A.J. Irving says the moment she came up with the idea for her new children’s book, “The Wishing Flower,” it was electrifying — even though it came right after receiving a batch of rejection letters for another project.
It started, Irving said, when her agent asked a simple question: “How do you feel about writing a queer girl picture book in your lyrical voice?”
“All this excitement just filled me and I was also kind of surprised at myself that I hadn’t already written this story,” said Irving, who is bisexual. “As soon as we got off the call, I went on a hike, because I get my best ideas in nature. The first lines just came to me, so I cut my hike short, and raced home and wrote a draft out by hand.”
“The Wishing Flower,” a children’s picture book set to go on sale May 30, is an LGBTQ-inclusive story about Birdie, who is shy and loves nature and just wants to be understood. It isn’t until Sunny comes along that she starts to feel that way.
For Irving, the book is both a passion and personal project, one she fondly dubs as her “heart book.”
During the interview, in the children’s section of the Salt Lake City Public Library’s main branch, Irving is bright-eyed, enthusiastic and happy — which particularly shines with her soft-spoken nature. She wears a “read banned books” T-shirt with a cardigan over it, and on the sweater she wears a bisexual rainbow pin.
The book, she said, is “inspired by my first crush in elementary school. Just like Birdie, I was really shy and I longed to belong. I met this girl who saw me for who I was, so my wish came true for that friendship, just like in the story.”
Another reason for writing the book, Irving said, is that “there was nothing like that when I was growing up.”
Themes in the book include connectivity and exploring one’s emotions — which can be a difficult thing to do for young children who don’t have the language for it. Irving’s writing conveys her gentle approach to these themes.
“We all crave to feel understood and accepted,” Irving said. “Especially with all the book banning and stuff that’s going on right now, it’s really terrifying. Kiddos deserve to see themselves in books.”
Connection is such an important part of growing up, Irving said, as kids learn who they are and how to interact with their peers. It’s a particularly resonate idea now, as attempts to ban books doubled in 2022, according to the American Library Association, and a large amount of those four in 10 — were by and about LGBTQ people.
Irving’s family moved to Utah about a year ago, after living in a tiny town in Wyoming that, she said, was more conservative. In Salt Lake City, she said, she doesn’t feel quite so terrified being herself and writing the books she does.
Whenever she writes, Irving said, she always tries to follow her muse. It worked with “The Wishing Flower,” she said, because she tapped into her own childhood memories and emotions.
One such memory, she said: “I remember the big huge field at recess … just being out there by myself and watching the other children play and feeling different and alone, and wanting that connection.”
Kip Alizadeh, an Iranian-English nonbinary illustrator, was Irving’s first choice to illustrate “The Wishing Flower” because of their art in other queer books.
“Writing picture books is a lot like putting a puzzle together, because every word has to fit,” Irving said. “Literally every word has to have a reason for being in there, and then when you piece all that together with the art … it’s a marriage of art and text. That’s why they’re so magical.”
Alizadeh, in an email, said the first time they read Irving’s text for the book, they cried happy tears. “I felt very seen by the text and like I could illustrate it authentically and from the heart,” they said.
For their process for the illustrations, Alizadeh said, “I realized that first I needed to figure out who Birdie and Sunny were and how they looked, so I did lots of character sketches until they appeared.”
Alizadeh said they used a lot of watercolor textures to “capture the emotional depth of the story” and wanted to make a point to visualize Birdie’s wishes because “wishes feel magical, so I used a lot of swirls and symbols for that.” In the illustrations, they wanted to “communicate Birdie’s longing to fit in, and how Sunny catches her eye.”
Whenever they illustrate LGBTQ characters, Alizadeh said, “my characters are always mash-ups of people I know, so with LGBTQ books I think of all the amazing LGBTQ people I know and put elements of them into the characters I make.”
Irving said the book’s title also has a personal resonance, “My daughter has always called dandelions ‘wishing flowers’ and she asked me year after year, ‘Mom, please write a book with wishing flowers.’”
In a way, it all came together just how it was meant to.
Sometimes, Irving said, people say she writes books on tough topics — her first book was about death, and this one is about blossoming queer love. “Those are the important things, the ones that open up conversations with kids. That’s why I love what I do,” she said.
“Books change lives,” Irving said. “I’m the person that gets to do that.”