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!
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!
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.
Any no-bake modeling clay (I used yellow, orange, pink, and brown and Crayola’s Model Magic variety.)
A hair clip on which to fasten the bloom.
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!