Gary Gray Jr. is a Black Canadian poet and educator who writes for children and adults. He’s also the host of the podcast ItsPersonal. His debut picture book, I’m From, illustrated by Oge Mora, is an ode to the small but transformative moments of one Black boy’s life. Joanna Ho is the author of the breakout picture book debut Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, as well as the YA novel The Silence That Binds Us. In her new picture book, Say My Name, Ho celebrates the history and culture behind the names of six children, emphasizing the importance of correct pronunciation. We asked Gray Jr. and Ho to speak with each other about their new books, and empowering young readers to embrace all aspects of their identities.
Joanna Ho: Hi, Gary! It’s so exciting to be in conversation with you for the release of our upcoming books! People may not know, but we first became friends when you interviewed me for your podcast, ItsPersonal, before the release of Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. Then we were giddy when we realized I would be visiting your school in Vietnam this spring and we got to hang out (and I dragged you all over the city to eat all the food) for a week. I got a peek at your stunning debut book then and have been waiting to scream about it to the world ever since! Tell us about I’m From. What is the story behind the story?
Gary Gray Jr.: It’s been almost two years since our interview where you shared so much insight into your writing, educational life, and background. I remember us talking about your amazing kids and how much you enjoy spending time with them camping, hiking, and dancing. I’ve seen those moves on TikTok!
Oh, and yes, I happily went on a food extravaganza with you when you visited the United Nations School Hanoi, and I’d be more than happy to do it again!
So the book! We all have our own stories, right? Well, mine just happens to start in Preston, Nova Scotia, the oldest Indigenous Black community in Canada. When I reflect on my sense of belonging, I find that within my community and around my family, I feel a sense of freedom. It was with them that I truly felt like I belonged. However, as I went outside of my close-knit community, there were times when this feeling of belonging seemed to disappear. Whether it was something as simple as walking in the park, going to the grocery store, or even being part of sports teams, it was as if the outside world couldn’t fully appreciate my background and experiences. This feeling continued as I grew older and started teaching internationally in Kuwait, Singapore, the Philippines, and now Vietnam. After three or four years of thinking about this idea of belonging, with the help of my amazing wife, Narin, and my cousin, author Shauntay Grant, I finally started to write my own story. It’s been a whirlwind, but so much fun. I’m excited for it to finally be out in the world.
When you came to UNIS, you gave my class a full preview of Say My Name. The students are still buzzing about it! So, I’m curious, what motivated you to create such an inspiring and timely piece?
Ho: I think our stories have very similar starting places. Growing up, I heard people mispronounce, sometimes seemingly willfully, my mother’s beautiful name, Wanling. They’d say things like Wanlong, Wingling, and even, inexplicably, Wendy. Many of her sisters took on Western names when they came to the U.S. just so people could pronounce their names correctly. I was also really embarrassed by my last name, Ho. You can imagine the jokes people made when I was growing up. For a long time, I felt myself and my family othered and demeaned because of our names. Unfortunately, I saw these patterns continue in the lives of my students when I became an educator. So much history and meaning and pride is lost when people not only don’t make an effort to say our names, but when our names become a source of shame.
It was my high school students who taught me to embrace my name. I loved when they would lift their arms in greeting and shout, “Ms. Hoooooooooo!” from across campus. It came to represent trust and love and joy. It took me decades to love my name and all that it represents. My hope is that young people today will grow up loving their names and carrying them with pride. It is also an invitation for all—especially educators, since that is also my world—to make the effort to see one another in all our complex multitudes.
For me, my work in education and storytelling is driven by the same motivation of equity and liberation. You’ve had a beautiful journey around the world as a teacher, one that I’m incredibly jealous of and want to copy one day! How does your role as an educator impact your storytelling?
Gray: Fam, your story truly resonates with me as I reflect on the many students I’ve had the privilege of teaching throughout my years as an educator in different countries. My classrooms have been filled with an array of beautiful names that I make a deliberate effort to pronounce correctly every school year. It is crucial to convey to students that I genuinely want to learn the proper way to say their names and that I’m willing to practice and make sure it is how they want them to be shared.
As a Black male educator from Canada, my experiences teaching in diverse countries have greatly influenced my approach to storytelling. I recognize the significance of representation in narratives and have witnessed the impact it has on students when they see authors, characters, and even illustrators who look like them. It changes their perspective on literacy and learning, something I wish I had experienced more while growing up.
Consequently, my goal is to ensure that my storytelling embraces a wide range of characters and experiences, with a particular emphasis on celebrating and representing Black children. Through these stories, I hope not only to empower and engage Black children, but also to encourage other students to learn from and connect with the Black experience. I could talk about this topic forever!
Why did storytelling become a part of the work you do?
Ho: Your journey has allowed you glimpses into the stories of so many, and forced you to confront invisibility and single narratives in so many different ways. We really could talk about this forever!
Stories are so compelling; they move people when facts and statistics won’t. And picture books especially offer so many accessible entry points into every facet of life, from joy and celebration to oppression and grief. I love that we can understand ourselves and each other better through story. Though I also write novels, I am partial to picture books because I think they can be used to open dialogue for people of all ages. There are so many layers embedded in the text and art that some picture books could be used as the foundation for a semester in a college-level class.
It was important to me that we were very thoughtful in the art for Say My Name. As the book includes stories of children who have backgrounds different than mine or Khoa’s, we consulted with many people about the text and art in an effort to make sure the details felt truthful. I think that the spreads Khoa created are breathtaking. It’s always amazing to see an artist’s interpretation of words I’ve written.
What was it like seeing Oge’s unbelievably gorgeous illustrations for I’m From? Did you cry? I always cry when I see art for my books. And I cry when I see Oge’s and it’s not even my words! I can’t imagine how it must have felt for you!
Gray: I couldn’t agree more. Khoa’s art is so captivating and vibrant. It’s truly amazing how art has the power to transport us into another world, and it’s clear that Khoa’s work has achieved that for you.
Oge’s work blows me away every time I look at it. Among the many remarkable pages, the ones featuring the knitted blanket and the bus scenes hold a special place in my heart. Oge literally added memories within the blanket. If you look closely, you can see pictures of my family and me from my childhood! The bus scenes are so fun—Oge used an airbrush for the first time in her illustrations.
And I may have shed a few tears! I couldn’t help myself. I was in complete awe at the remarkable way she blended our worlds together. Oge’s talent is truly amazing, and her ability to bring my words to life through her art is incredible. I am fortunate to have Oge as my first book sister!
Joanna, your process for Say My Name involved going the extra mile to make sure you had authentic representation for each character. What was it like, actively engaging with different groups of people and listening to their experiences?
Ho: People often ask how I chose the backgrounds for the different characters in my books, and the truth is I chose based on places and people that have deep personal meaning to me. The first character, 何曉光 Hé Xiǎo-Guāng, has my full Chinese name, given to me by my Aya, my paternal grandfather. I lived in Ghana and studied traditional dance for a year when I was in college, so one of the characters, Akosua Acheampong, is of Ghanaian descent. I have always worked in schools with predominantly Latinx, Black, and Pacific Islander students, so in many ways, each character represents a community where I’ve found home away from home. I also interviewed dear friends—several of whom suggested I give the character a family member’s name (two are named after the sisters of friends, and one is named after a friend’s mom!)—during the process of drafting and revising the text. For most characters, I spoke to multiple people because I never want any single person to feel the burden of representation for an entire identity.
The publisher asked for their feedback throughout the process of creating the illustrations and at one point, we had to go back and make major changes to the art sketches based on the collective feedback from this beautiful community. This delayed production significantly, but it was important not only to me but the whole team that we represented this diversity of backgrounds well. Their feedback really shaped the text and artwork for this story.
Say My Name is dedicated to the wonderful humans who shared so much to make this book possible: Jaime Barajas, Eva Bighorse, Reem Bilbeisi, David Bowles, Alissa Chow-Firmage, Keisarina Hafoka, Laura Obuobi, Leila Sadeghi, and Patrick Tupoumalohi.
You mentioned your amazing wife, Narin, as well as your cousin. Who else in your community made your book possible? What’s a behind-the-scenes story most readers won’t know?
Gray: My nan has played a significant role in my life since I was a child, and she’s had a profound influence on who I am today and how I walk the world. Though she passed just a few years ago, her impact on my life remains the same. All of the memories in I’m From are a result of her love, guidance, and wisdom. Black grandmas hold a special place in my heart. This book is not only a dedication to the community of Preston, but also a tribute to my nan and everything she has done for me and my family. Her legacy lives on through these pages, and I am forever grateful for her.
Our books beautifully intertwine personal self and identity. I look forward to touring together and engaging in more conversation. Oh, and maybe a food tour! Have you found any spots yet?
Ho: I can’t wait! And you know I’ve been planning out our food tour too!
I’m From by Gary R. Gray Jr., illus. by Oge Mora. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Sept. 19 ISBN 978-0-06-308996-9
Say My Name by Joanna Ho, illus. by Khoa Le. HarperCollins, $19.99 Sept. 26 ISBN 978-0-06-320533-8