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A few weeks ago, I saw a joyous tweet from Minh Lê praising SMALL WORLD, Ishta Mercurio’s debut picture book, illustrated by Jen Corace.

And then I remembered—I’m supposed to be interviewing Ishta about this very book! WHAT A SMALL WORLD!

But no, this SMALL WORLD is not like that Small World. No earworm here.

This book is about our changing perspective as we grow, learn and achieve…and our place in the world through the stages of life. It’s a beautiful book that landed at just the right time.

Ishta, since I run Storystorm, let’s talk about the idea for this book first. How did it originate?

I love this question, because it shows how ideas really can come from anywhere.

I was on a plane (in the window seat, which is my FAVORITE SEAT—it’s one of the perks of being short!), flying home from Oregon, looking down at a large body of water. I noticed that there was a cluster of white flecks on the surface of the water that kept disappearing, then reappearing further along, then disappearing and reappearing again, and it occurred to me that they were probably caused by a pod of whales or dolphins or something. And that got me thinking about how tiny those flecks were from my vantage point inside the plane, but how big a whale would be if I were sitting next to one… And I also started thinking about how much diversity the world holds: in plant and animal species, in cultures, in land forms… And I wanted to explore how a child might sit with and come to terms with that, with this knowledge of the world’s complexity and of our small-but-also-big role within it.

I see your other published book is about insects. Do your ideas often come from nature?

t’s funny, but most of the time, they don’t. Or if they do, I get about halfway through the brainstorming session before I realize that my idea is actually just an extension of SMALL WORLD, or of another manuscript that I’ve already written. Most of the time, my ideas come from something I’ve overheard in a cafe or on the train, or from a news article, or something my kids will say, or my dog. (I have a couple of ideas I’m playing with that have come from my dog…)

OK, I’ll bite! Tell us about your dog and dog stories!

We got him from a rescue organization. His name is Rocket, and his mother was a feral dog in an area that’s a bit overrun with feral dogs, and she gave birth to his litter next to someone’s shed and abandoned them. So we have no idea what kind of dog he is! He looks a little bit Lab/Rottweiler/German Shepherd/Boxer. He’s stereotypically “dog-shaped”. And he’s big! He weighs 80 lbs., which is almost as much as me.

Without giving too much away, my dog stories were both inspired by this one silly thing that he does. But one is serious, and deep, and essentially social commentary, and the other is light and funny and very silly. I don’t know if they’ll both be published, but I’m having fun writing them.

Rocket is a cool name! And so in Nanda, the MC in SMALL WORLD. Can you give us the story behind the unique choice?

Finding a name for this character was a challenge! I went through several different names, looking for the one that was just right. At first, this character was a boy. I’m a mom of two boys, so I think it just felt natural for me to think of this character—who shares a lot of interests with me, but whose story isn’t really based on my own childhood at all—as a boy. But then about halfway through the revision process, I thought, “You know what? I have a lot of common interests with this character. And where are the books about girls who get to do things like this?” And so I decided that this character needed to have a girl’s name.

And then it came down to what girl’s name to choose! It needed to have two syllables, with the stress on the first syllable, to match the rhythm of the rest of the text. I wanted something soft sounding, that ended in an “a” sound or some other open vowel sound (as opposed to a closed vowel sound, like a long “e” sound), because this is a soft flowing lyrical kind of book. And, of course, a name can tell us a lot about a person’s background and family, and Nanda’s family is important in the first half of this book.

One of the things that people might be surprised to learn is that I come from a mixed background: my dad is Italian on his father’s side and Irish and German on his mother’s side, and my mom is Polish on her father’s side and Filipino on her mother’s side. Her dad was an American GI stationed in the Philippines during WWII, and he fell in love with a Filipino woman (my Lola) and they raised my mom and her brothers and sister there. My mom and each of her siblings came over to the US one at a time, as they each finished high school in the Philippines and enrolled in college in the States. And what’s interesting to me is that even though I take after my Filipino side in stature and bone structure and build, which is, like, 90% of my body, because I have my Italian grandfather’s face, most people are surprised to learn that I’m part Filipino. And I think that this is partly because we see what we’re conditioned to see: in other words, if the majority of books and movies and TV shows we see feature Caucasian characters, as most of them do, we become conditioned to look for the signs that point to that heritage. And we miss or gloss over the rest. I want us to be able to see each other more completely, and more clearly. And I want us to accept one another more readily. And giving books to children that broaden and deepen their understanding of people from a variety of backgrounds, and that illustrate the things that are different as well as the things we share, is part of that work.

So I wanted this child to come from an immigrant background. And the rest of the story of how I chose Nanda’s name is in the back matter of the book, so people will have to go and read that for themselves.

I was surprised at Jen Corace’s illustrations because they are a wildly different style from LITTLE PEA (with Amy Krouse Rosenthal), one of my favorite books. I suppose I should know that illustrators are wildly talented! Jen’s style in LITTLE PEA is spare and simple, lots of white space, childlike. While SMALL WORLD also has a childlike feel, the art is complex, layered and bursting with color. It emits a palpable energy!

Jen Corace did such an amazing, amazing job with the illustrations in this book. I love the way she picked up on the geometry references in the text and took them to a whole other level. But my favorite thing, and the most delightfully surprising thing, was the spread of Nanda building a cityscape with blocks in her bedroom! I love the way the city skyline she sees through her window echoes the skyline she’s building, and the star chart on her wall, and I especially especially love the pictures of female astronauts on her wall. When I recognized Sally Ride and Mae Jemison and Kalpana Chawla’s portraits, I gasped. Seeing these real women on the walls of this fictional character–tying Nanda to real kids, in the real world—was such a special moment.

What is the hope that you want to pass onto those who read SMALL WORLD? What do you want your readers to feel as they finish the book?

I want them to be left with the feeling that even though each of us is one small person, we can still do great things. And I also want them to have a deeper appreciation for the Earth, which is the one place in all the Universe that we call home. It’s ours, and we *all* belong here.

Thank you, Ishta, for the interview and this gorgeous new book!

A book that blog readers can win!

Leave one comment below and a random person will be selected to receive a copy of SMALL WORLD, which is available in bookstores now!

A winner will be chosen in August.

Good luck!


Ishta Mercurio was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, until she was 16. Then she attended college in the Berkshires, spent a rustic summer on a Maine island, grew up and got married in England, found her home in Scotland, and made a new home in Canada.

She has been an environmental activist, a barista, a behavior therapist, an actor, and an author. I still am most of those things, but I only do a couple of them for money. Mostly, I am a storyteller.​

Pull up a chair at ishtamercurio.com.

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THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
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