Picture Book Spotlight: A STORY ABOUT AFIYA

Some picture books are too good to pass up.

A STORY ABOUT AFIYA, written by James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a magical trip into the world of a young girl. We follow Afiya, whose name means “physical, mental, and spiritual health” in Swahili, as she encounters the beauty and excitement of the natural world. She takes each experience home with her on her plain, white dress, which stands out brilliantly against her beautiful black skin. The next day, the dress is clean and plain white again, ready for the next journey – to the sea, the field, the zoo – everywhere children go to experience nature’s full effect.

The breathtaking illustrations only enhance the poem’s world, drawing you into Afiya’s world as she dances and smiles amid nature’s bounty.

About the Author

James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. When he was 17, the United States entered WWII and began recruiting farmhands in the Caribbean, to fill vacancies left by young men who had been drafted. Berry and a few of his friends were excited at the possibilities of work in America. They headed to the States as soon as possible, but it wasn’t what they thought. They were disheartened by the inequality and mistreatment of black people and only stayed in the US a short time. According to Berry, “There was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people.” He returned to the Caribbean for a short time in 1948, before moving to Great Britain to work as a telegrapher, while attending night school and writing.

Author and Poet, James Berry, Wikipedia

Berry wrote prolifically, releasing several books of poetry and many children’s stories. In 1981, he was the first West Indian poet to win Britain’s National Poetry Competition. He became known for his work examining the relationship between the black and white communities, particularly the relationship between British citizens and Caribbean immigrants. He was awarded an OBE, the highest honor a poet can attain in Britain, as well as many other awards and recognitions. Berry died in 2017 at age 92, and his work is still beloved by many around the world for its depth and beauty.

Kid Lit Motivates

It’s no wonder A STORY ABOUT AFIYA made the NY Times List of Children’s Picture Books in 2020. It’s suitable as a stand-alone read-aloud, at storytime circle or bedtime. It also opens the door to a lot of activities and conversations. If diversifying your picture book collection and gently opening a conversation about the history of racial injustice in America is important to you (I hope it is), Afiya is a girl we can relate to and Berry’s biography shows us a contrasting experience. The story lends itself to discussing Berry’s work as a poet and many of his poems are for children explicitly. It’s also a beautiful way to discuss Jamaica, even though there’s no way of knowing where Afiya lives because her world is the ubiquitous world of childhood joy.

As with all great picture books, once I finished reading it, I was flush with ideas of how to use the story as an anchor for so many topics and how to extend the story for group storytime activities. I’ve put together a resource pack, available for download on TpT, to go alongside these activities, with the caveat that buying the book is essential – supporting the illustrator, the publisher, and the estate of the author is incredibly important. Please, buy the book.

First and foremost, I can see using the story as a way of discussing James Berry, his life and work, Jamaica, his home country, and Swahili, the language from which the name Afiya comes. I confess that I am not an expert nor an important voice in the conversation about racial injustice and racial equality, specifically how to educate children about it, and I recommend everyone seek out qualified speakers, educators, and authors on this topic. Admitting that, I’ve included a short biography of James Berry, a fact sheet about Jamaica, and some beginner information and phrases in Swahili. Hopefully, this is a respectful start.

Make the plot tangible by having kids draw some of the things Afiya collected on her skirt and matching those things to the places she visited. Stoke the fires of their imagination by asking them to imagine what their clothes might catch if they were like Afiya’s, and have them discuss and draw on their choice of a tee-shirt or dress template. What if their clothing was magical but with different powers than Afiya’s? What powers could their clothing have? (I think my magical clothes would be self-washing, but I’m sure kids will be more imaginative than that!) What memory would they most want to walk around wearing? It’s such a great story for talking about memory and imagination and I’ve designed a simple, effective worksheet as a guide for each of these questions.

The story opens with a title page that explains Afiya (pronounced A-fee-ya) means health and wellness in Swahili. I see this as a great opportunity to talk about names, how important they are, where they come from, and even brainstorming new names or nicknames. This leads into self-esteem activities – drawing their names in large letters with their favorite things surrounding it, or collaging all the things that make them unique, and then sharing this information with the group if preferred.

Since Afiya’s name means health and wellness, use the story as an anchor for health and wellness topics. Lead a conversation on what it means to be healthy, both in body and mind, and how to make healthy choices for whole health. Talk about coping with strong emotions, and have kids think about times a friend (or teacher or parent) helped them with a feeling, and/or a time when a friend could not. Using the experiences I had while working as a therapist, I’ve simplified these conversations for you and provided basic activities to coincide.

As memory and thoughts are part of our health and wellness, talk about how to keep a memory. The conversation goes something like this:

Unlike Afiya’s dress, we don’t get to carry it home on our clothing, but there are ways to make a memory stick.

And what about memories we want to forget? We can’t wash our minds clean and return them to the start like Afiya’s dress when something bad happens, so we must talk to an adult about these kinds of thoughts and have them guide us into changing our thought processes or reframing the experience for us.

There are even things we forget but want to remember! We might want to forget losing a soccer game and remember to bring our lunchbox to school every day.

Simple ways of approaching these conversations as well as worksheets have been created for this purpose.

Finally, talking about memory and thoughts leads me into self-awareness and mindfulness. Learning to unstick distracting thoughts is an important skill that can be learned with practice. Use the scripts and 3 mindfulness exercises I’ve included in the packet to assist with this. A STORY ABOUT AFIYA never mentions mindfulness (or memory for that matter), but there are clearly tie-ins to be made.

We carry our experiences with us and we start fresh in the morning. Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the flowers, or dance among the butterflies, or wade into the water to look for fish. Sometimes we see a tiger, and perhaps that’s scary and something we want to forget. These are all important ideas that have to do with our health and wellness. Every kid deserves the chance to play freely in nature. We are all Afiya in some way.

For Storytime

I’m a firm believer in having tangible, large-scale, hand-made manipulatives when I lead story time, as they always help to draw in even the most distracted or antsy kid. To that end, Afiya’s journey inspired me to make a poster-size painting of her in her white dress, with dress attachments drawn up like each of the things Afiya experiences. (I’m by no means as talented as Anna Cunha, but I hope that I’ve done her work justice.) Listen for the birds and attach the bird dress (over the static white dress.) Watch for the roses and attach the rose dress. Finally, using sticky dry erase contact paper, I made a dress that can be drawn upon and erased, to give each kid a turn to share their favorite memory with the group or even play a version of Pictionary with their special memory while other kids guess.

To view the companion resource, please visit our TpT store:

Guided, Educational Activities for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by Kid Lit Motivates (teacherspayteachers.com)

Custom Educational Resource for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by James Berry and Anna Cunha, img credit: Kid Lit Motivates

For more information or to commission a customized educational resource like the ones described above, please email us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com.

What about Maddie?

The author explains it all.

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.

Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission -(Sunshine and the Scientist) – and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.

Cover image of Maddie

The Plot

Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.

“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!” 

I hear this often. Thank you, same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes. 

Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.

First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids – but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.

Maddie checking the mail.

Inspired by Real Life

The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion – wanting to look put together all the time – and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.

(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)

Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention

In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.

Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.

I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books – but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.

Maddie focused on JENGA.

We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.

L.’s interests were narrow – and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless – can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?

I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?

I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.

MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.

The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.

Self-Publishing Amateur Style

I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (and others), and for the humor inside the humor.

On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit – I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)

The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.

Maddie pricks her finger.

Criticism is Understandable

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. This was – sort of – the intention.

The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.

Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.

Where are the Teens?

Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.

Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics – so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?

Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.

Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school – you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.

Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.

If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.

It Isn’t Just One Book

Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.

I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.

It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility – a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.

I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.

Maddie shopping and shocked at the inventory.

So Who and What is it for?

It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.

It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.

The Wrap-Up

It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.

To purchase MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER and support Kid Lit Motivates – please click here.

To receive free downloadable resources to use with MADDIE or without, or to purchase workbook packs, please click here.

If you’re interested in connecting about this or anything Kid Lit Motivates has to offer, please contact us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com, or head to our contact page and fill out the form.

Thank you for your interest in Kid Lit Motivates.

Sunshine and the Scientist: Our Philosophy of Learning

From the Scientist

While Sunshine and I have been strategically planning the future of Kid Lit Motivates, we stopped to consider our primary goals. While we discussed content and presentation at length, we realized something important. Content is less relevant to us than we previously imagined. Our learning philosophy is a framework upon which any content can be laid. We can provide tangible manipulatives, customized resources, and entertaining metaphorical overlaps for any number of topics. To date, we’ve created customized resources in music, science, self-awareness, and social skills, to name a few.

Resources generally tend to be created for specific subject areas or content blocks, and assume a standardized development of skill. We develop our resource content based on the interests, potential interests, and needs of our clients. If we’re creating class sets for teachers, we work toward curriculum goals with social and academic areas in mind. When we consider large scale presentations, the design is aimed at subjects we believe will enliven, encourage, and engage. What interests parents and kids alike? What sparks the imagination? What do we all need to know, and how do we need to know it? We pair that content with manipulatives and anchoring resources, which we customize to be adaptable to the widest audience possible.

 Throughout all of these events, presentations, festivals, and sessions, one thing remains consistent across the ages and stages, content and framework: we are teaching, empowering, and modeling different ways of thinking. Content is malleable and process is paramount.

Our greatest passion is teaching young people methods and awareness of thought.  To think is to be.

There are many different modalities of thought. While the steps of writing a lab report can be memorized, it is more valuable to understand and employ scientific inquiry in a variety of situations. Where a small percentage of children will grow up to pursue the sciences in theoretical or practical form, the majority of children will benefit from awareness of the scientific method, a structured approach to thought. To be a scientist is to learn how to ask a question, look at available evidence, gather data to interpret reasonably, then determine what questions come next. This way of thinking is a skill once thought to be innate that is being lost or downplayed in our current climate.

Can thought be taught? It is a skill to employ thought deliberately. Scientific inquiry is a skill, in that there are specific tasks to be completed in a certain order, which can be learned, much like tying a shoe or cooking a soup. And as a skill, there are those who will learn more naturally, by observation or instinct, and those that need a more strategic, scaffolded approach. We, Sunshine and the Scientist, excel at modeling and scaffolding presentation and engagement.

Other modalities of thought are important as well. Sunshine places a lot of weight on philosophical inquiry, a way of thinking that allows one to ask questions, of hypothetical or actual nature, until a satisfying reasoning is formed. Philosophical inquiry enables communication, builds community, opens our minds to other perspectives, and develops one’s own beliefs. There are things people passionately believe that have been reasonably approached and there are things people believe passionately that have never been considered deliberately. Philosophers are thoughtful, deliberate, and open-minded. We aim to teach philosophical inquiry for this reason. 

Thinking empathetically, the needs of the one and the needs of the many are valuable and acknowledged. Empathetic, sensible thinkers are caring and kind, making for more civility and acceptance in the community at large. This way of thinking also enables the thinker to be more communicative and aware of their own needs. Learning how to prioritize the feelings of others is another way of thinking that can be acquired as a skill.

A state of synthesis is the effect of thinking musically, a way of gathering, processing, and deciphering information at a rapid rate. The senses are never more synchronous than when musicking, as a host of sensory inputs are bound by temporal constraints. To think musically is to combine sight, sound, movement, the presence of others and the self, and to find a harmonious balance in a metered, directed amount of time. It is objectively more engaging of the brain than any other modality of thought, due to the temporal element, and it enhances neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability and interest in learning). Sunshine and I are both musicians and are driven to communicate the benefits we’ve experienced first-hand from thinking musically.

Scientific, philosophical, empathetic, and musical thought modalities are but four of many ways to think. They represent different approaches to problem solving, connecting with others, and building community. The greatest thinkers are comfortable moving between thought modalities and help move society forward with innovation and imagination. 

This is what Kid Lit Motivates is aiming to provide. Social and academic content presented in engaging, memorable ways, intending to enhance and model a broader mechanism of thought, an open-mindedness, a structural belief in a movable, self-empowered and self-aware cognition.

The Scientist

Kid Lit Motivates is a small business, run by Sunshine and the Scientist, based in Long Island, New York, which designs custom educational resources and experiences for academic and social goals.