Diversity

WNDMG Wednesday- Debut Author Interview with Thushanthi Ponweera

picture of the book I AM KAVI
logo

 

I’m so excited to be able to interview debut author Thushanthi Ponweera today for the WNDMG Wednesday blog. Thushanthi’s new book is I AM KAVI (Holiday House) and it launched on September 19, 2023

I am super in love with this gorgeous novel in verse, as I am also a fellow author of a verse novel coming in 2024 and I just adore poetry! I have read an ARC of this book, and I have to say, the book is stunning, poetic, and absolutely heartfelt in every way. And it is a much-needed book highlighting a diverse author and story that is so important.

I encourage everyone to buy a copy for themselves and their classrooms and libraries.

About I AM KAVI

picture of the book I AM KAVI

Description taken from online:

Caught between two worlds- a poverty-stricken village and a fancy big-city school—a young Sri Lankan girl must decide who she really is and where she really belongs.

1998, Colombo. The Sri Lankan Civil War is raging, but everyday life must go on. At Kavi’s school, her friends talk about the weekly Top 40, the Backstreet Boys, Shahrukh Khan, Leo & Kate… and who died–or didn’t–in the latest bombing. But Kavi is afraid of something even scarier than war. She fears that if her friends discover her secret–that she is not who she is pretending to be–they’ll stop talking to her.

I want to be friends with these / happy, / fearless, / girls / who look like they / belong.
So I could also be / happy, / fearless, / and maybe even / belong.

Kavi’s scholarship to her elite new school was supposed to be everything she ever wanted, but as she tries to find some semblance of normalcy in a country on fire, nothing is going according to plan. In an effort to fit in with her wealthy, glittering, and self-assured new classmates, Kavi begins telling lies, trading her old life–where she’s a poor girl whose mother has chosen a new husband over her daughter–for a new one, where she’s rich, loved, and wanted. But how long can you pretend to be someone else?

This dazzling novel-in-verse comes from an astonishing new talent who lived through the civil war herself. Perfect for fans of Jamine Warga, Supriya Kelkar, and Rajani LaRocca, I Am Kavi centers a powerful South Asian voice, and stars an unforgettable heroine each and every one of us can relate to.

Interview with Thuhshanthi Ponweera

I loved getting to talk to Thushanti about her new book I AM KAVI and I think you will enjoy meeting her and Kavi as well.

 

SSS: What a gorgeous cover that conveys so much power! Who was the artist and anything readers should know about the beautiful artwork?

TP: I was equally blown away by the cover and I need to credit my publisher, Holiday House, for having the perfect vision for it. The artist is Emilia Niwa, who is a Japanese-Australian artist. I think she did such a great job in capturing the essence of Kavi! Initially, I initially didn’t like the fact that Kavi was wearing a jacket, which is uncharacteristic of a Sri Lankan child, but then I wove that detail into the manuscript to make it work!

SSS: Love that!

What is the inspiration behind I AM KAVI?

TP: There is a lot of inequality in Sri Lanka which I was made aware of from a very young age. My parents always made sure to teach me that we had so many privileges that many in the country didn’t have access to, especially during the war, like an undisturbed education or a family that could stay together. Sadly, it is no better or is perhaps worse now. Or maybe it’s the adult lens through which I now view things. These disparities make me very sad/angry and I think channeling that into my writing is how I deal with it.

SSS: I am so sorry. As a Syrian American, reading this story broke my heart- as I know what it is like to feel heartbroken at seeing your homeland plunged into war and feeling so helpless. What was it like to draw on memories and experiences of living through the war as you wrote?

TP: I’m sorry you have felt that pain but I understand. Drawing on those memories as an adult was quite a difficult experience since it was armed with all the adult knowledge and hindsight about why and how the war happened and all its repercussions, which I write about in my author’s note at the end of the book. I wrote I Am Kavi with a renewed understanding but also a renewed sense of heartbreak and disgust. Wars are horrible, no matter where they take place.

SSS: Completely agree.

How is Kavi as a character similar to you? How is she different?

TP: Kavi is very introspective and thoughtful and she is constantly analyzing the behaviors of those around her. She also is sensitive and is quick to jump to the conclusion that she is to blame. These are traits familiar to me. But unlike me, she is brave, outspoken, and adaptable. Maybe these are things I wish I was!

 

SSS: The subject of belonging is important in the book—can you talk more about how Kavi struggles to belong in her school- and what it means to belong?

 

TP: Belonging is a theme in this book, and it starts with Kavi feeling like she no longer belongs in her family. So when it comes to fitting into her new life in her new school she is determined to not struggle, because she is so desperate to fit in to compensate for feeling left out at home. For Kavi, this is an exciting challenge and it goes smoothly…till it doesn’t! But really, it’s more about her struggle to feel she belongs with the person who matters the most to her–her Amma (mother). I think one’s own family is where belonging makes the biggest difference, especially at that age.

SSS: Absolutely!

Diverse books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does culture and faith play a role in your book and in Kavi’s life?

TP: Although Sri Lanka as a whole is a very underrepresented country in children’s literature in the US, it is a very diverse country in itself and is made up of multiple ethnicities, faiths, beliefs, cultures, and traditions which is amazing! However, Kavi hasn’t had a chance to be exposed to all of that as she is from a village that is predominantly Sinhalese and Buddhist, which is a reality in the more rural parts of Sri Lanka. Even her school in Colombo possibly has mostly kids from the same background, which is unfortunately the case in many schools in the country which are often segregated by gender and/or language, which in turn segregates children according to their culture and faith. So in this book, I tried to represent that accurately as it is historical fiction.

SSS: Love that.

Will there be more Kavi in the future?

TP: I would love there to be! Maybe a spin-off? It all depends on how well the book is received and what my editor thinks!

Link to preorder here.

 

Writing Process

 

SSS: How did you first discover poetry? Was it love at first sight? (I personally loved poetry from the moment I read poems in Elementary!!)

TP: I attended private speech & drama lessons as a child, and I was lucky to have some wonderful teachers who shared some amazing prose and poetry that I wouldn’t have read otherwise. This is how I learned that not all poems have to rhyme! As a teenager, I used to write (bad) poetry and I guess I slowly got better at it? I still wouldn’t call myself a “proper” poet because my poetry is straightforward and easy to understand! But this makes it perfect for verse novels and storytelling.

SSS: As a fellow verse novelist, I am curious- did this book start out in poetry? (My own book began as prose before I realized verse was what I felt worked better).

TP: Yes it did. I had recently discovered verse novels and had decided to try writing one!

SSS: Any advice for fellow middle-grade authors? For poets?

 

TP: Can I combine the two and offer some advice for middle-grade authors attempting a verse novel?! I would say, don’t be intimidated by it. And if you’re an underwriter, maybe it’s because the story can be told in verse. Stories with strong character arcs are best suited for this style as you can really hone in on the protagonist’s thoughts and personal experiences. Try it!

Bonus!

SSS: Bonus question! Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share with us?

TP: Yes! And that is the fact that I often feel so removed from my debut publishing experience as I’m so far away! So I’d love it if readers share pics of my book out in the wild and message me if they loved my book, especially younger readers.

 

Thank you so much for this interview, I really enjoyed myself!

Thank you so much Thushanti for answering my questions! I hope everyone picks up a copy of your beautiful book.

 

Readers: Check out some Back to School books here!

About Thushanthi Poonweera:

image of Thushatnthi Ponweera

Thushanthi Ponweera is an author and poet from Sri Lanka. Before daring to follow her dream of being published, she was a marketing specialist and entrepreneur. Her writing reflects the frustration she feels at the inequality and injustice she sees around her and the deep love she has for her island home. After having lived all her life in Colombo,  Thushanthi recently moved to Qatar with her husband and two children.  I Am Kavi is her first novel.

Keep up with Thushanthi:

Website

Twitter

Instagram 

Author Interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

image of the author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
From the Mixed Up Files

Debut Author Interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on her Middle Grade novel GROUNDED

I’m so excited to be able to interview the talented author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on her book GROUNDED, co-authored by S.K. Ali, Aisha Saeed, and Huda Al-Marashi, and published by Abrams on May 9th of 2023.

Jamilah’s picture books are absolutely breathtaking, and I am delighted to say that so is her Middle Grade writing! I loved every bit of this spectacular Muslim book!

I encourage every teacher and librarian to stock this wonderful book on their shelves, and I am sure every reader will love reading this book about four Muslim kids stranded at the airport (and their adventures within).

a picture of book cover of Grounded, showing four muslim kids in an airport running after a cat

About GROUNDED:

Description taken from the publisher:

Four kids meet at an airport for one unforgettable night in this middle-grade novel by four bestselling and award-winning authors—Aisha Saeed, Huda Al-Marashi, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, and S. K. Ali.

When a thunderstorm grounds all flights following a huge Muslim convention, four unlikely kids are thrown together. Feek is stuck babysitting his younger sister, but he’d rather be writing a poem that’s good enough for his dad, a famous poet and rapper. Hanna is intent on finding a lost cat in the airport—and also on avoiding a conversation with her dad about him possibly remarrying. Sami is struggling with his anxiety and worried that he’ll miss the karate tournament that he’s trained so hard for. And Nora has to deal with the pressure of being the daughter of a prominent congresswoman, when all she really wants to do is make fun NokNok videos. These kids don’t seem to have much in common—yet.

Told in alternating points of view, Grounded tells the story of one unexpected night that will change these kids forever.

Interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow:

I loved getting to talk to Jamilah about her book and I think you will enjoy meeting her and her character Feek as well!

SSS: What is the inspiration behind Grounded? And how did you and the other lovely authors decide to co-author this book?

JTB: The inspiration initially came from Aisha Saeed. While waiting in an airport, she imagined four unlikely kids meeting and bonding there. She liked the idea of having different Muslim voices in the narrative and invited me, Huda, and S.K. Ali to join on the project. We had all worked together previously on Once Upon an Eid. From there, our ideas for the book came from fun, collaborative conversations. Aisha came up with some broad strokes suggestions about who the characters might be and we each took a character and developed those ideas more fully and added in our own specifics.

SSS: So many important and wonderful themes in your book- and I have heard mention by the other authors on the importance of the inclusion of Muslim joy in particular – could you elaborate on which themes resonate the most for YOU, and what you hope will be the most impactful for young readers.

JTB: One theme that resonated most was the self-acceptance piece. A few of the Grounded characters are struggling with accepting who they are and have to work through that. That theme comes up a lot in many of my other books because I think it’s such a huge thing for young people and even for older people as we make it through life. Another was about the difficulty of voicing our emotional needs. Kids need to learn how to advocate for themselves and I love how we built in moments where that is explicitly talked about amongst the characters.

SSS: The character of Feek is so adorable and I wanted to reach through the pages and hug him! How did you develop his characters?

JTB: Awww, thank you! Feek is a combination of a lot of preteen and teen boys I’ve seen who are trying to put on a tough and cool exterior when really they are softies inside. I’ve worked with a lot of Black boys in my career in that age group (not to mention having two sons), and it’s always struck me how fragile, sensitive, and multifaceted they can be in spite of the ways the world perceives them. I’m also interested in the challenges of performing masculinity as a young boy. I wanted to explore those things with Feek’s character. Additionally, I thought about the spoken word component of many Muslim conferences and was inspired to somehow add that into the book. As I was writing Feek’s character, he often spoke to me in rhyme and made it clear to me he was a lyricist dying to get out.

SSS: Diverse books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does being both Black and Muslim affect your writing? (BTW we need MORE!)

JTB: I definitely agree we need more. I write my experience. Period. That can be hard when the expectation seems to be to erase either my Muslimness or Blackness in books. But I stick to writing my experience as unapologetically as I can.

SSS: Will there be more Middle Grade books from you in the future? (Please say YES!)

JTB: Yes! Although nothing is ready to be announced.

SSS: ****Excited Squeal***

Link to preorder Grounded here.

Writing Process

SSS: How long did it take to write Grounded? Do you find it a more difficult process to write Picture Books or Middle Grade books?

JTB: It was definitely over a year of time. Maybe closer to two years. Because it was a group effort, we had to meet to discuss each of our chapters and ensure the book seamlessly connected.

I feel like Middle Grade is challenging in different ways. I need to pull in so many elements to make a book feel complete. With Picture Books, I’m cutting out elements to make a book feel whole. A book feels complete when it’s concise and focused. A Middle Grade is the same in needing to be focused but there are so many elements in terms of the character arcs and plot to bring into that focus. It’s expansive and narrow, which makes it hard.

SSS: How was it to co-write a book where three other authors have distinct voices for their own three characters as well?

JTB: Co-writing was challenging but also a lot of fun. It requires a lot of communication. It helped that we had previously established friendships with each other and got along. The fun is in seeing what the other authors are doing with their characters and falling in love with these other voices. I also loved working out conflicts and creating bonds between these characters and Feek.

Bonus!

SSS: Bonus FUN question! Taking care of animals and finding a lost cat is a huge unifying factor in the book for the characters- Are you an animal lover in real life?

JTB: I do love animals! Especially cats. I don’t currently have any pets due to life circumstances but I watch cute animal videos for fun and am a member of too many Facebook cat groups.

If you liked this interview, check out this link to an article honoring Arab-American books!

Thank you so much Jamilah for answering my questions! I hope everyone picks up a copy of all your beautiful books!!

About Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

image of Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a Philadelphia-based bestselling children’s book author. Her books, which center around Black and Muslim kids, have been recognized by many, including TIME and NPR, and she is an Irma Black Award silver medalist. A former teacher and forever an educator-at-heart, she is probably most proud that her picture book Your Name Is a Song was named the December 2021 NEA Read Across America book and that it is included in the curriculums of major school districts throughout the United States.

You can find Jamilah on Social Media!

Threads

Twitter

Instagram

Website

Back To School Books!

Back-to-school can be exciting and nerve-wracking for kids, but nothing soothes the soul better than a good book.

To help kids get back into the groove of learning, making new friends, and facing new challenges, I’ve curated a fantastic list of middle grade novels. 

And because I am a HUGE Taylor Swift fan, I’ve selected 13 stories for young readers to enjoy.

Happy Reading!

THE DO MORE CLUB by Dana Kramaroff

A Jewish boy’s bravery and kindness are tested after an antisemitic attack on his middle school in this rousing novel-in-verse.

Ever since twelve-year-old Josh Kline found an antisemitic note in his family’s mailbox in third grade, he has felt uncomfortable about his Jewish identity. At a new school where he’s pretty sure he’s the only Jew, he’s hoping to just keep religion out of everything . . . until the morning someone sprays swastikas all over the building. That’s when everything changes.

In one of the school counseling groups set up in response to the attack, Josh finally reveals that he is Jewish, and quickly finds out there’s more to the other kids in his grade too: All of them have their own struggles. Maybe Josh can do something to help—to “repair the world” as his rabbi teaches, by starting a Do More club to spread kindness. But making a difference is never simple, even when you have new friends by your side.

Fast-paced and conversation-starting, Josh’s story is an empowering examination of prejudice, bullying, and how to take the first step toward change.

MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS by Beth McMullen

A girl discovers her boarding school is actually an elite spy-training program, and she must learn the skills of the trade in order to find her mother in this action-packed middle grade debut.

After a botched escape plan from her boarding school, Abigail is stunned to discover the school is actually a cover for an elite spy ring called The Center, along with being training grounds for future spies. Even more shocking? Abigail’s mother is a top agent for The Center and she has gone MIA, with valuable information that many people would like to have—at any cost. Along with a former nemesis and charming boy from her grade, Abigail goes through a crash course in Spy Training 101, often with hilarious—and sometimes painful—results. But Abigail realizes she might be a better spy-in-training than she thought—and the answers to her mother’s whereabouts are a lot closer than she thinks…

DEAR STUDENT by Elly Swartz

When Autumn becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper, she is faced with a dilemma—can she give fair advice to everyone, including her friends, while keeping her identity a secret?

Starting middle school is rough for Autumn after her one and only BFF moves to California. Uncertain and anxious, she struggles to connect with her new classmates. The two potential friends she meets could not be more different: bold Logan who has big ideas and quiet Cooper who’s a bit mysterious. But Autumn has a dilemma: what do you do when the new friends you make don’t like each other?

When Autumn is picked to be the secret voice of the Dear Student letters in the Hillview newspaper, she finds herself smack in the middle of a problem, with Logan and Cooper on opposite sides. But before Autumn can figure out what to do, the unthinkable happens. Her secret identity as Dear Student is threatened. Now, it’s time for Autumn to find her voice and her courage and follow her heart, even when it’s divided.

A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE BY Lisa Moore Ramee

Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.

A WORK IN PROGRESS by Jarrett Lerner

A young boy struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.

Will is the only round kid in a school full of string beans. So he hides…in baggy jeans and oversized hoodies, in the back row during class, and anywhere but the cafeteria during lunch. But shame isn’t the only feeling that dominates Will’s life. He’s also got a crush on a girl named Jules who knows he doesn’t have a chance with—string beans only date string beans—but he can’t help wondering what if?

Will’s best shot at attracting Jules’s attention is by slaying the Will Monster inside him by changing his eating habits and getting more exercise. But the results are either frustratingly slow or infuriatingly unsuccessful, and Will’s shame begins to morph into self-loathing.

As he resorts to increasingly drastic measures to transform his appearance, Will meets skateboarder Markus, who helps him see his body and all it contains as an ever-evolving work in progress.

AIR by Monica Roe

Twelve-year-old Emmie is working to raise money for a tricked-out wheelchair to get serious about WCMX, when a mishap on a poorly designed ramp at school throws her plans into a tailspin. Instead of replacing the ramp, her school provides her with a kind but unwelcome aide―and, seeing a golden media opportunity, launches a public fundraiser for her new wheels.

Emmie loves her close-knit rural town, but she can’t shake the feeling that her goals―and her choices―suddenly aren’t hers anymore. With the help of her best friends, Emmie makes a plan to get her dreams off the ground―and show her community what she wants, what she has to give, and how ready she is to do it on her own terms.

Air is a smart, energetic middle grade debut from Monica Roe about thinking big, working hard, and taking flight.

SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods—bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them—the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle

Instead of giving him lunch money, Rex’s mom has signed him up for free meals. As a poor kid in a wealthy school district, better-off kids crowd impatiently behind him as he tries to explain to the cashier that he’s on the free meal program. The lunch lady is hard of hearing, so Rex has to shout.

Free Lunch is the story of Rex’s efforts to navigate his first semester of sixth grade―who to sit with, not being able to join the football team, Halloween in a handmade costume, classmates and a teacher who take one look at him and decide he’s trouble―all while wearing secondhand clothes and being hungry. His mom and her boyfriend are out of work, and life at home is punctuated by outbursts of violence. Halfway through the semester, his family is evicted and ends up in government-subsidized housing in view of the school. Rex lingers at the end of last period every day until the buses have left, so no one will see where he lives.

Unsparing and realistic, Free Lunch is a story of hardship threaded with hope and moments of grace. Rex’s voice is compelling and authentic, and Free Lunch is a true, timely, and essential work that illuminates the lived experience of poverty in America.

SWEET AND SOUR by Debbi Michiko Florence

For as long as she can remember, Mai has spent every summer in Mystic, Connecticut visiting family friends. And hanging out with her best-friend-since-birth, Zach Koyama, was always the best part.Then two summers ago everything changed. Zach humiliated Mai, proving he wasn’t a friend at all. So when Zach’s family moved to Japan, Mai felt relieved. No more summers together. No more heartache.But this year, the Koyamas have returned and the family vacation is back on. And if Mai has to spend the summer around Zach, the least she can do is wipe away the memory of his betrayal… by coming up with the perfect plan for revenge! Only Zach isn’t the boy he used to be, and Mai’s memories of their last fateful summer aren’t the whole truth of what happened between them. Now she’ll have to decide if she can forgive Zach, even if she can never forget.

AMINA’S VOICE by Hena Kahn

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.”

Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

FALLING SHORT by Ernesto Cisneros

Isaac and Marco already know sixth grade is going to change their lives. But it won’t change things at home—not without each other’s help.

This year, star basketball player Isaac plans on finally keeping up with his schoolwork. Better grades will surely stop Isaac’s parents from arguing all the time. Meanwhile, straight-A Marco vows on finally winning his father’s approval by earning a spot on the school’s basketball team.

But will their friendship and support for each other be enough to keep the two boys from falling short?

ONE TRUE WAY by Shannon Hitchcock

A heartening story of two girls who discover their friendship is something more. But how, among their backward town, will Sam and Allie face what they know is true about themselves?

Welcome to Daniel Boone Middle School in the 1970s, where teachers and coaches must hide who they are, and girls who like girls are forced to question their own choices. Presented in the voice of a premier storyteller, One True Way sheds exquisite light on what it means to be different, while at the

same time being wholly true to oneself. Through the lives and influences of two girls, readers come to see that love is love is love. Set against the backdrop of history and politics that surrounded gay rights in the 1970s South, this novel is a thoughtful, eye-opening look at tolerance, acceptance, and change, and will widen the hearts of all readers.

KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE by Kristi Wientge`

Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip.

With everyone around her focused on other things, Karma is left to figure out what to make of her terrifyingly hairy surprise all on her own.