Interview with Misha Blaise – Children’s Author + Illustrator
May 4, 2020
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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 creator and children’s author, Tajinder Kalia.

Tajinder Kaur Kalia is the owner of Sateela Tree, creating art, accessories and apparel for the modern Sikh, including the slogan “Kaur to my Core”.

Born and raised in Canada, Tajinder began her career in Operations Management, eventually moving into education. She taught the GMAT for Kaplan Test Prep and Secondary Biology for the New York City Public School System. Currently, Tajinder lives in NYC with her husband and two sons, and can be regularly found trying to solve all of life’s problems on spreadsheets.

Book Cover: What is a Patka? Image of a child who identifies as Sikh wearing a green dastaar (small Sikh turban). ©Tajinder Kalia

NAVJOT: Do you remember the moment that shifted your perspective about representation in children’s books? How did this impact writing of What Is A Patka?

TAJINDER: I learned about the importance of representation in children’s books through writing What is a Patka? I wrote the book with a very practical end game – I wanted to make it easier for the children in my son’s preschool class to understand why he looked different than he did the year before.  Once I started doing some research, I learned more about the groups pushing to increase representation in children’s books, and they educated me on the importance of it. My main takeaway was how these books can mainstream ideas and appearances at a young enough age and stay with an individual for the rest of their lives. That these books can mean the difference between feeling like you belong and or not.  I believe that we all crave connection – and I learned that diverse children’s books can be an incredible source of that. This was incredibly profound for me – and influenced how I think about this book, and books in general.

Colouring Page for What Is A Patka? Design your own! ©Tajinder Kalia

NAVJOT: Many readers may be surprised to learn just how long it takes to complete a manuscript for a children’s book. Could you describe the timeline for your title? On reflection, were you prepared for this journey?

TAJINDER: Goodness – it was a VERY long journey.  It’s a 10-spread book, and it took me over three years from when I sat down to write the text to when I held the first proof in my hand.  In terms of being prepared for the journey… I certainly didn’t think it would be that long (I thought it would be a few months at most).  However, I think the time did help me create a better product and learn more about the broader issue of representation in children’s books.

NAVJOT: Given the growing awareness around diverse representation in children’s books, what were some of your own challenges during the writing process of What is a Patka? You recently completed what you described to me as “a small but important edit”. It is not easy to make any edits after publication, given the costs associated with making such changes. Why were you committed to doing this?

TAJINDER: My biggest challenge was confidence in my own abilities.  I was riddled with doubt – if I was qualified to write this book that I thought was so important.  There are writers that are more talented than I am. Sikh scholars who understand and have so much more knowledge on Sikhism than I do…. Super moms who make parenting look easier than I have ever found it! I think this is part of why I didn’t ask for much input until it was completed.  I wanted to prove to myself that it was okay for me write this book – which was an important part of my journey.  The edit was absolutely necessary – the Sikh Coalition educated me that one of my pages had advice contrary to the advocacy work they do. Reflecting the experiences of the people who have been helped by the Sikh Coalition was absolutely necessary – going forward, I would get subject matter experts involved prior to publishing to reduce the back and forth.

Back Cover of What Is A Patka? Image of family who identify as Sikhs. A short synopsis. ©Tajinder Kalia

NAVJOT: When it comes to illustrating a patka/dastaar, it can be quite a challenge for illustrators without lived experience of the Sikh identity. What work needed to be done by you/your illustrator to ensure the patka would be represented accurately?

TAJINDER: The illustrator and I worked together to get the illustrations to where they were.  I took photos as inspiration for each page (this was especially detailed for the infographic on the steps to tying a patka), and she did her own research.  I was so pleased when the illustrations had many appropriate details that I had not spelled out (putting a khanda on the Gurdwara, having heads covered outside the Gurdwara, etc.).   I could tell that she did extensive research on Sikhism, even though she herself isn’t Sikh.

This is a great question, because it’s something that I think I could have done better.  I was so pleased to have my illustrator make such appealing illustrations, I let some details slide.  I have gotten feedback from people with requests for changes to the illustrations – I agree with many of these and hope to update them soon.

 

Infographic showing steps for how to tie a patka (small Sikh turban). ©Tajinder Kalia

 

NAVJOT: There are many routes to publication today, especially when it comes to amplifying #OwnVoices. What avenues did you consider before deciding on your personal journey? How did this learning grow your understanding of the process to publishing children’s books?

TAJINDER: Initially, I planned to find an independent printer, and pay for a large print and then distribute them myself.  This wasn’t ideal because I would have had to manage the entire process myself – I wanted ordering to be easy and quick.  Eventually, I found Kindle Direct Publishing.  Formatting the layout was labor intensive upfront, but then distribution and advertising was straightforward.

The process to publishing a children’s book is much more detailed than I had anticipated – sizing, formatting, font, illustrations, are as important to getting a finished product as the actual content is.  I know now that there are multiple methods to publishing – and I have learned that one should explore as many options as possible before finalizing content.

Inside page from What Is A Patka? A young child is showing off all his patkas (small Sikh turban) colour-coordinated on shelves. ©Tajinder Kalia

 

Finally, I asked Tajinder if she could share her own seed of knowledge for aspiring writers and self-publishers.

NAVJOT: Is there something you would change/do differently before embarking on this journey again?

TAJINDER: I wish I would have given myself permission/authority to write the book from the get-go – and the foresight to bring in others to help.  Subject matter experts would have had valuable input and resulted in a better end product, no question.  I know now that everyone has a right to represent their own story, and I wish I had known to just go for it with enthusiasm and joy. 

I would like to thank Tajinder for her time. She shared so much raw honesty through our exchange, and that in itself takes great courage. This series is all about diverse journeys to publication and sharing experiences that help us all grow.

You can support Tajinder Kalia’s work further by following her on Instagram, visiting her website and of course, purchasing her book! Back matter includes a mini-poster, colouring page and classroom ideas.

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 Tajinder Kalia.

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