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Beauty in the Everyday and Haiku for All – Our Q&A with Amy Losak

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I read and enjoyed H is for Haiku very much.  It was a hit with my kindergartener, and I also bought it as a gift for a cousin’s third birthday.  Wanting to learn more about the women who made it possible, I asked Amy Losak if she’d be up for answering some questions.  She was kind enough to agree to discuss the book and what else she’d been doing, and here’s what she had to say:

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Amy Losak 2015

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Name: Amy Losak (above)

Date: September 27, 2019

Occupation: public relations consultant and freelancer (specialty with health care media relations) and writer

Hometown: Briarwood, New York

Current town: Teaneck, New Jersey

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Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.  I really enjoyed H is for Haiku and the fact that you got it published largely as a tribute to your mother.  Can you tell me a little bit about the process? How did this come to be?  

It was, to use a trite term (but true in this case), a journey.  The book is based on more than one manuscript by my late mother, Sydell Rosenberg (who was a NYC school teacher and a published writer).  She wrote short stories, a novel, many things, including, under a male pseudonym, a “dirty book.” (Strange Circle by Gale Sydney, a reversal of the initials of her maiden name, Sydell Gasnick. Copies are still floating around online!) She was always a writer and loved to write from an early age.  She found haiku, or haiku found her, in the early 60s. She loved the discipline of the form, it challenged her in new ways, and validated her way of looking at the world and finding beautiful things in the everyday.  In New York it is easy to be distracted and caught up in the rush of life. Haiku’s form attracted her…you have to take a breath. It’s “one breath” poetry. Which means a lot: you can say it in one breath, yes, but it’s also about being still and letting life unfold around you.  Interaction with life, with all of your senses, and trying to convey that with a sense of concision, something for the reader to enter into, and an appreciation of what you can observe.

Haiku was important to her, she studied, read, and wrote haiku.  In 1968, the Haiku Society of America was founded in New York City. It still exists and has members from all over the United States) and also overseas members.  I’m a member now.

I don’t know how this inspiration first came to her, but she wanted to do a poetry picture book. She did submit some manuscripts to editors and nothing came of it.  I have some rejection letters. Sadly, in 1996, when she was a few months shy of 67, she died suddenly at home. It was unexpected and a shock.  Looking back with hindsight, there were signs, but we didn’t see them, so for us, it was shocking and heartbreaking, At her funeral in Queens, my sister-in law, Debbie, married to my younger brother, Nathan, said “We are going to publish the book that your mom always wanted.”  I don’t know if she even remembers that, but I think I am remembering it right. Debbie said it.

Fast forward: life gets in the way, doing a job, taking care of my father Sam with dementia (he died in 2003) and my own inertia and procrastination, and dealing with a deep-seated long-term grief quite paralyzed me from moving forward to do this.  We moved from Queens to New Jersey, and I took different jobs in my field (healthcare public relations), and things happened. Life happened.  But time is never your friend–it marches on relentlessly, and I was getting older, and I realized around 2011 that I needed to mobilize.  If I didn’t get started doing something, I would run out of time. I didn’t plunge into the book right away. I had ideas about how to use her poetry and resurrect her best work for kids, and have her poems serve different audiences.  I connected with an arts education non-profit, Arts For All, which brings arts programs into underserved NYC schools. We paired her haiku with different art forms (drawing, painting, and music) and Arts For All and I created a curriculum using images evoked by the haiku to create different kinds of art.  And so, using the short poems, the teaching artists would go into the schools and do these programs, mostly in second grade classrooms. One artist was Vidho Lorville, and he is such a gifted artist and creative teacher. We used a haiku, one that’s in the book, the one about the flamingos with their legs in the water…you can see in the book how Sawsan Chalabi, the illustrator, did that interpretation, but Vidho talked about how to create a flamingo, the body, the curved beak, how the legs break up in the water, the illusion of the eye.  He’d use the images of the poem to create drawings, paintings, and collages. He used the poems as guideposts to draw cats, parrots, squirrels, a sunset. For the poem about the boy who looks like a solitary bird looking at the sun as it sets (that’s probably about my brother…he used to climb on mailboxes), Vidho would use the pictures in the haiku to guide the students to create their own artwork. It was a wonderful program. It started probably around 2013, and I’m still working with Arts for All. We’ve expanded the programs into music and theater and now are talking about one that focuses on dance.  The poem about the cat jumping quietly to follow a peach pit: a dance instructor can teach the children the moves of a cat. What do they do, how do they move?

That’s a term in ballet,  pas de chat, which means, “step of the cat.”  It’s interesting to think of using poems to teach movement–a haiku dance project.

Yes–things like, how does a cat move?  How does a pigeon move?

I started sending unpublished work to different outlets, attempting to get her published again, which were steps leading up to this book.

Therapy also helped me a lot!  I was stuck in one place, and going through my mother’s papers was very painful, almost physically painful.  I closed up her apartment, and moved her boxes to my own place, and then packed them again and moved them to New Jersey, and I had them sitting in boxes for years.  It was emotionally and physically daunting and painful for me to do this. There were times when I just cried. That’s how much her loss affected me, even after years.

But thanks to support from family, my husband Cliff, coworkers, relatives, writers, poets…I’ve been very blessed and privileged.  No one said, “don’t do this.” (Of course, no one said it would be easy, either!) Finally in 2015, I managed to curate a manuscript taken from her old manuscripts from the 70s and 80s, as well as some things that had been published in journals. I wrote my own introduction to complement one of hers that had been published decades ago, and I started sending it out.  I did my homework, and looked up publishers that don’t require an agent. An agent wants to represent a living writer, a writer with more than one book, and at the time I was thinking about getting just this one done. I am a writer by proxy, since the writer is deceased: why would an agent want to deal with that? So I found publishing houses which didn’t need an agent.  I got rejections. Some were lovely and personalized, others just plain rejections. Some places I didn’t hear from (although after two or three years, you have to think it’s a no). In 2016, I connected with Penny Candy Books through a writer acquaintance, I looked them up (I was wary of vanity presses, and wanted to make sure they were credible). They were new, they had a lovely website, and had published several titles, were looking to increase diversity in children’s literature. They got in touch, loved what they had read, and on October 31, 2016, I signed the contract.

It was a Halloween book, then!

Ha!  The book came out in April of 2018 (and April is National Poetry Month).

The book has done well.

My mother died in 1996, and the book came out in 2018, so there you go.  I fulfilled her dream.  I think at the same time her dream became my dream.  I started to write my own haiku and short poems. I joined the Haiku Society of America, and some of my work has now been published.  I started work on a second manuscript which combines both of our work, half hers and half mine. It’s a work in progress but I’m happy about it   I almost gave up many times. I put the roadblocks in my own path, I didn’t get negativity from others. I thought of self-publishing, but I am the one who got in my own way.  So, I got out of my own way. It took time but I am very happy.

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So, your mother was a teacher and a poet. Can you tell me about what she was like as a person?

My mother had a strange streak.  I say it with love! She was a beautiful, talented, loving, generous intellectual woman.  She was something of an oddball. (Again, I say that with love!) As I get older, and I am now close in age to when she died, I understand better her personality.  She was different — intense. I grew up in a time when society was changing, and it was tumultuous. Do you remember the show, “The Wonder Years”? I was a female Kevin.  Change was coming to the United States, the war, and protests, and social justice, and I just wanted to be left alone. I was trying to figure myself out, not the rest of the world.  Whether it was reading a book, or going to the movies or the theater, I wanted to be left alone and to enjoy life as a kid. My mother was different. She was interested in all of these things.  She was interested with the eye of an artist and a writer. She wasn’t a hippie, but she usually was on the lookout for little adventures.  In New York, you have adventures every day.  I was too young, and not impressed by hippies.”  My mother was interested in the art and the music and the poetry.  It was fascinating to her. Haiku supported her unique way of looking deeply at and into things.  She tried to get me interested in that. I remember, I wrote some haiku when I was about ten. She wanted to share that with me, because it was important to her.  I made a few attempts, but wasn’t that interested It wasn’t until the day she died that I realized how much of an influence she had on me. That realization grew over the years.  She had been an inspiration. We became very close in my late 20s, but I didn’t understand the depth of her influence on me until she died. I do not have the innate gift that she had. I have to work on it and cultivate it.  Poetry, and haiku especially, validated her, gave her an outlet to express how she looked into things. But it is a skill you can learn. I realize now the depth of her inspiration on me, and also the impact of other poets on me.

I was reading your review of Anne of Green Gables...I had my own romantic view of the world.  Anne Shirley was my kindred spirit. That book changed my life.  No exaggeration. That book and another book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Those heroines, Anne Shirley and Francie Nolan, have more in common than you might think.

Two strong women; they had to be to overcome their difficult times in the world.  I wrote a blog post about them…this is what I paid attention to as a youngster. They are poetic figures, which I didn’t realize at the time, but I do now.

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Sydell-and-Amy Photo For Penny Candy Books 600 DPI January 13 2018Sydell Rosenberg with daughter Amy Losak

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What would your mother think now about what you’ve done?

My mother would be pleased, I think.  Amused as hell, maybe a little shocked.  She would try to run her poems by me and ask me…I would say I didn’t understand.  I was impatient and not interested. I regret that now, that I didn’t pay more attention.  I knew it mattered to her, and I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. And then at the funeral,  Debbie voiced what I was feeling.

Do you think she would be happy with the book and how it turned out?  

Yes.  I think she would be over the moon.  I think she would be thrilled. The book was honored as a 2019 Notable Poetry Book by NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and she would be kvelling!

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I also really love the illustrations.  How did you find the illustrator?

It was the publisher.  They asked me for ideas, and we had discussions, and they chose Sawsan Chalabi, and I couldn’t be happier!  We haven’t met, but we’ve talked and are connected on social media. We shared the same vision. I also feel like she’s a kindred spirit.

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What has been the reception of H is for Haiku so far?  What are you hearing from teachers, parents, reviewers?  

Penny Candy does marketing but I’m a publicist, so I did a lot of it.  As a freelancer, I can set my hours and agenda, and I made the publicity for H is for Haiku my project.  I did my homework about where to go and who to pitch to, and am pleased to say I did well. And I am grateful for the amount of positive attention and coverage the book has received from children’s authors, bloggers, readers–it’s been extremely gratifying.  I’ve heard from teachers, parents, librarians, and I’ve done some readings, and I love interacting with kids and getting them interested in slowing down and taking a closer look at the world around them and finding poetry where they might not consider. Nothing is out of scope.  A poem can be made out of anything. You should let your mind go free-range when you are trying to find poetry. It doesn’t have to be grand and sweeping. It could be a sparrow on the ground, or a weed in the sidewalk. My mother lived in New York, she wasn’t traveling around the world,  Not living in the suburbs, we would go to parks in Queens, or go to Central Park, or out on Long Island, and have picnics — drink in nature. We were raised in Briarwood, Queens. There weren’t many monarch butterflies, and we’d find our inspiration in everyday life. That’s why a good deal of her work is “city haiku.”

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What will the next book be like?

A children’s theme, combining both our work–I’m still working my way through it.  I’ve collected between 25 and 30 poems, about half and half. I have been going back and forth on a theme.  I would rather not divulge it because it might change, but I’m getting close. I give myself permission to put the manuscript down and pick it up again to give it a fresh eye.  That’s my process, giving myself a break and allowing myself the opportunity to proceed at my own pace. The dream has been achieved, and I have permission to be a little lazy again.  I’m making it work for me. I am excited about it. I’m hoping to have a working draft done by the end of the year.

Well, good luck with it.  I will look forward to seeing how it comes out.  Now, you are part of a group called Book Meshuggenahs?  What is that all about?   

This is wonderful!  The Book Meshuggenahs are a group of 18 Jewish women, authors of children’s books, and illustrators.  We write Jewish picture books with Jewish themes, topics, and values. They are talented, accomplished, hard-working women.  We found each other on social media. I’ve met a few in real life, we’re in the US and Israel. We are on social media: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

Our books are widely available,  but we also have our own online bookstore, Interabang Books.  They’re wonderful women.  We decided to form a group organically.  We were interacting on Facebook and we really hit it off and we came up with a name.  We support each other, share ideas, and it’s a wonderful group. These are creators who are award-winning in many ways and I’m proud to be a member.  We do our own things but we also have this group, and it’s a terrific supportive group.

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What is your favorite children’s book?

We already talked about Anne of Green Gables, more for a preteen, and also A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  And other books by Betty Smith and L.M. Montgomery.  And Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  My memory tells me that my mother wrote to him back in the 80s, when she was looking at illustrators, and I think she wrote to him asking if he would illustrate her poems.

That takes chutzpah!  That’s a lot of nerve.  I could swear he wrote her back.  I came across it in her papers, and I have to find that letter again!  He declined but was very polite. I can’t find it but I have it somewhere!

And a book you don’t hear about much: Loudmouse such a funny book!  It was written by poet Richard Wilbur.  My brother may have my copy, he liked it, too!

And Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

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If you could give us all a book assignment, what would it be? What book should everyone read?

That’s a tough one!  Give me a minute!

You’ll laugh.  I’d say Anne of Green Gables.

Not laughing!  It’s a good book!

She has a unique way of looking at life and taking pleasure in small things and giving herself time.  And her optimism and her hope! Even though her circumstances are unfortunate. She loves life, she has ambition, she wants to write, she becomes a teacher, she gets married, she has children, she does it all, within those times and circumstances.  I love that she’s not perfect, she’s dramatic, she gets into trouble, but she picks herself up. We can all use some more time to really breathe. And to pay attention and find joy. (I try to teach myself that every day, It doesn’t come easy to me.)

When I was working and commuting into Manhattan, I had to catch the bus and I’d always be running to catch it…I’d miss the white butterflies, the roses, the leaves on the trees.  Teaneck is a nice suburb. There are lawns and trees! There was a bus coming recently that I was barely going to make…I saw a butterfly, a black swallowtail and I stopped to watch it.  It was at my neighbor’s bushes. And I let that bus leave. Another bus will come and the butterfly won’t. It sounds obvious, but I had to teach that to myself. Maybe I’ll be late today but I got to see that butterfly,  and it made a difference to my day. And now that I’m consulting, I have that privilege. But I’m an easily distracted New Yorker.

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Do you have a favorite movie?

Anything that is a musical.  I love musicals! When I was a kid, everything was happening with rock and roll, but I was a throwback to the 30s, 40s, 50s, pop music and musicals.  Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly. Those MGM movies made me happy. They’re classics.  Also the classic black and white movies …my husband is a movie buff, and I like the old movies. One of my all time favorites, besides Singing in the Rain, is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  YouTube the barn-raising scene where the seven brothers are competing with the town guys, and they have a competitive dance number between the town guys and the backwoods men, they get into a dance-off.  Give it a minute. The dancing is unbelievable. It was choreographed by Michael Kidd, it’s very athletic and active, and fantastic. The actress Julie Newmar (she played Catwoman in the old Batman series–tall and statuesque, a cult favorite), she is in that movie.  And she’s still around. That gives me a smile.

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Movieclips / YouTube.com

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

So many things!  I would have finished college.  I did not finish. It’s unfortunate.  It’s never too late to go back, but it’s probably not going to happen.

Maybe you can make up the credits?

I still talk about it, but talking is not doing!  I wish I’d paid more attention to what my mother was trying to show me and shown more interest.  I wish back in the day I’d given myself more of an opportunity to try things. I had a chance to travel more and didn’t take it.  I didn’t take all of the opportunities that came my way. I was afraid and I thought time was limitless. Time is not unlimited. The future is now.

I would go back and give myself a talking to and say not to be afraid.  There’s nothing to be afraid of. When the merry go round stops for you, get on it.  It may not come back, like that butterfly.

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What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

The best advice I think I’ve been given is that we’re all human, we’re all flawed, we are all imperfect, we all make mistakes: so give yourself an opportunity to both fail and succeed.  Believe in yourself. That’s pretty much the advice I’d pass on. It’s okay to be flawed. You can still believe in yourself and do a good job. Mistakes are okay. How else do you get better?  We’re always trying to do better.

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What’s the best or the worst thing that happened to you this week?

I had a darn good week!  The best thing was going to DUMBO in Brooklyn, it was a gorgeous day, a warm fall day, and it’s a fun neighborhood to walk around.  I was by myself and kind of going wherever my feet and inclination took me, and I walked into a bookstore called Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop.  I decided to go in. And I didn’t know if they did children’s poetry events. I’m outgoing, but I have to gird up my courage to put myself out there about the book.  I left, since the employee there was on the phone. And then I came back, and he was off the phone, and I asked…all he could do is say no, and instead he said yes.  They know Penny Candy Books, and they know my publishers…so they said they’d be happy for me do a haiku event. We’re going to plan it in the coming months.

It was a really nice day. Even if that hadn’t happened, by having little adventures,  I was channeling my mother: she used to do that all the time.

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Anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Thanks for asking!  I think you have a lot!  We don’t have limited reserves of time, we don’t.  But it’s never too late, either. You have to strike the balance between knowing each day that goes by is one day less, but at the same time, get started, and realize that the way will happen. It’s not too late.  You may hit detours, road blocks, dead ends. You have to try. Maybe it’s getting older and having more life experience, but I’m glad I didn’t learn that lesson too late. It look a long time to get this book out, but it’s done.  I’ve been very fortunate! I’m really honored. And I still have good things to look forward to.

We are having a a Hanukkah contest!

To enter, all you have to do is share selected posts on FB and LinkedIn and retweet on Twitter, with one winner being picked at random for each of the eight days of Hanukkah (eight winners in total). And we will announce the winners on Dec. 1.  Our FB page is https://www.facebook.com/TheBookMeshuggenahs/ and our Twitter is https://twitter.com/TMeshuggenahs

Our dedicated page at Interabang Books is: https://www.interabangbooks.com/book-meshuggenahs

Thank you so much for your time and good luck with  the contest and with the next book!

Thank you so much, Laura!

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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IMAGE CREDITS

  • Lead-In Image (Book Cover, H is for Haiku) Courtesy of Penny Candy Books;
  • Portraits Courtesy of Amy Losak; and
  • Film Clip Courtesy of Movieclips / YouTube.com.

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Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

*Lydia Bourne, Rastrello

Victor Calise, NYC Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park

Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design

*Claudia Connor, International Institute of Connecticut

Sarah Cox, Write A House

Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom

Cynthia Davis, Our Woven Community

Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Wendy Dutwin, Limelight Media

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers

Martha Albertson Fineman, law professor

John Fletcher, photographer

Christopher Fowler, author

*Guy Fraser-Sampson, author

Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government

Les Friedman, Mikey’s Way Foundation

Alex Gaudelet, INVEST HOSPITALITY

Dr. Ramis Gheith, pain management physician

* Robert Girardi, author

Carrie Goldberg, internet privacy and sexual consent attorney

Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller

Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker

Camilla Huey, artist, designer

Michelle Jenab, anti-racism activist

Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita

Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

Alexandra Kennedy,  Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Jim Knable, playwright and musician

Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart

Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

Devoney Looser, English professor

Chris Mallin, theorem painting teacher

Melanie Marks, CT House Histories

Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker

Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer

Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

Lorin Morgan-Richards, author

Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

Jibrail Nor, drummer

Nick Page, composer, song leader, conductor

Craig Pomranz, cabaret singer, children’s book author

Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

*Carrie Roble, Park Over Plastic / Hudson River Park Trust

Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists

Steve Sandberg, musician

Bill Sanderson, author, reporter, and editor

Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

Rose Servitova, author

* Lisa Shaub, milliner

Marjorie Silver, law professor

Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

Charlotte Smith, blogger, At Charlotte’s House

Patrick Smith, author and pilot

Juliet Sorensen, law professor

Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author

Diana Swartz, Liger Leadership Academy

Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister

*Jonathan Todres, law professor

Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

Pauline Turley, Irish Arts Center

Vickie Volpano, Goodwill of Western and Northern Connecticut

Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

Krissa Watry, Dynepic & iOKids

Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino

Ekow Yankah, law professor

Brigit Young, author