The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Elizabeth Suneby and Review of Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea
Elizabeth Suneby loves to play with words! Writing helps her comes up with new ideas, learn new things, figure out her feelings and express them to other people. Her interest in writing about our modern culture started when she was an American Studies major at Brown University.
Writing is also how Elizabeth earns a living. She writes for companies big & small. She writes magazine articles. And she writes books for children and teens that help kids find their voice in a hopeful world.
Elizabeth is the award-winning author of nine books, including No Room For a Pup! (2019), Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet (2018), That's a Mitzvah (2014), Razia's Ray of Hope: One Girl's Dream of an Education (2013)The JGuy's Guide: The GPS for Jewish Teen Guys (2013), It's a ... It's a ... It's a Mitzvah (2012), The Mitzvah Project Book: Making Mitzvah Part of Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah ... and Your Life (2011), and See What You Can Be (American Girl) (2007).
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I consider myself lucky that I get to do what I love – write – as both my occupation and my hobby.
This dates me, but I remember during my first job in advertising taking my lunchtime to use the department secretary’s “word processor” when she was on her lunch break. It was thrilling to be able to write and edit as I typed, which was not an option when composing on a typewriter and much easier than when I wrote by hand—all I had ever done before. I remember feeling my creativity was being unleashed.
Also, I am curious and an empath – two qualities that fuel my writing and influence the type of books I like to write. Curiosity leads me down investigative paths that lead to books such as the Iqbal book. Feeling deeply inspires me to write fiction where protagonists place themselves in other people’s shoes and nonfiction that gives kids ideas for repairing the world, such as my mitzvah-themed books.
I love that your infusing your books with empathy. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Well, likely not many things given that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Poker is not my game.
Ha! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I loved Sydney Taylor’s All -of-a-Kind Family series. If I were to surmise why, it’s likely because as a child (and even as an adult) I preferred realistic fiction, warmth, and happy endings. I also think it’s because my mother’s parents were both Jewish immigrants, but as was the case with many immigrants of the time, they did NOT want to talk about their immigrant experience. The Taylor series gave me glimpses into what my grandparents might have gone through.
Interesting. What was your inspiration for Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet?
When I was writing my first book in the Kids Can Press CitizenKid series – Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education – I learned that almost half the world’s population cooks over open flames or on stoves that burn air-polluting solid fuels, such as coal. I was stunned by the fact that something I took for granted – cooking in a safe way – was not possible for so many and the consequences dire for people (mainly women and kids) and the planet. I thought kids should be introduced to this truly global issue rather than learn about it as an adult as I had. That’s why I wrote the book. (I even included instructions for a solar cooker made out of a pizza box in the backmatter and challenged readers to cook s’mores in their DIY cooker on a hot, sunny, summer day. I figured this project would hook even the reluctant readers and environmentalists.)
I definitely hope you succeed in enlightening kids and adults to this issue. Is there something you want your readers to know about Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea?
With this book and all my books, I want kids to see and believe that their actions—big and small—will make life a little bit better for themselves, their family, their community, and the world.
How long did it take Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea to go from idea to publication?
Ah, I am terrible with remembering timeframes, but it took at least three years. Once I ran the idea by Kids Can Press (KCP) and learned of their interest, I started my official research, including to determine where to set the story.
I reached out to several non-profits, including Solar Cookers International and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public private partnership hosted by the United Nations, now called the Clean Cooking Alliance. I decided to set the book in Bangladesh, where most families cook over open fires and monsoon season necessitates indoor cooking, so I began working with Asna Towfiq, Country Representative for the Alliance in Bangladesh. I also developed the story with input and review from two students from Bangladesh studying in the U.S. After that, I collaborated with the editor at KCP and the talented illustrator Rebecca Green.
It's fun to learn the backstory to books. Thank you for sharing this. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
My inspiration comes from a wide and often unexpected range of sources. From random articles and books that I read. From memories of childhood that pop into my head. From stories of people in my life or I learn about.
For example, I was inspired to write Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education when at a fundraiser for the Zabuli Education Center for girls located outside of Kabul I heard story after story of girls in Afghanistan who wanted the fundamental right of an education that was denied to them. The school was started by my friend, Patti Quigley whose husband was killed on one of the 911 planes and by Afghan native Razia Jan. They believe that education for girls is the key to stopping the cycle of violence born out of illiteracy.
My latest book, No Room for a Pup! that I co-authored with Laurel Molk was inspired by our love of dogs and a Yiddish folktale about gratitude we knew from childhood. We crafted a modern multicultural twist on a classic story and combined it with the universal “I want a pet” theme.
How fun to combine "I want a pet" with a folktale. What was the most complicated part of the research for Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea?
The most challenging part of the research was making absolutely sure that all the text and the illustrations for the book were authentic as I am not from Bangladesh. I didn’t want the baby to be thrown out with the bath water, as they say!
From its reception, I think you succeeded. How are you staying creative these days? Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
To stay creative and sane during these intense times in our country and the world,
I’ve been attending writing workshops and participating in critique groups over Zoom. I am also working on several manuscripts!
One of my manuscripts is a narrative non-fiction story about a plant brought back from extinction. Another uses a little-known historical fact about a famous artist as a springboard for a fanciful story. And yet another uses humor to help children quash unrealistic expectations and pressures to excel at everything. Many others in the works, too!
Those all sound interesting. I'll have to keep my eyes open for their announcements. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I know it’s not exotic, but my favorite animal is a dog. Growing up, my mother would not let us get a dog, even after my brother brought home the cutest stray. It wasn’t until my kids were in 2nd and 5th grades that I experienced the joy of a pup. We got a Havanese, a non-allergenic breed, as my husband is allergic. My daughter named him EJ after herself, Emma, and her older brother, Josh. (Emma insisted to Josh that the only reason she didn’t name the pup JE is because EJ sounded better. Must admit I agree.) EJ brightened our lives for 16 years. He even had a bed right beside my computer up on my desk where he snoozed and kept me company while I wrote.
He sounds like a precious friend; which beats exotic any day! Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Elizabeth. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
To find out more about Elizabeth Suneby, or get in touch with her:
Review of Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea:
How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet
As Elizabeth mentioned above, this book will make kids "see and believe that their actions—big and small—will make life a little bit better for themselves, their family, their community, and the world."
So many science fair projects have becoming life changing inventions. And so many kids/young adults have created inventions that will rescue the planet - such as 19-year-old Boyan Slat's plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world's oceans.
This book shows kids that their actions can help their families and the environment. Hopefully, inspiring lots of dreaming, drawing, and creating.
Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet
Author: Elizabeth Suneby
Illustrator: Rebecca Green
Publisher: Kids Can Press (2018)
STEM, science fair project, invention, creativity, and sustainable technology.
It's monsoon season in Bangladesh, which means Iqbal's mother must cook the family's meals indoors, over an open fire. The smoke from the fire makes breathing difficult for his mother and baby sister, and it's even making them sick. Hearing them coughing at night worries Iqbal. So when he learns that his school's upcoming science fair has the theme of sustainability, Iqbal comes up with the perfect idea for his entry: he'll design a stove that doesn't produce smoke! With help from his teacher, Iqbal learns all about solar energy cooking, which uses heat from the sun to cook — ingenious! Has Iqbal found a way to win first prize in the science fair while providing cleaner air and better health for his family at the same time?
Award-winning author Elizabeth Suneby's thoroughly researched and inspiring story introduces young children to the problems associated with open-flame cooking in the developing world, as well as background information on sustainable technology. Part of the CitizenKid collection, this book uses the common experience of a science fair project to help children recognize that they, too, can help make the world a better place through innovative thinking and creative problem solving. The artwork by Rebecca Green, filled with details of everyday life in a Bangladesh village, beautifully evokes a sense of place and culture. Iqbal offers a perfect example for the character education subject of initiative. End matter includes information about clean cookstoves, a DIY solar cooker activity and a glossary.
Iqbal and his friends stepped out of their school and into the rain. Not a light mist or even a steady downpour, but gusts of rain that whip across your face and make you squint your eyes. Monsoon rain.
“Hurry, Iqbal!” called his sister. Sadia stood clutching her umbrella as she waited at their after-school meeting spot.
What I Liked about this book:
Although Iqbal is not a real child, this story is the compellation of many families living in Bangladesh. Families, who for financial reasons, are forced to cook over open fires, burning wood or coal. A situation that is hazardous to their health and the environment. Especially during monsoon season when the open fires fill their houses and lungs with smoke.
Text © Elizabeth Suneby, 2020. Image © Rebecca Green, 2020.
After learning of the theme for his school's science fair - sustainability, Iqbal dreams of possible projects. Learning about a smokeless propane stove which his father saw at the bazaar, Iqbal and his sister, Sadia, are determined to win the cash prize for first place to eliminate "the smoke that is making Amma and the baby sick."
Text © Elizabeth Suneby, 2020. Image © Rebecca Green, 2020.
Iqbal and Sadia have a problem, a goal, and parameters. After drawing, thinking, dreaming, and imagining many possibilities, Iqbal decides he wants to create a smokeless cooker. When internet research pops up articles on solar cooking, Iqbal and Sadia start brainstorming ideas. Until Iqbal discovers how to use an umbrella - something "every family they knew had an old umbrella or two that had been broken by the gusty monsoon wind" - to make a solar oven.
Text © Elizabeth Suneby, 2020. Image © Rebecca Green, 2020.
Iqbal and Sadia create a device many families in Bangladesh need by recycling an item they would have thrown out. Protecting people from smoke hazards and protecting the environment from air and material pollution. But would it work? Would the monsoons ever end so they could test it (you can't use a solar stove without sun)? Guess you're going to have to read the book to find out.
The direct and accessible text and beautiful soft, earth-toned, colored pencil illustrations realistically depict village life in Bangladesh. An author’s note and do-it-yourself instructions for a pizza box solar cooker extend the idea that kids can solve problems using curiosity and science. Overall, this is a great STEM book that shows kids that they can make a difference.
- check out the back matter and make the pizza box solar cooker project.
- then try out (1) the s'mores recipe in this PBS video on a DIY box solar cooker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl7BqRhLpWE&ab_channel=FullTimeKid) or the NASA recipe for s'mores (https://climatekids.nasa.gov/smores/) or
(2) melt cheese on a tortilla and make a quesadilla.
- what problems do you see in your house, school, or community? Can you draw, or write a description of, an invention that could solve the problem?