From professor to children’s book author, LaShonda Stewart is doing it all. Her two books, The 12 Days of Soul Food Christmas and Emma Jean’s Sew-and-Sew, have garnered praise for their heartfelt messages and depictions of familial love. The books discuss relatable topics for children — everything from family celebrations to bullying — in an easily digestible way.
Read our Q&A with LaShonda as she reveals the inspiration for her novels and their cast of lovable characters.
Q: As a professor and public speaker, you certainly have a lot on your plate! What made you decide to pursue creating children’s books as well?
A: Yes, my plate is full, but I enjoy what I do. Being a professor and public speaker is both fulfilling and rewarding for me. Seeing my students receive their degrees and providing words of encourage to uplift and encourage people is my calling.
Years ago, while at a Christmas party, I wrote my own whimsical version of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas entitled The 12 Days of a Soul Food Christmas. My friends and I started reminiscing about all the good soul food our Big Mamas prepared during the holiday. From that conversation, I developed a whimsical new version full of song and laughter for everyone. Over the years, people requested the use of my song as an icebreaker resulting in it becoming a big hit for family gatherings.
I was inspired to put the words in a book while being in quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing all the unrest in the world and not being able to visit and socialize with family, friends and my students made me realize how to never take that time for granted. This book is my way of uplifting and encouraging people around the world by showing how soul food has always been a source of comfort, in the face of difficulties and unrest, in the black culture. It speaks to our strength, and it says that we are survivors. Like all cultures, when we get together for the holidays there is plenty of love, laughter, joy, good conversation and food on the table.
Q: From Emma Jean’s sewing to Big Mama’s Christmas cooking, family traditions are a major theme in both your books. Did you start these projects knowing you wanted to include this detail?
A: I decided to continue the book series after receiving great reviews on The 12 Days of a Soul Food Christmas. So many people reached out to thank me for bringing back nostalgic memories of their childhood as well as developing a teachable moment for individuals who do not know what soul food is. The book has touched so many lives around the world. As a result, I was inspired to write the second book, Emma Jean’s Sew-N-Sew, which introduces the world to Big Mama’s daughter Emma Jean who loves to sew.
Q: Having the same characters featured in both books is such a standout detail! What motivated you to stick with the same family for both stories?
A: The books reflect my own family and upbringing. I wanted to continue the Big Mama series by introducing Big Mama’s daughter, Emma Jean, which is my mother’s name. In fact, the book, Emma Jean’s Sew-N-Sew, is a dedication to my mother, the real Emma Jean. It is fiction, but some of the events are based on a true event. Yes, my mother taught herself how to sew and made a lot of my clothes. Sewing love into every stitch. I recall when I was in elementary school, she made me some Emma Jeans with a matching jacket and stitched EJ on the pockets. I felt like royalty with all the clothes she had sewn.
Q: The 12 Days of Soul Food Christmas celebrates and honors a Black family’s holiday traditions, while Emma Jean’s Sew-N-Sew tells an emotional story of a young girl facing adversity due to poverty and bullying. Was your intent to discuss these topics directly, or did that just happen organically during the writing process?
A: Yes, the intent was to discuss both topics. Although my Big Mamas (on both my mother and dad’s side of the family) are no longer with us, my family continues the tradition of convening for the holidays and carry on the legacy of cooking those favorite soul foods for the Christmas holiday. The 12 Days of a Soul Food Christmas book is a tribute to not only my Big Mamas, but to all Big Mama (grandmothers and mothers) who go above and beyond anyway, but for the holidays they make it even more special … cooking all those traditional favorite foods for the family. It’s also a tribute to all of my nieces, nephews, cousins and godchildren (a few of them are reflected in the characters of the book). In my book, I envision seeing all of them and all of my readers celebrating with their Big Mamas for the Christmas holiday.
Emma Jean’s Sew -N-Sew is a story about the sacrifice or the distance that a mother will go to keep a smile on their children’s face. In the book, Emma Jean, a loving mother, doesn’t have money to buy her daughter fancy outfits from the boutiques, so she teaches herself how to sew. Creating her own fashion designs by sewing love into every stitch for her daughter. Her daughter loves everything about the clothes until she gets bullied by classmates. With bullying becoming so prevalent today, the books teach children how to overcome adversities and to be triumphant when confronted with challenges.
Q: What do you hope young readers will take away from your books?
A: The 12 Days of a Soul Food Christmas book is my way of uplifting and encouraging people around the world by showing how soul food has always been a source of comfort, in the face of difficulties and unrest, in the black culture. It speaks to our strength, and it says that we are survivors. Like all cultures, when we get together for the holidays there is plenty of love, laughter, joy, good conversation and food on the table.
Emma Jean’s Sew-N-Sew illustrates a mother’s love through the acts of sewing. It teaches life lessons and how to be triumphant when dealing with bullies. The book confronts the topic of fitting in at school and acts as the perfect conversation starter for school aged children who are experiencing teasing or bullying.
Q: What’s next for you? And if the details are still under wraps, what’s your favorite dish from The 12 Days of Soul Food Christmas?
A: Be on the lookout for more book releases in the future. My favorite dish in my book is black eyed peas and cornbread.
The 12 Days of Soul Food Christmas by LaShonda Stewart