Saturday, November 1, 2008

Amadi's Snowman: Interview with Author Katia Novet Saint-Lot and Artist Dimitrea Tokunbo

Bees Knees Reads is thrilled to host the first online global virtual book-tour interview with author of Amadi's Snowman, Katia Novet Saint-Lot and Artist Dimitrea Tokunbo. A review of their book can be found here on our September 10th post.

Interview with Katia Novet Saint-Lot:
Please tell us about your childhood. What was it like? Where were you raised? Do you have any siblings?
I was raised in Paris, France. But we spent most summers in Spain, with my mother's family. And yes, I have one sister and one brother. I'm the oldest. I don't honestly remember that much from my childhood. More like flashes. Piano lessons. Reading. Going to school, sometimes liking it, other times hating it. Getting into fights with my sister. I was rather shy, and often felt "different". My mother didn't speak French very well, children with diverse backgrounds like me were not many.

As a child did you read a lot? Tell us some of your favorite picture books.
Yes, I was a voracious reader from the moment I could read. But I don't remember reading picture books. We didn't have a lot of money, and there were no books at home. And when I started borrowing books at the library, they were novels. I read practically all the books from the Comtesse de Segur, Alexandre Dumas, and Enyd Blyton. Later on, Nancy Drew.

I read that you travel a lot with your family as your husband works with UNICEF. Please tell us some of the exciting places you’ve lived and tell us a little bit about where you are living now.
Frankly, the most exciting place I've lived in, for me, has been Brooklyn, in New York. I loved it there. I loved that I could do anything : African dance, one evening, opera, the next, salsa dancing another, restaurants from all over the world, people from all over the world, and it was affordable. I adored my life in New York. India has been great, too, it is such a rich place in terms of culture, colors, architecture... One is constantly on sensory overload here. And there is always something intriguing and interesting happening.

Do you have children? Yes, I have two daughters, 8 and 4 years old.
Where in Africa was your family living when you wrote the story Amadi’s Snowman? Please tell us in detail about the culture there, traditions, language…
We lived in Enugu, Nigeria. Enugu was the capital of the short-lived Biafra Republic. The language spoken there is Igbo. One thing I loved - even though I think it's important to stay clear from the tendency to view Africa as one country, as opposed to a continent with many different countries - is the joy of the people. I'm talking about West Africa, here. I have not been to East Africa, and I'm told it's very different. But I found that in spite of all the hardships, there is a spirit of joy, in the places I visited in West Africa. I loved it, when I drove to fetch my daughter at school, in Enugu, that I would pass by small sheds that had African music blaring out. I loved the way women walk, their back very straight, balancing their hips. Asia is very different in that respect.

Was it difficult for your family to adjust?
Honestly, yes, for me, most of all. There were security issues, supplies were scarce, and there wasn't much to do. My husband worked a lot, and I was very much alone with our first daughter, who was only 7 months old when we landed there, so it wasn't easy. She started walking there, and she loved it. Obviously, as long as she had adults taking care of her, food on her plate, and a place to play, she had no reason not to be happy. We lived in a big hotel compound that had ten villas, and a huge park with a lake, and she ran around all day, trying to catch lizards or birds.

What gave you the inspiration to tell this story? Is the character Amadi a boy that you know or have met?
My husband came back from work, one evening, complaining about the boys who dropped out of school to earn a little money doing street business. It's a common problem there. I just used this as the premise for the story, but Amadi is entirely my creation.

Is this your first published book? Yes, it is.
Are you interested in speaking to teacher/librarian groups or to kids via school visits? If so, how can interested parties contact you?
I'm very much interested in speaking to teacher/librarian groups or to visit schools. I love interacting with children, and talking to them about reading and about Nigeria, and anything else they come up with, really. Of course, I currently live in India, but we are bound to move elsewhere sooner than later, and I also travel quite a lot, to Europe and to the US. I can be reached through my website,

What are your goals for the future? Do you have another story in the works?
Continue to write, work on my craft. I have several stories in the works, some are completed, others still need a few revisions, and I also want to write novels. So, lots of projects, yes.

Dimitrea Tokunbo’s art is the perfect match for Amadi’s Snowman. How did you find/meet Dimitrea?
The publisher and editor found Dimitrea. Her father is Nigerian, and her mother is from Maine, and that's where Tilbury House is located, so the connexion seemed rather serendipitous. I was very eager to meet Dimitrea, and this finally happened over the summer, when we did two readings together in New York City. She's delightful.
Thank you very much, Kim, for your questions and for your interest.

Dimitrea and Katia (center) with the Igbo,Nigerian family who helped pose for the book's imagery and Dimitrea's daughters who helped as well.

Interview with Artist Dimitrea Tokunbo:
Please tell us about where you grew up. What was it like? Tell us about your family history. Where are your mother and father from? Do you have siblings?
I was born in California but moved to upstate New York when I was five. My Parents divorced when I was three. I liked visiting my dad when he lived in Harlem. I never dreamed that I would actually live in the city myself. I am now divorced and have two daughters and we live in the city. We love it. We love Brooklyn (where we live) and we love Manhattan (where they attend performing arts school and I work my day job). My mom had three more kids after me (two boys and a girl). My Dad had four kids after (three boys and one girl). I am the child from their first marriage. I was an only child until I was 6 years old.

Did you read picture books as a child? Please tell us some of your favorites.
I loved picture books and still do. I liked Corduroy and Where the Wild Things Are.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an artist? Did any one person influence you? My mother used to ask me the story that went with the drawings I would make, even before I was two years old. So words and art always went together for me. Also my mom allowed me to draw on anything that belonged to me which included my bedroom walls. My mom is an artist, although she went to school to be a teacher, she always found ways to use her creativity. I think she was the first artist I wanted to be like.

Who is your favorite artist? Now I love the illustration work of Leo & Diane Dillon, Brian Pinkney, Kadir Nelson, Trina Schart Hyman and Patricia Pollacco. (Gustav Klimt, Alphonze Mucha, Jacob Lawrence and VanGogh)

I read that you are an author as well. How many published books do you have as an author/illustrator and how many others have you illustrated for? So far I have three books published as an illustrator and two books published as an author. It’s still a dream that my editor will hire me to illustrate my own books…I’m a believer (o:

How did you prepare for the Amadi’s Snowman illustrations? Tell us about the research that you did and why? Well, it’s been about 15 years since I’ve visited Nigeria (although I'm excited to report my daughters and I going there for 3 weeks this December) so I contacted relatives who still live there, my sister and my uncle. I emailed them descriptions of what I was looking for and they emailed me photos. I also have a cousin who lives in Queens who grew up in Nigeria, so I would have lunch with her to show her my sketches to check for accuracy.

Are your illustrations based on real children and people that you know? The author was very concerned that the family in the illustrations look Igbo and not Yoruba (my family is Yoruba) A friend of mine, in my neighborhood knew an Igbo family in Long Island. She introduced us over the phone and we made arrangements to do a photo shoot at their home. The whole family got involved. The parents, the three sons, the grandmother and even my two daughters helped out with poses.

Can you tell us about the painting process you used for this book, is it acrylic paint on wood panels, oil on canvas?…etc. Why did you choose this style? I did this book with Acrylic paints on Bristol board. I’d wanted to use a more fluid style. I like that acrylic paints give bright, vibrant colors immediately. My favorite part was mixing my color palette.

What new works are you working on for the future? I am working on texts for historical picture books featuring powerful women I want to introduce my own daughters to.

I also heard that you have a new book coming out soon. Please tell us about it and when it will be available. I have a book coming out Fall of 2009 with Scholastic Inc. titled, The Sound of Kwanzaa, illustrated by Lisa Cohen. This book lays out the 7 principles of Kwanzaa in simple yet poetic terms for young children. I also included one of my favorite brownie recipes that children can make for their Karamu or Kwanzaa feast day.

Do you sometimes make school and library visits? If so, how can we contact you? I do and I love to. I can be reached through the Publicity Manager at Tilbury House Publishers, Sarah McGinnis.
Thank you Katia and Dimitrea for visiting us. We hope children all over the world will have the opportunity to read Amadi's Snowman. Best wishes on your global tour!

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