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How and Why We Started this Site and Why We Chose Our Name

This is a collective discussion we had about how we met and why we started this blog. More information about our mission and us as individuals can be found on our About Us and Bios pages.

Ariana: I started off as a children’s librarian part-time in a small public library system in California and then went full-time in DC. And in both systems, one with 26 branches, there was no one looked like me. In California, there were no other Muslims in the system, and in DC there were two Muslim paraprofessionals that I knew and self-identified as Muslim, but no other librarians or administrators.

I went to library school knowing that there wouldn’t be many people that looked like me, and it was important to me to be part of the profession because of that. There were also students that I thought might be Muslim or have a Muslim background, but they never said so much as hello, so there wasn’t any kind of community. When in classes I saw some book lists and resources about Muslims, so I thought eventually I would meet more in public libraries, and saw information about some online, in other countries, but did not meet any here in the states. After library school, I met some academic librarians that were Muslim, but few, if any, in public libraries and none in children’s and young adult services.

I met Sara through Anna Coats, my co-chair in an APALA committee and an Emerging Leader in the same class as Sara. I met Hadeal through my local library and Mahasin found me through Twitter and the we here Facebook group for librarians of color. Hadeal and I had been talking about resources about Muslims in Children’s Literature, given the different resources available for diverse reading along with trying to create a Muslim Librarians Association. I really wanted to do this work with other librarians in this community to find books that are about us, that are written by Muslims, but it didn’t exist in a professional capacity.

Sara: I had a similar experience where in library school and at conferences there was no one that wore hijab. I felt like I was the elephant in the room because was no one like me. I think my daily work and our work here is important in terms of representation and advocacy in the profession to let people know that we are here and they can be here too.

Hadeal: Same for me. I was the only Muslim in my program and I only met Ariana through my work, Sara through Ariana and now Mahasin. And really, you are the only Muslim librarians I know. And I do feel like other librarians are trying to do good, and create multicultural resources, but I want to represent me. I want to have a voice in my own representation, and that of my greater community, and I think this project is a great start. It is important to me to showcase our pathway and professional to others – especially children. In my old system, people were curious about what we did, beyond working with books, and I was able to talk to them about why children would frequently visit and enjoy their time at the library. The Muslim community around me knew about many of the resources that were available through the library, but being in libraries allowed me to spread more knowledge about the profession.

Mahasin: I was excited to see Ariana in the We Here group on Facebook. I am African American and there are not a lot of African Americans in librarianship, but I had another friend who was African American and in a mom’s group with me in Atlanta. She became my mentor and encouraged me to become a librarian. Now I am in a librarian in Oakland. I am fortunate to have supportive colleagues in my system.

Oakland had an incident with a Muslim student in the adult literacy program being harassed on the steps of the main library and there was an effort to put up signs in the library and the city to showcase that everyone is welcome here. I have Muslim colleagues, in fact, three of the library aides that work in my unit are Muslim, but I am the only librarian. But I still do have support. It’s nice that we are all fasting together. But I don’t have a professional space, so this was definitely on my to-do list, trying to seek out others. I feel that this connection was divinely placed in my lap. I’m here wanting to have a space for us for our own voices to speak up about how we are represented in literature.

Ariana: That is amazing that there are other Muslims in your workplace, and of course that is something we also want to help support. There are a lot of Muslims in “support roles” in the library and we want to form an association, but part of that is having resources for those who might be interested in being in librarianship as a career.

Mahasin: I’m always trying to encourage everyone, but especially people of color and Muslims, to join the filed. I know some other students who are already doing amazing work, and I want to be there for others like people were there for me.

Ariana: We try to encourage others in the field, but seeing children and youth in literature is can make a huge impact and can help encourage children in many ways. I know that for many Muslim families having non-Islamic books, especially literature, is not important. And while there may be several factors that contribute to that, part of that is because they don’t see themselves in the pages. There may be one aspect of someone’s identity, they may be Southeast Asian, South Asian, etcetera- and THAT is rare enough, but to have Muslims depicted, and then to see ourselves depicted in a positive way is rarer still.

The sad thing is, at least from my experience, is that children’s literature is probably the place where we will see the most positive depictions of Muslims. If you look in Hoopla, Overdrive or any library catalog for the search term Islam, half will be titles that I might actually be interested in and the other half are written by Islamophobes or just polemics, by people who have a certain bent.

ALA DID invite a known Islamophobe to the annual conference when I was in library school and my reaction was shock. What did that gesture show me about my presence in the field? It was an indicator of how unwelcome I would be, and through the justification of intellectual freedom and “creating a balanced narrative”, my colleagues would be showing me the door. So I feel like moving forward we have to create our own space for our voices to be heard.

Mahasin: I wanted to add that my experience is that I was a daughter of converts who became Muslim in the light of African American liberation. And they were very conscious about the kinds of books they brought into our home. My earliest memories are of my father reading books, nonfiction books about the water cycle to me – I think he may be over now that I am not in STEM or a doctor! Still, they were not going to get books with images of children who did not look like us or those that would be racist or damaging. There was no Dr. Seuss in our house. My parents grumbled about many things that people are just now starting to recognize. So they made the effort to have the characters in books reflect what we looked like, our day to day life and aspects of family life. I am really excited for my kids because now there is more out there for them than what I had when I was growing up.

Hadeal: I really like what you said about creating our own space. I’m sure that conversations have been started in many pockets of ALA, but moving forward and starting something is exciting and I feel like it can lead to bigger conversations and goals. But I also want to reach the Muslim community, who know about libraries but may not recognize the importance of books in the home and I wonder why that is.

Ariana: We all know the terms of mirrors, windows and sliding doors, and that importance of work in diversity and affinity. There is a lot we can do going forward, looking at books from the past as well, where we can talk about whose gaze it is and who a book is for. And I do think that there is a lot of discussions to be had there.

 

On how we picked our name:

 

Ariana: So we have had quite a bit of discussion about this, because initially when Sara, Hadeal and I had talked about naming conventions we thought about using something like uncovered or unveiled, something along those lines that was tongue-in-cheek funny, taking ownership of a label but also about books. But when setting up social media accounts I was looking for something pithy for accounts and the actual site address and grabbed “hijabi librarians” as a placeholder, but it was intended to be temporary. When Mahasin came on board we had a really in-depth conversation about the term hijab, the encompassing meaning behind it, and not identifying as a hijabi.

Mahasin: So, I cover my hair and grew up with the concept of modesty, especially after coming of age, however, I did not grow up with the language of hijab. I grew up with the language of headscarf, and others in my African American community used the term khimar. I think that’s because I grew up in the community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, where language was really deliberate, precise and important. He taught that “Words make people” and that concept stayed with me. The conversations that we had growing up we always referred to the ayah (verse of the Qur’an) that used the word “khimar.” Conversations about the headscarf were as a piece of cloth and headdress, not a partition and not a curtain (as hijab means in Arabic). We talked about the uniqueness of the position of the Prophet’s wives and the etiquette in approaching them and the necessity of hijab, as discussed in the Qur’an as a protection specifically and uniquely for them.

I never have referred to myself as a muhajaba or hijabi, and it is a sort of a political act for me not to use the term. I don’t mean to be offensive in saying this. I have strong feelings about the word hijab as it’s used as a way to place an extra burden on women than what is asked by Allah. So although I understand the general concept of why the word is used, it is not a stance that I take and I will rarely use the word. It is interesting for me to have conversations with women who have similar views as me; we recognize that with the rise of Islamophobia, the headscarf has taken off as a symbol and token of diversity, especially in liberal spaces – where a lot of books and images that you see are of women wearing a scarf – having a person of African descent, a Latino, someone Asian, we know that they are going to be included and also, now, a Muslim woman in a headscarf is there! The term has become part of the general lexicon and it’s what people know. I would not say that I am anti-hijab in terms of terminology and use, but if asked, I will clarify why I don’t use that label. But I am supportive of our use of the term for now and I get it, but that’s where I am.

A few years back, University of Michigan professor and founder of Sapelo Square, Dr. Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, spearheaded a community poem entitled, “Elegy for the Khimar”, which laments the fading use of the term “khimar” for “hijab.”

Ariana: Thank you for the thorough explanation of your personal position. I think it encompasses a lot of the conversation and frustration that many Muslim women may have about the term hijab. As you were talking I was wondering when hijab became this collective term as an identifier marker. For me growing up, I never thought I was ever going to cover. My understanding was that it was something that was observed by the Prophet’s wives. In Malaysia and Indonesia, you hear tudung, kerudung, which I guess means to cover so it is synonymous with hijab, but they didn’t use that word. Funny, actually that heard from relatives, when did you start wearing jilbab which, from my Muslim student community, I understood to be a long-overcoat. And I told them that I didn’t use jilbab, sometimes an abaya, but they specifically meant the headscarf.

Hadeal: I grew up with the word mandeel, which means scarf, but I think I started using the word hijab when I would say mandeel and people didn’t know what that was. They would ask, “isn’t it called a hajeeb?” and I would answer back that it was a hijab.

Mahasin: I feel like at some point in my 20s that everyone started calling it a hijab. I did grow up in a mostly African American community, but then with more Arab and Pakistani Muslims, and I don’t remember exactly when, but it was not the preferred term in the late 80s.

Ariana: Do you think it may have to do with 9/11?

Mahasin: Maybe. But I think we discussed it in college, and that was before 9/11 for me. But, I don’t know.

Sara: Growing up for me, we called the scarf a tarha, but if someone asked us, we said hijab. For me hijab meant that I covered my hair, I wore long sleeved shirts and a long skirt or long pants. It was all encompassing, not just something on my head. But now if someone asks, “are you a hijabi?” then I answer, “oh yes, I wear the scarf.”

Hadeal: For us tarha was the bridal piece. Like you would see a bride’s headscarf and say, “the bride’s tarha is beautiful.” To me when we said scarf, it was very generic. But it is more than a scarf, like anyone can wear a scarf in winter, but the term headscarf, to me also wasn’t quite right. If people asked me what it was, I would say that it was a scarf I wrapped around my hair or my head. I just didn’t feel right. But really, sometimes anything is better, I once had a person call it a towel.

Mahasin, Ariana and Sara: Yup. Yes.

Ariana: Have we been called towelheads? Oh yeah.

Sara: Pillowcase. Everything.

Ariana: At one library I worked at, I had a patron refer to me as the white woman with a towel on her head, which, okay, no to the towel. But really, in what universe am I considered white? That was strange to me. More information on us and how we identify can be found on our bios page.

So when we talk about hijab and why we decided to keep the name “hijabi librarians” rather than go back to uncovered or unveiled, we also had a larger conversation about Orientalism, othering, or fetishization instead of empowerment or really reclaiming a term. We also talked about the idea of hijabi librarians as not being an inclusive term, but that if necessary, we will revisit it in the future.

Mahasin: I am laughing at the idea of us one day being known as “the site formerly known as hijabi librarians” ala Prince. I do feel like it is an evolving conversation, but that us taking the term and “capitalizing” on the recognition to create space for our own voices is deliberately powerful, but if we feel later that we have made or point or find something better, then perhaps at that time, we will change our moniker.

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Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan

Kaadan, Nadine. Tomorrow. Picture Book. Lantana Pub, 09/2018. 32 pp. $17.99. 978-1911373438. (RECOMMENDED). Ages 4-7.

Image result for tomorrow by nadine kaadan

When I first heard about Tomorrow I was very excited to read it. Not many books written in picture book format bring alive what a child is feeling while their country is at war. The story follows Yazan a young boy from the country of Syria. All Yazan wants to do is to go to the park and play with his friends. Unfortunately, he is no longer allowed outside, not even to go to school. When his family wants to go out his father makes a lot of phone calls first, when Yazan asks why, his father claims “Traffic! We’re trying to avoid the traffic.” Even his mother, who used to paint and let Yazan paint with her no longer does that. She sits in front of the television all day and watches the news very loudly.

Yazan tries to keep himself occupied by making paper airplanes, drawing and building castles out of pillows. But even that is not enough to stop him from wanting to go play outside. When his parents ignore his request to go out, he decides to take matters into his own hands, grabs his shiny red bike and heads out. However, what he finds is nothing is as it once was, the streets are deserted and nothing seems familiar. His father finds him and takes him back home where his mother scolds him and tells him to never do that again. She then brightens his day by telling him they will paint again and brings a park to his bedroom walls.

Image result for tomorrow by nadine kaadan

Yazan brings the story to life through her illustrations which are dark and gloomy as the book goes on. This is done to depict the mood of Yazan who is desperate to go out and have fun. There are two illustrations in the book that are bright and happy; the first is when Yazan remembers when his mother used to paint, and the second is at the end of the book when his mother picks up her paintbrush again to paint his room.

Kaadan also adds a note at the end of the story, which notes how her own experience seeing the children in her hometown of Damascus, not understand why their lives were changing, only that they were. Tomorrow is a gentle but somber depiction of the current condition of children in Syria. While Kaadan does not bring the war and devastation to the pages, she brings the everyday life of these Syrian children who no longer go to parks, play with friends or go to school. This would be an enlightening story to read with a child in order to begin to explain what is happening in Syria and to teach sympathy and understanding from the eyes of a child. While this story does not depict or mentions Muslims in anyway, after a little digging with the child, they will learn that Syria is a predominantly Muslim country.

Posted in Reviews

Guest Review: Jamal’s Journey by Michael Foreman

 

The Adventures of King RolloForeman, Michael, Jamal’s Journey, illustrated by the author. Picture Book. Andersen Press. 4/2017. 32 pp. $17.99. 978-1512439496. (NOT RECOMMENDED). Preschool to Grade 2. (Bedouin)

On its way to what appears to be an international market in Dubai, a Bedouin camel train consisting of only three camels crosses the desert. Each camel carries a few rolled-up rugs and a driver who holds a masked falcon. Behind one of the drivers is a young boy. Together, this load seems hardly worth a trip across the desert.

Trotting behind his “mama” and “baba” is a camel calf named “Jamal.” He is the focus of the story. “Jamaal” or “Jamal” is the Arabic word for “beauty.” It’s a boy’s name, but it’s not a camel’s name. In Arabic culture, according to an article in the Gulf News General, camels are named for their ages and are assigned different names each year:

For example, a one-year-old camel is called “Hewar” while a two-year-old camel is called “Fateem.” The name keeps changing and the camel is known as “Haj” at three years of age. The other names for the subsequent ages are “Liggi” (four years old), “Yethea” (five years old) and “Thani” (six years old). A male camel that is six years old can also be called “Baeer” while a female camel of the same age can also be known as “Nagah.”

I can’t imagine why Foreman gave this camel calf a human name, nor why he (the calf, not the author) would be calling to his parents in Arabic, rather than in the language of camels. (Baby camels call their mothers with a “baaa,” like a lamb. And they don’t call their fathers.)

“Jamal” is trailing further and further behind. “Jamal” is getting tired. “But Jamal is a little camel,” Foreman writes, “and camels have to walk, walk, walk.”

No: Camels are very, very well cared for, and pregnant camels and calves do not travel with caravans—they stay back and are cared for by farmers.

Suddenly, there is a sandstorm. Sand is “whooshing and whirling in the wild wind!” Jamal has “sand in his eyes. Sand in his nose. Sand in his ears….sand in his mouth.”

Nope: Camels have three sets of eyelids and two sets of eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes. They shut their nostrils when sand blows in their faces, so they do not get sand in their noses. And, as would any other animals (including humans), camels shut their mouths to keep sand out.

“He turns his back to the howling wind, making himself as small as possible.” Jamal is lost. Fortunately, he meets a falcon, who guides him towards “a great city,” and beyond that, “the shining sea!” As the falcon “is whirling and looping in the air with the other falcons,” Jamal reunites with his camel parents (and the human boy, sort of):

Together they all set off toward the faraway city. Jamal stays close to Mama and Baba, and the boy walks beside him: he doesn’t want his camel to get lost ever again.

They get to the market, where Jamal finds that “the world is more than just sand.”

On the final page is an illustration of the future. Jamal (the camel) and his rider, the nameless boy, are traversing the desert:

Jamal will walk, walk, walk, far and wide, from gleaming cities to shining seas. And he will always take his friendly falcon along, just in case they get lost.

The cultural and economic reality is that camel calves are far too valuable to lose. For people who live in the desert, camels are a major source of survival—without these animals, they would die. Camels are financially valuable as well. They may be given to a bride as her dowry, they may be given as Zakat (a gift to charity as a religious requirement during Ramadan), and they are sometimes used in lieu money. Some of the hadiths—the set of teaching stories and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad* that remain a source for religious law and practice—feature camels.

On the CIP page, a short note from Foreman that tells how this story came to be appears to be the sum total of his research:

And when I discovered the word for “beauty” in Arabic is jamaal, the root of which means “camel,” a story began to form in my mind.

Jamal’s Journey is all about a camel calf. This camel calf has a name, while none of the humans is named. The animals have wide eyes and expressive faces, while the humans have virtually no faces. They look the same. They dress the same. And there is only one woman—a tiny figure in the background of one illustration.

This is all about a camel calf. The camel calf gets left behind. The camel calf gets lonely. The camel calf gets tired. The camel calf gets caught in a storm. The camel calf gets reunited with his parents.

Jamal’s Journey might as well have been about a colt who jumps the fence on a horse ranch in Montana. It’s obvious to me that this book was produced to garner “diversity” points.

That a camel calf would be portrayed as trotting alone behind a Bedouin camel train, getting swept up in a dust storm, and finding his way back (guided only by a falcon)—or that Bedouin riders would abandon, lose, or forget about a camel calf—is nothing but a bunch of stereotypes of the peoples whose lives depend on camels.

Non-Arab or non-Muslim children reading Jamal’s Journey will learn nothing real, and Arab or Muslim children will once again be disparaged in the classroom or library.

—Beverly Slapin

Salaam and thank you to my friend, Nasira Abdul-Aleem.

About our guest reviewer: Beverly Slapin is a long-time education activist and lifelong learner. As co-founder and former executive director of Oyate, Beverly co-edited Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. She is currently the editor of De Colores, a blog modeled after Broken Flute, and reviews and critiques children’s and young adult books about Raza peoples throughout the Diaspora. 

* Muslims usually follow the name of a prophet with a salawat – a salutation or greeting. This often takes the form of “ʿalayhi s-salām (عليه السلام),” meaning “peace be upon him,” (often abbreviated to “PBUH”) or the fuller “ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa- ala ālihi wa-sallam (صلى الله عليه وعلى آله وسلم‎),” meaning, “may the blessings of God be upon him and his family and peace” (often times abbreviated to “SAW” or “SAWS”).  

Posted in Reviews

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

aisha-saeed-amal-unbound-collage

Saeed, Aisha. Amal Unbound. Middle Grade Fiction. Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin , 05/2018. 240 pp. $17.99. 978-0399544682. (RECOMMENDED). Ages 10-12.

I acquired this book during a library conference. When I sat down to read the book, I had no idea what was in store for me. Unlike most people, I rarely read the back/inside cover of a book before starting it. All I knew about the book was that 1) the author was Muslim, 2) the character was a Pakistani Muslim, 3) it was a kid’s book and 4) the cover was GORGEOUS.

Amal Unbound is a middle grade novel which focuses on Amal, the oldest of four girls. She loves school and wants to become a teacher when she grows up. However, with her mother due any day now, Amal is told to stay home to help out. One day, while running errands for her family, she ticks off the village’s wealthiest landlord and finds herself a new servant in his household.

Aisha Saeed, author of ‘Written in the Stars’, weaves a realistic story through the voice of Amal of what could happen to a young girl from a small village in modern day Pakistan. She meets different servants in the household, those she enjoys being around and those looking to make trouble for her. She even teaches one of the younger girls her alphabets. Trouble begins to stir in the household both for Amal and the wealthy landlord. While Amal begins to wonder if her debt will ever be paid off so she can go home she continues to hang on to the hope of one day finding her way out of her situation and finds her escape in studying.

While Saeed does not touch on the Muslim religion at all, she does, however minimally, bring in different aspects of Pakistani culture and how life for girls can be in Pakistan’s smaller villages. The cultural aspect becomes glaringly obvious when Amal’s father tells her that it is her duty as the eldest to stay home from school and help out even though she is only 12 years of age. As the eldest she is often reminded that it is her duty to look after her younger sisters and the needs of the family come before her own. Amal’s village is divided into two classes: high class, which is held by one man who reigns terror over the village and controls the police and lower class, the rest of the village. Saeed also touches on the cultural aspects of traditional clothing and wedding festivities.

I was able to get through the book in a couple of hours. The book itself was a pretty fast-paced read as things pick up the further along you get. This would be would be a great book for realistic readers looking for a hint of mystery and drama while learning some societal and cultural things about the country of Pakistan.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Rukhsana Khan

Rukhsana Khan is a children’s author and storyteller. She has written many books 
some of which are published by Lee & Low, Viking, and Scholastic Inc. Her
rkcolourhqpicture book Big Red Lollipop was awarded Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text in 2011. Rukhsana lives in Toronto with her husband and family. You can find out more about Ruhksana on her website or following her on Youtube or Twitter.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain.

1. If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
I am a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim woman.

2. On your website, you talk about books in your childhood being an escape from what was going on in your world, like bullying and other issues. What books resonated with you at that time? In times of difficulty, what books do you escape to now?
There are so many books that I escaped to when I was young! My favorites were: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Mara, Daughter of the Nile. In times of difficulty I still love to read Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, The Blue Castle, Mara, Daughter of the Nile and Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.

3. When did you decide you didn’t just want to be a reader, but also wanted to write? What inspired you to become a writer? Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family when you decided to pursue writing?
These questions are answered in other interviews I’ve given but I’ll try to summarize. 

It was my grade eight teacher who first said that I was a writer. I’d handed in my creative writing journal and he wrote me an encouraging note. Up till that point in time I never even thought that writing could be an occupation. I come from a very non-literary background.

Books were so important to me, they literally saved my life during all the years that I was being bullied, I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to grow up and write the kind of books I loved to read, that might give other kids hope.

Initially I received encouragement from my family, but there came a time when that sort of collapsed. A close family member told me flat out, “You’ll never get published! Look at the way you dress!” and when I relayed that message to other family members they agreed that it was against all odds. This was actually at a time when I had already received my first acceptance and was waiting for my first book to be published. So I just sat on the news. When the book was published the same family member who’d expressed doubt was one of the most proud of my accomplishments.

Now my family is quite proud of me, although there can be a bit of a resentful undertone to their pride.

More info:

http://biography.jrank.org/pages/1942/Khan-Rukhsana-1962.html

4. What books have made the largest impact on the kinds of books you write or want to write?
Probably the historical fiction I loved. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about the Salem Witch Trials. I love books that delve into other cultural ways of thinking.

5. In one of your author talks you mention your family moving to Canada to give you more opportunities, why did they choose Canada?
My father stood on the road in London outside the U.S. and Canadian embassies. The U.S. embassy had a statue of an eagle that looked ready to pounce. The Canadian embassy had a leaf on its flag. My dad chose Canada.

6. You are a prominent pioneer in writing mainstream published books that feature Muslim characters, and you’ve mentioned it took 8 years to publish your first book. Can you talk about your experiences, and touch upon what it was like as a Muslim female in the publishing industry at the time?
It’s been a fascinating journey. At times I’ve been told that I got published because of my ethnicity! That I was ‘flavor of the month’ and sometimes those kinds of comments can hurt but for the most part I don’t take them seriously. I try to remind myself that it’s not about me. It’s about the story. I want to share stories that shake me to my core and that will shake the reader to their core, open up their minds, make them see things from a different perspective. Sometimes I write the stories in a palatable enough way that they become published. Other times I flap around like a fish out of water struggling to convey what I’m trying to say. It’s a very frustrating field. I’ve always had fits and starts in my publishing career. There was a time, many years in fact, when I never went without a book coming out. At the moment I do have a book coming out, but getting to that point when there was nothing coming down the pike was very scary. This is a very precarious industry. It’s easy to feel irrelevant. But I’ve been working hard on a number of stories and am hopeful that I can work them into something the world might want to read.

7. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity. As a child, do you remember wanting books with characters that looked like you?
Hmm, this is hard. As a kid I don’t think I found any books where I really ‘saw’ myself in the literature. I identified totally with Anne in Anne of Green Gables up until I read a later book in her series where L.M. Montgomery described ‘those heathen Mohammedans’ and I realized she was talking about me! I was furious. Every once in a while there would be passing hostile references that jarred me so totally. I started searching for my identity in books about ‘brown’ people. I gravitated to books about Native Indians and Black people. I remember reading a book called North to Freedom about the Underground Railroad that really moved me because I learned that it had been illegal for Black people to learn how to read. That made me all the more determined to read. And I read the horribly racist book Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw too. I didn’t realize it was racist! But I did like the fact that he was a spiritual person. Mara, in Mara, Daughter of the Nile was everything I wanted to be! Beautiful, witty, bright, clever and she lived an adventurous life as a double agent in ancient Egypt! The first book that I really and truly identified with was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I absolutely LOVED that book! It inspired me! I wanted books with characters that looked like me, of course! But really it was more about the story!

8. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change?
There’s been a number of excellent books about Muslims that have emerged and a number of not so good books too. I’m so glad that so many Muslims are getting published, sharing their stories, illustrating how dynamic and diverse the Muslim community is. There’s also been *ahem* a LOT of books about jinns and that literally scares me. I completely understand the temptation of writing about them. They make great literary devices! But I’m of the somewhat old fashioned camp that believes that these kinds of unseen forces are best not meddled with. I’ve got my literary feet firmly planted in reality.

9. Of your books, which is your favorite? Which book do you think resonates with your community most? With children?

Hands down my favorite book of mine is WANTING MOR. I do believe it resonates with my community, but not as much as BIG RED LOLLIPOP. That is my most famous book! Audiences from 3-83 laugh at Big Red Lollipop!

10. Have you had to edit or make changes in your books?  Do you feel like Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include specifics about Muslims or Muslim communities in their narratives?

Yes! Absolutely! I try to write truth uncensored but it seems as though even the truth must be written in a ‘palatable’ way–a manner that feeds into established norms and customs.

11. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
Oh gosh! So many! There’s Mommy’s Khimar, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Saints and Misfits, Ayesha at Last…in fact why don’t I just direct you to my Muslim Booklist. These are all books I’ve reviewed and approve of. It’s woefully out of date though, a lot of the newer books haven’t been added yet because there’s just so many of them! 

12. What are you working on next?

I’m working on a bunch of projects! There’s a historical novel set in 1788-1829. I’m writing a graphic memoir. I’ve got picture book ideas as well circulating!

13. You were recently part of the Muslimah Writers Online Summit, helping Muslim women through the writing process and getting published. What are other ways to help support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?

I think the best way to help Muslim authors, agents, editors and librarians is to BUY BOOKS! There will be no Muslim literature if Muslims don’t buy books and unfortunately many Muslim parents (and other parents as well) have ceased valuing books enough to create libraries for their children. They’ll plunk down fifty, sixty dollars on the latest video game but they won’t put down their hard earned money on a book that can actually last a lot longer. (I have books that I bought for my kids that I am now reading to my grandkids! Good books last a VERY long time!!!)

By creating a demand for them, publishers and the publishing industry will produce them. It’s as simple as that.

14. We have talked about you being one of the first Muslim authors in children’s books. What has it looked like from your perspective seeing more Muslim voices entering the field? Does it look like what you had hoped for? What do you hope it looks like for Muslims in the coming years?

I am both thrilled and at times alarmed by all the Muslim voices entering the field. I have seen novels designed to capitalize on the curiosity behind Ramadan where a girl starts fasting because she wants to lose weight to look good in a bikini. I’m not kidding. There is a book out there about that!  

Muslims don’t realize that the books they write can do just as much damage as good! They can spread a lot of misinformation! And that worries me.

Now of course the Muslim world is not a monolithic entity. But there are many people getting published solely because they can tick off the Muslim box. I call them ‘career’ Muslims. Basically they’re capitalizing on their Muslim identity to make a quick buck.

I don’t mean to be judgmental, but if you look at Islam as a cultural phenom, an ‘identity’ or hashtag and you want to create a ‘rah rah cis boom bah We are Muslims! Yay!’ kind of book, well I find that incredibly crass and disgusting.

I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that being Muslim isn’t intrinsically better than being any other religion. And in fact religion itself is just a set of ideas and dogmas. People will apply those ideas in various ways. Islam at its essence is a set of ideas. Islam is basically the idea of attaining peace through submission to the will of God! And Muslims will apply those ideas to a varying and largely inconsistent and even at times hypocritical degree.

I would like the Muslim stories to be about more than just ‘identity’. I mean who really cares if a person is Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Jew or whatever?

The stories need to be deeper than that!

Muslims are people, like any other group, and all people need to be judged on an individual basis.

I find the human condition fascinating! And I’d love to see more stories that delve into the intricacies of human nature and our capacity for good and evil, hypocrisy and altruism and the character will approach all that differently depending on their faith or lack of it.

15. How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims? Have you seen an impact already in both of these areas?
I have always wanted my work to add to the conversation, to the grand human discourse of ideas! That might sound pompous but I don’t mean it to, I really am serious. If your book doesn’t say something of benefit to the understanding of the human condition I mean, really, why bother? I’d like to show that Muslims are human–that’s important because right now we are being vilified by an industry that pours lots of money trying to prove we don’t deserve to live. So if my stories can alter that perception by showing our humanity, and making someone identify with a story about a Muslim, even if it’s a girl whose little sister swipes her lollipop, then that’s good! I find all my stories have to have a deeper message or *gasp* a moral to them. It’s just the way I’m wired.

I have seen an impact in that all kinds of kids have enjoyed my books.

16. How did you decide to write for youth (audience) and what is your main message to them? Are there any word of winsome that you would like to pass on to young writers? 
I’ve always found young audiences the most open-minded. And I’m really, really worried about them! Because kids are being buffeted with all types of propaganda in the guise of literature these days and I think it will be detrimental in the long run. My main message to young audiences is QUESTION EVERYTHING! Be your own devil’s advocate! Try to see the other side of the story! Don’t take anything for granted! Keep your mind open and collect all kinds of data, listen to those you disagree with–you will need to find a way to get along with them in the world too. Some people are write-offs. They’re not interested in getting along, but the vast majority of the people can be reasoned with! Listen to what motivates them. Find the common ground–there is always common ground! And try to think of ways where everybody gets what they want–real win-win situations. I fear the rigidity in people’s attitudes that is happening these days.

17. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
I love to laugh! I know I must sound like I’m a very serious person, but I can also be a very silly person! I will crack up like a four year old if you tell me a good fart joke! And I don’t just read literature! I read EVERYTHING and ANYTHING! I like humor and I like things that make me think. And I’m always CURIOUS! I want to figure things out and even though I keep trying, I know I probably never will really really get things figured out, but isn’t it fun to try?

18. Most of your books have been illustrated by non-Muslim illustrators. How did you work with them and your editors to make sure that cultural depictions were accurate and sensitive?
Most of my illustrators were chosen by the publisher. I had very little say about them. One author I admire a great deal said it’s important to step back once you’ve written a picture book and allow the illustrator to do their part without interference. Picture books are collaborations! I liken them to a relay race where the story is the baton. The author runs the first lap with the baton, hands it over to the illustrator who does their lap and then the illustrator hands it over to the publisher to take it from there! I don’t tell the illustrator and publisher how to run their lap and they don’t tell me how to run mine. But together we can win the race. In terms of cultural depictions I always had the chance to give input to make sure things are accurate.

19. Reading in King for a Day, it seems the dynamic would be different if he were not in a wheelchair. Was it a deliberate choice to feature Malik using a wheelchair?  
Oh, absolutely it was a deliberate choice to feature Malik in a wheelchair! To me it’s the whole point of the book! Here’s this boy who is viewed as incapacitated in many ways, and yet he’s the BEST king! He’s got all the best qualities of any ruler! I talk about this in my book talk tutorial about this book here.

20. Many of your books feature familial relationships and a problem that needs to be solved. How do you choose a conflict and weave the story around it?
Often I just start writing and the story takes me there. So much of writing is an unconscious unplanned process, at least for me. I might have some general idea of the themes I’m trying to explore but for the most part, I just see where the characters take me. I’m sorry, I know that sounds weird but it really is the way it works. Whenever I try to ‘plan’ the journey too hard the story comes out forced and stilted.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author and Illustrator Interview: Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly

closeupSaadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. The Yasmin early reader series, published by Capstone, is her first foray into children’s books. She is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. She resides in Houston, TX with her husband and children. You can find out more about Saadia on her website or by following her on Twitter.

i-aly_hatem

Hatem Aly is an Egyptian-born illustrator whose work spans editorial cartooning, animation, book and magazine illustrations worldwide. He currently lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with his wife, son, and many pets. The Inquisitor’s Tale, written by Adam Gidwitz and illustrated by Aly, was a 2017 Newbery Honor and winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. You can find out more about Hatem and view many of his beautiful illustrations on his website or following him on Twitter or Instagram.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

Questions for Both Saadia and Hatem:

  1. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
    Saadia: I think I only began to see myself in books when I immigrated to the U.S. and began reading some of the newer Muslim American or South Asian American writers like Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Khaled Hossaini (A Thousand Splendid Suns). I remember reading Minaret by Leila Aboulela and having an indescribable realization that Muslim stories could be written, and sold, and read, and even perhaps gain accolades. It was a life changing book for me in many respects, one that pushed me onto the journey of fiction writing. 
    Hatem: I have been living in Canada since only my late 20s so it is difficult to answer this question immediately without feeling I’m trying too hard to say something about it. I can’t remember the first time I saw myself in literature! In many occasions I find myself relating to characters that have so little in common with me but perhaps we share an emotional or mental point of view.
  2. What books are you reading now? What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    Saadia: I read a lot of children’s books these days because I’m writing in that space currently. I’ve got two books waiting for me in August: Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram and Here to Stay by Sara Farizan, both of which are YA and both of which deal with first generation cultural/identity issues. 
    Hatem: I am reading several books that I need to finish! Some are in Arabic but on my (In English) “to read soon” list are two books by Khaled Hosseini “A Thousand splendid suns” & “ And the Mountains echoed”, Also, “Black Milk” by Elif Shafak and “Saints and Misfits” by S.K. Ali.
  3. How did the two of you get paired together to make this book? Is this the first of many collaborations?
    Saadia: When I signed the contract with Capstone for the Yasmin series I was very much aware that this would be a milestone series. It is the first early reader series in mainstream publishing with a Muslim main character, written by a Muslim author, so I really wanted the illustrator to be from a similar background. I made my wishes known to my editor and they were able to find Hatem. I really admire his work and hope we will collaborate on many other titles in the future!
    Hatem: Book making goes through several stages. One of these stages is finding an illustrator to do the artwork for the book. So when I was approached through my agent to Saadia’s work I was delighted and started drawing the characters immediately. I do believe and hope this won’t be the only collaboration between us.
  4. How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims?
    Saadia: I think the Yasmin series in particular is going to have a tremendous impact on the Muslim American community or even on Muslims in other western countries. Our children need to be seen as normal, everyday kids rather than “the other” or “the minority” and books like Meet Yasmin! which show Muslim kids doing normal everyday things at home and in school will help immensely. This series will also impact how others see Muslim children and families. We’ve shown Yasmin having a loving, supportive family atmosphere, and we show the inside of Yasmin’s house and her challenges at school. All these are little hints that will hopefully help normalize Muslims in the eyes of their peers. Readers who don’t know Muslims will be able to understand how similar we are to everyone else. 
    Hatem: I think it’s important for children to see themselves represented as someone working their way dealing with normal life and being themselves without playing a role. A character that is curious and sometimes gets into trouble or makes mistakes and find a way around it with a creatively sweet way. The Muslim community will hopefully be pleased to see a Muslim family that they can relate to and that their children can enjoy and find themselves and their family members in it.
    My hope is a bit counter-intuitive yet a bit ambitious . I would like the impact to be subtle almost forgetting they are reading a book about a Muslim family and just enjoy it! If Yasmin makes it to the heart of people and made them happy to see her on shelves or when a new book comes out that would make the best remedy to any misconceptions.
  5. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, illustrators, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?
    Saadia: Read books by Muslim authors. If you can’t afford to buy books, suggest them to your public library and allow the community to benefit. Suggest books like Meet Yasmin! to other parents, or to the teacher at your child’s school. If you’re on social media, follow those authors and share their book news, support them in any way you can.
    Hatem: The best way to support any book is to read it and if you like it to express that and encourage people to read it. Include it in schools, libraries, bookstores and events that celebrate books. Show the love and give voice.

Questions for Saadia:

    1. Your body of work includes many articles on Pakistan, interfaith work, Muslim identity, and the intersections therein as well as being editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret. Was your family always supportive of your writing endeavors? We have read a bit about why you started to write fiction but can you tell us a bit about how you decided to write an early reader book for children?
      I only started writing and doing interfaith work after my marriage. It was a direct reaction to 9/11 and a feeling of powerlessness about seeing my community suffer for no fault of our own. My husband has always been very supportive of my work, he loves telling others about it, sharing my articles like a proud husband would!
      I decided to turn to children’s books, specifically an early reader series, because my own children didn’t have any books they could relate to. My daughter especially, was having a hard time identifying with a lot of her reading material, so I did a lot of research and realized that what she needed – books about Muslim families like hers, or about South Asian American children like she is – didn’t even exist in traditional publishing. So I decided to write something that would help her, and other children like her.

  1. Are Yasmin and her family based off of anyone in your life? How did you decide which everyday stories to tell? How important was it to you to feature a girl character? Do you have plans to continue the Meet Yasmin series or introduce other characters?
    Yasmin is based on my daughter, and many of the stories have been taken from instances in her life. There’s a lot of my daughter’s personality in Yasmin, but she’s also her own character with a life of her own. I remember in the early stages of the illustration process, when my design editor asked me for input on the characters, I basically described my daughter to Hatem and he used it as a starting point to draw Yasmin. It wasn’t a planned out decision to feature a girl character, that just happened because I tend to write more females in all my fiction. And yes, Yasmin is a series so we will be seeing more stories soon!
  2. What is something that you felt that you absolutely wanted or needed to include in this book? What elements did you want to show in this book of a South Asian Muslim family?
    I wanted to make sure brown kids in general identified with this series, not only Muslim kids. There are a lot of cultural similarities in many immigrant communities, so I wanted to make sure those were included in a way that was authentic and helpful. Some of these included Yasmin being part of a multigenerational family, so there is a grandmother and grandfather who are a very big part of her life. Another aspect was a mother who wore hijab, and since that is such a misunderstood concept we made sure Mama is drawn without a hijab inside the house, and with it outside.
  3. You were born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. When did you come to the United States? What were some of the books that you read in childhood? Did these books primarily feature Muslim and South Asian characters? If not, where were those characters from? Did this affect what you wanted to see in children’s literature in the U.S.?
    I came to the U.S. in my early twenties, so my ideas about books were already formed by then. I grew up in Pakistan as an English reader, and only had access to British writers. As a child I read a lot of Enid Blyton, with characters who were blonde and blue-eyed, who had tea and scones every day. It was very interesting and strange, but also created this sort of inferiority complex where I wanted to copy those people rather than be my own person. As I grew older, I found other authors, but even in stories about India, such as The Far Pavilians, I couldn’t identify with the plot or any of the characters because it was so far removed from my reality. British writers in particular have a very colonial bent when it comes to books about the subcontinent, and it really left a bad taste in my mouth without understanding why. As a writer in the United States, I decided I wanted to stay away from many of these ideas and write fiction that would fit into my own cultural background.
  4. Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young writers? What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    Read all the time, read anything you can get your hands on, but be such regulars at your local library that they know you by name! Start writing early in life, even if it’s just a private journal or short stories. Practice makes perfect in the case of most things, and writing is no different. I struggled in my early years as a writer because I didn’t have anybody in my life to bounce ideas off of, or give me advice. I really blossomed as a writer once I found that community, and even though it’s online it’s been tremendously helpful. So make sure you find your community of writers and stick to them like family.

Questions for Hatem:

  1. You have done a variety artwork ranging from editorial cartoons, to graphic novels, to animation. How did you decide to illustrate for children?
    It seems like I’ve always liked visual storytelling without even knowing it.I could say, in addition of the love of books,  it’s a tendency to tell a story through a visual form that attracts me to children’s books. It wasn’t so much of a conscious decision to break into illustrating books but it came to me naturally and was fed by great admiration to artists that have made wonderful books that I have enjoyed, by paying homage to my own childhood and by me being a father to an amazing boy! Also I didn’t grow up that much…I just grow old.Explorer image
  2. What was your favorite scene to illustrate in Meet Yasmin? What scene did you find most difficult to create?
    I like it when I draw a scene in which Yasmin shows some attitude. When you can tell something is going on in her mind and I try to make the scene serve what she is feeling at the moment. As for difficult scenes, hmmm, illustrating is a form of problem solving so there is always a challenge! But I could choose maybe a couple of scenes in FASHIONISTA  since I found that I needed to have a better sense of clothing and accessories In this one which I’m not great at.
  3. Your resume is extremely extensive and spans countries and regions. How has your experience differed from location to location? When it comes to your artwork, have you found the experience changes because of the location (appeals and audience) or because of the material? What is universal?
    It really depends! Within the same region, some experiences include very local references, culture or humor or difficult to translate and some were more universal. There are sometimes limitations like dress codes or a need to research something I am not so familiar with but I have to keep in mind these factors and work the best out of it. The appeal could differ if there is a specific reason, sometimes reasonable and other times unexpected. I once had to fix the way I drew some animals because their legs were too thin and cartoonish, but that was only the superficial reason, the real reason I was told was that the publisher found this could give an impression that the animals are mistreated or not well fed. I didn’t see that coming!  It’s always nice to work on something that provokes emotions, thoughts, and that tells a good story. When that is portrayed visually in a good way then I am satisfied.
  4. In the relationship between an author and illustrator and their collective work, it is the job of the illustrator to interpret the author’s words and create a visual representation. How much of yourself (your characteristics and quirks) can you bring into the work? How does this differ by who/where the author is and who they are writing for?
    There is no escape from bringing yourself into the work. Sometimes it’s subtle and other times it is distinct and all what’s in between. It is not calculated but think of it as close to turning a story into a movie or a poem to a song or a song into a music video only in a book form like a woven thing out of words and pictures. And that applies more with picture books.  It depends on what type of book it is, the writing style and sometimes just intuition that a certain visual would work best for a book. For example, When Yasmin enters her parents’ closet the text accompanying was : “It was like a rainbow swirling around the room” ..I took that and came up with what would that look/feel like to Yasmin and the result was what you see in the book!
  5. Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young artists? What is something that you would like your fans to know about you?
    One important thing that artists could benefit from is to know they will never stop learning or to get inspired. Keep learning and make experiences inspire you to show what you got without waiting too long until you are “ready”. As for me, I still have a lot to learn and explore!

Follow Saadia and Hatem on their Blog Tour for Meet Yasmin!

Posted in Reviews

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

Nelson, Colleen. Sadia. Dundurn., 02/2018. 240 pp. $12.99. 978-1459740297. (ADDITIONAL PURCHASE). 10+

Sadia came out in February of this year, just after the formal release of young adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty, following controversyin fall of 2017. Much of the conversation around American Heart had to do with a white savior narrative, white gaze and lens, and reduction of a character of color to a device in order to enlighten and give complexity to a white character. This is all apart from giving an accurate depiction of Islam and of an Iranian woman. I cannot comment on the novel, given that I have not yet read it, but it is in our queue. Public opinion and reviews by other Muslim readers haven’t encouraged me to put it high on our list.

Sadia coverEnter Sadia. I asked a Muslim author if she had read this book yet, and we talked a bit about American Heart, white gaze and who should tell our stories. We talked about own voices; we talked about colonized minds and internalized racism and what happens when an “own voice” becomes a voice that oppresses. Sadia is a book by a white, Canadian author, Colleen Nelson, who is a teacher librarian in an elementary school. She has also worked with refugees.

Nelson reflects a bit in her blog about why she decided to write Sadia and what it meant for her to try to publish a book that was not an own voice. It is disappointing to see that she was worried that her book would not get published because more ownvoice/diverse authors are publishing books. Ultimately she did it for her students to be able to see themselves and to fill a void in her library, and hopes that there are many more published stories by Muslim writers in the future.   

In the novel, fifteen-year-old Sadia has lived in Winnipeg for the last three years. Her family left Syria, shortly before the war. Though she has had time to acclimate to her life in Canada, high school means even more confusing changes.

Particularly jarring for Sadia is the behavior of her best friend Mariam, whose family relocated to Canada after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mariam has been Sadia’s best friend from the first day they met. They even started wearing hijab around the same time.  But this year is different. Mariam “de-jabs,” taking off her hijab during school, and putting it back on at the end of the day before going home. Mariam has also been distant, and her behavior has Sadia questioning the entirety of their friendship, which is made more complicated by her own friendship with Josh, Mariam’s crush.

Josh and Sadia are also trying out for the school’s co-ed basketball team, which Sadia desperately wants to be on. When Sadia makes the team her skill and passion is obvious, but playing basketball with hijab is more difficult than she had thought. Its especially disconcerting when she finds out that she may not be able to play in regulation games with it on.

Sadia is asked to help a new student acclimate to high school, Amira, whose family has recently relocated to Canada from Syria, under entirely different circumstances from her family. Thinking about the circumstances of Amira’s family fleeing Syria make her uncomfortable and the ideas Amira has about growing up Muslim in Canada have Sadia questioning her identity and how much she has already given up.

As someone who wears a headscarf on a daily basis, and has dealt with every day travails of scarf slippage and the like, I can identify with Sadia’s headscarf issues, but mostly I felt irritated with how hijab was given an impish, quirky quality where the Sadia cannot “take a jump shot without the bottom of the scarf flying in my face,” (p. 25).  or where her arm catches her hijab and falls into her eyes (p.23), or where Sadia has no peripheral vision (p. 26).

Mostly, I wondered (with consternation) why athletic Sadia didn’t have an Al-Amira hijab, often considered training scarves for beginner hijabis and ideal for athletic activities. Another reviewer pointed out that access may be an issue, so I give them props for taking that into consideration. Though not always true, it is a significant plot device that will give non-Muslim and non-scarf wearing readers a window into what someone who wears a headscarf may have to deal with. And though we have seen many women compete in sporting events over the years wearing hijab, it was only last year that International Basketball Federation (FIBA) overturned a ban on head coverings. If you want to learn more about a young Muslimah basketball player, watch this video about Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, teaching Muslim girls how to play basketball.

There an omission in the text, where Sadia refers to her grandmother as Teta (p. 38) and then on the following page uses the word Sitta. Both are correct, and sometimes used interchangeably (according to Hadeal and Sara), but without context, readers may be confused. Some of the turn of phrase is awkward as well. On page 78, Sadia says, “I could feel a blush spreading under my hijab.” I’m not sure why Nelson does not say, “I could feel a blush spreading across my face,” instead, as Sadia doesn’t cover her face. I took issue with the idea of Sadia and Amira never having touched snow (p. 48), when it does snow in Syria though infrequently, it is unlikely that both have never touched it. At the end of the book, a student exhibit has a silver collection plate used to collect donations from attendees. This collecting funds is compared to the concept of zakat, a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation, one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be more accurate to compare this to giving to sadaqah, or voluntary charity.

There are many times in the book where the relationship between Sadia, Mariam and Amira on occasion, is reduced to hijab. Some of that is oversimplification and equating Islam with hijab, some of this looks familiar to reactions to “de-jabbing” in the Muslim community, and some general adolescent issues, where one could substitute hijab for any other thing that might drive a wedge in a friendship. The two also have a conversation about being judgemental and hypocritical. A positive is that problems between Sadia and Mariam are also solved by them, there is no intervention by a white character, or a male character. Nelson captures growth and adolescence well, with characters pushing against boundaries, though these boundaries feel much younger than high school.

Headscarves and Hardbacks blogger, Nadia, points out that the framing of hijab and forced modesty is problematic in the book, because ultimately parents are forcing head scarves on their daughters and daughters cannot be modest without one. A conversation about hijab occurs in class where Mariam says, “It’s a hijab, a head covering. A woman’s hair must be covered, according the Qur’an.” Then, when the student questions why she doesn’t wear one she says, “it’s a personal choice” (p. 107-108). Though this is a reality for some Muslim girls and a majority of Muslim scholars, having all characters define hijab this way, as a required heading covering at all times, is oversimplified.

Sadia and Mariam also feel discomfort and guilt in interacting with Amira and realizing that they have had privilege in their relocation, coming to Canada as non-refugees. Sadia’s familial conversations about Syria are inconsistent. They talk about helping relocated Syrians early in the text, but when the family discusses those unable to leave, Sadia’s brother Aazim says, “It’s a war. That’s what happens. Innocent people suffer.” This struck me as rather callous. Similarly Mariam does not seem to reflect much on leaving after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both families are not particularly proactive until the end of the book.  

Nelson does capture some issues well. There are Islamophobic experiences that involve Sadia and her mother, one involving stares on the bus and another with a woman that tells Sadia’s mother, if she “wanted to stay in Canada, I should be Canadian and stop dressing like a terrorist.” Sadia reflects on if students in her class might feel the same way. There is also some self-realization in the book, where Carmina, Sadia’s Filipino-Canadian friend, wants to create a graphic novel featuring a Filipino character because she hates that there aren’t books with characters who look like her. Mariam wants to be both Muslim and Canadian, and while one should be able to be both, this sentiment captures the feelings that many Muslims have over having to choose identities and what that means in terms of cultural loss and normalization of “western values.”  

Overall Sadia’s teammates feel genuine and have depth, even if on occasion they are used as devices. Alan is given depth with the revelation that his brother Cody has cerebral palsy. Nelson also has placed a male Muslim character on Sadia’s basketball team, but there is no interaction between the two of them. His primary function being to be on the basketball team and to tell Josh that there was no hope for him in being allowed to date Sadia.  Despite the sports trope, with the opposing team depicted as unsportsmanlike racists, it is moving to see Sadia’s team and the spectators cheer for her and advocate for her to play, on top of Sadia and her parents separately advocating for her religious rights as a Canadian citizen.

So what is my overall verdict for this book? There is definitely a didactic and educator positive feeling to this book, promoting the idea that a really good teacher can have the power to foster empathy, create nuanced conversations and give students agency. Teachers are also presented as people who make mistakes. Yet, this book has its own mistakes and I still struggle to see, between a Muslim and non-Muslim reader, whose gaze is most important. Sadia gives non-Muslim readers a glimpse into the lives of several Arab Muslim characters with a level of complexity to their personalities. It allows Muslim readers to see a few pieces of themselves, with some amount of accuracy, though I do wonder if any Syrian Muslim readers vetted this book prior to publication.  

I would argue that the tone of the book, and the level of conflict make the book feel younger than a typical YA book, and could have been targeted to younger readers. Still, it is a solid entry point for readers who want a basketball-playing, hijab-wearing protagonist in a coming of age story because, as far as we know, those don’t exist yet. Are there better books about Muslim identity by Muslim authors? Yes. If you do add this book to your collection, don’t let this narrative be the only one your readers will get.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Ndaa Hassan

Image result for ndaa hassanNdaa Hassan is the author of Ramadan Around the World, a self-published picture book that looks at how Muslim children around the world celebrate Ramadan. Working closely with editor, Minha Kauser and illustrator, Azra Momin, Ndaa aimed to depict Muslim children of various nationalities, children with specific disabilities, and differing family structures, performing a variety of common actions during Ramadan, from prayer to charity.  An entrepreneur and designer, Ndaa partially funded the publication of Ramadan Around the World through Launch Good, a Muslim crowdfunding site that aims to be a global source for good. You can find out more about Ndaa, her projects and her thoughts by following her on Twitter and Instagram.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

For more an introduction on disability terminology and more resources please visit Disability in Kidlit.

  1. If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
    I am a Texas born and raised Muslim! I also have a very deep connection with my Egyptian roots, which I owe to my parents. I live in Texas with my husband and three little monkeys of children (laughs). They keep us very busy and they are the source of inspiration behind much of my work! I wrote this book for them. Something that will hopefully live beyond my years on this earth.
  2. You said on your Launch Good page that you “couldn’t find much on the diversity of people and cultural celebrations (of Ramadan) across countries and continents.” How did you go about selecting the countries in the book?
    Because the idea of this book was focused on diversity and traveling, it was important that we truly include countries from all continents. During my early days of research for the book, I would Google Ramadan celebrations across the world and the top few links would pull up celebrations from countries with large Muslim population. As festive as many of the celebrations were, if I really wanted this book to establish a purpose, I had to include countries that didn’t really identify as Muslim majority countries with smaller Muslim populations of whom many are converts. I worked closely with book editor Minha to ensure that the book truly does encompass a selection of ethnicities and skin colors representing the beautiful tapestry of our Ummah. We went through countless back and forth edits, presented to community leaders and sample readers from all walks of life reviewing the content to ensure this was properly done.
  3. You state that one of your objectives in Ramadan Around the World was to showcase diversity and to be inclusive, of four disabled children. What kind of impact do you think that this can have in the Muslim community and in the non-Muslim community? Why did you choose to represent the children that you did?
    The response that I have received from parents seeing their kids or even some of them seeing themselves represented in the book has been phenomenal. I received responses from parents who were brought to tears when coming across the specific countries that included children with various abilities. Even siblings of children with various abilities identified with the characters and were beyond happy about it.
    My background is in marketing and creative design and through leading various marketing efforts at nonprofits, I came across a lot of work that dealt with Muslims of various abilities within our community. I was involved in helping some of these organizations cater to their needs and spread the word about their efforts. This really opened my eyes to a whole other part of our community that was simply not represented and, unfortunately, forgotten. This is changing now Alhamdulillah all thanks to these wonderful organizations building awareness and emphasizing inclusion in our community.
    Children of various abilities are very much a part of the fabric of this community and just like any other child, they have every right to see themselves in children’s literature. Not only that, but it is important for other children to know what these various abilities mean because they will most likely have classmates representative of different abilities. So if my child were to see another child wearing a hearing aid or talking about diabetes, it’s important that they know what that is or at the very least be able to know the right thing to say.
    Because this is such a sensitive topic, I worked closely with parents and children represented in this book to double and triple check that the wording that was used was appropriate. Many of the characters in this book are based off of real characters which makes the book that much more relatable.
  4. Another of your objectives that you stated was that you wanted to book to be accessible for non-Muslims and Muslims. What were some of the challenges that you faced writing for these different audiences? What elements did you have to consider when thinking about what people might or might not already know? What do you hope that the takeaway is for each audience?
    This book was, of course, written for both Muslim and non-Muslim readers with the ultimate goal of going beyond Muslim families to public libraries and schools libraries along with other mainstream educational outlets. I’m sure many can relate to the fact that we grew up where during Christmas in school, books like Christmas around the world or Hanukkah around the world were read to us but until this day, there has never been a book that talks about the beauty of how various cultures celebrate Ramadan around the world. This was critical. This is critical for my kids and future generations because I want them to be proud of their faith, their roots, and to be able to speak about it and have it spoken of within the classes. What other way than a beautifully illustrated children’s book can help fulfill this goal?
    To do this, I had to put myself in the audience shoes and switch back and forth between between a Muslim reader and non-Muslim reader mentality. So I had to continuously ask myself, if I was a non-Muslim reading this, would I be able to follow along with the conversation, understand the vocab, and be able to explain it. This was especially important to keep in mind for non-Muslim educators who might be using the book for their classes. There is a glossary placed in the book and the website also is a great resource for more information about Ramadan and tools and resources for educators to use.
    From this, I hope that more community members take lead in being involved and contribute to this fabric of the community we live in. If we want to be heard, we have to put in time, effort and contributions.
  5. You also talk about showcasing different family structures, but unlike the spreads with children with disabilities, where their impairment is explicitly stated, the family structure is left vague. Did you do this deliberately so that children with different family structures could see themselves? Do you feel like it is explicit, especially in the spreads with Amin in Malaysia and Gabriela in Australia?
    Most definitely! It was vital to include families of different structures with grandparents and single parents to show that “hey, we see you and know you exist” and to make sure the children understand that their family structure is just as much a part of our community.
    It was not explicitly mentioned because similar to skin colors, some thing do not have to be clearly mentioned. Children are VERY smart beings (laughs) and those who identify with something in the book will know it and feel it. Children who are raised by their grandparents, for example, will make special note of that scene in the US where Ali and Asya are decorating the house with the grandparents and making cookies.
  6. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
    To be completely honest, there was never a point where I found myself in a story or gave a reaction similar to what I see my children give now once they see a character who they can relate to or a scene they see themselves in. The Internet wasn’t what it is today so our only resource for books that could possibly show any character similar to us would be a book fair at the local masjid but that also barely happened at that time and contained mostly books for adults. The other resource would have been books from overseas whenever someone happens to visit and grab a few for us.
  7. This is your first book and it is a self-published book that you worked on closely with your editor and illustrator. Could you explain a little more about the process you went through to publish your book?
    A whole ton of research (laughs). I also tapped into my network to reach out to anyone and everyone that could be of help.
    Our work really is a community effort. When we rise, we rise as a community and the more resources and tools that we have for children, the better grounded they are from any toxins.
    After writing a draft of the book, I asked around for suggestions on illustrators who can help bring the idea to life. Because my background is creative design and marketing, I had a great network of creative friends who helped me find Azra. I saw her work and immediately fell in love with it and really saw my book through her work.
    When it came to publishing specifically, I had a specific idea in mind of what I wanted the book to look like and the dimensions and the overall design and this helped narrow down the publishing options. I also received some guidance from pioneers of children literature such as Saadia Faruqi, author of Meet Yasmin, and Omar Khawaja, author of the Ilyas and Duck series.
    Another core element to absolutely perfecting the book had to be bringing onboard the wonderful book editor Minha Kauser. Her contribution was absolutely vital to giving the book a high quality finish. Minha is an educator, mother, traveler and active community member which made her contributions to the book a blessing!
    There are definitely a lot of ups and downs in the publishing process. This has been such a learning journey for me and I’m excited to work on all the glitches I came across this year to continue to improve on my work and production.
  8. Who are some of the authors, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and what are some titles that have had the most influence on you and your work?
    Two books that I continue to read over and over again are The Productive Muslim by Mohammad Faris as well as A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. They shape how I approach much of my work and how I teach my children to approach problem-solving.
    In the children’s literature arena, along with the Ilyas and Duck series, I especially loved Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzalez and, of course, all of Hena Khan‘s children books. The list of wonderful authors goes on and on and includes leaders like Reem Faruqi, Naima B. Robert, and Asmaa Hussein. They really helped develop Muslim children’s literature into a beautiful tapestry highlighting diversity, faith and culture.
  9. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change?
    I am very proud of what is happening in the Muslim children’s literature world right now. As much as we have suffered some low-quality books that are not fit for our ummah (community), this is changing drastically and we’re seeing a rise of talented writers and illustrators taking this industry by storm. They all share a common goal, and that is to bring more diversity to children’s literature and produce content that our own children can read and be proud of who they are and where they come from.
  10. What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader?
    I can’t tell you how many times I teared up reading emails, feedback, and reviews Readers have sent to me. The most rewarding comments were those telling me how they and their children saw themselves in the characters in the book.Here is a sample review received from one of my readers:“I know the value fiction can have in empowering and exciting people when they see themselves reflected in story lines.  As Muslims, it is a needed tool both for our own children and for teaching other children about us. So, imagine my surprise when I felt my back straighten up and a smile stain my face for a long while after I finished reading this beautiful book about Ramadan traditions all over the world.  Not because it showed so many beautiful Muslims from rich colorful backgrounds sharing the common bond of loving Allah in Ramadan, that was expected. Nor was it for the diversity of skin tones, and cultures, and ages, and head coverings, throughout. No, it was because there are characters with autism, and one that is hearing impaired, one in a wheelchair, and a little girl with diabetes who cannot eat all the candy, just a few.  I didn’t realize how strong that notion hit me. Me, an adult, a type 1 diabetic since I was 11, there in print, in a book about Muslims. Yes, I may have had tears, I might still as I write this review. It is powerful people, to see yourself in a fictional character, at any age. May Allah swt (subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “May He be glorified and exalted) reward all the authors out there writing books for our children to feel proud of who they are, one beautiful page at a time. You are making a difference.”Also, I received wonderful feedback from non-Muslim readers and educators expressing their love and appreciation for the diversity represented in the book and how it was the perfect material for their classrooms.
    I am very blessed to say that the best and most successful marketing efforts for this book were done through word-of-mouth. When you have amazing, loyal readers, what better marketing can you ask for?
  11. What was your favorite book as a child? As an adult have you reassessed this?
    Oh, I just looooved all of Eric Carle’s books and I have to admit that even as an adult now, I find so much inspiration in his illustrations and writings.
  12. What are you reading now?
    I am actually re-reading Waren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question.
    Much of the ideas generated through this book came about from my reading of this book and I want to go back and reflect on the ideas and how I can continue to improve on my writing and creativity.
    Also, I recently picked up on this new parenting book called The Danish Way of Parenting.
  13. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I must say, that would have to be mostly children’s book. I have a slight obsession with collecting high quality Muslim children’s books.
  14. What are you working on next?
    Currently, I am working on a few projects related to the Ramadan Around The World that will help make this book more of a journey and experience for its readers.
    As far as writing, I have something in mind but it is still an idea that is a work in progress so that will have to stay on the DL for now (laughs).
  15. Now that you have published your book, are you interested writing a book for a large publishing house?
    Oh yes, for sure! Self-publishing has been a beautiful, beautiful journey and I’m thankful for everything that I was able to learn about the process through doing it all myself. I think one of the most rewarding moments was printing out the shipping labels and reading the names of people and the countries where the book was being shipped to. This gave me a greater appreciation for the tremendous amount of effort that goes into every step of this process.
    With that said, it is very tedious and tiring, especially when you have a family and three toddlers running around. Most of my work was done at night when they were asleep and at times, it was exhausting. There is also a great deal of marketing that you have to continuously keep up with and thankfully my background is creative design and marketing which came in handy, but of course major publishing houses have access to a much larger network of distributors that I believe the book is ready for.
  16. Ramadan Around the World is an informational holiday book. Are there other genres that you are interested in writing in?
    I don’t have a specific genre in mind but my top priority is providing content of value and quality that would directly benefit the community and make a difference, whether that’s through solving a problem, reflecting on community issues or empowering children. The ultimate goal is to release original and timeless ideas, that will live beyond my years and benefit generations to come.
  17. Growing up, what was your family’s attitude about having books? What kinds of Islamic books/books about Muslims did you have in your home when you were growing up?
    My parents were immigrants who came from Egypt and raised us with a heavy focus on faith and culture. Reading was very important for my mother and unlike today where we can Google the top 20 children literature books, she didn’t really have access to these resources. Funny enough, when I asked her how she knew which books to check out for us from the local library, she said she didn’t. What she would do is just start from the first shelf and pick the first ten books. After we read those, she would return them and just pick up where she had left off the visit before in addition to any books we picked up.
    This is how we spent our summers. Along with Saturday morning cartoons, visits to Chuck E. Cheese, and digging for worms, the library was the place to go to pass the summer.
  18. What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years? In 20 years?
    I would like to see a larger variety of young Muslim authors covering more genres in writing. I imagine walking into mainstream bookstores like Barnes and Nobles and seeing displays when times like Ramadan and Eid roll around just like we see for Christmas and Hanukkah.
  19. Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young writers?
    I am very much new to this myself and learning along the way but if I were to reflect on what helped me the most, I would say it would have to be to:
    1) ask for help and
    2) give credit where credit’s due.
    There are a lot of wonderful people out there who want to help and their knowledge can be of benefit if sought out. As a young writer, asking for advice and pointing in the right direction was critical in the self-publishing process.
  20. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I would like to twist this question around a bit and instead ask a favor out of my readers. When I thought of the design and quality of the book, I wanted to ensure to produce something that would be highly durable and of quality. I want to ask my readers to cherish and save their book to pass on to grandchildren and/or generations to come. I also want to ask them to write a small dedication inside the book to whomever they are presenting the book to. This makes handing it down that much more special.