By Thushanthi Ponweera
Today we’re pleased to welcome Darshana Khiani and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book How to Wear a Sari, out June 22, 2021!
Sparkling with voice and charm, this picture book about a fashionable kid out to prove she’s not as small as everyone thinks is perfect for kids eager to grow up, and for those who love to play dress-up.
Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying.
When a little girl tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . .
. . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself.
Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!
What childhood experiences and memories did you both draw from when creating this book?
Darshana: I wasn’t curious about wearing a sari when I was a child, since I was a rough and tumble kid who wanted to have the flexibility to run. I preferred wearing lenghas or a salwar kameez. However, as soon as I was old enough to wear a sari, I wanted to. Sari draping is a skill that I have yet to master (it still takes me almost an hour to drape my sari and even then, I’ll ask an aunty or a friend to fix it for me!). It was these sari draping challenges and the memory of my daughters stomping around in my high-heeled shoes that got me wanting to explore that experience through the eyes of a young girl.
Joanne: For the first nine years of my childhood, I lived in Malaysia. The majority of the Malaysian population are a mix of Malays, Indians, and Chinese, and they wear saris every day for work, celebrations, and even at home, although the design and fabric of the sari would differ based on the occasion. During Diwali, my family and I would visit our friends and neighbors to celebrate with them and I remember being dazzled by all the beautiful saris. So I had many visual memories to draw from.
How important do you think it is to preserve cultural traditions in a child’s life when growing up outside of the country that they originate from?
Darshana: I think it’s important for a child to know where they’ve come from as well as their family’s history. Cultural traditions can give children a sense of belonging to a community. However, I also think it’s an individual’s choice as to how much of the culture to carry forward and in what way.
Joanne: I believe it’s very important for everyone since much of it is lost when we are all trying to blend and fit into a new society or a new country. My parents moved to California when I was nine but eventually moved back again to Asia while my sister and I stayed back. During that time, I was in survival mode and rarely thought much about where I was from. There wasn’t anyone to share any Chinese and Malaysian traditions and culture with me either. This meant I didn’t feel as connected to my heritage, although I was constantly reminded that I was Asian and different, which led to a constant internal struggle about my identity and who I was.
Some ways to be in touch with your roots as a child growing up in a foreign country is through community support, and of course, books. This particular book means a lot to me as it shows children the positive aspects of their heritage and how it helps form their identity.
Darshana, as a debut author who only started pursuing her passion to write after a long hiatus, what advice do you have for others who may be sitting at a desk but longing to do the same?
I never thought about writing as a career until my mid-thirties. As a child, I loved creative writing, but it was more of the bright spot in English class which was my hardest subject. I didn’t write much outside of class.
My advice for people who are wondering whether to take the plunge: just do it. You might write a short story for yourself, a novel, a poem, or even a joke- you’re already a writer. Writing as a career is a self-driven and highly creative profession and it takes lots and lots of practice so you might as well get started. I’ll be waiting on the sidelines to read your work!
Joanne, as an award-winning illustrator of over fifty books, what career wisdom have you gained that you would like to share with other artists?
Putting yourself out there as an illustrator, you will receive criticism no matter what. Not all publishers are going to be crazy about your work. Some may even question whether you should be an illustrator based on their individual preferences. Being able to receive criticism without letting it discourage you from your path is vital. You also need to have faith in your ability. This way, you won’t over-compromise when you are doing the work because then you will not enjoy the process of making the book.
Know that illustrating books is only a small part of being a professional illustrator. You also need to work smart, communicate, negotiate, do your research, network, follow up with publishers, and develop your own unique style. This will all help you differentiate yourself from other talented artists and dictate your success in the publishing industry.
Finally, take time off to enjoying your life and travel. Some of the best ideas come from a rested mind and body.
What are your recommendations for published (or forthcoming) picture books?
Darshana: I love books where I get to learn something new or books that make me laugh. If they can do both, even better! Some of my recent favorite reads are In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel, Your Mama by Nonieqa Ramos, I Talk Like A River by Jordan Scott, and Too Many Birds by Cindy Derby. I’m always impressed by writers who can achieve something that I haven’t able to yet. On that note keep a lookout for Amah Faraway (Winter 2022) by my talented friend and critique partner, Margaret Greanias. It was written in reverso poem format and is unconventional and amazing. I cannot wait to see it published.
Joanne: A book I illustrated that was just published, What’s Inside Your Backpack? by Jessica Sinarski for the National Center for Youth Issues, is one that I wished I had when I was younger. I’m really looking forward to a chapter book series I’m illustrating, the Make Way For Fenway series written by Victoria J. Coe (Spring 2022). I also love Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued by Peter Sís, and We Wait for the Sun by Katie McCabe and Raissa Figueroa.
What do you hope to convey to your readers through your words and art?
Darshana: That’s a great question. I would like my stories to honor the curiosities and experiences of children, whether it is their desires such as wanting to be seen as ‘older’ in How To Wear A Sari to pondering questions about what it means to be American in my forthcoming picture book I’m An American (Summer 2023).
Joanne: One of my main goals as an artist is to create an environment for children to be themselves and express themselves without fear of judgment. Having representation in my illustrations is very important to me. I always use a diverse range of characters (Brave, Beautiful, and Love written by Stacy McAnulty, You Will Find Me by Amanda Rawson Hill, Too Sticky by Jen Malia, I See You by Michael Genhart, PHD), and dismissing gender norms (Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty, the Hilde Cracks The Case series by Hilde Lysiak & Matthew Lysiak). I hope it plays a part in them growing up to be empathetic and understanding humans.