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

Book Chat with the Illustrator: Hatem Aly for THE PROUDEST BLUE

In expanded coverage of The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), watch and listen to this interview of Hatem Aly by Victoria Stapleton of Little, Brown Books.

Hatem Aly discusses his approach to illustrating this book and the meaning behind certain illustrations, spread and movement between pages. Thank you, Hatem for your beautiful work and to Little, Brown Books for sharing this interview with us! You can also find LBYR calendar wallpapers for the Proudest Blue on their site.

We have been fortunate to be able to interview Hatem about his work with Saadia Faruqi in Meet Yasmin! Watch this space for our interview with Hatem about The Proudest Blue.

Posted in Book Discussions

Book Discussion: The Proudest Blue

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family. By Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali. Illustrated by Hatem Aly. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (9780316519007)
Publish date: September 10, 2019

Faizah admires older sister Asiya’s new, strikingly blue and beautiful first-day-hijab, finding inner strength and pride when facing bullies at school who make fun of it.

This book discussion was conducted on May 12, 2019 and was based on the fold & gather, received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Ariana: My first appreciation is seeing multiple Muslims involved in the process of this book from the author, Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly. The cover clearly conveys the concepts and themes– beauty of the blue hijab, ocean and sky, the endless possibilities.

Mahasin: For me it is still unusual to see African American Muslim representation in children’s books and seeing people who look like me and my family. To see both faces of the sisters…I think just seeing the cover will just make a lot of little girls in particular really happy.

Ariana: When I went to a presentation for this, there was a reading of the text by Ibtihaj. At that point I had only heard the name Asiya pronounced Aah-si-ya or Aa-si-ya. In the audio recording, her name is pronounced A-see-yuh; it was interesting for me to hear how Asiya’s name is pronounced in her family.  I thought about how it would create a different experience for readers listening to the book and reading the text and how it’s another point of identity that would make the experience of the story richer in this case.

Mahasin: That is not an uncommon pronunciation of the name, especially in African-American communities. I find the ritual of going to the store as a family so powerful, because I think that there’s this idea often times that wearing a scarf is forced upon girls and if they had the choice they wouldn’t choose to wear it. Right at the beginning it’s established that this is a moment of pride, a moment of togetherness, a moment of consent, a moment of choice, and a moment of affirmation.

Ariana: I like differentiation in the scarf style preference between Asiya and her mother, her mother in an abaya and a long khimar, a hint of how they might differ in hijab style. I also like that Asiya’s style without hijab is distinctive and cool.

Mahasin: I love the details of Asiya’s hairstyle. She clearly has cornrows or braids and colorful rubber bands, which are common hairstyles for Black girls. I also appreciate the details of her earrings and jacket. I think of the book Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, and that so often the question that women who wear headscarves get is “What’s going on underneath there? Do you have hair underneath there? Are you bald?” 

This image is important because it normalizes the idea that the person wearing the scarf and not wearing the scarf are the same person. While the scarf has symbolism, it’s simultaneously a piece of clothing and there’s still that person with all the things that humans have underneath. As obvious as that sounds, it is an important statement.

Hadeal: I really enjoyed seeing things from Faiza’s perspective, and her clear admiration of her sister. But even though we don’t get a lot of written explanation of Asiya’s feelings, we can see that she sure herself, with no hesitation, she knows what she wants, and Faiza knows that too. 

Ariana: I appreciate that throughout the book you can still clearly see aspects of Asiya’s personality, like her headphones dangling under her hijab, still there. And as they move through the setting you see more of Faizah, counting her steps with each light up of her shoes, walking with a princess. So she doesn’t think of herself as a princess yet. 

Mahasin: In my bio for the blog I referred to my scarf as a crown. I had debated whether that was cheesy, but decide that it is my truth. This crown on top of my head, regardless of terminology, is an accessory or accent to Blackness, and “Black is beautiful,” that utilizes the language of royalty and recalls “kings and queens” in Africa. It is a common phrase connected to the African American community, the African African Muslim community, Islamic liberation theology, and social and political awareness around Blackness. In my lived experience, Faizah thinking of herself as a princess-in-training, in terms of the headscarf, rings true to me. 

Ariana: Thank you, Mahasin for that clarity. I love the joy of the color blue in the smile of the hijab as Faizah watches Asiya head to sixth grade. The spread that follows has Faizah claiming her joy back from whispers of doubt about Asiya’s scarf. That self-realization and sense of agency was subtle but something that people of color and communities that have experienced oppression have had to do, carrying the idea back to the title of Proud.

Mahasin: I am thinking about the continuum of Ibtihaj going from Proud to the Proudest Blue. I think the theme of not being embarrassed, ashamed or feeling like you have to hide, it stands out to me in conversations about Islam, assimilation and race. It harkens back to being Black and proud and standing up for who you are not feeling like you need to cower.

Hadeal: In the author’s notes, Ibtihaj Muhammad mentions moments when they would wear a scarf as preparation for wearing hijab full-time. This was true in my community, and I appreciated that this story is about self-identifying as Muslim, knowing that you might be treated differently because of your expression of faith, and possibility of being othered. Children picking up will see this story and know that the author went through this, and be encouraged to still be who they are and know who they are,  for whatever reason makes them different, in this case hijab. I appreciate the inclusion of Asiya’s friends, not just in activity but their smiling, supportive faces, not making a big deal out of the change but still reacting when another kid points at Asiya. It’s really important to include, because in my own experience you might not know how to talk about it with your friends and to see that Asiya’s friends are on her side is powerful.

Ariana: The spread with Asiya’s wondering face and friends angry on her behalf held was particularly meaningful in modeling the difference between bystanders, upstanders and allies. 

Asiyah’s experience in hijab is still new, but it is a quick-to-learn lesson that there will always be haters. Hijabis learn to be quick with the brush-off and can become desensitized. But people on the outside seeing hateful experiences can get angry, showing acknowledgment when you might be gaslighting yourself just to cope, because you don’t always have the energy or audacity to be angry, even if you know you have the strength and pride to walk away. They remind you of your right to feel angry and that you deserve to be in a space without feeling othered. The children as shadows without names and faces is also powerful, because many naysayers will be anonymous approachers, people who don’t even know you. And between Asiya’s friends, the naysayers, and the wondering child, there is the underlying question of “who are you in that spectrum?” letting that resonate with the reader, and asking “what would you do in this situation?”

Mahasin: While I don’t want to pit books against each other, I can’t help but think of the joy of this book, Faizah’s happiness in the boat looking at the blue of Asiya’s scarf and the ocean, in juxtaposition to Saffron Ice Cream and the expressions of the anger there. I know we struggled with that book, though it was an own voices story and told a truth that is worth being told, but there are just so few stories that everything becomes prominent. I’m just so happy to see another story with an ocean and a Muslim woman in a scarf, and there is another image that doesn’t convey force, but instead joy.

Ariana: The page with the sky and clouds that talks about hijab being special and regular, is so deliberate. I like that normal isn’t used. So that even if it’s something that is a regular occurence, it’s always going to be special. I like the perspective also, of Asiya’s face in the spread you mentioned, that it just keeps going forward. It’s different from the cover image and the expression of being proud, kind of squared off, while this one is more rounded, comforting and content. 

Mahasin: She’s just riding the waves.

Ariana: Yes! And coupled with their mother’s quote where it says, “‘some people won’t understand your hijab,’ Mama had said. ‘But if you understand who you are, one day they will too.” It’s so beautiful and powerful – it’s becoming my new daily positive affirmation.

Hadeal: Reading this book I thought about kids going through changes, especially girls wearing hijab, and instructions and affirmations they might receive from family about being strong and being proud, but not about treatment from outsiders. So I’m hoping that this book reaches readers who want to learn more, but also parents, adults, and role models who can touch on different things happening in this book but still help affirm identity and prepare a child. 

Mahasin: I struggled a little bit with this and with Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales because they are picture books that deal with the negativity of how people might respond to us as Muslims. I think about when I would read this to my four-year-old: before an experience or after, and read it as a response. No negativity towards either of the books, but as a parent I’m not really sure…do I protect them from that? Inevitably they end up learning that not everyone likes Muslims. This is a book that I can definitely read in a class visit right or storytime, but if children haven’t had an experience like this am I introducing and idea that might be hurtful or am I addressing something that’s already there? I think of the potential for a child or class who might be working through this or is nervous about it, but I wonder about the child who hasn’t had any negative experiences, what does seeing that in a book do? Does it address something necessary or create a conversation that is unnecessary? I really don’t know.

Hadeal: I see it one of two ways. I think about first day of school books and, whatever level, it is preparing a child to go. I see where you are coming from. But in this situation, at least in my experience, women who didn’t talk about it with their families may have wanted to be warned or introduced to examples, and then affirmed by words like Asiya and Faizah’s mothers, “be who you are and be proud.” It’s a loving book and it’s affirming. It says, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and to wear hijab, and I still have all these friends around me.” 

And it can be used in different ways. Caregivers and teachers often ask for books about bullying when noticing issues and use books or situations to model behavior. It of course is whatever you are comfortable with as a parent, but there are things that children may need or want to know ahead of time. I think of other concepts of safety that you talk to a child about and, for their safety, it would be something that I would want to talk to my child about. And the mother didn’t mention specific examples, but she did warn them that there were always going to be haters, and she had mentioned that to her daughters, but as long as they knew who they were things would work out and I see power in at least being touched upon in the book.

Ariana: We talk about preparation as necessary–the idea of having to prepare your child or even student something hateful–as BIPOC educators as opposed to white educators, or white parents as opposed to Black parents or other IPOC parents. Our kids have to be prepared for a certain level of something. It’s beyond what white children might see or if it’s anything their parents want them to see. There are still so many parents who believe in the color-blind paradigm, that makes part of the world completely invisible and gaslights people, telling them that it’s not really a big deal, and it is, it is a big deal and it’s something we deal with daily. 

I think about hearing things as a young girl and policing of bodies, whether it’s covering or not, unwelcome comments or comments in general that are made about women’s bodies–their size, what they’re wearing–when do we prepare these young women? There is a barrage of negative imagery that women face everyday and that’s just advertisements. This book is a window for readers who are not Muslim or who don’t wear hijab, including Muslim boys and men, to get an understanding of what it’s like to wear hijab and the complexity, because of course there is a lot of policing of women’s bodies in Muslim communities too. 

I think about what kids have already seen, aftermath of Islamophobic events, and never knowing when to expect them. Do we go in prepared or try to maintain innocence as long as possible? In the context of race, avoiding these conversations can uphold white privilege and supremacy. So with hijab, I think it’s expecting discrimination even if you live in an excepting community, or a bubble. Do you keep your kids in Islamic school for as long as possible where they have affirmation of their identity, or do you take them out and they may have to constantly think about their identity and protect their identity, and how do you reinforce that strength and keep giving them that strength so they go out into the world? I know it’s a difficult question and I think it’s a question that’s always going to be difficult. 

Ariana: Moving on, I enjoy Faizah’s drawing and the poetry of picnic on an island where ocean meets sky, and their crowns and matching hijabs. The change in attitude of the little girl who asked Faizah about Asiya’s hijab in line, from questioning to admiration, creates hope.

Mahasin: I love that spread. It’s so representative–Faizah and her brown skin and afro-puffs, her classmate with red hair and green eyes, and their teacher with her olive-tone skin and brown hair. There is so much diversity in that spread but also throughout the book. Each person has a sense of individuality and personality. There are different skin tones and body types and Asiya is just another person that is part of the diversity in their community. 

Ariana: And you can have a very diverse population of students in your school, community or workplace, but if you don’t talk about it, you can still have kids who say, “take that tablecloth off your head” because children won’t be equipped with the language or the understanding to know that it’s wrong, not inclusive, and not acceptable. 

Mahasin: I do wish that this book had been around when I was a kid. I am very conflict averse and I don’t like to call a lot of attention to myself, and I grew up in the South in the 80s. So even though my mom wore a scarf, I can remember going to Piggly Wiggly after Sunday school and telling a little white girl that I had it on because my hair wasn’t done. I think I was just worried about being seen as different and not wanting to stand out. I don’t think that my parents really got it, and wondered why I cared about what other people thought, but it’s powerful seeing someone my age feeling proud about it, so I’m glad the book exists. 

Hadeal: Touching again on the details, I appreciated that the bullies were shadows without faces that they walk away or cartwheel away from, and ultimately they are just shadows that are not given much power or weight to. There is so much symbolism there. 

Ariana: Right. How much do we let the shadows interfere with who we are? It’s kind of like djinn in a way. All these little formless whispers that creep at you that make you question yourself. And again there are those power words of preparation from their mother to not, “carry around the hurtful words other say. Drop them they’re not yours to keep. They belong to those who said them.” It’s giving others accountability, not taking in these messages and internalizing them, not just as Muslims or as women but as human beings– that it’s not that there’s something wrong with you. But it’s about being able to take space and make space. It seems so simple but there is power in asserting yourself and being proud and standing up who you are and making people recognize that you deserve to be in a space and you deserve space. 

Hadeal: Isn’t it sad that we have to think that way? You find yourself in a space and have to take inventory and be aware of who you are in that space and what is making you “the other?”

Mahasin: So it’s a good reminder for adults too to be proud, don’t worry about the people in the shadows, live your life out loud and keep it moving.

Ariana: Faizah is so strong and defiant against the boy, and later looks for those whispers and shouts which goes back to your point Hadeal about feeling out spaces and preparing yourself for the possibility of confrontation. And Faizah is protective of her sister, of her community, her family but then she sees Asiya, “waiting for me like it’s a regular day. She’s smiling. She’s strong.” And in that moment she recognizes that Asiya doesn’t really need Faizah to protect her or her feelings, but having her back and having her there, it doesn’t mean it’s not appreciated. And then the whole relationship between the sisters like ocean and sky with no line in between them, it was just a lovely sentiment.

Mahasin: I like the end notes that show there is support from both parents. 

Ariana: That’s the only time you see the father, and that’s powerful too. The conversation and wisdom and instruction is in the voice of the mother and it’s so warm. 

Hadeal: I just really like this book and I’m glad that it exists. I’m glad that there are more books like this coming out. 

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!