By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Today we’re thrilled to welcome JaNay Brown-Wood to the WNDB blog to discuss her passion for writing diverse and inclusive books and the extreme importance of representation—especially for young children! This year alone, she has ten books coming out. With titles including Miguel’s Community Garden, Will Mia Play it Safe, and Crayola: Follow That Line—to mention a few.
JaNay, thank you so much for your time and joining us to share your insights on the WNDB Blog.
With so many titles coming out this year alone, where do you find inspiration for each of these books?
You know, inspiration comes in different forms for me. I know that I really like nature, and being out in nature. And often that will help inspire things like poetry, because I also write poetry.
I also think that reflection helps to inspire different stories. When I think about Grandma’s Tiny House, which was my second book, it was based on my family’s Thanksgiving. My dad had 13 siblings at one point, and many of them had kids and some of their kids had kids. So we would all come together to my grandma’s house, and celebrate and be all up in each other’s space. But it was the best thing ever, you know, pre-COVID. My family was the inspiration for that book.
With my other stories, sometimes I’m just thinking about my own childhood and things that I’ve experienced, or now that I’m a mother I think about things my daughter Vivian is experiencing. In my third book, The Baby’s Asleep, that was inspired 100% by me and my husband trying to keep the space quiet. Because once you get an infant to sleep, please don’t wake them up—so that was the inspiration.
For a handful of my new titles that are coming out, they’re a combination of sometimes editors who may come to you with an idea and ask what do you think of this, and then give you sort of an idea, and then you build it and you make it your own. So some of the titles are like that.
Other inspiration just jumps into my head. Sometimes it’ll be 2 am. I’m sleeping, I wake up, and I have this idea. Luckily, now I’ve got electronics, so I’ve got this electronic notebook on my cell phone, and I’ll type it out. It’s so much better because what I used to do is, I had a written journal. That meant turn on the light while my husband’s asleep next to me, trying to jot the idea really quickly and turn the light back off. I don’t have to do that anymore. I just type it right into that electronic notebook. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, and you’re like, that’s a really great idea. And other times, you’re like, what was I talking about at 2am in the morning!
I think a bunch of different things bring inspiration. But what I would also say is: being observant. Observing the world around you children, around you how people interact with each other, and conflicts that might happen in the world. Bringing these ideas to the child’s level can be a challenge.
My background is in child development. At the child level, sometimes children might be grappling with something, and that can be great inspiration for a story. So that’s a really long answer to your question of where I get inspiration. It really is just trying to have my say, trying to have my heart, my ears and eyes open because you just never know. Hearing that one thing can then catapult you into a whole story that you know can be developed into a book and shared with readers.
Just the fact of being reflective, I think, is so important in this day and age. Reflection is such a different kind of thinking; it requires you to really look outward at your perspectives, and then be introspective as well. Then as an individual to think, “Where are these ideas coming from? Why am I thinking this way?” Just really thinking things through and then you can really get deep concepts just by sitting down and looking at something very simple. I think that’s something I sensed from your stories. They seem to have a lesson. It’s like a modern day Aesop Fable approach.
From the two books on the sunshine squad—Will Mia Play it Safe and Oliver Powers Through—Miguel’s Community Garden is different. Even the vegetables in Miguel’s Community Garden are so different. I thought you would have basic vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes, but there’s asparagus and artichokes. I thought that was so cool. It’s an introduction of different kinds of vegetables to kids.
I feel like you’re hitting on something that is a key piece of my identity. And this is why I consider myself to be JaNay Brown-Wood, author and educator, because I cannot take the educator hat off. I don’t want to. I feel like since I’m able to create and be creative in that way, it allows me to marry these two things together, but to try to do it in a way with early childhood education in mind.
I remember hearing this term, and it always stuck with me. I don’t know who coined it, but it just resonated with me, and that’s “disguised learning.” You set up spaces for children in the classroom that are so engaging based on their interests, so interesting to them, that they don’t even realize they’re learning. They don’t realize they’re supporting their physical development as they’re doing these hands-on things or supporting their cognitive development as they’re thinking through these puzzles.
When I think about my books, that’s kind of what I try to do—I try to disguise learning. In Miguel’s Community Garden, and all of the Where in the Garden books, we’re taking the children through this scavenger hunt for different kinds of produce. When I read these books to kids, they’re in it not realizing that I’m giving them characteristics of this unfamiliar produce and putting this in their mind. Maybe now your mommy and you can talk about this and you can taste this thing called an artichoke, which you may have never even heard of before. It’s helping to start to build these experiences around unfamiliar produce, that then can be incorporated into their lives but it’s that disguised learning. It’s not me saying today we’re going to learn about tomatoes. Instead, let’s help Miguel, let’s help Amara, and I think that’s what happens in a lot of my books.
Disguised learning has the opportunity to expand children’s horizons in content and background knowledge, but then to diverse experiences and helping them find mirrors like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said, you know, finding themselves in the books as mirrors but also finding others with experiences that are different than them, as sliding glass doors and windows. I’m intentional and trying to have that disguised learning, and I think that’s where reflection comes in. Reflection also comes as an educator.
Currently, I’m a professor of early childhood education, and I teach my students about reflection. I make them do reflection journals, because how can you be the best teacher, if you don’t sit back, think about yourself, think about your strengths, think about your areas of growth, think about your own biases, and then think about what the children are doing? Think about when he did that one thing, what could that mean about his/her development? What does that mean about how he understands this thing? And then you take all that reflection and you incorporate it into the curriculum, to then make that rich, educational environment. So that’s the educator part of me. That reflection, that disguised learning I get to, again, marry with the author side of me—the creative, silly, far-fetched sometimes—and then bring them together, hopefully in an effective way that engages readers and helps them learn.
As educators, we need to be reflective. As a fellow educator, I always had a reflective practice, and now I do it naturally everyday. It doesn’t turn off once it becomes a habit. I think that’s something kids should learn to do as well.
Thinking about Miguel’s Community Garden, I read that book to my son. I always do a tester to see what he would say. As I read the story he was listening very carefully, because we eat asparagus, not so much artichokes. I just find them very woody, and too much work. Sunflower seeds we’ve had, and it’s great that there’s a salad recipe at the end. We will try the recipe out soon. I felt, in Miguel’s Community Garden, there was an emphasis on inquiry and discovery.
However, what was interesting was that a week after reading the story, we were walking in our neighbourhood, and he saw some dandelions. He goes down and plucks one from the ground and says, “Is this a sunflower? It has many yellow petals, but not exactly—it’s missing the brown centre.” I just froze and I was amazed at how he picked up the style of inquiry. Real-time data collection! It was just so cool to see him pick it up.
That fills my heart up all the way up! That’s the intention. That’s what I want. You want children to be inquisitive and observant and make connections because that’s how you build that background knowledge that then can be added and that’s wonderful.
Collecting data in real time, and let’s also add in how kids don’t really have filters yet—that comes later. I have a five-year-old daughter. The Garden series, she loves it. I think she especially loves Amara because she sees herself in Amara. Amara’s a little black girl with two Afro puffs. She’s at her grandparents’ farm. She’s moving through a farm looking for pumpkins. And so my daughter just loves this book. I think she just connects to it, but then I see the same love for these other titles in the series. I feel like it resonates with kids, and I’m trying to build on that.
I actually have created—because the recipes are in the back of each of the books—I’ve also created little cooking shows tied to the recipe, and they’re called Cooking with JaNay on YouTube. I just released Miguel’s recipe last week, where we make the sunflower seed salad. I’ve been getting pictures from readers of their kids, making the things and eating them. The series has just taken on this life of its own in the most beautiful way, and I feel so fortunate to be able to do this work.
When writing your stories, do you start with the characters you would like to represent or the lessons you would like your readers to consider?
I think it varies. For Imani’s Moon, that story started off as, actually, she was a boy, and I just had imagined that he was going to jump to the moon. At each level of the tree was going to be a naysayer, that’s like, you can’t do it. It’s impossible. No, no. So it started off with this idea and this character, and when I read an early draft to my older sister, she was like, that reminds me of the Maasai people of Tanzania and Kenya. Then I went and started doing research into the Maasai people and then saw the connection, and started adding these additional elements. The theme and the idea of perseverance had always been there, but then there were other elements that came later that allowed me to develop the character, the setting, and even just some illustrations of the theme. It just helped me develop it even more. In Imani’s Moon, it was the character and idea first, and then the details came later.
Sometimes I can think of an idea of where I could see a book about this thing, and kind of play around with that idea of this thing and then the character comes later. I have some drafts working on stories now where I have the conflict, like I already know what the conflict is—what does this look like with the characters? How can that unfold?
So really it varies. Sometimes it’s the character, setting, everything, and then the lesson; other times it starts off with the theme or the lesson, and then me trying to make sure it doesn’t come off as too didactic. That’s also something I try not to do. Sometimes I’m more effective at it than other times, but I don’t want it to feel like a lecture. I want it to feel like the child is going through something, the reader is going through something with the character to help engage them.
That’s something that when I first started out writing, and I joined SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I would take workshops and they would always say don’t be didactic, don’t be didactic, you have to have a story, a narrative arc. That’s something that I took to heart, but I’ve been able to balance the narrative arc with the content knowledge with what I want to teach. It’s been a work in progress. It’s a skill that I’ve been developing, but when I talk to people who are interested in writing for children, I always go back to this idea: do not be didactic. Weave your message or lesson into the story, but you have to have a story, at least when you’re breaking it. Like once you become a big-time author, some of those rules don’t apply to you the same way. But for newbies who are really trying to develop a compelling story, making sure the narrative is there, and then weaving in the messages and the learning into it, I think is so important.
You’ve said before, “If we want to elevate our communities, literacy is key.” How have you incorporated this with your passion for writing diverse and inclusive books?
I almost want to say on a daily basis but not really on a daily basis. Because I have degrees in child development and education and some background knowledge tied to literacy, I do it in different ways. A goal that I always set for myself, and I’m still working toward, is that I can walk into any room, any space, and be able to engage any person in there around literacy and the importance of diverse books, and child development.
That means I could walk in and sit with a preschooler, read a book, engage them, and have them elaborate on it. I can talk to the parent and offer some suggestions about how to further support their child’s literacy. I can host workshops for parents, I can walk into a classroom of teachers and share my own insight, and talk about reflection and looking at our own biases and ways to make sure we’re looking at our libraries to make sure they reflect our children, but doing it in different ways. I can walk into a school board or an administrator and say, let’s talk about the materials your teachers are using. Here’s some research that shows the importance of making sure children can find themselves in books.
That’s what I’m striving for, to be able to build so much background knowledge myself, and then with concrete evidence, I can walk into any space and then help that space improve in relation to literacy, and the importance of diversity in children’s books. I’m not quite there yet. I’m getting there, I think, and it’s going to be a life-long goal, or career-long goal. So I find that I incorporate that into so much of what I do when I’m speaking to others, things like interviews, when I’m teaching students at the college level, I’m always bringing in this information, when I’m talking at conferences, and like all of those pieces come together. But like I said, I’m fortunate that not only can I share some of my own research that I’ve done, share some of my books to show you, and then share some of my experiences as someone who’s worn those different hats. That’s how it has woven into my identity.
I would say that it all started back when I was at UCLA and an undergrad class on culture, and I learned about the academic achievement gap. And being like, what—I had no idea! That was sort of an impetus, because then it was like, well, that’s not fair. What are we doing about it? The passion was already there. I always loved writing. Even though I hated reading, I always loved writing. I knew I always enjoyed children, being around children and understanding children, how to help support them. All these pieces came together as JaNay Brown-Wood, author, educator, but also scholar and advocate. It drives me every day to do this work. It feels so fulfilling.
Just as when we were talking about reflection, it’s something I can’t turn off, because it’s so important to me. As someone who hated reading, perhaps because I couldn’t find myself as a young child. So instead, I wrote my own stories with me in them. I just feel like I wanted a better world than that for my daughter, for my grandkids, and my great-grandkids, and for your son, right? And so that’s why I do this work. I keep pushing on. I just care so much about it.
It’s personal—you connect with it, you’re connected through not only your class, but your whole life experience. I’ve been following Shelley Moore’s work on inclusion. She’s acquiring her PhD, in Canada with the University of British Columbia. She does these bite size YouTube videos called Five Moore Minutes, all about inclusion. In one of her videos she talks about the evolution of inclusion. There’s exclusion, segregation, integration model then there’s inclusion. But is there going to be a better model beyond inclusion of what we understand today?
Well, perhaps it’s about creating belonging, and having a sense of unity. Because a lot of times, we are very selfish in how we see the world. But if we started seeing ourselves as a unified community, within schools, within society, it’s not just “I am this, and you’re that,” that’s important too. We all have our identities, but if we’re unified, then messages are easier to communicate, we get over those obstacles.
When you had that click happen in that class on culture in UCLA, I totally get it. You question what else can I do, and that engages learning and reflection so much. When you read the news, see what’s going on in your life, you experience it, you experience discrimination, bias, stereotypes—the story comes naturally. It becomes personal, and that’s why it becomes so much more authentic.
It’s this sense of purpose to write, because you know how important this is. When I was talking about Rudine Sims Bishop, I’m always bringing her up, because that’s her concept that she posed—mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. That idea when you’re talking about belonging, I think that is ultimately what we should be shooting for: belonging and acceptance. Because while we’re looking for mirrors, we also need the sliding glass doors, and the windows are just as important. Because when you look into someone else’s experience, yeah, you can pinpoint things that feel different. “Oh, you do that in your home? I don’t.” But you can also find things that are commonalities and say, “You do that! I did that too!”
I think about Grandma’s Tiny House. There was someone I shared the book with, and this person is not African American, she does not share the same ethnic or racial background as me. But she looked at that book, like, oh my gosh, we do that at my grandma’s house, too. We all do it. It’s just like this. But instead, we bring this food. Talk about that connecting point that we just made, and how that can be conversations with young children. Alright, well, we talked about some of these differences, but what are some things that are similar? Also, you all do those things? And that’s going toward that belonging and acceptance, just like you were saying, and to me, that’s going to help build compassion. Because oh boy, do we need more compassion in this world Especially when it comes to our differences!
Absolutely. As a fellow educator, as I read your books Will Mia Play it Safe and Oliver Powers Through, I found the Sunshine Squad that lives on 123 Sunshine Street felt familiar.
Do your students inspire you to write about their diverse narratives?
Because my students are all adults, since it’s college-level—not as much. When I’m teaching college class, we have our student learning outcomes, and these are things we need to hit on. So even though I tried to set up my classroom to be hands-on learning, all that is often tied to whatever concepts we’re hitting on. So I don’t get that same inspiration from my adult students—I mean, no offense to them—as I do when I’m around actual children. Oh yes, you just listen to how they interact with each other the way they say things.
Personally, going back to what you said before about authenticity, two things. One, when I talked about diverse books, and the importance of it, I also tried to add in that piece of authenticity, because you can have a diverse book with a character of color, but it can be sort of generic. So I think the idea of authenticity is incredibly important. And also just a reminder that even within certain groups, there’s heterogeneity in those groups too, right? We’re not a monolith; there’s heterogeneity there too. So when you’re around children, when you’re writing, you really have to become a scientist. You become an observer, so that you’re listening to, for example, speech patterns in eight-year-olds. If you’re trying to write an eight-year-old protagonist, you need to listen to eight-year-olds, because that’s where the authenticity comes from. So when I’m around, children, yes. I get more content, I get more sort of authentic voices to think about that then can translate onto the page, and hopefully I do it in a more authentic way.
That’s actually some advice that I give budding authors. When I’m looking at someone’s manuscript, I’m paying attention to the language as well. If you have a three-year-old who’s got these long, complex sentences, I’m gonna say, “That doesn’t sound like a three-year-old.” That goes back to, you need to go listen to three-year-olds so you can have a better idea of what a three-year-old sounds like. So that piece of authenticity, I think, is incredibly important.
Because of COVID, we haven’t had a chance to do in-person classroom visits in a while. So I assume that once I get to be back in that early childhood education space with these young people all over engaging in high quality environments, I’m pretty sure that there are some inspirations that are going to emerge from that.
You mentioned Rudine Sims Bishop earlier. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) once stated, “Children need books that are mirrors that allow them to see themselves and their own experiences, windows that they look through to see other worlds that they can then compare to their own, and sliding glass doors that allow them to enter other worlds.”
How do your books create windows, mirrors, and sliding doors that foster affirmation and empathy?
That’s a goal of mine, to have my books be those things. I’ll start with mirrors. As I said, when I was younger, I did not find very many books that reminded me of me. There were some that had Black characters—not a bunch, there were a few. Some of those books I could kind of connect with, but some of them were themes and things that still don’t connect with me. I found that I’m not much of a fan of history and civil rights or slavery, or that kind of stuff—just never really spoke to me. I feel a nice amount of those kinds of books were ones that might have featured Black characters, but that didn’t resonate with me.
In my work, I try to capture what I call, I didn’t coin this term I first heard of from my editor at Charlesbridge—she called it casual diversity. I like that term, casual diversity. When I think of that, I think of it as a kid in America, just being a kid who happens to be Black. So the focus of the content isn’t the blackness, it’s just the kid who happens to be Black. That is often what I write as mirrors, just American children being American children, who are African American.
In my books like Grandma’s Tiny House, Thanksgiving, all of us coming together, yeah, we’re bringing in ethnic foods, but that’s because that’s what we ate at my grandma’s house. So that’s a direct mirror to me, and all the people in my family. In Shh the Baby’s Asleep—any kid who had a new sibling come into the house probably at some point was told, “Shh, the baby is asleep! Please don’t wake him up!” In my books I try to just use casual Black characters living their lives. They’re mirrors in that way, without highlighting their blackness.
Then the windows and sliding glass doors, they still also allow others who might not share that exact African American experience a glimpse into it. And again, that glimpse could show, hey, it’s very similar to my life, which can start to build, like you said, that belonging and compassion.
Another piece that I think is so important: so often, in the media and around us, there’s anti-blackness. There are these narratives about African American people and Black people, there are stereotypes, there are all these biases. So if this is what you know of the African American community, I try to provide examples of no, that’s not our whole story. Yeah, maybe some pieces of it, but that’s not our whole story. This is also our story: Black joy, family, working together, problem-solving, camaraderie. Again, going back to this idea of building compassion, providing other narratives.
The problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true but they are incomplete—they make the one story the only story. The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of their dignity, make equal humanity difficult, and emphasizes our differences rather than our similarities.
I think that’s also what I’ve tried to provide. These other stories that push back on narratives that we’re so used to hearing about the African American community. And again, I feel like I do these things with this idea of we are so nuanced, we have so much beauty and strength, and assets within our community. We are not those stereotypes. We are not those biases. So I want my books to also show the nuances that exist within the African American community. Do my books capture every African American experience? No. But I think that it captures enough in it, again, to provide this other narrative that readers can pick up and then begin to develop some compassion, and my hope is to decrease some of the anti-Black bias that exists in society.
Going back to what you said, it’s personal. It is personal. Because I just think, if we can build that compassion for the African American community early in these young children’s books—think about in the future, once they become whatever they’re going to become, how powerful that will be in interactions among different groups. The majority of my books feature African American characters, but not all of them. I do plan to write characters from different backgrounds as well. At the same time being kind of centered on blackness in America, but casually.
You’ve mentioned that as a child you created stories where the characters were like you, and you even included yourself as Detective JaNay. What advice would you give yourself after years of being a creative writer?
I love that question, because it goes back to Imani’s Moon. When I wrote that book, it actually took eight years from the idea to actually holding the published book in my hand. And through those eight years, it was filled with so many no’s, no, no, no, no, no, no, lots of revision, even more no’s. So it was such a challenging time because you get so many no’s that you start to second guess, like, is it me? Maybe it’s the story. But what ended up happening once I got through that is I realized the parallels between Imani’s story and my journey as an author, and how each of those no’s was a step forward.
Imani sets off on this impossible task. First of all, she’s the youngest and smallest girl in her village. She’s teased by the other village children. She’s got this uplifting mother who tells her stories seeped in African mythology that are uplifting, till she sets this impossible task to reach the moon. And she tries these different ways and she fails and fails. There are always some animal at different levels of her journey that are saying, you’ll never make it, it’s impossible, and to give up, but she doesn’t give up. She fails, tries something new—fails. And finally she succeeds. She makes it to the moon. She meets the moon goddess, who gives her a tiny moon rock as a token—a gift for you, Imani the great. And then she comes back to Earth and shares the story with Mama, who is someone who always shared these stories with her.
I feel that there is a parallel to my story as an author. Each of those animals on each level felt like each of those editors on the level that would say, “No thanks.” Until I finally made it and got there. I bring that up to say what I would tell my past self: do not give up. Persevere. It’s gonna be hard. You’re gonna take punches from every side. Believe in yourself and believe in your work and your abilities. You can get there. I remember during those eight years when Imani’s Moon hadn’t been published, and I’d been working on it. People would say, “Just self-publish. Try self-publishing, just do that.” But I wanted more. I’m so glad that I did, because now you know, Imani’s Moon got published, and got an award through a contest, that I actually got the publication. Then I started working with a wonderful editor. I was like, I have another story, it’s called Grandma’s Tiny House, and she took that one. Oh I have another one, it’s called Shh the Baby’s Asleep, and she took that one. Now with that editor, I think she and I are going on book 10 together—just with her and me. So it can happen. It’s hard, but you take those lessons and you take those no’s as trophies and as indicators that you’re living and you’re doing it. But don’t stop, keep persevering. That is what I would tell myself.
At what point in your writing career did you realise that words have power?
I kind of always knew that words have power. I’m gonna go back to when I was in elementary school. I was probably in third or fourth grade. This speaks to how it’s stuck with me decades later that I’m bringing this up. I remember this white male student who wasn’t in my class, but he was in my grade. When he saw me on the playground, he would say, “Go back to Africa! Go back to Africa!” That’s the sort of thing he would say. And I remember that feeling. It was just words—he never touched me or ever did anything like that, but those words cut so deep, especially for a young child who was born here. “What do you even mean? I was born here.”
Early on, I knew words had power. Whether or not my words had power, though, I think that might have come a little later, when I had the chance to start writing my own stories, and writing my own poetry. And you get a response from someone when you read something, they’re laughing, or they’re really into what you’re sharing. And so I think that’s when I started to realize that not only do words have power but my words can have power. Also, they can have power across contexts. My words can have power with young children, but they can have power with educators and researchers for some research I do. And they can have power, if I need to get in front of a school board and talk about not banning books. This is why you know, so it’s almost like owning it.
Have you ever heard—this is so cliché—when people say, like, “What’s your superpower?” And I never really thought about that as much, but I think words are my superpower. I’m still learning how to hone them. So early on, I knew words had power. Later is when I developed the idea that my words have power, and now I really feel like not only do they have power: they’re my superpower.
What does literary success look like to you?
I don’t know. Because I’ve been so fortunate in this career so far, and I still feel like I’m still kind of early in it. Winning that award that got the publication for Imani’s Moon—I was like wow. and then getting the next contract—wow. Just for 2022, I have books out, and some other things that are in the works that haven’t been announced yet, but I think it might actually be 11 books coming out this year. Wow. Then, you know, to work with a celebrity couple like Russell and Ciara Wilson, and working with them on Why Not You? was like wow, but then, for it to be a New York Times bestseller? I don’t know. I don’t know what literary success means or what it looks like for me.
I think there’s actually a line in the book, Why Not You? Ciara and Russell wrote with me. It says something like, “Ever heard the sky’s the limit? Well, that simply is not true. Go beyond it! Keep on pushing! You can break that ceiling too.” I bring that up to just say, I don’t know if I want to put a definition on or a concrete idea of what literary success is. Because there’s the sky and beyond; there is no limit. It can be anything. So I almost want to just keep striving and striving and trying to do my best work to see what it will be and what it ends up being for me.
You have potentially 11 books coming out this year—2022—in total. Imani’s Moon took eight years from idea to having the book in your hand. What is your revision process like? How has it changed? Are you coming up with new stories faster, or are these stories that you’ve had already?
They vary. Some are like little nuggets that have been in my mind from years ago. Others just come up. There’s one that I’m super excited about called Jam, Too? It’s going to be published by Nancy Paulsen books, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House. And I remember that one, because my husband and I went on a little mini vacation to the beach. I was in a hotel room and I had woken up, and they were playing those vacation commercials on loop, “Check out this and you can be here.” And I’m just sort of absentmindedly watching this as I’m trying to go back to sleep. This idea jumped in my head, and I typed it out on my little notebook. And then boom, boom, boom, it just came and came and came, and then I had the manuscript.
The revision process for me is to read through it, especially when it’s poetry—listen, read it aloud, check the rhythm, do all of those pieces. Set it aside for a moment, come back to it, and do it again. And that one I feel was the fewest revisions I really ever had to do, because it just came so naturally, versus something like Imani Moon. We must have gone through—without the editor, by itself—probably 15- to maybe 25-plus revisions. Then with the editor, probably 10-plus revisions. Then, when the illustrations are added, you go through even more revisions. So I don’t think that my revision process has changed much. I think it’s still, you get it out however it comes out, read it, read it aloud, set it aside, read it some more, tweak it, think about some other thing, do additional research on, and then hand it over to the editor and engage in that interaction with them. So I think my revision process has stayed pretty similar.
But the inspiration piece, like I said, that varies. Jam, Too? came right away. With others, I had this idea, or wrote something down, come back months later—ooh, write something a little bit more, come back months later. Ooh. Or take something that I had written initially. I have another book that’s like this, Tino. I had written it a certain way, like a poem initially, and then I was like, no, no, it needs to be like this. Time completely revamped it, and now it’s going to be coming out. It’s just really this varied process. Except for the beach vacation piece, I feel like it’s pretty consistent.
You mentioned that growing up, you didn’t like reading books, but you really enjoyed writing. What were some of your favourite books growing up?
I did not like reading books, but I liked being read to. I always loved being read to. As a matter of fact, there was a book that my teacher read that I really liked called Maniac Magee. But perhaps one of the reasons why it ended up being one of my favorites was that she read it aloud. She read the whole book aloud to us. My dad at bedtime, we had stories. He was always reading Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. So I would say, for me, my favorite books as a young kid tended to be picture books, which made sense because these are ones that you engage in read-alouds.
I can’t really off the top of my head think of very many novels that were like, oh my gosh, I love this. Maniac Magee, and The Giver. I think those are the only two that really spoke to me like that. But now as an adult, and who writes and reads, you know, part of my job as a writer is to read as much as I can. There’s a handful of books that I do really enjoy, and that’s young adult and middle grade as well. I just loved The Hate You Give, but I think part of the reason I love this book is that I saw pieces of me in that book. We talked about children needing to find themselves, but think about how you feel as an adult. When you read a book and you’re like, oh my gosh, that is like exactly how it happens in my family. Even now as adults, you get excited about it. You have an emotional response. So I think yeah, The Hate You Give and Children of Blood and Bone. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is probably one of my favorite novels by Grace Lin. I didn’t have that book as a young kid. I found that as an adult. So I would say my favorite books as a kid were Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
Can you just think about that? Think about how many missed opportunities that could be for kids. For me, my dad was not going to allow me to not read. Even though I hated it, I was gonna be reading. He went to UCLA so he knew what it takes or what it took to navigate the educational system to get to that university, and to have your life take off from there. He knew what it took. So he wasn’t gonna just sit back and not engage and improve my literacy skills. But think about all the other children who don’t necessarily have that same resource, such as a father who had to navigate it himself. All of the lost potential, perhaps because they couldn’t find a book that interested them, because they couldn’t find themselves. They were looking for themselves to be validated and to be affirmed, and couldn’t find it. That’s why we’re here. For those reasons!
Thank you so much, JaNay, for sharing your insights. One last question: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of WNDB?
Intentionality is so important.
Intentionality, I think, across the board from whomever is coming at this work with We Need Diverse Books, whether it’s teachers who are looking for authentic books, being intentional, and looking at your children, considering their experiences, and then being intentional in the materials you use. Same thing for us as authors being intentional, really thinking deeply about the stories we want to tell in the messages we want to send. That intentionality for administrators who are looking at their outcomes of the schools and what are the things you’re doing to really help your children feel seen and be represented. So I think that intentionality across the board is so important for all of us. And that reflection piece is so important for all of us. And so incorporating some practices in your life that allow for you to do that is, in my opinion, only going to be better for children for future generations. So don’t give up hope. Children’s literature is slow going as far as diversity, but it’s happening. If you look at the CCBC statistics, it’s slow going, but it’s happening. Including that reflection and intentionality when it comes to getting those books into kids hands, because they deserve it.
JaNay Brown-Wood grew up with a passion for writing and drafted her first series of unpublished picture books in the second grade. After earning a BA of Psychology UCLA, an MA of Child Development from CSU Sacramento, and a PhD of Education from UC Davis, JaNay still loves storytelling! Her first book, Imani’s Moon, was a NAESP Children’s Book of the Year and a Reading is Fundamental Multicultural Book Pick. She lives with her family in California.
Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi is an international educator who is passionate about inclusive education. She has taught various age groups from primary all the way up to Grade 12. She is a trained teacher in Special Education, English as an Additional Language, Geography, Science, and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Teacher. Yasmine strives to advocate for inclusive practices, promotes and supports diversity, and speaks up for injustices no matter how small they may be. She’s a Canadian at heart, born in London, England, but a global traveler who has lived in the Middle East and the US. She currently resides in Switzerland.