Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write Tu YouYou’s Discovery, and how long did it take you to complete this project?
My inspiration for writing this book was from a TV show. At the beginning of 2019, I watched a BBC program called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century. Tu Youyou, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing, were the four candidates in the scientist category. I was excited that Tu Youyou had been selected. I also realized that most Americans had never heard of her, even though Tu Youyou had saved millions of lives and had won the prestigious Nobel Prize. As a proud Chinese American, I had to share her remarkable journey.
For this particular story, it took me months to do the necessary research before writing. The first draft took me about two hours. The revising process took me over one year.
I enjoyed learning about natural remedies to illness and the benefits of plants in healing. I would imagine you had to research not only Tu Youyou’s life but Chinese medicine as well. Tell us about the research you did for this book.
There is very little material about Tu Youyou available in the US. Luckily, I can read Chinese and found a lot of Chinese books and material about Tu Youyou on the Chinese internet. I did extensive research about Tu Youyou’s experiment process and learned so much about qinghao (sweet wormwood). Even though I can’t cover many details in my book, I gained a lot of health knowledge about qinghao, which is the grassy plant that artemisinin is extracted from. I always had a special taste for a Chinese vegetable named tonghao, which is related to qinghao. Now I plant it in my garden every year and have plenty to enjoy, not only for its taste, but also for its medical benefits. I use it on salads, stir fry, even dumplings.
As a former software engineer, your career path probably correlates in many ways with Tu Youyou’s. Share the importance of children seeing themselves in non-traditional roles.
I grew up in China. There, like a lot of the world, the male has the dominant role in society and the family. My family has four girls and one boy. The reason that my mother had four girls is because she was determined to give my father a son to pass on his family name. In my family, my younger brother was always more important than the four girls. My parents actually wished I would become a teacher or a doctor, which are more in a female domain. I wanted to be a scientist or engineer because that was where my interests were. Throughout my engineering career, there have always been more men than women in my working place. Statistically, only 25% of those in a STEM career are women. Tu Youyou is a great role model. I hope Tu Youyou’s story will inspire young girls to study Science and Engineering. These fields are not for boys only. As a former engineer myself, I can tell you that engineering is a fun job and women make great engineers.
Tu Youyou is 90 years old now and received a Nobel Prize in 2015. Have you had an opportunity to speak with her or her representative?
Tu Youyou is retired and she is a very private person. She doesn’t accept any interviews. I did try to connect several times with Professor Tu Youyou through her working place, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. I haven’t yet received a response. If I ever have the opportunity to talk with her, I would love to know more about her childhood. I would ask about her favorite memory of her childhood, her favorite color, game, book, and food as a child. These facts would have added more color and personality to the book.
What’s an interesting fact you learned about Tu Youyou that you weren’t able to include in the book?
During the process of researching the book, I was deeply touched by the personal sacrifices Tu Youyou had made for this project. She volunteered to be the first human tested with the extract of the sweet wormwood to prove it was safe before a clinical trial. It was truly a selfless and brave deed. I wrote this incredible fact in my draft as I wanted to show what a courageous scientist she was. Eventually, however, this was removed from the book. My editor considered that talking about this personal medicinal testing by Tu Youyou was probably not a good idea for young readers as experimenting with drugs in any way could be very dangerous for them.
Tell us about Lin and her illustrations.
The illustrator Lin did a wonderful job of bringing Tu Youyou’s story to life with her gorgeous illustrations. Unfortunately, for a long time, I was unable to communicate with her because she lives in China. Recently, I finally was able to connect with her through Instagram. I am excited to get to know her more.
What are your must-have writing tools?
I write on a desktop PC. Microsoft word is my must-have writing tool.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript about an extraordinary Chinese American activist named Grace Lee Boggs. She went beyond class and racial boundaries, fighting for a more just and fairer world.
Songju Ma Daemicke, a former software engineer with Motorola, grew up in China and is an award-winning children’s book author. Her picture book Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant was a Best STEM book, and the Winner of the 2018 CALA Best Juvenile Literature. When she’s not writing, she loves attending to her garden and shooting her next special photograph. Songju lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and their daughters.
To learn more about Songju please visit her website and social media pages.
Order: Tu Youyou's Discovery
KidLit in Color authors Kirstie Myvett and Rashmi Bismark sit down with fellow member Tina Athaide to discuss her new book, Meena's Mindful Moment.
What inspired you to write Meena’s Mindful Moment?
Meena's Mindful Moment is inspired from visits to Goa, India when I was a child. In the afternoons, my grandfather and I walked through the village and visited some of the same places that Meena goes with her grandfather. I brought my own imaginary hurly-burly hullabaloo on those walks and Grandpa patiently welcomed it on our adventures.
The idea of a young child being scolded isn't usually explored in picture books. You have a scene where the villagers wag their fingers and shake their nets to show they are frustrated with Meena. Why did you choose to include that scene?
I have been a special education teacher for thirty years. Every year, I have students who share Meena's exuberance. Their behaviors are well intended, but not always viewed that way. Meena represents that group of students and shows them that they are not alone. It shows them that there is someone else like them who understands how they are feeling.
As Meena connects with calm, she meets a sense of her own agency. She learns how to use her attention and breath to relate with her Hullabaloo energy. She remembers she can guide her body, feet, and mind. Do you or your students enjoy any mindful yoga practices in particular?
I work with students in TK all the way to grade 12 and a phrase I use with all of them is "finding our calm place". In Ian Wright's book, Dynamics of Stillness, he explores ways to bring the nervous system to a state of quiet. Our school environments are hectic and can be over stimulating at times. I use mindful yoga practices to help my students find their "calm place" or state of quiet.
We close our eyes, which helps block what is happening around us and calm our energy.
We take deep breaths, like Meena and Dada, to shift our focus on ourselves and allow our bodies the space to settle.
When we are shifting from one subject to another (i.e. math to science), we will incorporate some yoga stretches, which wakes up our bodies and gives our brains that break it craves. My students love the strength of warrior pose and the challenge to maintain their balance in tree pose.
It is all about teaching my students how to take their awareness of their bodies back to a place where they feel stillness and quiet. It is what Meena does when she guides her Hullabaloo energy.
This is your first picture book. What was that process like in comparison to your middle-grade book Orange for the Sunsets?
A picture book is so different from a MG because the words are only half of the story. I was very lucky that the team at Page Street invited me to be a part of the book-making process. My daughter and I even picked the image for the hurly-burly hullabaloo character.
The illustrations by Åsa Gilland are vibrant and fun. Tell us about your illustrations and what it was like working with Asa on this project.
Åsa’s art is incredible and she captured the spirit and soul of my characters. It was important to me that the people and culture were portrayed accurately and Åsa made that a priority, too.
What are you working on next?
I love taking kids on a journey to other countries. I am working on a picture book set in La Fontainhas--a colorful colonial neighborhood in Goa--and a middle-grade story set in London in the early 1970s.
KidLit in Color author Kirstie Myvett interviews illustrator LaTonya Jackson about her upcoming picture book.
Congratulations on the cover for Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit written by Esau McCaulley due for release in May 2022. It’s beautiful, colorful, and detailed. Please tell us a little bit about the book.
Thank you so much! I view this project as my interview to get into the illustration industry. My background is in the fine arts, so I have a lot to prove in terms of showing that I can do more than create standalone pretty pictures.
I want to go on record to say that I painstakingly drew those braids on the cover one by one because I wanted them to be as exquisite as I could possibly get them to be from afar and up close. I can hardly wait for little hands to pick up this book, and dive into its words and pictures.
Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit is about a little girl who has reservations about being different—her hair isn’t straight like the other girls at her school. On an outing with her dad to shop for a new red dress and to get her hair braided for Pentecost Sunday service, Josey learns a valuable lesson about the beauty in our differences and how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Those braids are beautiful, by the way. Tell us how you started this project and what mediums you worked with.
I always start with reading the story carefully—highlighting and taking notes on very specific descriptions mentioned in the text, for example, the color of the characters’ clothing and the characters’ behaviors. After that, I create a storyboard to map out my initial ideas in quick pencil sketches on paper. I also create a mood board—a la Pinterest boards—that serves as style and color scheme inspiration. For this project, I chose to work digitally using the Procreate app.
Did you have models for this project or was it free-formed in your head?
No, I didn’t have any models per se for this project. However, Esau sent me a picture of his daughter who is around the character’s age, so I took my inspiration from that.
This is your illustration debut and I know you must be so excited. How long did it take you to complete this project?
I am over the moon! This is a lifelong dream that dates back to third grade when I was writing and illustrating my own stories about unicorns on pieces of copy paper stapled together. I still have a couple of them, by the way.
From conception to final color illustration edits, it took about 5 months. I did a lot of overtime work on it during the summer. I knew that once school started and I had to return to work, subsequently, my progress would slow down. Therefore, I woke up at 6am daily the entire summer (which, under any other circumstances, is summertime blasphemy). In retrospect, I am so relieved that I did!
Did you collaborate with the author Esau McCaulley for input and if so how was that?
Yes, this project was a collaboration from start to finish. I appreciate Cindy Kiple, the art director, Esau McCaulley, the author, and the rest of the team working on this project for allowing me some creative license, trusting my aesthetic, while also giving me those necessary nudges about certain elements of the story. Fortunately, it worked out that they approved of most of my ideas. I know sometimes, imaginatively speaking, I can get a little carried away with my head way up in the clouds. Sometimes, I need to be wrangled a bit and brought back down to earth.
What, if any, lessons did you take away from this project?
One lesson I learned was to throw away nothing! All of those “bad” drawings or drawings that were not approved could be reworked and used as assets for other illustrations in your book project.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on refining some of my manuscripts that have been sitting on my desk. I am also working on a dummy for an informational fiction picture book, an adventure tale that I wrote about animal tails. This particular story is evolving into a wordless story which makes the dummy even more important in communicating my vision.
When you’re not drawing or painting we can find you?
You can find me playing with my son, reading, or sleeping!
Do you have any advice for aspiring illustrators?
1. There are many outstanding artists in this field. Believe in your special gift and know that there is room for your unique voice, experiences, and vision in this industry.
2. Always remain a lifelong student of your craft—sketch daily, study the work of those artists that you admire, experiment, work on your areas of weakness, and go about living (your best ideas come when you are away from your desk and simply living life).
3. Share your work! It’s scary (we artists are often sensitive about our work), but do it anyway.
4. Start where you are with what you have.
That's great advice. Thank you LaTonya and best of luck.
Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I first heard about King Sejong and how he invented the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) from my father. In 2013, the year after my mother passed away, my father announced to me and my brother that he wanted to visit Korea. This was rather surprising because my father 1.) does not enjoy traveling and 2.) he had never been back to Korea after moving to the US in the 1950s.
While discussing the trip, my father told me he could only read and write Hangeul at about a 3rd grade level. I was so puzzled by this, and it was then he told me about the history of Hangeul. Although King Sejong invented it in 1443, it took 600 years for it to be adopted as Korea’s official alphabet--in 1946. At that point, my father was 18 years old!
Up until that time, my father had lived in Korea under the Japanese occupation. So his education was conducted in Japanese. He didn’t grow up using Hangeul. When he told me about King Sejong and Hangeul, I wasn’t seriously trying to write for children at the time. But I remember immediately thinking, “This would make a great children’s book!”
Not only is the story of Hangeul fascinating, it is a story that directly affects my family. I love that there is this direct connection between my father and King Sejong.
How do you tackle research on a person and subject matter from the 15th century?
Admittedly this can be a huge challenge! One of the great things about writing about a king is that someone recorded everything King Sejong did, said, or wrote. So there are a lot of written records about him. I personally don’t read, write, or speak Korean (the irony, I know!) so I could not rely on sources written in Korean. But fortunately for me, many people wrote about and studied King Sejong, so there are many books and scholarly articles about him and Hangeul.
I live in Austin, home to the University of Texas, which was a huge help. I was able to use their library which had many fantastic resources. Museums and universities in Korea were also a source of information, and many resources were online and in English.
I am pretty sure if King Sejong were not such a major historical figure, it would have been quite a challenge to find enough good sources to write a purely nonfiction book about him. If I had run into trouble, I could have tried writing an informational fiction book, which allows you to take more liberties.
How long did it take you to write this book?
There are a couple of ways I could answer this question. During our trip to Korea, I was on the lookout for information about King Sejong. I found one wonderful book at a museum that they were actually giving out for free! It was part of a program to expand cultural awareness of Korea, and the book was all about King Sejong. I did a little more research after we returned home. And then I sat on my research for years.
When I finally decided to seriously try to write and publish a children’s book, one of the things I did was take a course on picture book writing with the Children’s Book Academy (which I recommend!). In the course, we were encouraged to write story pitches, and get feedback on them. I had a draft of another book I was working on at the time. But when I pitched the story of King Sejong and Hangeul, many people told me: ”that’s the story you should write!” I knew they were correct--but it meant digging into more research and trying to draft a story in just a few weeks.
But I did it! I was also able to get feedback from my mentor at that time, Katey Howes. I also got a paid critique. At the end of the course, we had an opportunity to pitch our stories to a group of editors and agents. Two editors were interested in the story, and asked for the full manuscript. So then I really had to buckle down and get it polished. Altogether it took me about three months to write the manuscript and get it ready for submission.
You included a story from King Sejong’s childhood that many children today would probably find unimaginable and funny. How important was it for you to link a childhood story in a book primarily about his adult years and accomplishments?
I think if you can include scenes from your main character’s childhood, it makes for a stronger children’s book. Young readers can relate to the character better, because they often forget that grown-ups were once kids just like them! I think it can also help kids imagine how they could grow up to be like the main adult character. In the case of King Sejong, I also wanted to show how he was a lover of books during his own childhood. This trait stayed with him throughout his life, and may have contributed to his deep desire to make reading available to everyone.
The illustrations are beautiful and really depict the character’s emotions throughout the book. Tell us about working with illustrator Cindy Kang? Did you provide any images you discovered during your research?
As is often the case with many publishers, I didn't have any involvement in the illustrator selection process. So I was thrilled when they told me they had found Cindy Kang, and that she had agreed to illustrate the book. I felt Cindy’s illustration style fit well with my vision for the book. Plus, Cindy is also Korean, which I believed would be very helpful for ensuring the accuracy of the illustrations.
My editor did consult with me on some illustration decisions, such as the cover, which I appreciated. I think with some publishers, the authors don’t really see the illustrations until the final stages. But my editor shared drafts of Cindy’s work with me, and I was always so pleased with how she chose to depict the different scenes. I didn’t really need to help with any of the research for the illustrations--which I was actually kind of relieved about!
What do you hope children learn or take away from King Sejong Invents an Alphabet?
I think it would be hard for kids to imagine what it would be like to not have access to reading at all. And not only them, but their entire family, and even all of their neighbors. Reading is such a gift and I hope this story helps them reflect on how wonderful it is that books can be such a big part of their lives. I also hope children can be inspired by King Sejong and how compassionate he was. As a king, he had so much power, and he chose to use that power for the good of all.
What are you working on next?
In addition to KING SEJONG, I have been very busy this year writing books for the educational market. I love writing educational books, and a lot of opportunities came my way, and I kept saying “yes!” As a result, I wrote about 10 books in the last twelve months--which kept me pretty busy!
I’m finishing up the last of these books. After that I am eager to start working on some story ideas that have been brewing in my mind for quite awhile. At the top of my list are a couple of nonfiction picture books--so stay tuned!
Carol Kim believes books and words have a magical ability to change the world for the better, and she writes for children with the hope of spreading some of that magic. She is the author of the picture book biography, King Sejong Invents an Alphabet as well as 20 fiction and nonfiction books for the educational market. Carol relishes unearthing real-life stories and little-known facts to share with young readers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Carol Kim please visit her social media links below!
MakeaLivinginKidlit.com (for those interested in writing kidlit and making a career of it)Twitter: CKimWrite4Kids
Comment on the blog for a chance to win a copy of King Sejong Invents An Alphabet!
KidLit in Color author Tonya Abari interviewed author Anne Wynter about her new picture book, Everybody in the Red Brick Building, illustrated by Oge Mora.
Tonya: What inspired you to write the story Everybody in the Red Brick Building?
Anne: I grew up in a house, but I spent most of my adulthood in apartments. So I was always noticing the unique aspects of apartment living - especially the relationships between apartment neighbors. For a long time, I tried to write about that theme in a full-length play for adults. I loved the idea but my scripts kept falling flat.
Once I started trying to write picture books, Everybody in the Red Brick Building was the second manuscript I wrote. The writing process was relatively quick, probably because I had spent so much time thinking about these themes and working through plot possibilities. It turned out to be a much better fit in a picture book.
Tonya: This picture book is rich with onomatopoeia. Can you explain your process for selecting which middle-of-the-night sounds to use for this book?
Anne: This was one of the hardest parts. I tried to pick onomatopoeia that was a little truer to the actual sound - in the way that a “woof” is usually closer to the sound a dog makes than a “bark.”
I also wanted to make sure the sounds didn’t have too many similarities when it came to assonance and consonance. This was challenging because, for the quiet sounds, it was tempting to use multiple sounds with “shhh,” so I had to play around a lot to make sure the text had enough variety.
And I took several nighttime walks for inspiration!
Tonya: You captured such an intricate moment (waking up and going back to sleep in the middle of the night) so beautifully. Regarding this manuscript, does art imitate life?
Anne: Thank you! And yes, definitely. I wrote this when I had an infant and a toddler, and there was a lot of waking up in the middle of the night. When each of my kids were babies I would think about the person on the other side of the wall in the apartment building. I’m sure they could hear the baby crying - and I always crossed my fingers that they were heavy sleepers or were able to fall back to sleep fairly easily.
I think about sleep a lot because it’s one of my favorite activities!
Tonya: What advice would you give to a new picture book writer who is mining their world for smaller moments to write about?
Anne: If there’s something that really captures your attention or imagination, make note of that and don’t automatically dismiss it because it seems too silly, strange or trivial. If you’re around kids, notice what fascinates them. Kids are wonderful at picking up on the smallest details and moments.
Tonya: Oge Mora’s collage-style illustrations really compliment your words perfectly . Tell us about the author/illustration process for this book – working with Oge Mora.
Anne: I didn’t work directly with Oge for most of the process, and we only (virtually) met and communicated after the final artwork was done. Getting to talk with her, pick up on her energy (she’s a great presenter and speaker) and receive practical tips from her - it has been inspiring and invaluable.
Tonya: Many authors have said that their debut picture books are the ones they least expected to be published first. As a debut picture book author, was this the manuscript that you expected to debut first?
Anne: When I sent out Everybody in the Red Brick Building to agents, I only had one other picture book manuscript, and I knew Everybody in the Red Brick Building was the stronger one. So if my querying process was successful, I expected that one to be my debut.
But I have to say, I had practically zero expectations for this manuscript. I was hopeful, of course, but after years of submitting for short story and playwriting opportunities, I learned not to expect anything. So getting an agent and a book deal was a wonderful and surprising ride!
Tonya: 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?
Anne: I have two board books coming out in January - One Big Day and Hands On! - both illustrated by Alea Marley. After that is Nell Plants a Tree, a picture book illustrated by Daniel Miyares that’s scheduled for 2023.
I have two more unannounced picture books coming out (I’ll give you one hint about the first one - it has to do with Texas) and I’m also working on chapter books - which feels a bit scary because it’s new to me. But I’m having a lot of fun.
Originally from Houston, Anne is an author and playwright who currently lives in Austin, TX with her husband, her two children, and her cat. Her debut picture book, Everybody in the Red Brick Building, is illustrated by Oge Mora and will be published on October 19, 2021 by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. She also has two board books coming out in January 2022 - One Big Day and Hands On!, both illustrated by Alea Marley - and a picture book that will be published in Winter 2023 - Nell Plants a Tree, illustrated by Daniel Miyares.
To learn more or say hi, follow Anne on Instagram (@anne_wynter) or visit annewynter.com.
Interview with Sheetal Sheth on Bravo Anjali!
By Rashmi Bismark
Rashmi: Hi Sheetal - We are so excited for the continuation of your Anjali series with Mango and Marigold Press! This is the first picture book series featuring a South Asian American main character. How thrilling! So in Always Anjali, we saw Anjali navigate issues of bullying as she reclaimed meaning and pride in her name. What can we expect from her in your latest book, Bravo Anjali!, which was released on September 21, 2021?
Sheetal: In this installment, we see how Anjali deals with being the only girl in the room. She has to decide if she's going to take her space and own her excellence.
Rashmi: Wonderful, and we see Anjali really come into her own in Bravo Anjali! as she faces some challenges with her peers around sharing her talents unapologetically. While she plays her musical instrument with more confidence and finesse, it seems like the kids in her class resent her. She wonders how to balance her friendships with her burgeoning creative strengths. This is such an intriguing conflict to explore. Plus you have added some gender dynamics into it as well. What led you to highlight these issues?
Sheetal: I wrote Bravo Anjali! during the height of the #MeToo movement. The Hillary/Trump election really took things to a whole new level and I was disturbed at the level of misogyny and sexist vitriol I was seeing 24/7. I decided I wanted to tackle this, but in kidtalk. How can I bring this conversation to our kids? It’s abundantly clear we need to be having these conversations with our children. Young. It’s the only way we will move the needle forward. So in this book, Anjali is the only girl in her class (which is quite common) and she’s the best. The boys don't like it. And so the story begins...
Rashmi: Can’t wait to see what unfolds! Bravo Anjali! showcases Anjali's relationship with classical Indian music, particularly with a beloved percussion instrument - the tabla. Were there any experiences in your own life that inspired this exploration? Why the tabla?
Sheetal: I LOVE the tabla and so wish I could play it! But really, any excuse to bring music into the conversation and celebrate the tabla! Even though I don't play the tabla, it really bloomed from the idea that I wanted a way to talk about the themes of misogyny and friendship and delve into the everyday microaggressions that can happen. The tabla is a traditionally male dominated instrument so it was the perfect entry point.
Rashmi: In addition to writing, you are a very talented actor, producer, and advocate. How has your work in film and activism with organizations like Equality Now and others enriched your writing?
Sheetal: It's impossible to separate. I am a storyteller and all of my life's experiences and values are poured directly into my writing. I am always going to want to center the traditionally marginalized. I will always want to share and champion the stories that come directly from all my other work as I know it's imperative. And I will also push the narratives. I think there is nothing we can't talk about with our children. I know they want 'in' on these conversations. They crave them and need them. So I am always looking for ways to layer in something more while also keeping the books accessible and entertaining.
Rashmi: I love that. So what message do you hope readers come away with after reading Bravo Anjali!?
Sheetal: To 'never dim your light!!' But also, I wanted to give our boys and girls language and space to talk about these big feelings they may have.
Rashmi: I just have to ask... Is there another Anjali book in the works? What can we expect from Anjali as the series continues?
Sheetal: YES! I have already written the third book and it is slated to be out next fall. You will see Anjali's world continue to expand in many ways!
Rashmi: I’m sure there are lots of Anjali fans out there (including me) who are happy to hear that! Anything else you'd like to add?
Sheetal: Thank you for this community. I love this tribe and appreciate you all so much.
Rashmi: Thank you, Sheetal, for joining us, and thanks for all the work you do.
Bravo Anjali! by Sheetal Sheth, illustrated by Lucia Soto, and published by Mango and Marigold Press is available now. Always Anjali (illustrated by Jessica Blank) is Sheetal’s multi-award winning debut and the first book in the Anjali Series.
More about Sheetal Sheth: Despite being told she’d have to change her name to work, Sheetal persevered to become an award winning actress and producer, known for her provocative performances in a wide range of memorable roles on film and television. Sheetal puts a spotlight on under-represented groups, not only through her trailblazing work as an actor, but also by being an outspoken advocate. Sheetal served in President Clinton’s AmeriCorps, is on the advisory board of Equality Now, and is an ambassador for The Representation Project. She believes if you can dream it, you can be it - even if you don’t see it. Sheetal, her husband, and their two kids live in New York and Los Angeles.
KidLit in Color author Tonya Abari interviews Ashley Franklin about her new book Better Together, Cinderella released September 9, 2021.
Tonya: What do you hope children and adults will gain from reading Better Together, Cinderella?
Ashley: I hope that they gain a new appreciation for the power of a child’s imagination. Tameika not only imagines a magical evening for herself, but one that encompasses her family.
I also hope that kids with siblings realize that their personal, shining light doesn’t diminish just because the sizes of their families have changed.
Tonya: Just like in Not Quite Snow White, you seamlessly include a classic fairy tale into a modern, yet timeless narrative. Can you explain your process for selecting which parts of the classic fairy tales to feature (and how much you wanted to include) in your own manuscripts?
Ashley: Both fairy tales have oodles of retellings, so I wanted to focus on their most memorable components (in my opinion)—beauty & acceptance for Not Quite Snow White and family dynamics & acceptance for Better Together, Cinderella. I wanted those to be the driving forces behind each of my manuscripts while also exploring Tameika’s princess state of mind.
Tonya: So many children can relate to welcoming new siblings into the family (and Tameika has double duty on her hands!). How did your own experience as a parent and/or sibling inform the crafting of Tameika’s struggle to find her place as a big sibling?
Ashley: I am nine years older than my next sister. In my mind, I was clearly cemented as my mother’s only child, so I was not a fan at first. My bitterness grew when my mom dressed us alike. She’s my best friend now though.
My own boys are 2.5 years apart. For the entire time that they’ve occupied Earth at the same time, I’ve seen them fight hard yet love harder. I’ve helped them navigate their misunderstandings and stood aside as they have aired their grievances. Capturing the complexities of sibling relationships was foundational in how I shaped Tameika’s emotional journey.
Tonya: I just love how Tameika’s best friend and uncle help her navigate becoming a big sister. Can you expand on the theme and importance of community stepping in to help children understand their feelings around life’s changes?
Ashley: Honestly, I hate the idea that picture book characters are expected to solve their own problems. I wasn’t raised like that. There was always a relative, friend, or even a neighbor I could turn to.
I always think back to the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The guidance of a safe, protective, and enlightened community helps a child to grow to their full potential. Feelings are big—even for adults. The moments between Tameika and Uncle Derrick where he helps her figure out her feelings are some of my favorites. Why not show the beauty of that bond in a picture book?
Tonya: You are back for the second time working with Ebony Glenn’s lively and colorful illustrations. Tell us about the author/illustration process for this second book – working with Ebony and co-illustrator, Saba Joshagani.
Ashley: It was simple! I was able to ask for things to include (like the girl in the wheelchair and for Khadija’s hijab) and they were great about it. All in all, I really just had no problem putting this story in their more than capable hands.
Tonya: After the success of Not Quite Snow White, did you feel any pressure drafting Tameika’s next adventure in Better Together, Cinderella?
Ashley: Absolutely! I wanted to keep Tameika’s sweetness but also show her frustration with her new big sister role. It was hard to make sure that she didn’t come across as bratty. Instead, I needed her to come across as lost. In essence, she’s a star who feels lost without being center stage.
Tonya: 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?
Ashley: Sigh. So many NDAs 😞. I can mention that I have at least one picture book scheduled for 2023, and that’s Xavier's Voice with Innovation Press. I’m also trying my hand at writing a middle grade novel. It’s a wonderfully terrifying experience to branch out from picture books.
Ashley Franklin is a writer, mother, and adjunct college professor. She received her M.A. from the University of Delaware and B.A. from Albright College, both in English Literature. Ashley is the author of Not Quite Snow White (2019), “Creative Fixes” from the anthology Once Upon An Eid (2020), “Situationally Broke” from the anthology What We Didn't Expect (2020), and Better Together, Cinderella (2021). She’s also had several pieces published on popular online platforms such as Romper, Complex, About Islam, Medium, and more.
Ashley grew up in Maryland, but she has also called Pennsylvania, Delaware and Louisiana home. She currently resides in Arkansas with her family.
Interview with Saadia Faruqi on Trauma, Islamophobia and 9/11
by Aya Khalil
Aya: Hello, Saadia! I am so happy I get to interview you for Kidlit in Color about your new upcoming middle grade book, Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero, which comes out on September 7 from Quill Tree Books/Harper Collins! Can you please tell our readers a brief summary of your book?
Saadia: Thank you for interviewing me! This book is about 9/11 and the experiences of the Muslim American community in the last twenty years. The main character, eleven-year-old Yusuf Azeem is looking forward to starting middle school and participating in a regional robotics competition. When school begins and bullies start coming out of the woodwork, he realizes that this year is going to be more difficult than he thought, because it’s the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A group of white supremacists are riling the townspeople up, harassing Yusuf’s community, and protesting the new mosque. Yusuf begins to read his uncle’s journal from 2001 to understand the September 11 attacks and how they changed life for Muslims like him before he was even born. As tension escalates, and his friends and family get more scared, Yusuf has to chose whether he will ignore the hostility or stand up and be a hero.
Aya: This is such an important topic to discuss in books. Especially from a Muslim perspective. I absolutely loved reading an arc of this book a couple of months ago and it took me back to 2001 when I was in high school during the 9/11 attacks. Can you tell us where you were on that awful day and what feelings crossed your mind?
Saadia: Everyone probably remembers where they were on September 11, 2001, what they were doing and feeling. It’s such a visceral, traumatic memory for most people, even those who lived far away from New York City because we were watching things unfold in real time on television and radio. I was in college that year, and I remember my husband calling me from his office to ask if I’d watched the news because he couldn’t figure out if it was a joke or not. I went to campus and everyone was so quiet and serious, not just on that day but for days afterwards, as if all the laughter had been snatched up from the halls. I don’t remember much about how I felt, just that quiet stillness, a wondering of what would happen next.
Aya: Many of us were silent out of shock, that’s for sure. I could really relate to Yusuf in this story because I grew up in two small towns: I went to elementary school in North Dakota and I went to middle school in Lima, Ohio. This was pre-9/11 but Islamophobia didn't start after 9/11, so I remember a lot of micro-aggressions and racism then. Why did you write this story and why is it important to tell? What about Muslims kids who are growing up small towns now and facing similar experiences; what do you want to say to them?
Saadia: Islamophobia has been prevalent in the U.S. since the first Muslims arrived on these shores. It’s human nature to fear and hate what we don’t understand, and media always twists how people are represented in ways that are very negative and hurtful. I wrote this story because I was tired of these media depictions, especially around the anniversary of 9/11 each year. I wanted to highlight all the ways Muslims have been demonized and misrepresented, bullied and hated, in the last twenty years. It’s personal to me because as a Muslim mother, raising Muslim kids, the prejudice is too close to home and just cannot be ignored. I want to tell Muslim kids that I see the bullying you endure, and the ways you feel unwelcome in your schools and neighborhoods just because of your faith. I want to tell them that your experiences are valid, and that you’re not alone.
Aya: Yes, so important to validate those feelings. I don't want to give too much away or for spoilers, but there's a central part in the story that made me emotional. It was when the Muslim families were working hard to build the mosque and they were faced with lots of hate and pushback from the community. It reminded me when my friends and I gave a presentation at a local place to "convince" people to build a mosque in our community. We were faced with so much hostility and the city turned our proposal down. I still think about it often. Why did you choose to write about this and is this based on any experiences you have faced?
Saadia: One of the central plot points of this book is obstructing the construction of a mosque that Yusuf’s Muslim American community is building. After many attempts at stopping construction through intimidation, a white supremacist group complains to the city government and holds a zoning meeting to achieve its aims. Although I don’t have personal experience in this, I learned while I was exploring 9/11 and its repercussions that this happens throughout the U.S. on a regular basis. In fact, the ACLU monitors anti-mosque activity including violence, vandalism and the use of city zoning laws to block construction. More examples are available here (https://www.aclu.org/other/mosques-and-community-centers).
Aya: Thanks for sharing that link. What do you hope readers will gain or understand after reading Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero? Both Muslims and people of other faith?
Saadia: My biggest hope is that readers will understand the long-term repercussions of 9/11 in our culture and society. When we discuss 9/11, we mostly talk about the attacks themselves, or the victims who lost their lives. We forget about the things that came after: the wars and the government policies, and the prejudice against all those who looked like “the enemy.” For my Muslim readers, I hope they see themselves in this book and take heart that someone is telling their story, acknowledging their pain. For non-Muslim readers, my hope is that they’ll walk a mile in my shoes and see what it’s like to be Muslim American in a post 9/11 world, not so that they can pity us but so that they can demand change from their communities and governments, and so that they can learn to be true allies the way the characters in the book do.
Aya: I know it will make readers think and reflect. How long did it take you to write this and what are some challenges, if any, you faced while writing it?
Saadia: I’m a pretty fast writer. I think it took me 4-5 months to write this book. My biggest challenge was that once I started writing, I realized I didn’t have all the information I needed to write the historical parts of this book accurately, so I had to pause and conduct interviews of several people to bridge those gaps. Another challenge was writing really emotional and difficult scenes in a way that wouldn’t traumatize young readers but feel authentic at the same time. With time and a lot of revisions, I think I was able to capture the essence of the story.
Aya: Thanks for letting me interview you! Fun questions time! Your favorite food?
Saadia: Biryani and pizza, but not together.
Aya: Your favorite color?
Saadia: All shades of blue.
Aya: Your favorite city?
Saadia: That’s a difficult question. It’s wherever I have loved ones.
Aya: What are you currently reading?
Saadia: I’m getting started on The Samosa Rebellion by Shanti Sekaran.
Order Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero here.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series Yasmin and other books for children, including middle grade novels A Place At The Table co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and A Thousand Questions (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children.
by Reem Faruqi
Read to the bottom to find out how you can win a copy of I Can Help!
I’m often asked why I wrote I Can Help and I wish my answer was different, that I didn’t have to say it was inspired from real life experiences.
Like my main character Zahra, I used to help a classmate who needed a little extra help.
Although, my character Zahra is an elementary school classroom, I was in middle school. I was in 8th grade and enjoyed helping my classmate. One day, two popular girls started talking about him behind his back. They said he looked weird and was such a baby. I didn’t want to listen, but it seemed like I was listening harder. Then all of a sudden, they looked directly at me and asked me, why I helped him.
I wanted to have a good response, but I didn’t. I remember the wistful look of pity they threw at me, the way they leaned closer to each other and exchanged glances like I was weird too, before they walked away.
I made a decision. I decided to stop helping him and being his friend. Instead, I became mean to him. I hated how my voice sounded when I wasn’t kind. I didn’t recognize it.
My teacher noticed that I wasn’t my usual self and moved me from the table we shared to far across the room. I wish she had had a conversation with me instead. The worst moment was when my classmate looked straight at me and said that I’d become mean. I remember how hard it felt to shrug it off and act like I didn’t care, when every fiber of me did care.
Like my character Zahra, I wish I’d apologized, but I never did, and when I did want to, it was too late. I was moving away to a different continent.
Sometimes life doesn’t have a neat happy ending. However, I remembered that experience vividly and tried to make up for it, practicing kindness whenever I could.
Years later, when thinking of a picture book idea, I remembered this experience, and how I wished it had a happier ending. I wrote I Can Help from an honest and raw place. I didn’t create the magical happy ending, but rather I showed how regret can be heavy, but that it can be fueled for change, and in this case, kindness.
I hope that readers will be inspired from this story to do better, that they will see Mikela Prevost’s dreamy illustrations and connect deeply to Zahra and believe that they too can make a difference in being kind.
More about I Can Help and the author:
Fully Booked podcast by Kirkus: I Can Help is featured here at the 36 minute mark as an Editor’s Pick, and I love how they dissected my book, saying that it forces the children to do the heavy lifting, and that it's unique.
Interview with Children’s Book Author Reem Faruqi – Eerdlings Blog, story behind I Can Help.
Interview with Reem Faruqi by Aya Khalil on Kidlit in Color
Order I Can Help here.
Want a copy of I Can Help? Comment below on your favorite ways to be kind to others! U.S. only.
Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning children’s book author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her toddler, camera, and buttery sunlight. You can find her at www.ReemFaruqi.com or on Instagram or Twitter.
Interview with author Summer Edward
by Lisa Stringfellow
KidLit in Color welcomes author Summer Edward to our blog to discuss her picture storybook, The Wonder of the World Leaf, a heartfelt story that also reflects the rich, vibrant culture of the Caribbean.
Would you please give our readers a brief summary of your picture storybook?
Eight years ago, when I was battling an illness, this young girl appeared in my mind. Her name was Wygenia and she kept hanging around, so I paid attention to her and it turned out that she was sad because someone she loved was ill. I felt that Wygenia needed something in order to help the person she loved, but I didn’t know what.
At the time, I took an extended trip back to Trinidad where I grew up, and my mother took me to this wonderful wellness center on the island where I saw a naturopathic doctor and master herbalist. My visits to the wellness center inspired me to start learning more about the island’s medicinal plants, and when I read about the medicinal uses of Wonder of the World leaves, I suddenly knew what Wygenia needed—a leaf. Not a fig leaf of shame, or a four-leaf clover of luck, but a wondrous leaf of possibility.
I started to write and as I followed Wygenia through the story, I discovered that she also needed the presence and help of people who cared for her. That’s my long-winded way of telling you how The Wonder of the World Leaf ended up being the story of a young Trinidadian girl who, with the loving support of her community, grows a Wonder of the World plant, and uses the leaves to help her beloved grandmother recover from illness.
Is your picture storybook based on any real experiences?
My own experiences using traditional healing practices showed me the importance of tending to the human being in the same fashion that a gardener tends to her plants. Any gardener will tell you that there are many variables involved in plant care. Likewise, at the wellness center I visited, they give weight to the idea that the social, cultural, emotional and moral roots of illness must be treated, along with the physical symptoms. It’s the responsibility of the community to address all of these variables so that the sick person can flourish again. I wrote what I learned about, and experienced with, traditional healing practices into The Wonder of the World Leaf, which is on a surface level, a story about plants and gardening.
In her determination to help her Grannie, Wygenia turns to the traditional healing practices of Trinidadian people, and she, her friends and family tend to the things that truly matter. In doing so, lots of good things sprout in their collective lives.
In the book, Wygenia is part of a vibrant island community. Can you share more about the relationships she has?
Wygenia, like many Caribbean children, has a strong bond with her grandparents. One of her grandfathers has recently died at the beginning of the story, and although it’s left unsaid, one can imagine that his death is partly what fuels Wygenia’s resolve to help her grandmother heal. Wygenia’s classmate, Sanjay, who also happens to be her next-door neighbor, and Sanjay’s aja (‘aja’ is a Trinidadian Hindustani word that means ‘grandfather’) are also significant people in Wygenia’s life. They share in Wygenia’s concern for her grandmother and play important roles in the old woman’s convalescence. There are other community members in the story whose succor and goodwill provide a buffer for Wygenia and her family during their time of difficulty.
Wygenia’s faith is also a kind of relationship. She’s in a relationship of trust with something bigger than herself. Whatever that ‘something’ is, it keeps her hoping and believing that her grandmother can get better.
Your book includes many Trinidadian words and phrases. Talk to us about the importance of language and dialect in your story.
Writing in a blend of Trinidadian English and British English is natural for me; I don’t really see it as a choice. I grew up speaking Trinidadian English at home and with my friends, but I was educated largely in British English. I’ve taken ownership of both varieties of English and see them both as equally belonging to me. I still speak both, which is something that’s rooted in the Trinbagonian experience. The language in The Wonder of the World Leaf is a reflection of that, which is what makes the story authentic.
There are some things that can’t be sufficiently expressed in British English, and so for the characters in the story, Trinidadian English is the language of emotions, humor, intimacy, national identity, and cultural solidarity.
By the way, because I moved to the U.S. as a teen, I also speak American English, so constantly negotiating three languages is my jam.
You're also an editor. How has that influenced your work?
Editing children’s books and short stories for children is something I’ve been doing since 2011. I currently work as a children’s fiction editor at Heinemann. A literary agent once advised that I should either give up writing or editing because I couldn’t do both simultaneously. I’ve learned to distrust that idea.
Before I started editing, I read voraciously but more narrowly. As an editor, one is forced to read very broadly, to engage deeply and seriously with all kinds of stories that lie beyond one’s usual tastes and predilections. Also, when you’re an editor, reading stories is your job; there are no lulls in your reading life; an on-again, off-again relationship with literature isn’t an option. There’s also no respite from the difficult work of wrangling with words, or to be frank, from wrangling with one’s ego. As an editor, one’s ego is constantly being tamped down and held in check by the nature of the job. Also, an editor doesn’t have the writer’s luxury of procrastination and creative resistance. All of this has made me a better writer. The best way to explain it is that working as an editor is like taking a never-ending intensive in writerly discipline.
What do you hope readers learn or take away from The Wonder of the World Leaf?
The reason I write anything is so that readers feel heard and seen.
In the Western world, there’s social stigma derived from both popular and medical views of illness. Illness is something to be feared, something to be dealt with privately and individualistically, something fraught with shame, something that people feel uncomfortable talking about. That’s why in Western societies, so many ill people tell stories of friends and even family abandoning them at precisely the time when they need community the most. I hope that the way Wygenia deals with her grandmother’s illness helps readers realize that there is another, much better way.
When it comes to living a healthy life, often the old ways are the best ways. Gathering with friends and family, telling stories, laughing together, sharing a meal, simply listening to another human being, sitting in silence, planting a garden, connecting with nature…all of that simple stuff really works. They’re the remedy for all the loneliness, pain and sadness out there. Simple human interactions, in which you merely give another person the gift of your presence, are what keep people healthy, and what sick people in particular are desperately in need of. A seven-year-old who reads the book already knows this, but capturing it in a story is my way of making sure they never forget.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sayada Ramdial created the illustrations for The Wonder of the World Leaf and she did a wonderful job. Sayada is a fellow Trinidadian-American, and I think our collaboration has enabled the telling of a truly Trinidadian story that’s also universal, one that I hope readers everywhere enjoy reading.
Summer Edward is a Ginkgo Prize longlisted author who writes for all ages. Her children's book debut, The Wonder of the World Leaf, was recently published by HarperCollins UK. She has six more children's books forthcoming, to be published by Heinemann (USA) in summer 2021 and spring 2022. She created Anansesem, an online magazine covering Caribbean literature for young readers, which was published for a decade. When she is not writing, she works as a children's fiction editor at Heinemann and reviews children's and young adult books for The Horn Book Magazine. Born in the Caribbean island of Trinidad, she grew up in Trinidad and Philadelphia, and currently divides her time between the U.S. and Trinidad. Learn more at her website: www.summeredward.com