In this special weekend re-release, Zibby interviews lawyer and entrepreneur Meena Harris about Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea, a beautiful and empowering picture book about two sisters who work together with their community to make changes in their playground, inspired by a true story from the childhood of the author’s aunt, Vice President Kamala Harris!

“An inspirational reminder to choose courage over fear. A must-read for little girls around the world.” —Elizabeth Warren

“I love this book—the power of persistence and being bold is one of the most important lessons we can teach young people.” —Megan Rapinoe


Zibby Owens: I had so much fun talking to Meena Harris. Meena is the author of Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea which is based on her aunt and mom, Kamala and Maya Harris, who campaigned to change the playground outside their building when they were kids. Meena is the founder and CEO of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign. She is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School. We had the best time talking. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome, Meena. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Meena Harris: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. My kids and I loved your children’s book, so great, oh, my gosh. Not only do we like the children’s book, but I’m holding up — I know we’re on Skype and nobody else can see, but we filled out the Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea Big Book of Ideas as well, which they loved. Although, the big idea that my son wants to work on is that he thinks I boss him around too much.

Meena: Oh, my gosh, that’s too funny. His big idea is to get his mom to stop telling him what to do. Good luck with that.

Zibby: This is a picture of him looking very sad and me looking happy bossing him around.

Meena: That’s so funny.

Zibby: The tools he needs — because you ask in your thing, what tools do you need? He thinks that we need a magnifying glass to solve this problem.

Meena: That is so good. I love it. That’s super quarantine edition.

Zibby: Yes, exactly.

Meena: I have a big idea. How do I get my mom to leave me alone?

Zibby: I mean, I just told him it was lunchtime, but far be it from me to really boss him around him too much.

Meena: Oh, my gosh, that’s too much. Thank you for doing the activity book. I love that you guys did it. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to print out and to do with their kids. I love that you guys actually did it.

Zibby: We did it. We have the letter. I’m saving it forever, his letter to me. Actually, it was great. You have letters in there also for hospital and frontline workers, so I had my older daughter do those. We’re going to mail those later.

Meena: Awesome.

Zibby: Tell everybody what your book is about and also where they find the downloaded activity guide and all the rest.

Meena: I’ll start with, you can find everything at It’s all there. We just released the activity book a couple weeks ago just thinking about, the book is obviously not out yet, but what are ways that we can give something to parents to engage with their kids? I think everybody is looking for stuff. There’s not even enough stuff out there to occupy as long as you need. It’s all on the website. The book is about two sisters named Kamala and Maya. It’s actually based on a true story from the childhood of my mom, Maya, and Aunt Kamala. It’s a story that I heard growing up when I was a kid. It’s really about two sisters coming together leaning on their community to solve a problem. It’s very basic. It’s about persevering in the face of no. It’s about community organizing, leaning on your neighbors to make your community better, and being creative in problem-solving. I don’t want to give too much away. I know that you’ve already read it.

What’s amazing about it is through my women’s brand, Phenomenal Woman, I spent basically the last three years talking to adult women about this now era, this moment that we’re in post-2016, where I think many people have thought about, what can I do? How can I speak up? How can I make an impact in my own community? I always tell people that it’s just about starting somewhere no matter how small. That’s really what this story is about. It’s these two sisters noticing something in their apartment complex that they want to change. They decide to go for it and to pursue their big idea. They figure out, what are the tools that they need to make that happen? Similar to the activity book, where do you need help from? How do you get that help? How do you get creative when you have adults telling you you’re too small or it’s too expensive or you can’t do it? It’s a great story that all of us can learn from, adults and children. It’s also just about having two strong independent girls as main characters. Part of the inspiration for me not only was sort of memorializing this family story that inspired me when I was growing up for my own children and for kids all over, of course, but also feeling that there was a lack of interesting, fully developed characters that were girls, and girls of color, in kids’ books.

When I was a new mom, I was reading — this is now four years ago with my oldest. We were reading the classics and replacing he with she, sometimes coloring the skin color brown so they felt sort of that they could relate to it more. I think the classics are important and they’re wonderful. We were also lucky in that I became a new mom when there was this burst of feminist kids lit, the radical women, rebel girls. Those are really great and important. I think teaching that history is super important. I also kind of found myself at a certain point, I’m tired of reading lists of women in history. What about real fictional characters that children and girls can see themselves in and can imagine themselves in and just existing? It’s not about teaching history or something deeper that that. It’s just girls in the world doing awesome stuff, going after their big ideas. As basic as that sounds, as we know, there’s still a lot of room to grow in terms of representation in children’s literature. There’s still a lot more work to do even though there’s been some great stuff that’s come out even in the last two years. There’s some crazy statistic that I think in 2018 there were more books about main characters that were animals than black, LatinX, and indigenous characters combined.

Zibby: I don’t know what the story is with all these animal books. I do not care, not that I don’t love animals, but why? Why is everything about sheep and goats? I haven’t seen a sheep I don’t think in my whole life.

Meena: Right. We know that kids, they’re learning about animals for the first time. That’s great. You have all these board books that are learning. Exactly, that’s not my regular experience a sheep that I’m really trying to dig into that. There’s this young book activist, Marley Dias, who has this line about, it’s just like a white boy and his dog. Every book is a little white kid and a dog. It’s true. I was just looking at some new books that were coming out. Even if the full cast of characters is diverse, which is really great and really important — again, diversity just existing is important. Still, the main characters are often not children of color. They’re supporting characters. I think we’ve made a lot of progress. It’s important to applaud that, but also to think about how we can do better. One really important point to make too is that as much as I hope that this inspires girls, and girls of color, it’s not just for them. It’s important for boys to read this and to see this. It’s important for white children to see this and to see these powerful characters. It’s good for all of us. As I said, as a mom, I never had this on my roadmap or bucket list, to write a kids’ book. I never, ever, ever thought I would be doing this. It was really similar to my launching the women’s brand where it was just responding in that moment and feeling like I’m not seeing it and so I’m just going to go do it. I’m going to go put it out there. It’s been a really fun process. It’s really meaningful both in this broader commitment to what I want to see in children’s books, but then also of course the personal family story behind it too.

Zibby: That’s actually part of the reason I wrote that roundup for The Washington Post recently where I included your book because I noticed a whole slew of books with diverse characters as central protagonists, and I thought that was so cool. That was sort of the theme of all the books. At least there’s a new mini movement starting. I saw, also, on your website that you have the option for people to donate a book to We Need Diverse Voices. Is that what it’s called? We Need Diverse Books, which is so great and which I actually did.

Meena: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Why not give a book to someone in need who would prefer to have somebody that looks more like them in a book than not? Tell me about your work with that organization too.

Meena: We did a teacher giveaway that just ended yesterday. It was also in partnership with We Need Diverse Books. When we launched the book and announced it, we were receiving tons of requests from people saying, I’d love to have this in my classroom, librarians. It was really inspiring to see that people wanted it. Finally were able to put together a giveaway. Some of the messages that we received from teachers, just basic stuff, why diversity on bookshelves is important and why that matters for them in their classroom and their children was really super inspiring. We received a ton of entries. I wish I could give away unlimited books. We’re working towards doing that. The donate-a-book is a part of that, giving people an opportunity to actually donate books directly to children in need and to school districts. We Need Diverse Books is an organization that I’m actually — I think they’re been around for a while, but are really doing important work in terms of everything we’re talking about, promoting the fact that we need to have children’s literature that speaks to all children. Again, I want to make that point very clearly which is that it’s not just children’s literature for children of color. It’s diverse literature for all children. We all benefit from those stories. They are doing really great work. It’s been really fun partnering with them. I hope that we’ll be able to do more teacher giveaways. Since we did that, we’ve received requests from other institutions like children’s hospitals, especially right now with coronavirus, wanting to give children engaging activities who are hospitalized. We receive more requests than we can accommodate right now, but I really hope that we’ll be able to, through the donate-a-book initiative and maybe doing more giveaways, that we’ll get the book in more children’s hands.

Zibby: That’s fantastic. It’s really such a great — it’s just great. More people should do that. It’s awesome. Tell me more, if you don’t mind, about Phenomenal Woman and Phenomenal Girl.

Meena: Phenomenal Woman, I launched it in 2017 coming out of the presidential election. I think like a lot of people, woke up thinking, what just happened? More importantly, what can I do? How can I be more engaged? We saw this incredible surge of ordinary people saying, I’m going to stand up and I’m going to do something. It was my little contribution. I decided to make a T-shirt. I had another smaller T-shirt line that was really focused on women, female entrepreneurs. I was able to spin this up kind of quickly. It was for the Women’s March. I thought Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” is something that really spoke to me. Obviously with the Women’s March, I thought it could be something inspiring. I couldn’t make it myself because I had a newborn. I decided, how can I be a part of it? I put it on a T-shirt, sent a handful of shirts with friends to the march. It was super inspiring to see the images of them marching and on the Hill. They got tons of compliments. I thought, let’s do more. Let’s turn it into a fundraising campaign. We launched a campaign, it was supposed to be one month long, it was never supposed to be more than that, to raise money for women’s organizations through the month of March for Women’s History Month. I thought we would sell a couple hundred T-shirts. On the first day, we sold 2,500 shirts.

I could’ve said, at the end of the month, I’m going to go back to my regular life, but it just really took off. I felt like I couldn’t stop. How could we keep it going? It’s funny to look back because even in those early days, I had all these people saying, can you make a different color? Can you customize this? I’m like, no way. for that. I have a very good thing going. It’s basic gray T-shirt. Now here we are three and a half years later. We have dozens of styles. I never thought that it would grow as much as it did. I really, at the end of the day, approached it like an entrepreneur. How do you really keep it going and build and grow it? This book, likewise, was something that I didn’t intend on doing it. It very much grew out of the experience of talking to women and mothers and seeing people engaging in many ways we’ve never seen before, but also thinking about, how do I go beyond bringing my kid to the march? How do I really engage with them in a meaningful way around some of this stuff?

The real message is, again, that’s it’s really basic. It doesn’t have to be that you’re committing ten hours a week to be an activist. It can be something very small such as deciding that you’re going to gather all the kids in your neighborhood and do something good for your apartment complex or your community. In many ways, we saw that as well through — I think about all the moms that have really stood up for family separation. It was something that I think a lot of people, it struck them in a way where they said, I can’t sit by. I’m an ordinary person, but I have to do something about this. That coincided with the launch of Phenomenal Girl. I’ve been wanting to get that out for a really long time. This finally felt like the right moment to do it. We launched a Phenomenal Girl T-shirt along with the book. We actually have a whole preorder campaign with local bookstores around the country who, as we know, are really struggling right now to stay afloat. If you buy the book from one of those partners, you can get a free Phenomenal Girl T-shirt.

Zibby: And you have the amazing Phenomenal Mother T-shirt. I feel like I need to partner with you to give it away. I need to do something for the moms who follow. It’s so perfect. I know I’ll probably air this after Mother’s Day. As we record it, it’s before. I’m like, who can I give this shirt to?

Meena: I love gifting the shirts to other people. It’s such a small thing, but any friend that has a baby, I’m always gifting a Phenomenal Mother shirt. It just feels good to be recognized. Sometimes you need that reminder yourself. Some of the weeks where I feel like I’m not probably the most phenomenal mother are when I want to put it on and remind myself that that’s okay and I am phenomenal. Actually, we launched Phenomenal Mother as part of that effort around families at the border and around family separation, both to recognize all of the incredible moms who are stepping up and then also mothers who were impacted, who were risking everything to come here to the United States to create a better life for their children. It was one of the most inspiring campaigns. We partnered with Families Belong Together, which is doing critical work at the border. It was one of the most inspiring campaigns in that way where these are just ordinary people going about their lives, busy as everybody else, but said, I have to do something about this. I cannot go another day knowing that there are babies being ripped from their mother’s arms and that I hadn’t done something, anything about that. It was a really inspiring campaign, obviously perfect for Mother’s Day, which, as you mentioned, is coming up. We have had a lot of interest, especially where people are away from their mothers and are likely not going to be able to spend time together. It’s such a nice, meaningful but small thing that you can do.

Zibby: I actually, a long time ago, maybe two years ago — I guess not that long. About two years ago at a Mother’s Day brunch, I brought a girlfriend of mine this little mug that I found that said “You are a good mom.” That’s all it says in tiny little lowercase typewriter font. I was like, you know what, I might just buy one of these for myself. Now every so often, just like what you were saying with the shirt, I just need to pick up the mug and be like, you are a good mom. It is okay. Everything is okay.

Meena: reminder. Exactly, it’s that self-affirmation that we can all use on any given day, whether it’s Phenomenal Mother or Phenomenal Woman. I think that’s what’s cool about it. As much as it’s about the universal message that women are phenomenal, mothers are phenomenal, it has such significant meaning to individuals in any given moment on any given day. I’ve had people who wore it leaving the hospital after giving labor or going into labor or people that had a big deadline coming up and they just needed to pull an all-nighter and jam through it. It’s like armor. It just gives you that simple little reminder that helps you to keep going and to feel powerful and phenomenal.

Zibby: When are you going to run for president?

Meena: Oh, god. As you can imagine, people ask me that all the time.

Zibby: I bet.

Meena: I don’t know. I sort of say that in a joking way in that I don’t want to discourage women from running for office, obviously. I think it’s very important. I want to see more women and more moms do that. The other part of the message with Phenomenal is that you don’t have to do that. There are other ways that you can contribute. What I’ve learned on my journey is that it’s not how, at least right now, how I want to participate. I think that there are other ways that I can such as through something as small as a T-shirt or writing this kids’ book. I really believe that strongly. Especially with encouraging women and moms in particular to run, it’s not an easy thing to do. I think we do need to make it easier. We need to talk about it more. We need to normalize it, all that. I think we also need to have some real conversations about what it takes and what a huge risk it is and how hard it is on your family. It’s not just something that you wake up and you’re like, I’m going to go do this. It’s going to be totally right. It’s complicated. That’s my very long-winded, defensive answer about how I’m not running for office anytime soon.

Zibby: All right. Just had to get it out there. What about more children’s books? Do you plan to wait to — I feel like you’re very reactive to things that come up and you feel strongly about it. Are you going to wait for your next mission-driven project? Do you have one in mind already?

Meena: I know. I’ve been on this path where none of this stuff has been planned, and it’s working out okay. I think it’s part of that creative process of making space to allow yourself to be inspired and to react in these moments. I have ideas around how I could do more with it and this concept in particular around big ideas and, more to that, listening to girls and treating them as fully formed humans who are capable of saying yes and no and who are leaders. This is all really important stuff that we know, especially in terms of having boys read this and see this, is going to impact them later on in terms of how they treat women. Respecting women starts with respecting girls and treating them with admiration and seeing them as leaders. I absolutely want to do more. I don’t currently have another book in the pipeline, but I have tons of ideas. Part of it is similar to Phenomenal. It’s really about telling stories, and stories of underrepresented communities and individuals and getting them out into the mainstream and making them accessible to all people. I absolutely want to continue building on that, whether it’s through another kids’ book or something else. I’m certainly committed to it. I welcome that creativity to strike again. I’m excited to keep it going in some way.

Zibby: I think you should make PerSisters T-shirts. That was my favorite expression in the book. Then you could get sisters giving it to each other.

Meena: Exactly. I had a very particular experience of growing up as an only child, like a super only child. I had a single mom. My grandmother was effectively a single mom. I was the only kid surrounded by all these adults, and in particular these incredible women. People ask, did you wish you had a sibling? I’m like, not really. It was kind of awesome to be the center of attention as an only child. I have a, not fascination, but admiration for the bond between sisters because I saw that with my mom and aunt. Then now I have two little girls. That’s really special to me thinking about that parallel with my grandmother raising her two girls and now I’m doing that. Really, this book is about doing it in the way that my grandmother did as much as I can. I will never be able to emulate exactly what she did, but there’s so many incredible lessons in seeing how my grandmother raised them and me as well and wanting to really, again, remind myself of that so I keep pursuing it for my kids, but also share that with others.

It’s really about just showing up with that intention and committing to it. It’s not about going to a march or protesting every weekend, but just being thoughtful about how you talk to kids about showing up in the world that kind of purpose and wanting to make an impact and wanting to do good in the world, whether it’s in your community or your school or neighborhood. It’s really basic stuff. What I learned from my grandmother is that it really does have to sort of being injected into everything that you do and really be a constant, continuous reminder that we all have that responsibility. Parents are busy. To be clear, that’s a big task to do something with consistency as a parent. We’re multitasking and doing a lot. If you really do carry that with you, I think that there are extraordinary outcomes in terms of really building up your kids with that sensibility of wanting to do good in the world. I’m excited that I’m now able to share it with others, and through something so personal, but again, I think that anyone can relate to.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book. It was so nice chatting with you.

Meena: You too. Thanks for having me. Thanks for reading it. Thanks for doing the activity book. I’m so excited you guys did that and that you have a really amazing, funny story now that I hope you troll your — it’s your son, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Meena: In twenty years at graduation or wherever about his big idea was to figure out how to get his mom to stop bossing him around.

Zibby: There you go. It’s where all the big ideas come from, lunchtime. Thank you so much. I wish you all the best with the launch.

Meena: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Meena: Bye.



Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts