By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Abdul’s Story, illustrated by Tiffany Rose and out today, March 29, 2022!
A little boy who loves storytelling but struggles with writing learns that it’s okay to make mistakes in this charming and encouraging picture book from the author of Mommy’s Khimar.
Abdul loves to tell stories. But writing them down is hard. His letters refuse to stay straight and face the right way. And despite all his attempts, his papers often wind up with more eraser smudges than actual words. Abdul decides his stories just aren’t meant to be written down…until a special visitor comes to class and shows Abdul that even the best writers—and superheroes—make mistakes.
Tell me a little about your new book Abdul’s Story. What can readers expect? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Abdul is a boy who is a natural storyteller. Orally, he tells compelling stories about his neighborhood. However, Abdul is also someone who struggles with the mechanics of writing. He is ashamed of his handwriting and spelling mistakes and sometimes he flips his letters. In writing class each day, he doesn’t feel empowered to write the stories he has to tell. In fact, he doesn’t think there’s a place for his stories in his classroom, and his writing struggles just contribute to that lack of motivation. His perspective changes when a writer very similar to Abdul visits the class.
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this book? How did you pick Philadelphia for the setting?
The inspiration for the book came from my work at Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia-based community program that offers free writing programs to youth. I taught writing programs there to children and teens of all ages. One day I was working with a reluctant six-year-old who told me, “I’m not a writer, not like them,” them, meaning the other kids at his table who were writing line after neat line of words in their notebooks. His words didn’t stay on lines, and he was struggling with spelling. It troubled me that a child so young could be convinced already that he wasn’t a writer. I had to encourage him to focus less on his mistakes and the way he was writing and to focus more on the story he had to tell. Seeing him produce a story was a meaningful experience for both of us.
Who was your favorite character to write about? What is your favorite line that they say or action that they do?
Mr. Muhammad is definitely kind of a proxy for me. The messy notebook that he shows is all me, and I loved showing that aspect of being a writer. More than that, the fond memories he recounts in his own story were memories I have from growing up.
Do you see yourself represented through your characters and the storyline? How?
Obviously from what I said earlier, Mr. Muhammad is a clear representation. In the other characters in this particular story, I feel like I represented the kids I know and love more than me. These are the kinds of children I’ve worked with in my community. And Abdul is very similar to my sons in multiple ways, from appearance to love of storytelling and even in some of their challenges with school.
Sometimes music can be a great outlet for our feelings. What songs (or genre of music) would Abdul have on his playlists?
Well, he’s only 7, so I’m thinking his parents are strongly limiting his song choices! However, he definitely loves superhero theme songs, and I’m sure he’s a Miles Morales stan. He probably gets amped up whenever the “I’m Ready” Spider-man theme plays. At family get-togethers when the grownups are playing old school jams, he’s rocking out to Will Smith’s and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s “Summertime” since he has such a love for Philly neighborhoods.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
I don’t know that I have a favorite part so much as I have a favorite feeling. At this point, I now know that it’s possible for me to be miserable during every phase of the writing process. But I also know that it’s possible for me to feel this special feeling at every stage too. It’s hard to describe but my favorite feeling is when the ideas or words just flow, and I feel a crazy energy. This can happen during brainstorming, drafting, or even revision. Inspiration takes over and I remember why I love writing so much.
What did you edit out of this book?
I actually have to go and look back at older drafts to answer this one because I don’t remember. And looking back… I see I wrote the first draft of this story back in 2018, which is probably why! I can see that I had the kids getting lost in Abdul’s stories and daydreams a lot although it’s not clear what those daydreams are about. It had a very airy vibe—even more so than now. It looks like none of the stuff about Abdul’s or Mr. Muhammad’s neighborhoods are in there. It seems I decided to make it less airy and ground it in what I know. I’m so glad I did that! Thanks for asking this question. It was fun looking back at my process.
We know that representation in books/media matters. What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
Use the same quote I use as a mantra. Remind yourself of it again and again and make it your mission to fulfill it. It comes from the late Toni Morrison:
“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”
You are what’s central in your story. Tell your story from your center. Claim it as central. Claim you, your experiences, your truth, all of it as central. Stand firm in your center and let the rest of the world meet you there.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
I want to give some shine to new authors who haven’t debuted yet. I read their upcoming book descriptions and I’m geeked out that we will have these books. These people include Alyssa Reynoso-Morris, Autumn Allen, Omar Abed, Pamela Courtney, and although she has already self-published two books very successfully, Rahma Rodaah, who will have a traditional debut soon.
If you could have your dream panel promoting Abdul’s Story, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
This panel would be about kids feeling disconnected from literacy in their schools and libraries. Tiffany Rose, the illustrator of Abdul’s Story also author-illustrated Dear Reader: A Love Letter to Libraries about a girl who is an avid reader but can’t find books with characters that look like her except in stories of pain. So, she would be important to this panel. My Very Favorite Picture Book in the Whole Wide World tells the story of a character who hates to read. Its author Malcolm Mitchell would be a good voice to add.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
I’m looking forward to releasing another picture book this year. Hold Them Close: A Love Letter to Black Children (Harper, October 2022) is a poem that celebrates Black joy while also helping our children to better understand and process Black pain. I hope this is a healing book and a triumphant book.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a Philadelphia-based educator and award-winning children’s book author. Her books, which center young Black Muslims, include Mommy’s Khimar and Your Name is a Song, an Irma Black Award Honor book. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.