By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome the Alphabet Rockers (Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shephard) and Ashley Evans to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book You Are Not Alone, out January 11, 2022! We previously revealed the cover here.
This empathetic and inclusive picture book empowers kids to love themselves and their identities, stand up to hate, and have each others’ backs no matter what.
When I say something is unfair to me, but it’s fair for you, what does that make it?
When I meditate, it all gets clear.
And if you listen, you will really hear.
I am not alone. I am enough.
It can be scary to feel like you’re all on your own, especially in the face of prejudice. But always remember: you are not alone! Based on the Grammy award nominated hip-hop group Alphabet Rockers’ empowering song, Not Alone, this uplifting picture book reminds kids that they always belong. Encouraging words invite readers to love their beautiful selves, celebrate their identities, and use their voices against hate, You Are Not Alone asks us to step up for each other and have each others’ backs, no matter what.
Tell me a little about your new book, You Are Not Alone. What inspired you to write it? What can readers expect?
Kaitlin McGaw: We know the power that a story can have in a child’s life, just like a song. A child can feel understood, and make connections with a narrator in a way that helps them show up in the world. We’ve never had the opportunity to story-tell in this special way—to not just be the song you hear in the kitchen or in your circle time at school, but in the pages of a book that a family holds to unpack the day, or in a teacher or community member reading to bring us together.
Tommy Soulati Shepherd: We wanted to bring the world that we create in our music into the pages of the book. We wanted every family to feel connected, that someone else has their back. That even if it’s not their individual story, they can see a connection between what another child might be holding. And what we’re really excited about in You Are Not Alone is how adults can witness the brilliance of their children as they read this book together.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
TOMMY: Readers are going to start to really understand levels of empathy. When you get through the whole book, you’re gonna start to notice where you fit in, as far as how you are contributing or taking away from someone else’s experience. I hope readers take away a sense of confidence that they can actually, through micro actions, make some change that moves us forward. A lot of people feel like it’s gotta be big actions and big things all the time, but I think these tiny little things, these tiny actions matter to the culture. They build hope. They bridge understanding.
KAITLIN: We love imagining “You Are Not Alone” in the hands of readers, knowing that each pair or group of readers are truly going to have unique experiences. The connection between a reader, a book, and a listener is like a triangle—and every anchor point has power, imagination, and real-life experience to address. We wanted our book to be one where you could find a part of your lived experience and how you feel as a reader or listener. So a child might read it with a grandparent and have a different connection than when shared with their parent, because it’s not a finite story. So when you explore saying someone’s name correctly, it might be your story (like it is for my family)—and you feel it and you understand it and your parent understands it, and then you make a connection from the previous pages where we’re talking about racial profiling, which may not be your experience but that of your cousins. These connections help us intergenerationally to examine oppression. But you have to hold space for the connection—that it is your experience, too. Readers can trust that every page of this book will expand how we connect. We’re bringing as many stars into your home for you to light your path together.
Each character faces a different real-world problem. How did you decide what issues to cover in your book and what issues to leave out?
TOMMY: Everything that we write about comes from our music, and with our music, we work with our community to try to understand what they need. We want to know what topics they are holding in their families that they need to hear reflected in music or in the pages of a story. The characters are inspired from the experiences we’ve had with our audiences, addressing what they are going through—the book is like a culmination of all these interviews and people that we’ve spoken to around the country, and stories we’ve heard. Writing about how we hold each other up is how we show love and uplift our community.
What did you edit out of this book?
KAITLIN: The book reflects the song title, You Are Not Alone, and rather than reprint the lyrics of the song, we allowed the experience of the song to broaden to hold more stories, stories that we have held across our musical catalogue. It feels like an editing because every song we have created reflects a question of the world held with our audience, and each song holds many individual moments. We were able to reflect several of the moments from our musical journey into the story.
TOMMY: We write about racial justice and belonging, and we started this book as the world stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In this book, we edit out the anger, the wanting to hold a grudge, the “eye for an eye” feelings. We don’t want anger to be the lead character—so we turn it over on itself and let the text come from a more positive space. In that way we also edit our adult voices out of it—but we’re not trying to mute how we feel, in no way shape or form.
None of the characters are given a name, why did you make this choice?
TOMMY: By not giving the characters names, any of these characters could be YOU.
KAITLIN: Yea, and what’s possible when a reader gets closer to a character or sees themselves in a character—with your imagination creating names, are you weaving your own fabric of empathy?
TOMMY: Plus, there’s a character in the book that says that people have trouble pronouncing their name, and technically, I feel like for us to have put that name in the book gives a reader the chance to mispronounce it too! So if we don’t name that one person, we don’t name anyone. There is an element of fairness and equity to it.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
KAITLIN: We are super lucky in that we are collaborative writing partners, and we remain curious about how and what we can create as one voice. When we write stories, it’s just as musical—and I love this moment the most—when one of us has the brave moment of inspiration to “throw paint on the wall” and invites the other into the call and response, or even to use that “paint” to create something totally new. From these gifts of spirit and text and rhythm and knowledge, we write something that takes us to another place—a place we want to be! It’s in this inspiration when we feel all of the trust that we’ve been given from our audience, and we do right by them.
TOMMY: I like finishing a draft and getting feedback from the team, almost as much as sharing it with our fans. So when other people see it and they see it the way we intended it, that’s when it becomes real, like when all of our hearts are on the page, and our ideas become real. And just like a song, a book becomes a being in the world once you’ve read it and shared it with someone.
What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?
TOMMY: The last section of the book was challenging—likely just because it was the ending and we were still getting to know the story. I remember a moment where it felt hard to make the arc get to where we got it to… and I remember us actually taking a step back to breathe and process. And we realized we could share just that with the readers—(it’s actually in the book to take a breath)—which helped crack it open for us to finish the book.
What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters with diverse lives and identities?
TOMMY: Be authentic. Actually learn about the identities and cultures you wanna write about.
KAITLIN: Yes—with all the complexities. Like knowing desires and cravings, struggles and inspirations, daily lives and future thinking and letting those exist within the important work of authentic storytelling. Of course, I’m coming from my lived experience here, which in another conversation we can unpack—of understanding my own history (how my Irish, Scottish settlers became white), cultures and way of being in the world. At a young age I depended on diverse voices, specifically from our dynamic Black literary traditions, to inform me about the world I was born into. So here’s really what it is: listening. Decentering. My process of my childhood is not the center of the work we do for our readers—that is work is for me to do to be able to show up for the conversation.
We need to know the fabric of how our communities came to be—not just storybooks with diverse casting. My husband and I will be reading a sweet story with diverse kids on a school playground, and start wondering about the segregation histories in this make-believe town—asking, “How did these kids all get there?” And “are the teachers meeting their needs? do they see their histories in the books in their classroom?” And I know the publishing world is graced particularly right now with so many fabulous BIPOC writers telling authentic stories. So really, we need to support getting our storytellers published—in all the ways, styles and narratives that writers see fit.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
KAITLIN: I am a lover of voice, of narrative, of poem and rhythm—and of imagination, playfulness and radical futures. I’m going to include a snapshot of some of the books we are reading at my house right now to our 2- and 5-year-old, which range from simple board books (Hello, Friend/Hola Amigo by 123 Andres; Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka), to picture books (What Makes a Baby, A Thousand No’s, Tar Beach, All the Way to the Top, Breathing Makes it Better, Malala’s Magic Pencil), and early readers (we LOVE the Yasmin series by Saadia Faruqi). My personal favorite books of last year were Punching the Air (Ibi Zaboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam), The Purpose of Power (Alicia Garza), and One Last Stop (Casey McQuiston). Oh gosh, now I’ve chosen without illuminating just a few of the YA books that I devour, like Starfish (Lisa Fipps), I’m Not Dying with You Tonight (Kimberly Jones, Gilly Segal), Yesterday Is History (Kosoko Jackson). Special shine on Kimberly Latrice Jones and Gilly Segal—I loved witnessing another co-authored space. I’m currently living in Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning from Cathy Park Hong—and in general how I feel about great books is that I get to be a guest in an artist’s mind, heart and world. I give thanks everyday for artists’ vulnerability and vision.
If you could have your dream panel promoting You Are Not Alone, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
TOMMY: You Are Not Alone panel would consist of folks really ready to make moves—the dream panel would be the queer CEO of the Boys &…Club, moderated by a youth activist/advocate for the foster care system. Folks going hard on food security, climate control, cultural power and sustainable solutions from the most equitable lens. That’s what it would look like…
What it would BE is all these leaders coming together to form a super band working on their hit single “Action Step”, in real time-real life and literal space of change-making. I’d wanna see that panel discussion.
KAITLIN: Tommy, you’re always inspiring me! For me, a dream panel of writers would have to feature Nikki Giovanni—who inspired me as a writer and poet as a young woman. And this panel is gonna be about the beloved community and will build spaces for this radical connection and love. The panel would be in a circle, so that folks in the room know they are just as valuable as those with the mic. And the panel itself would inspire folks to take their pen to page, or voice to text, or paintbrush to canvas to share their story.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
TOMMY: I want you to ask me, “How much do I need, honestly?” And I want to tell you more than you think.
KAITLIN: I’m always seeking questions that shift to hold the moment we are sharing versus questions that serve a moment from the past, a moment that trends, or a moment of validation. I want to be human with you. And I want the conversation to last even in our memory of it. Right now I would want to ask you, “Where are you finding your magic right now?”
How and why did you decide to pursue illustration as your career?
Ashley Evans: My decision to pursue illustration came from a combination of the fact that I’ve drawn all my life and vaguely had ideas about being an artist professionally as well as the fact that I was unhappy with every single job I’ve ever had. The fact that I’m very introverted as well as shy made working 8-10 hours in public facing roles very taxing for me and illustration offered me a chance to work more behind the scenes.
Do you have a favorite picture book?
Yes! I have quite a few actually, but the one that has held my heart since I was a child is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
What was it like to collaborate with Alphabet Rockers on this book?
Collaborating with the Alphabet Rockers was really great. They were so excited about this project and very open to sharing ideas so it was wonderful hearing their vision for the book and working together to bring it to life.
Describe your working technique and process and how you came to perfect it.
My working technique is all digital these days. There’s usually a lot of research and initial sketching to decide on the right feel for a project. I’m not sure if I would consider my technique perfected though because I feel like with each project I have to approach things differently and it feels a bit like learning to draw all over again!
How do you overcome a creative block?
Most of the time I just have to push through it. When that doesn’t work I might try taking a break for a few days if the schedule allows it. In the past I would nap or go to the movies, but now that I’m a mom taking a break might look like cleaning or running errands that I’ve put off, anything to distract me from art so that I can come back with a fresh approach.
What is your favorite medium to work with and why?
Right now it’s Photoshop or Procreate. They’ve become my favorites because they’re convenient. I don’t have to clean anything up or put anything away, when I have to stop suddenly because my daughter needs my attention or something like that I can just save and walk away or turn off my computer. I do want to get back into painting though now that my daughter isn’t an infant anymore…that was my favorite way to work in the past, I loved oil paint.
Which 4 words would you use to describe your style and process?
Colorful, flat, detailed & meticulous.
What was your favorite part of working on this book? What was the most challenging?
My favorite part of working on this book was the more abstract pages where the backgrounds are full of swirling clouds of color! The most challenging was probably the spot art, I’m not sure why but I struggle with spot art much more than full spreads…they get me every time.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
“Finished is better than perfect”…I have a tendency to be hard on myself and sometimes I get caught up in my work not turning out “as perfect” as whatever I had in my head but in the end the work that gets all my effort poured it into is good and the fact that I can create something at all is amazing in itself.
What would be your dream project?
Hmm…right now my dream project would be something that I get to be the author & illustrator of! Maybe something spooky or something about Queens (NY)?!
Alphabet Rockers make music that makes change. Led by Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd, they create brave spaces to shape a more equitable world through hip hop, as Two-time GRAMMY-nominees, Othering & Belonging Institute Fellows and industry leaders for change. They work in partnership with community to create media that reflects the culture of belonging we want to see in the world. Reaching over 3M families since 2007, Alphabet Rockers inspire American kids and families to stand up to hate and be their brave and beautiful selves.
Kaitlin McGaw (she/her) is a writer, listener and artist based in Oakland, CA on Ohlone lands. Her path in anti-racism and art began as a high school student in Belmont, MA, where community dialogue, activism, and poetry framed her purpose and relationship with the world. Kaitlin is a graduate of Harvard University with a BA in Afro-American Studies. She is also a two time GRAMMY nominee, an artist fellow and a deeply committed partner for change, often stepping back for others to shine, and stepping up for truth and our collective humanity. Kaitlin believes radical imagination begins with the way we read, sing, and ask questions of the world with our children. She is the mother of two creative children of her own, whom she is raising with her husband Adhi.
Tommy Soulati Shepherd (he/him/they) is an internationally renowned actor, playwright, composer, educator, rapper, drummer, beatboxer and music producer. Tommy (aka Emcee Soulati) is a long-time member of the performance group Campo Santo who continue to tell stories of the people and Oakland’s own Antique Naked Soul-The Soundtrack for Revolution. Tommy has composed, performed and toured internationally with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, collaborating on Scourge, the break/s, Spoken World, red, black and GREEN: a blues and /peh-LO-tah/. Tommy won a 2018 Isadora Duncan Award for his composition work and is a two time GRAMMY nominee. Tommy brings love for family, art, activism and community building to all of his work. His inspiration and hope for a more joyful and equitable world is felt through the hearts of families everywhere.