By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Amyra León and Molly Mendoza to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book Freedom, We Sing, out July 7, 2020!
“I wonder, then, what freedom is. Is it a place? Is it a thought? Can it be stolen? Can it be bought?”
As powerful as it is beautiful, Freedom, We Sing is a lyrical picture book designed to inspire and give hope to readers around the world. Molly Mendoza’s immersive, lush illustrations invite kids to ponder singer/songwriter Amyra León’s poem about what it means to be free. It’s the perfect book for parents who want a way to gently start the conversation with their kids about finding hope in these very tense times we are living in.
What was your process of collaborating for Freedom, We Sing like? Tell us about how the story and the illustrations came together.
Amyra: When the Flying Eye team showed me Molly’s work, I was completely awestruck by the suspension and the dimensions in every line drawn and color used. I went into this trusting her completely. I mentioned a few things that I really wanted to see in the universe of the book—a loving relationship with one’s mother, constellations, lilies in honor of my mother, moths in honor of my brothers, the sun and the moon, all kinds of diversity. I wanted the book to be a place where Black and Brown children could see themselves reflected. Honestly what Molly has accomplished is beyond anything I could have ever known to imagine, it is a true honor to see the power of my words so beautifully brought to life!
Molly: I was introduced to Amyra first through her piece and often, throughout the process, we spoke and gave feedback through our editors. We worked really well I felt and the process was organic in how the imagery bloomed from the writing. We were kind of like ships passing in the night though; on shifts tending to a garden. We officially spoke to each other when the book was all done and our chemistry was just magic…I really hope we can work together again in the future but I know for sure I will treasure Amyra always.
Amyra, you’re a musician and this is your first children’s book (and you have a few more forthcoming). How did your work as a musician influence your writing process? Do you draw some similar places when you’re writing songs and writing books?
A: All of my work stems from improvisation and the medium somewhat announces itself throughout the process of creation. Freedom, We Sing is a song as much as it is a poem and is for adults as much as it is for children. I have written a play, a few albums of music, I am currently co-composing an opera, and breathe poetry in all I do. The lines tend to blur and they all house and ignite one another. Working in so many industries puts me in this unique position where I am constantly learning and refining my craft. I am always finding new ways to engage with the people on a visceral level, it is such a blessing.
This book is about what it means to be free. What does freedom mean to each of you? Has that changed over the years?
A: Freedom has always been about my right to be. To linger just as I am without it being considered a crime worth dying for. I cultivated that belief growing up in Harlem and it couldn’t be more true today.
Molly: When I was a kid, my idea of freedom was definitely shaped by the way our government wants us to think of it. As I got older, I’ve found that that idea, the very fifth-grade history textbook idea, of freedom, was so much more insanely complicated. Jump ahead to getting a bit older than that and it’s muddied and bruised. I’ve kind of abandoned that classroom idea of the word. Now I know it is something we all work toward together. It is something we fight for constantly against those who were supposedly upholding it for us. It is something that so many of us don’t have and it is our job to call attention to that and change it. This book is so important because I feel that it better depicts my sense of freedom now. It’s honest, it’s true, and it also holds a call to action in its core to be there for each other and to uplift one another.
Molly, what tools do you use in your illustrations? What are some of your preferred mediums? Have you worked with any mediums you’ve found challenging as an artist?
M: For the illustrations, I draw using sumi ink on paper with brush. Freedom was all worked on with this medium and then colored digitally. I often use this process—it’s the same for my previous work, Skip. Often though I enjoy using other mediums such as water-soluble crayons for my personal pieces and I even paint murals too. In the past, I also studied photography and worked with some animation. Photography in particular really helped with my understanding of composition and I still hold onto that to this day. One time I worked for a semester with video installation and video-based media…I learned a lot but I really wasn’t the best at it.
Amyra, are there any authors who you have been inspired by?
A: My greatest inspiration in the realm of literature is James Baldwin! Though many of my favorite writers are my peers! Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), Dean Atta (The Black Flamingo), the poetry of W.J. Lofton (A Garden for Black Boys Between the Stages of Soil & Stardust), Anita Barton-Williams (Diary of a Sad Black Girl), and Koleka Putuma(Collective Amnesia), and the continued outpour of work from my mentor Mahogany L. Browne. Their work continues to inspire and build safe spaces for my reflection in this world.
Molly, are there any artists and illustrators who have inspired your work?
M: Yeah, totally. While I was in school, l I was inspired by Jillian Tamaki’s ink work and Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings. But the list grows from year to year and I’m really inspired by so many of my peers. A few are Xia Gordon, Cate Andrews, Colin Laurel, and Lorena Alvarez. But really, all my peers blow me away. Everyone’s work sings and they’re all doing amazing stuff—they inspire me every day.
What other books do you think Freedom, We Sing is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for published or upcoming kidlit books?
A: I think Freedom, We Sing is in conversation with the headlines! We can no longer hide from the terrifying atrocities of the world. Whether it is racism or COVID-19, children are growing up in a world without answers, without teachers, away from their friends. Now is the time to start engaging with our youth and trusting their perspectives, embracing their opinions, and empowering their curiosity.
Recommendations for rising children’s authors: Remember children learn how to read, share, express themselves, and more from children’s books. It is often the first place a child is taught to recognize themselves as self as someone. Black children often do not see themselves reflected, nor do their peers which builds further erasure and distancing when it comes to understanding self and other and not self as other. Be mindful, build the world the children deserve to live in. Talk to children as you create for them and trust you do not need to dilute your thinking to match that of a child. They are indeed as smart as we allow them to be—we gotta do better!
M: I am really excited for Twins by Shannon Wright and Variants Johnson!!
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
A: Where did the inspiration for Freedom, We Sing come from?
I wrote Freedom, We Sing when I realized how often children are left out of difficult conversations surrounding politics, health, race. Children are incredibly intelligent and aware of the world they live in, it is detrimental to assume their intellect cannot handle discussions about current affairs and the realities they face or that of their peers. In making space to acknowledge the complexities of self and society as well as the beauty and wonder within us, we invite a generation of thinkers to be safe in and with their emotions. We equip them with the courage to start difficult conversations amongst themselves and lead from a place of honesty rather than confusion and fear of the unspoken.
If they have to wake up every day affected by a society they are not allowed to engage with, how can we expect to navigate the consequences of such isolation without tapping into the source? The fear, anger, depression, and insecurity children experience come from the very circumstances and politics they are often not invited to discuss, and the solutions to issues the youth face today are often made on their behalf without their input. I believe the sooner we empower children to speak and humble adults to listen, we will allow ourselves to build the very foundations society needs to cultivate freedom that we all get to define and experience.
M: Oh gosh, if someone wanted to ask me about what anime I am into that would be so cool but I need a panel for that. I really don’t mind any question that’s thrown my way…I guess to keep it easy: how do you like your eggs? I like them over easy or mixed in with hot rice.
Amyra León is a musician, performer, and poet from New York City. She has collaborated with and performed for the BBC, Roundhouse, Amnesty International, and many more. An alumna of the Nuyorican Slam Team, Amy fuses music and poetry through powerfully transparent performances focusing on social inequalities and celebrating love, blackness, and what it means to be woman.
Molly Mendoza is an American illustrator and comic artist who graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art. She has gone on to develop a rich personal art practice, self-publishing numerous comics as well as working with clients such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Hazlitt, and Adobe among others. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Alaina Leary (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.