Fresh Voices Q&A

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Jamila Thompkins-Bigelow and Hatem Aly, creators of SALAT IN SECRET

★ “[A] sincerely wrought celebration of family and faith.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

What inspired you to write/illustrate Salat in Secret?

JAMILAH: The idea for SALAT IN SECRET came to me around two weeks after my father passed away, and that also happened to be about two weeks before my youngest child’s seventh birthday. During that space of time, I was grieving but I was also feeling so much gratitude for the many great memories of my father. As I planned out my son’s birthday, I thought about getting him a sajjada or salat rug because age seven is so important for Muslims — the age when children are encouraged to perform all five daily ritual prayers or salat. I thought about how much my father would love to see his grandchild get his own salat rug and this story was born. The father character in the book is modeled after my own father in the way he is an unapologetic Muslim. He even is an ice cream truck man, which is a job my father had.

HATEM: The story could be read and understood by anyone. The desire to create space for oneself in the world is universal—and it’s not always easy to do. Also, the writing was so good.

What was the most difficult part about writing/illustrating the book? What part was the easiest?

JAMILAH: I found the scene when police confront Muhammad’s father as he is publicly praying emotionally challenging to write. It was difficult because I know that often my faith is criminalized, and I also know of other Muslims that this has happened to. In fact, the idea for the scene came from my father telling me about another ice cream man crying after police harassed him for performing salat next to his truck although he wasn’t bothering anyone and was out of the way.

HATEM: What is easy? Ha! It is always a dance on the edge of a sloppy, muddy road! I guess I had some trouble coming up with a way to make the coat closet “a character” that was both a sanctuary and a safe space while still functioning as a coat closet. It was still fun, though!

I find it easiest to convey feelings visually, and I have found that illustration can allow introverted storytellers to become actors on paper and to show something without putting on a show.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

JAMILAH: I definitely identify with Muhammad the most because I know what it’s like to grow up knowing you’re different and feeling both pride and shame in those differences. I found public prayer very embarrassing as a young person. Like me, many observant Muslims find needing to pray in public space’s anxiety-inducing because of the various stereotypes tied to Muslim practices. Yet, they still may personally cherish salat in spite of how others view it.

HATEM: I see a lot of myself in Muhammad. It is often up to the sensitive, observant, reflective kid within me to figure out how to deal with the flood of positive and negative emotions and ideas that hit me all at once.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

JAMILAH: I want kids to take away that it’s okay to be different and to ask for what you need to be comfortable in the spaces that you occupy. I want them to be open to accommodating others and their differences.

HATEM: I hope that kids will consider what they have wrapped up in their souls that makes it hard for them to be themselves or to observe what makes them feel at peace with themselves and the world, and what it takes to unwrap that with grace and courage.

What are you currently reading?

JAMILAH: I’m currently reading and loving VICTORY STAND! by Tommie Smith, Derrick Barnes, and Dawud Anyabwile.

HATEM: I usually have a few books going at the same time. I am currently rereading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and have just started reading Grounded by Aisha Saeed, Huda Al-Marashi, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, and S. K. Ali. The list is long and has a lot of different types of books, but I would like to enjoy these first.


The Fresh Voices series is in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Kayla Whaley, author of A TO Z ANIMAL MYSTERIES #1: THE ABSENT ALPACAS

Young clue hunters Abbi, Daniel, and Lydia sniff out the mystery behind a group of missing alpacas in this chapter book inspired by Ron Roy’s beloved A to Z Mysteries series!

What was your greatest inspiration for writing A to Z Animal Mysteries #1: The Absent Alpacas?

When I first started working on The Absent Alpacas, I had just finished writing a string of dark and/or emotionally taxing short stories. They were all capital-A About disability in one way or another, and I was feeling strangely…distanced from my own writing? I felt an immense external pressure (both real and imagined) to perform disability in my writing and I was, frankly, exhausted. So when I got the chance to work on this series, I let myself approach it as a sort of internal reset. This was a completely new-to-me age category and a new-to-me genre (I’d written suspense, but never a proper mystery before), so I focused on those elements first and foremost. I wanted to write something fun, something cute, something memorable, something warm. I wanted to trust that my voice and interests–including but not exclusively disability-related–would emerge naturally. Which is a long-winded way to say my greatest inspiration was chasing whatever felt the most enjoyable to me personally at the time! It was a very selfish way to write a book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest? 

I’m not a particularly visual writer. I often have to actively remind myself to describe what people or places look like. For whatever reason, I’m much more likely to reach for any other sense before sight. The fact that this book was going to be fully illustrated made it even more imperative that I not only add visual descriptors but that I also pay attention to blocking the action in a way I never quite had before. That was definitely the hardest part in terms of the actual writing.

Weirdly, the easiest part was the plot. I’m a writer who operates purely on ~vibes~ when I’m drafting. But this time, because it was a mystery, I needed to have an actual plan before diving in. I expected it would be excruciating, but I had the entire thing plotted out in under an hour–and the final product is surprisingly close to that initial outline! I have no idea why it came so easily, but I’m certainly not complaining.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why? 

I’m sure most people would guess Abbi, but honestly? She and I aren’t very much alike; I’m sad to say. Trust me, I wish I was as curious and passionate, and clever as Abbi! Of the three main characters, I think I’m arguably the most like Daniel: cautious, a rule-follower, always eager to help, somewhat more reserved but still fiercely protective of those he cares for.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story? 

I honestly don’t have an answer for that! I hope they enjoy the time they spend with the story and the characters. But beyond that, I want them to take away whatever it is they need and want from it. For some readers, that might be seeing an alpaca in a mermaid costume (check!). For others, it might be seeing the difficulty and annoyance of dodging tree roots on the page (check!). For others still, the takeaway might be that nature conservancy can’t exist within a capitalist society without communal support (also check!). I mostly just want them to have fun. Anything they can take away beyond that is just the…tiara on the proverbial alpaca? 😂

 What are you currently reading? 

Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones. One of my former MFA professors recommended it after I told her I’ve been in a massive reading slump. It’s one of the first memoirs I’ve read since graduating a few years ago, and it was an excellent choice. I’m only halfway, but it’s already a beautiful meditation on disability, motherhood, aesthetic, art, desire, and so much more. Highly recommend!

The Fresh Voices series is in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Meeg Pincus and Merdith McKean Gimbel, author and illustrator of DOOR BY DOOR

A nonfiction picture book about Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, who dreamed of making a difference as a kid and became the highest-ranking openly transgender political official in America.

What inspired you to write/illustrate Door by Door

MP: It began with reading Sarah’s coming out story in our college alumni magazine in 2012. I was so moved by it and realized that, while I’d been working for gay rights for 20+ years, as a cis woman, I really didn’t know much about trans rights or trans experiences. So, her story inspired me to dive in, learn, and better understand trans lives, struggles, and history. This then made a huge impact on my own life when a very close loved one came to me for support around their gender identity.

As I had the honor of walking alongside my trans loved one on their transition journey, and getting involved in the trans advocacy community, I kept thinking back to Sarah’s story. As a children’s book author, I knew hers was an important story that kids could relate to, and I approached her about writing it – before she became a senator, actually! – and she was so gracious and enthusiastic. Five years later, we have Door by Door.

MMG: I knew I wanted to illustrate Meeg Pincus’s manuscript about Senator Sarah McBride as soon as I read it. I love how Meeg wrote about Sarah’s journey growing up. It’s touching to see the way she grew into her leadership roles, fully embraced her gender identity, and eventually shared her true self with her loved ones. Senator McBride is such an inspiring, well-spoken, and graceful person so it’s been neat to illustrate a story about her life. And I will say that as a non-binary kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t have the privilege of reading about gender diverse people who did great things. I’m delighted I get to be part of a team that created such an important book.

What was the most difficult part about writing/illustrating the book? What part was the easiest? 

MP: I think the most difficult part was trying to do justice to Sarah’s story, wanting to get it right for her and reflect her authentically and fully – in just 40 pages! (That’s always the trick with picture book biographies but especially with a living subject.) Luckily, she was so generous with her time and feedback, which helped tremendously in making sure I was on track (and I wouldn’t have done it without her participation!).

The easiest part was working with Sarah, the amazing editor, Kelly Delaney, and fabulous illustrator, Meridth McKean Gimbel. We all just clicked and were so passionate about the project and our shared vision for it, the process was just a joyful collaboration.

MMG: Many trans people feel discomfort or even trauma when looking at images of themselves before they transition. I wanted to be mindful of that, and still create illustrations that felt true to who Sarah has always been as a person. We were very fortunate to have her review all the art created for this story. Because of the personal nature of Senator McBride’s journey of embracing her gender identity, we could not have done this book without her feedback. She was really generous with her time and an integral part of helping us create a respectful representation of her life.

I think the easiest part of illustrating this story was choosing the color palette. This is a pride book about a politician. The colors were pretty much set from the get-go. I had fun placing trans and pride colors throughout the book. And I am happy that the endpages have been received as I intended. The opening pages, with their blue and grey doors closed, symbolizing how the world saw Sarah before she came out, and how restricting that was to her. After we read how she embraced her identity, and excelled in politics, we see the closing endpages with rainbow-colored doors. Sarah’s blue door has been opened, and a triumphant trans wave of colors sparkles through the doorway.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

MP: My heart just aches for, and relates to, Sarah’s journey of being “different” from the dominant culture and unsure if she could be fully herself and still pursue her dreams to make an impact.

I have multiple ways I’m “different” myself and I still grapple with embracing all the parts of me fully, the worries of being accepted and included, while also feeling called to be out there making positive change in a sometimes-cruel world. It’s this human, emotional struggle that’s at the heart of the story, and that I think kids will understand innately as well.

MMG: I feel a strong connection with Senator McBride’s journey of getting to know herself and embracing her gender identity. I grew up in a conservative environment that often categorized gender in a way that gave me extreme discomfort or anxiety. I too have a clear memory of boys and girls being put into separate lines, in my gym class, and me not wanting to line up on either side. I felt like I belonged to both groups and that didn’t belong to either. We didn’t have the term non-binary when I was a kid, so I grew up feeling like I was the only one who felt alienated and detached from the gender assigned to me. As an adult, I read books about trans and non-binary folks. I realized that these books were describing me. Once I had the terminology, the pronouns that better reflected my identity, and the support I needed, I felt at home. It took me longer than it should have to find peace within myself. That process all started with a book, which is why I feel that books, like this one, are so important.

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

 MP: I hope kids will take away validation for who they are, compassion and understanding for others who may be different from them, and as Sarah says in her note in the book, the belief that their story matters – that everyone’s story matters, and if we listen to each other, we can create a more safe, healthy, and equal world.

 MMG: Growing up we’ve all struggled to be seen and valued for our true selves. I hope the kids reading this story will be empowered to embrace themselves for who they are and see that when they live their lives as their authentic selves, they can dream big, and accomplish big things. And specifically, to the queer and trans kids that see themselves in this book, I hope they feel loved and celebrated.

What are you currently reading?

MP: I just started reading Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue. And I stopped short at this line, which just says everything for me: “If you listen, I’ll tell you a story. We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore.”

 MMG: I always have a big stack of books, and I bounce back and forth between them. Here are a few books I’m currently reading; Black Beach by Shaunna and John Stith and illustrated by Maribel Lechuga, Baby’s Here!written by Jessica Young and illustrated by Genevieve Godbout, Maribel’s Year written by Michelle Sterling and illustrated by Sarah Gonzalez, The Beautiful Something Else by Ash Van Otterloo, Thisby Thestoop and the Wretched Scrattle by Zac Gorman, Ducks by Kate Beaton, and The Tunnels by Greg Mitchell.

Door by Door

Door by Door By Meeg Pincus; illustrated by Meridth McKean Gimbel

A nonfiction picture book about Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride, who dreamed of making a difference as a kid and grew up to become the highest-ranking openly transgender political official in America.

As a kid, Sarah McBride dreamed of running for office so she could help people in her community. When her friends asked for bicycles for Christmas, Sarah asked for a podium. Her friends and family encouraged her to follow this path, but there was one problem: they saw Sarah as a boy, and Sarah knew she was a girl. Every night, she’d replay the day in her head, watching how it would have played out if she was able to live as the girl she knew herself to be.

In college, she finally came out as Sarah, and in 2020 she won her election to become a Delaware State Senator, making her the highest-ranking trans political official in the country and a hero to kids everywhere who want to live their dreams and be themselves!

The Fresh Voices series is in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Misa Sugiura

A thrilling fantasy series about a twelve-year-old girl who sets out to save her Shinto goddess mother—and the world—by facing down demons intent on bringing chaos.

What inspired you to write Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind

My first son was in elementary school during the publication of the Percy Jackson series. He was a voracious reader, and I often wished for a Percy Jackson-like book that would give him a connection to Japanese legends and religions. The specific legend I had in mind was a quasi-historic sea battle in which the three most sacred items in Japanese religious tradition were lost, and the drowned samurai from the losing side turned into crabs whose shells were etched with the angry faces of their former human selves. It took nearly fifteen years until I felt ready to write that story. 

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?

On a macro scale, my greatest challenge was balancing the action scenes with the quieter, more reflective scenes where characters process what’s happening. The hardest scenes for me to write were two scenes where Momo and Danny discuss race, family, power, and popularity. Danny is a transracial adoptee (a Japanese baby adopted by white parents), so that makes the topic even more tricky to navigate. I spent hours and hours revising about 300 words, trying to address these topics with honesty, nuance, and sensitivity while keeping the dialogue as organic and natural as possible. 

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

I identify strongly with the protagonist, Momo Arashima. I was Momo in my middle school years: a highly imaginative, highly perceptive misfit who couldn’t figure out how to be “normal”, much less popular. Like me, Momo sees how tenuous and shallow the popular kids’ friendships are, but she still wishes she could be part of that world. She’s also had to shoulder the burden of taking care of her mother, who doesn’t fit into the world around her, either, and is clearly suffering from depression. I did not have to take on adult responsibilities the way Momo does, but as the child of immigrants, I often felt like I had to help my parents navigate a world they didn’t understand. 

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

Apart from the feeling that they’ve gone on an amazing adventure and maybe learned a little about Japanese religious and folk characters, I want kids to know that it’s okay to be different and weird, that it’s okay to feel angry, anxious, or insecure, and that while all of those character traits and feelings can make life really hard, they can also be a source of power. I hope kids who feel like outsiders for any reason will read this book and feel like they’ve been given a shot of courage to continue being exactly who they are.

What are you currently reading?

My current audiobooks: I just finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and am now listening to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. In print, I’m reading Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and The Reunion by Kayla Olson.

Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind

Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind By Misa Sugiura

A thrilling fantasy series about a twelve year old girl who sets out to save her Shinto goddess mother—and the world—by facing down demons intent on bringing chaos.

“A grand adventure.” —Brandon Mull, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Fablehaven

“A wild ride of a novel…hilarious.” —Sayantani DasGupta, New York Times bestselling author of The Kingdom Beyond

All Momo wants for her twelfth birthday is an ordinary life—like everyone else's. At home, she has to take care of her absentminded widowed mother. At school, kids ridicule her for mixing up reality with the magical stories her mother used to tell her.

But then Momo’s mother falls gravely ill, and a death hag straight out of those childhood stories attacks Momo at the mall, where she’s rescued by a talking fox . . . and “ordinary” goes out the window. It turns out that Momo's mother is a banished Shinto goddess who used to protect a long-forgotten passageway to Yomi—a.k.a. the land of the dead. That passageway is now under attack, and countless evil spirits threaten to escape and wreak havoc across the earth.

Joined by Niko the fox and Danny—her former best friend turned popular jerk, whom she never planned to speak to again, much less save the world with—Momo must embrace her (definitely not "ordinary") identity as half human, half goddess to unlock her divine powers, save her mother’s life, and force the demons back to Yomi.

Misa Sugiura

Misa Sugiura’s ancestors include a poet, a priestess, a samurai, and a stowaway. She was born and raised in Chicagoland but eventually found her way to her true home in Northern California, where she lives and writes under a giant oak tree with her husband, two sons, and a cat named Mouse. Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind is her first middle-grade novel and was inspired by the gods and monsters of her parents’ home country, Japan.

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

Fresh Voices Q&A with Benjamin Wilgus and Rii Abrego, creators of GRACE NEEDS SPACE!


What inspired you to write Grace Needs Space!? What inspired your art for Grace Needs Space!?

BEN: All of my own work that I’m most proud of started from a place of deep self-indulgence, and Grace Needs Space! was no different. The story combines two things I find super interesting: imagining what it could look like to live a normal life in space and digging down into the complex relationships and messy feelings involved in even the most amicable divorce. When my own parents split up, my dad would take my sister and I on very long road trips—first across the US, and then later through Europe once he moved overseas—and I drew heavily on those experiences while writing this book. Just like I was excited to take a car ferry across the Baltic Sea and wander the old city in Stockholm, Grace is thrilled to ride a space elevator down to the surface of Titan and visit its methane lakes. And just like my sister and I stressed our mother out by calling her from a hostel doorstep in the middle of the night to cheerfully inform her we didn’t know where Dad was, I’m sure Grace’s mom is alarmed to hear that the engines of Ba’s freighter aren’t working how they should. (To my dad’s credit, at no point were we ever at risk of ending up stranded in the void of space.)

RII: To prepare for drawing Grace Needs Space!, I dove into a lot of classic sci-fi! It’s one thing to look at pictures of planets and rockets, but it’s a whole other thing to imagine them as places where people live. So while the world was heavily inspired by space photos, the International Space Station, etc., I also owe a lot to works like Alien, Star Wars, Planetes, etc. for helping me kickstart my brain into understanding how humans would exist in these spaces.

What was the most difficult part about writing or illustrating the book? What part was the easiest?

BEN: Gotta be honest, the most difficult part of the writing process was that almost all of it happened in March and April of 2020. But even when things were real grim, what helped the most with staying focused and making progress was knowing that Rii was counting on me. Drawing a graphic novel takes a ton of time and work, and if I slipped up too badly on my deadline, it would have made it much, much harder for Rii to stay on her own schedule. A comic like this is a team effort, and I didn’t want to let her down!

RII: I’ve drawn plenty of human characters, so the easiest part for me was drawing Grace and her family. The hardest part was trying to mesh my usual character style, which is sort of soft and round, with the sci-fi elements in a way that didn’t feel jarring. I didn’t want them to contrast each other too much—I wanted the reader to feel comfortable in this world, not alienated by it.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

BEN: Like I said earlier, Grace’s trip with her Ba was definitely inspired by my own childhood! But the thing present-day Ben relates to most strongly is the fact that Grace is forever listening to Titan documentaries in the background of whatever else she’s doing. I’m one of those people who always has a podcast or a YouTube video playing while I’m cleaning the house or making dinner, and when I have a pile of mundane work to do, the only thing that keeps my butt at my desk is having a Twitch stream of someone building a video game house going in another window.

RII: Grace laments her boring space station life, much like I lamented my boring small-town Alabama life as a kid. She’s so interested in the world beyond, but she feels like she’s being stifled by the adults in her life. It’s a frustrating thing to deal with when you’re young and at your most curious! Whether you think it was a good idea or not, that little taste of agency she takes hold of felt really good in the moment, haha!

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

BEN: It’s extremely difficult to be a kid and managing a split household can make things even harder— your routine gets all messed up, it’s hard for you to know what to expect, adults often don’t take you seriously and blame you for anything that goes wrong, and sometimes things will happen to you that feel insanely unfair. A lot of kids don’t have much agency when it comes to the things that matter to them, and not all parents and guardians are very good at respecting what kids have to say or making sure their needs are met. I hope that kid readers can see themselves not only in what Grace is excited about, but also what she struggles with. If this book helps even one kid understand their own feelings a little bit better and helps them figure out how to talk to the adults in their lives about it, that would be wonderful. I would love that so much.

RII: I want them to come away with the understanding that their feelings and agency are important, and that they deserve equal respect. That adults are not perfect and sometimes shoulder the blame. And also that space is very, very cool.

What are you currently reading?

BEN: I’m almost finished with Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton, and it is, of course, absolutely wonderful. She’s so stupidly good at comics, it’s absurd. I’m also neck-deep in E.K. Weaver’s new webcomic, Shot and Chaser, which I adore—she has a knack for nuanced characters and acting in comics that’s so unique and so lovely to see. (Please note that neither of these are comics for children I cannot stress that enough.)

RII: Not a very exciting choice, but lately I’ve been reading Skip and Loafer by Misaki Takamatsu. It’s a pretty breezy slice-of-life, but it navigates the characters’ relationships so deftly and always leaves me feeling bright and refreshed. It makes writing characters look so easy!!


This interview was made possible by the RHCB DEI Outreach committee. 
Grace Needs Space!

Grace Needs Space! By Benjamin A. Wilgus and Rii Abrego

To the moon and back! A sci-fi middle-grade graphic novel about a young girl's long-awaited summer trip across space with one of her moms. But when her relationship with her mom goes sideways, so does her trip. Will Grace be able to save her summer vacation before it ends?

Grace is SO EXCITED to fly a freighter from her home space station (and away from her BORING mother Evelyn) to a faraway moon! Plus, she’ll get some quality time with her FUN mom Kendra—something Grace definitely needs. Finally, a real adventure that Grace can get excited about while the rest of her space station friends go away for their summer vacations.

But when Kendra is too focused on work, Grace’s first big trip suddenly becomes kind of lonely. Grace had so many plans for fun. But all it takes is one quick decision to explore the moon by herself before Grace’s adventure suddenly becomes not so out of this world at all. With her mom mad at her, Grace wants nothing more than to return home. Then their ship breaks down. Will Grace be able to get through to her mom and save their trip in the end?

Praise for Grace Needs Space

“A genuine thrill. Perfect for kids who loved Jennifer L. Holm’s Lion of Mars.” —Booklist, starred review

“The sci-fi setting creates high stakes for this realistic story of a tween ready for adventure, navigating her relationships with separated parents.”—School Library Journal

“A tender story that explores the complexity of familial bonds as deftly as it does the outer regions of space.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Though the story takes place among the cosmos, the earthly truths surrounding love and connection proves artfully rendered.” —Publishers Weekly

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