WNDMG Wednesday- Debut Author Interview with Thushanthi Ponweera

picture of the book I AM KAVI


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.


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!


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:




WNDMG Wednesday – Introducing Isi Hendrix

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado


Introducing Isi Hendrix

Hello, WNDMG Wednesday readers … I am so excited for this month’s post. I get to introduce you to the amazing Isi Hendrix, author of the Afrofantasy MG Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. (HarperCollins – USA and Usborne – UK, September 2023) It’s such a high-profile debut novel, it got TWO debut days: one here in the USA and one in the UK!

About Adia Kelbara

Adia Kelbara USA book cover

United States Cover

Adia Kelbara cover illustration

United Kingdom Cover

Life is tough for twelve-year-old orphan Adia. Her aunt and uncle believe she’s an ogbanje, a demon-possessed child that brings misfortune wherever they go, and Adia can’t disagree—especially when she suddenly manifests mysterious powers that she can’t control, causing an earthquake in her village.

So when Adia is offered a kitchen apprenticeship at the faraway Academy of Shamans, she flees with nothing but a pouch of change, her cat Bubbles, and the hope that someone there can figure out what’s wrong with her—and fix it. But just as she’s settling in, Adia stumbles upon a shocking secret: Unlike her, the kingdom’s emperor really is possessed—by a demon more wicked than any other. And he’s on his way to the Academy for a visit.

Joining forces with a snarky goddess, a 500-year-old warrior girl, and an annoying soldier-in-training, Adia must travel through hidden realms to exorcise the emperor and save her kingdom. But to succeed, she first must come to understand the powers inside her….

The fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Interview with Isi Hendrix

WNDMG: Welcome to the We Need Diverse MG (WNDMG) series. We’re honored to have you here!

First off, I have to say, I absolutely loved Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. Your debut novel is the definition of propulsive reading. Adia is so easy to root for and connect with—plus, she’s wry and funny. This is a really hard mix of character traits to pull off, and I’m so impressed!

Developing Adia

WNDMG: What influences helped you develop Adia Kelbara herself?

author headshot - black woman with long curly braids framed by flowering plants

Monique Cooper Photography

IH: Adia is a twelve-year-old orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She doesn’t fit in with her family or anyone in her village of the Swamplands, which is currently overrun by missionaries. The missionaries showed up years ago and told Adia’s people that everything they believed in was wrong, and that to be good, they had to follow the beliefs of the people behind the Sunless Mountains. But Adia questions what she’s told.

I’m borrowing from real life with that aspect of Adia’s personality. My family’s conservative religion (introduced to my tribe by Western missionaries) absolutely did not feel right to me and I was her age when I began to question things and where this religion had even come from because it certainly wasn’t anything that was native to the Igbo people. So, for me, Adia represents the strength of indigenous wisdom and the ancestral knowledge that’s woven into our DNA that no invader or colonizing force can ever erase.

Adia Kelbara character art black tween wearing yellow dress in forest with orange cat

The Guardian Deity

WNDMG: What was the inspiration for Ginikanwa?

IH: Ah, Gini. My snarky Goddess. I’ve always loved the older, powerful mentor in fantasy novels, like Gandalf. Thankfully times are changing, but for far too long that role was almost always exclusively delegated to a grey bearded white man. So, I knew that I wanted Adia’s teacher and mentor in these books to be a woman, specifically an African goddess or an Alusi—a guardian deity of the Igbo people.

Book Banning and World Building

WNDMG: Your themes are so current and relevant, this book is almost contemporary. You tackle topics like religion, colonialism and mental and emotional health with grace and passion. Was this always going to be a book about colonialism or did that piece reveal itself to you as you wrote?

 IH: It revealed itself to me as I was writing it. I wrote my first draft before this book banning atrocity America is currently dealing with was in full swing, and even then I assumed I was writing something that would be banned. But once I saw what was coming out in this story, especially the commentary about religious colonization which is very personal to me, there was no turning back.

Blurb graphic adia kelbara

Let the Story be Born

WNDMG: As a writer, I am always curious about how authors choose genre. What was your process for deciding the best way to tell Adia’s story?

IH: I read widely, but (so far) every time I try to write a story it comes out as a fantasy story. So, I don’t fight it. I let the story that wants to be born be born. And I’m so glad it came out this way. Using a fantasy setting lets me explore these heavy themes in a way that—I hope—is accessible to children and also just a fun adventure story.  I re-read books now that were my favorite as a child like A Wrinkle in Time, and I’m in awe at how L’Engle and authors like her wrote these profound books that you could write a whole doctorate thesis about, but it’s also a book I probably read fifty times before I was ten years old. So, I think speculative fiction is a great way to explore big ideas and themes with young readers. Madeline L’Engle said one of my favorite quotes on writing. “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

((If you’re enjoying this interview with MG fantasy author Isi Hendrix, you might also like this archived WNDMG Wednesday interview with fantasy author Kaela Rivera)) 

Changes, Challenges, and Easter Eggs

 WNDMG: From the time you drafted Adia to the time you got your publishing deal, what has been the biggest change in your manuscript?

 IH: Ah, that’s hard to say without giving a huge spoiler! I’ll just say that a character I’d originally given an almost forgettable role to, ended up playing a major part of the story.

WNDMG: What was the hardest part of the book to write?

IH: Character-wise, I always struggled when my mentor or agent or editors wanted me to dive deeper into a character I don’t particularly like. The way I can’t stand this character you’d never think I was the one who created him. So, in my early drafts I tended to just blow him off as an irredeemable jerk. But everyone asked for the motivation behind why he behaves the way he does so I had to tap into that, and the story is all the better for it. Yes, I would have had an easier time writing a full-on villain, verses someone who’s morally gray. But the morally grey ones make for complex characters in the end.

WNDMG: Do you have any Easter Eggs in there?

Adia’s name is Swahili for gift and very fitting. But it’s also from one of my favorite song, “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan, and the song’s chorus is also extremely fitting for this character. It keeps repeating that “We are born innocent. Believe me, Adia, we are still innocent.” So I love that her name has a lot of layers in there. Naming every other character in this book took me a minute, but I knew Adia’s name right away.

character art Adia in purple dress surrounded by flowers

(There also may or may not be a Mean Girl’s reference somewhere in the book, because this book definitely has a mean girl in it.)

The Final Battle

WNDMG: Is there one scene you can point to that is the most important scene to you?

IH: The final battle scene. I’m not a visual writer. I don’t see everything in my head like a movie (and I wish I did). But that was the one scene that I watched play out from beginning to end. I was walking one evening and this download came out of nowhere. I froze on the sidewalk and was almost in tears. Then I ran home to write it all out.  I even had to go back and rewrite a lot of the book because I understood that was how it had to end. So that final battle scene where Adia goes up against the antagonist will always be what I consider the most important.

What’s Next

WNDMG: This is the first book in a planned trilogy. Can you tell us anything at all about what we can expect from Adia in Book Two? (Yes, this is definitely the sign of an impatient reader asking!)

IH: You’re going to find Adia back at the Academy of Shamans, this time as a student! But as always, everything goes sideways whenever Adia is at that school. So you’re going to see her dealing with a mysterious illness that’s plaguing the students and the kingdom.

WNDMG: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?

IH: Read widely and read banned books!

WNDMGSo many congratulations to you from all of us at WNDMG and From the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors!

Isi Hendrix author photo smiling Black woman with long braids wearing gold dress holding gold UK edition of book

About Isi Hendrix:

Isi Hendrix is a Nigerian American children’s book author who has been lucky enough to live and work all over the world, from the Himalayas to the Amazon rainforest, during her past life as an anthropologist. Now she’s based in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, where she lives with a rotating roster of foster kittens and a stubborn refusal to accept that she is highly allergic to cats.

Isi’s debut middle grade novel, Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, released in September, 2023.

To Buy Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans:



Barnes and Noble

Stay in touch with Isi via her website!

WNDMG Wednesday- Interview with Anna E Jordan

Shira and Esther cover

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday – Debut Author Interview

I’m super excited to be able to introduce you and interview debut author Anna E Jordan today. Anna’s new book is SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT (Chronicle Books) and it launches on October 10, 2023.

I am extra excited to do this, as Anna and I are Agent siblings! I can’t wait to hold a copy of Anna’s book in my hands, and I am eagerly waiting for my preorder to arrive in October.

Shira and Esther cover


A fun middle grade book that draws on the fun switched identity  in THE PARENT TRAP and comedic tone of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, this beautiful book features two Jewish girls navigating family, friendship, and faith.

Description taken from the publisher:

When Shira and Esther first meet, they can hardly believe their eyes. It’s like looking in a mirror! But even though they may look identical, the two girls couldn’t be more different. Shira dreams of singing and dancing onstage, but her father, a stern and pious rabbi, thinks Shira should be reading prayers, not plays. Esther dreams of studying Torah, but her mother, a glamorous stage performer, wishes Esther would spend more time rehearsing and less time sneaking off to read books. Oy vey! If only the two could switch places . . .

Would Shira shine in a big-time televised talent show? Would Esther’s bat mitzvah go off without a hitch? What’s a little deception, when it means your dreams might finally be within reach? One thing is certain: Shira and Esther are going to need more than a little chutzpah to pull this off. But if they do, their double dream debut is sure to be the performance of a lifetime.

Interview with Anna E. Jordan

I loved getting to talk to Anna about her new book and I think you will enjoy meeting her and Shira and Esther as well.


SSS: What is the inspiration behind Shira and Esther?


On a trip to the Society of Illustrators in the spring of 2014, I saw an exhibit of Drew Friedman’s book Old Jewish Comedians. I hadn’t gone to the museum to see it, but one drawing and explanation card caught my eye. It was about a comedian, Benjamin Zuckerman, whose father wanted him to be a rabbi, but he wanted to be a comedian. What if, I thought, there were two kids and they each wanted what the other had. From there, my research led me through the evolution of Jewish theater and comedy in this country.

SSS: So many important and wonderful themes in your book – could you elaborate on which themes resonate the most for you, and that you hope will be the most impactful for young readers.


I resist having themes or a lesson when I start to write the book and hope that by the end, I pose more questions than deliver answers to young readers. The characters struggle with some big questions in the text including: When and how should you follow your dreams? What does it mean to obey your parents? How can family and community support young people as they dream? What are different ways that we express our culture and are they all valid? How can we make room for magic in our everyday lives?

I’m sure that young readers will come up with their own big questions. Hopefully, they will find interpretations I didn’t even consider when I wrote the book. That’s the best part of sending a book baby out into world!

SSS: How are Shira and Esther similar? How are they different? Was it difficult to write a book in two points of view?


The book is actually told by a 3rd person omniscient narrator, but you are absolutely right about the difficulties involved with having two main characters.

Shira, the rabbi’s daughter, is a confident risk taker. She wants to sing, dance and tell jokes all the time. As you can imagine, that frustrates her father—the rabbi.

Esther, is happiest with her nose in a book and especially in books that teach her more about Judaism. Esther has big questions about the world and her place in it while her mother just wants Esther to take the stage.

 A lot of the revision work that I did with my first editor was about honing the differences between the two characters. Not only their character traits, but also their wants, needs, and faults. We wanted to make sure that the reader knew each character well before they switched places, so they could root for each character throughout her journey. Like the movie Parent Trap, the characters pretend to be the other character. When Esther became Shira, she still had to have her essential Esther-ness, and Shira had to hold on to her Shira-ness as Esther.

SSS: The subject of music and theater is important in the book—can you talk more about how you became inspired to write about music and the performance arts?


I sang, danced, and performed from the time I was six through high school. My two sons were also very active in school theater. I loved supporting their theater programs with makeup and set design and creation. As a 5th-grade teacher, I help with the annual production in my school too. It’s wonderful to watch students shine outside the classroom. Like writing, theater allows the artist to step out of their own life story and into another character for a time.

Also, as I mentioned previously, my research led me through the evolution of Jewish theater and comedy in this country from the Yiddish Theater and Vaudeville, to stand-up comedy in the Borscht Belt (the group of hotels in the Catskills that were owned by Jewish families for Jewish families when we weren’t allowed in other hotels), to television and finally Hollywood. 

SSS: Diverse books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does the Jewish Faith play a role in your book and in Shira and Esther’s lives?


The Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group with an identity, culture, language(s), and religion. Judaism is our religion but we experience it in different ways. Shira has been raised as a practicing Reform Jew and Esther has been raised within the vibrant Jewish culture of the Yiddish theater. Each character goes on a journey to learn more about being Jewish and coming to understand their own experiences.

 Ultimately, both Shira and Esther embody pieces of my own Jewish Journey: the part of me that strives to study Torah and the part of me that wants to be immersed in my culture and community.

As the narrator of the book says:

“There is a saying that if you assemble ten Jewish people in a room and ask them a question about Judaism, you’ll get ten different answers. This is one of the most wonderful things about being Jewish: No one is Jewish in quite the same way.”

 One thing that was important to me as an author was filling a space in the children’s book market with Jewish Joy. So often, Jewish books have to do with the 3Hs: History, Holiday, or Holocaust. With the rise of anitsemitism in the U.S., it’s important that Jewish and non-Jewish children read about the positive aspects of Judaism such as education, social justice, community, and yes—humor and joy.


SSS: Will there be more Shira and Esther in the future?


As we say, “From your mouth to G-d’s ears.” Seriously though, one of the supporting characters, Benny Bell, has been talking to me more and more. I need to give him space in my writing time to listen to his story.

We’ll see!

Writing Process

SSS: How long did it take to write SHIRA AND ESTHER? And was it an emotional process (as a fellow author, all my books seem to come from personal experience. Was this the same for you?)


I’ve had other wonderful publishing experiences in my 22 years as an author, but I’m so proud that SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT is my first published novel. The seed of the book was in 2014, the manuscript was purchased in 2021, and now it’s 2023. That nine-year period includes two agents, a divorce, raising two children as a single mom, a variety of day jobs, many moves, many submissions and rejections, a pandemic, and the death of my father. It was a very long and emotional process.


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


I’m grateful that Shira and Esther found a publishing home with Chronicle Books. The team there gave this book so much time and attention. I had a double dream team of editors—Taylor Norman, who helped me hone the story and characters, and Daria Harper who worked with the sensitivity readers (for Yiddish and Jewish accuracy) and with the copy edits, mechanicals, and design. The designers did an amazing job as did the cover illustrator Marco Guadalupi (visit him on Instagram @marcoguadalupi85) It’s such a long process, and I feel so lucky.

Thank you so much Anna for answering my questions!

I hope everyone picks up a copy of your beautiful book.


Yes, please. Preorder, post, and review! Thanks so much for this lovely interview.

Those who preorder from Anna’s local independent book store will receive a signed book and swag!

Politics and Prose preorder link

You can also preorder on



For more Middle Grade diverse books, check out this wonderful book list on our site!


Anna Jordan picture

About Anna E. Jordan

Anna E. Jordan, an author and middle grades educator, was the recipient of the 2013 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery award and has an MFA from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT (Chronicle Books, 10/10/23) is her first novel. In addition to the rhyming picture book THIS PUP STEPS UP, her poems appear in the anthology THE PROPER WAY TO MEET A HEDGEHOG AND OTHER HOW TO POEMS (Candlewick, 2019). You can also find her work national magazines including Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights High Five. Follow Anna on Facebook and Instagram @annawritedraw or on her blog Creative Chaos (annaejordan.com).

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