Ndaa 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.