Meet Yolanda T. Marshall
Award-Winning Canadian Author of Diverse Children's Books
Late last summer, I connected with the illustrious and award-winning Guyanese-born Canadian author Yolanda T. Marshall at the annual TIFA(Toronto International Festival of Authors) event.
“My Son was born in 2015, and he is why I started writing children’s books. Before his birth, I had self-published a poetry book in 2008. His arrival into this world molded me into the author I am today. I wanted to write books celebrating the Caribbean/African diaspora to which he belongs, and I did just that”. - Yolanda T. Marshall
Upon arriving at the event, I watched her masterfully lead an engaging kids’ storytime session. I cannot recall seeing so many kids excited about reading books and storytime. I was immediately baffled and intrigued.
After the session, I introduced myself to the energetic author and walked with her to the book signing space, where she performed the customary book signings. There were lots of books! I was fortunate to speak with her for a few hours, which felt like minutes, inquiring about her work, passion for writing, and the person behind the pen and paper.
Like any engaging conversation, time flew by quickly, so we agreed to connect afterward. Below is a detailed summary of my Q&A with Yolanda.
You stated your son is your biggest inspiration. Why?
My son was born in 2015, and he is the reason why I started writing children’s books. Before his birth, I had self-published a poetry book in 2008. His arrival into this world molded me into the author I am today. I wanted to write books celebrating the Caribbean/African diaspora to which he belongs, and I did just that.
What central challenges/hurdles did you face upon starting as a writer, and how did you navigate through those challenges?
At first, I took it upon myself to be an independent author. I work in the professional publishing industry, and I knew how difficult it would be to have books like, “Miles Away In The Caribbean (2019)” or “Sweet Sorrel Stand (2018)” traditionally published in Canada. Unlike many new independent authors who were inspired during the pandemic to write and received grants from the government to assist them, I had to use my funds, fresh out of a divorce and with a one-year-old in my hands. Finding time to write was rough, but I did it. I did not have the time to attend events in the early stages because I had to care for my child immediately after work. I used social media to promote my books. My books listed on Amazon, Indigo, and Barnes and Noble worked wonders for me because I know how to market books. I also negotiated with stores to buy copies. Once I received a multi-book deal from a traditional publisher, I had already established my audience. Traditional publishing opens a lot of doors, and it is great to see that when my book is ready, the publisher can sell thousands of units throughout Canada – to libraries, schools, and stores before it is published and after.
When you are not writing, what do you do to relax?
I travel! Before my son, I had already traveled to over 20 countries, and with my son, I took him to 14 countries. I love to explore. I travel to learn and indulge in great foods around the world. I also love Jazz!
Your books have recurring themes of music, culture, and food. Why? Are there other themes you plan to explore in the future?
To tell stories about the beauty of my culture, I want my readers to hear it and taste the sweetness of it. Food is like a blueprint of our cultures – it says a lot about who we are as people, our history, and what kept our ancestors alive long enough to give birth to us. My 2008 poetry book is called “Obayifo,” also known as asiman by the Dahomey people, and is a vampire-like mythological creature from West Africa obsessed with food. I am a descendant of West African storytellers and educators, and food plays an important role in our cultures. As for music, I am a child of a musician. I have academic/schoolbooks that aren’t about music, culture, and food. I plan to continue exploring the topics other authors haven't touched on. Many new authors are now writing similar themes about the music and cultures in my current books, so I am highly inspired to release more unique stories.
What advice would you give to upcoming children's book writers?
Learn about the publishing industry! There are many times I encounter authors who do not know the difference between traditionally published books and self-published books. Both are hard work, and you must market yourself. If I look back a few years from 2016 to date - I have been consistent with my marketing efforts. Some self-published writers aren’t aware that self-published books are excluded from many literary platforms around the world. I also met a few authors who aren’t aware of their power with a self-published book, their attitude towards literature, and how it helps shape their future.
Traditional publishing is a slow roll – My book "C is for Carnival" was released in 2021; however, the book's manuscript was received, and the deal was signed with the publisher in 2019. Self-publishing offers more control, a published book in weeks, and authors must wear many hats. Whatever suits you, do it, but understand how it all works in case there are opportunities you would like to explore. Also, be professional and be you – don't try to be like another author or copy the books everyone else is making now. Find your niche and see what is available or upcoming and where you can establish your profile. Network with the collaborators and never give up.
What's next for Yolanda as a writer? What are you excited about in the near future?
I plan to continue creating stories, recommending books by other racialized authors to children, and documenting my journey. There are many times I visit schools and am reminded that educators are watching, studying, and sharing my work. Some kids can list what books I have, how long I have been writing, and why I write. I want to continue representing, writing, and reading for them. I am excited about my son’s growth – he is and will be a better artist than I am. I love watching him sing and play music on instruments. He started reading at three years old, and he is an author, too. His dad and I plan to foster and guide that light and love of the arts in him. I am a boy mom first, and I am already in love with what the future brings. I am more excited about my son’s near future.
You can keep up with Yolanda’s activities on her Instagram page and check out her books at your favorite book outlet.
Also, preview this jolly TV special aired on CBC for Kids featuring Yolanda here.
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