Tag Archives: picture book interview
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!
This cover is everything for me. Wow and wow. That’s Tokyo. And that’s his cat Kevin (who likes ice cream). And that’s the garden that grows. Isn’t it wonderful?
(Click image(s) to enlarge.)
This is a story about cities and nature with a boy, a grandfather, and a cat at its center.
It echoes fairy tales with its magic. With the way the boy is mysteriously chosen by an old woman. And, of course, the three seeds she gives him. The way they contain a wish.
And I love how we are never told what Kevin’s wish is. But we know. Because he’s heard those stories from his grandfather about a time with salmon and streams, a time that’s now gone. That’s been eaten.
“Cities had to eat something, after all.”
“Gardens have to grow somewhere, after all.”
This pair of lines serves as bookends. Cities do have to eat! Gardens do have to grow! How can we make the two work together, the book asks? Can we get used to a new way of life in cities? What would happen if nature took over us the way we’ve taken over nature?
Nature taking over doesn’t, in the end, feel apocalyptic. It feels pretty cool. Like something we can work around and learn to like (rowing to work and sloths in the elevator, for example). And the story never feels like a treatise. It feels like a flight of fancy about how the world could be.
The illustrations? They’re delicious.
Big thanks to Groundwood Books for images!
I was lucky enough to have both author and illustrator answer some interview questions!
First up, author Jon-Erik Lappano!
This Picture Book Life: Please tell us about naming your main character Tokyo and how that relates to what you envisioned for the setting of the book. What significance does Tokyo have to you?
Jon-Erik Lappano: There’s definitely a backstory with Tokyo. I first came up with the idea for the story while working as a landscaper in the centre of Toronto, Canada, transforming tiny backyards and rooftops into mini-ecosystems. The gardens we designed in the early years were heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetic, as the owner of the company had spent time apprenticing in Tokyo. One of the first projects I worked on was designing and installing a small pond with a bamboo water spout. I was taught about the art of Suiseki, which translates to “stone appreciation,” and spent hours carefully placing boulders to frame the water feature. I so wholeheartedly embraced the process, that my boss affectionately referred to me as “To-chan,” a nickname you might give to a younger brother named Tokyo.
The name has reverberated in my head since then. I had the title for at least a decade before I had written anything down. Tokyo Digs a Garden was always there in the back of my mind, scrawled on notebooks with accompanying doodles of Tokyo and his wild urban garden.
I loved the contrast in naming a small, thoughtful boy after the world’s largest mega-city. I also felt Tokyo was a really unlikely name for a main character, which added to the general weirdness of the story.
Fun-fact: Kevin the cat is based on a stray (and well-fed) cat named Kevin that hung out in my apartment for a few weeks around the same time. I’m sure he’s still out there, somewhere, roaming the alleyways of Toronto.
TPBL: Why did you want to write this book?
JL: I’m an environmentalist at heart, and I’ve always worked in sustainability (formerly as a journalist, a youth educator, and now leading the communications of a Canadian environmental non-profit). I wonder if the reason for our ill-treatment of our environment begins with the disconnection we draw between ourselves and the ‘natural world.’ I never understood that separation — we’re a part of it.
I wanted to write this book to convey the idea to children that our cities are also natural places. They’re teeming with the wild, we just need to let it out a bit.
We shouldn’t have to retreat to the wilderness to discover a love of nature. We can cultivate an environmental ethic in the cityscapes where many of us live. Weeds push through cracks in pavement, birds nest in windowsills, and people (animals) set up shop in concrete and timber and steel and glass. The point is, we’re all part of the same ecosystem; ours just looks starkly different and has typically destroyed whatever lies in its path – but it doesn’t have to be that way, and earth is not so easily defeated. With an increase in green urban design, biomimicry and low-carbon infrastructure, I think we’re starting to get that.
Tokyo Digs a Garden is less about living in harmony in nature (although that’s certainly important), and more about understanding that the wild is waiting beneath the bricks and concrete of our cities. The ecological memory of what our cities once were is just beneath the surface, and the wilderness will absolutely return and flourish, if given the chance.
TPBL: I love the way Tokyo’s parents are only mentioned in passing, to further the story of how the garden is changing the city. How did you decide to have his grandfather be Tokyo’s co-star?
JL: Tokyo is a child of working parents, which I felt was a likely indicator of his family’s economic status (being in a tiny house that has been swallowed up by the pace of growth). It made sense to me that he’d spend most of his days with his grandfather. I’m a parent of two wonderful, imaginative, and wild young children. My partner Stephanie and I are lucky to get to spend a lot of time with them, but we love that they also learn from others in their lives.
There is a richness and depth to intergenerational relationships that can’t be passed on from parent to child. They are relationships that are often short-lived and important to cherish. I think this is especially true when gaining knowledge of our environments (natural or built). When things change as fast as they do, it’s important to be able to time-travel through the stories of our elders. We’re pretty wrapped up in instantaneous time. Stories from close to a century ago at least root us to timelines that are closer to the natural rhythm of things. Tokyo’s grandfather can tell stories of the way things used to be – not to go back, but to put their lives in context.
Only Tokyo and his grandfather have the space and time to let their imaginations run as wild as the garden they plant: one stems from the boundless possibility of childhood, the other from the visceral imagery of nostalgia. This kept lines of reality blurred in the story, which made it a lot of fun to write: did the garden really grow or is it an imaginary pact between the two generations?
TPBL: What was your favorite thing about first seeing Kellen Hatanaka’s illustrations? How did they surprise you or further tell the story in a way you admired?
JL: I’m a huge fan of Kellen’s work. My home office is plastered with his prints. Getting the opportunity to collaborate with him was so exciting.
His illustrations brought a vibrancy and quirky humour to the story that simply wasn’t there before. His brilliant use of collage and colour added a sense of surreality to the book that I think took it to strange and exciting new places. He brought Kevin and his quest for ice-cream to life. I also love the other-worldly body types Kellen used for characters in the book, especially the old woman who gives Tokyo the seeds and Grandfather, of course. Grandfather is the coolest. I want to hang out with that guy, and eat whatever they are having for lunch on that spread.
My 2 and 4 year old daughters also love pouring over every page pointing out the endless details in the illustrations. The illustrations keep their attention, which opens up the space for storytelling.
Next up, illustrator Kellen Hatanaka!
This Picture Book Life: How did you come to work on this project and what drew you to it after reading the manuscript?
Kellen Hatanaka: Jon-Erik is actually my brother-in-law, so we’ve known each other long before the idea of publishing this book came about. I think he and I were driving back from a family gathering and we got to talking about this idea for a story he had come up with while working as a landscaper. I instantly fell in love with the story and the characters. At the time I had already published my first book, Work: An Occupational ABC, with Groundwood and was in the process of pitching ideas for my follow up. Jon-Erik had a manuscript ready to go so I suggested that I send it over to Groundwood to see if there was any interest.
TPBL: The way you transform the city from modern and full of symbols to lush and more livable is incredible. One detail I especially admire is the way the muted buildings at the start have features that give them faces, as though they’re the things that are alive in this place rather than the people. Machines are “eating” a tree by cutting it down with utensil-shaped implements. And the billboards! A hamburger billboard changes to one featuring veggies. Will you talk about your intent and process with some or all of those elements?
KH: The city’s transformation is one of the most important aspects of the book and one of the most difficult challenges that I faced while creating the illustrations. I wanted to make sure that there were clear visual cues to communicate the transition from the congested city to the lush Utopian landscape. The obvious change is that the vegetation becomes over grown and wild, but I wanted the change to feel more severe than just the introduction of a few plants to the roof tops. Starting with a greyed-out, dingy landscape really helped to communicate that the new city was a bright, sunny, and clean place.
Working with another person’s story I feel a great obligation to do their work justice. I was particularly concerned about the line “city’s have to eat something after all.” I love that imagery and I wanted to find a way to capture that sentiment without being too heavy handed. I knew that I wanted to represent the image of the city eating in a literal way, but at the same time I wanted the hints to be subtle. I like the fact that you might not notice all of the visual references to food right away.
TPBL: Who are some of your favorite picture book illustrators right now/big influences of yours?
KH: There are so many amazing picture book illustrators out there that it is really difficult to narrow it down. Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Haughton and Joohee Yoon are a few of my favorites. My influences and inspiration come from a wide variety of art, design and random imagery that I come across day to day.
Huge thanks to both Jon-Erik and Kellen for stopping by!
Garden photos credit: TS Garden Design