Home to one of the largest African populations in New York City, The Bronx is replete with many residents hailing from many of the continent’s countries.
One particular individual—of Gambian descent and works in The Bronx—has written a children’s book with a strong lesson to be learned by both children and adults alike.
Meet Victoria Blain author and illustrator of ‘The ExtraOrdinary Chameleon‘, a new African folktale inspired by the ones she grew up with.
‘The ExtraOrdinary Chameleon‘ is about, you guessed it, a chameleon named Zahari who is searching to be extraordinary in what she perceives as leading an ordinary life.
The beautifully illustrated journeys Zahari goes through lead to her accepting herself for who she is and rather than chasing what she thinks is an ideal, to be happy with what she is.
And that’s quite simply, an extraordinary and unique chameleon.
It sounds like common sense but how many times do we, as adults, find ourselves questioning our self-worth and trying to fit into societal expectations of us? The book also reminds me of one of my favorites, ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein, because it too lends itself to that children and adult audience with a timeless message.
We had a lovely opportunity to chat with Mrs Victoria Blain and hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote and illustrated a book as a school project in third grade and really enjoyed the process.
I loved reading and drawing pictures as a kid and I think as long as I can remember I wanted to write a children’s book as an adult but it wasn’t until I was 29 and my first niece was born that I had this overwhelming feeling of immortality. The idea of having a story to pass on to her became real.
I knew I was going to write an African folktale about self discovery but I had writer’s block for about a year. Then right around 2009 when the economy crashed, I turned 30 and was laid off from my job and suddenly found myself with alot of time.
I still didn’t have a written story but for some reason the images were really clear to me.
I start off with a sketch and then began cutting up old african prints I had stored away in my closet. Using a chameleon as a muse, made sense because like african prints, they are so colorful. By the end of the year, most of the original artwork was completed. And then those sat around for a few more years…still no story.
What was your first book about?
This is my first children’s book. But I actually illustrated another book call “Down to the Knitty Gritty”. It’s illustrated using only knits and it’s all about woman warriors with quotes from famous woman I admire.
Do you have plans for another book?
Yes definitely. Now that I’m a mother and have read countless book to my son, I feel even more inspired to write a story for him. He currently loves rhythmic books like, “The Pout Pout Fish” and “The Gruffalo”, so creating book for him will be a very tall order!
Why a Children’s book?
A children’s book always felt manageable to me. The ability to write something short well, seems within my capabilities. I don’t think I have the attention span for an epic novel.
‘The ExtraOrdinary Chameleon’ has a wonderful message that can be interpreted different ways, what is the key message you are trying to get across?
It’s really interesting, I’ve had people read it and tell me what they think the message is and what’s nice is it’s always a reflection of their own personal experience that lends itself to a new interpretation. Between the ages of 29-32 I really struggled with loving and honoring myself.
I had come out of a 10 year college relationship that left me single and jaded in NYC. I was laid off from my what felt like the only thing I had going for me, which was my amazing textile job at Martha Stewart Living.
It occurred to me around 30 that my life may never shape up to what I had imagined for myself and the burden and fear made me severely depressed.
That time in my life was difficult but of course I view it now as the bravest, most transformative years of my life. Working through my problems with such optimism, forgiveness, and acceptance, I came into myself and then everything changed for the better.
The message of this story was meant for girls who particularly struggle with identity issues from physical to emotional. It is to; Love and Honor yourself from the inside and the universe will reflect this world back to you.
What was your inspiration for this story? Was it a folktale you grew up hearing or an original idea?
My grandmother on my mother’s side, was a great story teller. All the African folktales I remember were told by her. The stories were always very cryptic and dark and had content that would be viewed as too heavy for American children, like death or killings. However, thats exactly why they left such an impression on me.
The ExtraOrdinary Chameleon is an original folktale. Like all folktales, African folktales carry a moral message but what I noticed was that they are often fear driven. I wanted to keep the element of fear in the story without it being the basis of transformation.
In The ExtraOrdinary Chameleon, Zahari’s life transforms when she realizes she’s worth more than she thought.
I purposefully wrote “A New African Folktale” on the cover because in many ways it is different and yet very familiar to folktales you hear in West Africa.
I felt that a fear based mindset is outdated and could use an update. Eastern philosophy is so beautiful to me and it felt like a gift to infuse this philosophy with the old African proverb: “The universe doesn’t change to match the chameleon. The chameleon changes to match the universe”.
Once I had experience this to be true in my own life, the story wrote itself. I was 33. I had it adapted into an actual book on Blurb and Amazon last year.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in England. But I spent the majority of my childhood in Liberia, Pakistan and New York. My parents worked for the U.N. and I’m 37 now.
Tell me about the Illustration process, the book really grabs your attention not just because of its writings but the illustrations. Even your font seems to have been made just for the book!
In terms of the collage process of making the illustrations I get my biggest inspiration from the riveting African textile, called “Chuibe” in Wolof, my native language.
It is a handmade batik process that is unique to West Africa and most worn in Gambia and Senegal. I tend to tear fabric randomly rather than outline and cut, unless necessary. Imperfect cuts of fabric are the most interesting. The best pages in this book are filled with imperfections!
What’s your target audience? This book, although a children’s book, is a great read for teens and even adults.
The target audience is honestly varied. It’s the kind of book a parent would enjoy reading to an infant.
A toddler would enjoy looking and pointing out objects but lacks the attention span for the length. And a 5-8 year old would enjoy reading and understanding.
What’s your favorite place in The Bronx and why?
Like so many New Yorkers I knew nothing of the Bronx until I had a reason to visit.
I made the trek up to the Bronx after going back to work full time for Holland Textiles USA African Textiles about a year ago.
One of the best parts of my commute is while the masses are shuffling into Manhattan, I’m quietly treading into the Bronx.
I love many aspects of my job but one of the best parts is working with the African female immigrant community. We help support them in owning there businesses through our wholesale program.
Wecome2TheBronx highly recommends this book children and adults for its positive message as well as beautiful illustrations making it a book you’ll treasure for years to come. You can purchase your copy here at Amazon.com.