Writers Changing Lives: A Chat With Leslie Bulion and Nicole Tadgell
By Jennifer Baljko
Worldreader values collaboration and partnership. So, when Elizabeth Wood, our director of digital publishing, asked me to talk with author Leslie Bulion and illustrator Nicole Tadgell for this column, it made perfect sense to feature them together.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation about their collaboration, and the books that inspired them when they were growing up.
WR: How did you team up on the project?
Nicole: Fatuma’s New Cloth started around in 1999 and 2000. Leslie’s manuscript was accepted by Moon Mountain Publishing, and after a one-on-one portfolio critique with Cate Monroe, the art director at Moon Mountain, Cate felt my artwork would go well with Leslie’s words.
Typically, American publishers don’t allow authors and illustrators to work together. But because this story took place in Tanzania, there were so many details we had to go back and forth on. So the publisher let us talk and work together, which I thought was a great experience.
Leslie: We were very fortunate that Moon Mountain let us do that. I was able to talk with Nicole, show her photos from our trip to East Africa and share the stories behind the photos. Some of those details were incorporated into the illustrations in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t worked together.
Nicole: For example, the details about the grape soda.
Leslie: Right! I went on that trip with my young daughters and husband. At the time, there weren’t many bottled drink choices available, except for soda, which my daughters thought was fabulous. There was a flavor we didn’t have at home–blackcurrant–and the advertising for it was “Ki Purply Purply.” I had a photo of the ad and Nicole thought was a nice detail to put into the book.
Now, when I talk at schools about how an idea becomes a book, I mention this.
WR: Which books influenced the way you share your stories now? What are your favorite books, and why?
Nicole: My favorite books as a child – it was hard to pick one – were: Big Sister and Little Sister written by Charlotte Zolotow and pictures by Martha Alexander; Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and Marvin Bileck, and What’s in the Dark? by Carl Memling and John Johnson.
All three of these books were destroyed by me reading them so much. They stayed in my head for a long time, when I was a teenager and even when I was in college.
When you read them, it’s like you’re being transported somewhere else. That’s what I loved about reading…I love feeling like I’m being brought somewhere else.
Leslie: I can trace my love of reading back to the middle grades. That was the time when I had great exposure to books and became an independent reader.
The books I remember most all had some element of magic to them. Like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. You’re never really sure if Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was clever or magical. I thought she was magical and had magic solutions for everything. I really wanted to believe that there was magic in the world, and people writing about magic was very exciting to me.
I moved on to the Edward Eager books, Half Magic and books like that, and the world became even more magical. When I got older, I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket.
WR: Both of you mentioned the idea that books have the power to transport you to some other place and allow readers to have adventures. Why is that important? What comes from that–when books take you to other places?
Leslie: It is critical for children to develop their imaginations. If you read a book set in another country or written in a world the author created, it’s not something you have an immediate reference for. You only have the words on the page or the illustrations. But, your mind can stretch in a way that is an essential part of being human.
Nicole: Books give a child a space to breathe. When I was growing up, we were quite poor and we went through some tough times. The last thing I wanted to do was read about people who were going through tough times, too.
I know a lot people think children need to see themselves in a book, and that may be true. But I think children need to see that other things are possible — that wildly imaginative things are possible, even if only in their heads. When you give a child that kind of space to breathe, they can start to imagine how they can make a better life for themselves.
Thanks for the chat, Leslie and Nicole!
Writers and illustrators like Leslie, Nicole, Chika Unigwe, Meshack Asare, Ellen Banda-Aaku and other African and international authors are making a big difference in the lives of children in the developing world. They enthusiastically support Worldreader by donating their books, short stories and personal essays.
Worldreader fans, we hope you’ll give these authors some love. Check out Fatuma’s New Cloth, or browse our growing list of participating authors and publishers.
If you’re an author and would like to get involved, contact our Director of Digital Publishing Elizabeth Wood at email@example.com. You’ll also find her on Twitter at @lizzywood.