Cover image courtesy of Charles Burchell
Dr. Tamara Pizzoli is an educator and children’s author who has set out to bring representation to teaching tools and storytelling. This Texas-born child of a military father spoke with Aisha Adkins about her journey from small-town academic to Italian resident and innovative author.
Please tell us a bit about your background. Where did you spend your childhood? Did you travel much growing up?
I was born and raised in Killeen, Texas. It’s a small military town about an hour away from Austin in Central Texas. I went to college at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas when I was sixteen. One of my mother’s gifts is being an incredibly stable person, so we didn’t move around at all. My dad was in the military, but by the time I was growing up he’d retired so as a family we weren’t really moving around much.
What made you want to pursue education as a career?
My mom was a teacher before she retired. In fact, she was my fifth grade math teacher and my sister’s as well. I always enjoyed having her at home during the summer and during school breaks and holidays, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to be a teacher. I really liked the idea of being able to spend the holidays and summers with my children once I had them. When I graduated from SMU in 2002, I briefly pondered attending law school, but only because it seemed like a shorter path to success than getting a doctorate. I remember calling my uncle and asking him what he thought about it and he encouraged me to make a list of pros and cons for both of my options – pursuing a Masters and Doctorate in education or attending law school. One of my ‘cons’ for law school was wearing pantyhose, and with that realization the right choice for me just seemed clear.
Did you always want to become a children’s literature author?
No. As a former Kindergarten teacher who loved reading aloud to my students, I really enjoyed the world of children’s literature, but writing books for kids wasn’t a thought or strong desire before 2013, when I got the idea to write my first book The Ghanaian Goldilocks.
What took you to Rome? What was the biggest adjustment to moving to Italy?
My answer to this question is always “an over-dramatic reaction to a broken heart.” It’s true. I’d been cheated on by a longtime boyfriend and decided to pick up and move away from Dallas right after getting my doctorate in 2007. I chose Rome because a friend at the time had gone back and forth from New York to Italy for several years and spoke so highly of it, and she invited me to come with her in September of 2007.
Initially, the biggest adjustments were the language and the culture. I’d only ever lived in Killeen and Dallas before moving to Rome, so everything was new to me when I arrived.
Now, after having lived here for over a decade, the truth is I have to adjust quite a bit when visiting the States now. The US will always be home but there are some things that I’m just not used to anymore – like over processed orange juice and gun prevalence.
What should someone consider before relocating to Italy?
Do you really wanna move, or do you just wanna visit? It’s not exactly like what you see on tv. Maybe you want to try it out for a bit via an extended vacation before making a huge transition. The cost of living is cheaper than most major cities in the States, but Italian stipends aren’t that high. Figure out how you’re going to make a living before you get here and have some funds to fall back on just in case.
I also suggest browsing Italian life via authentic websites and blogs. Two of my favorites are Wanted In Rome (where I found the apartment I’ve been in for over four years) and my friend Liz Knight’s blog Rome if You Want To. Ask yourself some questions. What have you always wanted to do? Rome is such a creative city, it’s the perfect place to reinvent yourself. How much Italian do you know and are you willing to get serious about learning it? Rome is very welcoming to tourists, but if you’re looking to live here, you need to learn the language. Do long delays frustrate you? Traffic? People hurling insults at each other loudly while gesticulating? Are you alright with constant public displays of affection, including heavy petting and tongue kissing? Your answers to these will inform whether or not Roma is the spot for you or somewhere in the picturesque Italian countryside. All in all, I’m always for people just doing it. If it doesn’t work out, you can always go home, or on to the next adventure.
Where did you get the idea for B is for Breakdancing and your other books? Why did you decide to feature characters of color and places like Marrakech and Ghana?
Ok so let’s go book by book – to date I’ve self-published fifteen of them. I was inspired to write The Ghanaian Goldilocks while watching my son Noah at his uncle’s house.
F is for Fufu is an alphabet book based on The Ghanaian Goldilocks. I liked the idea of a fresh take on the abc’s and understood that unless you’re from Ghana or have some type of reference point, there may be some terminology in The Ghanaian Goldilocks that would need further explaining.
Auntie Nappy was written to my sons as a way to explain my sister’s passing to them; it also honors her incredible legacy.
M is for Marrakech came about because I love to travel and Marrakech is one of my favorite destinations. I was on an alphabet kick for a while. Again, I used to teach Kindergarten. So in keeping with the alphabet theme I also published M is for Mohawk featuring various hairstyles and B is for Breakdancing. Both of those books were picked up by Farrar, Straus & Giroux/MacMillan and rewritten as full stories.
MacMillan is also re-releasing my book Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO in July of 2019. My eldest son Noah also inspired that book. It’s a version of what happened when we couldn’t find one of his front teeth to put under his pillow. I wrote the story in one evening. I curate the art for all of the books I self-publish, so when I thought about who the Tooth Fairy would look like, my dear friend Iris Peynado was the only person who came to mind. She’s an Afro-Dominican actress. I thought it’d be cool to mix her features with Iris Apfel’s style, and Tallulah was born.
Fatou and the Kora was inspired by my love for the kora, which is an African harp-like instrument. While I was pregnant for pretty much two years straight (my son Zen and daughter Lotus were born in 2016 and 2017 respectively), I’d call a Senegalese griot over to my house to play the kora while I wrote or relaxed. Fatou was written and published around that time.
I wrote Lotus and the Baby Bird while I was pregnant with her and before I even knew she was a girl. The inspiration for that one was quite melancholy: I saw a lifeless baby bird while walking on my street and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I think the way the story developed really does address grief, regret and purpose beautifully, though.
Art and artists have had a huge impact on my life personally and professionally so I had the idea to do a book highlighting diverse artists, K is for Kahlo. Then the natural next book seemed to be one based on writers: Z is for Zora.
The King and the Flute was inspired by a friend of mine named Sara who is from Benin and used to tell me short stories she’d heard growing up in West Africa.
I’ve published several alphabet books because I think educators and parents alike (and of course kids) are probably tired of the whole ‘A is for Apple, B is for Ball’ thing. The abc’s yield themselves so wonderfully to thematic concepts and ideas, so I continued creating in that vein when I published H is for Honeysuckle, which features a variety of flowers in alphabetical order with beautiful, diverse hands holding each one.
It’s been a treat to see teachers starting to take the art out of the books and display them in their classrooms for students to reference; I always had that in mind while creating.
Jewels From Our Ancestors is a love letter to all of the wise ones who came before us and aims to present a few pearls of wisdom to the younger generations. I’ve always enjoyed mythology so Of Gods and Goddesses was inspired by my interest in the subject from the time I was a young child.
I write the types of books that I want my children and all children to have – books that I would have loved to have read as a child. I also want all children to be able to see themselves in my stories.
What is The English Schoolhouse? Who is your intended audience for the platform?
The English Schoolhouse is my publishing empire. My intended audience is anyone who loves to read and listen to great stories. I hope people gain satisfaction, joy, humor, varied perspectives… the urge to reread the books again and again.
What is next for you?
All the good things. I’m always writing and publishing so I’ll continue to put out content of the highest quality in books and media. I’m aiming to publish five or six new titles this year. I’m thrilled that Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO has been optioned to be made into a film, produced by John Sacchi and Gabrielle Union. I’ll be on book tour this summer promoting Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO.
Yes, all the good things await.
Where can our readers find out more about you, your books, or The English Schoolhouse online?
For information about writing and publishing consulting services offered by The English Schoolhouse, email firstname.lastname@example.org.