Mining for Heart: “Layering & Language- Moving Beyond Autobiography & Into the Universal” by Costantia Manoli

TOMATOES IN MY LUNCHBOX hit me right in the heart! It’s truly a special picture book. Here’s a post from author Costantia Manoli all the way from Cyprus in which she shares how she built this story. 

GIVEAWAY!Costantia Manoli headshot 2021 Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of the book!  

Layering and Language – Moving Beyond Autobiography and Into the Universal

by Costantia Manoli

‘Tomatoes in My Lunchbox’ is very much a story of the heart. Based on my own experiences (my mom did put tomatoes in my lunchbox and my name is difficult to pronounce), the story echoes moments and memories of my own childhood as well as issues I have dealt with my whole life.

It is also much more than that.

In writing this story I found myself mining not only my own experiences, but also those of my mother as an immigrant child, my children and their friendships and relationships, the students in my own classroom and so many other stories of feeling different and out of place. By layering experience over experience, I wanted to ensure that our main character and her story extended beyond autobiography and moved into the realms of the universal. I did not want to create a ‘mini-me’ – I wanted our main character to become a person of her own and one that anyone who has felt different in any way could relate to. That is also why she remains unnamed; she is me, she is you, she is the story of anyone who has ever felt out of place.

As storytellers we are advised to write what we know as it brings heart to a story. We are also told that the more specific our writing, the more universal it can become. This doesn’t necessarily mean that our writing should be a rigid retelling of the past. Rather, to me at least, this means tapping into what we know; perhaps turning those specific details into metaphors or symbols and drawing from them to get to what lies beneath – the essence, if you like. In ‘Tomatoes in My Lunchbox’, the specific reference to a tomato becomes a metaphor for home, for the familiar, for all things comforting.


Quick note: children understand figurative language brilliantly; while they are experiencing and learning the world around them for the first time, the young mind tends to map what is known over what is not known, this leads to an almost instant understanding of that new thing. Metaphors and similes are used quite naturally by young language learners and they are masters in both creating and understanding them!

The specific reference – now a symbol and/or metaphor – can then prompt questions and become conversation starters. They open up the story and become an opportunity to connect with others:

What food tastes like home for you?

Does your mom put unusual things in your lunchbox?

What’s your favorite color?

How did you make your first friend?

What are the things that make you feel different to others?

What’s the story behind your name?

it sounds like home

We may discover common ground; a shared favorite or an experience that directly links us to someone else. Or we may discover something new about each other; perhaps we might learn about a tradition or custom or type of food we’ve never even heard of before. Either way, we connect through what is at the core. We discover what we care about and what it is that makes us who we are.

TomatoesInMyLunchbox_coverWe are all unique and we have all felt different in some way at some point in our lives. That feeling of being different and our uniqueness are the very things that can connect on a human level. The point of connection is the real heart of a story – that is resonance. When we celebrate those differences, we are then able to reach out and connect with others. Sometimes that’s hard to do, especially when you’re in a new place. Sometimes though, all it takes is a smile… and maybe a shared tomato!

Don’t forget to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of TOMATOES IN MY LUNCHBOX. (Drawing 8/5/22. US addresses only, please.) We’d love to hear what food tastes like home to YOU! 

And…when you enjoy a book, please take a moment to support authors and illustrators by leaving a review with online booksellers.

25 thoughts on “Mining for Heart: “Layering & Language- Moving Beyond Autobiography & Into the Universal” by Costantia Manoli

  1. Thank you Costantia for such a heartfelt post. I can totally relate. And I’m looking forward to reading Tomatoes In My Lunchbox:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading about how this book came to be is just as enjoyable as reading the book itself, well done Costantia look forward to reading more of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This book sounds wonderful. I will definitely be recommending it to my friends with young children! Swedish pancakes, roll-ups, stollen, stewed tomatoes, …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved, loved the list of questions which immediately got me thinking about my first best friend, my forever favorite color, and more. Thank you for this thoughtful post and chance to win a copy. As far as food that tastes like home, rhubarb dipped in sugar is mine.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t wait to read TOMATOES IN MY LUNCHBOX! I love how Costantia shares the way she found universal themes and the heart in her story. Peach Cobbler makes me think of home. My mom made hers from scratch.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love hearing how other writers find the heart of their stories and then add layers that will speak to the universal experience. I have so many foods that speak to me of home, it’s hard to narrow down a single one. Thank you, Costantia, for sharing the backstory of your new book. It looks lovely!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s funny the little things we remember from childhood that end up shaping us and our future! I am sure the little Costantia feeling out of place with her whole tomato would be proud to see how that humble little veggie-fruit has become a symbol of home and belonging for children around the world who feel different thanks to this book.

    Liked by 1 person

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