Posted in Author Interviews

Author and Illustrator Interview: S.K. Ali and Hatem Aly

S. K. Ali is the author of YA novels, Love from A to Z, and the 2018 Morris award finalist, Saints and Misfits, which won critical acclaim for its portrayal of an unapologetic Muslim-American teen’s life, and was on many top ten YA novels of 2017 lists, including from Entertainment Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association. Her picture book THE PROUDEST BLUE, co-authored with Ibtihaj Muhammad, debuted on the NYT bestseller list, and she’s the co-editor of an upcoming Middle Grade anthology, ONCE UPON AN EID, releasing on May 5, 2020. She has a degree in Creative Writing and has written about Muslim life for various media. She lives in Toronto with her family, which includes a very vocal cat named Yeti.

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 S.K. Ali

1. This is your first picture book collaboration. How did it differ for you from writing for young adults? How was the process different in terms of you choosing prose for the book?

I found the process much like writing poetry, which, yes, I’m fortunate to have had experience with – but that experience was from over twenty years ago when I was doing my degree in Creative Writing! So while initially I was confident and excited (Picture Book! Short text! Yay!), as I worked on the process of telling a story with a limited word count, I realized that each word had to be carefully considered, that the flow had to be maintained in a manner that carried the story while delivering necessary emotional notes and, that while I could allow the art to carry some of the weight of the narrative, I had to be strategic on how to incorporate the illustrations for optimal effects. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my experience of being a primary grade teacher for over two decades, having read countless picture books, to apply the aspects I loved about these texts in my own writing. While it was challenging, I ended up enjoying the process and am eager to try writing another picture book text in the future, insha’Allah!

2. The pride and love around the idea of hijab is beautifully portrayed in The Proudest Blue, was your journey in wearing hijab similar? Different?

Ibtihaj and I had similar experiences in observing hijab in North America and this is what ultimately led us to a strong text. We both grew up wearing hijab from a young age in environments that weren’t always receptive to our choices.

There’s a duality that exists when you have an identity that’s not “accepted” by mainstream society; you juggle the comfort and pride you get from following your family’s teachings and traditions, from the warmth and happiness you feel from fitting in with your community (in this case, Muslim), from the safety you find in your faith to all the ignorance, negativity, and even outright hate you find outside these circles of security. I remember feeling so excited about favorite scarf styles and colors with friends at the mosque and then having to dampen that passion at school because I wasn’t “supposed” to be happy in my scarf. There’s a huge cognitive shift that happens internally and, when I was growing up, we didn’t have public discussions about what was happening to us. We had internal Muslim community discussions, yes, but we didn’t have the kind of public conversations about code-switching and slipping in and out of personas that we have now in wider contexts. We also didn’t have the mainstream images of confident visible Muslim women that we’re currently blessed with, Alhamdulillah.

THE PROUDEST BLUE is an exploration of the pride, warmth and happiness that many Muslim girls feel, twinned with the reality of a world that doesn’t accept that this could be the case. It’s reflective of the way I grew up – being constantly pushed to figure out whether I was allowed to feel happy in my skin as a Muslim girl. But while this was all true, this constant internal turmoil didn’t and doesn’t now erase the beauty we found in being Muslim, and the strength we developed in sustaining that belief in an increasingly hostile world.

That’s why THE PROUDEST BLUE ends on a note of the kind of gutsy resilience that’s carried Ibtihaj and I and all our sisters in the faith to who we are today as strong women, women who don’t let others dictate the terms of our happiness.

3. This is a story of familial love and pride as well as one about facing Islamophobia and bullying. Did Asiya’s experience resonate with you or connect to any real life experiences?

There’s a point in the book where Asiya is bullied about the “tablecloth” she’s wearing. This is drawn from Ibtihaj’s experience wearing hijab at school. For me, it was “curtain”. I was constantly called “curtain-head” and told to take off my curtain. While it was certainly hurtful to be bullied in this way, on hindsight it was also so strange and silly that harmless household items, table linen and drapery, were used to taunt us both. In my case, as a young girl, it made me go home and think about how being called “curtain-head” didn’t even make sense. The taunts also made my friends and some peers see the absurdity of being bullied in this way for my religious identity. They tried to join together in shutting it down as much as possible but as we know too well, bullies gonna bully. This is why we wrote the book the way we did – not centering the bully’s transformation or change to become a better person (as many books on bullying tend to do) but focusing on the internal process by which a young person can move on from being attacked for who they are.

4. 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? What do you think the impact of Muslim-centered literature has on readers?

I get emails every week from young readers grateful for the books they’re seeing in the world now. Each and every one of these letters (from Muslims and non-Muslims) have moved me to tears because at the heart of their correspondence is gratitude for a profoundly simple act: that of being seen.  My tears come from a mixture of spaces – that of happiness for reader glee at connecting deeply with characters I’ve written, that of sadness for their excitement at what is an everyday occurrence for readers of non-marginalized backgrounds, that of personal grief for not ever having seen my Muslim self growing up in a fictional narrative (not even believing that this could actually be the case!), and then, the tears of hot anger.

It’s unconscionable that a) it took so very long for books representing our full humanity to be published (well, the marginal increase since the We Need Diverse Books movement of 2014), that b) it hasn’t made a transformative effect yet, that c) publishing continues to be so homogenous. These young readers are writing me with passion and emotion, so grateful for being accepted as characters on a page, for being human, for being a part of the world. This is unbelievably sad. And has real-world consequences as we see from the increase in publicly shared hate.

I’d like to see the publishing industry move forward and do the work of upending the status quo in their own organizational structures. I’d like to see books featuring marginalized characters, written by marginalized authors, to get more backing from publishers – whether it be with awesome covers, marketing, publicity, becoming lead titles, etc.

The We Need Diverse Books movement was grassroots. People doing the work on the ground. Making things happen.

This shouldn’t be the case once a publishing company is involved; marginalized authors shouldn’t be expected to do the heavy lifting – after being accepted for publication – for their titles to be “seen” by the mainstream. We need diverse books but we also need them pushed like the titles we grew up reading were.  Even if, nowadays, publishing has “evolved” to become equally driven by author publicity initiatives, righting the wrongs of years of erasure and misrepresentation requires this kind of an investment.

That’s what equity is. And that’s the only way we’re going to sustain this movement for books reflecting humanity and not white supremacy.

Questions for Hatem Aly:

 1. Hatem, we feel so fortunate to be able to interview you again for The Proudest Blue. All of your work is beautiful and powerful, and this book is no exception. Obviously blue is the central color of this story, what was your process for choosing the blues for your illustrations?

Thank you very much, it is a pleasure to speak with you again! Yeah, Blue is everywhere in the book and it a central color. I tried different shades of blue at first and settled on a strong and “happy blue” if you may call it. I was trying to show a blue that is present, strong and confident. A shade that is refreshing and empowering. I hope it shows, even to a degree.

2. What was your favorite scene to illustrate in The Proudest Blue? What scene(s) did you find most difficult to create? Why?

I enjoyed very much the dreamy scenes that show Faizah in the context of how she felt..the 2 scenes that come to mind are the one showing Faizah in a paper boat just like the cover thinking: “Asiya’s hijab is like the ocean waving to the sky. It’s always there strong and friendly”. The other scene is when Faizah was looking for her sister after school right before she found her..this scene will overlap with the most difficult scenes which are the ones with the shadowy figures saying hurtful words about Asiya and laughing at her. I wasn’t sure how I’m going to illustrate these and decided to keep them faceless with no significance at least to Faizah. They disturb her but it doesn’t matter who they are, how they look like, or their age or gender and she chose not to pay too much attention to them.

 3. In both Meet Yasmin and The Proudest Blue you are looking at many layers of identity; Identity being central but accepted in Meet Yasmin, and challenged in The Proudest Blue. Did Asiya’s experience resonate with you in your experiences or those of Muslim women that you know? Did Faizah’s?

It is an everyday story to struggle not to give power to hurtful perceptions, actions, and assumptions while maintaining a level of equanimity and pride. As a Muslim man, I can only imagine what women go through. Both Asiya’s and Faizah’s experience is relatable and reoccurring in many versions. I find this book is a great representation of what happens on the other side of acceptance or the lack of it or in spite of it all.

4. Where do you prefer to create art? What are your most useful tools (physical or virtual) or habits that help you in your work? What is your favorite part of the book making process? Most difficult?

I like to work where I can have my tools available and a reasonable degree of isolation with the help of a pair of headphones, so working from my home office is my preferable workspace at the moment. Sometimes I enjoy sketching or taking notes when I’m out in a quiet place especially at the public library. I mostly work digitally since it is convenient and easy to fix if the time is right (and it usually is) I use Adobe Photoshop most of the time with occasional use of Clip Studio paint. However, I love working with pen and ink with some watercolors and pencils as well and find myself longing to use them more often while also exploring and experimenting with other media. So maybe you’ll see some of this in future books.

My favorite part of bookmaking is the most difficult, which is the first stage of trying to translate thoughts into scribbles that make sense, and gradually mapping and giving visual existence to everything. It could be both frustrating and satisfying! The rest is not relaxing but you can always count on a map when you’re lost.

5. You have a background in fine arts. Did you always know that you wanted to be in the arts? Was there something that inspired you to be an artist?

I can’t say it was that clear in my mind, I have always been drawing since I can’t remember but I was pretty bad at being goal-oriented and approached the arts very intuitively making up stuff as I go. I made comics all the time and drew characters from books and cartoons as a child then created my own as I grew older, but until High school I wasn’t sure what should I study or what should my work be and it stressed me out and took me time to trust that I pull off being successful in the arts and it was challenging but the best decision I’ve done.

6. What was an early experience/book where you learned the power of art/illustrations?

This might be an irrelevant answer since I have a very bad memory but I can strongly recall some notebooks my father bought for me to use at school which I found the covers were too beautiful to use so I never used them! The covers were clearly inspired by fairy tales with a Grimm Brothers vibe to them.

7. Who are some of your favorite illustrators? Are there any illustrators that inspire/influence you? As a child, what was your favorite genre to read?

There are so many to add to this list! To mention some I’d say: Laura Carlin, Jon Klassen, Marc Boutavant, Oliver Jeffers, Carson Ellis, Shaun Tan, Tove Jansson, Jillian Tamaki, Beatrice Alamagna, Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson, Naoki Urasawa, and much more. So many brilliant artists that inspire me.

As a child, I was into fantastical or mythical fiction, Science fiction, humorous writing and pretty much anything else..but I wasn’t very patient with historical or factual events and realistic drama for some reason..this came later. I adored an abridged version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a child and was so intrigued by it.

8. Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family in pursuing art? What is the first piece of art that you made that you were incredibly proud of (or that your family was proud of)?

YES! Probably even far more than I encouraged myself and I’m greatly thankful for that! I can’t remember specific ones that they were proud of but I do remember annoying my mother to draw me something instead of me doing all the drawing. While she thinks can’t draw at all she drew a green oval shape that I couldn’t recognize. When I asked her what is it she said: “why, it’s a mango!” I laughed and thought it was the sweetest thing ever.

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 Author Interviews

Author Interview: Alexis York Lumbard

Alexis (Rabiah) Lumbard York is an author of mostly children’s picture books that are aimed at younger readers, but reach readers of all ages. Many of York’s tales have Middle Eastern origins but transcend religious labels, conveying an ethereal sense of the divine that is be accessible to children of many religious and non-religious backgrounds. For more information about York, please visit her website or her featured author page on Wisdom Tales.

Interview Questions were compiled by Ariana Hussain and Hadeal Salamah

  1. If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
    I feel most comfortable identifying myself as a simple human being. I like the Quranic word
    nafs, or soul, because it is related to your mental state and character and that is what I’d like to be identified the most with–at least that part of us which strives be more–the higher nafs. Outwardly we can be any ethnicity, nationality, gender or orientation–none of which I think matters all that much. It’s the stuff on the inside which matters. But outwardly, yes, I’m American, white, heterosexual and female. My inward life is very much defined by my religion (Islam) but it isn’t the only expression of truth which speaks to me. I guess you can say I am a human trying to enjoy life and not leave too much of a trace, except for those traces which are beautiful and harmless. 
  2. You say on your blog that if it weren’t for motherhood that you would not have become an author and that the books that you wanted to read to your daughters did not exist. Could you expand on this?
    Sure! Over a decade ago, when I was expecting my second daughter and my first was old enough to move from board books to longer stories, I was searching for titles which could expose her to Islam or Muslim characters. I was especially looking for something to teach her about the life of the prophet (peace be upon him) and apart from Demi’s book there was nothing of quality in English. And while Demi’s book is beautiful, it was too mature (too long and too complex) for a young child. So I thought I should write one myself! Haa! I soon realized that writing was difficult. I also realized that I loved the process and kept to it–attending SCBWI conferences and reworking the story. Because it was faith-based I decided to self publish it as an app. It is still one of my favorite books, but it never really took off, I think in part because we chose to illustrate the Prophet visually (face covered, though). At any rate, it was a valuable experience and I hope to resurrect the story in some form shortly.
     
  3. Two of your books The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are illustrated by Demi. Demi’s illustration are a perfect pairing to your text, which is so lovely, lyrical and spiritual. Was this a choice that your editor made alone? Did you have any input or was it just a lucky pairing?cover of Conference of the Birds
    Great question. Typically speaking, books are first accepted by a publisher in manuscript form. A writer painstakingly creates a story, submits it to publishers and hopes someone grabs it. It is then the responsibility of the publisher to find an illustrator. Most larger publishers do not seek the input of the author. They have a design team and the design team executes the choice. There are exceptions, though, especially with smaller publishers. In my case this book had many exceptions to the rule, for after I wrote a final draft for The Conference of the Birds, I first contacted Demi and she pounced on it (having always wanted to illustrate the book). She told me to sell it and I did (Wisdom Tales Press, 2012). It was an unusual pathway to publication.
     
  4. The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are both based off of Persian Sufi poetry and a century old fable respectively. How did you come to select these works to interpret?
    My husband is an academic. His speciality is Islamic studies, especially classical Islam, so he often feeds me interesting story ideas. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t! I have to be able to first wrap my head around the original story and feel compelled to adapt it for children (and then to figure out how exactly to do that!). I also enjoy browsing academia.edu for ideas, which can lead one in fascinating directions. The site posts more articles than full books, which I find easier to digest.
  5. Your books are very spiritual and sophisticated, yet Conference of the Birds is labeled as being for readers ages 4-8. There is a sense of love for God, humility, and longing. When you have presented the story to younger readers what has their perception been of the story, especially the trials of each of the birds (i.e. the hawk and the partridge)? What do they take away from the book and its message?Image result for conference of the birds york
    It is true that there is a vast world of difference, cognitively and developmentally speaking, from age 4 to 8. This is one of the challenges of picture books. How do we create a story that can be understood and enjoyed by such a wide range of little people? Honestly, when I adapted The Conference of the Birds, it was easier in my mind to focus on the higher end of that age group. But as I toured schools and mosques and read the book to audiences who were closer to the younger end of that spectrum, I realized that little kids can and do understand–though it is more visceral–less “academic.” We stop and talk about the size of the bird or the speed of a bird and how or why that might symbolize some of the ideas presented in the book. They get it. You can see it in their eyes–the way they light up and widen. It is magical to see and has taught me to never underestimate your audience.
     
  6. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers and readers 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 I wasn’t an avid reader. I read what I needed to–for school and homework–but I didn’t read freely and spontaneously as my own children do. Most of my memories are of playing outside and getting dirty in the creek behind our northern Virginia townhome or as a teen hiking in the Shenandoah mountains. Nature was my favorite book and nature never discriminates. Once I actually converted to Islam (as an older teen–18), I was focused more on academic books–on learning my new religion. So the issue at that time was moot to me. And that was pre-September 11th. The world has changed a great deal since then. But now, as a parent and an author, I’m undoubtedly passionate about intersectional books–fiction and nonfiction–which speak to the wide experience of American Islam. There are more books coming out which reflect this, but it is still a small percentage (then again we’re a tiny group). I’m curious how my own kids would answer this question. Only my eldest, now a teen, remembers what it was like growing up in the states. We currently live outside Dubai and are moving soon to Doha. Both countries are very international. My kids are third culture kids. Back home they are religious minorities. Here they are ethnic minorities. Most of their classmates (who are mostly Arab or South Asian) cannot believe they are “actually Muslim.” Because they are “white” and ‘American.” In a way, we are constantly “explaining” ourselves (overseas and at home). On that level our identities are flexible and I think that is a healthy approach.
     
  7. What other authors and titles in the area of “spirituality” for children do you appreciate or recommend reading? How does their work impact your own?
    Sometimes I find the word “spiritual” to be off-putting. So rather than recommend books which are “spiritual” I think it is much easier to speak of books which are written from the heart (so much less pressure on the writer and the reader). To that end, I highly recommend picture book author and illustrator Leo Lionni, middle grade authors Kate DiCamillo, Pam Munoz Ryan and Sharon M. Draper, and YA authors John Green, Renee Watson, A.S. King, and Jacqueline Woodson. A book which recently brought tears to my eyes is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I love it when a book compels me weep. I also have to give a shout out to Canadian author Rukhsana Khan and British writer Naima B. Roberts–for they write with soul and are true survivors (of this crazy industry called publishing). They give me hope.
     
  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? For children?
    Yes. On the whole the direction is positive. Children’s book editors are generally speaking some of the kindest, most thoughtful people you will work with–much like librarians! They’re our strongest allies. The only caution I’d give editors and the kidlit world in general is to be careful not to tokenize. Islam is not monolithic and Muslims are complicated human beings just like any other group of people. We are nuanced and diverse–in our beliefs, practices, and make-up. Demographically speaking, the majority of the American Muslim community is not of an recent immigrant background. The majority is 24% white and 24% black–from convert backgrounds. I’d like to see more of their stories, too. I’d also like to see more non-fiction coming out–especially the forgotten history of American Islam from old slave narratives to contemporaries stories about the influence of indigenous Muslim Americans on contemporary American culture.
  9. What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader? What is surprising (good or bad) feedback that you have received about your books?cover of Angels
    I have a really simple concept-book called Angels. I wrote it for toddlers to comfort them before they go to sleep, but I’ve had a quite a few people write to me and tell me how much the story meant to an elderly person in their life–someone who felt alone and was approaching death. If I can bring someone comfort at the end of their life, too, then mashallah…I feel like I’ve done something meaningful… something good. 
  10. As a child what book helped shape your sense of spirituality or your sense of God? As an adult, what books help you to reinforce and grow in spirituality?
    I grew up in a secular, Protestant household. There weren’t many books in my home which shaped my sense of the divine. I was, however, raised on a steady diet of the Berenstain Bears. I still have some of those books. They’re not very well written and can be both hokey and didactic, but something about them always resonated with me. Maybe it goes back to the nature-thing and how I’ve always wanted to live in a tree. They also present a world that is wholesome and family-based and I think that is wonderful. As an adult, my go to spiritual books are often collections of poetry–usual Persian. I love both Rumi and Hafez, but so, too, my namesake, Rabiah (not Persian).
     
  11. What are you reading now?
    I’m finishing up my first YA novel and I’ve been reading a ton of academic journals and online blogs about the history of religious and white supremacy in the United States. It’s very depressing. On a positive note, I’m reading Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson via my kindle. Strong women who have known struggle give me hope. Hope and strength. Such qualities are needed. Especially in our current political climate.
  12. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I read and support everyone, especially the ladies. In no particular order here’s a sampling: Samira Ahmed, Randa Abdel-Fattah, S.K. Ali, Sadiya Faruqi, Karuna Riazi,  Nayyirah Waheed, Uzma Jalaluddin, Ilyasah Shabazz, Hena Khan, Intinsar Khanani, G. Willow Wilson and Jamilah Thompkins Bigelow. Now these are the contemporary kidlit authors. We’ve got lots of books in Arabic, too. Mostly from the past. For that I’d have to take up a lot more of your time!
     
  13. What do your children think about your books?
    They are wonderfully supportive and age-wise they span all the genres I love working with from picture book to Middle Grade to Young Adult. My eldest is a teen and she’s a fine critic of everything–my own work included.
     
  14. What are you working on next?
    Big secret! But it will be my first non-fiction series and the main character is a horse. A very, very smart horse.
  15. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?
    Read, read, read. Seriously, put your money and your time where it matters the most–the future of our kids.
     
  16. What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years? In 20 years?
    I hope it is thriving. And I hope a Muslim wins the Newbery Medal and another the Caldecott (seriously, where are all the Muslim illustrators?) and that we become heroes and role models for non-Muslims, too. I’d also like to see Muslims putting money toward writing grants and scholarships. Writers need all kinds of support. Mosques should support these endeavors, too. 
  17. How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims?
    I few years back at RIS (Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference) I met a young Somali girl who wanted to be a writer when she grew up. She also wanted to take a photo with me (and I with her!). I hope that I meet her again, in ten to fifteen years, and see that she has made it. In short, I’d love to see that work that I do and others like me continues to inspire younger Muslims to share their voice and their stories. I hope this has a ripple effect with society at large so people stop seeing us as boogeymen.
     
  18. Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young writers?
    Don’t limit yourself to one genre. Try your hand at a genre you don’t even read. The best parts of life are “accidental” discoveries. You are capable of so much more than you think. 
  19. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I know what it is like to approach a group of strangers and to have them give you the cold shoulder for no reason at all (at least not a valid one). I know what it is like to learn a second language and to be laughed at when you’re struggling to communicate. I know what it like to move far from home and start over–broken and hurt. But I also know that all of these things can make you stronger…even if it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t give up. Don’t quiet down. Always be you. That in itself is a wonderful gift to the rest of us. We need your story–all the bits–good, beautiful and still-in-the-making.