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my mothers tongues

Like many other readers and writers, my love of books was born in the library. As a child, I visited the Winter Park Public Library often with my parents, attending story time and browsing through bookshelves. I remember the first book I ever checked out by myself was Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a book that continues to inspire me today by demonstrating how stories can help children find joy and confidence in their own identities.

I grew up speaking the South Indian language of Malayalam at home, just like Sumi, the protagonist of my recent children’s book, My Mother’s Tongues. As soon as I began learning English, I fell in love with stories and poems. I wanted to create my own, and to this end, I recited short rhymes to my mother about everything from frogs to coins, which she then transcribed in a little diary that I have to this day. In elementary school, the yearbook featured our names and photos alongside a description of what we wanted to be when we grew up. My answer oscillated each year between author and teacher.

But growing up, I also frequently felt out of place. I wondered why I looked and spoke differently from my classmates. Why was it that I spoke Malayalam, and they didn’t? Books gave me solace, as they allowed me to jump into the worlds of characters who saw the world with wonder and confusion, just like I did. However, as a child flipping through picture books and chapter books at the library, I never encountered the story of someone like me, who felt torn between cultures and languages.

I have always wanted to be a writer, because stories have changed my life and given me invaluable perspective on what it means to be human. Though I wrote mostly poetry and short stories in high school and college, children’s literature remained close to my heart. During summers in high school, I volunteered at my public library, spending hours organizing picture books and wiping them down. Though I was several years older than the intended audience of those books, I found that they spoke to me. They captured my emotions perfectly, and drove my love of words. I knew that I wanted to write children’s literature, because it would allow me to shape the way people think about themselves and their peers at the youngest ages and inspire a love of learning that could last a lifetime.

I wrote the first draft of My Mother’s Tongues at age 16, right as I was graduating high school. The book is inspired by my own experience growing up as a daughter of Indian immigrants in America. Within a few months of writing, I found an incredible agent, Victoria Sanders, and received a book deal from Candlewick Press. As a child, Because of Winn-Dixie—also from Candlewick—was my favorite book, so it felt like a true full circle moment.

I look forward to seeing My Mother’s Tongues in schools and libraries, where it can teach young children to feel confident in who they are and be compassionate towards their peers.

Screenshot 2024-02-20 at 8.27.48 PMUma Menon is the author of My Mother’s Tongues: A Weaving of Languages (Candlewick Press, 2024). She is originally from Winter Park, Florida and currently studies public and international affairs at Princeton University. Her writing has appeared in over two dozen publications including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Progressive. Read more at theumamenon.com.

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