By Anushi Mehta
Today we’re pleased to welcome Antwan Eady to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Nigel and the Moon, illustrated by Gracey Zhang and released today, February 15, 2022!
From debut author Antwan Eady and artist Gracey Zhang comes a glowing tale about the young dreaming big. A perfect story to demonstrate how pride in where we come from can bring a shining confidence.
When Nigel looks up at the moon, his future is bright. He imagines himself as…an astronaut, a dancer, a superhero, too!
Among the stars, he twirls. With pride, his chest swells. And his eyes, they glow. Nigel is the most brilliant body in the sky.
But it’s Career Week at school, and Nigel can’t find the courage to share his dreams. It’s easy to whisper them to the moon, but not to his classmates—especially when he already feels out of place.
Dear Antwan, thank you so much for doing this interview with me!
Thank you so much for having me! We spoke about doing this a while ago, so I’m glad to see it’s finally happening.
Absolutely! Your parents played a large role in your love for picture books. Your mother, a housekeeper at Hilton Head Island, found books that visitors left behind, tell us more about the kinds of books you remember reading? What impact did they have on you? Did it occur to you that you weren’t represented in most of these books?
My parents played a major role in my love for picture books for sure. My mom worked many jobs, but in my younger years, she’d taken on the role of housekeeping on Hilton Head Island. In our part of South Carolina’s low country, this was common. Readers of Nigel will also see one of the other jobs she had because Nigel’s mom and my mom have this job in common. It was my way of honoring my late parents.
With housekeeping, when found books went unclaimed, my mom gifted those books to me. I loved it so much. I don’t recall any that truly stand out… I remember some of the illustrations. I was very young. But the book that stands out to me wasn’t one that my mom found. It was one that she’d purchased, and it was a personalized book that included my name and the names of my siblings. Funny enough, it had something to do with the moon, too!
I don’t recall not feeling represented because my parents were intentional about representation in other ways. My parents had all volumes of the Black encyclopedia. I recall reading those more than anything else. I’d read about Cicely Tyson, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, and more. I also had a Black dentist and orthodontist when I was younger, so if not in books, my parents did their absolute best to make sure we saw ourselves elsewhere. Also, I attended a predominantly Black school—elementary through high school. My teachers were Black and they, too, were intentional about our readings from (in my later years) Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry to Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple. I need to revisit these as an adult.
That is so wonderful, Antwan. I love the fact that your mother got you a personalized book. I had one made for my children, too, but I think the value of it must have been so different at that time.
Through this book, you say you want to challenge the idea of what the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ means. This resonated with me so much (even as an adult); I keep wondering why I have to decide on ONE thing! What are your current dreams?
I’m living it now. Truly.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a scientist and a writer. For many years, during and after college, I worked in veterinary medicine and with nonprofit organizations. All of which I’m passionate about. I’ve learned now that it’s okay for us to have several passions and move in directions that allow us to cultivate each of them. I’ve done that.
Now I’m writing and existing in a space that feels like a dream every day. This is the dream that I want to give my attention to now. From here, I’m curious to see where writing takes me. TV/film, plays, and beyond. I don’t have to be just one thing. It took too long for me to realize this.
Wow! I am sure there are things you’ve picked up in veterinary medicine that you’ll be able to use in your writing, too. And I love people who manifest their dreams and goals, unabashedly.
One of the challenging parts of being a picture book author is identifying what words can be eliminated. Your text is lyrical, yet crisp. How did you get it to this level of perfection?
Thank you so much! I’m not sure about perfection, though, haha. I’ve grown so much as a writer since Nigel.
But the reduction/trimming process is what I love about picture books and short stories. No fluff. I’m a wordy person, so I welcome the challenge of saying more while saying less. It makes every sentence punchier. It’s probably my favorite part of the revision process.
Initially, Nigel was written as a first person POV story. There were many drafts and each time, while revising, I’d look for opportunities to trim it down. I also have Mabel Hsu as my fantastic editor.
I agree with you. Saying more with less is my favourite part of the revision process too.
Talk us through your journey from childhood to deciding to become an author. What pushed you in this direction? Were there times you struggled with self-doubt, and how did you move forward? What were the biggest roadblocks and what is the thing you are most proud of?
My journey… hmm. I wrote and illustrated my first picture book in 2007—The Big Big Book of Busy Busy Bees. But it wasn’t for publishing purposes. I didn’t know anything about publishing haha.
In 2019, more than a decade later, I met Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black, at Savannah’s Book Festival. It was only then that I felt like I could be an author. It took that kind of representation, seeing a young Black man do it, for me to see it was possible. I credit him for much of my “can do it” mentality because I picked up the pen that night and I’ve yet to put it back down.
From there, I learned about literary agents for the first time, too. I took a deep dive into the world of publishing.
Sure, I doubted myself a time or two. But those doubts were minor. I’m resilient, and when I decide I’m going to do something, I do it. I get that from my mom. Which leads me to the question about what I’m most proud of…
I’m most proud of never giving up on myself. My parents passed away five years ago. I’ve lost a sibling as well, and I don’t have any living grandparents. There have been plenty of moments where I could’ve given up on this journey… but I’m proud to have been able to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
Of course, I’m surrounded by so much love from family and friends. I credit that love and support for getting me here.
I am sorry for your losses. It seems like all your loved ones have had a powerful and positive impact on your life, especially your mother.
Like Nigel, did you ever feel scared of letting your dreams be seen? Talk us through your childhood and growing up Black in America.
Nigel is me… just braver. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it isn’t something I shared with others. I’d enter writing contests and win. I’d perform spoken word or share my poetry with others. But I never told anyone it was what I wanted to do as a career. Not until many years later, of course. It felt too far-fetched.
As the youngest child of six, I became the first in my family to graduate from college. That responsibility weighed heavily on me, and choosing this career felt too risky. So I didn’t.
We should take a moment and look at how far you have come—it’s incredible!
The art by Gracey Zhang is done in so few colors, yet it feels explosive and dreamy. Both the text and the illustrations immediately set the tone for a bedtime favorite. Did you give any input for the illustrations? Did you have any thoughts on what Nigel should like (apart from being Black)?
Gracey Zhang is phenomenal! I didn’t really give input. I think the only art note I had was that I wanted to see Nigel on the moon. There was something so powerful about that image in my head… of seeing a young Black boy on the moon. Everything else was the genius of Gracey. I cried every time I received updates.
And a bedtime favorite? Thank you! I’d love that!!!
I love how the message of this story is two-fold in so many ways. Dream big, dream high, but also that family is the most important thing in the world. The title page (Nigel’s parents checking on him while he sleeps) and penultimate page (the three of them standing together, arm-in-arm) is absolutely evocative. Did this happen by happenstance or was it strategically planned?
Again, all credit to Gracey here. I’d also add that love and support are the most important things in the world. Sometimes it’s found in chosen family too.
I’d like to think Gracey planned this. There’s so much that she put into this book that impresses me every time, including her approach to the colors and the look of the book which reflects many homes here in Savannah, GA—where I reside. Gracey can explain it much better than I can, but she was influenced by homes here.
You wrote your first book on an old, borrowed laptop. What’s your writing set-up and schedule like now?
I did! While working in veterinary medicine, a client overheard me telling a colleague about wanting a laptop. So she gifted me an old laptop! How sweet is that!? This was in 2014 or 15.
I wrote many books with that laptop.
Now, I have a Macbook and my schedule… hmm. I write in a café, usually. My plan is to be there by 11 AM Tuesday to Friday. I use Mondays for authorly duties like updating my website, answering interview questions (like now), and catching up on life. I write on Mondays when I have time too.
I write for an hour or two, then take a quick social media break. I don’t force it, usually. So my schedule varies at times. I go off my mind and body. When I’m tired, I give in to the tiredness to avoid burnout.
What’s a Low Country boil?
Short version without going into the history: it’s my favorite thing in the world. Growing up on the coast of South Carolina, my family’s Gullah Geechee… our boils have shrimp, crab (blue crab), corn, sausage, and potatoes. There’s a method to the madness here. But it’s seasoned to perfection… dumped on an outdoor table and made for all to share! Oh, and I love it fresh! I grew up crabbing, fishing, and all that jazz when I was younger.
“Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. I hope Max wasn’t problematic because I love that poem so much. Someone gifted it to me before I went to college and I’ve had it on my wall since. 13… 14…years later.
Top 3 picture books of 2021:
The Old Boat by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey, The Boy and The Sea by Camille Andros and Amy June Bates, and Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham and C.G. Esperanza.
What’s next for you?
I have Micah’s Rise (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, ill. Ricardo Edwards) coming in 2023. The Last Stand (Knopf BFYR/Penguin Random House, ill. Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey) in 2024. A second book with Penguin Random House and a few more unannounced projects coming down the pipeline.
Dream project to work on?
Hmmm…Spyke (Evan Daniels) from X-Men, Storm’s nephew. I’d love to do a graphic novel or something about him.
Also, I’d love to see Nigel as an animation.
I can totally see Nigel as a Pixar Short, just putting out there in the universe! Thank you, thank you, Antwan, for indulging me. Your effervescence and hopes are so palpable and it was a pleasure doing this interview.
Antwan Eady is an author and a dreamer. Originally from Garnett, South Carolina, he spent many nights whispering his dreams; now he proudly shares them with the world. A graduate of Clemson University, Antwan now lives in Savannah, Georgia.
Anushi Mehta is a first generation Belgian-Indian who grew up in charming Antwerp. She pursued degrees in psychology and primary teaching at Warwick University and met her husband while working in London. Now, they live in Mumbai and everyone from her two-year-old to her 88-year-old grandma teases her for always feeling cold. After moving to Mumbai, Anushi completed an introductory course on learning disabilities and ‘Yoga for the Special Child’ by Sonia Sumar and then worked as a special educator until her son was born. Moreover, she oversees a primary school in her ancestral hometown, where she focuses on raising literacy levels. Anushi discovered the power of voice when she began inventing stories about spunky Indian girls for her daughter. It is her dream that each of her stories feature masala chai. In addition to honing her craft with courses at Highlights Foundation and The Writing Barn, she is an active participant of 12×12 and Desi Kidlit, a community of writers from the Asian Diaspora. Anushi has also been selected by WeNeedDiverseBooks as one of the “sixteen creative, rising voices”. Alan Gratz is mentoring her for her MG, LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. Finally, Anushi is an interviewer at WeNeedDiverseBooks and a contributor at The Word – A Storytelling Sanctuary.