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An Interview with Darshana Khiani Author of How to Wear a Sari

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

DARSHANA KHIANI

AUTHOR OF

HOW TO WEAR A SARI

ILLUSTRATED BY

JOANNE LEW-VRIETHOFF

(VERSIFY; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

How to Wear a Sari cover

 

 

SUMMARY

Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!

 

INTERVIEW

 

Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?

Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!

 

CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text? 

DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.

 

How to Wear a Sari int1
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?

DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial. 

 

CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?

DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.

 

How to Wear a Sari int2
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?

DK: Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability. 

 

CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?

DK: Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.

 

CP: Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?

DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.

 

CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?

DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.

 

How to Wear a Sari int3
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?

DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them. 

 

CP: Any favorite books from the past year?

DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history. 

 

CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?

DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.  

 

How to Wear a Sari int5
Interior art from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!

DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you. 

 

DKhiani
Author Photo Credit ©Lisa Noble

BRIEF BIO

Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.

 

 

 

BUY DARSHANA’S BOOKS HERE

Hicklebee’s for signed copies – https://www.hicklebees.com/book/9781328635204

Bookshop – https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-wear-a-sari/9781328635204

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Website: www.darshanakhiani.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/darshanakhiani

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/darshanakhiani/

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@darshanakhiani

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).

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An Interview with Your Mama Author NoNieqa Ramos

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NONIEQA RAMOS 

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK 

YOUR MAMA

(Versify; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama, written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.

 

INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:

Colleen Paeff: Congratulations on the release of Your Mama (illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara)! This is your first picture book and it received two starred reviews––one from School Library Journal, which called it “an essential purchase” and one from Kirkus, which labeled the book “Perfectly dazzling.” That must have felt good! Or do you try not to pay attention to reviews?

NoNieqa Ramos: Thank you, Colleen! And congrats to you on your debut The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, and Rainbow Truck releasing in 2023!

CP: Thank you!

NR: If I said I didn’t pay attention to reviews, my friends would laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs. Tail bones would crack. My writing is generally considered “experimental” or “unique” and reviews can vary wildly. So it is affirming and medicinal to get critical acclaim for a concept as “unique” as a Your Mama picture book, albeit one flipped into an ode of loving affirmation, for sure.

The reviews that light me up the most are from readers who find me on Instagram to tell me my writing has made them feel seen or from fellow writers I admire who show me book love. Their esteem is salve for my heart, food for my writer’s soul.

CP: Kwame Alexander’s imprint Versify published your book and Kwame himself book-talked Your Mama on YouTube. (!!!!) Was it extra special to have your book published by this particular publisher?

 

 

Your Mama int pg.1
Interior illustration from Your Mama written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, Versify ©2021.

 

NR: Working with poet, educator, New York Times Bestselling and Newbery Award winner, Kwame Alexander, on his new imprint Versify has been a montage of dreams-come-true! Watching him book-talk Your Mama on Youtube–and my fellow Versify sib Darshana Khiani (How To Wear A Sari, June 2022)– was a pinch-me moment.

I remember when I saw the Tweet that Kwame Alexander was starting a new imprint and that it was open for submissions. I thought– this is Your Mama’s home. Talk about shooting your shot.  I emailed my agent in milliseconds. Two weeks after the submission, I got the call.

It’s an immense honor to be part of Kwame’s artistic mission to “change the world one word at a time.”  I mean, my work is in the same house as writers like Kip Wilson (White Rose), Raúl the Third (Lowriders In Space) and Lamar Giles (Fake ID), founding member of We Need Diverse Books.

Every book journey is unique, and the field of publishing is like riding a bronco, no joke. I savor every second of success, but I measure my success differently with each new project. I’m feeling pretty hyped about this one.
 

CP: Your first two books, The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary and The Truth Is, are both YA, what inspired you to try your hand at picture book writing?

NR: Picture book writing is my first love. When I was in elementary school, I started “N&N Company” with my cousin Nikki and attempted to sell picture books (paperdolls, bookmarks, and cards) to my classmates until a dispute over payment drew the nuns’ attention and had me shut down!

I started off my teaching career working with preschoolers. Picture books are portable theaters, concerts, and museums. There’s nothing I loved more than seeing an emerging reader take a picture walk and narrate the story to their friends.

Brianne Farley, who illustrated Carrie Finison’s Dozens Of Doughnuts, said each picture book is like solving a puzzle, and I couldn’t agree more. I love the challenge of crafting rhyme with a narrative arc.

I write in rhythmic verse, a type of free verse, the jazz of poetry. What I adore about picture books is the spoken and unspoken collaboration between author and illustrator. I marvel at the music Jackie and I made with keyboard and pen.

 

Your Mama int pg.6,7
Interior spread from Your Mama written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: What’s something you enjoyed about the experience of writing a picture book that wasn’t a part of writing for the YA audience?

NR: All my works are a platform to fight for social justice. Picture books are a unique way to rise up against inequity and systemic oppression of the marginalized with the power of pure joy. Picture books are unbridled hope. With these magical tools, we raise not just the individual reader, but the human family.  When I gift a child a picture book by Kirsten Larson (A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything), I am giving the gift of ingenuity and persistence. When I gift a child a picture book by Yamile Saied Méndez (De Donde Eres), I gift a child cultural and family pride.

My YA The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is partially about burning the system down. The Truth Is is partially about dismantling the internalized racism and homophobia embedded in us from our inherently racist and homophobic society. In some ways, these protagonists inherited a world in ashes. My picture book protagonists inherit seeds.

With my debut Your Mama, I resisted the monolithic representation of Latinx women with nuanced exultation. I hope with Your Mama, all my readers celebrate how much they are loved by their caregivers, and all caregivers feel seen and revered.

CP: You’ve said you write to “amplify marginalized voices and to reclaim the lost history, mythology, and poetry of the Latinx community.” Did you grow up hearing those stories or did you discover them later in life?

NR: I discovered my first Latinx novel in graduate school, and I was transformed. Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude spoke to me as a writer in a way absolutely no book ever had. He helped me find my voice.

My first discoveries of Latinx picture books for my first child and my students came from Lupe Flores’s Bilingual picture book The Battle Of The Snow Cones/La Guerra De Las Raspas and Lupita’s Papalote. Before that I was reading my child the staples like the disturbing Love You Forever and Runaway Bunny (Please read Leah Hong’s Happy Dreams, Little Bunny instead!). With our movements to diversify literature with #ownvoices perspectives, this narrative of invisibility and loss will one day be a thing of the past. Imagine the day when every child can find multiple books that make them feel seen, respected, nurtured, and celebrated. That day is coming!

CP: You’ve described yourself as a literary activist. What is that and how can I become one?

NR: I love your questions, Colleen! A literary activist creates works to disrupt texts, dismantle systems of oppression, and rebuild an equitable society. Every book gives you an opportunity to amplify your work’s message through article writing, conferences, and school visits. The Truth Is and The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary gives me a platform to talk about the lack of historical representation of BIPOC persons in school curriculums, the dire need for mental health services for the marginalized, and the still pervasive LGBTQIA+ homeless population.

Whenever I am in despair about the condition of the world, I turn to story to rewrite the narrative and I amplify the work of fellow authors who are changing the world with their work. Readers, check out Las Musas to learn about the works of my fellow Latinx writers whose work children’s literature “celebrates the diversity of voice, experience, and power” in Latinx communities. Check out https://www.soaring20spb.com/ for a beautiful diverse community of writers in children’s lit, where I met Colleen Paeff!

CP: I’m so glad it brought us together! I feel lucky to be a part of such an inspiring group of creators. What’s next for you, NoNieqa?

NR: I am working on a genderqueer picture book fairy tale retelling and my first dystopian novel. We’ll see where they land!

CP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

NR: Thank you for this lovely chat, Colleen. Readers, don’t forget to add my future picture books Hair Story (September 7th, 2021) and Beauty Woke (February 15, 2022) on Goodreads. Thank you so much for your support! Hope you love Your Mama as much as I do.

 

NoNieqa Ramos Gentry Photography
NoNieqa Ramos ©Gentry Photography

BRIEF BIO:

NoNieqa Ramos wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, which received stars from Booklist, Voya, and Foreword. It was a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection and a 2019 In the Margins Top Ten pick.

Versify will publish her debut picture book Your Mama, which received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus, on April 6th, 2021. Her second picture book, Hair Story, releases from Lerner September 6th, 2022.  NoNieqa is a proud member of Las Musas, The Soaring 20s, and PB Debut Troupe 21 collectives.

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.nonieqaramos.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NoNieqaRamos

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nonieqa.ramos/

Las Musas Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/books/your-mama/9781328631886

 

READ MORE ABOUT NONIEQA:

Your Mama cover reveal & interview

NoNieqa and illustrator Paola Escobar chat with Mr. Schu about Beauty Woke

Be Latina on Your Mama

On Writing Diverse Characters and Resisting the Status Quo by NoNieqa

Voice Lessons by NoNieqa

Hip Latina Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).  Click here for more info.

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Mary Malhotra Interviews Swing Author Kwame Alexander

AN INTERVIEW WITH KWAME ALEXANDER

by Mary Malhotra

 

Author Kwame Alexander
Swing Author Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

Kwame Alexander recently celebrated publication of his new book with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Oct 2018, BlinkYABooks; $18.99), at a Skylight Books event that also featured his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Alexander is the Newbery Award-winning, NYT-bestselling author of more than two-dozen books. Swing is a novel-in-verse about two high school juniors, Noah and Walt, trying to find their “cool.” I enjoyed the event, and later caught up with Alexander by phone to talk about the book and some of his other projects. (The transcript below is edited for clarity and length.)

 

MM [Mary Malhotra]: This is your third book with Mary Rand Hess, so I thought I’d start by asking, how did the two of you decide to collaborate, and how does that work for you?

KA [Kwame Alexander]: We’re in a writer’s group together, and we had critiqued each other’s work for a couple of years. It was her idea, and I thought, “Well, let’s try it.”  I’m a huge fan of collaboration and we just seemed to gel. There were certain times when I took the lead and she was cool with that, and there were times when she took the lead because she had the expertise and I was cool with that. It was almost like putting a puzzle together.

MM: Obviously music is important in the book, and I was curious if Walt’s musical loves mirror yours or Mary’s?

KA: I am a jazz aficionado; Mary loves jazz. Whenever I’m writing, I listen to instrumental jazz, preferably bebop or straight-ahead jazz. Mary plays piano. Music plays a huge role in our lives, and I think that’s why we wanted to write about rock and roll in [our first novel] Solo, and really pay a tribute to jazz in Swing.

Mary Malhotra with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books 2018
Swing Author Kwame Alexander with interviewer Mary Malhotra at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: I know lots of adults who are intimidated by poetry, [yet] on your website you say if you want to get a reluctant reader engaged with literature, start with poetry. How do you go about making the poetry so accessible and relatable that it’s actually easier for a reluctant reader than a prose novel?

KA: I try to write stories that have you as the reader forgetting that you’re reading poetry. I want to use all of the techniques and the strategies that poetry allows me to use — figurative language, sparse text, rhythm, sometimes rhyme — but ultimately I want to tell such a compelling story that by page ten or twenty-seven you’ve forgotten that you’re reading poetry.

MM: I’d seen a synopsis that talked about a biracial friendship at the center of the book, and it still took me awhile to identify what race different characters were. I like diversity not being handled super explicitly, but some people really feel like we should be explicit. What’s your feeling?

KA: Isn’t that the goal, for us to be less explicit about race in real life, and to really begin to look past all those superficial things, and treat each other as if we are all human beings? When I was growing up and I was in high school and I played tennis, one of my best friends was a white guy. I didn’t wake up each day and go to the tennis court and say, “Oh hey, here’s my white guy!” It’s not an authentic approach to life, so why should it be an authentic approach to literature?

MM: As a white person, I’ve tried to be sensitive to arguments I’ve read about people who feel like, if I say, “I don’t see your race,” then I’m not seeing them as a whole person.

KA: I’m definitely not saying you don’t see race. I’m saying the race is obvious and evident in all of the books that I write, in my estimation. The race is a matter of fact.

Nikki Giovanni and Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books Swing Panel
Nikki Giovanni with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: When you started out [writing Swing], were you planning to write something political?

KA: Everything I write is political. I think to live in America, especially during this time, you either — what one of the characters says: “You either uphold the status quo, or you see what’s wrong and try to change it.”

MM: I read about your imprint [Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and saw that it’s accepting unsolicited submissions. What are you looking for?

KA: I’m looking for good books. Picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, graphic novels. I’m looking for books that highlight the beauties, the hurdles, the woes, and the wonders of children coming of age. I’m looking for books that are going to help kids ultimately imagine a better world. I’m looking for books that are intelligent and entertaining.

MM: I also read that you’re starting a #HUGLIFE commitment in classrooms?

KA: It’s really just borrowing from Walt’s philosophy on life. Sometimes the world is not so beautiful, but you’ve got to stretch every inch of good as far as you can. I’m a big fan of saying “Yes” to what’s possible in life, and hugging life.

Swing Author Kwame Alexander with Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books 2018
Swing Author Kwame Alexander and Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: Transforming [Tupac Shakur’s acronym] “THUG LIFE” into “HUG LIFE” —

KA: If you look at what Tupac’s acronym stood for — The Hell You Give Little Infants F’s Everyone — if you flip that around, don’tgive them hell. Hug them. Show them love. I went to a school one day in a prison. I told my wife I was never going back, and she said “Why?” And I said, “Because it was the hardest work I ever had to do.” And she said, “Well, that’s cool. Those kids probably aren’t expecting you to come back.” And of course, I ended up going back. And it changed my life, and it changed theirs. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m suggesting that hugging life, embracing the full humanity of all of us? It’s work, but the rewards are sacred, and beautiful, and life-giving, and life-saving.

Find more events at Skylight Books

Read Mary’s review of Swing here.

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