By Miriam Moore-Keish
Today we’re pleased to welcome Sadé Smith to the WNDB blog to discuss Granny’s Kitchen, illustrated by Ken Daley and out July 12, 2022!
Shelly-Ann lives with her Granny on the beautiful island of Jamaica. When Shelly-Ann becomes hungry, she asks her Granny for something to eat. Granny tells her “Gyal, you betta can cook!” and teaches Shelly-Ann how to get in touch with her Jamaican roots through the process of cooking.
As Shelly-Ann tries each recipe, everything goes wrong. But when Granny is too tired to cook one morning, Shelly-Ann will have to find the courage to try one more time and prepare the perfect Jamaican breakfast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration for Granny’s Kitchen?
So the inspiration was from my sister and my grandma. My sister always asked my grandmother for breakfast and it was like, you know, bacon-and-eggs-type of breakfast. So my grandma used to get up and go get the pan and make her breakfast. One day she decided, “You know what, I’m just going to teach you to make it yourself so you don’t have to always ask me.” I was like, “That’s a really great story idea.” Instead of bacon and eggs I wanted to use my own cultural foods, so I turned it into Jamaican breakfast foods instead.
How did you decide which foods to include?
Well usually Jamaican breakfast is ackee and saltfish and then you have breadfruit, plantain, fried dumplins. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica so I wanted to make sure I incorporated that as well. In the back of the book I do have the recipes for the foods [Shelly-Ann and Granny] are making in the story so I wanted to have something good for people to make.
So this is a book about food as culture, and it’s also a book about resilience and independence and not giving up when things don’t turn out perfectly. What else do you want readers to take away?
I want readers to take away especially the independence part. Perseverance as well, and just because you don’t get something the first time doesn’t mean it’s no good. As long as you try and put your heart into it, that’s what matters. In the end of the story, [the food] wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect to Granny because it was made with love. I want people to know, if it’s not perfect the first time, don’t worry, you’ll get it, and it’s always perfect for somebody.
Is there a particular reader that you especially want this book to reach?
Well young children, especially, because that’s when it all starts—people thinking, “Oh you have to be perfect, you have to be perfect.”
Are you a perfectionist?
Sometimes. (laughs) I do tend to like things done pretty well. I’ll keep working at it until I get it right.
Granny repeats, “gyal you betta can cook” throughout the book and it’s a fairly common phrase, from what I understand. Can you tell me more about it?
Usually in Jamaican culture, you have to know how to cook to keep the household, to please everyone, because food is such a cultural thing. Food is what brings people together. So for events you go to whoever cooks the best! (laughs) They always say you have to know how to cook, but the thing is it’s not always girls. There’s a lot of men and boys in Jamaica who cook, taught by their grandmothers, and they usually end up being better cooks!
So is it usually grandmothers that pass down food knowledge?
Yeah, usually, because a lot of people are raised by their grandmothers. The parents are always off working and then it’s the grandmothers who take care of the grandkids. That’s usually why it’s the grandmothers teaching the kids how to cook, because [the kids] are with the grandmother the majority of the time.
What do you think your grandmother will think of the book?
Well I got one copy the other day and I showed her and she was so happy. She was like, “It’s me!” Because the granny in the illustrations, she’s, like, hip. I wanted her to be a cool, hip granny, because that’s how my grandmother is. She’s not like your typical grandmother.
I remember Ken mentioning that he wanted to make Granny a “cool grandma” with locs and all her funky outfits. I was wondering how similar she was to your grandmother.
Oh yeah, very similar.
Did you guys plan that? Or was that something that organically happened? That that’s what Ken wanted and then it also happened to be really similar to your grandma…
It was actually coincidence. So whenever he drew her, and he showed me the character outline, I was like, “This is perfect. That is pretty much my grandma.”
How was it working with the illustrator Ken Daley? Did you have a hand in choosing him?
I remember seeing some artwork from him, I think it might have been on Instagram and I was like, “This is exactly the kind of art I want for my story.” Emily, the publisher, gave a few [illustrator] suggestions and I remembered the name—like “Wait a minute, is this the same person whose art I saw before?” So I looked him up and, yeah, it was. I was like, “This is a calling. This is exactly who I need.”
Ken drew Shelly-Ann with braids—how important was this to you?
Yes! That was something that I really appreciated. Because when I was younger, I always had braids, all the time. The easiest way to manage hair is putting them in braids, you know? [When] he [illustrated] Shelly-Ann with braids and little beads at the end, that’s like…me when I was a small child. He drew her very relatable to a lot of Black children, little Black girls, and especially little Black girls in Jamaica.
Are there any other parts of the illustrations that make you think, “Whoa, this is just like Jamaica?”
The scenery. The backgrounds. The house. My aunt has a house in Jamaica and I wanted it to look a bit similar. They’re usually low, like bungalow-style. So I wanted the house to look like her house. The doctor bird. It’s the national bird of Jamaica so I wanted to have that bird in a few of the illustrations.
That’s also in backmatter when you have facts about Jamaica, right? Is there anything else that was important for you to convey about Jamaica?
What are your favorite Jamaican foods?
I really love dumplins. Like fried dumplins. I can eat those all the time. Any time, any day. It’s always been my favorite, since I was a small child, especially the way my grandma makes them. My grandma told me that my mom used to love dumplins too when she was small, so I don’t know if it’s genetic or what, but they are my favorite.
Does she make them differently or is there something special that she does?
I think it’s the pot she has. They just come out so perfect in there. Sometimes I’ll eat other people’s dumplins and I’m like, “Okay, these are good,” but when my grandma makes them, they taste perfect. Maybe it’s because she’s the one who made them, too, I don’t know.
Very relevant to the book! You’re tasting the love!
So you have your second picture book coming out in spring/summer 2023, Julie and the Mango Tree. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
It’s about a little girl named Julie and she just loves mangoes. She’s trying to get mangoes, trying everything to get them off the tree, and she just can’t seem to get the mangoes. She eventually gets the mangoes but now she has too many so she’s trying to get rid of them. But she finds a perfect solution in the end. I named her Julie because there’s a mango called a Julie mango so I named her purposefully.
Was working on Julie and the Mango Tree different after going through the process with Granny’s Kitchen? Is it like a first versus a second child?
It was a lot easier, I have to say. Now I know exactly how everything works. So it was easier to write that story because I knew the sequence of events, how they should go throughout the story. Especially with illustrations, I can pick things out that were picked out in Granny’s Kitchen. I’ll send back edits like, “Can you change the color of her sandals?” or, “Can you make the mangoes more yellow?” The first time I was just like, “Oh my gosh I’m so excited,” but this time I can actually comment on things and think, “Okay, what exactly do I want here? What do I want to change a little bit?”
It’s like you’re more empowered to make changes and be present, which is, I guess, the opposite of a second child! (laughs)
My last question: Do you have any children’s books that you recommend? Any Jamaican or Caribbean ones besides your own?
When I was a kid, my mom used to buy me stories of Anansi the spider. Those I used to always love. Also, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. That was one of my favorite books ever. That one’s an African Cinderella tale by John Steptoe. Yeah, that one was always a favorite of mine.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Sadé Smith is a Canadian children’s book author of Jamaican descent. She loves to write stories that will allow your imagination to take you away. Her books often involve food and recipes for readers to enjoy along with vibrant illustrations to capture the colors of the Caribbean islands. In addition to writing, she is also a designer/technologist who practices the skilled trades and home renovations. She can swing a hammer as well as she can swing a pen. She is the author of Granny’s Kitchen and Julie and the Mango Tree.
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Miriam Moore-Keish received her B. A. in English from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and her MPhil in Education and Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK. She has written and edited books for all ages, consulted on manuscripts, taught creative writing classes, guest lectured, and engaged in general bookwormery. Miriam currently publishes children’s books at Capstone, designs anti-bias preschool curricula, and curates libraries’ children’s collections. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they don’t (but she does) sweeten their tea.