Julia Cieslukowska is currently an M.A Candidate at the prestigious Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She is passionate about issues of poverty, politics and gender inequality in developing countries, having recently authored a children’s book to empower young girls. Due to her engagement on social justice issues over the years, Julia was recognized with Ontario’s Leading Girls, Building Communities Award. Most recently, she launched her first Kickstarter initiative to distribute free copies of her book to children in marginalized communities.
You wanted to write a children’s book with a female protagonist…why?
Sexism is fostered from a very young age in both boys and girls. The messages children are exposed to in children’s books can shape their lifelong perceptions of gender. Unfortunately, children’s books contain a gender and racial bias that can be harmful and misrepresentative. I strongly believe that one person can make a difference by speaking up and taking action. Writing a children’s book with a female protagonist of color was one way for me to take action and try to raise awareness on this issue.
Where did your interest in empowering young girls come from?
Due to my educational and professional background in international development, I took several trips to various developing countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Morocco. I also worked in the Canadian federal government as a development officer on the Afghanistan program. These experiences demonstrated to me time and again how prevelant and problematic gender inequality still is around the world. It also made me hyper aware of sexism when I returned to Canada and how limiting and harmful it can be for both genders. I have always been a critical thinker, and believe that one of the best ways to confront social justice issues is to be the best role models we can be in fighting discriminatory tendencies within ourselves and in our communities. Witnessing how harmful sexism can be motivated me to fight against it and to be a voice for young girls who have the most to lose if we fail to address this problem.
What is a “certified children’s book author” and why did you become one?
In preparing to write my children’s book, I wanted to ensure I wrote well for my target age group and conveyed the topics I wanted to address in a relatable manner. As a result, I completed a children’s literature writing course that was created by an executive panel of established children’s book authors. This course was critical to teaching me how to write for children, and certified me so I had the skills to write well and effectively for my target audience.
Can you give us an overview of Sara Stem Saves the Bees?
Sara Stem is an intelligent and active young girl who loves learning about the world. When her bee friends are at risk of extinction, she takes action to save them using all the tools at her disposal. She does not shy away from technology, and is confident in her ideas. Most of all, she is a leader. She takes initiative, and she delegates tasks based on the strengths of those around her. She is also a role model for her baby brother Sai, who symbolizes the next generation of boys that will grow up with a different impression of what girls can be and do. As the title of the book suggests, Sara is heroic and is successful in saving the bees in the story.
What lessons do readers learn from reading your book?
The story of Sara Stem is subtle but powerful. Sara of course is a symbol of a heroic girl—a girl who can change the world. For children who are taught to see girls as a pretty accessory, Sara breaks the pattern. As science tells us, it takes just one ‘black swan’ to falsify a theory. Sara falsifies the notions that girls can’t understand science or technology, be heroes, or save those in need, including boys.
Second, the story raises an important discussion about climate change and environmental degradation. The extinction of bees is not an issue of fiction, but something I wanted to bring attention to throughout the story.
Finally, studies have shown that between 90-97% of main characters in children’s literature are Caucasian, when in reality, most of the people on Earth are non-Caucasian. China and India are the largest populations, and while North America is a melting pot of cultures, we still see this bias in American books. What is beautiful about Sara Stem is she could be of any descent. She is representative of so many more girls whose stories are worth being told. Furthermore, her story is not portrayed in the context of being a female victim, as is often seen in depictions of poverty, slavery, and colonialism for instance. Instead, she is a hero making her own story.
Who’s your illustrator and why was he/she perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
My illustrators are Nicolas Garguilo and Aurélie Dubois. They reside in France and act as an illustration duo: he does the drawings, and she does the colours. They were absolutely perfect for a number of reasons. First, they genuinely believe in the cause the book is trying to address. Second, their illustration style is very colorful and appealing to children, and they were able to work closely with me to achieve my vision for the story. I wanted Sara to be expressive and mainstream, much in the same way a Disney or an Anime character might be. I also wanted her to be unique and immediately identifiable, yet ordinary enough for readers to identify with her. My illustrators were able to achieve this difficult balance, and made the artwork very engaging for both children and adults. Finally, Nicolas and Aurelie are incredibly talented, professional and passionate about what they do. I couldn’t have picked better partners to work with.
Who are your ideal readers?
The book was written for 2-6 year olds, with a reading level of 5.5 years (based on the Fog Index). This means that an adult or an older sibling can read to younger children in this range who will still be able to understand the concepts laid out very simply in the book. In contrast, older children in this range can read along with their parents or even read the book on their own. Key words are highlighted on each page to facilitate discussions between parent and child. Although the book features a female protagonist, it does not target a specific gender, and can be read and enjoyed by both genders.
How do you see your book being used?
I want the book to start discussions about social issues, gender and the environment. I hope to give children an opportunity to think critically about these issues when reading with a parent or guardian at home, or at book readings with the author. After reading the story, questions such as the following can be asked to facilitate discussion on issues raised in the book:
- What does it mean to be a hero?
- Can anyone be a hero?
- Is Sara a hero?
- What is a map and compass?
- In what part of the world is the story set? How do you know? Do we know for sure?
- Why were the bees in trouble?
- Why are bees important?
- What parts of the story are true in real life?
- What parts of the story are impossible in real life?
- How can we help bees in real life?
These questions ask kids to separate in their minds fiction from reality, truth from stereotype, race from geography, and helps to shape their critical thinking skills and awareness of social and environmental issues.
What intangible results would you like to see happen as a result of your book?
I want girls and boys to be open to learning about nature, science and technology. I want girls especially to believe in themselves and their ability to do well in traditionally male fields and to make a difference. I want kids of both genders to value nature, the outdoors, and being active, and I want all kids to think more critically about gender. Hopefully these changes will contribute to members of society at large sharing healthier relationships with one another and with our environment based on mutual respect, understanding and equality.
Tells us about your Kickstarter campaign for Sara Stem Saves the Bees—why and what specifically are you crowd funding?
Publishing a children’s book can be a time consuming and expensive process. Many authors use printers in China to reduce costs, but in the case of Sara Stem, I used a North American publisher to ensure the book was 100% fair trade and exploitation free. This has resulted in the final purchase price of the book being less accessible to low-income families. As a result, I am fundraising through Kickstarter to get at least 100 free copies of the book to children in marginalized communities. I feel the book could have the strongest impact in these families, and want to do what I can to get the book to children in all social classes. Kickstarter is all or nothing, so if I don’t reach my $3,500 goal by Nov 29th, I get none of the funds. This raises the stakes to get the word out, but Kickstarter also allows all who pledge to qualify for a reward, including the book itself shipped to your door. For families with children, this is a great way to get one of the first copies of Sara Stem while also contributing to a great cause.
When is the book launch?
I am hosting the official Sara Stem Book Launch on November 16th, 1-4pm at Dovercourt Recreation Centre in Ottawa, Canada to celebrate the publishing of Sara Stem and to raise funds for the Kickstarter initiative. There will be free food, music, children’s activities, face painting and even a Sara Stem puppet! It will be a lot of fun.
Leave us with some final words of inspiration.
Sara Stem is not just a book. It’s symbolic of a larger movement that recognizes the continued need for action on social and environmental issues. Never doubt that a small group of people can make a big difference. Through your support, Sara Stem will help shape the next generation of critical thinkers.
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Illustration Credits: Nicolas Garguilo and Aurélie Dubois with Spiral Multimedia
Photo Credit: Author image by Ahd Al-Katta Photography