Author Jasmine Warga on otherness, empathy, and getting messy

Written by Kelly Sheehy, Content Specialist, Downtown Main Library 

Cincinnati book lovers look forward to this day every year. The 13th annual Books by the Banks, opens a new window (BBTB) book festival kicks off October 26, 2019 at the Duke Energy Center. More than 100 locally and nationally renowned authors will be there for book signings, panel discussions, and activities for the entire family to enjoy.

One of the authors featured at this year’s BBTB is Cincinnati-native Jasmine Warga, opens a new window. Born in the Queen City in April of 1988, Warga now resides in Chicago with her husband, two little girls, a big grumpy cat, and a large joyful dog. She is the internationally acclaimed author of young adult and middle-grade books Other Words for Home, opens a new windowMy Heart and Other Black Holes, opens a new window, and Here We Are Now, opens a new window. We sat down with Warga to discuss everything from her writing to her experience growing up in Cincinnati. We even asked her which she likes better: a classic Chicago style hotdog or a hometown Skyline Cheese Coney? Read on to find out which one wins in her book (no pun intended). 

PLCH: What was it like for you growing up in Cincinnati?

JW: I was born in Clifton, spent most of my childhood in Wyoming, and then moved to Symmes Township and went to Sycamore for high school. Overall, I'd say I had a happy childhood—I have lots of memories of playing make-believe under the large trees in Wyoming and of riding my bike all over the neighborhood while dreaming up stories. That said, I was a lonely child who often felt like I wasn't quite sure where I fit in. Part of this was probably due to temperament, but I also think part of this was due to being one of very few children of color in classrooms that were predominantly white, and the otherness that I felt as a result of this dynamic. 

 PLCH: What is your greatest source of inspiration that influences your work the most?

JW: I honestly think it's that sense of loneliness and otherness that I mentioned. I so distinctly remember being eleven, being twelve, being thirteen, and feeling like I didn't quite fit anywhere. I was an avid reader as a child and books were my refuge and escape. I now write with the hopes that my books will be that warm and cozy place for some other child. 

PLCH:  What does your writing process look like? Do you have any rituals?

JW: My writing process is so messy! It's all about experimentation. Every book is different, and thus, every time I have to figure out how this specific story needs and wants to be written. I wish I had some kind of magic ritual, but I don't. That said, I really like candles, so when I'm working in my home office, I almost always have a candle lit.

PLCH: Your most recent book, Other Words for Home, is written in verse instead of prose. What fueled that decision?

JW: Lots of false starts! I fumbled my way into it. Now it seems so obvious to me that the book should've been written in verse, but it took me a long time to get there. It was all about getting Jude's voice right. It didn't feel right in prose, but the moment I broke the book out into verse, Jude's voice started to crystalize for me. 

PLCH: How did you go about researching and preparing to write Other Words for Home

JW: I interviewed several family friends who are from Syria, and have had family members come over as a result of the Syrian Civil War. They were very generous to share so many details with me, and the book is certainly better because of their input.

PLCH: What drew you towards writing for a middle grade and teen audience?

JW: The Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren famously said, "I don't want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.” I feel exactly that way. Also, as I mentioned, I remember how miraculous reading was for me when I was younger, how amazing it felt to tumble into the pages of a story. My biggest dream is to recreate that same experience for another young reader.

PLCH: Describe some of the themes that are important to young readers that your books intentionally explore.

JW: The importance of empathy and kindness. I hope to write books that inspire young readers to choose kindness in the most radical of ways. I also hope to write books that let young readers know that they aren't alone—that it's okay to feel big things.

PLCH:  Can you tell us anything about what you're working on right now? 

JW: Yes! I have a new book coming out early in 2021. It's titled The Shape of Thunder and is about two young girls dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting in their small Ohio town. It's about the horror of gun violence in America, and also about the magic of friendship.

PLCH: We have to ask–did you go to the Library when you were growing up in Cincinnati? What is your relationship with public libraries now?

JW: Yes! I went to the Library all the time. Special shout-out to the Wyoming Branch Library, which is where I attended storytime and continued to frequent all through my childhood. The Librarian there is the one who recommended now classics of children's literature like SPEAK, opens a new window and Frindle, opens a new window to me. She also graciously let me check out a book about how to draw dolphins approximately 500 times. 

Now that I have little girls of my own, I love taking them to Library storytimes. When we were still living in Cincinnati, we frequented the Clifton Branch Library, and we're low-key obsessed with Mr. Eric's storytimes. Now we live in Naperville (a town outside of Chicago), and we love going to the Library as a family. They check out books, I check out books, everybody goes home happy! 

PLCH: So given that you live in Chicago now, here’s a very important question: Which is better? A classic Chicago-style hot dog with all the fixings (no ketchup, of course) or a Skyline Cheese Coney?

JW: I mean, I was born and raised in Cincinnati so I have to choose Skyline! 

Books by the Banks is free and open to the public. The festival’s mission is to entertain and enrich the lives of people in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. The BBTB organization works throughout the year to present and promote authors while celebrating the joy of literacy and lifelong learning through reading and writing. Festival runs from 10 a.m – 4 p.m. Visit, opens a new window for more information.