Zibby Owens: Chioma Momah is the author of First Day at the Big School. She is based in Nigeria where she’s a regulatory sector lawyer and a member of the Nigerian Bar and the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. A children’s book author, she started the L.E.A.R.N program in schools where she speaks on reading and writing skills. She’s passionate about encouraging working mothers through her blog,


Chioma Momah: Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Chioma: How are you?

Zibby: Good. How are you?

Chioma: I’m fine. Thank you. Great to be here.

Zibby: Where in Nigeria are you?

Chioma: I’m in Abuja.

Zibby: Where is that in Nigeria?

Chioma: Abuja is the capitol, so right in the middle. It’s the north of Nigeria, actually, but it’s kind of in the middle.

Zibby: Awesome. From around the world, here we go.

Chioma: Nice to be here.

Zibby: It’s nice to be here with you. Tell me about The Big School, kids going to the big school. What made you want to write this book? Tell me the whole story of how you wrote a children’s book and why about this topic and all the rest.

Chioma: First off, I always loved reading, voracious reader. The moment I started having children, I noticed that most of the books were, I didn’t see enough Nigerian characters, people of color, people that they could relate to, which was the same thing I had when growing up. All the books were either Enid Blyton or — what’s his name? The guy that wrote about the giants. Just the same books I had read growing up. They were great books. Eric Carle. They were amazing books.

Zibby: Roald Dahl?

Chioma: Roald Dahl. I’m thinking of Roald Dahl. I love his books. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the same books I had read growing up. I wasn’t seeing things with African characters or Nigerian characters. I was like, I would like to tell a story that had things that they recognized, Nigerian food, Nigerian names, Nigerian skin texture. That was it. I wrote it for my children, basically. I wanted my children to see a book where they had names and faces and events that they recognized. Then I thought of, my eldest childhood memory was when I left kindergarten and started grade school. For me, it was a big shock because I was leaving being a baby. In kindergarten and in earlier school, I had — you’re . You’re like a baby. Then when I got into grade one, it was a bit scary because I thought they wanted us to all be grown up all of a sudden. I just imagine that for other children, they would have the same issue, especially if they’re changing to a new school, they were transitioning to a different school. They would be so uncertain.

For us in Nigeria, once you leave kindergarten to grade school, a lot of things change. You start wearing uniforms. You move to a different building. For me, I was like, I’m sure there are a lot of children who are wondering what it would be like to go to a different school and all the mix of emotions they would have, meeting new friends, having a new teacher, just dealing with so many new experiences all at once. Then there would be excitement as well. That was why I wrote that book. I wanted to be able to relate to children, for them to be able to see something they could relate with, children who are Nigerian children with Nigerian names and experience, which I think every child can relate with and even every adult because everyone has gone through that thing where you have to get a new job or go to a new school or move to a new city. You’re faced with, what is it going to be like? Will I like it? Will it be scary? Will I make friends? That’s really what that book was about, just all those mix of emotions that everybody goes through when they’re dealing with a brand-new experience.

Zibby: It couldn’t have come at a better time. I have four kids. My littlest guy is starting kindergarten in the fall, which sounds more like the transition from K to first grade for you in that it will be a dress code and a new school and bigger building. Who knows if school will even start in the fall anymore, but all of those feelings, it’s so great to have a book. Obviously, there are some other books that deal with back to school. Like you said, having new characters and having a new point of view and the fact that kids in Nigeria are going through the same things, people all over the world. You know when you say to yourself, I’m not the only one, people all over the world — it’s one thing to think that. Then to have an example of another child in a school in Nigeria, it makes it all just seem so relatable. Then you don’t feel so weird that you’re all nervous yourself.

Chioma: Exactly. We all have the same experiences. That’s what I see. Everyone all over the world has their own example of that experience, but we all have similar experiences everywhere.

Zibby: It’s true. Even though everyone knows that, I think everyone needs to see it to have it hit home. Just being able to think it is not enough. Did your kids appreciate when you wrote it?

Chioma: They did. I based the main character on my daughter. Her name is Olanna. I named her Lana after my daughter. They were really excited to see. They were super, super excited. Then the funniest thing happened. Other people were excited as well, but I didn’t expect that. Like I said, I wrote it for my children. I said, my children will read it. Friends’ children will read it. Just a few people in my community would read it. Then I had people who I didn’t even know, people who I hadn’t spoken to in years were like, “Oh, my god, we loved it.” It’s on Amazon now, so people all over the world basically, people in Canada, people in South Africa, people in the US, people in England writing me to say, “I read your book. My child loves it.” They could relate to it. They were transitioning to grade school or kindergarten or whatever, and they could relate to this story. It was just amazing for them. It went to places I would never have expected. I’ve gone to different cities in Nigeria where I’ve been told to come and read, do book reading to children transitioning just to prepare them for that next stage of school. My children loved it. A lot of other children loved it as well. It’s done really well, thank goodness.

Zibby: That’s great. What has it been like with your kids with the quarantine this spring? What is it like now?

Chioma: They are tired of online school. That’s one thing I can say. They are tired of classes online. It’s just a bit too much for them. They’re happy that Mommy’s home because I’m home 24/7 now. That’s the best part. They have Mommy home with them all the time. I don’t have to go to work. I think everyone is ready to be able to go back to school to learn. For them, the best part has just been having Mommy and Daddy here and baking a lot. I’m in the kitchen a lot. I’m playing games with them. We’re doing hopscotch and playing football together. They’re just happy to have me home. That’s the best part for them.

Zibby: What’s your day job?

Chioma: I’m a lawyer. I work for the government. I work for a government agency, a government office. I work in the legal department. It was a busy nine-to-five job. Basically, on a regular day, if I go home by six PM, they would be happy. Just seeing me here every day is like, oh, my goodness, they come and give me hugs every one hour, a new hug, “Oh, Mommy, I love you.” It’s going to be hard for them when I have to go back to work. We’re just enjoying the moment. We’re living in the moment. I told somebody, when you have family, you don’t have that much to miss. You think of people who don’t have families who have to be by themselves who have no siblings to play with or no family, no children or whatever. I guess they’re all making the best of it in one way or the other. Thank god for technology so we can talk, do video calls, and stuff like that.

Zibby: For your book, how did you find an illustrator? You didn’t illustrate it yourself?

Chioma: I did not. That was the hardest part. I was in England at that time. I was studying. I was in grad school, what you guys call grad school in the States. I was there with my two youngest children when I decided to write the book. I kept on looking for an illustrator. It was really tough. I didn’t know where to start, to be honest. Luckily, I found somebody online. I think he lives in Vietnam. I discussed my ideas with him, sent him the characters’ descriptions. A lot of the things I wrote about, he didn’t understand the concepts, but he did really well. We’ve done a second book, which he did amazing. We’re working on our third book together. I found him in Vietnam. He’s really, really gifted. It was just amazing bringing this character to life with him. The whole concept of children with cornrows in their hair, he didn’t understand any of that. I had to show him lots of pictures. I had lots of meetings with him. He did a great job.

Zibby: It’s just so amazing to me that you thought of this idea in England. You wrote it in Nigeria. You collaborated with a man in Vietnam. Now you and I are on Skype. I’m here in New York. We’re talking about your book that people read all over the world. It’s just amazing. I always think about the power of books to bring people together. This is just such a great example. Look at this, and how your vision can make people feel better everywhere. It’s the coolest. I just think it’s the coolest.

Chioma: Technology’s amazing. I tell kids, you can tell a story in front of your friends at home, but when you write a book, it could go anywhere, literally anywhere in the world. A lot of the books I read as a child were books like the classics, Little Women, Jane Eyre‘s books, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer. Those were books that were written somewhere in some corner maybe in the US or in the UK. People have read those books all over the world. Books are just amazing, really, how they bring people together.

Zibby: What are your next two books about?

Chioma: My second book is called A Fun Day in the Museum. It’s a series. I’m still with Lana and her friends. They go to see a museum. In that book, I tried to talk about history. In Nigeria, children aren’t taught history the way they should be. A lot of things are just glossed over. A lot of kids don’t know about great people in our historical past who have done a lot for this country. I try to bring up our founding fathers in that book. I put their pictures there, spoke about our artifacts, spoke about stuff that has happened in Nigeria, the civil war we had. I tried to put all of that in the museum so as the children were going around, they were discovering stuff about their country. The third book, which is still far from finished, the children go to the village. Just to give you an example of what it is to go to the village, I live in Abuja, which is the city. It’s an urban city, but everybody comes from some village or the other. My father was born in some village down east. A lot of Nigerians every year, either Christmastime or Eastertime or some time of the year, they go to visit their village. It’s really rural. It’s really rustic. It’s really lots of fun. It’s really different. Growing up, I did a lot of that. Every year, we went down to the village to spend time with my grandmother.

I want to bring those memories alive for those of us who had those experiences. Nowadays, it’s not as common. Children don’t go to the villages that often. For those of us that did, it was really, really a great experience for us, so I want to write about that so that children can see what village life was like. It was really fun, playing with goats, going to the stream. It was fun. It was really, really fun. That’s what that book is about. Then just meeting up with your cousins who you haven’t seen from all over the country and all over the world because it was like a big, great homecoming. Everyone would come home for Christmas. Then you would see people that you haven’t seen in years. I’m really excited about that project. Then also, I’m writing a book for women as well, something different. Actually, two books. It started out as one book, but I’ve had to make it two books now. I’m writing about women in history who have done great things, women like Amelia Earhart, women like Mary Slessor who was a great missionary to Nigeria, women who have done amazing things over time and the lessons we can learn from them. I’m really excited about that project. That book should be out in another month or so. I’m really working hard on that to get it finished.

Zibby: Wow, good for you. This whole time of being at home has not affected your productivity in a negative way at all.

Chioma: At all. It’s been a blessing in disguise for my writing. When I’m at work full time, I’m more engaged with work working as a lawyer. Now that I’m home, I don’t get to do as much office work as I normally do, which I miss, but it’s been a blessing in disguise, to be honest, because I’ve had time to catch up on all these projects, time to speak with you on Skype, and just do other things that I really enjoy, time to spend with the children and bond more with them, time to bake. It’s been good. It’s been a good time for me, to be honest.

Zibby: How do you come up with all the ideas for all of your different projects?

Chioma: Inspiration. I think for all of us, our inspiration is from our childhood. For many people that write, it’s stuff that has happened to you. Like I said for my first book, it was my experience, the rude shock I got starting grade school, or primary school like we call it here. Now I was a big kid all of a sudden. I had to wear a uniform. Things just changed. Then also, my love for history inspired the second book. Then my love for just thinking back on village life inspired the third one. For me, I do a lot of speaking to women. I try to encourage women a lot because in our society, I think all over the world, women, once they start having children, they feel that that’s it. I tell women there’s so much more you can do. Yes, you can be a great parent. You can be a great mom. You can also do stuff that you love as well apart from parenting, apart from raising your children. I just try to encourage them to look. Whatever career path you want to do — like you say, you don’t have time to read, but you do have time to read. You can make time to do other things if you really want to. I just try to encourage women. With this latest book I’m working on for women, I’ve spoken about all these women who had so many things against them. There were gender issues. There was race discrimination that they had to deal with. There are so many issues. Yet they were able to do those things that they dreamt of doing, so just to encourage women to be like, go for your dreams. You can do it. That’s where, especially, my writing comes from, is from things that I like to inspire ladies to do in real life. Go for your dreams. Don’t let motherhood look like something negative. It’s a beautiful thing. Being a mother should not make you be less of a human being or not accomplish any other thing that you need or you desire to accomplish.

Zibby: I think a lot of people need to hear that, so thank you for that. That’s great. What do you like to read? What are you reading now? Any good books?

Chioma: The book I’m reading now, it’s called Debra or Deborah. Like I said, I like being inspired by women as I inspire other women. I’m reading about Deborah who was a great judge in the Bible and just reading about all the amazing things she did, how she went to war with these mighty men and how she won, how basically if she hadn’t gone with them, they would not have won that war. I’m just reading stuff about inspiring people. Another book I just read recently, which was really amazing because I love history, was a book about sea women in Korea. That was really interesting just to see how women were so strong, how they made a living and still had to come back and be mothers. A lot of the books I’m reading are by inspiring women.

Zibby: Love it. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Chioma: Aspiring authors, your story is in you. You have your story right in you. You don’t have to go searching for it. Think back. Think of your memories. Think of your experiences. Think of those things that really touched you when you were a child, or even adulthood. Think of those experiences that stand out to you, and you can tell a story from there. You don’t have to copy someone’s story. You can be original. We all have stories inside of us, hundreds of stories waiting to be told. Just think and think. What story would I like people to hear? What is that authentic story I have inside of me? That’s my number-one advice. Your story is in you. Think about it. Then don’t be afraid to write. Your writing might not be perfect, but then we have editors. We have people who can help you. Just start. Start writing. Start today. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Start now.

Zibby: Love it. I’m going to go write right now. I’m going to just go now that you said that. No, I’m kidding. I don’t have time for that today, but I would like to. Thank you so much. I’m so glad you came on my podcast. I’m so glad we could connect across the world about our kids and books and the power of not feeling alone.

Chioma: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure, oh, my gosh.

Chioma: So how’s New York? How are you guys doing?

Zibby: Okay. I’m not in the city right now. I haven’t been to my home in the city now for three and half months or so. I miss it. I don’t know. Slowly going back to normal, itsy-bitsy steps. I think the worst part is that —

Chioma: — It’s over.

Zibby: Yes, I think the worst part is over, but I think the lingering side effects are that everybody looks at each other as though they could be the enemy in a way. You don’t know who has coronavirus.

Chioma: That’s the saddest part. I agree.

Zibby: I like to hug people so much and have everybody over. It’s created this distance when my whole thing is connection. It saddens me. That’s the worst part. Other than that, my family is healthy, my close friends. People who have had it are better. How about you?

Chioma: I can totally relate. In my city, churches are open now, but I’m not going to church because like I told my husband, the whole issue going out to church, going out and meeting people, you want to hug them. You want to say, “How are you?” and give them a great big hug. Nobody’s doing that right now. That just seems weird. It’s a bit painful for me. I’d rather just stay home and wait it out a bit. Like you said, everybody suspicious. You see your friend and you’re standing like, “Oh, hi. Hello.” That’s just not me. I’m big on physical connection. I’m very social as well. That, for me, is the saddest part as well. The other day I went out to get some groceries. I saw my very good friend and I just said hi. Normally, I would give her a big hug. I was sad I couldn’t do that. I’m hoping that things will slowly get back to normal. It might take time. I’m just grateful. I’m thanking God for all the opportunities I’ve had during this period, thanking God that my family is well. Like you, I had a few people who were ill, and they’re all fine. I have family all over the world, in the US, Seattle, Houston, . Everybody’s fine. That’s something to be thankful for, that everybody’s in good health. I can’t wait for this to be over. I really can’t.

Zibby: Me too. Maybe one day you and I can get together in real life and give each other a hug. That would be very nice.

Chioma: That would be awesome. That would be great. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Now we have some long-term goals. Thank you again. This has been so nice. Thanks for sending me your book and for helping my little guy through his transition in the fall to school. Thank you.

Chioma: Thank you. Such a pleasure. I’m glad he liked it. I’m glad you liked it. It was great to be able to talk to you. Thanks for all the great work you’re doing with authors and just getting women to read more. It’s pretty amazing. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks. Buh-bye.