Every once and while a book—and its author—come into your world and make an indelible mark. Such is the case with first-time author Angela Dalton and her exquisite picture book If You Look Up to the Sky.

Inspired by Dalton’s own life and experiences, the story is about a young black girl whose grandmother teaches her that the sky and universe will always offer her love, protection, and guidance should she ever need it.

The words are words that every child deserves to hear:

“If you look up to the sky
and see a star streak across the darkness
know that you are special and, like the star
there will never be another you.”

Author Angela Dalton

But Dalton’s voice is intended for the young girls of color—to lift them up and remind them of their singular beauty in the face of challenge, discrimination, and hardship.

The right book in the right child’s hand has the power to transform that child forever. I imagine, in time, If You Look Up to the Sky by Angela Dalton will transform thousands, if not millions of children’s lives. This is a book for all to love, but it is especially a book for girls of color to love.

I think Angela’s pretty special. And I know she’s got a lot more to share with us in the months and years ahead. I had the opportunity to interview her recently. Our conversation follows.

You can purchase If You Look Up to the Sky online and at bookstores across the nation.

An Interview with Angela Dalton

Kristen You learned from your great-grandmother that looking up to the sky had power. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Angela Most people of color learn at a very young age that people will use words as weapons against you—to hurt or belittle your existence. There’s always that one infamous word that every black person I know, including myself, has had hurled at them. As a child, in the instance that it happens, you have locked into your memory the day you suddenly saw all the ugliness that is in the world surrounding you. You feel exposed and unsafe. I think it’s the exposure to this word that destroys the fun and wonder of childhood.

It’s demoralizing to learn that one word can hold that much power over you; however, as you grow, you become stronger and more resistant to it. In my own experience, it forced me to find my own voice and strength against it—and that has served me well in my adult life.

Kristen Words have different meaning to different people based on our cultural upbringing. I’ve said things I’ve thought were totally innocuous (from my frame of white privilege) but realized instead they were hot buttons, triggering feelings of anger or sadness in others I cared deeply about who had different life experiences from my own. There was no intentional malice on my part—just total cluelessness, stupidity. What can clueless adventurers like me do to more accurately see the systemic issues, understand our part in it, and importantly, act to drive change? And I’m not talking about asking folks to step up and lead grand marches in Washington; I’m talking about little things we can do to stop the death by a thousand tiny cuts we inflict on our fellow humans every day who are different from us.
Angela I’ve been asked this question a lot and am still struggling to find an answer that doesn’t make people immediately become defensive and shut down.

The first thing I ask people of non-color to do is shelve any emotions of fear or guilt. I think it’s important to understand that acknowledging the history that people of color have with this country is the first step to having honest conversations and making progress. If you’re not willing to do this because it makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not willing to put in the work to change anything.

Exposing yourself to other voices—whether it’s through books or other forms of media – is equally as important. Everyone has a tendency to insulate themselves in the familiar to validate their own personal representation. However, this makes it too easy to discount those who are marginalized because their voice or struggle doesn’t fit within your own paradigm.

Illustrations by Margarita Sikorskaia.

Kristen When you say that there’s a lack of diverse books out there, I know you mean something deeper and more complex than just picture books with images of ethnically diverse children. As a young girl, what did you want to see but didn’t see in books?
When I was growing up, there was always this tendency to equate the “black experience” with an “Inner-city experience.” My childhood experiences spanned everything from the city to Bible Belt country to upper-class neighborhoods of white America. With If You Look Up to the Sky, it was important to show representation not just with skin color but place in the world. People of color live and make contributions everywhere. I want girls to see themselves in places that they either can identify with or inspire them to see themselves in.

There’s a big world out there, and I want them to know they deserve a place in it.

Kristen Do you think it’s possible for others to deliver this to children based on empathy alone? Or do you believe experience—actual life experience—is the only way to deliver what’s missing?
Angela I think this depends on the story a writer is trying to tell and their intention for wanting to tell it. There are questions that should be asked and answered honestly because you are making money on someone else’s experience that is not your own.

You’re also taking on the massive responsibility of potentially putting certain ideas or perpetuating stereotypes in the world without knowing you’re doing so. No matter how sincere our intentions or skilled at the craft we may be, there are just some stories that aren’t ours to tell.

At the very least, I would hope that if a writer or creator decides to take on a story that’s not their own they’ll collaborate with or seek guidance from someone in the culture or community they are writing about. By doing so, you can answer the most important question: Should I really be telling this story?

Kristen Which books did you fall in love with as a child? Which spoke to you and why?
Angela Oh, wow. This is difficult to answer because the library was my second home as a kid. I loved books then like I love shoes—and books—now.

Two that come to mind:

Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer was the first book I remember reading that featured a strong, smart black girl as the protagonist.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is a book I remember reading that always left me feeling safe.

Exposing yourself to other voices—whether it’s through books or other forms of media – is equally as important. Everyone has a tendency to insulate themselves in the familiar to validate their own personal representation.”
Kristen If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
Angela I like to think this is why children’s book writers fall in love with the genre. We write stories, whether consciously or not, that serve as a message-in-a-bottle to our younger selves.

Throughout most of the book, you’ll see that the main character is alone. This was intentional. I wanted the reader to understand that there’s an undeniable strength and power being able to stand alone and you will be forced to do it many times throughout your life. That’s one of many things I would tell my younger self.

Kristen You’ve always been a writer—with your book, you’re applying your skills in new ways. What did your background as an expert in content marketing, video-game development, and social media bring to the book writing and creation process?
Angela I once worked for someone whose motto was, “Good ideas come from anywhere and anyone.” It’s one of the best things I’ve ever learned.

It’s easy to compartmentalize someone based on their title or role, and it leaves little room for effective collaboration. Going into this, I knew I had to keep myself open to other people’s feedback or interpretation. I didn’t always agree or move forward with it—but there were some great ideas I would have missed.

Kristen You’ve said that ideas are everywhere; the hard part (and the fun part) is figuring out how to turn those ideas into a story. What’s your trick for turning an idea into a story?
Angela It’s mostly trying stuff until something works. Let’s say your idea is a man slipping on a banana peel. To make it into a story, you need a point of view (The man? An observer? A sentient banana?), character histories, an event sequence, a conclusion, and so forth. It can be treated as a puzzle. Some people are more intuitive and are able to arrive at a satisfying assemblage quickly. Others need to try dozens or hundreds of approaches. I’m somewhere in between. I try lots of things that don’t work. You have to be willing to fail.
Kristen You did not just write If You Look Up to the Sky, you published it—and assumed all the various business and creative tasks that involves. Would you ever consider publishing a book through a big publisher—i.e., limiting your role to that of writer alone?
Angela Before I made the decision to self-publish, I interviewed ten authors; five had self-published and five had gone the traditional publishing route. Both had their pros and cons, and I received many warnings about the stigma of self-publishing.

I chose self-publishing for a few reasons.

This story was extremely personal. I know myself, and because I had an unshakable intent for why I wrote it, I knew I couldn’t release it completely for someone else’s creative interpretation. There’s too much of myself invested in it.

I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it—and learn the process of publishing along the way. Understanding how and why something works has always motivated me, even in my corporate career. I’m happier rolling up my sleeves and getting deep into the mix of things.

It would be remiss of me if I left out that I didn’t accomplish publishing this alone. I couldn’t have asked for a more brilliant and supportive editor than Lily Coyle at Beaver’s Pond Press in Minneapolis, MN. She knew when to listen, when to gently push, and when to tell me I was just wrong. She and her team were also great teachers and mentors, and always willing to share their knowledge of publishing with me.

Now that I’ve had this experience, I’m excited to try the traditional publishing route. Not only do I still have more to learn, but I have valuable experience that I can bring to the table. I also have many, many more stories to share!

Kristen Margarita Sikorskaia’s illustrations are magical. Did you discover her talents and select her for your book? If so, what process did you use? Did you gain any insights or encounter any surprises?
Angela Margarita and I found each other through Beaver’s Pond Press. She has been a freelance illustrator for them for many years. They had a lot of talented illustrators to work with, but her artistic style and eye were exactly what I wanted.

Ironically, Margarita and I had actually met 15 years prior at a mutual friend’s party, so it felt a little like kismet to be working with each other.

People have asked if I sought out an illustrator of color to work on the book, which I did during my search. It didn’t work out for many reasons. In hindsight, I believe everything happened as it was supposed to, and I feel fortunate that Margarita wanted to work together.

Because of our racial and cultural differences, and trust with each other, we had many conversations about culture and race that I don’t think would have happened in a different situation. An example of this, was a discussion we had about the opening illustration of the girl sitting on her grandmother’s lap on the front porch. Margarita’s questions as an artist allowed for us to talk about the importance of the front porch in the black community—it’s where and how the community has traditionally come together.

I learned a lot about Margarita growing up in Russia and her life in America, which was fascinating to me. I love hearing about other people’s life experiences. At the end of it all, Margarita isn’t just the illustrator who worked on my book, she also became a great friend.

Kristen Your book is a gift to people everywhere. What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
Angela I know this will sound cliché, but the best gift I have ever received is my son, Jakob. His presence didn’t just change my life but, in many ways, saved it. He is a very calm, peaceful, and wise soul —and so incredibly crazy-fun to be around. He’s a gift I appreciate every day.
Kristen You’ve made significant changes in your life, shifting away from a corporate career to that of an independent writer. What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve learned during the transition? What did you take with you on your journey? What did you leave behind?
Angela I honestly feel like everything I’ve done so far has happened to get me to this point. I’ve been fortunate to have learned a lot about cartoon animation and storytelling, business and digital marketing, and how to create solid, meaningful relationships with people.

I’m working on not worrying about what other people think of me, which is hard to do with social media and all the trolls out there. It seems as though everyone is facing this challenge these days.

Kristen We all have a special gift—something we do better than anyone else in the world. What’s yours?
Angela As I mentioned before, I’m very curious about other people’s life experiences. Everyone has a unique story to tell, and I’m interested in hearing them. I like to think that I have the ability to make people feel comfortable sharing without the fear of judgment.
Kristen What trajectory are you hoping to push yourself onto? Where do you want to head?
Angela For the moment, I’m trying to be present with the book now that it’s finally out in the world. I have received so many lovely emails and social posts from people sharing how impactful the message has been in their family’s lives. It feels incredible to know people are finding meaning in the message.

I will continue writing and publishing children’s books. I have a few first drafts waiting for attention. I also have an idea that I’ve been working on that may be better told as a YA novel. That will be a new and welcomed writing challenge.

Kristen What haven’t I asked you that you wish I would?
Angela All of the questions you’ve asked have been deep and thoughtful. I appreciate that.

One question I would like to pose: Is diversifying children’s literature solely for the benefit of children of color or does it benefit all children?

It seems that when there are discussions about diversity and inclusivity, certain people automatically interpret this to mean replacing something; that somehow someone has to lose in order for someone else to win. This just isn’t the case. There’s room for everyone.

Exposing all children to diverse stories and characters allows them to see the world for what it is and what it could be. It helps them recognize similarities and value differences. It’s important and it’s everyone’s responsibility to make this possible.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Angela!

Kristen Heimerl
Kristen’s business career spans 20+ years serving the biggest brands in industry and the biggest hearts of start-ups and entrepreneurs. She holds a master of science in eCommerce from Carnegie Mellon University, an MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, & a BA from the University of St. Thomas. Learn more about Kristen!