? To get the full, immersive experience in this universe I’ve created for these characters (which fans call the “Zaydam” universe, to which Janna interjects with, “ahem, it’s the ‘Janna-Zaydam’ universe” because her story was first!): Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z, Misfit in Love, The Eid Gift(a free novelette available at Rivetedlit.com) and then Love from Mecca to Medina. I hope you get a chance to read them all!
AK: Where can readers find you and purchase Love From Mecca to Medina?
SK Ali: They can find me at my website, skalibooks.com, on Instagram and TikTok at @skalibooks and on Twitter at @sajidahwrites. Love from Mecca to Medina can be purchased here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Love-from-Mecca-to-Medina/S-K-Ali/9781665916073
KidLit in Color members Kirstie Myvett and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow discuss Jamilah's latest picture book, Hold Them Close: A Love Letter To Black Children.
KM: Hold Them Close, A Love Letter To Black Children, touches on the complexities of Black children’s feelings in a poetic but very real way. You open with examples of happiness then seamlessly delve into the heavier stuff that Black children must, unfortunately, face. Tell us why embracing both the happy and sad is so important for Black children.
JTB: When I began writing this book, it was in response to Black pain. I wanted a way to help children manage their feelings about our collective and ongoing traumas. Yet and still, I wanted to affirm that they are deserving of joy. I wanted to affirm that at heart, we have always been a people who find and make joy in spite of the most unimaginable cruelties. We are a people who have created and continue to create culture and beauty in spite of oppression.
KM: I believe this book is powerful and that it will be a tool to help children explore their feelings alongside their parents, teachers, and classmates. When you wrote HTC, did you think about the potential dialogue that would take place around it because you so eloquently address what I imagine children are feeling during difficult, “bigger than sadness” times?
JTB: I did write with a hope that this book would serve families and communities in having necessary conversations. Unfortunately, I know we will need ways to navigate continued racism, and I do hope this book is a support in doing that work. It’s hard to talk about “sadness bigger than sadness” in picture books because we want stories for children that are light. Our kids need that. Nevertheless, there are moments when life just isn’t light and when it’s impossible to shield our children from heavy realities. I wrote this book for those moments, wanting it to be a comfort and a tool in those moments.
KM: The illustrations and photography really drive your message home. While looking at the cover, I was overcome with memories of my own sons when they were little. I became very emotional looking at the stunning images throughout the book. Please tell us about illustrator Patrick Dougher and photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose artwork and images grace your book.
JTB: I sometimes tear up when I look at the images. Patrick Dougher is an acclaimed Brooklyn-based fine artist who works in many mediums including major city murals and has also worked with youth in his community as an art therapist. While this is his first book, he’s his own institution in the art world. Jamel Shabazz is a legend. He has documented New York City neighborhoods for decades. He is from Brooklyn and his photography has been shown in books, documentaries, and exhibitions. I adore his loving portrayals of the models in the book, especially the children. I still can’t believe I was able to have both of these artists work on my book.
KM: What is the message you want Black children to get from this love letter?
JTB: You are loved, you are worthy, you are heard, and we got you when times are hard. Hold on to who you are, hold on to your joy, and always, always, ALWAYS hold on to hope.
KM: I feel children of other races will also benefit and gain empathy from reading HTC. What is your message for non-Black children who, out of curiosity, pick up this book with its compelling cover?
JTB: I think the message above could apply to them as well. In addition to that, I hope they are inspired by Black resistance and resilience. I hope they see our shared humanity.
KM: What do your boys think of Hold Them Close?
JTB: The oldest has told me it inspires him, which is heartening. The youngest seems to appreciate the language and images. I hope it builds up their sense of self.
KM: Lastly, how will you celebrate your launch?
JTB: I’m excited that I’ll be celebrating on launch day with the community organization, Start Lighthouse Foundation, because it will mean celebrating with many children in the Bronx. While I’m not from there, I have done multiple school visits in that borough, and it always feels like home when I go there. I also am looking forward to upcoming events local to Philadelphia, including a story time with Children’s Book World during launch week and an event with the African American Museum of Philadelphia later this fall (date TBD).
KM: Thanks so much for stopping by Jamilah and congratulations on your latest book!
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. As an inaugural AMAL fellow with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), she developed foundational curricular frameworks for youth and adult anti-racist programming. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, and NPR. These works include Mommy’s Khimar and Irma Black Award Honor Book, Your Name is a Song. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books: Black Creatives Fund and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a committee member.
You can learn more about Jamilah at http://jamilahthewriter.com.
Illustrations by Patrick Dougher and photography by Jameel Shabazz and copyrighted.
Allysun Atwater - I Am Thinking My Life
Interview with Allysun Atwater about I Am Thinking My Life
By Rashmi Bismark
RB: Hi Allysun! Congratulations on your gorgeous debut picture book, I Am Thinking My Life, illustrated by Stevie Lewis and published by Bala Kids, an imprint of Shambhala Publications. As a mindfulness + yoga facilitator and mom, there is so much I absolutely love about this story. It’s empowering and life-affirming. It so beautifully depicts the power of intention, thought, mindfulness, and action through the heart of a child. Tell us some of your inspirations behind creating a story like this.
AA: Sometimes I just get the tiniest spark of an idea - usually just an idea for the title of a story. Then I start writing and a story takes shape almost fully formed. When this happens, I often don’t know what I’m creating or really where it comes from. It just arrives, and suddenly it seems like it’s been there all along. This was the case with I Am Thinking My Life. However, I can think of a couple of concrete moments of inspiration for the book, retrospectively. One is that my daughters attended a play-based school called Bing Nursery School on Stanford’s campus, when I was in law school. The thing I loved most about Bing was that it was this beautiful indoor and outdoor wonderland for children with a cornucopia of elaborate opportunities for activities. Bing gave children the agency to choose how they could spend much of their time each day. I appreciated how empowering that was in an age when children are so scheduled and helicoptered. It had such a strong impact on both of my daughters who have always been very introspective and creative. Once I Am Thinking My Life was born, I fell in love with the idea that it featured a character who had that power to choose how she would actively engage herself, and also to marvel at the joy of having that freedom to think and dream.
The other inspiration is my observations of all of the life-building and creative energy that goes on around us. People are constantly “thinking their lives” in really unique and compelling ways, and I feel more positive in my own mindset just from experiencing and witnessing other people’s thoughts manifesting as all kinds of amazing creations.
RB: Stevie Lewis’ art is stunning! Through your beautiful words, we learn about the power of being with and envisioning one’s life. Through Stevie’s artwork, we also learn so much about the main character’s personality, her family, and her dreams for herself. What influenced some of the artistic choices? Were you able to have input on how the art was telling the story as well?
AA: I agree. Stevie’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. I feel fortunate to have been able to contribute many of the ideas for the artwork. I actually wrote extensive art notes detailing the plot and narrative structure of the illustrations. Stevie based the majority of the book’s illustrations on them. Of course, she added her own interpretation to the illustrations. The characters’ appearances are all her creation, and I was delighted to see that the main character and her mother had locs, because we definitely need to see that representation in picture books.
What I was hoping for was just to see our main character in the excitement and, sometimes frenzy, of discovery regarding the power of her thoughts. There is some experimentation, and some amazing introspection happening. I wanted to see the character experiencing that realization not only for herself, but for the way it positively affects her family and friends, and the way it impacts her future.
I also wanted to work in the realization that no matter how positive our thoughts are, there will be storms, whether those are moods or events that create a negative experience. Sometimes we have to ride those negative emotions out, and experience them for what they are. But the goal should be to get back to a place of positivity when that becomes possible, even if it takes some time and effort to access that inner light and those inner resources again.
RB: I love that reminder that even through the storms, we can search within and uncover illumination. Can you share with our readers, what are some ways you nourish yourself in stormy times?
AA: That’s such an insightful question. I went through quite a few stormy times before I wrote this book. From having to reroute my career due to illness, to losing my baby brother – my only sibling, the summer before I wrote my first draft of this book, I had what felt like some monsoons happening in my life. But storms are a part of life, and they have their own humbling beauty. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by a loving family and amazing friends. Spending time with them is definitely one of the main ways I nourish myself in stormy times. Also, I love story. And, fortunately for me, story is everywhere— in poetry, in picture books, in songs, in paintings, in television shows and in movies. I love to get absorbed in a transporting story, whatever the medium. I love a gorgeous sunset too. I try to watch the sunset every evening that isn’t too overcast. Nature can really put life’s metaphorical storms into perspective, and soothe and help heal us. I also try to meditate often. And, of course, there is writing, which is an amazing, cathartic outlet for those of us who want to unleash its power.
RB: The book closes with a heartfelt letter from you and a wish for dreams, hopes, and continued belief in ourselves. What are some of your dreams and hopes as you now enter the field of children’s literature? What thoughts are you currently thinking for your life?
AA: This is another lovely question. I absolutely hope to continue writing books and, hopefully, reach the readers that need my words and stories the most. I think every writer would love to write an award-winning bestseller and experience phenomenal success, and I won’t claim that I’m any different. I love to dream big!
I think the most important thing, though, is to answer the call of creativity and share my creations with the world. I’m a bit of a recluse, and I have a tendency to want to hide my talents away, but writing this first book has forced me to set some of those tendencies aside and bring myself out into the open. And it has come with some beautiful rewards. Readers that have read I Am Thinking My Life have started reaching out to me in meaningful ways, telling me how much this book has meant to them, and sending me pictures of their darling children with the book, and I can’t even begin to describe how much that means to me.
Also, to go to a Barnes & Noble, a library, or an independent bookstore and see my book on the shelf is probably always going to be a pinch me moment for me – especially in light of the reverence I’ve always had for bookstores and libraries. So that is already a beautiful dream realized. Now, “I am thinking my life” as a (someday) seasoned author, and hoping for more opportunities to continue to engage in this inspirational work.
RB: Thank you, Allysun, for joining us on the KidLit in Color Blog! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AA: Thank you so much for inviting me, Rashmi! This has been an amazing honor. I wish you and the rest of the Kidlit in Color authors all the best!
Allysun Atwater is the author of I Am Thinking My Life, illustrated by Stevie Lewis and published by Bala Kids. She is an educator, and non-practicing attorney. Allysun grew up in Odessa, Texas where she was a quintessential 80s latchkey kid and an avid reader with an insatiable love of the library. Allysun is a graduate of Southern Methodist University (SMU) with a bachelor’s degree in English, Stanford Law School with a juris doctorate, and Stanford University with a master’s degree in education. Allysun lives in the Houston area with her husband, twin daughters, her mother, her nephew and two spirited Shih Tzus.