WEST ORANGE, NJ — Tiberah Berhanu was talking to her brother about his citizenship application when she noticed that her son looked concerned.
The next day, when she asked why he was upset, he asked her if his uncle was an alien. Berhanu explained what they were talking about and then turned the conversation into a children’s book, titled “My Uncle Is an Alien,” that features recognizable West Orange locations.
“It’s about children’s imaginations and how far it can take them,” she said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Sept. 13.
Main Street is featured on the cover, and Kelly Elementary School, where Berhanu’s son Biruk just started third grade, is the main setting of the book. Two astronauts make cameos in an homage to the school’s most famous alumni and namesakes, former NASA astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly.
“I’ve lived in West Orange for five years now, and I love the town,” Berhanu said. “And there’s something magical about it, so I wanted to include it.”
The diversity of the West Orange School District is reflected in the illustrations, and Biruk’s second-grade teacher, Miji Lee, is represented in the book by a character named Mrs. Kind. Students didn’t spend a lot of time in the classroom in person last year, but Lee made a big enough impact to make a cameo in “My Uncle Is an Alien.”
“Teachers can make all the difference,” Berhanu said. “She was still able to motivate and inspire them. She hasn’t been here long, but she was amazing.”
The book is self-published; Berhanu did all of the work, from idea to physical product, herself. It was a six-month-long project; two months were reserved for copy editing. Self-publishing was the best way to go, so she could make sure it was actually published.
“I’ve always wanted to be a published author,” Berhanu said. “But working with a publisher can be expensive, and there’s always a chance it might not get picked to be published. I also wanted to own it all myself. But it’s exciting going from a PDF to holding a book.”
There was a learning curve for Berhanu. She’s still figuring out how to get the book in retail stores; right now it’s available only online. She also had to learn how to find an illustrator who could make the vision she had in her mind into a tangible object. She eventually hired artist Hailey McCall to illustrate the book.
“I found an illustrator on Upwork,” Berhanu said; Upwork is a website that connects people and organizations with freelancers. “I had a lot of ideas, and she was so flexible with me. There was a certain look that I wanted.”
McCall also worked with Berhanu on the packaging of the book, which was new for both of them. Normally, packaging the final draft and making the book is something that a publisher would do.
“We cut out the middleman with that,” Berhanu said. “So there was a learning curve for both of us.”
Berhanu’s son, who was the genesis of the idea for the book in the first place, has witnessed the whole process of the book’s creation, from beginning to end. According to Berhanu, he knows the story backward and forward.
“He’s read it so much that he can say the whole thing,” she said. “He’s seen the whole process. He says he wants to write his own book; he’s been writing a list of things his brother does that annoy him to make into a book. So I’m happy to help him with that.”
Berhanu also has lots of other ideas for her own writing. She maintains a blog on her website, where she interviewed Miji Lee for a post. Berhanu immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia when she was 6 years old and has an idea for a book about her experience going back to the East African country 20 years later.
“I have so many ideas,” Berhanu said. “Now that I know how to do it, I’m ready to work.”