Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Jasmine Warga

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Jasmine Warga

Meet Jasmine Warga, children’s novelist

Great Parks: Could you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

JW: I’m Jasmine, and I write primarily for young people, specifically upper elementary to junior high age range. I like to write for young people because middle school was a really hard time in my life. I like to write books that hopefully make kids feel seen and help them understand that their voice matters and their story matters.

Representation is super important to me. When I was a kid, I never saw myself or someone with my same ethnic or religious background in a book. So now in my books, whether I’m engaging directly with that identity in a way that I do on my book Other Words for Home or when I’m writing about robots like I do in A Rover’s Story, still having that representation piece is really important to me.

GP: You mentioned middle school as being a time that was difficult or something that you draw on for your writing. When was the first time you wanted to become a writer?

JW: I decided that I wanted to be a writer in first grade when the word author was introduced to me. My first-grade teacher did an author’s night project where all of us were given a blank white book and we were told we’re going to be authors and to create our own story. That was this magic light bulb moment for me of realizing that there was a job where you got to make up stories for a living.

I come from a family of storytellers, and I love storytelling. I loved being read to long before I could read on my own. I was a pretty late independent reader, which I like to share, because I think oftentimes there’s so much pressure on kids to read and write early. I was someone who loved stories and being told stories, but my own literacy came in a little bit later. I decided I wanted to be an author from that experience of learning that word, and then seizing on to that feeling of “Ohh, there’s a name for this thing that I want to do.”

GP: From a little bit of research, it looks like you have a background as a 6th grade science teacher, and you are obviously a lover of science. How have those aspects of your identity influenced your writing?

JW: It’s funny to me. I accidentally got slated into teaching science. I did an alternative teaching program and in the state of Texas math and science teachers are in such high need that I ended up—I thought I was going to be a language arts teacher, and I show up at my school and they’re like surprise! You’re sixth grade science teacher!

It’s funny to me. In the cliche of people who have immigrant parents, I was told I should be a doctor my whole life. I ran away from science and had this false sense of science being in one silo and creativity and art and stories being in this other silo. A lot of my work has actually been about breaking down those silos. I feel like science is a discipline that’s interested in curiosity about the natural world and our place in the world. Lots of times, storytelling is that same idea.

It didn’t occur to me to really braid science and storytelling until I was a 6th grade teacher myself, and I was teaching myself the concepts to then go in and teach to my kids. I was thinking about how there are so many amazing metaphors. I was teaching rock science at the time, and I was talking about potential energy and kinetic energy and thinking about the way to understand the universe. So many of my students told me that they didn’t like reading. They associated reading with stressful standardized tests, and that made me really sad. When I was their age, I was a really voracious reader, so I wanted to get back to story with them. To be around story as opposed to being around stressful, standardized tests.

I started reading aloud to my students, even though I was a science teacher, again, to break down those false walls that we have around subject matter. That’s when I had the ‘aha’ moment that I wanted to write for young people. Up until that point, I thought I wanted to write short stories for adults, and the only reason I thought that was because I thought that was the pinnacle of literariness.

I never felt magnetized to have a lot to say. Then I realized I feel pretty passionately about working with young people, and this is a good way to marry those two interests.

GP: That’s a cool journey of how you started as the teacher and then dove deeper into science and are now combining it all. That’s really cool.

JW: Yeah, it’s sort of unexpected. Like I was not someone who at 22 would have told you I was passionate about science. I feel like I was falsely running away from that my whole life, trying to say, “No, no, no, I can’t be a doctor, because I don’t like science.”

Now I’m coming to understand that wasn’t true at all. I had a false sense that I had to pick between these two things. You really don’t have to.

GP: In your opinion, with that marriage of science in some of your novels with fiction stories, what impact do you think these fiction novels could have on the world of science?

JW: I don’t know about the world of science, but what I hope they do is spark curiosity. I think that the most important thing in the world you can be is curious, and that’s what I always like to share with kids. I think there’s this false sense that you need to be an expert, but I think that just coming to everything with this passionate curiosity and wanting to know more and understanding that you can view the world as a mystery that you can solve. I hope that that’s what the books do: encourage them to think more deeply about their role in the world, and how the world is a really amazing place that’s worthy of exploration and discovery.

What’s really exciting is to get to go with A Rover’s Story and talk to a gym full of kids who had no idea that we are actually building hyperintelligent robots that we’re sending to Mars and that’s not science fiction. There are so many different ways to be involved in science too, that kids don’t necessarily think about or understand.

I hear from parents that say A Rover’s Story is the first fiction novel their kid has ever read and that they’re really a nonfiction science kid—that this opened the doorway for them to be more interested in other novels. And then vice versa. Kids who had no interest in science, and suddenly A Rover’s Story has unlocked this interest in going to check out more books about Mars. I love that.

GP: You make a lot of appearances at gymnasiums, libraries, schools, bookstores. Can you speak a little bit about how empowering diverse young voices, especially young women, is important to you and important to Women’s History Month.

JW: So I love getting to go and speak at different schools and upending people’s idea of who an author is. Sometimes kids are surprised, especially when I go into schools where there is a large Arab population or large Muslim population, the kids are so excited that I’m the author of the book. That’s really meaningful to me. That would have been so huge for me when I was a kid, and I never had that experience.

Going in and letting kids know that their voice matters, their story matters. They deserve to see themselves in books, and it’s important to read about people who are different from you, too. I go into school districts where there really aren’t any Arab or Muslim kids, and I think the value in representation, especially when we’re in this moment where I feel like American culture oftentimes only represents the Middle East in terms of war and conflict. It’s humanizing to have different representation.

I love getting to go and encourage kids of all backgrounds that not everyone is going to be an author, but all of us are storytellers. Understanding that their story matters and learning how to share their story and figuring out the medium with which they feel most empowered to tell their story is my favorite part of my job.

GP: What is your writing process look like?

JW: Usually all my books start with a question that’s a really vague image. I mean for A Rover’s Story, that moment of inspiration is much more clear because I was watching the actual launch of Perseverance and it was my daughter who asked me if I thought the robot was afraid. I thought “Wow, what an amazing question.” We just listened all this pre-coverage about how smart these robots are and then make that leap to ask if there is emotional intelligence there too?

With my book that’s coming out this September, which is a history novel that takes place at an art museum, that just started from a vague inkling of this idea of “What if a painting was stolen and nobody understood why? Why does somebody steal a painting? What does it mean to want to steal a painting?”

I was in an art museum with my family, thinking about all the people who are depicted in paintings. Who are these models? Why were they chosen? What are their stories? The story behind the story. It’s some kind of concept like that and it will sit in my head for a long time and then eventually, I figure out who my main character is. I figure out how my main character’s journey connects with that concept, and then I build the book out from there. But I never plot the book ahead of time, so my first drafts are really messy and organic and a place of discovery. The book usually changes a lot from draft to draft.

I’m a really character-focused writer, so I’m always starting with trying to figure out who’s my main character and what big question are they asking about the world and what’s this journey that they’re going to go on? Because stories are really ways to talk about change, right? You need your main character to go through some kind of change. So the questions I’m always asking myself are “In what way is my character going to change throughout the story? Why are they going to change? How are they going to change and what’s that going to look like?

GP: You just took our last question. We were going to ask, are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’re excited about? So you have a book coming out this fall?

JW: Yeah. So it’s a new book, and it’s called A Strange Thing Happened in Sherry Hall, and it’s coming out on September 10th. I’m really excited about it. It’s the first mystery that I’ve ever written. It’s funny, I was inspired by a school visit. Kids kept asking me, “Are you going to write a mystery?”

I was thinking, “This is such a strange question. Why is this the genre?” Then I remembered when I was a kid, how much I loved mysteries. I think the appeal of mysteries when you were young person, is this idea that the world is holding back information from you. It was a really fun book to work on, and so I’m excited to get to share it with everyone this fall.

GP: Thank you.

Jasmine Warga is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest