Debut author Winsome Bingham—whose picture book Soul Food Sunday (Abrams), illustrated by C.G. Esperanza, was selected as one of the New York Times’ best children’s books of 2021—has faced a difficult journey, transitioning from teacher and soldier to disabled Army veteran and then author. However, certain things remain constant: her love for children, for stories, and for soul food.
“We can thank the Virginia Department of Education,” Bingham says, for her decision to become a writer. Previously a teacher in Hampton City schools, she was tasked with creating stories to accompany alternative assessments for her special education students. “I started by writing stories for my kids to teach them skills and strategies, and then they started telling me to put them in them.” Her stories were a hit.
Raised by her great-grandmother on the “tiny island” of Jamaica before coming to the U.S., Bingham’s first exposure to what she calls “real books” was in her great-grandmother’s room. “My great-granny was a reader,” Bingham says, “and so my aunts and my grandmother who lived in America and England would send her boxes of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobbsey Twins.
I would sneak them out and read them.”
After suffering a traumatic brain injury during military service, Bingham says, she became interested in writing again. “One of the goals for me was to get back to what I enjoy doing.” Bowling was one passion, and writing was the other. “I just started writing stories, and all my stories centered around kids, I guess, because I love kids.”
Bingham’s therapist at the Department of Veterans Affairs is a strong proponent of reading books as a tool for recovery—specifically picture books, considering Bingham’s injury. “As I was reading them, the format was sticking in my brain,” she says. “I liked them because they were quick reads, but they were fun.”
When her therapist pushed her to work on overcoming trauma and fear, she shared Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee. “I loved it, loved it, loved it,” Bingham says. The illustrations were full of people of color and people of all body types queuing up for the eponymous attraction.
A chance Twitter communication with Frazee kindled a friendship between the two. “I was shocked she responded to me out of a million people,” Bingham recalls. When Bingham wrote a picture book featuring a grief support group in the wake of the Parkland shooting in Florida, Frazee asked to read it—and promptly forwarded the manuscript to her agent. “Her agent said, ‘If you ever write a middle grade novel, since you have a middle grade voice, let me be the first to read it.’ But because I’ve always used picture books, even when I taught high school, I knew picture books weren’t only for lower grades.”
In 2018, with Frazee’s encouragement, Bingham attended the SCBWI conference in New York City, where she was invited to submit to an editor. “It was because of Frazee I was at that SCBWI conference, and because of her I got up one morning, had an idea, and it took me 20 minutes to write a manuscript.”
Frazee was impatient for a response while Bingham was more relaxed. The editor called just as Bingham was walking into a therapy session, and said she wanted to buy her book. “I was screaming so loud the therapist rushed into the room,” Bingham says.
That book, Life Is Beautiful, did not, however, become Bingham’s debut, despite selling first and landing her an agent—Hannah Mann at Writers House. Rather, Bingham recalls, “Soul Food came about because I went to Highlights and an editor fell in love with it.” Soul Food Sunday was purchased by editor Emma Ledbetter at Abrams in a two-book deal.
Based on Bingham’s own foundational cooking memories, Soul Food Sunday tells the story of an eclectic Black family gathering where a grandmother teaches her young grandson how to prepare the meal. A passionate cook, Bingham places special importance on the role of food in bringing people together. “We’re so different,” she says, “but we all have this connection of cooking together, talking trash, and eating. Even though the food in this book, the mac and cheese, the collard greens, may be specific to our culture, every culture has food that feeds their soul as well.”
Bingham is effusive in her praise for Soul Food Sunday illustrator C.G. Esperanza, who was Ledbetter’s only choice for this project. “Look at what he captured,” Bingham says, “the slice of life, of beauty.”
Among Bingham’s upcoming projects are The Walk, a picture book about voting as a community act; Listen, Mama, a picture book about a girl whose mother has PTSD, billed by Bingham as “a memoir in picture book format”; and an early chapter book series titled Fort Goode, which describes the experience of living on military bases as a kid.
Though she deeply admires established authors like Sharon G. Flake, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson, the writers Bingham finds most inspiring haven’t been published yet. “I’m in the position to see the slew of new creatives coming through the ranks,” she says. “Publishing is getting ready to be turned upside down.”