Alli Frank & Asha Youmans, TINY IMPERFECTIONS

Alli Frank & Asha Youmans, TINY IMPERFECTIONS

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Alli Frank and Asha Youmans who are the debut coauthors of Tiny Imperfections, a novel. Alli has worked in education for twenty-plus years in San Francisco and Seattle in both public and private schools as a teacher, college counselor, coach, and assistant head. She’s the cofounder of the International Friends School. A graduate of Cornell and Stanford University, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. Asha has taught in public and private elementary schools for almost twenty years. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she lives with her husband and two sons in Seattle.

Welcome, Asha and Alli. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alli Frank: Absolutely, we’re happy to be here.

Asha Youmans: Thank you so much for having us.

Zibby: It’s such a treat. I was telling you before, I found your book, Tiny Imperfections, to be completely hilarious and great and just perfect, pitch perfect. It was a really fun read. I’m happy to be talking to you.

Asha: We’re so glad you like it. We find ourselves thinking of moments and referring to moments in the book and cracking ourselves up still. We’re glad you like it.

Alli: For a long time when we were writing it, we were hilarious to ourselves in Starbucks over and over. I think the baristas were like, who are those crazy ladies for a good solid year just laughing themselves silly in the corner? It’s kind of nice that now a year and half later when we’re now working on other things we’re still thinking back to what we wrote and we still find it humorous. We hope everyone finds it humorous.

Zibby: If you don’t find it funny, chances are other people won’t find it funny. My husband, he’s cowriting a TV show pilot. He and his friend are on the phone just hysterically laughing. He’s like, I’m working. I’m like, you are not working. That is not work. You cannot be having this much fun. It sounds like the two of you have that same thing.

Alli: Yes.

Asha: It’s true. We start some of our work sessions, well, every work session, just checking in about family, things like that, but inevitably end up laughing a whole lot before we even get down to it.

Zibby: Let’s back up. What is Tiny Imperfections about? Please tell listeners.

Asha: Tiny Imperfections is an intergenerational, mother-daughter story. It’s set against the cutthroat admission season of San Francisco’s most prestigious private school. The book addresses race and single parenting and dating at forty. It’s the perfect read to give to somebody. It comes out right before Mother’s Day on May 5th. It’s great if you want to give the gift of laughter to someone in your life. We hope they laugh their faces off. I always say that because that’s what happens to me. My cheeks start to hurt from laughing at a really good book. Kick your heels up and read this one.

Alli: We think it’s a unique lens in looking at a school and looking at a private school. The intergenerational part is Aunt Viv who’s been the head cook at the school for fifty years; and then her niece Josie, who she raised, who is an alumnus of the school and has returned and is the director of admissions at the school; and t hen Josie’s daughter Etta who is now a senior at the school. It’s fifty years of these three women who are black who have lived through different generations in this very privileged, rarified world. It, through humor, looks at what similarities they share with the community of which they’ve invested themselves professionally and educationally, but also how they’re different. It is all about love with the family, but it’s also love of a school community. For us, we’ve both been educators for over twenty years. We love schools so very much. In a way for us, this is our love letter to schools and love letter to school communities because no other company is full of humans for whom the product is actually humans. When you have that, it’s just a whole lot of messiness, but a whole lot of love. That’s really why we wanted to write this.

Zibby: Do you think your schools are receiving this letter with a sense of humor?

Asha: We hope so. We hope that everybody remembers that it’s fiction. Because we’ve had so many decades in not only public and private schools, but just organizations that work with children — I’ve worked in before and after-school programs, different ways to serve kids. This is a culmination of our experiences, even the characters themselves. I have an Aunt Viv, but this is not necessarily just her. It’s a culmination of a lot of black women in my life that have had an impact on me, that have taught me to be a woman, taught me to be a kind person going through the world, and putting all those characteristics together to make somebody that hopefully looks like someone we all need in our lives. The same is true for the people that work in the school in this story. We have thousands of stories about kids, parents, staff, administrators. We couldn’t get them all just in one book, but we certainly hope we got a little bit of flavor from a bunch of people we’ve met over the years into this one.

Zibby: You keep saying you hope there’s more to come for all these characters. I feel like you have a vision of this whole series of what’s happening, right? It’s already in the works? Yes?

Asha: We do have a vision.

Alli: We love our ladies.

Asha: We do.

Alli: We love our Bordelon ladies.

Asha: There’s so much to explore in terms of what a school environment is as well. The characters that have come in and out of our lives, we’ve been part of hundreds of families being a teacher. It feels that way. The stories you can bring out just of your own family, they’re in the thousands. When you’re part of that many families, there’s just so many to choose from.

Zibby: Especially when each year it changes. That’s great. You’ll never run out of content. It’s one of the only industries, really, where you can reliably know that all the people in your life will change every single year. That’s crazy.

Alli: Just like Josie said in the book, she been working in Fairchild Country Day for thirteen, fourteen years. There’s still things in her years, she’s like, well, never saw that one again. That is the beauty of working with families. It is also the amazing thing about working with kids. It’s a constant state of surprise. I don’t want to speak for you, Asha, but I think that’s why I’ve always loved working in schools because every day was different. There’s nothing that’s on repeat. Even on a day where you think, oh, I’m getting up, I’m putting my pants on the same way to go to the same place to work, fifteen minutes in something surprises you. Again, that’s part of our love letter to schools and why we’ve always loved schools. I do want to say that, we want to be clear because people do always ask, that there aren’t any stories in our book that are like, oh, remember the time that blah, blah, blah happened? We took bits and pieces of so many parts of our lives and the multitude of schools we’ve been in and we created this book, but our characters are fiction. We love them for exactly that because we got to make them up.

Zibby: You are not Josie and Lo. You did not meet in Zumba class. I’m kidding.

Asha: We did not meet in Zumba class.

Zibby: I know you don’t resemble those characters. I don’t know you that well, but I’m thinking, for sure, one of you doesn’t.

Asha: We actually met doing admissions. I did admissions for a dozen years at the same school where Alli then came on board as my assistant head of school. We were on the same admissions team. My classroom was below Alli’s office and the administrative offices. We’d often meet in the kitchen in passing and on our way to somewhere, an admissions detail we forget, and say, gosh, did you see that one kid? Oh man, he was so hilarious. Did you see what he said?

Alli: Oh, my god, did you see that massive booger he was trying to get up in the middle of his nose the whole time he’s trying to do math at the same time?

Asha: Four of them had to go potty all at once. What was that? We found ourselves laughing about the kids, loving the kids we met, hopefully laughing with and at the parents we met and their nervousness because we’ve been there before, sympathizing with them as well. We also have the same sense of humor. We can see those tiny imperfections that are in our students and appreciate them instead of focusing only on how to fix them. We found a bond over that.

Alli: I think the similar sense of humor is really what ultimately — because that was years before we ended up writing this book together. The similar sense of humor connected us once it was out of admissions season. Then it was maybe over the summer. Then we went on to do other things at different places with different schools. We always stayed connected when some story came up. We wanted to share with the other person because when you’re laughing at something, you want to connect with a person who you know will find it funny too. That just always kept each of us in our minds and hearts. Then we end up here with a book that we’ve actually written.

Zibby: When you were joking with each other, in the back of your head were you like, this is going in our book? Did you say that all the time?

Alli: You have to say, in your kitchen, what we used to say.

Asha: All the time. I wouldn’t just tell Alli, but I’d go around going, oh, my gosh, this is going in my book someday, or to another teacher, I know you have a good story about that one kid. That one’s got to go in my book, so don’t forget it. I really consider myself a storyteller who writes. It’s one of the talents of mine that I’ve enjoyed cultivating by working with small children, reading aloud to them and trying to convince them to continue to hold onto books their entire lives, including being read to. I managed to do it with my own up until at least middle school. Cultivating readers was one of my favorite parts of my job.

Zibby: Tell me about how you brought your own backgrounds and family experiences into it. Tell me about your dad who went to the same school. Tell me about that and how you used that experience as fiction.

Asha: My dad, TJ Vassar, who in December, I believe, 2012 was honored by President Obama, he was gifted a basketball at a fundraising dinner when he was on a stop in Seattle, Washington. My dad was so surprised. He came out of a room and said, “Hey, is that TJ?” My dad thought, this is it. They found me out. The FBI knows about whatever that thing was.

Alli: All the way up here in the great white north of Seattle, Washington. You found me.

Asha: They got me. One of the secret service tossed a ball to the president, and he presented it to my dad. It said, “TJ, lucky to have you on my team. -Barack Obama.” One of the greatest gifts in his life before he passed was receiving that ball. I remember growing up, him telling me that he didn’t really think there would be a black president in his life, but he was sure there would be one in my life. For him to be able to see that was a great gift. Then to go on to meet the president was amazing. He was the first African American graduate of Lakeside School in Seattle, Washington, on the first second-generation. My son is now the first third-generation black to graduate from Lakeside School. It was one of many firsts for my dad.

He went from clean-cut preppy schoolboy to afroed-out protestor in the span of one year going to Harvard from Lakeside and convinced the school through protests and demands to create an Afro-American Studies Program. He was among the first graduates of that program to receive a degree from Harvard in Afro-American Studies. He went on to be the first commissioner of African American Affairs for the state of Washington, the youngest and first black president of the Seattle Public School Board, just so many things that he was the first at. He gave me the courage to be a pioneer, to be open to talking to people about new and difficult things, to approach issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion with no judgement and with an open heart. Those are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from him. Education is a place where you can practice those skills all the time. They are skills to practice for all of us.

Zibby: Did he get to read the book?

Asha: He did not get to read the book. I can tell you that right now he would be my biggest fan, after my mom. She might be number one. He would be my biggest cheerleader. Definitely, seeing me become a writer would have been his life’s dream.

Zibby: Do you feel like those are big shoes to fill?

Asha: For sure, yes. He had big shoes to fill because he went on to become an administrator at Lakeside. The people and the things and the lessons that he touched and passed on through his life and work there, they had big shoes to fill after him, but they’re doing it because they had the courage to step into those shoes and give it a shot. Writing about race, being willing to talk to Alli and share this book where race is a factor in the story takes some courage. You have to be ready for someone’s criticism that may not enjoy this type of duo or agree with what our story is, but I know it’s a genuine one. I know that we both approached it with the most positive of intentions and the hope to learn something or to teach something in our encounters. We connect with people through it.

Zibby: It’s so crazy that people could object to two people — isn’t that the whole point? It’s not supposed to be about what we look like or where we’re from. It’s supposed to be about things like our shared sense of humor and humanity. I don’t want to get off on this. I just feel like people have so overcorrected in the wrong way. To be critical of something so simple and elemental to human nature for — anyway, I don’t know. I think it’s great, but it would be great no matter what races you were as long as you have the same writing style and the same — I don’t know.

Asha: I think you share in it your heart.

Zibby: Yes, of course.

Asha: We’re singing to the choir. We know. We know it.

Zibby: I will get off of that whole thing then. The funny thing about this book — first of all, the admissions part itself, which is hilarious but not the whole book — it’s not a whole book about it. It’s a really delicate relationship story as well. I really appreciated that. The admissions stuff was so funny, especially in the beginning with the rescheduling and all of that stuff. I was at dinner last night with some friends who have someone applying to kindergarten. Actually, my son, my littlest guy, is going to kindergarten. At the time, you feel like it’s so important. With my big kids, where your kid goes to school feels like the biggest deal ever. You’re determining what’s going to happen with their entire lives and livelihood and everything. It’s the most pressure ever. My kids have all changed schools. You can always change your mind. I feel like that’s one of the things I’ve learned. I don’t know about the two of you. As I’ve gotten older, especially with the school thing, all that pressure, you can change schools if it’s not right. It’s not that big a deal, right?

Asha: Absolutely. As a person that’s gone to both public and private schools, my parents gave me the — I had great parents who encouraged me to go where it was best for me. They had three kids. Each of us went to different schools. They helped us choose the place that was good for ourselves. Of course, they were in charge. They made those decisions. Some of them you have to pay for. Some of them are too far for the family. It doesn’t work for everyone. You have to parent and teach the child that’s in front you and not the one you imagine that they may be someday. It’s so much more important to find a place where they’re happy right now, where they feel successful right now because that’s the bigger impact on their future.

Alli: I think to that, the parents lose the idea at these really pivotal moments, whether it’s going into kindergarten or it’s going into high school or it’s applying to college or it’s the first heartbreak or whatnot, that parenting and life is fluid, and that if something’s going well, something else is dropping off the cliff. We now have this undue pressure on children that everything has to be an uphill trajectory, that we’re going to get you into potentially the perfect school for you. Then from that moment forward it is going to be your math takes off and your reading takes off and your social life takes off and your sports take off. That’s so much pressure on a child when every human in the world, life does not work like that. Right now, Asha and I are having a great time focusing on talking about Tiny Imperfections and working on other things. But at home, my house is falling apart. Things are breaking down. The state of dinnertime is not pretty. Professionally, it’s going on great. At home, it’s a little raggedy, but we don’t allow that for children anymore. That is an unfair pressure to put on a child, an unfair pressure to put on schools. The need to be fluid and to see, you know what? This might be the right school for now. It might be the right school for three years, for ten years. Who knows? The idea that we’re going to get them in the right kindergarten and then it’s going to be good for the next twelve years, it’s a fallacy. It’s not really reality.

Zibby: Of course, I wonder if I was listening to this conversation back when I didn’t have any kids in school, if I’d be like, easy for you to say, you already have all your kids in school. It’s easy with our point of view now.

Asha: I guess I can hear my dad saying in the back of my mind, every kid is in school. There’s a local public school somewhere near you. No one is going to be left out of kindergarten.

Alli: At every school, there will be teachers that love your child, at every school.

Zibby: I hope so. I also really enjoyed the part about Golden Boy in your book. Actually, I’ve been working on this novel myself for a long time called 40-Love about falling in love again at forty because I’m divorced and remarried. I had called the main guy Golden Boy in my book. When I read yours, I literally went into my manuscript and I was like, find/replace for all of the Golden Boy. I was like, I’m just going to call him by his actual name that I had already given him. I was thinking of you as I went through that. It was also really interesting, that whole — I don’t want to give anything away, so maybe I shouldn’t talk about it.

Alli: Can I jump in? That was a really humorous and interesting trajectory writing about the romance or the relationship part of Josie for two reasons. One is that we did really want the book to focus on a woman; profession first, romance second. Even in this time where women are out doing incredible things, so many of the lighter reads or women’s fiction or rom-com lead with the romance. Then who she is after that is secondary. It was super important for us to lead with her professional success and her ability to get herself where she is on her own. Then when we turned it in to our editor and she gave us great feedback and we needed to puff up the romance part — Asha married her boyfriend from freshman year in college. I got married later, but now I’ve been married for a while. We had a lot of struggles. What was it like at the beginning of a relationship when the sexy thing wasn’t unloading the dishwasher? The sexy thing was actually something sexy. One of my greatest memories is we had to redo this one scene.

Asha: The kissing scene.

Alli: The kissing scene. We were actually sitting on a bed in a hotel room together eating tortilla chips. We’re like, so what was it like? Let’s think back to those heated times. It was very humorous, us trying to get back in that headspace of that initial desire and want for love because we are a couple of —

Asha: — Two old married ladies, is that what you want to say?

Alli: Pretty much. It was fun. It was hilarious, actually, to do that part.

Zibby: Aside from wanting to turn this into a multibook series, what’s coming next for you guys? You have the tour. Tell me what’s on the horizon.

Asha: We just finished a visit with the American Library Association conference in Philadelphia, which was great. We were on a panel of debut authors there and so warmly welcomed by all the staff at that conference. We’re always writing. We’re working on book two, we hope. We have an idea for where the Bordelon family is going. We also have a secondary story that we have in mind completely away from the Bordelons. They might kiss each other. The stories may meld just a little bit somewhere along the way.

Zibby: Like when one of the characters comes on a sitcom, like in Silver Spoons.

Asha: Yes, and then they have a spinoff, something like that. I think that our goal is to continue to write this type of book. It’s something that we both love to read. Most advice we’ve gotten when you hear about becoming a writer is write what you like. We have enjoyed writing this style and this type of story so much. I think we’ll return to it.

Alli: We can share our good stuff.

Asha: Go ahead, sure.

Zibby: Yeah, share the good stuff.

Alli: We have been optioned for TV, film, which is great. That was super exciting.

Zibby: Excellent. Very exciting.

Alli: We have a lot of exciting stuff on the writing front and with, hopefully, television and film. For us, and you had hinted to this earlier, we really want to be able to go out and talk to people about how to be in conversation with someone who may look different than you. When you have really real conversations and you do something hard together like write a book, you find your commonalities. You find the humanity in one another. Unfortunately, it does feel like we’re in a time and a space in our country where we’re saying we all need to understand and know each other better, but the minute you do something inelegant but from a good place, you’re slapped so hard that who wants to go out there and then ever connect again? In this era of we all need to connect, we’re actually being polarized back into our own very similar communities because our hands get slapped too fast. Asha and I really want to be able to go out and talk to people about how to do hard work together.

We’ve both had super inelegant moments with each other down to when this idea for this book actually came to me on a bus going to the airport in Boise, Idaho. I got to Boise. I get a little overly enthusiastic. I called Asha right away because I finally had cell service. I was like, “Oh, my god, do you want to meet for coffee and talk about race and writing?” I’m like, I probably could’ve put that a little better. But it was an excitement to share an idea with my friend Asha who is different and similar to me at the same time. Asha was like, “Let’s do it.” Now twenty months later, here we are. What a shame if I hadn’t been so enthusiastic. What a shame if Asha hadn’t been so open of heart. Then we wouldn’t be here sitting talking to you. I think in the grand scheme of writing our books, if there’s anything with television and film, our greatest hope is to be able to share our experience together as coauthors and as professionals working together. I think at the end of the day, that would be the most fun for us.

Zibby: Any advice to aspiring authors?

Asha: Oh, goodness. I would say read, read, read. I would say that to anybody. Then write it down. Just write everything. Figure out if you can put it together. Share it with your friends. Share it with someone you trust. Be open to honest criticism. Be ready for a lot of criticism. Know that it’s okay. That’s how we grow, is to figure out where our flaws are, either in ourselves or our writing or whatever else we do. Take those lessons as an opportunity for you to become that person you’re looking to become. If no one criticizes your writing, it just tells you it’s great. Well, wait until you put it out there because the public will tell you. I would write. Just start, to begin. I always wanted to write. I wrote short stories. I wrote for myself. In the beginning, that satisfied the writing part of who I was, to write for myself. When Alli invited me on this project, I was like, gosh, this is my chance. I’m going to actually do it. Jumped in with both feet, gave it a shot.

Alli: Mine would be — the American culture is definitely a culture of the salesman culture, like, talk, talk, talk. We don’t always honor the observer of life. I would say my advice is be an observer. Take two steps back off your own precipice. Wherever you are, when you’re in conversation with other people, if you’re at a gathering, if you’re in a train station, there are a ton of people around, just be an observer of life because that will ultimately give you so much juice for your book. It’s also a beautiful way to walk through the world. I would just say don’t be fearful of being the quieter person. Don’t be fearful of the observant person because it will make your writing better.

Asha: I would say that one last thing is my dad would say connecting with people — that’s ultimately, as Alli was saying, our true goal. The one thing I watched him do with such grace and amazing ability is he would learn where a person was from, what their cultural background was by asking them to self-identify. Then he would learn from them, how to say hello in their language, how to compliment a woman in their language, and how to say something naughty in their language. Those three things made people laugh, made people listen, look at you, and offer an opportunity to connect. Get out there and meet people.

Zibby: He sounds like a super special guy. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet him, that he wasn’t here.

Asha: He definitely was. You would’ve loved him.

Alli: Everyone loved him.

Zibby: I can tell by what you’re saying. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for your great book. Best of luck and everything.

Asha: Thanks, Zibby.

Alli: Thank you so much.

Alli Frank & Asha Youmans, TINY IMPERFECTIONS