Our Seeds of Knowledge Series hopes to share the voice of creators in children’s publishing and also, offer guidance to aspiring writers and illustrators. This kind of diverse community knowledge is what I wish had existed, when I was starting out with Saffron Press.
Here at the Pod, we advocate passionately for accurate diverse representation. Some wonderful creators have generously accepted an invitation to share knowledge. We will learn about their work and the work of representing the Sikh identity in their children’s books.
I would like to welcome illustrator and children’s author, Misha Blaise.
Misha Maynerick Blaise is a Croatian American, born in Canada, and raised in the Colorado Rockies. She is the author-illustrator of several books, including My Wondrous Cloud Odyssey, and This is Texas, Y’all! Her most recent book, This Phenomenal Life, has been translated into 5 languages and was a best seller in China. Misha served as a jury member for the 2017 Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrator’s Competition at the Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair.
NAVJOT: What does being Canadian American mean for you in the politically turbulent times we live through today?
MISHA: I believe we are one human family and that all of the turbulence of these times are generated from the belief systems, policies, and habits that maintain the illusion that we are separate, or that some people are less human or “other”. I think partisan politics are actually a huge distraction from the concrete work of building unity and justice in our own communities. I guess all that is to say, while I think National identity has its good points, I definitely consider myself more of a global citizen!
NAVJOT: Your illustration of a Sikh bike rider in This is Texas, Y’all was what first caught my attention and drew me to add your book to my collection. While reading through the pages, I challenged some of my own bias’ about the state of Texas, as a person of colour. Was that your intention while writing and illustrating this book?
MISHA: This was an interesting project because it wasn’t my idea. Lone Star Press approached me about the book at the very moment I was trying to figure out what to do next. Their idea was to create a very simple and obvious Texas alphabet book: A is for the Alamo, C is for Cactus etc. I thought the book sounded boring and redundant. But then I had the idea that I could use the book as a way to subvert the mainstream narrative about Texas that has been exported all over the world (think white cowboys of old Hollywood Westerns). I thought it would be cool to expose some hidden histories within the context of a gift book that most people assume would just be about cactus and the Alamo. I worked out a few sample pages to show the publisher, and they were on board!
NAVJOT: Many readers may be surprised to learn just how long it takes to complete a children’s book, especially when you are responsible for both writing and illustrating the work. Could you share a little about the process of working through this with your publisher? What would you say are some of the biggest challenges during this entire process?
MISHA: Well, once I worked out the contract with my publisher, I basically had a deadline in 5 months to finish the entire book. I wanted to present the best, most interesting information I could find, which meant I had to learn everything I could in order to curate those fun facts. I’ve lived in Texas for ten years but I’m not from here, so aside from just doing basic research, I also asked my friends of diverse backgrounds who were native Texans to give me some ideas. I wanted to present Texas in a holistic way by including its rich and diverse history (and present), so I was very alert to any resource that helped me in that mission. The biggest challenge definitely was cutting down my loads of research into 52 pages.
NAVJOT: Given the growing awareness around diverse representation in children’s books, were you concerned about the content of This is Texas, Y’all? What resources helped you navigate your blind spots as far as accurate representation of diverse characters and their narratives?
MISHA: Yes I was concerned. This project was very limited in scope, (definitely not a comprehensive history!) so I wanted to do my best with the space I had. My starting point was that Texas is an incredibly diverse state (It’s a minority-majority state, meaning the majority of the population are people of color), so I knew there was a lot I could pull into the text. I basically just relied on internet searches and museum visits to lead me into more in-depth research. For instance, I knew there were black cowboys, but I didn’t know the extent of it until I sat down and focused in that direction (by the mid 1800’s about 25% of cowboys were black!). I set out looking for diversity, so I found diversity. But I’m sure I missed a lot too, and honestly that is a perfect example of why the publishing industry needs to be more diverse.
I didn’t know my (also all white) publishing team very well and I wasn’t sure if they were on the alert regarding the diversity gap in publishing, so I hired a trained fact-checker from Texas Monthly magazine to go through all of the topics I wanted to be extra sure about.
But the blind spots are still there, and I’m sure there are many more stories or historical people I could have included if I knew about them.
NAVJOT: What stood out for you about the Sikh Riders of America and why did you decide to include an image in This is Texas, Y’all? What kind of work did you (or your publishing team) invest in to ensure accurate representation of this person?
MISHA: I found the Sikh Riders of America while searching online. As soon as I saw that they had an annual ride in Dallas, I knew they would be a perfect fit for my book. I was aware that there has been a lot of misrepresentation of the Sikh community in the media, especially post 9-11, and I love the way the Sikh Riders have taken control of their own narrative by being visible and sharing the Sikh message on their own terms. The motorcycle is a powerful icon of American freedom and seeing the Sikh Riders is an awesome expression of American plurality.
I got information about the Sikh Riders of America from their own statement online. I drew the character in my book after looking at dozens of images from the Sikh Riders of America website and facebook page. And then I researched the Dastaar to make sure there wasn’t something outstanding that I would mess up (like maybe the color, or the way its folded).
Finally, I asked Misha if she could share her own seed of knowledge for aspiring writers and illustrators.
NAVJOT: If you could share a seed of knowledge with an artist or creator starting out on this journey, what do you wish someone had shared with you?
MISHA: I think my best advice is to know what your unique purpose is as a creator. I know that I want to promote the truth that we are one human family, and I want to help create a new world that is oriented around our connections to the Earth and to each other. I am happy to work on my projects knowing that they serve my bigger purpose. This advice comes in handy because as an artist you get rejected so many times and sometimes it’s quite painful. But at least if you have a vision, none of your work is done in vain.
I would like to thank Misha for her time and investment in accurate diverse representation. You can learn even more about the process of publishing in her post Advice for Aspiring Children’s Book Authors here.
Our (in)visible faith identity may be viewed as an equalizer for some – a way for all of us to be defined in the same category – but as members of the broader Sikh community, we are aware that our cultural nuances differ widely. Once we build safe spaces where our stories can exist, without distortion or stereotypical portrayals, our little ones will learn to tell their own stories, without prejudice. Our stories will grow and these collections will include diverse perspectives and intersectional lived experiences. This is what I imagine for our future citizens of change – their dreams of hope soaring – seeing themselves in the world of books as protagonists and knowing that they too, belong.
Thank you for joining us at the Pod!
All images have been used with permission from Misha Blaise.