Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Q&A with Jamia Wilson

Photo by Aubrie Pick
Jamia Wilson is the author of Big Ideas for Young Thinkers: 20 Questions About Life and the Universe, a new book for kids. Her other books include Young, Gifted, and Black and Step Into Your Power, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Elle. She is the director of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Big Ideas for Young Thinkers?

A: I had worked with my editor in the past, and with the wonderful illustrator Andrea Pippins, and we thought about what the next book would be. I said that growing up I’d always wanted a book that encouraged critical thinking and showed the diversity of thought through time and space, not just in a Euro-focused way.

And the idea of love of knowledge and thinking critically can be a lifelong pursuit. You don’t need a degree or a title to have your questions matter. And you could have an idea and change your mind about it. That’s normal.

Q: You mentioned the book’s illustrator, Andrea Pippins. What do you think her illustrations add to the book?

A: Andrea and I are in conversation in every book. We’re both storytellers in different mediums. We talked a lot about the questions she wanted to see in the book, and she has a vantage point as a parent, an experience I haven’t had yet.

She brought her first child into the world when our first book came out. I see her children as a key audience. We have some things in common—we’re Black women, we have lived as expats. We got to know each other well, though we’ve never met in person.

Q: You begin the book by asking, “Have you ever been told that you ask too many questions?” What do you see as the importance of asking questions and being curious, especially for kids growing up now?

A: I always encourage it. I’m really empathetic about it--I was one of those children. I was encouraged to ask questions in my home, but some authority figures were not receptive to that.

I’ve learned that it’s a strength, though at the time maybe it’s annoying. Fortunately I had parents who said it’s not about you, it’s about them. I don’t know that every child has that in their life. I want this book for those kids especially—to go deep and continue with what your gut tells you.

Q: What about issues facing kids today?

A: I’m really interested to hear what young people are saying and thinking about the coronavirus, and Black Lives Matter and racial justice. It’s life and death as relates to the coronavirus—whether to homeschool or not, why are my parents sending me back to school, why does one [adult think one thing] while another has a different view.

We’re in a time that’s very charged, full of anxiety, but also we’re envisioning what happens next. We’re all reassessing our lives. It’s a perfect time to ask questions. What could we do differently in the future so everyone’s supported? It will be interesting to see. Having open dialogue about those questions is important.

Q: You’ve worked to bring attention to diverse perspectives. How did you choose the various thinkers that you include in the book?

A: That’s the thing that’s the most difficult in the compendium books I do. There are more that I want to add. After the book is published, more people come onto my radar.

It’s often around who’s inspiring me. I’ve been a scrapbooker and journaler. There are things I’ve written down—some came from that, others from thinking about an idea, what are the general things people think about this topic, and what opens a world that complicates the conversation.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: At the very end of the book there’s a beautiful spread that Andrea created where readers can come up with their own questions. I hope they will come away thinking about something with more complexity, and that they’ll have their own big questions.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two project, both with Quarto. One is a baby board book, a Young, Gifted, and Black baby book. It’s an affirming book. There are some words, but not so many. There’s a mirror in the back so kids can see themselves.

The next book will be out in March—This Book Is Feminist. It’s in conversation with This Book is Anti-Racist, with the same illustrator. It’s an intersectional feminist training book. We look at feminism, who’s included and left out, what it means to call yourself a feminist.

We’re trying to complicate the conversation for young readers and show that the personal is political and also connected to systems, and how to frame their own ideas about how to take action. It’s also for people who might feel critical, to see if they find themselves in it.

When I was teaching freshmen in college, I asked who’s a feminist and very few raised their hands. By the end, very few did not have their hands raised. There’s a lot about stigma and mythology, and not understanding what it means.

Q: Anything else we should know about Big Ideas for Young Thinkers?

A: I hope people will become inspired to talk with people they disagree with more openly, and do it with intention. There’s so much we can learn. We are taught that conflict is bad and we should shy away, or that conflict should result in distance or the silencing of someone else. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I hope people use it as an opportunity to say that it’s okay to have complex feelings, to think in terms of nuance, to think different things from your loved ones. For my second book with Quarto, I looked at how and when young people’s opinions change. I’m hoping people will think about why it’s not necessarily bad if children are looking at issues in a different way from you. It’s an opportunity to listen.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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