Sunflower Sisters by Monika Singh Gangotra and Michaela Dias-Hayes (2021). It’s out in the UK now and will be coming to the US as well.
This picture book is a story about bonds of love. The ones between best friends, Amrita and Kiki. The ones between mothers and their children. The ones made at special wedding celebrations. And, at its heart, the ones we have with ourselves. Amrita’s story encourages readers to beam like a sunflower, proud and bold. And to be a sunflower with and for others too.
It has captivating, joyful illustrations and a message that radiates affirmation, connection, and purpose.
Amrita is getting ready for a wedding in her South Asian family, and the bride is wearing face cream to lighten her skin. This, as well as a comment from Aunty about drinking tea, sets off discussion and discovery for the main character.
Amrita’s mum though, is a source of self-acceptance, a voice of encouraging Amrita to fiercely love herself as she is—and her skin tone that is beautiful as it is, always, as well as in a yellow lehenga, the color of a sunflower. In fact, it is Amrita’s yellow lehenga and effervescent sunflower-spirit that eventually convinces Aunty how beautiful she is wearing any color at all.
“…the skin we are in is EXACTLY as it is meant to be.”
Amrita’s best friend, Kiki, is at a wedding the same day as well. At the end, we see the girls unite and twirl together, vowing to love who they are as they bloom and grow. And we even get a glimpse on the last two spreads of how they do! (Hint: it has to do with being, doing, and also wearing what you love.)
Plus, there’s an explanation of colorism in the back for handy reference when speaking with kids about the book.
“From that moment on, the girls would make sure they felt like sunflowers every day.”
The author of this book has an effervescent sunflower-spirit herself, and I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with my friend Monika Singh Gangotra to ask her a few questions about Sunflower Sisters. She shares her wonderful answers below! Read on to hear what she has to say!
Michaela Dias-Hayes and Monika Singh Gangotra the week Sunflower Sisters released.
This Picture Book Life: What was the impetus for you to write Sunflower Sisters; what inspired the idea for this picture book and to explore colorism through family, friendship, and wedding celebrations?
Monika Singh Gangotra: Sunflower Sisters is a story that follows two best friends, Amrita and Kiki, on their journey through self-love, sisterhood and the power of loving one another. Specifically, this story focuses on the issue of familial colourism and how we can tackle this with love, kindness, acceptance, strength and honesty.
I wanted kids to have some books on their shelves that were rich in diversity, cultures of those they are growing up alongside, representative of multicultural communities, relatable characters, contexts and adventures, books that carried important messages for the world we live in and how they affect all of us. To empower readers to make positive change. Further, I wanted more representation for the way we live our lives. The buildings, our clothes, our neighbours whilst also addressing and raising awareness of cultural issues and cultural wonders that are still alive and present today.
Colourism is an issue that has followed me throughout my whole life and continues to do so to ALL South Asians in some way. With a deep-rooted history related to colonialism and caste, colourism has become incredibly engrained in the way South Asians view beauty and success. South Asian pop culture is saturated in colourism and our exposure and ideology is incredibly high. As I began to work in the beauty industry, what I was taught to believe about what is beautiful became incongruent with what I saw and felt for myself. And I wanted to create change. I feel social change is incredibly powerful through children and it is our responsibility as adults to help steer them in the direction of love.
In my experience, wedding celebrations have a large focus on beauty and the way a woman presents herself to the community. Much of my exposure in relation to colourism was in and around wedding celebrations. In saying that, I love weddings. The joy, the colours, the clothes! Weddings have always been occasions where I have felt I can truly express myself in terms of my style and felt would make a great setting for Amrita to be able to do the same.
TPBL: Sunflowers! Do you have a special connection to these radiant blooms?
Monika Singh Gangotra: I remember growing up and watching my mum walking around the front yard of our coastal home in the early morning. The sun high in the sky and the most beautiful and brightly coloured birds chirping loudly, eating from all her fruit trees she planted herself – pears, guava, peaches and a mango tree to name just to name a few.
As more and more birds began to come to our house to eat and party, Mum felt there wasn’t enough fruit on the trees to feed them all so she began to buy large bags of bird seed to scatter on the front yard. This bird seed mix had sunflower seeds and before we knew it, we had these incredible sunflowers growing in our front yard. As tall as can be. These were some of the best days and the most beautiful images of my mum that I carry in my heart and can see ever so clearly when I close my eyes and think of home.
This image of my mum and her sunflowers is how this came to be. I feel that sunflowers grow their best when they are surrounded by the warmth of the sun. I also noticed in her flowers that some of the sunflowers looked towards one another. This is the imagery that I have used in the book to describe the important relationships between Amrita, Kiki and their mothers.
Amrita looks up towards her mother for love and guidance (as the sun). Her mother provides her with a safe environment to grow full of warmth and love. Sisterhood is explained through Amrita and Kiki being sunflowers for themselves and also one another. That at times when their sun isn’t there, they can look towards each other and know they will always be there for one another – unconditionally.
TPBL: Both you and Michaela Dias-Hayes have relationships with fashion and textiles, and your Instagram often features your radiant, joyful wardrobe in exuberant photos. How did both your passions for fashion inevitably infuse Sunflower Sisters?
Monika Singh Gangotra: The story follows Amrita and Kiki in their journey to open their own fashion house, just as I have been so lucky to have done so in my own. Fashion is such a huge part of my personal expression.
Michaela incorporated prints from clothes she had seen from my own personal wardrobe in social media. That is why my most favourite page is the very last. The colours, the diversity, little hints of my own story and journey in the colours and prints used.My heart sang when I first saw that page and Owlet Press lovingly gifted me a framed copy of this spread to hang on my wall.
Thank you, Monika, for spending this time and sharing with us, and to you and Owlet Press for review copy and images!
Such a vibrant book about being like a sunflower, proud and glowing and warm, warrants a wearable craft! Plus, Amrita and Kiki wear sunflowers in their hair in one spread!
This sunflower hair clip is playfully easy to make with no-bake modeling clay and will remind the wearer that, like Amrita and the Sunflower Sisters, they have their own ability to beam like this golden bloom. It could be used in a child’s hair or worn on some item of clothing or accessory or affixed to a piece of furniture or carried in a bag or pocket.
What you’ll need:
Any no-bake modeling clay (I used yellow, orange, pink, and brown and Crayola’s Model Magic variety.)
Some gold thread if you’d like to add flecks of it as I have done.
Hot glue gun (to be used by the adult present).
From there, it’s just a matter of starting with the sunflower center by rolling a ball of clay and slightly flattening it Then, you shape a whole bunch of petals, mixing clay colors if you’d like, and then kneading each one onto the center so it’s attached. Layer by layer, petal by petal, however you like! I cut small pieces of gold thread to embed into some petals as well, taking inspiration from the sunflowers on the cover of Sunflower Sisters.
The finally step is attaching the flower to the clip. Before you glue it, wait until your clay is dry. The timing may be different depending on what kind you use, but if you wait 24 hours, I’m sure that’ll do the trick in any case. Simply affix it with a dollop of hot glue, hold a few seconds, wait, and wear!
I love giving away books and this is the most to a single blog reader I’ve ever had the pleasure of sending off! These 16 terrific books from the last couple of years are for an educator’s classroom or library to celebrate 8 years of This Picture Book Life and to celebrate all the vital work teachers do, entry details below!
And quick update for any picture book creators out there: I’m super excited to be teaching another round of my online picture book revision workshop series starting August 7th! There are details about this special opportunity to REVISE your manuscript according to your voice and vision, RECEIVE encouragement and inspiration from me and the small group, and REVITALIZE your writing process on my website here! Or simply email me to get more info or sign up. Two scholarships at a significant discount available for participants with underrepresented/marginalized voices in publishing—we need your voices!
Summer is here: a pair of picture books to celebrate!
These picture books share signals of a season’s arrival. They share summer fruit, rich imagery and details, and even relationships with grandmothers at their center and heart—showing how when there is a loving adult to accompany us through a spell, it’s that much sweeter. They demonstrate connection to summer (and in the case of Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This is How I Know, all the seasons) by way of the natural world, the food we eat, the people who fill our days.
They share lyrical language, each in their own way, and equally enchanting art, each in their own way as well.
An immersive journey through the sensations of summer and the love and comfort only a lola can bring.
“How do I know summer is here?”
The narrator knows by way of Lola coming to visit from the Philippines. What her grandmother brings for her, how her grandmother spends time with her, and most central, what her grandmother cooks and eats with her! This picture book, brushed throughout with verdant pastels, encapsulates the joy of summer and special connection and is simultaneously a celebration of Filipino food. Gorgeous, evocative descriptions and renderings fill its pages: cassava cake (I love this spread with the characters’ conspiratorial smiles in front of the oven), suman, kalamansi pie, lumpia, brown-sugar bananas.
And When Lola Visits carries a range of emotion as well because like summer, everything changes—Lola’s visit comes to an end. Joy turns to missing and the wind begins to blow in the empty space Lola leaves. But summer lasts a while longer still, as it always does, with other sweet things to fill the days until new sensations signal change again, and more joy and special connection yet to be discovered.
A contemplative, calming, beautifully bilingual outing through the signs of each season, starting with summer, every cue from the natural world a chance to notice, to absorb, to revel in.
“Aaniish ezhi-gkendmaanh niibing?”
“How do I know summer is here?”
The narrator knows by way of what changes in the natural world: the animals and plants, the sun and moon. This picture book brims with colors as rich and saturated as the observations and details in Anishinaabemowin and English that they illustrate.
Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This is How I Know follows a child and their grandmother, first into the arrival of summer and then through the remaining seasons. They are always together, constant. When outside, they are almost always near the water. But the world around them shifts.
Each of the four sections of this picture book asks that question: how does the narrator know of its arrival? Most end with child and grandmother sitting: enjoying, reflecting, connecting, soaking up a season’s peaceful close. Thrumming with direct, detailed poetry, deep greens, blues, mustard, browns, this is a story to inspire slowing down, going outside, experiencing Anishinaabemowin language and Native culture, and bonding with our world and loved ones.
I’m excited to share this list of 20 recent picture books that in some way touch on a child’s relationships—with themselves: their identities, feelings, behaviors—as well as their relationships with others. That’s the essence of social-emotional learning or social-emotional development, how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the wider community.
Books can be one tool to validate kids and help them navigate all of these relationships, emotions, and experiences as they make sense of themselves and their world.
“Social-emotional learning (SEL) skills can help us build communities that foster courageous conversations across difference so that our students can confront injustice, hate, and inequity. SEL refers to the life skills that support people in experiencing, managing, and expressing emotions, making sound decisions, and fostering interpersonal relationships. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines five core SEL competencies, including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. These competencies seamlessly lend themselves to preventing violence and to building a more peaceful world.”
Here are 20 wonderful picture books with kids’ lives, feelings, bonds, and well-beings in mind!
I Am! Affirmations for Resilience by Bela Barbosa and Edel Rodriguez (2020) is a board book the author describes as “a tool kit for children.” It feels essential to me: for those who have or work with children, for all all of us. It teaches mindfulness, emotion regulation, resilience, and positive self-worth. It’s an incredible resource for how to respond when feeling difficult feelings or out of control. The text and illustration combo is vibrant, hopeful, beaming, and totally affirming.
We All Play kimêwânaw by Julie Flett (2021) is exquisitely illustrated (as all of Julie Flett’s work is), connective, gentle, playful. A refreshing, calm breath that connects kids to themselves, each other, and the natural world, all through play.
“…Whether we are running and hopping through the grass or rolling along the street or pondering creatures in the creek, we are all connected, living in relationship and in care of one another, in kinship. In Cree, this is called wâhkôhtowin.”
Thao: A Picture Book by Thao Lam (2020). This picture book is not only inventive, original, and risk-taking in form, but it is all about identity. It’s the story of the author-illustrator, Thao. Her name. Growing up with her name. The way other people mispronounced it. It will no doubt get kids thinking about their own names—and other people’s. And about identity, their own and others’.
Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Ananda, illustrated by Gabi H. Ali (2021). A joyful story of Laxmi and her mooch, which she describes as “these little hairs above my lip” and is the Hindi word for mustache. She learns to love it, along with all the hair on her body, after a talk with her mother connects her to the purpose of hair on our skin as well as all the people, in her family or famous ones like Frida Kahlo, who have a mooch or something like it. A beautiful celebration of bodies!
A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart written by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon (2020). The narrator of this beautiful, vital book is exploring “a space deep down inside me/where all my feelings hide” and bringing them to light—to themselves and the reader. His stirring, reverberating story starts with joy and then describes what else he experiences after a police shooting in his community: sorrow, anger, pride, love.
The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in Its Mouth by Bruce Handy & Hyewon Yum (2021) explores befores and afters, ups and downs, feelings that accompany or contrast or precede happiness of all sorts. It’s clever, inventive, and affirming; it will soothe and surprise with lovely text and expressive illustrations.
Anita and the Dragons by Hannah Carmona and Anna Cunha (2021). “Today is the day I will meet the dragons—large winged beasts who will carry me away.” The narrator of this immersive, expressive story uses the metaphor of dragons for airplanes, like the one that will take her from the Dominican Republic to a new home. She empowers and envisions herself as a brave princesa as she copes with saying goodbye (and hello)—while still letting herself confront all the scary questions that arise inside her.
Bindu’s Bindis by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (2021). This picture book is not only about Bindu’s many-shaped and colored bindis with which she expresses herself, but at its heart it’s about her Nani who sends them to her and then visits from India. Her grandmother is joyful, self-expressive, and someone who holds her head high, even when confronted in the story with scary, hateful, unjust actions, an incredible model and encouragement to Bindu in every way.
The Little Things words by Christian Trimmer, art by Kaylani Juanita (2021). The story of a little girl with three pigtails, the sea stars she finds on the shore, and the power of one small act of kindness that so often inspires another and another and another. This shows how own seemingly insignificant effort to help always makes a difference, if even just to one sea star, but so often reverberates much further in the community. Plus, Kaylani Juanita‘s gorgeous pastel artwork is a feast.
It’s OK to Make Mistakes illustrated by Anneliesdraws (2021). A simple, super-cute book that affirms imperfection, trying again, and taking things step by step. Yes to such a buoying message!
The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Roberrt & Valerio Vidali (2020) is about sadness and being a friend. It shows us that when someone is enveloped in the shadows of life, not fixing or lifting but simply being with them can be exactly what they need most.
Listen by Gabi Snyder, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin (2021) has a color palette that’s perfect for inviting us in to listen. This contemplative book feels true; it helps readers tune into the world and to others and to themselves.
I Want Ice Cream by Elisabetta Pica, art by Silvia Borando (2021). This book really speaks to kids (and us all) and to hearing no when you really really really want something. Totally playful yet visceral, it journeys through all the emotions that arise and grow and have to be felt through simple words, pictures, and colors when adjusting to going without.
The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken (2021) uses a tree as a metaphor for a child’s interior self that, like a tree, reaches, connects to the world around, and contains multitudes. And Corinna Luyken‘s art is total whoa.
How To Apologize by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka (2021). A lighthearted primer on saying sorry with tips and examples and the goal of, like any apology, restoring connection.
A Last Goodbye by Elin Kelsey, artwork by Soyeon Kim (2020) is special and tender and about death via the way animals say goodbye and grieve. It’s beautiful and deep and full of love and comfort.
The Boy and the Gorilla by Jackie Azúa Kramer, illustrated by Cindy Derby (2020) is another picture book about loss, this one specific to a character whose mother has died. It is sad. It is beautiful. It is a conversation between the boy and a gorilla who visits him in the garden after the funeral, and stays until the boy is ready to have another conversation with someone else, someone right there in his home as well.
Tears by Sibylle Delacroix (2019). Details the experience of crying—that everyone does it—in a normalizing exploration of all kinds of tears.
Let’s Play: A Book About Making Friends by Amanda McCardie, illustrated by Colleen Larmour (2021). Another primer, this one what it’s like to be new, to be worried, to make friends and tackle a variety of the feelings and interactions kids have in school. The author’s note describes it as a book that “explores and celebrates some of the good things about friendship.” It serves as a tender model for navigating the ups and downs of learning to be in community with others.
Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, Sean Qualls, and Selina Alko (2017). I’ll close with this one, which has been a favorite of mine since it published a few years ago. (I’ve featured Sean Qualls’s picture book life on This Picture Book Life.) It’s a reflective refrain that gently investigates who we are and who others are. A contemplation of identity, of self and others, with stunning collaborate art by duo Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.
If you know any other vital titles that touch on social-emotional growth, please share in the comments!
This picture book is one of my favorites of this year (of any year). It shows the different ways people move. It shows community. It shows accessibility –and inaccessibility. It shows the way, together, we solve problems and “build something better” for disabled people, something better for all.
An absolutely vital book that is practical, informative, action-oriented, and full of JOY.
This picture book is an incredible resource of research and inspiration, “a rich history and the often over-looked stories, revered moments, and courageous people who continue to teach us the importance of coming together to march.”
It features 25 marches for all kinds of rights over the last century and a quarter, a number of which involved children as key to march or movement. Some may be familiar, some completely new. Some are from the early 1900s, some from just last year. The book balances showing how powerful protest is and what marches have accomplished toward change for the better—a great deal—with what remains ahead: many more marches to go, much more change to make.
“It [The Longest Walk] is a shining example that marches don’t end after the last step, and we must continue to stand together to protect vulnerable communities.”
Kids are sure to want to get moving and marching and taking action after experiencing this picture book pair. Alone or, even better, together! To that end, I’m including some ideas below that might help them get them started.
Please share other action ideas in the comments if you’d like to provide further resources!
*Join StopGap.CA and help build a portable wooden community ramp in your community so wheelchair-users can get where they want and need to go.
*Pay attention to surroundings and experiences. What might not be accessible to others, to all, in them? How can you advocate for a change that would remove a barrier to make your school or neighborhood or favorite place more accessible? As We Move Together’s back matter says, “Making things accessible can also mean removing financial barriers, using unscented products, learning new ways of communicating, and making sure friends feel welcome and included.” What are tangible ways to do this in the spaces and places you frequent?
*Pick one of the marches in Together We March. Ask a parent or educator about the ways in which what people were marching for then is still present today. Brainstorm ways to bring about change now.
*Visit The Conscious Kid, which I featured a few years ago here, and is a shining leader in the anti-racism field “dedicated to equity and promoting healthy racial identity development in youth.”
*Is there something unfair that has affected you or someone you care about? If you’re comfortable, you could create a piece of art about that experience, a drawing or poem or something else in order to share what it was/is like with others.
*Hold a gathering to hear from community members in your school or neighborhood about what needs to change where you go to school or live. Join with others because activism is best when shared and no one person is “in charge” of solving a problem.
*Visit The Tiny Activist, which has so many education and literature resources to support activists of any age.
*Make a sign about something you care about and hang it in your window.
*Coordinate with others to organize a new or join an existing march or protest addressing a cause that’s meaningful to you.
*Find a way to assist an organization that’s already doing good in your community. Invite a friend so you can volunteer together!