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!

Advertisements
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.

 

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Hena Khan

Hena Khan is an author of Picture Books and Middle Grade books for children, and range from her Scholastic Worst-case Scenario books to her books about Islam and Muslim identity. Her latest series Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream focuses on third-generation, Pakistani-American Zayd and his dreams of playing professional basketball. You can find out more about Hena on her website, following her on Twitter or checking out her author pages on Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint or Chronicle Books.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

  1. When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?
    I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid who wrote stories, plays, and epic poems because I thought it was fun! I’m pretty sure that my love for books and reading for pleasure, which was a big part of my childhood, was what inspired me to want to write myself.
  2. How did you decide to write for youth and what is your main message to them?
    I started to write for kids because that was the time in my life when books impacted me the most and helped shaped who I am today. I love the idea of my books resonating with kids the same way my favorites did with me. I don’t think I have a message for youth as much as I want to create books with relatable characters they can connect with, and content that excites them and makes them want to keep reading. At the same time, many of my books do have Muslim themes and characters as I think we need these stories that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I hope my stories help bring understanding and hopefully foster compassion and tolerance in addition to serving to represent kids who haven’t always been included in the literature.Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns
  3. For Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets what was your thought process in deciding which Islamic elements to relate with different colors and shapes?
    When I wrote Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, I picked concepts and objects that represent the major tenets of the faith, like prayer, fasting, charity, etc and linked them to various colors. Some of the elements were obvious color choices, like dates for brown, while others aren’t necessarily correlated in real life. When writing Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, I kind of wished I had saved a few things from the first book that would work great as shapes! But I tried again to focus on things are very significant in the Muslim faith or Islamic traditions and link them to shapes.
  4. When you talk about Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, you mentioned that the people in the book are Muslims from all over the world and mention specific countries. If you can, please tell us which countries, if any are represented in each spread, particularly rectangle and hexagon. Was this your choice or preference, your illustrator Mehrdokht Amini’s choice, an editorial decision or a collective one? In the book you do not mention specific countries, why? Was that an intentional choice?
    The idea to represent different countries was a natural fit when presenting shapes and highlighting Islamic art and architecture. It was my initial suggestion, but everyone agreed and was on the same page. It was a way to highlight the diversity that exists among Muslims and include things that are found in different parts of the world. We considered mentioning which countries are depicted in the author’s note, but chose not to since many of the spreads could represent more than one. In other cases, like the Ka’aba spread, it’s obvious where it is. I’ll tell you that the rectangle spread is Zanzibar, Tanzania, and that we might include a list of countries on the discussion guide that is being finalized.
  5. This is your second collaboration with Mehrdokht Amini are beautiful in being both visually striking and having textual flow. We understand that editors/publisher pair authors and illustrators together. Was is just luck that Amini was able to work with you on the second book, a request from you, or a decision to create continuity?
    We were overjoyed to work with Mehrdokht on Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which was actually the first children’s book she published in the US. Both my publisher and I discovered her portfolio, were blown away, and wanted her for the project. And she did such a phenomenal job. When it came to a sequel, we couldn’t imagine anyone else illustrating it, and luckily she agreed since she has been busy working on a number of gorgeous books.
  6. Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets has a lovely author’s note that we appreciate for its references to geometry and shapes in Islamic art and architecture, which we know from school but many readers will not. It is a great discussion point and may create further curiosity and inquiry in students. We noticed that Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns does not have an author’s note. Is there a reason why it does not? Was the decision to include an author’s note in Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets based on a need you saw for further information?
    Shapes and geometry have a special significance in Islamic art and architecture that I felt was important to highlight, which is why we included an author’s note in Crescent Moons. For Golden Domes, there wasn’t the same need to delve deeper into the role of colors.
  7. Because there are so many extensions that can be done with these books for Muslim and non-Muslim children did you ever feel like you had to include teaching resources or more back matter?I’ve been delighted to see all the ways that my books have been used, and the creative lessons, crafts, and activities people have developed over the years. Chronicle Books is in the process of developing comprehensive teacher guides for Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets which will be available for download soon, including on my website.Amina's Voice
  8. Your middle grade book, Amina’s Voice, features a Pakistani-American middle schooler whose experience, while representative is also quite universal. Have you seen it resonate with children of different religious or ethnic backgrounds from Amina?
    Absolutely! I’ve had children and adults of all backgrounds, races, genders and ages tell me that they connected with Amina and her story and could relate to her on many levels, which is enormously gratifying. I’ve had a librarian in upstate rural New York tell me that a little white boy in her book club said he could sympathize with Amina, a teacher working with a Somali refugee in Atlanta say that the book was the first her student was motivated to read in full, and immigrants from all backgrounds, from Ecuador to Ethiopia, tell me that they could relate to her experience. It was really important to me to create a character that people could see themselves in and connect with, despite differences.
  9. You mentioned on your website that the masjid in Amina’s Voice reflects elements of your masjid growing up. Did your community also have a similar demographic? What is your community like now?
    When I describe the physical structure of the masjid inAmina’s Voice, it’s actually the masjid that was constructed while I was in grade school located in Maryland. It was primarily attended by the Pakistani immigrants who built it back in the 1980s but it has shifted to have a more diverse population over the years. There are a lot of communities in my area now, including some that are trying to overcome ethnic divides and create a more unified community.
  10. You have spoken before about how your parents were supportive of your dreams and did not pressure you to become a doctor or an engineer. (Ariana: Those were my Pakistani-American husband’s two choices). Not everyone has parents who are as supportive of choosing different careers. What words of encouragement do you have for children (or families) of aspiring writers, whose families may not be as supportive?
    As a parent, I can understand the desire to steer your children towards careers where they will have a stable income. My parents recognized that I was more verbal than scientifically or mathematically inclined, and even though they didn’t push me to be a doctor or engineer, my mother would have loved for me to be a lawyer, which I considered for a little while. I ended up worked in international health communications, writing and editing and disseminating research findings, and writing children’s books on the side. I only started writing full-time as an author in the past few years. I would encourage anyone who loves to write to DO IT! Do it in your spare time, even if you have another career to pay the bills (which you will likely need). And hopefully what is a passion can turn into a profession eventually. You don’t need to study creative writing or get an MFA to succeed as a writer. Just make sure to keep reading and working on your craft. And families will come around when they see you are serious about it and have skill and hopefully some success. But it take a lot of hard work and commitment.
  11. 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.
    I saw aspects of myself in some of the books I read as a kid. I loved the book Little Women, probably because that family was more traditional and conservative than modern American families, and I could relate to it on many levels. But I never saw a true reflection of myself, a Pakistani American Muslim girl, in the literature. When I was in college I searched for myself and found South Asian authors, but most were women from India, so I could only relate to a point. I saw elements of my experience in other literature I read–African American, Caribbean, and East Asian. But the first time I truly recognized myself and my life in a book was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri when I was in my 30s.
  12. 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?
    zayd saleem.jpgI think there are books that feature Muslims both positively and negatively, written by Muslims and non-Muslims. I hope the trend will be to move away from books related to the terrorist narrative, and away from books that highlight pain, oppression and discrimination, or “otherness” and in favor of more books that feature other themes or kids who aren’t struggling with identity issues. That’s why I’m excited about myZayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series–it’s fun and lighthearted and I think Muslim kids deserve to be heroes in books and deal with regular kid issues.
  13. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I have a lovely and pretty extensive collection of picture books, since I bought everything I could find from mainstream publishers over the years, including early Ramadan books like Ramadan Moon and My First Ramadan, Eid stories like Nabeel’s New Pants and The Best Eid Ever, folktales and poetry like The Conference of the Birds and Mulla Nasruddin, and successful self published titles like Ilyas and Duck. I have non-fiction books, and books published by Muslim publishers of varying quality. And now I’m happy to have a growing collection of middle grade and young adult fiction, including everything by N.H. Senzai, Sheba Karim, Randa Abdul Fateh, G. Willow Wilson, and more, along with my fellow Salaam Reads authors, Karuna Riazi and SK Ali. Plus it’s exciting to see a new crop of Muslim writers publishing new titles that are coming out this year!
  14. Have you ever felt pressure to edit anything out of your books or fulfill a certain image of a Muslim or Muslim family? Do you feel like Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include specifics about Muslims or Muslim communities in their narratives from publishers, editors, agents or even readers?
    No, but it took me a while to accept the fact that I cannot and don’t have to represent all Muslims in my work, especially since early on I was one of the few Muslim children’s writers out there. I put that pressure on myself and worried about writing things from a Pakistani perspective, and how others might react to that or question their authenticity. In general, I have tried to challenge stereotypes in my work, for example by requesting a variety of races, cultures and styles in the illustrations of my books. I think we all hear things or get feedback from readers from time to time about what should and shouldn’t be included, but I haven’t been pressured by my editors, agent or publishers.
  15. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature? What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years?
    Honestly, the best things you can do are buy books written by Muslim authors (preferably from independent bookstores, but anywhere will do); leave reviews and help promote them among readers, librarians, bloggers, and others; be positive and encouraging; and celebrate the success of others. We need more Muslim librarians, agents and editors as much as we need Muslim writers, if not more, so I hope to see more of them in the years to come. And in the future, I hope Muslim writers just be seen as writers and that “diverse books” are just seen as books that reflect the world we live in and don’t need to be called out for what they are.
  16. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I’m so incredibly grateful to everyone who has read my books, made them a part of their lives and their families, and shared them with others. I have days where I feel low or insecure or anxious about the future, and alhumdulilah I will get a note or a message or something that reminds me that my work is valued and means something to people, and it makes all the difference in the world to me and keeps me going. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. I need it more than you know!
Posted in Book Discussions

Book Discussion: Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. By Hena Khan. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books (9781452155418)
Publish date: April 10, 2018

This is the newest title in Hena Khan’s picture books about Muslims and concepts. The previous title was Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.

This book discussion was conducted on May 20, 2018

_______________________________________________________________________

Hadeal: So what did you all think? I know that this is something small, but besides the artwork and illustrations, I love that there is a cat on the cover at the masjid. I don’t know why, but I just love it.

Ariana: I liked the details in the illustration, they are really rich, even to the point where in the spread with the circle/daff there is a child with a bit of a unibrow.  

Mahasin: I see it now.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minaretsAriana: I love that there are so many different looks of people depicted. I do think that some of the criticisms of the book seem minute, one mentioned that the previous book seemed like the protagonist is a child in a “western country”, but this one is international and may reinforce stereotypes around clothing, but I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think that some images of children could work for a child who lives in the “west.” Especially in the oval spread, where “oval is the table where we break our fast, when the sun sets it’s iftar time at last.” There is a tagine, the decor is neutral, it could be Morocco, it could be here. The diamond spread, that could also be here. The last place with the crescent moon and a car, has a license plate convention that is not American, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a European country. I don’t think it’s a big concern.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minarets oval

Hadeal: I love the author’s note at the end. It’s not just a note about showing you shapes and whatnot, but wraps things back around to the importance of shapes and mathematics in Islam. I like the rectangle spread with the masjid and the light coming from the doorway into the prayer hall. I think the detail there is exquisite. The clothing too, puts it in context and gives it life to the community around it.

2018-06-11 22-47 1

Sara: Especially with the laundry line. And that’s how it is back home, the masjid is right in front of your home and you hear the adhan from different blocks. It conveys that feeling.

2018-06-11 22-54Ariana: I do wish, a little bit, in the author’s notes that they would say where an image is from, especially for that spread. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview with Chronicle before the book was published, and the editor had put up pictures of the doorway that inspired this spread, and I wanted to know more about the architecture specific to this country/location. I think that they may have said specifically, but I don’t remember right now, and I don’t want to guess. I mean, some may look at it and say, it’s the Muslim world and somewhere perhaps in West Africa*, but it’s not specific. Some families may recognize themselves based on the cloth, or other aspects, like the kids in the first spread look to me, like they are Malaysian or Indonesian, but maybe I’m completely wrong? But I do think it would be a nice touch, especially for Muslim children who aren’t often depicted.

2018-06-11 22-43

Mahasin: I agree with that. I was really excited about the diversity, and when I got to the page where the little girl had cornrows, the mother had a scarf wrapped up and the little boy, maybe it’s a girl, had tight curls, it was clearly African heritage, and that was really important to me because a lot of times my folks get left out of the narrative. That page made me really happy. The rectangle spread, with the women and all the colors on the page made me think, “Nigerian Muslims!”* and that was my first thought. So I really appreciate the diversity. The daff spread made me think of my time in Syria where the women would have maulids celebrating the Prophet (saw) and get together. A lot of it rang so true and authentic to me. I really liked the spirit of the book.

Hadeal: I like that wording, about the spirit of the book.

2018-06-11 22-45 1Mahasin: The one thing that was a bit tricky for me was that some of the shapes I had to stretch a little bit to connect, particularly the square and the orange trees – my mind went went immediately to a circle because they were oranges, but a square as a garden was a different cultural context for me. There was another one with the triangles on the minbar, that was also a stretch for me.

Hadeal: I still can’t see the triangles, can you see it?

Mahasin: It’s on the side.

2018-06-11 22-47Ariana: Right, the space between the railing and the stairs.

Sara: I can see that in the minbar, they do look like triangles from the side.

Mahasin: I guess I can see that, especially from a child’s perspective, but some of the shapes did feel a little bit of a stretch, but I feel like it a little mincing. A co-worker brought the book to me and said that they thought that the people were all in traditional dress, and should have been in modern dress and I have been toying with that in my head. I haven’t read any of the reviews. On the one hand, is that a critique of Muslim “modest dress?” Maybe people would call the ways we put together modest outfits “traditional,” even though I don’t know how traditional they are since they might just be long and flowing, or extra layers. The other part of me says, “what if they are traditional?” I don’t know if I agree with that critique. In the spread with the daff there is a little boy with a- what is it called with the number on the back?

Hadeal: a jersey.

Mahasin: Right, thank you. But that is pretty non-traditional to me.

Hadeal: Even the girls’ dresses. They’re just dresses.

Mahasin: Yeah. So, what if it is traditional? I think that they look like what Muslims really wear. It’s happy, colorful clothing. I don’t know. Does someone need to be in jeans and a t-shirt to make it not stereotypical?

Ariana: I mean, I think of me growing up and my parents –

Sara: I love that it’s traditional clothing. Because on Eid day when the kids go out, they are wearing their traditional clothing.

Ariana: Exactly!

Sara: I don’t often see kids in “western clothing.” They are taking pride in wearing something different.

Ariana: To build on your point Sara, if it was Eid or a gathering, and I was ten years old and I said to my parents, that I was going to go out in jeans and a t-shirt?

Sara: That would be a no-no.

Ariana: Yes, they would say, I couldn’t come. “The rest of us are going to go out and have fun. We’re going to auntie’s house and eat all of the delicious food, and the other kids are going to play. You’re staying home. Sorry.”  

All: (Laughing) It’s true.

Mahasin: I went to Target for my daughter’s Eid outfit and I saw, what I would call, “a Wakanda-inspired outfit.” And I was thinking, “cultural appropriation for the win.” African-inspired outfit for Eid.

All: (Laughing)

Hadeal: When it comes to clothing, I think of how the author didn’t indicate specifics. I don’t see how, in a way, where you could indicate areas. So I don’t understand why a reviewer would focus on that instead of what the book was intended to do. It is a book about shapes in the Islamic world. But what is traditional? What is non-traditional? It bothers me.

Sara: Right, I can see what you’re saying in that it’s not the focus of the book where these people are from, it’s more that they are seeing shapes in their every day and their beliefs and why we associate shapes in our religion, in our masaajid and our artwork and that kind of thing. It’s not focused on where they are coming from or why they dress why they do, but how we incorporate shapes into our daily lives. Is that what you were trying to say? I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

Hadeal: No, it is. I just feel like there is so much, I mean, even when we write our reviews we will get feedback about what others saw, but when it comes to this, it is so obvious to me that this is a book about shapes, architecture and Islam, but we’re going to focus on clothing? I mean, I understand, Mahasin had mentioned the spread with the family – the mother with the scarf wrapped and the little girl with the cornrows and to me, I think that’s important too, and we mentioned it, but for someone to just focus on that? I don’t know.

Sara: Why should that be the focus of the book when it is not intended to be? I love the fact that she’s incorporating everyone, the different styles of hijab and hair, but it is just showing you that these shapes have made their way through the Muslim world rather than associating it just with one group of people or another.

Hadeal: Even kaftan. Not all Muslims wear it, but to do the simple research, I don’t think it’s attached to certain countries or communities, multiple people do wear it and some definitely don’t. It’s just bothersome.

Ariana: For me, it’s a point of curiosity. I would like to know where it is from. I wish there was a bit more back matter so that if I was interested I could do further research for myself, but you’re right in that, it doesn’t matter too much. It would be one thing if really was asserting that there is this foreign otherness – but the reality is that Muslims do bring these cultural elements into our celebrations and our dress. That’s one time where, I mean, I married into – my husband is Pakistani American, and I think on Eid or celebrations I have no problems wearing Indonesian clothing, or a gown or a Pakistani style dresses. And often for children, especially for little girls that don’t dress themselves, they are often wearing “American” party dresses.

So I don’t know if this is actually offensive, reviewers making an assumption about the kinds of clothing people will wear. I’m glad that they are focusing on different aspects or elements of Muslim diversity, but it doesn’t mean all the spreads are or have to be international. So the spread that Mahasin was talking about with the hexagon, it could be an African country, it could be in a home here. Right?

Sara: I think that’s the beauty of the book actually, that you don’t know where it is. It could be anywhere in the world, and anyone who picks it up can find themselves in the pictures. The fact that she’s not pinpointing the places I’m reading it here, but the laundry spread reminds me of Egypt and being right across the street from the masjid. And someone from Pakistan can pick up the book and see orange trees and see themselves. This is why I am glad that she didn’t pinpoint where people are from. You can associate yourself with the spreads and go from there.

Mahasin: I’m looking at one of the reviews right now about how “Muslims dressing in non-cultural clothes are largely missing from the illustrations and potentially reinforce a  stereotypical image for non-Muslims.”

Ariana: I mean, perhaps that is a bit true, but here’s the thing, maybe the book is a nice window into our world, but it’s not really for the non-Muslim reader. It is a window that is important but it’s for the Muslim to see themselves. In the page following the hexagon, the oval, now I’m looking at the table and there is kibbeh and-

Hadeal: And samosa.

Ariana: Right.

Sara: They are all different kinds of food, not one specific culture.

Ariana: And the features of the people at the table, they have east Asian features. So my reaction first was, were these Uyghur Muslims? But it doesn’t look like there are Uyghur foods on the table. But there is also a little boy with really curly hair. And I think it’s supposed to be a blend, or blended family, or at least, that is what I’m reading. And where would you find that blend? Here. You could find it in other places and other countries, Moroccans can look like everything, but you can also find that here. That’s my take.

Sara: I agree.

Ariana: Final thoughts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs to the side?

Sara: I really liked it, I thought it was very cute and inclusive.

Hadeal: I liked it.

Mahasin: I liked it too. I would recommend it.

Ariana: I liked it. I mean, I think that the first book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a book that you give to families when they are going have a baby, or for Eid. I mean, this is a book that will be distributed in the Muslim community and become a standard. It’s doing something that we want. You’re putting another book into a Muslim family’s hands and into their household. And it’s not just another – Ramadan or Eid book – which is not the say that we don’t need those books, we do.

Sara: And it’s not a Ramadan book, it’s a book that can be a normal, everyday book.

Ariana: Exactly. Because it has those elements that also conveys those precious times of Ramadan and Eid, and it’s Ramadan now, those feel good times into every day – it’s like bringing in Christmas or those times that just make a child feel warm and special. It’s super important. It’s a great addition to get with the other one, and I feel like this one is stronger. Maybe it is because of the diversity element, but you can read it with even more nuance, than just looking at it as a book.

Hadeal: I also enjoy the formatting a lot. I think the layout and the message is so well put together.

Sara: I love the arch in the mihrab and how dimensional it is.IMG_9419

Hadeal: It all just falls well together. It feels very purposeful.

_______________________________________________________________________

*We are completely wrong and Khan clarifies in her interview with us that it is in Zanzibar.