The American-born daughter of Jamaican immigrant parents, Sandra L. Richards is the author of “Rice & Rocks.” She hopes that her debut picture book will serve as an educational resource for families seeking to teach their children the value of their heritage and the importance of cultural diversity.
Sandra completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies at Seton Hall University, and is the Executive Director, Head of Diverse and Multicultural Marketing, Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley. Learn more about Sandra at www.sandralrichards.com.
Kam Williams: Hi Sandra. Congratulations on "Rice & Rocks."
Sandra L. Richards: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
KW: What inspired you to write the book?
SLR: The inspiration for Rice & Rocks came from my family in two parts. One, my parents are from Jamaica and immigrated to the USA with the hopes to give their children a chance of growing up with greater opportunities. However, it was important to them that we were raised with a sense of pride of our culture and traditions, and food was certainly at the center of that, especially Sunday dinners!The second source of inspiration stemmed from a heartbreak. In 2007, I lost my 8-year old nephew Giovanni to meningitis. That loss left a hole in the heart of our entire family. Over the years, I thought long and hard about a way to help keep his memory alive. Of course, we had pictures of the time we spent together, but that just didn’t seem to be enough. As I would replay moments of our time together in my mind, I kept finding myself thinking back to conversations we had over the years, and I fondly remembered one conversation in particular which had to do with food and culture. Giovanni was a very imaginative child and decided he wouldn’t eat his grandma’s rice and beans because the beans looked like rocks to him. That casual conversation ultimately led to the me writing "Rice & Rocks," a children’s picture book in my nephew’s memory.
KW: What message do you want kids to take away from the tale?
SLR: While memorializing Giovanni was the original intent of "Rice & Rocks," it was designed to do much more. "Rice & Rocks" is also a story that teaches kids about cultural diversity and the importance of learning about their own heritages. I think it is important for children to have knowledge about their culture and heritage as it will give them a sense of self, pride and ownership of their own story. How powerful would that be for a child to have that gift, a foundation for them to stand on, being able to identify who they are for themselves and not letting someone define it for them?
KW: Where did you come up with the idea of Jasper, a talking parrot from the Congo?
SLR: Giovanni actually owned a bird. He loved birds! In this story, I created Jasper, a parrot from the Congo, as a way to acknowledge Africa in the story. Jasper is quite a character and kids that read the story love him! I hope that will pique their curiosity to learn more about him and, ultimately, more about Africa.
KW: How did you settle on the dialogue, given that it it’s a mix of child, adult and animal chatter?
SLR: Here is the funny truth. We grew up with animals in our family as pets: dogs, cats, birds and fish. We would all talk to them, and engage them in our conversations. So, for me and perhaps every other pet lover out there, it is normal to talk to your pets. They understand and respond in their own way. It was pretty easy to weave Jasper into the dialogue, because, after all, he is a parrot which is known to have a vocabulary of up to 600 words. My two dogs, Skye and Honey, appear in "Rice & Rocks" too and, while they don’t have a speaking part, they are very expressive in the book!
KW: What’s your target audience?
SLR: "Rice & Rocks" is geared towards children ages 5-9. But, to be honest, I have had adults tell me they love reading picture books. I am in that category, too! I would say for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents, there is something for you in this story to share with a child in your life, whether it be talking about your family roots and traditions, to opening your child’s mind to exploring new foods, to embracing the saying ‘It takes a village’ when needing help in raising future culturally-aware citizens of the world. For teachers, "Rice & Rocks" would be a great addition to their curriculum, as there is growing interest in talking about diversity and inclusion in the schools.
KW: Tell me a little about the book’s illustrator, Megan Kayleigh Sullivan.
SLR: In short, Megan is brilliant! She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2012 with a degree in illustration. I enjoyed working with Megan, alongside our wonderful art director. I had a front row seat, watching the story come to life sketch by sketch, page by page. What I loved most about working with Megan was her attention to detail and asking questions about my family early on, outside of the story, that would help capture the essence of not only Giovanni, but also Auntie, Grandma and other family members.
KW: Any plans to write a series of books about Giovanni?
SLR: Yes, there are plans to write more stories about Giovanni and Jasper while also introducing a few more characters along the way.
KW: AALBC.com founder Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
SLR: The last book I read was Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, and I just started Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen asks: What is your earliest childhood memory?
SLR: I can still remember it now like it was yesterday, the first time I went to Jamaica. I was 8-years old. I loved it! It was beautiful! I met my maternal and paternal grandmothers for the first time, and they taught me how to cook. There is a road not too far from my grandmother’s house, Holland Bamboo. It looked so regal, as though you are driving to a majestic palace. As a child, when we got close to the road, I would get excited because I knew it was only a matter of minutes until the fun begins. But I would also be sad when it was time to leave, looking out of back window as Holland Bamboo would appear further and further away. Today, I will gladly admit that those same feelings creep in when I see Holland Bamboo.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
SLR: This immediately plays in my head, when you ask me this question: “We have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in His holy word. He never failed me yet.” I was blessed to have a godfather who was a Bishop of a church in Hempstead, New York. My brothers and sister, along with my cousins, were in his church every Sunday as kids. We were in Sunday school, the church choir, and we were there for every church revival. My mother and father had such a deep faith in God, and that set a huge example for me.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
SLR: Discernment. There is something that my mother would say when things happen; good, bad or indifferent: “Everything happens for a wise purpose.” This goes back to the spiritual component of my life that has developed and evolved over time. It is human nature to question things that occur, certainly if you feel like it puts you at a disadvantage or hurts your feelings. When I begin to question those things, I replay my mother’s words, sit in silence and ask myself the honest and sometimes tough questions. What is the purpose? What lesson am I supposed to learn? What role did I play in this? If it is necessary for me to act, this exercise allows me to address things with courage, humility and grace.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
SLR: I love to cook curry shrimp with vegetables and fried plantains with Basmati rice. Kam, I have been told that my dish is delicious and nutritious. Do you remember that line from Brown Sugar?
KW: Yep! When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
SLR: I see a harmonious blend of my mother and father, and I am a reflection of their love.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
SLR: My heart would be so full if I could have one more Sunday dinner with my mom, dad and Giovanni.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
SLR: Scratch offs!
KW: Thanks for the time, Sandra, and best of luck with the book.
SLR: Thank you so much, Kam! I am honored to have spent this time with you.