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

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Daria Peoples-Riley on This Is It, Illustration & Diversity

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

To say that I’m thrilled to feature Daria Peoples-Riley, fellow Epic Eighteen member, today on Cynsations is an understatement.

This Is It (Greenwillow, 2018), her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, follows a young girl of color getting ready for a ballet audition. Although she loves to dance, she doubts herself as she approaches the studio.

I love Daria’s use of the girl’s shadow self to help her overcome her hesitation. The endpapers with the young ballerina demonstrating the ballet positions remind me of my own trepidation at performing during my few years taking lessons as a child.

Daria, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

For This Is It, I wrote the poem as a gift for my daughter to give to her on the day of her first ballet audition.

I didn’t intend for it to become a picture book, so I illustrated the poem after the manuscript was written, and the text really drove my ideas for the illustrations.

However, in other projects, I find that the story comes as text for some spreads and illustrations for others. Eventually, during the revision process, the pace of text and illustrations evolve organically.

Daria’s writing workspace

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I began painting as a child, alongside my dad. In high school, I took the mandatory semester of art, and fell in love with drawing, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I really started practicing. The ability to draw and paint relies on a person’s ability to see. As your visual intelligence improves, your art will as well.

I remember Marla Frazee saying that in the journey from beginner to becoming publishable, you have to just practice until your art is good enough.

Every year, I put together a portfolio and took it to SCBWI conferences. Eventually, it was good enough.

There is no magic to making publishable art. There is truth to the 10,000 hours. Whether that is in art school or at home in your living room, 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours, and it took me three years of practicing before my portfolio was good enough.

Do you have any tips for putting together a portfolio?


I’m sure there are many more qualified people to answer this question, but I think anyone who wants to be an illustrator has to create from a place of love in order for their work to see the world.

You can check the boxes of having everything in your portfolio we learn to include at intensives and conferences, work that demonstrates our mastery of skill, but if we don’t love what we are making, the work won’t evoke the emotion of the viewer, or stand out to industry gatekeepers. Absolutely love everything you include.

If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t make you laugh, or tear, or smile to yourself, take it out, and make something else.

Daria’s illustration workspace

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

The best moment was when This Is It sold. After three years of developing it, I was on the verge of moving on. Waiting is hard, but I’m learning to wait better.

The worst moment? I haven’t had one yet, but it might be around the corner, and that will be okay. It’s all a part of the journey.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I introduced myself to Matt de la Pena at a children’s book festival, and I knew he had a daughter, so I brought a copy of This Is It to give him. When he asked me to sign it for him, I froze. I’d never signed my book before.

He was very gracious, and taught me how to sign my book. I had to laugh about it afterwards, and I was a little embarrassed, but it was definitely memorable and funny for him, I’m sure.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

The physical rendering of the heroine in This Is It is very intentional.

Like me, she checks a lot of racial and ethnic boxes, and not fitting into any one box informs her lack of belonging. She looks different, but because of her differences, she is extraordinary and special. She represents the underrepresented child’s uniqueness and desire to do something in an arena where she is often the only one present.

Brown ballet dancers are underrepresented at pre-professional ballet schools and companies all over the country. I hope this book whispers, “You can do it.”

Daria talking with students

The text is the rhythm and movement of my mother’s New Orleans’ roots. New Orleans’ women are resilient with deep-loving hearts.

I wanted to portray a character who overcomes her fears by using the greatest catalyst an under-represented youth could possibly use when she feels alone in the world—-the power of affirmations spoken from within herself.

Dancing through our fears is also a metaphor for how we can choose to approach life. Whatever challenges we face, let’s surrender to the journey.

I think the strength we discover along the way will be change the trajectory of our lives forever.

Cynsational Notes

Daria Peoples-Riley’s first job was at nine years old in the children’s section of her hometown library in Paso Robles, California. She worked a little, but she mostly read picture books.

Daria loved basketball, competing in oratorical contests, drawing, and painting. Her dad gave her art lessons in their garage on Rose Lane, and Daria’s mom rescued her first self-portrait from the kitchen trash can, and had it professionally framed the next day.

Today, it hangs in her parents’ living room as a reminder that our life’s purpose almost always introduces itself to us as a child.

Daria earned a B.A. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, where she found herself shelving books in the library once again and reading the writings of many notable authors.

After earning a Masters in Education and 10 years of teaching, Daria became a full-time author and illustrator. A companion book to This Is It will follow in 2019. She is also the illustrator of What Gloria Heard by Jessica M. Rinker (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about the life and work of Gloria Steinem.

Daria lives in Las Vegas with her family.

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.

Enter to win a copy of This Is It:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 12, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 26, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 26, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Bank Street Award Winners

The Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education honors the following three books this month:

The 2007 Josette Frank Award (fiction) goes to Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Hyperion) and The Manny Files by Christian Burch (Atheneum)(excerpt). This award honors “a book or books of outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.”

The 2007 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award goes to Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman (Holiday House). This award honors “a non-fiction book that serves as an inspiration to young readers.”

Learn more about the Bank Street Awards.