Writing a children’s book isn’t as easy as it looks. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie learned this firsthand when she decided to write one. “I thought, I can just do this in a week and send it off,” she said in a video interview from her home in Maryland. “It took me a year-and-a-half.” She had to do three drafts because the first two were rejected by her 8-year-old daughter, who declared them “boring.”
Adichie, whose books include “Americanah,” “Half of a Yellow Sun,” “We Should All Be Feminists” and “Notes on Grief,” quickly realized she had to change her approach. What her daughter wanted was something shorter and punchier. “I needed to get to the point.” So Adichie began cutting. The third draft, which met her daughter’s approval, became “Mama’s Sleeping Scarf,” a compact picture book that tells the story of a little girl named Chino who finds comfort in her mother’s headscarf.
Enlivened with bold illustrations by Joelle Avelino, the book follows the adventures of Chino after she removes the scarf from her mother’s head. The girl holds it dearly and turns it into a plaything that is also a reminder of her mother, who has gone to work. By the end of a day spent with her grandparents, Chino ends up wearing the scarf. “It looks so nice on you,” her mother comments when she returns. The scarf — based on one Adichie used to wear — becomes the connective tissue between generations, and finally the cozy thing that helps Chino fall asleep.
Adichie, who is planning another children’s book and working on an adult novel, says she hopes her book shows “a small slice of joy” on an ordinary day. In further conversation, Adichie discussed the book’s inspiration, why she wrote under a pen name and what she looks for in books for her daughter. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: This is your first book since your 2021 memoir “Notes on Grief.” Tell me how it came about.
A: When I first started writing books, people would often ask me why I didn’t write for children. I would say in jest that my vision is too dark, and I love children, so I do not want to be held responsible for their psychological harm in any way. I just felt that my artistic vision wasn’t necessarily child-friendly.
Q: That may be true, but your children’s book is joyful.
A: Yes. I do have to say that I like joy. But I think it’s fair to say that even as a reader, I’m drawn to a kind of melancholy. But then I had my daughter and everything changed. The greatest joy of my life happened.
My husband and I started reading books to her, which actually became my introduction to children’s books of this generation. I would go into a bookstore, looking for a wide variety of books, because we really wanted to start very early showing her the world as it is, to show her the diversity in the world. I wanted to see more Black little kids in books, but most of all, I wanted to see them doing ordinary things.
I remember somebody gave her a book on one of her birthdays, and it was about a little child who has become an activist, a Black child. And I was grateful for the book, but I remember thinking, “this is not what I want for my daughter.” I don’t want her to think that being a Black child has to mean growing up to fight for justice. I want her to want cookies and adventure, be a little naughty and that sort of thing.
Q: How did you come up with the book’s storyline?
A: It really came about because one day my daughter pulled my scarf off my head. It was just this lovely moment for me. She began touching my hair, in braids. She was maybe a year old then. When she was a bit older, she would take my scarf and play with it. So I started thinking maybe this would be a good idea for a book.
I still didn’t do anything about it. And then my father died and then my mother died and that just completely shifted everything for me. It became more urgent to write a children’s book. I don’t know why. I think maybe because I also wanted to write with this new pen name that was honoring them.
Q: Yes, tell me about your pen name, Nwa Grace James. Why did you choose it?
A: The practical reason is because I’m hoping to do more children’s books, so I want my children’s books to have a distinct life of their own and not get muddled up with my darker fiction.
But also, I wanted to honor my parents — the name means “the child of Grace James.” My parents adored my daughter. I adored my parents. Also I thought it was lovely, this idea of writing for my daughter and writing as a daughter. So I want this to be a memory for my daughter of when her grandparents were here.
Q: Before we spoke, I revisited your 2009 TED Talk about “the danger of a single story,” the idea that when you “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they become.” I wondered how this book fits into that idea.
A: Well, certainly not consciously, but I’m hoping that all of my work somehow says something about the importance of many stories. I like that this book makes something that’s very specific to Black women ordinary — a scarf. It’s the kind of thing that’s so ordinary for so many Black women. But for people who are not Black, it’s not an ordinary thing because they don’t know exactly what it is. And I think that we start to know one another more when these ordinary things in our lives become ordinary to other people, and familiar to them.
Q: In that talk you also discuss how impressionable and vulnerable our children are, especially to “single stories.” And I’m wondering if you think that makes children’s books in some ways more important or valuable than adult books.
A: I mean, it doesn’t have to be more important than adult books but it does show how important children’s books are. They’re more consequential. I’m affected by books even now as an adult. But as a child, we’re so open and soft, we just absorb whatever we read. And we haven’t quite developed that ability to be skeptical and to question.
I say this from experience. I remember just believing as a kid, without thinking about it, that books were things in which White people did things because all of the books I was reading had White people in them. Today, it’s a bit better. Not much, really, for many, many African kids, because it’s still much easier to get books that are about the U.K. or the U.S. than it is to get books that are about Africans. But I think it’s important for a child to see themselves in books, but also really important for a child to see other people, too.
Q: Are you concerned that some people might not want their kids to read your book?
A: I think it’s so sad, this epidemic of book banning and this horrible anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual strain that’s happening in certain sections of the country. If some people don’t want to read it, that’s fine. But for me, really, I’m just much more concerned about this idea that we somehow decide that some books shouldn’t be read because they don’t conform to our view of the world. I keep thinking this is where we should say to such people, “facts do not care about your feelings. This is the way the world is.”
Q: What do you hope readers will take from your book?
A: I hope it’s the kind of book that when they read it, it just makes them a little happier.
Q: This is a silly question, but the title of your book “We Should All be Feminists” became part of a Beyoncé song. Do you expect her — or anyone else — to pick up a line from “Mama’s Sleeping Scarf?”
A: [Laughing] No, I’m sorry to say that is not one of my ambitions.
Q: “Mama’s Sleeping Scarf” is a good line for a song.
A: [Laughing] You know, I think it is. It’s so unusual that I think it could work.
Mama’s Sleeping Scarf
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing as Nwa Grace-James
Illustrated by Joelle Avelino
Knopf. 32 pp. $18.99