- Ratha Tep
Interview with Brittany J. Thurman, FLY
Africa’s grandmother was a double Dutch legend, and Africa knows she can become the same. Her brother scoffs when she signs up for a double Dutch competition, though—how can she hope to compete when she’s never done it before?
Max's Boat Pick:
Written by Brittany J. Thurman and illustrated by Anna Cunha
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (January 11, 2022)
Can you tell me the origin story behind FLY?
"Fly began as a poem. There have been many moments society pressured and crushed my sense of self. Some of those moments came from lack of representation in media. Books, magazines, movies, advertisements. They all send a message. One day while on my lunch break, I wrote a poem in the hope
to break the bubble holding in these misconceptions. I wanted to counter the negative self-image I held
during my childhood. I wanted others to know, see and understand their worth as well. From the poem
came many revisions, rejections, reflection and ultimately results. The poem, You Girl, transformed into
Are there other books you love with strong, confident girl characters? "Yes! I could not have written Fly without being inspired by a multitude of books featuring confident girls. Under My Hijab by Hena Khan and Aaliya Jaleel is a beautiful story featuring a young, confident girl who admires the ways in which the women around her wear their hijab. What If... by Samantha Berger and Mike Curato is a story of wonder and inspiration that shows a young girl confidently following her passions. The Me I Choose to Be by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and Regis and Kahran Bethencourt shows real photographs of children and all the capabilities that exist within them."
Fly seems as much a celebration of the belief in oneself, as well as a celebration of community. Are there other picture books you love for their sense of community? "When I think of community picture books, Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy and Rafael López always rings in my mind. I’m reminded of the vibrancy, then I’m reminded of Mira and the neighbors, and their tremendous story that changes their gray community into a colorful oasis. Another community picture book that I love is Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor and Rafael López.
In Just Ask, children, and adults of different abilities from around the world celebrate the attributes that make themselves just who they are. In the story it is emphasized that it is more than ok to ask questions; this is how we embrace and get to know our communities."
Your bio mentions you've read to thousands of children. I'm curious in what context? "After graduate school, I began working within the early literacy community in the city I was living at the time, Pittsburgh, PA. For several years, I led baby, toddler and preschool story times programs with corresponding activities. Whether it was at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh or the Carnegie Library, or with Reading is Fundamental and several smaller non-profits, I remember the smiles, excitement, and joy from children ready to hear a good story.
I say thousands of children because I truly do not know the exact number. But I do know there were a lot of tiny fingers helping me turn pages, book after book. At the Carnegie Library, I led outreach visits to daycares, child development centers and schools. Many of the schools I visited did not have Black children or Black educators. It was important for me to share the stories that truthfully reflect our world, just as it is vital for me to write the books that reflect my truth. I hope that my visits left an impact on the kids and educators.
Each week, a lamb puppet accompanied me to each visit. Once there, we sang songs, played games and read a handful of picture books. I still have that lamb puppet today to remind me that a child is already eager for a story."
What were some of your favorite picture books to read aloud? "This is the question of all questions! I have so many favorites and I wish I could list them all! Many of the books I like to read aloud have a musical quality or give ‘the feels’ after the first read! Play This Book by Jessica Young and Daniel Wiseman is like being in a band between the pages!
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman is a lyrical story of inclusion. Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora is probably my top favorite. I love the theme of community and giving of oneself without asking for anything in return."
Fly is your debut picture book. Was there a single picture book that made you want
to pursue picture book writing? "I am always reflecting on Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. While I began writing long before I was introduced to Each Kindness, the story, characters, themes, and words kept me on the pursuit to write my own. While picture books are intended for children, they are also for teens, adults, our older generations. We can all benefit from the stories, images, and messages within.
Each Kindness is one of those books that showcases everyday values in an extraordinary way. When I think of Each Kindness, the same emotions I had on the first read still settle in my soul. That’s powerful."
What do you think the best picture books do? Is there a book that you think does this particularly well? "If I were to sum up one thing the best picture books do, I say it is that they transform. But this one aspect of picture books has a few different meanings. Picture books transform the reader as they traverse the story. You are taken on a short, but eventful journey. The characters are transformed from their original status to something ‘new’. (To be honest isn’t this every book?!) BUT, picture books also transform the aura of the reader. Through heartfelt moments, picture books tap into our inner most struggles, desires, wants and dreams, leaving
us with a feeling that I can only describe as 'the tingles.' Don’t we want to give picture books a hug once we’ve finished? Then, we’re ready to pick them up all over again to have the same experience."
What contemporary picture books do you hope will become the classics of the future? "Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison, Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos and Jacqueline Alcántara, and Your Name is a Song by Jamila Thompkins-Bigelow are all books with timeless, classic qualities. Kids for generations will pick up these stories, see themselves and want to share the story with those they love."
What's on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "I think this book is on everyone’s list and it is always at the top of mine. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I used to read this story to preschoolers each winter. I made felt pieces to accompany the characters and setting. Once we finished reading, we would retell the story through the felt pieces. Peter is a timeless character that so many can relate to today. Just as it was vastly important for Black kids to seem themselves in books as children full of joy when The Snowy Day came out in 1962, it is equally important for that same joyful representation today. Go Peter!"
What picture books coming out in 2022 are you most looking forward to reading?
"So many! Can I say all of them?! But here are a few of the ones I can wait to get my hands on!
Francis Discovers Possible by Ashlee Latimer and Shahrzad Maydani
Show the World by Angela Dalton and Daria Peoples
American Desi by Jyoti Rajan Gopal and Supriya Kelkar"