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.
Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write Tu YouYou’s Discovery, and how long did it take you to complete this project?
My inspiration for writing this book was from a TV show. At the beginning of 2019, I watched a BBC program called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century. Tu Youyou, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing, were the four candidates in the scientist category. I was excited that Tu Youyou had been selected. I also realized that most Americans had never heard of her, even though Tu Youyou had saved millions of lives and had won the prestigious Nobel Prize. As a proud Chinese American, I had to share her remarkable journey.
For this particular story, it took me months to do the necessary research before writing. The first draft took me about two hours. The revising process took me over one year.
I enjoyed learning about natural remedies to illness and the benefits of plants in healing. I would imagine you had to research not only Tu Youyou’s life but Chinese medicine as well. Tell us about the research you did for this book.
There is very little material about Tu Youyou available in the US. Luckily, I can read Chinese and found a lot of Chinese books and material about Tu Youyou on the Chinese internet. I did extensive research about Tu Youyou’s experiment process and learned so much about qinghao (sweet wormwood). Even though I can’t cover many details in my book, I gained a lot of health knowledge about qinghao, which is the grassy plant that artemisinin is extracted from. I always had a special taste for a Chinese vegetable named tonghao, which is related to qinghao. Now I plant it in my garden every year and have plenty to enjoy, not only for its taste, but also for its medical benefits. I use it on salads, stir fry, even dumplings.
As a former software engineer, your career path probably correlates in many ways with Tu Youyou’s. Share the importance of children seeing themselves in non-traditional roles.
I grew up in China. There, like a lot of the world, the male has the dominant role in society and the family. My family has four girls and one boy. The reason that my mother had four girls is because she was determined to give my father a son to pass on his family name. In my family, my younger brother was always more important than the four girls. My parents actually wished I would become a teacher or a doctor, which are more in a female domain. I wanted to be a scientist or engineer because that was where my interests were. Throughout my engineering career, there have always been more men than women in my working place. Statistically, only 25% of those in a STEM career are women. Tu Youyou is a great role model. I hope Tu Youyou’s story will inspire young girls to study Science and Engineering. These fields are not for boys only. As a former engineer myself, I can tell you that engineering is a fun job and women make great engineers.
Tu Youyou is 90 years old now and received a Nobel Prize in 2015. Have you had an opportunity to speak with her or her representative?
Tu Youyou is retired and she is a very private person. She doesn’t accept any interviews. I did try to connect several times with Professor Tu Youyou through her working place, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. I haven’t yet received a response. If I ever have the opportunity to talk with her, I would love to know more about her childhood. I would ask about her favorite memory of her childhood, her favorite color, game, book, and food as a child. These facts would have added more color and personality to the book.
What’s an interesting fact you learned about Tu Youyou that you weren’t able to include in the book?
During the process of researching the book, I was deeply touched by the personal sacrifices Tu Youyou had made for this project. She volunteered to be the first human tested with the extract of the sweet wormwood to prove it was safe before a clinical trial. It was truly a selfless and brave deed. I wrote this incredible fact in my draft as I wanted to show what a courageous scientist she was. Eventually, however, this was removed from the book. My editor considered that talking about this personal medicinal testing by Tu Youyou was probably not a good idea for young readers as experimenting with drugs in any way could be very dangerous for them.
Tell us about Lin and her illustrations.
The illustrator Lin did a wonderful job of bringing Tu Youyou’s story to life with her gorgeous illustrations. Unfortunately, for a long time, I was unable to communicate with her because she lives in China. Recently, I finally was able to connect with her through Instagram. I am excited to get to know her more.
What are your must-have writing tools?
I write on a desktop PC. Microsoft word is my must-have writing tool.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript about an extraordinary Chinese American activist named Grace Lee Boggs. She went beyond class and racial boundaries, fighting for a more just and fairer world.
Songju Ma Daemicke, a former software engineer with Motorola, grew up in China and is an award-winning children’s book author. Her picture book Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant was a Best STEM book, and the Winner of the 2018 CALA Best Juvenile Literature. When she’s not writing, she loves attending to her garden and shooting her next special photograph. Songju lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and their daughters.
To learn more about Songju please visit her website and social media pages.
Order: Tu Youyou's Discovery
KidLit in Color authors Kirstie Myvett and Rashmi Bismark sit down with fellow member Tina Athaide to discuss her new book, Meena's Mindful Moment.
What inspired you to write Meena’s Mindful Moment?
Meena's Mindful Moment is inspired from visits to Goa, India when I was a child. In the afternoons, my grandfather and I walked through the village and visited some of the same places that Meena goes with her grandfather. I brought my own imaginary hurly-burly hullabaloo on those walks and Grandpa patiently welcomed it on our adventures.
The idea of a young child being scolded isn't usually explored in picture books. You have a scene where the villagers wag their fingers and shake their nets to show they are frustrated with Meena. Why did you choose to include that scene?
I have been a special education teacher for thirty years. Every year, I have students who share Meena's exuberance. Their behaviors are well intended, but not always viewed that way. Meena represents that group of students and shows them that they are not alone. It shows them that there is someone else like them who understands how they are feeling.
As Meena connects with calm, she meets a sense of her own agency. She learns how to use her attention and breath to relate with her Hullabaloo energy. She remembers she can guide her body, feet, and mind. Do you or your students enjoy any mindful yoga practices in particular?
I work with students in TK all the way to grade 12 and a phrase I use with all of them is "finding our calm place". In Ian Wright's book, Dynamics of Stillness, he explores ways to bring the nervous system to a state of quiet. Our school environments are hectic and can be over stimulating at times. I use mindful yoga practices to help my students find their "calm place" or state of quiet.
We close our eyes, which helps block what is happening around us and calm our energy.
We take deep breaths, like Meena and Dada, to shift our focus on ourselves and allow our bodies the space to settle.
When we are shifting from one subject to another (i.e. math to science), we will incorporate some yoga stretches, which wakes up our bodies and gives our brains that break it craves. My students love the strength of warrior pose and the challenge to maintain their balance in tree pose.
It is all about teaching my students how to take their awareness of their bodies back to a place where they feel stillness and quiet. It is what Meena does when she guides her Hullabaloo energy.
This is your first picture book. What was that process like in comparison to your middle-grade book Orange for the Sunsets?
A picture book is so different from a MG because the words are only half of the story. I was very lucky that the team at Page Street invited me to be a part of the book-making process. My daughter and I even picked the image for the hurly-burly hullabaloo character.
The illustrations by Åsa Gilland are vibrant and fun. Tell us about your illustrations and what it was like working with Asa on this project.
Åsa’s art is incredible and she captured the spirit and soul of my characters. It was important to me that the people and culture were portrayed accurately and Åsa made that a priority, too.
What are you working on next?
I love taking kids on a journey to other countries. I am working on a picture book set in La Fontainhas--a colorful colonial neighborhood in Goa--and a middle-grade story set in London in the early 1970s.
KidLit in Color author Kirstie Myvett interviews illustrator LaTonya Jackson about her upcoming picture book.
Congratulations on the cover for Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit written by Esau McCaulley due for release in May 2022. It’s beautiful, colorful, and detailed. Please tell us a little bit about the book.
Thank you so much! I view this project as my interview to get into the illustration industry. My background is in the fine arts, so I have a lot to prove in terms of showing that I can do more than create standalone pretty pictures.
I want to go on record to say that I painstakingly drew those braids on the cover one by one because I wanted them to be as exquisite as I could possibly get them to be from afar and up close. I can hardly wait for little hands to pick up this book, and dive into its words and pictures.
Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit is about a little girl who has reservations about being different—her hair isn’t straight like the other girls at her school. On an outing with her dad to shop for a new red dress and to get her hair braided for Pentecost Sunday service, Josey learns a valuable lesson about the beauty in our differences and how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Those braids are beautiful, by the way. Tell us how you started this project and what mediums you worked with.
I always start with reading the story carefully—highlighting and taking notes on very specific descriptions mentioned in the text, for example, the color of the characters’ clothing and the characters’ behaviors. After that, I create a storyboard to map out my initial ideas in quick pencil sketches on paper. I also create a mood board—a la Pinterest boards—that serves as style and color scheme inspiration. For this project, I chose to work digitally using the Procreate app.
Did you have models for this project or was it free-formed in your head?
No, I didn’t have any models per se for this project. However, Esau sent me a picture of his daughter who is around the character’s age, so I took my inspiration from that.
This is your illustration debut and I know you must be so excited. How long did it take you to complete this project?
I am over the moon! This is a lifelong dream that dates back to third grade when I was writing and illustrating my own stories about unicorns on pieces of copy paper stapled together. I still have a couple of them, by the way.
From conception to final color illustration edits, it took about 5 months. I did a lot of overtime work on it during the summer. I knew that once school started and I had to return to work, subsequently, my progress would slow down. Therefore, I woke up at 6am daily the entire summer (which, under any other circumstances, is summertime blasphemy). In retrospect, I am so relieved that I did!
Did you collaborate with the author Esau McCaulley for input and if so how was that?
Yes, this project was a collaboration from start to finish. I appreciate Cindy Kiple, the art director, Esau McCaulley, the author, and the rest of the team working on this project for allowing me some creative license, trusting my aesthetic, while also giving me those necessary nudges about certain elements of the story. Fortunately, it worked out that they approved of most of my ideas. I know sometimes, imaginatively speaking, I can get a little carried away with my head way up in the clouds. Sometimes, I need to be wrangled a bit and brought back down to earth.
What, if any, lessons did you take away from this project?
One lesson I learned was to throw away nothing! All of those “bad” drawings or drawings that were not approved could be reworked and used as assets for other illustrations in your book project.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on refining some of my manuscripts that have been sitting on my desk. I am also working on a dummy for an informational fiction picture book, an adventure tale that I wrote about animal tails. This particular story is evolving into a wordless story which makes the dummy even more important in communicating my vision.
When you’re not drawing or painting we can find you?
You can find me playing with my son, reading, or sleeping!
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
1. There are many outstanding artists in this field. Believe in your special gift and know that there is room for your unique voice, experiences, and vision in this industry.
2. Always remain a lifelong student of your craft—sketch daily, study the work of those artists that you admire, experiment, work on your areas of weakness, and go about living (your best ideas come when you are away from your desk and simply living life).
3. Share your work! It’s scary (we artists are often sensitive about our work), but do it anyway.
4. Start where you are with what you have.
That's great advice. Thank you LaTonya and best of luck.
Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I first heard about King Sejong and how he invented the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) from my father. In 2013, the year after my mother passed away, my father announced to me and my brother that he wanted to visit Korea. This was rather surprising because my father 1.) does not enjoy traveling and 2.) he had never been back to Korea after moving to the US in the 1950s.
While discussing the trip, my father told me he could only read and write Hangeul at about a 3rd grade level. I was so puzzled by this, and it was then he told me about the history of Hangeul. Although King Sejong invented it in 1443, it took 600 years for it to be adopted as Korea’s official alphabet--in 1946. At that point, my father was 18 years old!
Up until that time, my father had lived in Korea under the Japanese occupation. So his education was conducted in Japanese. He didn’t grow up using Hangeul. When he told me about King Sejong and Hangeul, I wasn’t seriously trying to write for children at the time. But I remember immediately thinking, “This would make a great children’s book!”
Not only is the story of Hangeul fascinating, it is a story that directly affects my family. I love that there is this direct connection between my father and King Sejong.
How do you tackle research on a person and subject matter from the 15th century?
Admittedly this can be a huge challenge! One of the great things about writing about a king is that someone recorded everything King Sejong did, said, or wrote. So there are a lot of written records about him. I personally don’t read, write, or speak Korean (the irony, I know!) so I could not rely on sources written in Korean. But fortunately for me, many people wrote about and studied King Sejong, so there are many books and scholarly articles about him and Hangeul.
I live in Austin, home to the University of Texas, which was a huge help. I was able to use their library which had many fantastic resources. Museums and universities in Korea were also a source of information, and many resources were online and in English.
I am pretty sure if King Sejong were not such a major historical figure, it would have been quite a challenge to find enough good sources to write a purely nonfiction book about him. If I had run into trouble, I could have tried writing an informational fiction book, which allows you to take more liberties.
How long did it take you to write this book?
There are a couple of ways I could answer this question. During our trip to Korea, I was on the lookout for information about King Sejong. I found one wonderful book at a museum that they were actually giving out for free! It was part of a program to expand cultural awareness of Korea, and the book was all about King Sejong. I did a little more research after we returned home. And then I sat on my research for years.
When I finally decided to seriously try to write and publish a children’s book, one of the things I did was take a course on picture book writing with the Children’s Book Academy (which I recommend!). In the course, we were encouraged to write story pitches, and get feedback on them. I had a draft of another book I was working on at the time. But when I pitched the story of King Sejong and Hangeul, many people told me: ”that’s the story you should write!” I knew they were correct--but it meant digging into more research and trying to draft a story in just a few weeks.
But I did it! I was also able to get feedback from my mentor at that time, Katey Howes. I also got a paid critique. At the end of the course, we had an opportunity to pitch our stories to a group of editors and agents. Two editors were interested in the story, and asked for the full manuscript. So then I really had to buckle down and get it polished. Altogether it took me about three months to write the manuscript and get it ready for submission.
You included a story from King Sejong’s childhood that many children today would probably find unimaginable and funny. How important was it for you to link a childhood story in a book primarily about his adult years and accomplishments?
I think if you can include scenes from your main character’s childhood, it makes for a stronger children’s book. Young readers can relate to the character better, because they often forget that grown-ups were once kids just like them! I think it can also help kids imagine how they could grow up to be like the main adult character. In the case of King Sejong, I also wanted to show how he was a lover of books during his own childhood. This trait stayed with him throughout his life, and may have contributed to his deep desire to make reading available to everyone.
The illustrations are beautiful and really depict the character’s emotions throughout the book. Tell us about working with illustrator Cindy Kang? Did you provide any images you discovered during your research?
As is often the case with many publishers, I didn't have any involvement in the illustrator selection process. So I was thrilled when they told me they had found Cindy Kang, and that she had agreed to illustrate the book. I felt Cindy’s illustration style fit well with my vision for the book. Plus, Cindy is also Korean, which I believed would be very helpful for ensuring the accuracy of the illustrations.
My editor did consult with me on some illustration decisions, such as the cover, which I appreciated. I think with some publishers, the authors don’t really see the illustrations until the final stages. But my editor shared drafts of Cindy’s work with me, and I was always so pleased with how she chose to depict the different scenes. I didn’t really need to help with any of the research for the illustrations--which I was actually kind of relieved about!
What do you hope children learn or take away from King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I think it would be hard for kids to imagine what it would be like to not have access to reading at all. And not only them, but their entire family, and even all of their neighbors. Reading is such a gift and I hope this story helps them reflect on how wonderful it is that books can be such a big part of their lives. I also hope children can be inspired by King Sejong and how compassionate he was. As a king, he had so much power, and he chose to use that power for the good of all.
What are you working on next?
In addition to KING SEJONG, I have been very busy this year writing books for the educational market. I love writing educational books, and a lot of opportunities came my way, and I kept saying “yes!” As a result, I wrote about 10 books in the last twelve months--which kept me pretty busy!
I’m finishing up the last of these books. After that I am eager to start working on some story ideas that have been brewing in my mind for quite awhile. At the top of my list are a couple of nonfiction picture books--so stay tuned!
Carol Kim believes books and words have a magical ability to change the world for the better, and she writes for children with the hope of spreading some of that magic. She is the author of the picture book biography, King Sejong Invents an Alphabet as well as 20 fiction and nonfiction books for the educational market. Carol relishes unearthing real-life stories and little-known facts to share with young readers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Carol Kim please visit her social media links below!
MakeaLivinginKidlit.com (for those interested in writing kidlit and making a career of it)Twitter: CKimWrite4Kids
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