by: Sarah Lyu
Asian-American identity encompasses a wide range of experiences and holds space for multiple identities within its larger umbrella. Growing up in a family of Chinese immigrants, I largely saw myself and my story as fitting within that specific mold, but my understanding of what it meant to be of Asian descent in this country changed in college where, for the first time, I had access to classes on the history, literature, and psychology of Asian-Americans as a group. It was a process of awakening to the perspective that Asian-American was above all a political identity. That’s the approach I take to writing Asian-American characters and one I hope to see more of in fiction.
The aspects of my personal history with all the texture of cultural touchstones like food and language, and the common narrative of assimilation, are still important to me, but there’s a bigger picture to the way people of East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian descent are treated as a collective in this country, and that’s what I wanted to explore most. The rise of anti-Asian hate and violence during the pandemic is a stark example: it doesn’t seem to matter to attackers if someone is Korean-American, Japanese-American, Vietnamese-American, Thai-American, or Chinese-American; as long as someone looks of East Asian descent, they are potential targets. There’s a shared experience of marginalization that transcends different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
In my upcoming novel, I Will Find You Again, I used the experiences of Chase and Lia, both characters of primarily East Asian descent, to explore this more. Though they have different cultural and familial backgrounds, they struggle with the same kind of expectations all Asian-Americans face:
We never talked about it explicitly, but I know it bothered her, the comparisons: two Asians in an overwhelmingly white school, one at the top and one middling. There were things teachers might let slip, like curiosity over a difference in our performance as if I matched their expectations but Lia fell short, seemingly innocent questions from classmates about her adoption like Lia had the genetic goods but was missing some key cultural element. Even little comments from Jo gently admonishing Lia to be more like me, which came off as awkward compliments but probably stung. They were all just small moments of friction that had to grate and grate on her.
In another moment, Chase experiences internalized racism when she feels she must prove her athleticism beyond the standards of her White classmates, mostly because of the stereotype that Asians don’t excel at sports:
I felt awful, light-headed and dizzy with the beginnings of a migraine. And worse, he was right—these were new coaches who’d never seen me run before, and I was the only Asian kid there. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered, but I felt this pressure, like I had to be the fastest to prove I belonged on the team.
The most important aspect I wanted to address was the idea that the pressure to perform academically that Chase’s father puts on her wasn’t rooted in an oversimplified view of Asian/Asian-American culture—her father’s drive and ambition, which he pushes onto Chase, is an artifact of his past trauma, not something he’d inherited from his own father. The engine behind everything he’s achieved and everything he hopes his children will achieve comes from a deep fear of scarcity because he grew up hungry. It was important for me to explore how this scarcity mindset had mutated with time within the family—how for Chase, it became about power and control because that was the effect her father’s demands had on her.
My passion for depicting Asian-American as a political identity is ultimately rooted in a desire to challenge stereotypes and humanize us in a world that insists on oversimplification over complexity. That said, it’s not the main goal. The best way to humanize characters is to let them find their own away in the world, for them to be part of every kind of story imaginable.
For more information and to purchase the book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/I-Will-Find-You-Again/Sarah-Lyu/9781534465152
Sarah Lyu grew up outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She loves a good hike and can often be found with a paintbrush in one hand and a cup of milky tea in the other. Sarah is the author of The Best Lies and I Will Find You Again. You can visit her at SarahLyu.com.
Headshot credit: Anna Shih
Despite the challenges in the publishing Industry as an Arab American author, I continue to tell my stories
In the fall of 2021, I learned that my debut picture book, The Arabic Quilt was on a banned book list at Central York District. It was taken off of shelves and children were not allowed to read them. The book that took years to write and find a publisher. The book I was receiving dozens of emails and messages about how kids’ eyes lit up when they saw an Arab or Muslim character on the cover. The book that I had stayed hours at the library to research. The book I devoted a lot of time to learning about the publishing industry for. The book I met up with critique partners for, and stayed up late to revise and edit, long after I had put my young kids to bed.
Some people say I’m lucky that the book is now a banned book because of the attention it would get. But I disagree; there are only a few picture books by Arab Muslim American authors. For a period of time, students weren’t able to check out The Arabic Quilt from their libraries, and this picture book could have been the only book with a positive portrayal of an Arab Muslim. The censorship and ban were upsetting and another hurdle as an author of color. It’s a privilege not to have to worry about whether or not your book will be banned because of who the characters of the book are and the theme of the book. The book ban reminded me why I was so adamant, and so persistent about publishing The Arabic Quilt in the first place. Navigating the world as a Muslim and an Arab is challenging in its own right but these challenges are multiplied further in the world of publishing, something I believe many BIPOC authors can relate to.
The microaggressions I, as well as many other BIPOCs face on a daily basis and within the publishing industry itself, is partly because we never got to tell our side of the story or our stories weren’t heard or we were rarely ever the heroes of stories. In fact, we were always the villains, or the victims. Growing up in the U.S. I never saw characters who looked like me, a Muslim, Arab American in TV, movies, or in books with positive portrayal. I am 35 years old and the first time I saw a character with my name, Aya, in mainstream media in the U.S. was when I was 34. It was a powerful moment and I almost couldn’t believe it.
I didn’t want BIPOC children to have to wait as long as I did to feel seen and to feel proud of the way they were being portrayed. In 2005 after I graduated high school I told my parents I would not go into medicine, law, or engineering like most of my friends around me from my Islamic High School. I would go on to study communication and English literature and use the power of my words to control the narrative. To tell our stories. To tell my story.
Years passed with this dream in mind. I worked as a freelance journalist for a decade and earned my master’s degree in Education but it was only when I had my own children and became a teacher that I started turning this dream of telling our stories into a reality I was surprised at how the bookshelves in the classrooms I was working in didn’t reflect the demographics of the students I was teaching. Most of the books had white children on the cover, but the majority of the students were BIPOC.
I came across a few self-published picture books by Muslim authors that had Muslim characters. There were only a few out there but it was still hard to find them at libraries or to come across them at bookstores. A few picture books were getting published by traditional publishers around the same time and it was mind blowing to me that Muslim kids could casually find these books at bookstores and the library. Books with characters that looked like them: unapologetic Muslims living their everyday life and being the heroes of their stories.
After seeing a call out to Muslim authors from a literary agent around the same time former President Trump announced a Muslim ban in 2017, I decided it was time for me to tell my stories through children’s books.
I went through the hurdle of querying literary agents. After struggling for some time with rejections I reached out to other authors who gave me feedback on my manuscript and I joined a local picture book critique group and took book-writing classes.
When I was offered representation by a wonderful literary agent, Brent Taylor, who somehow believed in my picture book manuscript, I thought all the hard work was finally over. Boy was I wrong. Months went on and we were getting rejection after rejection. Some rejections were more courteous and even came with feedback. Other rejections, however, made it clear that some publishers weren’t willing to risk publishing a story about a Muslim, immigrant child, and by an unknown debut author no less. I told myself it was okay to set this to the side and forget about it. Maybe I should just stick to non-fiction; to journalism and continue to blog and pitch pieces to magazines and newspapers.
Then one hot summer day in 2018 when I was walking my kids to Arabic school, I opened my email and was shocked to see that a small independent publisher was interested in The Arabic Quilt. I was ecstatic, as they had published one of my favorite picture books, Laila’s Lunchbox a few years earlier and it was what inspired me to write a picture book and traditionally publish it. I couldn’t believe it at first but I will never forget how at that moment, I thought, I think this is it. My words are going to be out there for kids to read.
In 2020, in February, right before the pandemic hit the U.S., my debut was published, and it was beautifully illustrated by Anait Semirdhzyan. My publisher emailed me a few days later saying it was flying off the shelves and it was getting sold out quickly in a lot of places. This was surprising to me, as I wondered how many people would be interested in reading a picture book about an immigrant Muslim girl named Kanzi. Moreover, I was still thinking (and upset to be honest) about the mixed review from a popular trade review magazine that said the dialogue in the book was “stilted” and the message was “outdated.” I felt this was unfair, as the book was based on my real experiences as an immigrant and Egyptian child, but I was also reminded that these reviews were subjective. After a few more weeks, we learned our book earned a starred review from the School Library Journal and later had won numerous prestigious awards.
The best part though, was getting messages from Muslim and/or Arab parents saying their children’s eyes lit up when they found the book at the library or bookstore or when their teachers read the book to them in their classroom. They felt seen. How I wished I had this book, and other books with positive Muslim portrayal growing up. It is their positive feedback that encouraged me to continue writing and as of 2022, I have another book that was published this fall, Our World: Egypt, a board book filled with love and joy between an Egyptian dad and his daughter, something rarely portrayed in the media. In 2023, I have three books coming out: The Night Before Eid, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh out on March 7th and The Great Banned Books Bake Sale, illustrated by Anait, out on August 1st, which is loosely based on the true story of when The Arabic Quilt was banned.
Fortunately, the ban against my book was also lifted shortly after thanks to student protests at the district and an outcry from around the country. Around the same time, I also learned that two districts across the country had purchased tens of thousands of copies of The Arabic Quilt for their curriculum. Despite these achievements, there’s still work to be done. Arab authored books are still underrepresented. In 2019, 1.2 percent of books had a Muslim diversity subject, although the accuracy and quality weren’t evaluated. I am often put on book lists during Asian American Heritage Month or not put on book lists for Arab American Heritage Month while Asian authors are put on there. In 2023, I hope more people support books by Arab authors. I hope editors buy more of these books and agents take on more Arab.
However, despite the regular challenges of any author who is querying agents and going on submission to editors, BIPOC authors have an additional struggle during this arduous process. When editors or agents tell us they already have “a Muslim author” on their list or “an Arab author” client, but their lists are filled with white authors and animal characters. Moreover, another heartbreaking type of rejection BIPOC creatives get is being told that publishers already have enough of a certain type of story on their list and it’s already oversaturated, although we never had the chance to tell that story with our voice. It’s also worth mentioning that going into this industry, you will be doing a lot of educating. Educating illustrators, editors, copyeditors about things that must stay or be removed in the story or illustrations. It can get exhausting at times, but it’s important information for our stories to stay authentic and true as possible and educating is a key part in that.
At the Muslim Storytellers Fellow Highlights Retreat, I found myself sitting alongside talented Muslim authors, writers and illustrators. We shared our struggles about navigating the publishing industry, but reminded one another about the importance of storytelling.
Our readers keep us going. Our children keep us going. Our teachers and librarians keep us going. Our families and friends keep us going. Rejections are part of this journey, and we will continue to face microaggressions and struggles along the way, but the love and passion we have for publishing our stories keeps us motivated.
Being a marginalized author in this industry is no easy feat, but it is worth it when you know you’re making a difference in children’s lives and normalize unapologetic Muslim stories. It’s time we continue to reclaim our narrative and continue to be the heroes of our stories because our stories have been here for a long time and they’re here to stay. I hope readers will continue to see themselves in my books and I hope they love The Night Before Eid, which can be purchased here on March 7th.
Aya Khalil, M.Ed, is the award-winning author of The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, which is an NCTE’s Charlotte Huck Award Recommended Book and the winner of the Arab American Book Award, among other honors. She's also the author of Our World: Egypt and The Night Before Eid. Aya holds a master’s degree in education and her articles have been in The Huffington Post and We Need Diverse Books, among other publications. She immigrated from Egypt to the United States when she was one and lives with her husband and children in Northwest Ohio. Her website is www.ayakhalil.com
A month before Ramadan, a buzz begins in the online Muslim American parenting forums. Parents are divided into two categories, parents preparing to share Ramadan with their kids’ classrooms/libraries and parents who are facing resistance. I recently received an email from a parent in the latter group.
"Hello, This is X. I am a mom of three girls. I really got so inspired by your webpage. We live in Texas, and recently I contacted a local library in my neighborhood about decorating a corner of the library for Ramadan. At first, the lady was very positive, but afterward, I was informed that they could not let me do that because it is a religious activity…Please let me know how I can approach this issue. I just want my kids to feel proud of their identity…"
It is difficult to read messages like these. Thankfully, there are also educators and librarians that see the bigger picture. Teaching kids about Islamic holidays prepares them for our increasingly globalized world and nurtures empathy. And when Muslim children share their identity with their community, it positively impacts their self-esteem. This mutual understanding benefits all.
There are almost two billion Muslims worldwide, and it is the second-largest religion. Educating children about Islamic holidays prepares them to be global citizens. In sixth grade, I went to a predominantly White public school in a two-stoplight town in Pennsylvania. Diversity was not a part of the curriculum and I would often find myself defending Islam and other minority groups. Ten years later, I learned a classmate from this small town was working in Afghanistan. I couldn’t help but wonder if understanding Islam earlier in life would have better prepared him.
Educating children about Islamic holidays nurtures empathy. On Sesame Street, Mark Ruffalo tried to explain empathy to Murray:
Mark: “Empathy is when you’re able to understand and care about how someone else is feeling.”
Murray: “Oh right, that’s what empathy is! [Pause] I don’t get it.”
This interaction is so honest! Empathy is not something one “gets.” It is felt. Adults teach children empathy by role-modeling and caring about experiences that are not their own. And inclusivity is an important tool for building empathy. In western culture, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter mark the beginning of the year. Most western holidays are rooted in the Christian tradition; as a culture, we are not great at bringing visibility to minority communities. Sharing traditions beyond the Gregorian calendar helps children understand the experiences of those unlike themselves.
Educating children about their Muslim peers positively impacts the self-esteem of our Muslim children. Research shows that a lack of representation can lead to negative psychological outcomes for those with identities that are underrepresented or negatively portrayed (Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2017). Incorporating the traditions of minority groups is critical to having them feel seen, heard, and respected. And only through this mutual understanding can diverse communities genuinely understand each other and build friendships based on positive relationships of trust. I share an example of this (from the earlier referenced Muslim parenting forum),
“This Ramadan, my daughter looked at the holiday section at her local library and said, “Mommy, how come there aren’t any books about Ramadan here?” Sure enough, there were a few—but quite meager in comparison to the Christian, Jewish, Halloween, and other holidays that filled several sections of bookshelves. This year we decided to do something about it and donate a Ramadan book to this library…Her teacher (Mrs. Karen) looked at us with tears in her eyes and embraced us. “I love you both, and you are important members of our community. Muslim children and all families should feel comfortable and welcome when they come here.” She even asked if I would send her a list of suggested Ramadan books to add to their collection. I was not expecting to get emotional, but her positivity and genuine compassion touched my heart. I realized the impact of what a small and humble act of kindness can do in addressing a simple need for our community’s growth…”
Photo credit: Anisa Diab Pictured: Mrs. Karen and Jennah
As educators prepare their programming this month, I hope they role-model empathy, prepare our children for a global community, and most importantly, create space for Muslim children to feel seen and welcome during Ramadan. Teachers and librarians who feel it (not just get it) are watering the seeds of unity.
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling is excited to reveal the cover for BING, BOP, BAM: TIME TO JAM! (illustrated by Sabrena Khadija and published by Abrams Appleseed). This picture book, which is a companion for 2022’s RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN!, will be released on August 8, 2023.
What does the cover say?
First of all, shout-out to Sabrena Khadija for the amazing illustrations! I continue to love Sab’s unique style of making magic with geometric shapes. This cover “jams” with music and joy, and it emanates the characters’ energy and excitement. It says, “Come join the party!”
Why should folks read this book?
Do you love music? Do you enjoy a party? Do you like spending time with friends? If any or all of these are your jam, then BING, BOP, BAM is for you! This rhyming book celebrates a neighborhood’s musical block party that features an intergenerational community, instruments and food from around the world, and, of course, fun.
On May 2, 2023 the first book, THE GRAY DAY, in my early reader series, RAINBOW DAYS (illustrated by Kai Robinson and published by Scholastic Acorn), will make its appearance, and the second book in the series, THE GOLD BOWL, arrives in September. TOGETHER WE SWIM (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita and published by Chronicle) will be released on August 15, 2023 – a week after BING, BOP, BAM. Looking ahead to 2024, I’ll welcome the third RAINBOW DAYS book, THE ORANGE WALL, as well as I SEE COLOR, a co-authored book with Kailei Pew (illustrated by Laylie Frazier and published by Harper Collins). I’m excited to get these books into schools, libraries, bookstores, and, ultimately, into the hands of young readers.
KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was excited to have the opportunity to chat with her KidLit in Color sister Tameka Fryer Brown about her latest book, THAT FLAG, which released a week ago on January 31.
Tameka, you’ve been on roll! At the end of last year, we welcomed your books, TWELVE DINGING DOORBELLS (illustrated by Ebony Glenn) and NOT DONE YET: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM’S FIGHT FOR CHANGE (illustrated by Nina Crews), and now we get to celebrate THAT FLAG (illustrated by Nikkolas Smith).
What’s your one-liner to describe your newest release?
Thank you so much, my dear sister! THAT FLAG is a story about best friends divided over the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag.
How did this book come to be?
I wrote THAT FLAG after the murders of nine church members in Charleston, SC by a 21-year-old white supremacist whose social media showed him posing with a weapon of war and a Confederate flag. I, like so many others, was angry at the atrocity, and distressed by the subsequent debate as to whether the Confederate flag was indeed an emblem of hate…or merely a symbol of Southern pride. I decided to write a picture book about that flag, as opposed to a story for older children, because the longer we wait to share these kinds of truths with our kids, the more embedded the influence of racism will be in their hearts. We can’t keep doing the same old, same old and expect this societal plague to disappear on its own. We must all be intentional about doing our part to dismantle white supremacy. Writing books for our future adults, leaders, and changemakers is mine.
Tameka, all you’ve said is so true. We must be intentional about fighting racism and other types of oppression, and the truths we share with children are a part of this necessary work.
Can you tell us a bit about your publication journey?
Though THAT FLAG was first written in 2015, the book didn’t sell until 2020, after the nation’s so-called “racial reckoning.” I now consider that delay divine providence, because I could not imagine a more perfect illustrator than Nikkolas Smith or editor than Luana Horry to help bring this story to life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with either of them had it sold earlier.
What a wonderful shout-out to your illustrator and editor who are both deserving.
What changed about THAT FLAG from acquisition to publication?
The main thing that changed was giving Ms. Greyson a more active role at the story’s climax. Originally, the plot involved a direct conversation between Keira and Bianca about the origins of the Confederate flag, but my editor suggested that for this story, it might be better to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating—not a Black child. It was very insightful feedback, so I gave Ms. Greyson that role in the story, which makes all the sense in the world as she is their teacher!
Yes, teachers play an important role in children’s lives, and I think Luana’s suggestion “to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating” was a smart one.
What did you learn that you didn’t already know as you did research for this book?
Through research I did for the backmatter, I learned about the original Stars and Bars version of the Confederate flag, namely how it was a source of confusion for the Confederacy on the battlefield because it looked so much like the American flag. Subsequently, there were several battle flag designs used by various Confederate units, including the one we most often call the Confederate flag today—also known as the Dixie or Rebel flag.
It was also eye-opening to read Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, as well as re-read the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, both of which are listed in the book’s Recommended Reading section. Those documents clear up a lot of misinformation about the main reason behind the Civil War, much of which came as a result of the Lost Cause Myth, which is something I learned more about as well.
Thanks for giving us a bit of a history lesson and sources we can read to find out more.
Share your thoughts with us about the illustrator Nikkolas Smith. I actually remember how excited you were when you told me that he would illustrate this book. Do you have a favorite page or spread?
I am a ginormous fan of Nikkolas’s art and artivism! I was already familiar with his work because of his many viral Sunday Sketches, so when Luana asked what I thought about approaching him to illustrate, I was like, “YEEESSSSSS!!!!” Nikkolas’s work is stunning and brave and, per his stated purpose as an artivist, inspires so many people to seek positive, societal change. I was and still am honored that he chose to be part of this project.
Of course, I can go through each page and point out all the fabulous things about Nikkolas’s artistic choices, but from an emotional standpoint, I think the last spread is my favorite. It embodies all the hope I have in the power of truth—both the telling and embracing of it.
How do you hope young readers will experience this book? What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers who read this book to children?
After reading THAT FLAG, I hope young readers will feel enlightened by the more holistic sharing of history, empowered to ask their hard questions, and emboldened to speak out for what they believe is right.
To parents and teachers, I’d say familiarize yourselves with the backmatter and information found in the suggested resources, which will be very helpful in answering the insightful questions kids are sure to have. Most of all, just be honest. Honesty is the best way to engage kids about everything, including the more odious aspects of our history.
Yes to honesty! Children need to know the truth of our history, just as adults do.
What book(s) can we look forward to next from you?
My next book is YOU ARE: ODE TO A BIG KID. It will be illustrated by the phenomenal Alleanna Harris and published by FSG in 2024. It’s a lyrical ode to growing up and believing in yourself. I’ve seen the sketches and oh my heart!
I know it’s going to be a beautiful book, Tameka, with your lyrical language and Alleana’s gorgeous art!
For more about Tameka Fryer Brown and her books, connect with her in the following ways:
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN is a picture book author who writes to sow seeds of self-love, pride, connectivity, and inclusion in the hearts of children. Her books have won awards like the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award and the Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, and have been honored on best book lists by NPR, Parents Latina Magazine, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, New York Public Library, Bank Street College, The Little Free Library, and more. Tameka’s picture books include Brown Baby Lullaby, Twelve Dinging Doorbells, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change, and That Flag. She is also a member of the Brown Bookshelf, WINC, and BCHQ. tamekafryerbrown.com
My name is Alyssa and I am a member of KidLit in Color. I am so excited to talk about the value of mentorship programs in this post because they were such an important aspect of my writing and publishing journey.
I was fortunate enough to win three mentorship programs: The Las Musas Mentorship, The Word’s Editor-Author Mentorship, and PB Chat’s mentorship. More information about those opportunities and more below.
First, I want to share WHY mentorship programs are so invaluable.
There are MANY more reasons why mentorship programs are invaluable. But now I will share some TIPS for applying for mentorship opportunities.
Please see below some mentorship programs to keep on your radar based on what genre/age group you write for.
The #PBChat Mentorship
Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program
AWP: Writer-to-Writer Mentorships
Write Team Mentorship Program
Diverse Voices DVMentor Program
Avengers of Colour
Author Mentor Match
All Levels PB-YA
SCBWI Mentor Programs
We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program
Las Musas Hermanas
Editor-Writer Mentor Program
Children's Lit Fellows
#QueerKidLit Mentorship Program
Mentorship for Desi Writers
Write-Mentor Spark Mentorship
Latinx in Publishing Writers Mentorship Program
Be Your Own Mentor (a website providing resources on revising, industry, craft)
I hope you enjoyed this blog post and found it informative. If you have any questions please feel free to contact KidLit in Color at https://www.kidlitincolor.com/contact.html
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris is a queer Afro-Latinx Dominican and Puerto Rican writer, wife, mother, and community organizer. During the day she is a Chief of Staff working with community members, non-profit organizations, and government officials to make the world a better place.
Then she puts her writer’s hat on to craft heartfelt stories about home, family, food, and the fun places she has been. Alyssa was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, and currently lives in Philadelphia, PA with her partner and daughter.
If you have specific questions for me, please contact me via my website at www.alyssaauthor.com
As a Black Panamanian, I grew up confident and fully aware of who I am and my racial and cultural background. But it wasn’t until I was asked, “What are you?” that I realized I didn’t know how to explain what I’d always known.
When I asked my mother about it, she told me, “Tell them you are a Black Panamanian” (which I knew). But that response only worked when I was a child. The older I got, the people who asked that question wanted more, and I found myself also needing more-- in terms of understanding fully.
My debut novel, Sincerely Sicily, was born solely from this experience. Loosely based on many of my experiences growing up, the main character Sicily Jordan embarks on a self-discovery journey to fully understand, for herself, how she is Black with a Panamanian cultural background. In addition to her self-identity journey, Sicily experiences hair discrimination from an unexpected relative and deals with plenty of new experiences involving a new school, friendships, and her first crush.
As the publishing industry continues to push for diversity in children’s literature, I have seen a slight improvement. But there are still cultures and countries that lack representation, including Panama. With that, I felt compelled to tell my story and do my part by filling this void. Mainly because I think readers desire to read about something new and different. And readers of Panamanian descent can finally relate first-hand and enjoy seeing their culture displayed in fiction.
Overall, I hope all readers can take a few things away from Sicily’s story. The first is the difference between race and culture. This message is conveyed in a scene when Sicily is doing research and realizes that while her ancestors are from Africa and the Caribbean, her parents were born in Panama, and she was born in the US. The cultures changed, but the racial makeup of her family did not. Thus, displaying to the reader that race and culture are not dependent on each other; the two can mutually exist, as one has nothing to do with the other.
The next takeaway would be gaining the confidence to advocate and stand up for oneself. Through Sicily’s example of resolving a hair discrimination conflict with her abuela, my hope is for that interaction to be a blueprint for young readers on how they, too, can express their feelings to adults constructively and appropriately to gain resolution.
Sincerely Sicily was indeed a labor of love, written to appeal to the targeted audience, but people of all races, ages, genders, and cultures will be able to find a few relatable elements of the story that will entice them to keep on reading.
Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels.
When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping, sipping lemon ginger tea and reading, or listening to a podcast. Read more at TamikaBurgess.com
By Kirstie Myvett and Aya Khalil
KLIC featured over 30 BIPOC children and middle-grade authors and illustrators on our blog in 2022. We’ve had guest bloggers, cover reveals, and many giveaways to promote BIPOC books and stories near and far. Since starting our group in 2019, we’ve featured over 60 BIPOC authors on our website and countless more on our social media platforms, and look forward to reading and sharing more of your wonderful stories and illustrations.
Besides using our website and social media platforms, another way we’ve accomplished our mission of amplifying diverse voices is by participating in panels. In 2022, we led panels on the following topics: Brown Joy Matters: Elevating BIPOC Voice in Print, Writing and Modeling Anti Racism for Young Readers, and Banned Book Edition. Panels provide a great opportunity for learning, discussion, and sharing. We hope to participate in even more panels this year.
This was a busy year for our KLIC authors who published 10 books in 2022, including one middle-grade book. Our authors were featured in regional and national press and received several awards and recognition, including:
New England Book Award Finalist - Middle Grade
New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall 2022 Windows and Mirrors Selection
Outstanding Book Award 2022, National Association of Black Journalists
Today Show - Read with Jenna Jr. Summer Reading selection in June
NECN Women’s History Month story in March
2022 Horn Book Summer Reading Recommended Title
Booklist’s Best of 2022
Chicago Public Library’s Best of 2022 list
The Buffalo News, Buffalo Spree Magazine
WGRZ (NBC Affiliate, Buffalo)
Amazon Editor’s Picks
Greenwich Free Press
School Library Journal
New York Magazine
Wisconsin Muslim Journal
American Muslim Today
KLIC authors believe in giving back, especially to aspiring children’s authors. Several of our authors have taken part in mentorship programs to share their knowledge and pay it forward. Our members serve as mentors at the Highlights Muslim Storyteller Fellowship, We Need Diverse Books - Black Creators Fund, and We Need Diverse Books (general mentorship program).
Another way that we pay it forward is by participating in World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) and reading our books for free to students across the country. Thanks to a virtual platform, we can meet children and teachers all over. We have shared our books with children in Texas, Iowa, Florida, Indiana, New York, Louisiana, Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, and Canada. If you haven’t booked us for WRAD in 2023, time is running out! Just click on our CONTACT button and someone will reach out to you asap!
We have many books coming out this year so keep an eye out for more information.
Last, we continue to support amazing and talented authors by reading their books. This year KLIC authors have read over 536 books!!! We are passionate readers and will continue to spread the love of books with you all.
Happy New Year!
You can learn about our books at our KidLitinColor.com.
Glenda Armand - ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN
Interview by Gabriele Davis
Hi, Glenda! Congratulations on your TWO new picture books releasing this month: ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN! Both books are captivating and eye-catching. Can you give our readers a brief overview of each and the inspiration behind them?
Thank you! I am excited about both books, though their beginnings were quite different. ICE CREAM MAN is about a free-born black man in pre-Civil War America who had the self-confidence, creativity and initiative to overcome overwhelming odds to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur. Augustus Jackson also happened to work as a chef in the White house, serving under three presidents! I had not heard of Augustus Jackson until my editor asked me if I would co-author a book about him with Kim Freeman. Kim gets credit for “discovering” Jackson. Once I learned about him, I knew that he checked all the boxes as to the kind of person I like to write about.
ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOLTRAIN is much more personal. However, I do have to thank Isabel Wilkerson for writing THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. In her epic narrative about the Great Migration, Wilkerson shares an anecdote about children in 1920s rural Mississippi forming a “walking train” to get to their one-room schoolhouse. That inspired me to ask my mom if she had had a similar experience having grown up during that era in rural Louisiana. Her eyes lit up as she recounted to me the basic elements of what became this story.
I love that ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN was inspired by your mother’s childhood experience and that you got to include some wonderful family photos in the back matter. What was your family’s response to this book? Can you speak to how writers can tap into their own family histories for inspiration?
I certainly hadn’t planned on using my family’s pictures in the book. That was my editor Tracy Mack’s idea! Her vision for my cute little story transformed it into a 48-page work of true historical and cultural meaning. I am honored that it received a starred KIRKUS review.
My family helped me remember certain facts and provided pictures. In that sense, it was a group project! My Mom would be very proud. To aspiring writers, I would say that the first place you look to for stories is home. By “home” I mean your own life and family, where you grew up, what books you read, what fascinates you. Take the inspiration you find there and see where it leads you. It could take you to another world. For instance, Suzanne Collins, who loves Greek mythology, was at home flipping the TV between the Iraq war and reality TV shows when she got the inspiration to write The Hunger Games.
You’ve authored other picture book biographies. Having been both a history teacher and a librarian, it’s no surprise that you love writing books spotlighting the stories and accomplishments of people who deserve a wider audience. What do you hope readers will take away from these books?
You are right. I enjoy introducing my readers to unsung heroes. IRA’S SHAKESPEARE DREAM is about Ira Aldridge, who was a contemporary of Augustus Jackson and who, like Jackson, was born free. Aldridge became a world-famous Shakespearean actor, noted for his portrayal of Othello. In SONG IN A RAINSTORM, I introduce readers to Thomas Wiggins who, born enslaved, blind and autistic, went on to find fame and fortune as a musical prodigy. I would like children to know about the diversity of the African American experience.
Both ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN have great kid-appeal. Ice cream and children are a natural combination, and you draw readers through both books with catchy refrains. Can you share your tips for making stories engaging and relatable for young readers?
You know, I had not thought about how they both have refrains. I do like to write in rhyme, so any chance I get, I will do so. Also, when I write picture books, I imagine them being read aloud by a teacher, parent or librarian. Kids like to participate in the story and love repeating a catchy refrain. It keeps them engaged and it helps with their memorization skills. I am a proponent of having kids memorize poems and songs and even times tables (I know that dates me.). It’s exercise for the brain.
I enjoyed the fascinating details you include in the afterword for ICE CREAM MAN. Kids will be surprised to learn that people once ate bizarre ice cream flavors like Parmesan Cheese and Asparagus! What research tips can you offer writers interested in crafting fascinating picture book biographies?
I like to give lots of details in the afterword that I hope the adult reader will find helpful in sharing the books with children. Kids like weird and amazing facts. If the facts also have a yuk factor, all the better. So I would say to new writers, find some fascinating detail about your subject that children will find interesting. I like to begin the bio with an anecdote from the subject’s childhood that immediately draws the child in.
Both Keisha Morris and Keith Mallett do an amazing job of bringing your stories to life with their illustrations. I especially like how Morris captures the joy of the school train winding through town and how Mallett conveys the pride Jackson takes in bringing sweet treats to his community. How involved were you in the visual development of these books? Did you include many illustration notes in your manuscript? Were you able to provide feedback on rough sketches?
Yes, I was involved to some extent with the illustrations, and both artists were a delight to work with. I saw sketches along the way, making suggestions that were well-received. For instance, Thelma in SCHOOLTRAIN, is inspired by my mom. When Keisha, who loves cats, gave Thelma a pet cat, I asked her to change the cat to a dog. Mom was a dog person. For ICE CREAM MAN, Keith had to make sure not to show ice cream being eaten from a cone. Ice cream cones were not invented until 1904!
You have referred to school libraries as “the heart of the school.” What is it that makes school libraries so vital?
In the library, students can come and relax, play board games, maybe work on a puzzle. It’s a place where everyone fits in and you can be yourself. And, of course, it’s a place to read. I love helping a student find a book. I have to get to know the student and make that connection. When a student tells me he or she doesn’t like to read, I just say, “You haven’t found the right book yet.” Whether the right book is Gone With the Wind or Captain Underpants, I just want the student to become a reader.
You have another book releasing in 2023. Would you like to offer readers a preview of this book? Any other titles on the horizon?
Sure! I have a book being released by Crown Books in May, THE NIGHT BEFORE FREEDOM, about Juneteenth. I mentioned that I enjoy writing in rhyme. The story follows the same meter as Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas. And I am very excited that this will be my first rhyming picture book.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Glenda! I look forward to reading much more of your inspiring work in the future!
Thank you so much, Gabriele. I enjoyed it. And congratulations on your upcoming books! I look forward to reading them!
Glenda Armand has had a long career as a teacher and school librarian. She enjoys writing picture book biographies that inspire children to read, learn and dream big. Glenda lives in Los Angeles and has a son and daughter. When not writing or practicing the piano, she tends a garden full of roses and succulents. Drop by her website at glenda-armand.com or connect with her on Twitter: @GlendaArmand.
Have you seen this spoken word performance by Theresa tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D.? It went viral. So did this recording from the 2019 Trumpet Awards, as well as this video produced by Facebook in 2021. In each instance, the poet’s powerful recitation of YOU SO BLACK reached and resonated with thousands of individuals from various walks of life. Tomorrow, it will officially enter the world as a picture book, allowing countless children to also be bolstered by its brilliance and beauty.
KidLit in Color member Tameka Fryer Brown chats with Grammy-nominated Theresa tha S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D. and multi-award-winning illustrator London Ladd about their new children’s book with Simon & Schuster, YOU SO BLACK.
THERESA THA S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D.
TAMEKA: Hi Theresa! Thank you so much for stopping by KidLit in Color to answer a few questions about your phenomenal new picture book, YOU SO BLACK!
THERESA: Thank you for having me!
TAMEKA: Before we talk about the book, can you give us a little back story about the original poem the book is based on? What inspired you to write it?
THERESA: I wrote the first version of You So Black in 2015. At the time I was very invested in creating work that empowered people of color. It was important to me that this sort of subject matter was included in my body of performance material.
TAMEKA: Your captivating recitations of the poem have gone viral, especially the one you did for the 2019 Bounce Trumpet Awards. Now you’re adding “children’s book author” to your long list of creative titles. How did you get the book deal for YOU SO BLACK?
THERESA: My book deal was like a moment of divine orchestration. In the midst of my poem going viral I had the opportunity to do quite a few interviews, one of which was with an awesome sister named Denene Millner. She pitched the idea of turning my poem into a children’s book. It has truly been her tenacity and hard work that has brought this whole book into reality.
TAMEKA: In making it a book for young readers, the original poem had to be shortened greatly. But there is SO much power and poignance in the original. Was it difficult to choose which lines would be included in the book and which would be left out?
THERESA: The process of editing this poem for the children’s book was relatively easy, especially having already made large edits for the version of the poem that went viral. There were a few words that had to be shifted for the sake of young readers comprehension, but overall, the children’s book was an enjoyable rewrite process. As a writer and creator, I have found over the years that you must become comfortable with editing and rewriting your work.
TAMEKA: London Ladd is a highly esteemed illustrator in the kidlit industry, but his art for this book is next level. What did you think of his illustrations for YOU SO BLACK when you first saw them? Do you have a favorite spread?
THERESA: I was truly in awe and speechless when I initially got to see the illustrations for this book. My favorite spread would have to be the page that reads: Black is you. Black is me. I have two sisters, they are identical twins. Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, our mother would take us to the beach at Lake Michigan during the summers. The illustration reminds me of seeing my sisters on the beach and the summers we spent together as children.
TAMEKA: KidLit in Color author Alliah Agostini has used the term “FUBU” to describe certain books, and I believe it’s an apt characterization of yours (“on the Black-hand side” makes my soul swoon). Is YOU SO BLACK a “For Us, By Us” book in your eyes?
THERESA: This book is definitely meant to serve as an empowerment tool for children of color. But I also hope that it serves as an empowerment tool for all children as a teaching implement of poetry and history. I would love for young readers to feel confident and beautiful in their skin, to feel that they are wonderful beyond measure.
TAMEKA: Now that you have your first kidlit title under your belt, is there anything you would have wanted to change about the publication process?
THERESA: I wouldn’t have waited so long to take up Denene on her offer to make this book happen.
TAMEKA: What’s next for you? Are there any more children’s books in your future (asked with fingers crossed)?
THERESA: There are definitely more children’s books in the future. I am very excited to share the stories I have been writing! In the meantime, I am still traveling and performing all across the country.
TAMEKA: Thank you, Theresa, for writing the book that would have blessed little girl me with all kinds of confidence and validation. I know it will do so for young readers today.
THERESA: Thank you. That is genuinely my desire, to give kids an opportunity to see themselves in the pages.
TAMEKA: Hey, London! Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions for us about this brilliant picture book, YOU SO BLACK.
LONDON: Hi Tameka, it’s a pleasure being here with you. I’d be happy to share.
TAMEKA: Please tell the backstory about how you became involved with this project. What about Theresa’s text spoke to you?
LONDON: A few years ago, I posted some new work I created while in grad school. At the time, I wasn’t going to post anything because I felt I wasn’t ready to share anything yet, but at the urging of one of my professors, I finally did on Instagram. This caught the attention of someone I worked with years ago who messaged me, curious about my new work style. Months later, I got another message with a link to a YouTube video of You So Black, asking if I would be interested in illustrating the poem.
Theresa’s poem gave me goosebumps. To hear her voice speaking with such passion, power, and pride, all I could do was sit there speechless. To see how her words, inflection, and cadence completely mesmerized the audience was inspiring. At the same time, I’m thinking about how I could do the same with my art.
TAMEKA: I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time, London, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this new style of yours—and I’m no illustrator, so I don’t know if this is the right vocabulary—but it appears to have a more expressionist or abstract vibe. How would you describe the art in YOU SO BLACK?
LONDON: Thank you so much. That means a lot to hear you share that. The feeling is mutual. You are correct. Everything I do now is much more expressive and abstract. This is the type of art that has always attracted my attention. From Harlem Renaissance artists like Aaron Douglass, William H. Johnson, and Jacob Lawrence, to others like Romaire Bearden and Robert Heindel.
The art in You So Black is uniquely me. It’s the first full book where all the art is mine, each texture, cut paper, tissue paper…all of it is me poured throughout the book. I love looking at shapes, textures, colors, and designs. I can’t thank the publisher enough for allowing me the creative freedom to explore and trust my vision.
TAMEKA: We all thank your publisher for that. Speaking of creative freedom, I’m always curious as to how artists decide what imagery to create when illustrating text that is more conceptual than concrete. What was your process for determining what the visuals for each spread would be?
LONDON: That’s a great question! For me, it’s an emotive experience when figuring out the imaginary. It depends on what imagery and concepts might pop into my conscience while absorbing the words. For every project, I have a new journal book/sketchbook where I keep everything related to the project inside: manuscript printed out, inspiring images, quotes, and notes I write/draw. I’m always carrying this journal around, so when it’s time to do sketches, I can refer to it. Most picture books can take 7-10 months, so it is critical to document everything.
For example, some were quick, like the Obama inauguration page. The first time I heard the line “Black with privilege, Black with pride. Black on purpose, on the Black-hand side,” all I could think of was vividly remembering Barack Obama being sworn in as president in January 2009.
For “Black is pyramids and mathematics,” it was a challenge to tie pyramids and math together in a way that a child would find interesting. I did a bunch of sketching for weeks, but nothing seemed to work, so I stopped thinking about it and sketched other pages instead. One night I woke up from a vivid dream. All I could see were shapes, colors, angles, and a face, so I quickly sketched it before it faded from my head. When I submitted the final drawings for approval, I was nervous about the page because it differed from the others in concept. It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book because I feel the illustration came from a deeply spiritual place.
TAMEKA: Do you have one, absolute favorite line or spread from the book? My favorite spread is the first one. I think. It really is hard to choose….
LONDON: Thank you! I love that spread. It reminded me of my daughter when she was around that age, full of boundless energy and wonder. Well, I previously explained pyramids and mathematics originating from a dream. It is so difficult to pick a favorite spread because of what each means to me on a personal level. It’s hard to pick one, but if I have to choose one…I’d say, “Black is strong.” The idea for that spread is very personal because I could imagine a young boy would feel mighty on the shoulders of his father. The love between them at that moment is beautiful. I never had a father in my life. His name isn’t on my birth certificate, he was never mentioned throughout my life, and to this day, I don’t know if he’s still alive. I’ve always desired that father-son relationship, but it never happened. I’m thankful for the fatherly figures who were there to help me see and understand what being a father was so that when I became a father, I could be the best influence for my daughter and godchildren. That’s why the boy on his shoulders looks like me when I was that age.
TAMEKA: Why is YOU SO BLACK an important book to share with young readers? What do you hope they will feel while or after experiencing it?
LONDON: It’s essential for young readers of color to see themselves within the pages of the books they read and share with their families. I envision them sitting together, experiencing the joy, pride, and beauty of Blackness throughout this book. I hope that You So Black is passed down generationally within families so that young people today will share it with their future children.
TAMEKA: That would be wonderful. Are you working on any new projects, London?
LONDON: Yes!! I’m currently working on a variety of exciting projects right now. I’m working on the final art for My Hair is a Book, written by Maisha Oso; and I’m currently researching and sketching When I Hear Spirituals, written by Cheryl Willis Hudson, and Myrlie: A Voice of Hope, written by Nadia Salomon. I will be starting The Gathering Table, written by Antwan Eady, in late spring 2023. Also, I’m almost done with a draft of my first written and illustrated picture book. Busy times, but I’m extremely grateful for these opportunities to work with so many great people, doing what I love!!
TAMEKA: Wow! “Busy times” is an understatement! Thanks again for sparing this precious time to speak with us. Continued success, my friend.
LONDON: Thank you, Tameka!! This has been great! Wishing you continued success with all your projects and looking forward to talking more in the future. 😊
THERESA THA S.O.N.G.B.I.R.D. is a Grammy-nominated musical, lyrical and theatrical alchemist, sprinkling magic like hot sauce. She is best known for her appearance on the 2019 Trumpet Awards on Bounce TV, and the now viral recitation of “You So Black,” which has garnered 11 million views and counting. She has gone on to perform with the likes of Jill Scott, MC Lyte, and Jazmine Sullivan, and appears on famed pianist Robert Glasper’s newest album. Theresa is from the south suburbs of Chicago but calls Atlanta home. She holds a degree in commercial music from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
LONDON LADD is a graduate of Syracuse University with an MFA in illustration. He uses a unique mixed media approach, combining cut paper textured with acrylic paint, tissue paper and colored pencil to bring his diverse subjects to life. London’s artwork is steeped in intensity and emotion, a reflection of the artist himself. His hope is that You So Black will be passed down through generations, reaffirming African Americans’ strength, beauty, power and love. His goal is to open a visual arts community center where lower-income families can create their own art. He is also the illustrator of My Red, White, and Blue, Black Gold, Under the Freedom Tree, American Anthem, Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving, Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Midnight Teacher, Waiting for Pumpsie, Oprah: The Little Speaker, and March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World. His portrait “Breonna Taylor, Remember Her Name!” was published in Recognize! An Anthology Honoring and Amplifying Black Life. London lives in Syracuse, New York.
YOU SO BLACK is published by Simon & Schuster. Click here to purchase.
Photo of Theresa by: Derrick Dean Photography
Photo of London by: Roger DeMuth