The Children’s Book Review | October 4, 2019
A world citizen of Italian descent, Giovanna Yessoufou received a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Affairs from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and a Master’s degree in Media, Culture, and Communications from New York University. At university in Boston was where she met her husband Farid, with whom they share four beautiful boys, three French Bulldogs, and a human child named Zahl. Giovanna combined her passions for books, social change, and French Bulldogs in the first children’s book, Thor the Troublemaker. She is currently working on her second title Louis the Lovebug.
As you are the owner of three French bulldogs, one of whom is named Thor, how much of Thor the Troublemaker resembles your own life?
Thor the Troublemaker is very much based on our own dog, Thor’s personality. At home, we have three wonderful Frenchies, Thor, Louis, and Hugo, and Thor is definitely the troublemaker out of the three. His character in the book is how he is in real life, and although the rest of the story is imagined, Thor’s personality is not. For example, the real Thor craves being the center of attention, and when Louis and Hugo moved into his space, you could sense the feeling of betrayal he felt towards us. He liked being the only son and to this day does not do well with sharing. We have to make sure to always give him three times the love to make him happy. I brought this side of him in the book by giving him an animal sibling (Frigga), whom he feels ambivalent about.
As I mentioned, the other characters in the book are imagined. I have created them with the purpose of exposing young children to different families. Thor’s family is a biracial same-sex parent family. I chose to portray this family because I believe that children need to see more diverse families around them and in the literature they read. Same-sex families have received some representation in children’s books recently, but I believe there should be more depth to their experiences as a family. Although Thor’s family is not based on people in real life, I believe that many people will be able to see themselves reflected in Thor’s family, some might even feel represented for the very first time.
Thor’s parents are both mommies and have highly respected vocations—Dania works at a legal aid office, while Eva is a brain surgeon. Can you tell us who or what inspired the creation of these two strong female role models?
I think it’s important for young children to see women in the workplace and not just any workplace, but demanding careers. So often, cognitively, we think of a doctor or a lawyer as a male figure. I wanted this book to dispel that image and have children become used to gender neutrality when discussing professions.
Another reason I chose such strong careers was to create a sense of balance in the couple. Even in same-sex relationships, we like to go back to the same gender tropes. In a lesbian relationship, we assume one woman to be more feminine and one to be more masculine. I wanted to move away from that, and make both women strong figures, while still having distinct personalities, and handling high powered careers as well as a family.
The illustrations are charming. I particularly enjoyed the close up of Thor contemplating his behavior. Can you tell us about your collaboration with illustrator Gisela A. Molina?
Thank you. Yes, I agree the close-up of Thor is adorable, and a very accurate depiction as well. Gisela is such a hardworking professional, I feel blessed to have met her and to have gone on this journey with her. I had contacted a few other illustrators for the book but Gisela’s professionalism and ability to make my vision a reality was what set her apart. Her talent was evident from the start, and she made the collaboration process effortless and easygoing. This is her first children’s book as well, and we have already worked on Louis the Lovebug, which will be out by December. I hope to work on many other books with her.
I also love the illustration of Thor and Frigga the cat considering their similar looks in the mirror. It is both endearing and humorous thanks to both the text and the visuals. Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
Thank you, yes, that is one of my favorites as well, it speaks so much to Thor’s personality and how he craves individuality. We often make fun of the real Thor and tell him he is part cat because of his features and poses. He is also the only one out of our three Frenchies that whines, also very cat-like.
Every illustration is so personal to me, I love them all. The reader sees the final work, but when I look at the illustrations, I see all the drafts they went through, and how pleased I am with the final product. I think my favorite illustration is the one of Thor on the sofa with his crown and his blanket, I mean his cape of course. I love it because it truly is the core of Thor’s personality, he is full of himself, but you love him for it. It’s also very playful and something a child might do while role-playing, which I thought complemented the text very nicely.
The story actually kicks off as a Dear Diary entry. Why did you choose diary writing as the way you wanted to tell this story?
This stylistic decision is one that means a lot to me. I am an old soul at heart. I prefer writing to typing, books to Kindles, vinyl’s to YouTube. There is something about the non-virtual mediums that help you connect to the media more deeply. This deeper feeling is disappearing and I wanted to do my part in teaching children the beauty of “the old school”. I also think writing in a diary is an important creative and developmental tool that remains one of the best ways of learning for children.
Diary writing is something I did a lot as a child, and it was something that was encouraged immensely during my school years. I think diary writing is important for children to take on, not only to practice and enhance their language skills but also as an emotional and psychological outlet. The world is moving so fast, that sometimes it becomes hard to unplug, connect with ourselves, and take the time to understand and work through our emotions.
Some children reading the book may not know what writing in a diary is, I see this as an opportunity. The book can become a conversation starter between parent and child of what it is to write in a diary, and can even encourage children to start their own writing journey. For younger children who might just be learning how to write, they can use writing in a diary as practice, and although their diary might be simple (e.g. today the sky is blue), it allows them to continuously improve. It can be a great encouragement to have a character that they love writing in a diary.
Thor also shows young readers that it’s okay not to always say good or positive things, that sometimes writing the negative (like Frigga being annoying) can be important too. Processing our emotions is crucial to development and Thor is demonstrating channeling and processing emotions in a healthy, beneficial way.
Finally, I think that Thor sharing his diary with the reader is allowing them into his intimacy, making them feel special. Often diaries are regarded as private, and Thor sharing his is saying, you little boy or little girl, are my best friend, so I will share my diary with you. It creates a comradery between the child and Thor. I think that sort of relationship between the reader and the character is sacred.
Animal lovers—especially those enamored with Frenchies or pet owners that return to messy homes after a hard day’s work—are bound to enjoy this endearing picture book. Who do you believe will enjoy reading Thor the Troublemaker the most?
Yes, I completely agree. Anyone who has the pleasure of sharing their life with a dog or other animal will find similarity and humor in the book. Animals are great life companions and I hope that Thor becomes an extension of that.
Thor the Troublemaker is a progressive book focused on diversity, racial and sexual diversity, yet it does not address these highly charged subjects. It is a post-race and post-gender/sexuality book that instead focuses on what it means to be a family. Those who are ready for this kind of book will thoroughly enjoy it. Parents and children who wish to see more of themselves or more of a diverse and inclusive environment, will love the book, and subsequently the series that will come.
We’d love to learn a little bit more about who you are and how you became a writer. Was being an author a childhood dream that you had?
No actually. Up to three years ago I would have probably laughed if someone would have said to me, “you will be a published children’s author in less than a decade”. Writing came rather suddenly but came about very organically.
My personal background is probably the most telling of why my books are so focused on diversity and inclusivity. I was born in Brazil, where my mother is from, and I was raised in Italy, where my father is from, from 3 months old until I was twelve, after which I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I attended boarding school until I graduated at 19. In boarding school, I was roommates and studied with students from many different places and cultures, and to this day, my friends come from all over the world.
I have been a book lover all my life. For as long as I remember books have been my best friends. I took them everywhere with me. Comic books, novels, romance books, dictionaries, yes, dictionaries. I remember a family friend gifted me a dictionary once and I actually opened it up and started reading it from the first page. I was fascinated. As I got older this passion for reading continued. At my undergraduate university, my concentration was international relations and political science, although I did also minor in communication studies and history. I loved reading, researching, preparing materials for mock debates, it all thrilled me. Taking on big issues like the Arab-Israeli Conflict and the Arab Spring movements made me want to change the world. I loved taking on charged, contentious issues and attempting to come up with solutions. Little did I know I would go on to try and change the world in a completely different way.
After my undergraduate degree, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. There, I took courses in gender and race, communication politics, etc. and learned of the deep impact communication has on society. In one particular course, we analyzed children’s books, how they have changed through the years, and how they have remained the same, and what narratives were still being left out. It was during this class that I realized there was a gap between what we saw and experienced in society (at least the diverse society I was part of) and what children were taught. This information became one of the guiding tools in writing my own children’s books.
After my Master’s degree, I moved to Canada and my husband and I decided to have our first (human) child. During my pregnancy, as you may expect from a book lover, I spent hours and hours inside of libraries and bookstores, reading children’s books, preparing a beautiful library for my soon-to-be-born baby. There were some great books on the shelves, but I also saw the shelves as being very limited. I was going to raise a biracial boy in a truly multicultural, diverse way. I am from Italy, my husband is from the Republic of Benin, we have close friends and family that are from, and live all over the world, we both grew up in very different environments and cultures and we were going to bring those cultures together into raising our son. I did not see one book on the shelf that represented all of that. Don’t get me wrong, there are many more diverse children’s books that there were a decade ago, or even half a decade ago, but I still felt there was space for me to write something truly unique. When my son was born, I started telling him stories about him and his fur brothers, every night a different story. One night, a lightbulb went off in my brain and I thought to myself, “Why not speak to children everywhere? Why don’t you share what you believe is so important for them to hear and see? Why not give them the gift of sharing their lives with Hugo, Louis, and Thor?” So the writing journey began…
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
The best advice I was ever given is probably advice given to me by my English teacher in my first year of university. She told me to always write what you know, write from your experiences because that kind of fuel will never die. She also said that when a person truly writes from the soul, the reader can feel it, if you write what you don’t know or what you haven’t experienced the burden is much heavier to become trustworthy to the reader. I have tested this advice again and again and it stands as true today as it was a decade ago when I first received it. This is why I decided to write Thor the Troublemaker. Although Thor’s family is not my own, the characters are a combination of traits from people in my own life, and Thor is 100% himself, the beautiful, stubborn, sometimes selfish, Frenchie that I adore with all my heart.
If you could sum up your life as a book title, what would the title of that book be?
Predictable Unpredictability. My life has always been quite unpredictable, yet I have always been true to myself and that has made the journey somewhat predictable. I have grown as a person and continuously learn and grow from every experience I face, but I am very self-aware and possess a strong, non-malleable personality, which helps when steering in unchartered waters.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself, Thor the Troublemaker, or any upcoming books?
Yes. Louis the Lovebug, my second book, which should be out by the end of 2019, is even more personal than Thor the Troublemaker. The book is based on my family, and Louis, of course, is the main protagonist. Like Thor the Troublemaker, Louis the Lovebug focuses on family bonds in a lighthearted manner.
What I hope to achieve with my books is to show children unconditional family love, and also show diverse characters, backgrounds, and stories. My overall goal as a children’s book author is to create stories that children will enjoy, as well as portray important parts of society that are often left out. I hope that Thor the Troublemaker and Louis the Lovebug are the beginning of my journey as an author, and I can continue to share my positive messaging with young children and their families for a long time.
Written by Giovanna Yessoufou
Illustrated by Gisela A. Molina
Publisher’s Synopsis: Thor is a troublemaker. He is also a French Bulldog who loves his family. Deep down. Deep, deep down. He has a strong personality that makes him unique and funny, and he is never short on what to say. Experience Thor’s family life through his perspective and we guarantee you will be laughing until the very last page.
“Animal lovers—especially those enamored with Frenchies or pet owners that return to messy homes after a hard day’s work—are bound to enjoy this endearing picture book.” — The Children’s Book Review
Ages 4+| Publisher: Tellwell Talent | November 23, 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-0228805625
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