To close out this crazy and unprecedented year, I wanted to take some time to highlight my fellow kidlit creators who are working their tails off to birth their beautiful book babies into the world. These interviews will cast a light on the wonderful work of these pre-published authors and author-illustrators who are destined to be stars!
Meet Rising Star
Author-Illustrator Melissa Mwai
Welcome, Mel! I'm so excited to have you here and chat about all things kidlit and creativity!
AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
• Top three favorite children’s books of all time?
This is supposed to be the softball question. So in thinking about the picture books that I love and
made me want to write, they would be: What Do You Call a Dumb Bunny? By Marc Brown (1991),
The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base (1993), Tuesday by David Wiesner (2011)
• Coffee, tea (or neither)? Both!
• Where is your safe place? With my family.
• Dogs, cats, (or neither)? Dogs. However, I have a pet rabbit.
• Early bird or night owl? Night Owl, but I prefer mornings.
• Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world…
Imagination, Perseverance, Authenticity.
AD: Okay, now down to the serious stuff….
Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
MM: I’m an Afro-Nuyorican at heart who has always dreamed of creating stories for kids. I’m a huge reader and love audio books (now as a mom). I studied creative writing in college, work in education, and decided as I was approaching my mid-thirties that my dreams of being published weren’t going to happen on their own. I joined Storyteller Academy, SCBWI, and connected with many industry professionals to learn about kidlit craft.
AD: Yes! We must take charge of our dreams and take steps to make them come true! Storyteller Academy and SCBWI have also been part of my journey as well. There are so many kind, friendly, and generous people in the kidlit community. We must not be afraid to reach out to connect or ask for help.
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author-illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
MM: I did not always know I wanted to be an author-illustrator. I loved writing, drawing, and making comics as a kid. As an English major in college, I couldn’t get into any elective art classes. I figured I would write as a hobby...eventually. Afterwards, I taught middle school English. Currently, my day job is in Education Technology. I'd been taking classes at Storyteller Academy for almost a year when I took Vanessa-Brantley Newton’s Character Design class. After that class, I realized I could learn to draw and write for kids.
AD: Vanessa is amazing and so inspiring! I'm not surprised she opened your eyes to the possibility of illustrating as well. A good teacher can make all the difference ;) As I tell my own students, art is a skill that can be learned. We can get better and improve just like playing a sport or an instrument. Everyone can make art. Often, the biggest obstacle in the way is ourselves and believing that we CAN DO IT!!
AD: What topics or themes do you tend to focus on in your writing/art? Favorite genres you like to write in or favorite art materials/techniques?
MM: Even though I don’t travel a lot, I like the idea of taking my characters on adventures. They often are forced to explore new places, work with new people, or stretch themselves to consider new ideas, which can be a little scary at times.
AD: I love all the fun worlds you build for your characters, and I also see a reoccurring word here....NEW. As you mentioned, often new can be scary to children (and even adults). It's nice you are using your work to encourage children to explore and navigate new people, places, and things so they can come to learn that new is beautiful and there is much to learn when we are not afraid to explore.
AD: Breaking into the publishing industry is not easy! What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? What have you done to persevere?
MM: One of the biggest challenges is being objective based on where I am in the journey and how to keep growing. Sometimes, it meant giving myself permission to work fast and not edit my writing or art before it was down on paper. Other times it meant getting an outside opinion from a critique partner or industry professional on what was working and what wasn’t. And other times, it meant filling myself with things that inspired me. Lastly, it is finding what I’m passionate about and putting myself in the stories I create. As a person of color, I want to tell authentic stories that connect to my roots and invite readers to see themselves or what could be, too.
AD: What a great point, Mel. Each phase of our journey calls for something different. It's great to be aware of these needs and recognize the constant fluctuations in our process. I'm glad you've found specific items that work for you and have the supports you need to help you along in each phase. Being authentic is so important, and I can definitely see your own authenticity shining through in your work.
AD: As creators (and humans), we tend to focus on the flaws of our creations or areas for improvement. This helps us grow and develop, but we need not forget the many things we are doing well. With this in mind, what has been your biggest accomplishment or something you are most proud of thus far on your writing/illustration journey?
MM: I’m reveling in the fact that Megan and Jorge Lacera selected me as one of their 2020 #PBChat Mentees hosted by author, Justin Colon. I’ve been learning so much from them both.
AD: Woohooo! Congratulations! What a treat! Can't wait to see what comes of it :)
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author/illustrator? What makes your art/writing unique to you?
MM: My biggest strength as an author-illustrator is that I think about stories a lot. I’m a craft nerd. I like to ask myself “What if?” or “What next?” and then draw or write what hooks me about the concept. No one’s life experience is the same. I believe everyone has a story to tell from their perspective. On social media l describe myself as an author, illustrator, geek, and mom. At any point in time, all of those parts of me influence my stories and art.
AD: I love this! I ask a lot of questions so definitely relate to this approach. I also reflect a lot on my identity and the things that make me who I am. I find these aspects come through in my work as well. We hear the word "voice" used a lot in craft. I like to think that my voice really is my identity. It's who I am, and it shows up in each of my stories.
AD: What inspires your work?
MM: Another tough question. From an idea perspective, my memories, my culture, and my family inspire me. From a craft perspective, there are so many individuals I look up to; but I often revisit books by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Christian Robinson, and Mo Willems.
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
MM: I have a giant idea file on my phone. Sometimes it is words, phrases, images, titles, even links to articles. I am also an eavesdropper. I love jotting down snippets of conversations I hear in my house. With my spouse, a seven year old, and a four year old, there’s always something interesting happening that might spark an idea. What do I do when I get stuck? I try to lower the stakes and give myself permission to do anything and everything for my eyes only. Write one sentence. Draw for one minute. Revise something. Or reread old work I’m proud of to remind myself I can do it even if I don’t feel like I am able to at this moment.
AD: Who knew, eavesdropping could come in handy! I have too many scattered phrases, sentences, and partial story ideas in the 'Notes" app on my phone to count. Since, I usually have my phone with me throughout the day, it's often the best tool for me to capture those spontaneous lightbulb moments.
AD: What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author-illustrator?
MM: Storyteller Academy gave me a fantastic foundation. Also I can’t stress enough how important it is to just write and scribble for yourself. Lastly, being part of a critique group has helped me grow. They help me remember my dream and stay inspired and remember why I love creating stories for kids.
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
MM: Compare yourself to yourself. Everyone has terrible first drafts or ugly drawings. We just don’t see that when looking at a published work. You may be at the part of your journey where you are just learning or in the trenches of submission or writing your next story...there are always places in the creative process that are hard, but those are the parts where you stretch and grow. Hopefully, whenever you look back, you aren’t in the same place creatively where you started.
AD: YESSSSS! Comparison can be toxic so I love how you flipped it on its head here. If we are doing the best we can do and giving it 100%, than we should feel good about that. If we are continuing to learn, then we are inevitably going to get better and grow. It is unfair to compare our work to others who may have more experience or been at it for longer. Of course they are going to be farther along in their skills, and that's okay! In this case, I try to use it as motivation--if they can do it, I can do it, too!
AD: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
MM: My website is https://melissamwai.com.
I also post tips and resources for kidlit creatives on my blog #KidLitCliffNotes twice a week.
If you want to chat, I’m on Twitter and Instagram.
AD: #KidLitCliffNotes is the best! So many wonderful nuggets to absorb. You should all check it out!
Mel, it's been a pleasure hosting you here on Big Kids Writing for Little Kids. Hooray!! Thank you so much for taking the the time to share and contributing to the Rising Stars in Kidlit series! Best of luck as you continue to persevere along your kidlit journey! We can't wait to read your stories and see more of your joyful art! Feel free to drop a comment below to support Melissa and her work.
Stay tuned for next week where we get to meet another Rising Star in Kidlit, and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss out and follow along on Twitter at #RisingStarsinKidlit!
If you are interested in being featured in the Rising Stars in KidLit series, please complete the following Getting to Know You form to be considered. Thank you!
Who Am I?
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. Amanda is the author of the award-winning picture book, 30,000 Stitches: The Inspiring Story of the National 9/11 Flag, Moonlight Memories (summer, 2023) and a yet to be announced forthcoming title. She also has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology: Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children. Amanda has over ten years of experience as a classroom teacher and was selected as Massachusetts Secondary Art Educator of the Year. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her family and her rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.