This Children’s Book Author Spins Adversity into Gold

Dr. Tamara Pizzoli
Dr. Tamara Pizzoli pursues her creative passion to publish children’s books after an untimely loss taught her there’s no time to waste. Photo courtesy of James Maiki.

In Dr. Tamara Pizzoli’s self-published children’s books, fairies are also businesswomen (“Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO”), letters of the alphabet stand for strong female icons (“K is for Kahlo”) instead of boring old fruits, and familiar characters are reimagined (“The Ghanaian Goldilocks”). By retelling classic fairy tales and using familiar concepts like the alphabet, she introduces children to new cultures and stories in the hope it will encourage them to be open-minded. Her most recent book, “Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs,” is a collection of illustrated wise sayings from across the continent of Africa.

Dr. Pizzoli, a self-described “southern, Black, fiery” woman from Texas, spontaneously moved to Rome in 2007 as the result of an “over-dramatic reaction to a broken heart.” There, she faced considerable adversity, but also found the courage to pursue her creativity full-time like she had always dreamed. She converted The English Schoolhouse, a language school she owned, into a boutique publishing house, through which she also offers coaching and other services related to writing and book publishing.

K is for Kahlo by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli
In Dr. Tamara Pizzoli’s self-published children’s books, fairies are also businesswomen (“Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO”), letters of the alphabet stand for strong female icons (“K is for Kahlo”) instead of boring old fruits, and familiar characters are reimagined (“The Ghanaian Goldilocks”).

What draws you to children’s books and how did you get into publishing them?

Children’s books are the best because you don’t have to choose between words or art—you get the best of both worlds. And I’ve always had an affinity for storytelling and well-crafted stories. As far as publishing my own stories, that came out of necessity.

I used to own and operate a small language school in Rome called the English Schoolhouse. Then, in 2014, I unexpectedly lost my only sibling, my 39-year old sister Nefeterius Akeli McPherson, to cancer. Only eight days lingered between her diagnosis and her transition. It taught me there’s no time to waste and I lost interest in anything that didn’t really compel me or seem worth my energy, including my marriage. I closed the language school—not because I didn’t enjoy running it but because deep in my heart I really wanted to pursue other dreams full-time, like writing and other creative endeavors. In short, losing her provided me with clarity of thought and action, plus fearlessness I’d never experienced prior to that type of pain.

 
“I didn’t want to wait for anyone else’s approval or endorsement, so I didn’t.”
 

I started giving myself permission to thrive, and to create relentlessly and referring to myself as ‘creative.’ This was a big step for someone like me.

I didn’t want to wait for anyone else’s approval or endorsement, so I didn’t. I negotiated a book deal with MacMillan myself and signed it without a literary agent. God is my agent.

How have you grown personally and as an entrepreneur as you’ve grown your business?

I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve as much anymore, personally or professionally. I’m learning to focus on aligning myself energetically with what I want and to gracefully let go of what causes friction or discord. I don’t care how many people like my posts on social media or how many followers I have—I remember when I first started out I thought that was important. It’s not. Now, if I share something, it’s because I truly feel it’s worthy of being shared. I trust my gut more—these past four years have taught me I have a good gut. We all do.

It’s refreshing, liberating and satisfying to do whatever the hell you want and think is a good idea—that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship.

 
“Let me just say that nothing will make you a womanist like getting divorced with children in Italy.”
 

I don’t want to give the impression that the path I’m on has been a walk in the park. A wise man named Don Folden once told me adversity guards the door to success, and, oh, how the last four years have proven those words to be true. A mom of four, with my Italian ex-husband and with my American partner who moved to Rome a couple of years ago, I ended up in a custody battle abroad. Let me just say that nothing will make you a womanist like getting divorced with children in Italy and the Trump administration. However, the tough times and learning how to navigate them really have polished me into a person who’s adept at spinning gold … in my daily affirmations I refer to myself as an artistic alchemist. All of our experiences, each and every one, are necessary for our growth and evolution. If only we could learn to look at the poo in our lives as fertilizer.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ignored?

To understand the difference between making good stuff and monetizing. My mentor Tom Kirkhart used to listen to my dozens of bright ideas and then he’d tell me to pick the thing that’s gonna give me the most play, and focus on that. I haven’t done that. I do what I feel like when I feel like it. That hasn’t been the most profitable approach perhaps, but who knows? I believe in divine right timing. Just because something doesn’t take off immediately doesn’t mean the takeoff isn’t imminent. Another piece of advice that I didn’t listen to was to get rid of the a**holes. I’m better at that now.

 
“My philosophy really is that adversity guards the door to success. There must be a reason for the challenge and I try to find the unexpected benefit of it or create one.”
 

What’s the change you want to see in your space?

A million dollars or more this year.

How do you leverage your influence and leadership to create a wider movement of change?

I do it by providing children’s quality literature and gorgeous imagery that reflects who they are. I believe all children deserve to see themselves in stories and imagery. And children’s books are particularly powerful agents of change because the lessons and morals they impart reach not only the child but the adults who read to them as well. Accessibility is important. That’s why most books are also available as audiobooks on YouTube.

Tell us about your latest book, “Jewels from Our Ancestors: A Book of African Proverbs.”

It is a short, illustrated literary collection of words of wisdom from the continent of Africa. The book honors the elders who have come before us and gifted us with sensible sayings that compel both readers and listeners to reflect, learn and grow. I chose Jamilla Okubo, a mixed-media artist, illustrator, and surface pattern designer with Kenyan, Caribbean, and Black American roots, to illustrate it. Her bold illustrations and patterns capture the magic of each proverb magnificently. We had such a fantastic time creating “Jewels from Our Ancestors” that we’ve already begun working on a sequel, which is a collection of African-American proverbs. It’s important for me to share just a few of the countless wise gems that the African continent holds with as many readers as possible.

What’s your philosophy on dealing with challenges?

My philosophy really is that adversity guards the door to success. There must be a reason for the challenge and I try to find the unexpected benefit of it or create one. An example: recently a photographer from L.A. scammed me out of a significant amount of money, not to mention lost time. She had been a guest in my home, ate my home-cooked food, my mom even sewed the holes in her clothes—so when I realized she wasn’t who she appeared to be, I was livid. In response, I immediately started writing a story called “The Empress’s New Clothes,” which metaphorically related what she did to me. I immediately sold art based on the story for approximately $10,000 even though it hasn’t been painted yet. If she hadn’t scammed me, I would not have written the story and the forthcoming art would never exist. I believe when there’s pain, it gets you to pay attention. And you can transform the pain into profit—whether it’s spiritual, emotional, financial, creative, or all of the above. That’s alchemy. It’s also a gift that the story will be shared; hopefully, it will help others avoid the mistake of trusting someone with a broken moral compass.

What’s your next big move?

I’m collaborating with Elena Tommasi Ferroni, the master Italian painter who taught me painting in Rome, to create an anthology of reimagined classic fairy tales like The Princess and the Pea, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Red Riding Hood, but with diverse characters and storylines. We are launching a Kickstarter campaign later this month and would love your support when the time comes.