What inspired me to write MOMMY'S KHIMAR is the same as what inspired me to become a children’s literature author to begin with. Up until two years ago, I had never seriously thought about writing children’s books although I had vague dreams of becoming a novelist. I would like to say there was some deep or ethereal inspiration that began my work in kidlit. However, my children’s book writing really started with a Facebook post.
I’m a member of a closed Facebook group for Muslim mothers. Members are mainly from the U.S. and many of the members are African American. We discuss a wide range of topics related to parenting and one repeated topic is lack of representation. One day back in 2015 another Black Muslim woman posted to the group about the types of books she wished her kids had--books that told our history and books that represented our kids. Many other mothers chimed in to agree. What was especially true for these moms and for me was that even in stories about Muslim children, Black Muslim children were almost never represented.
Although in the U.S., Black Americans make up the largest population of Muslims, a post-9/11 focus on representing American Muslims as foreign has meant that almost all portrayals of Muslims are of immigrants from Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Additionally, in stories about Black people that feature spirituality, Christianity is almost always the faith that’s depicted. Black American Muslims are simply erased in most literature and popular culture.
I have always been a dreamer and that Facebook post made me daydream for hours. Many characters flooded my mind. The girl in MOMMY'S KHIMAR was one of them. It sounds strange but it was almost like these characters had always been somewhere locked up in my brain and I just needed an impetus to let them out. I had always had these stories to tell and just needed to tell them.
I jotted down many ideas and then started to plot and organize them. I soon became obsessed with learning how to write children’s books, reading everything I could online, purchasing writing guides for my Kindle app because going to the bookstore took too long, and taking out children’s books from the library so that I could carefully dissect and imitate them. I’m a perfectionist and wanted to get this very interesting artform correct. I spent hours writing and rewriting stories and even reading them to my son who was entering kindergarten around this time. He was my first critic! I found that I loved the challenges of picture book writing.
One of the stories I began writing was about a little Black girl playing with a hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women. Literature about hijab, whether in story, nonfiction, or poetic form, is almost always serious and even political. However, in thinking about how I saw hijab as a little girl, I remember seeing it as a dress up item--a soft piece of cloth that could be manipulated and used in pretend play. I didn’t want to write another serious story to defend hijab or show its importance. I wanted to take this scarf that has become so controversial and show it as the simple cloth I saw it as while I was a girl.
In my stories, I wanted to show my underrepresented people to the fullest extent and that affected my decision to include a non-Muslim family member in MOMMY'S KHIMAR as well as using the word “khimar” in the title. Like many Black American Muslims, I grew up with Christian relatives. And like many Black American Muslims, I grew up calling the headscarf a “khimar” not a “hijab.” Both words are used in Islamic scripture; however, for whatever reason, early Black American Muslim communities used the word “khimar” while others don’t commonly do so. I wanted the book to feel unmistakably Black and Muslim for the children of those moms who first inspired me. And I wanted to take that identity and put it in the mainstream. It seems I may get what I want.
In publishing with a mainstream publisher, one thing that worries me is whether others will be interested in MOMMY'S KHIMAR and other stories I write. Do others care about the lives of Black American Muslims? I think about my own interest in stories about people whose backgrounds are very different from mine. I think about the time when I went on a reading binge of Victorian novels and my recent discovery of Lisa See’s novels about ancient China and 20th century Asian Americans. I think about how in middle school I identified with so many of the white characters Judy Blume created. And I think about how as a kid I used to write stories for fun and that my characters were always white and never Muslim because the books I read showed me that’s how it was supposed to be. I know intuitively that it’s not impossible to care about characters that are very different from the reader. I know it and yet it’s still a worry.
Thanks for caring enough to read.
MOMMY'S KHIMAR by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Simon & Schuster (Salaam Reads); April 3, 2018
Currently Available for Pre-order from Amazon and Major Bookstores
Jessie Oliveros, author of THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, interviewed Kate Narita, author of 100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK about the inspiration for her book.
Question: How did you get the inspiration for 100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK?
I’m a fourth grade teacher, and one of the writing mini-lessons I taught this week was that writers get their ideas from a real life moment and then turn the idea into fiction. That’s exactly what happened to me with 100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK. I was at school, talking with another teacher, Teresa Zuckerman, and she told me that in order for kids to be successful in math they need to understand the combinations of ten. I had an “Aha” moment. I thought, I don’t think there’s a picture book about the combinations of ten. That’s how the idea started!
Q: That explains some of the math in the book, but it doesn’t explain the bugs! Where did they come from?
That’s a great question, and it has a two-part answer. Dragonflies have always been close to my heart. I grew up in a south suburb of Chicago, Homewood, and I lived four blocks away from my middle school. Next to the middle school were softball fields and the public pool. During the summer, I would ride my bike to the public pool and to softball practice. Large dragonflies zoomed about the field and they filled me with happiness.
Now, I live in central Massachusetts on the side of a small mountain. During the summer, dragonflies dart about my yard. There are two weeks in August when there are literally 100 common darners zooming about. Anytime I see a dragonfly, I feel as though the world is a magical place.
Anyway, the same day my teacher friend told me about the combinations of ten, I had my writing group. When I was driving home from my writing group, the text came to me, “Dragonflies, dragonflies, darting all about.” At first, instead of having ten different bugs, I switched back and forth from various types of dragonflies and damselflies. When I took the manuscript to my writing group, they told me to use different bugs. So, then I added butterflies, bumblebees, ladybugs, and lightning bugs. After I submitted the manuscript, the editor told me she wanted ten different bugs including walkingsticks. That’s when the leafhoppers, katydids, spittlebugs and walkingsticks crawled into the story.
Q: What about the flowers? Are you some kind of master gardener?
Definitely not! I’m embarrassed to say I neglect my yard. But, my parents work really hard to grow gorgeous plants. So, anytime I go to their house, I flip through their gardening magazines. As a result, I know a lot of flower names. Flower names began to flood my mind, and I paired those flower names with objects that would be in the yard of someone who lived on a farm: rose and hose, weather vane and bugbane, horse feed and sneezeweed and so on.
Q: Some of the facts in the scientific back matter are pretty cool. Did the inspiration for those facts come from your parents’ gardening magazines as well?
No. The scientific back matter came about because of my grit and the generosity of friends. When the editor called me to tell me they wanted to take the manuscript to acquisitions, she said that she knew I worked a full-time job and had a family, but that she wanted scientific back matter on the ten plants and the ten insects within a month. I knew I would get it done, but I also knew I would need help from my friends. First I spoke with April Jones Prince, her book which is also an FSG book, GOLDENLOCKS AND THE THREE PIRATES, comes out in November www.apriljonesprince.com/. She reassured me, and told me just to be sure to find a different interesting fact for each insect and plant. So, she meant don’t talk about the size or the color of each item, mix it up. So, I did.
Then, I had to ensure the information I was presenting was accurate. In addition to researching online and in libraries, two family friends helped me out. Paul Williams, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the inventor of Fast Plants helped me understand the coral bell’s reproduction processfastplants.org/resources/digital_library/. Denise Martin, who retired from teaching biology at St. Michael’s College, worked with me to make sure that the ten plants in the book could be found blooming at the same time in the same place.
But another challenge was in addition to teaching and parenting, I was also planning and traveling to my grandmother’s one hundredth birthday party in Chicago. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted. When I took the back matter to my writing group, Melissa Stewart, who is an amazing non-fiction author who has published over one hundred books including CAN AN AARDVARK BARK?, gave me an extraordinary gift www.melissa-stewart.com/. She told me to send her the draft of my back matter and that she would edit it for me and format the information so that everything was presented in a uniform way.
Q: Wow! It sounds like the inspiration for this book came from family and friends!
It did, and what’s even more amazing is that the inspirational process continued when working with the extraordinary editor of the book, Janine O’Malley, and the incredible illustrator, Suzanne Kaufman. This book is truly a gift from family and friends, and I hope that others will find it’s a gift they can share with their families and friends as well.
Thanks so much for reading and listening!
100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK by Kate Narita Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Available for preorder from your favorite bookstore
For the month of October, the blog post prompt is “Where did you get your inspiration for your first picture book?” My answer to that, in short, would be: Overcoming challenges! This was my first experience not only illustrating a full picture book, but also working on a subject matter that was a bit out of my personal experience, to say the least. So it was certainly a challenge, but I found it to be a fulfilling one.
Being the illustrator of a Non Fiction book, my inspiration had to reflect on the subject matter, and therefore came from China’s History, its art, and the flora and fauna that dwelled there in the time period where this story takes place. More importantly, I wanted this book to reflect the love I have for the Chinese culture, as it is the culture, and the generations before, that made my beloved Chinese husband who he is. The Chinese culture has shaped our mixed family, and I want to keep that very culture alive for our children.
I first began brainstorming with the biggest challenge at hand: the story is told by the adult main character, who is reflecting on what happened in his past as a child. I would have to illustrate a Past and Present main character. There would have to be a clear visual definition between what was happening in the past versus what is happening now. My solution came to me in the form of a memory book, or a scrap book. The entire story is told as the main character gathers his photographs, field notes, and water color paintings and puts them together into a memory book!
Now that the format had been decided, I next had to figure out my color palette. I wanted my art to reflect many aspects of the art I had seen during my visit to China, years ago. China has such a rich history of art, from watercolors, to silk paintings, to paintings on scrolls. So when it came to inking my line work, I found that none of my many stock colors were good enough for the job. I had to mix up a large batch of the perfect blue-green-grey shade of ink that I had seen in so many famous Chinese ink paintings. That ink color led me to my full color palette, through trial and error.
The next challenge was to figure out a way to make the memory book pages stand against the “real life” art, so the reader would instantly know the difference of time and place. So I decided on two completely different styles of line, texture, and paper. For the spreads that depicted the adult main character in the present, I used a thin pen nib for line work, smooth hot press paper, and I superimposed various textures on certain objects to give them a more lifelike feeling. For the spreads that depicted the main character’s memory book, I painted my line work with a thin brush versus a nib, rough cold press paper, and I also added small colorful accents with water soluble crayons.
My original bit of inspiration for the illustrations in this story came from an old bed that once belonged to my late mother in law. I was in awe at the intricate carvings that decorated the entire frame of the bed. I had wanted to use this as a framework for my spreads, much like the way Jan Brett frames out the art in her spreads, but it just wasn’t working the way I had planned. The traditional cherry wood color was far too heavy and did not go well with the palette I was trying to work with. But I really wanted to include the intricate patterns in some way. My book’s author, Sigrid Schmalzer, had the ingenious idea of using the traditional Chinese folk art of paper cutting in lieu of the heavy wood frame work. Something during her travels in China had triggered the idea, and it worked out perfectly!
And so the rest is history! You can see how I used the paper cutting idea to frame out the art on the cover of the book. Or... is that actually the cover of the main character’s memory book? You’ll have to read MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN: REMEMBERING CHINESE SCIENTIST PU ZHELONG
to find out! Thanks for taking the time to read about what inspired me the most on this project!
Melanie Linden Chan
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN: REMEMBERING CHINESE SCIENTIST PU ZHELONG
by Sigrid Schmalzer illustrated by Melanie Linden Chan
Tilbury House Publishers, February 6, 2018
Available for pre-order now, at your favorite book store!