Katia Novet Saint-Lot is the author of "Amadi's Snowman". I reviewed the book around the same time last year. You can read the review - here .
The story is set in Nigeria, Africa. It is that of a boy belonging to the Igbo tribe who eventually overcomes his reluctance to learn to read, through an everyday incident. The aspect that still amazes me is the impact that the book can create in a child's life. Needless to say Katia has won me over! CROCUS has now given me the opportunity to finally ask her what I've been wanting to, every time I closed "Amadi's snowman" and tucked it back in our bookshelf.
Read on, to hear the words of a great writer, a mother and a wife, a voracious reader and a traveler! Born in Paris, worked in London, loved New York and currently settled in Hyderabad, you fit right in with all of us here from different longitudes at Saffron Tree, Katia. A warm welcome to you!
1. Honestly speaking, every time I read Amadi's snowman, and somewhere when Amadi walks back home pensively, realizing what he has been missing, I get goose bumps. I am sure there must be some kind of an experience that triggered such a powerful storyline. Is my guess right Katia?
Thank you, Meera, for your kind words, and thank you for inviting me to be a part of the CROCUS festival.
Now, regarding Amadi. When we were living in the heart of Igbo-land, in Nigeria, my husband came back from work, one evening (he’s a UNICEF staff) thoroughly frustrated about the young boys who were dropping out of school so they could make quick money conducting business in the streets. Amadi was born there and then, and I could not get him out of my mind. But the scene you describe, which is a major one, and the turning point for him, grew organically from the story itself as I worked from draft to draft, each time getting closer and closer to his thought process. Amadi is rather strong willed, which is something I’ve always liked about him, and I needed something powerful to make him change his mind. The billboards taunting him with their letters - even though he’s never noticed them before - really drive the story’s point home for him. That said, I like your question because I also believe that our experiences play a huge role in the ways stories and themes stick in a writer’s mind. My own mother grew up very poor during the Civil War in Spain, and she never went to school. She finally learned to read and write when she was almost 40 years old. I was in grade school by then, and extremely aware of the fact that she was uneducated (which doesn’t mean she wasn’t bright, by the way). I don’t think it’s an accident that my first book is about the importance of reading.
2. Is there a story behind the name AMADI? Is it a common Nigerian name? Does it mean something?
There is a long story behind the name AMADI. My boy’s first name was IFEANYI, which means “with God, nothing is impossible.” The editor, and some of the readers who had access to the story before it was published, felt that it was too difficult to pronounce. I could understand the marketing rational behind that worry, but I must admit that I put up a fight to try, and keep Ifeanyi. I love the name, and I had been living with it for a few years. I felt as if I was asked to change the name of one of my children. Also, I wonder if we don’t underestimate readers’ ability to make the effort to familiarize themselves with names that may be a bit different from what they’re used to. Because the fact is that we don’t live in a world filled with Bills and Toms, and even though these are perfectly fine names, I’m sure glad there is some variety out there. Anyway, I lost that battle, and I remember spending an entire night searching the Internet for another Igbo name that would work. It had to end the same way or I would have had to rework the entire text. The rhythm in a picture book is very important, obviously. In the end, I chose Amadi, which is a short for Amadioha, the God of Thunder and Lightning in traditional religion, and means “God is the true road for everybody.” Other meanings seem to be “rejoice” and “freeborn,” one not born into a social caste or in bondage.
3. I am aware of your widespread travels and your short lived, yet rich stints in many a place around the world. Can you share with our readers some of your more exciting moments and places, probably highlighting what aspects of it seem to be most enriching for your children's growing years?
That’s a great question, but I would need pages and pages to answer it :) If you take out the obvious (the travels, the colors, the different festivals, customs, and their beauty, the advantage of speaking several languages, etc.) I think that, basically, living in different countries, and experiencing different cultures is the best lesson in tolerance one can possibly imagine. You realize that your little way of doing things is just that: one little way, among many more, which are often just as valid. It’s hard for me, now, to imagine living differently: we celebrate Diwali, and our Christmas Nativity scene includes a little Ganesh and a little Buddha. My children just LOVE chapatis and paneer, and as a small child, our older daughter ate pounded yam the way they eat it in Nigeria, making a little ball with her fingers, dipping it in the sauce and dumping the whole thing in her mouth with a little flip of the wrist. A friend of mine, one day, told me: the whole world is your backyard. I guess she’s right, and we’re very lucky.
4. Who was your favorite writer when you were growing up?
The books by the Comtesse de Segur were very popular in France, in my time, and I read them all, sometimes several times. I loved Enid Blyton, and all the Nancy Drew mysteries (whose name is Alice Roy, in French), but my absolute favorite was Alexandre Dumas.
5. Where do you see a void in today's children's book scenario?
We were talking about the lives of our Third Culture Kids, who are children who grow up in a culture different from the culture of their parents. They’re also called Global Nomads. There are virtually no books out there recounting their experience, which is very rich, but also laced with heartbreak, good byes, issues with identity, etc. For some reason, it continues to fly under the radar. I hope this changes soon, as these children compose one of the fastest-growing population in the world, today. I would also like to see more books about biracial and cross-cultural children. It’s a little better now than it was 9 years ago when my first daughter was born, and I could only find a handful of books featuring children like her, but there is still vast room for improvement.
6. Why do you think a child's bookshelf should include culturally diverse books?
Books are windows onto the world - with all its beauty (and ugliness - books recounting the errors and abuses of the past are also important), richness, and diversity. Kids who grow up reading and hearing about other children from diverse races, cultures, and backgrounds are more likely to feel comfortable not only around them, but also more loosely around anything or anyone slightly different. What is racism, but a combination of fear and ignorance?
7. Where do you see yourself in the next decade as a writer? Do you want to carve a niche for yourself in the children's arena or are you excited about exploring books for other age groups and areas?
I love children’s books, and I’m particularly fond of the picture book medium. And of course, we can do with more multicultural books. As mentioned above, I also think the whole Third Culture Kids’ market has yet to be discovered and explored. Right now, I find my inspiration in my children’s lives, their experiences as global nomads, and our expatriate lives. But I’m also fascinated with Young Adult books, and I hope I can manage to write longer projects. I have one novel in the works, but my progress is so slow, I feel as if I’m not going anywhere soon. So far, I’ve had more success completing picture book manuscripts. It’s hard to balance work, raising small children, writing, and, well, life in general. But I’m trying, and I truly enjoy the process, so... wish me luck. :)
8. Anything in particular that you would like to tell the contributors and readers of Saffron Tree?
Saffron Tree is such an excellent initiative. You mention really good books in your blog, and it is a great resource for parents who want to bring good, culturally diverse books to their children. And of course, I absolutely love the CROCUS Festival idea. I’m very honored to be able to partake in this celebration of books across the world, and I wish you great success. Thank you again, Meera, for your interesting questions, and for including me.