« How being a mother led me to write my first children’s book” – Katie Smith Milway

Katie Smith Milway is an award- winning author who writes culturally diverse books for children and  we are impressed with the fact that she writes culturally diverse books for kids. Her books also equip children with knowledge on microfinance, savings, investments among others. She coordinated community development programs in Africa where she had many experiences; most of which reflects in her writing. She seeks to change the stereotypes held about people of colour.

Muna Kalati: Please tell us about yourself; where you grew up and your childhood experiences. Did you have the opportunity to mingle with people from diverse backgrounds?  How did your experiences influence your values and perspectives about life?

Katie Smith Milway: I grew up mainly in Canada with a couple short stints in the U.S. (including my birth, so I’m a dual citizen).  Throughout, my mother always welcomed students of different cultures to our home, so we met young adults of different nationalities, ethnicities and languages, which piqued my interest in all things multicultural. One U.S. stint, in Baltimore ’67-‘69, was during the height of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which threw our city into conflagration. Ergo, I experienced a racial justice reckoning as a child, although I wasn’t clear on its origin and meaning until much later. 

MK: Did you love reading at the early stages of your life? Were you privy to have read books written by African authors? What were your thoughts about those books as a child?

KS: I loved reading and writing as a child – and horses.  Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion series, was a neighbor of my grandmother’s and I met him at an early age and was inspired to write my first published work (in a school magazine) at age 8 about a dusty box of riding trophies in an old stable. (I submitted my first literary work to a publishing house at age 7, with my mother’s help, which garnered a very kind rejection letter.)

By age 9, I was reading until late at night with a flashlight under my bed covers, (long after I was supposed to be asleep), in particular the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.

The books about Africa I read as a child were very stereotypical and animal-centric, the Babar Series and Curious George. I began working in Africa, first in Mali, in my early twenties, and reading books by African writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as an adult. 

MK: Could you please tell us about how you landed into the children’s literature industry? Why have you chosen this path?

KS: I landed in children’s books due to motherhood.  I had been writing books about sustainability for adults (Growing Our Future, and The Human Farm) but didn’t have time for research with baby and toddler.  I saw an advertisement in the Globe and Mail newspaper for the Canadian Children’s Fiction Contest and submitted a story under my mother’s and my name, based on a character she created when we were kids, and that I had embellished in my babysitting days.  We were semifinalists and received constructive feedback from top Canadian authors – a real gift.  I applied the feedback to re-edit the manuscript and we were accepted by a Canadian publishing house:  Kids Can Press.  That story, Cappuccina Goes to Town, led my publisher to read my books for adults – and he suggested I shift to writing about sustainability themes for children, which led to my next four books:  One Hen,  The Good Garden,  Mimi’s Village and The Banana-Leaf Ball

MK: Could you please tell us about the community development projects you coordinated in Africa? What were some of the life changing moments you experienced and how did it help you in generating stories for children?

KS: After doing Master’s research on food sector strategies in Mali, I worked with World Relief and Food for the Hungry. Later as an International Program Coordinator, I supervised operations in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Peru, Guatemala, Dominican Republic. and Bolivia.  This meant I supported local teams in their own countries as they worked on community relief, rehabilitation, and development, typically during times of war, famine, recovery from war and refugee-hosting. I learned so much from so many, and will share two important moments:

1)      In Mozambique, in 1990, where RENAMO rebels in the North had been conscripting youth, confiscating crops and mutilating villagers, I saw the difference in the hopes and dreams of returned refugees, after a year of resettlement.  On arrival, youth expressed no dreams for the future. After we had equipped farmers, the government guaranteed their land and rebuilt schools and health clinics. Young people told me they wanted to be teachers or doctors.  The power of visible examples of change and positive role models to build hope and ambition, stuck with me.  It’s one reason my books center on lifting up unsung youth heroes to inspire other youth.

2)      In Senegal, in 1993, we met with a women’s group, as we were designing a broader financial inclusion project, centered on microloans. These women had been putting money into a common kitty for decades and lending it to each other as needs arose, with commitment to paying back.  Microfinance in Africa merely expanded on traditional practice, which is why it gained traction.  In my books, I look to lift up practices in the Global South, that have something to teach the rest of the world.

MK: You write culturally diverse books for kids, why do you think it is necessary to diversify the global children’s literature space?

KS: I don’t want other kids to see Africa or Latin America through old stereotypes, but rather through the stories of real children in culture-rich countries who have something universal to teach other children around the world

MK: Writing is an essential skill for life, but many find it difficult to master. How did you develop the love for writing? Is it something you do easily? What writing tips would you love to share with us?

KS: Writing is the way I distill life, whether for work as a journalist in my 20s, or for pleasure, writing poetry when I travel.  The most important tip is revise, revise, revise.  Consider criticism a gift.  Take it to heart and apply it to improve.  I had a wonderful coach at Kids Can Press named Valerie Wyatt, who, as my editor, mastered the art of “encouraging critique.” 

MK: Personally, how many children’s stories have you written so far? Could you name them? Would you like Muna Kalati to do a review of these books?

 KS: I’ve written 5 children’s books and would love for you to review  them.

MK: Your books are enlightening! They teach essential skills like social entrepreneurship, saving and investing to children. What was your inspiration for writing One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Difference which is set in Ghana? 

KS: I thought microfinance would be a topic that North American youth could relate to as a window into poverty alleviation, as so many American and Canadian children start little businesses, like lemonade stands. I was looking for a real-life story that could serve as a narrative arc and heard Kwabena Darko, the real-life Kojo, speak at an Opportunity International microfinance conference.  When I saw his bio, I thought his story of growing from backyard chicken farmer as a youth to the largest poultry farmer in Ghana, would inspire.

MK: From the perspective of an author, how can African governments and duty bearers support in promoting diversity and accessibility in the children’s literature space?

KS: The first thing is make sure all children have access to local libraries – then fill them with relevant literature, about and by their countrymen and women.

MK: Could you please tell us about your work as an Editorial Director and founding publisher? What are some of the fondest memories you had and what advice can you give to new publishers?

KS: I was a traveling consultant at Bain & Company when the firm started a marketing department and were looking for an editor.  I thought it would be a better fit with raising children and would draw on my experience as a journalist.  It became the chance of a lifetime to grow a global editorial and publishing function, starting with developing authors.  Most of my best memories are around hiring and developing wonderful coworkers and nurturing potential authors with good ideas into bonafide thought leaders who published articles and books with Harvard Business Review Publishing.

MK: What challenges have you faced as an author of children’s literature who produces culturally diverse content and how have you dealt efficiently with such difficulties?

KS:The main challenge is authenticity.  I only write about regions I have worked and lived in, and sustainable practices close to my own experience.  I always develop a dialogue with the people whose stories I lift up and invite them to the U.S. to talk to classrooms of children inspired by their stories, so they see the power their experience can wield.  Going forward, I’d like to always co-author with writers local to a country setting.

MK: What do you think should be done in today’s tech paced world to encourage African children to read? How in your opinion can we teach our children to be abreast with technology through storytelling?

KS: As books now are lendable digitally through apps like Overdrive, local libraries should enable ebook lending, so kids can read on phones or any device available to them.

MK: What role do you think storytelling plays in developing the cognitive abilities of children? 

KS : Storytelling fuels hunger for and skill-building in literacy, which opens the door to so much more: education, family planning, healthy practices, nutrition, etc.

MK: If you were given the opportunity to write a book with one African children’s book author who would it be and why?

KS: I’d love to work with William Kamkwamba, the author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and tackle other technology topics for children.

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