Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Here she is , discussing her new picture book Your Name is a Song, illustrated by Luisa Uribe and published by The Innovation Press. Kane. Interestingly, she found a publisher and a book contract first, and got an agent after! Check out Jamilah’s journey below.
Please describe the journey to publication for this book.
Your Name is a Song was a manuscript I wrote in early 2017 for the 12×12 picture book challenge. It was very long. Because the book explores the ways people demean names and because there are numerous ways that people can do that demeaning, I had a text that was almost 2000 words at one point. Then, there was the issue of researching the names and then writing out their pronunciations. This book took dozens of revisions and many hours of research before I felt it was ready for submission. I got an offer for it from The Innovation Press in late 2018 after several months of trying agents and then editors. I started hearing back from interested agents around this time and my editor, Asia Citro, at The Innovation Press also referred me to agents. Her referral is how I connected with Essie White, and I am forever grateful. It has been such an amazing partnership!
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
A name inspired it. I was a teacher at the time and a student shared that his middle name was Olumide. I remember thinking his name was musical like a song. And then I thought “Your Name is a Song” would be a great title for a book. I worked backward to figure out what a book with that title should be about. “Olumide is a melody” became a line in the book.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project?
Once I have a spark of an idea, I like to gather things. I create a file on the computer or a section of a notebook to write scattered ideas. I’ll write down random sentences or lines of dialogue, titles, names, concepts, and themes. I’ll add free-writes of all sorts of things: scenes I’m picturing, character descriptions, logistics of the plot, etc. Once I have a lot of this material and I feel like I have a solid sense of the story, I start writing.
What differentiates your book from others with similar content currently on the market?
Well, I think mine is the only book about names that tries to include so many of them! I also think that it is probably the first book to explicitly celebrate Black American names. When we talk about appreciating names of diverse cultures, most people think about names from other countries but not necessarily American names like Latoya, Shauntaya, and Daquan. I make space for these kinds of names in my book.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book.
“What about the kids at recess who said my name sounds made up?”
Momma pointed up. “Tell them that made-up names come from there.”
“From the sky?” the girl asked.
“Made-up names come from dreamers. Their real names were stolen long ago so they dream up new ones. They make a way out of no way, make names out of no names—pull them from the sky!”
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I want to continue writing more picture books and other kinds of kidlit. While this time during quarantine hasn’t been ideal for many reasons, it has given me additional time to focus on producing more writing. I have a couple new picture books coming soon. One that has been announced is Abdul’s Story, which will be out in 2021.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
One classic I love to study is The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and Leo and Diane Dillon. I love that one because I feel like it translates the feel of oral storytelling into an actual picture book. It infuses that African artform into a picture book and I want to learn how to do that more. I don’t have a favorite contemporary children’s book because there are so many that I love and study. However, one picture book I have been looking at a lot lately as a mentor text is Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story by Zeena Pliska and Fiona Halliday. I think this book is good for learning a lot of things, including lyrical writing, creating a sense of wonder in a picture book, and how to write about difficult topics for children delicately and yet honestly.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Write the thing you’re scared to write—you know exactly what that is.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any flavor of ice cream, which one would you be and why??
I would be vanilla with hot fudge slung on top because it’s messy, but the messiness is good.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed is a Philadelphia-based children’s book author and educator. Her books, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including the American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. A curriculum writer, community educator, and former English teacher, she’s educated youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years.
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