New Voice: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on Mommy’s Khimar

By Traci Sorell

I’m delighted to share my interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, a fellow Epic Eighteen debut author of Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Salaam Reads, 2018)).

This cheerful and empowering story which centers on a young Muslim, African American girl who loves wearing her mommy’s khimar (headscarf) received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

I know children will gravitate to the uplifting text and illustrations and fall in love with the little girl and story as I did. From the promotional copy:

A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears.
Before she walks out the door each day, she wraps one around her head. 

 A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.

Jamilah, share with our readers your initial inspiration for writing this book. 

I wanted to write books about Muslim children and I couldn’t get the idea of doing a story about the Islamic headscarf out of my head. It felt like a necessary story but also one that could turn into a preachy, dull, or even polarizing book–none of which are good for a picture book.

Still, I couldn’t get past this idea so I tried to have fun with it.

I thought back to how I saw this religious garb as a child. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t expounding upon the merits of headscarves, but I was tying them around my neck and dashing around the room in them. That seemed like a story children could enjoy.

Khimar Wardrobe

As an author and teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I worked as a middle and high school English teacher for over a decade and now, in my role as a program director for a nonprofit called Mighty Writers, I help develop and teach writing workshops for youth ages 2 to 18.

I can honestly say that becoming an author has made me a better writing teacher. I can articulate the process with authenticity and empathy and I teach with an awareness that students can write for bigger audiences than the people in our workshop. Publication is possible for them because it is possible for me.

Conversely, I think being a teacher made it easier for me to become a writer. I’ve spent much of my career teaching kids how to dissect and emulate mentor texts.

When I wanted to learn how to write children’s literature, I immediately identified the mentor texts I needed and went at them in a very methodical way so I could learn the craft of them.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Although I know the prevailing wisdom is to use contemporary books as models, I am obsessed with classics. The most useful book for me in terms of craft in general has been Swimmy by Leo Lionni  (Knopf, 1963).

When I first started learning picture book craft, I would return to this book and dissect it again and again. I love how Lionni incorporated a sense of wonder, beautiful language, a character with heart, and an engaging plot in less than three hundred words.

For language and pacing in Mommy’s Khimar, I looked to quiet books like Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2011).

I saw my main character as very similar to the main character in Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch (Dial, 1991). To a certain extent, I tried to create a younger, Muslim version of the same character.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey? 

The best moment was absolutely getting the offer for Mommy’s Khimar. I cried tears of joy for an hour. All of the firsts since then have been emotional thrills: the first sketches, the cover, the F&G, and then holding the final copy. There’s nothing like it.

The worst? It’s hard to say and maybe, it’s because I haven’t been in the business long enough. I have had a number of rejections.

Strangely, they haven’t felt all that bad. I compartmentalize them. The worst is probably sending work I think is a perfect fit for an editor or an agent and getting a form rejection or no response at all.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote:

“The words are often lyrical, and the story artfully includes many cultural details that will delight readers who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and enlighten readers who don’t.”

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is the debut author of Mommy’s Khimar (Salaam Reads, 2018).

She is a former English teacher and now helps kids learn how to write outside of the classroom in her nonprofit work.

She resides with her family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.