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 Author Interviews

Interview with Author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Mommy’s Khimar was one of our favorite books published in 2018. We had the wonderful opportunity to have a conversation with the author, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, this past fall.

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What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Hadeal: 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?

Jamilah: When did I first see a book that mirrored me? I think I was in fourth grade when I felt that I really found a book that reflected my experience, it was called The Shimmershine Queens, I don’t think it’s very well known but I kept it for a long time, it’s by Camille Yarbrough. And I liked that book because it dealt with different things like colorism. It’s about two black girls and one black girl was getting picked on a lot; she had even gotten into a fight. It was in an urban environment as well, which was something that I could connect to – knowing kids who got into fights and went to urban schools and lived in apartments and were black.

I hadn’t seen a book like that before. Before that, in all the books that I read, there were white kids who lived in the ‘burbs and not using the kind of language that was in the book it just changed my worldview for a little bit. So that was my first experience.

Then a lot in high school, when I first discovered Maya Angelou — I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Toni Morrison – those books helped me to see myself.

One thing I didn’t see when I was growing up were books about Muslims. It was just not something that I saw at all. Some titles that are out right now that coincide with my identity, definitely Saints and Misfits is one that represents a young Muslim teen. I still remember that scene where she is feeling embarrassed in the opening of the book because she was in a burkini and she’s swimming at the beach and she doesn’t want to come out and be stared at. I know that feeling, so that is definitely one. Ilyasah Shabazz has a few things out that I think are good mirrors as well. Jacqueline Woodson always, she always has some great work that reflects that experience of being a Black girl. I love Brown Girl Dreaming very much. I’m sure I’m missing so much I could name; we could be here all day going from picture books to YA.

Judy Blume also wrote a lot of books that I loved growing up. I read everything by her. I could connect and relate to the characters, but those books were definitely windows for me in a lot of ways because of their living situations; they were always white, so it wasn’t something I was used to.

Mahasin: I wish I had known about The Shimmershine Queens because I was reading Sweet Valley High. (laughs) When did you decide to be a writer and what inspired you to write Mommy’s Khimar?

Jamilah: I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a writer someday, growing up, as a child, but I just kind of shoved that dream away as not being very practical. And so I didn’t really do it for a long time. I published a few things here and there but it was nothing serious. But then I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, with lupus, and it made me focus a lot, I had to focus my energy on what I wanted to do with my time. I hadn’t thought about writing for children until I was actually in a Facebook group. This story is a little weird to me because I feel like I should have some mind-blowing, great source of inspiration. But actually, my inspiration was being in a Muslim Moms group where most of the moms were African American and the moms just complaining about a lack of books for Muslim black kids that they could share with their children, books that talked about our history and stuff like that. It was just the weirdest feeling because all of a sudden I started having all of these ideas, thinking, “I could write a book about this or that” and kept jotting down different ideas for books that I wish I had as a kid or that I wanted for my own children.

Mommy’s Khimar was one of my ideas – and I felt like I needed to do something related to hijab. It’s one of the most seen things but one of the least understood aspects of Islam. I felt like people would want a book about hijab, but it kind of was bothering me that I felt like you had to write a book about hijab, there was an urge to write it – that you have to write it because I know all of the things, there is so much pressure to write the book and the conversation is often fraught. And writing a book about hijab, what kinds of expectations would people have about it? What kind of language would they want us to use? Do I have to defend it? Do I really feel like defending it? I came to a point in my life where I was like, “I just like wearing hijab and I am going to wear it anyway.” And even the language, you know, “khimar,” there were just a lot of those things. When I sat down to write it I was just like, “what if I wrote a story that didn’t really match the expectations that people wanted in a book about hijab. What if I just wrote a story about it as if I’m writing it for the Muslim kids that I know, especially the Black Muslim kids I know and ignore the other pressures and expectations?” That’s where Mommy’s Khimar came from. I thought, who was I as a little girl and how did I look at khimar, and as a little girl we called it a khimar. So how did I look at that? And I remembered playing with my mom’s khimars and seeing it that way, there wasn’t all this political stuff around it, it was just these beautiful pieces of cloth and I thought, I wanted to write the story I wanted to write. I don’t really want to write a defense or something like that.

Mahasin: I think that’s what makes the book so great is that it’s not a defense. I think I wrote that up in my review of the book, is that what is left out of it is also what makes it so great because it just is. You don’t have to defend it. You don’t have to make it an issue. It just is.

That leads into the next question which is. We have read about some of your work as an anti-racist advocate with MuslimARC and we were wondering how your activism is translated into your writing? We noticed that there a few points in the book that challenged stereotypes about Muslims, for example, the Arabic teacher being a Black woman. I was thinking, “Yes! We can be Arabic teachers! So I was hoping you could talk about if that work translated into the content of the book if it did.

Jamilah: It did. So, one of the reasons I joined MuslimARC, of the different reasons, was because I felt like there was erasure of Black Muslims, within the conversation around American Muslims whenever there is any representation of Muslims, it is as if we don’t even exist. There are always immigration stories and not people who are African American and that legacy. So I wanted it to be the blackest thing ever. I wanted there to be no doubt whatsoever. I was so happy to see that the mother and daughter are dark-skinned, the family is dark-skinned and yes, there is no doubt, no question that these characters are Black Muslims with textured hair. You know, some of the things I wanted to put in with the way of putting on khimar with all of the plaits, I wanted it to be unmistakably Black.

Mahasin: It is a beautiful thing.

Hadeal: That leads into the next question, like we have said what is great about Mommy’s Khimar is the text and illustrations and how well they work together. In a way you can’t have one without the other, it is almost impossible to read them separately because they compliment each other and flow so well. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Ebony Glenn. You had mentioned that you wanted your characters to be unmistakably Black. Did you have to emphasize this to the illustrator? How did you work on this together? A separate question is: the color yellow stands out so much throughout the text and the illustrations. Did you choose that?

Jamilah: So the first question, the answer to which, is always shocking to people is there isn’t really much collaboration with the artist at all. This is my first children’s book so I didn’t realize how much of a lack of collaboration there would be. The process is really that I had my editor and there is the art director, and they really act as the mediators who are having the conversation and they did not want me to direct. Which is common with these big publishing houses is that they don’t want the author to direct much and the reason why is because you have to see the illustrator as an artist too and at times an author can be very limiting.

I think if I had had more ability to talk about what I wanted it would not have come out as well because I am not a visual artist, I’m a writer. I was very surprised by how well she did and how much she got it. And really it was just a couple of times that I gave a little bit of feedback and that was to the editor who talked to the art director who talked to Ebony. So they just kind of kept us separate so she could create in her own space and it just worked out really well. Zareen Jaffery who is the editor at Salaam Reads is just an amazing editor, she really listened. She really wants to depict the diversity of the Muslim community with Salaam Reads and I think that is why it came out the way that it did.

The yellow color, I chose yellow because it was sunshiney. That was pretty much it. When I had first started out with the book I had chosen read because I like red. But it felt stalling, like, no this book isn’t going anywhere. But when she wears mommy’s khimar she can be the sun and that really changed a lot, there was so much she could do with the color yellow.

Mahasin: I would have never guessed that you and Ebony had been so limited in contact. In my mind, you two were on the phone, like, vibing off both being Black. That’s really interesting. Thank you for that. So our next question is: how do you hope that your work can impact the Muslim community? And how do you hope that it may affect perceptions of Muslims?

Jamilah: For me, I really do write for Muslim kids, especially Black Muslim kids. I’m just hoping that they have books. That I can give them more books. That they can see themselves as worthy as being celebrated and that our stories are worth being told. And a lot of times kids may not feel like their stories are worth being told or are as important as people from mainstream and dominant culture, because all the stories seem to be about them. When I think back to when I was a little girl, and I wanted to be a writer then and I was writing a lot of stories about white kids, because what I was reading in books was white kids. They were never Muslim because that was not what happened in books, right? And it was very important to me to have our books, not only in Muslim shops but also in the public library, at Barnes & Noble, in those places to kind of say, “you know what? This is an acceptable identity, and your story is worth being told.” So that’s really the hope with the writing that I do, that our kids see themselves there. And you know, the book is a window and I do want to let other people in to see this culture and to appreciate it as well.

Mahasin: What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader and what has been the reception in your community?

Jamilah: So, the best feedback was someone who told me that they got emotional when they read the part about the grandmother and that the grandmother also got emotional reading the book. People saw themselves and cried. This was their book. This was their family’s book and that was special to them.

Mahasin: That is one of my favorite parts in the book. I loved all of the book but I was at work when our copy came in and I was flipping through it and when I got to the part with the grandmother saying, “Sweet Jesus,” I started to tear up because it felt so personal. I felt like, this is somebody who gets my story and gets my life. So I’m not surprised to hear that. Sorry, I sort of cut into your answer. Has the reception in the community been very positive?

Jamilah: It’s been positive. It’s a little surreal because I have been waiting for that really negative review to come in and someone saying something about it and I haven’t gotten that. I’m sure that there are some Islamophobes and bigots, that if they see it, they have comments for it but I haven’t gotten that from, pretty much anyone. It’s been so amazing to get that much positive feedback and really with some of the major critics, like starred reviews and things like that. I keep waiting for something to happen, but wow, I am in awe of the whole thing.

Hadeal: How did you decide which settings/vignettes to include, for example, the masjid, with the little girl and all the Muslim ladies looking at her and her hijab, her khimar, and there is also the scene at home with her father, who is embracing her and holding her up.

Jamilah: I just wanted to show this girl going through her day. And this is why the settings came about, thinking about the people a child would be interacting with. I wanted people to see everything, to see her father and the people in the mosque, that was really important to me and the settings really fall into place with those things. In a lot of ways I wrote this book as a poem at first, and there was a pattern to the little girl interacting with people and then those things start to take on settings, so that is really where that came from.

So as far as being based on people, the grandmother is definitely is my kids’ grandmother, my mother-in-law. She says, “sweet Jesus” all of the time. She was the person that I had in mind for that character. The little girl is really kind of me as a little girl. I was really very active (laughs).  And the dad is kind of my father, he was really the kind of dad that would snatch me up and give me a kiss, that kind of thing. The mother…so this is the thing that people don’t expect, my mother didn’t actually wear hijab full-time, she wore khimar to the mosque, so it’s a little weird to write about a mother wearing khimar every day, since it wasn’t really my experience, so she wasn’t really based on my mother. Though my mother had a lot of nice khimars and I did play with those.

Mahasin: You told us a little bit about the publishing process with the artists, but we were wondering if you could tell us about whether you intended to publish with a mainstream publisher or did you consider self-publishing or publishing with an Islamic publishing company? Were there other publishers that you looked at? How did you come to work with Salaam Reads?

Jamilah: A friend told me about Salaam Reads because she knew that I was writing children’s books at the time and I was kind of experimenting with my writing and ideas. And then there was the call from Salaam Reads, so I submitted directly to them. I had talked about a few things and they accepted Mommy’s Khimar. And that was really how I got started.

I didn’t really go through the process like a lot of writers do, applying and submitting and then getting rejection after rejection. I am kind of in that phase right now. There are some things that are coming down the pipeline and I can’t talk about them yet, but in 2020 I think you might see some cool things coming out. Having my work accepted by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster really made me feel like I should continue to submit to mainstream publishers. Kids deserve to see their books on library shelves and in bookstores, not just on Amazon. They deserve to have their books illustrated by the best illustrators that are out there, that are in the industry. That is really why I have stayed on this sort of path and in that direction.

I think that there is always a space for self-publishing and I am considering doing some more Islamic books through self-publishing – when you are doing things for the mainstream, you’re doing anything that proselytizes or is Islamically pedagogical, so that is a reason why I would do something in self-publishing/Islamic publishers. But as far as telling stories about Muslims with Muslim kids in them, it is worth trying; it is worth the effort to get it into the mainstream.

Hadeal: Definitely. And thank you for that, whether it is independent or big publishing, to keep trying is so important. As a child, I would have loved to see Muslim characters and really anything to do with Islam. We’re seeing some Ramadan books in younger children’s books, going to the mosque, and we are seeing more voices in YA, but this is amazing and I hope that it continues to grow and that more people see the need for it.

Paired with that question, we understand that you had to work closely with Zareen Jaffery (editor at Salaam Reads/Simon& Schuster) but not with the illustrator. Was there anything you had to edit out of the book or in general, that you feel that there are specifics that Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include in their narratives?

Jamilah: I don’t think Zareen is someone who wants you (the writer) to edit out that Muslim voice. She was really encouraging in including that “Muslimness.” Salaam Reads is very clear that they don’t want proselytizing books, and I wanted to write that book to be a representation of a Muslim family, and didn’t want to write in things like, “Allah commands us to wear hijab and read the Qur’an,” but that is not the place for it. There is a place for that and a place of just being. I guess there is that pressure if that is your intention, but I understand that that is not going to be a mainstream, general thing. Just like I wouldn’t go to a bookstore and expect to see books on display in the Children’s section that are encouraging my kids to be Christian, that’s not really what’s going to be on the bookshelves there.

Mahasin: What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace? Are they books that you would encourage others to check out? And it’s fine if they are not published by a major publisher.

Jamilah: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi is on my shelf. Going to shout out all the Salaam Reads people! Salaam Alaikum (Harris J), Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr (Lisa Bullard), Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie (Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins), Golden Domes and Silvers Lanterns (Hena Khan) such a beautiful book! I have a lot of children’s books because I love reading Children’s books and it’s part of being a children’s writer. Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is an adult title that I have. Also, children’s X by Ilysah Shabazz.

Mahasin: Have you read Betty before X yet? Ilysah Shabazz’s newest book.

Jamilah: No, not yet! I will check it out.

Hadeal: What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years?

Jamilah: I just hope that there is a broad array of literature for Muslims, even books that I might not necessarily like and care for, but they are different expressions of Muslimness. There may be some books that don’t really go along with how I express or view Islam or being a Muslim. But I think that there should be a variety, a diversity of texts, diversities of the cultures that are represented by American Muslims, the diversity of the practices. There should not be a single story all the time about what Muslims are. So if we could get that, that range, that would make me happy.

Mahasin: Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass down to young writers or other Muslim writers?

Jamilah: Shoot high. Submit your work to the big five publishers. Your stories are worth being in these places. Don’t lower the bar or your standards. Take your time to learn craft and industry standards of writers. Muslim people deserve high-quality books, just as any other people do. There are so many resources, especially free resources, that are available for those who want to write children’s books, picture books, and novels. You don’t necessarily need to invest thousands of dollars to learn how to do it. Take it seriously though. You can write those books, you never know if they will be best sellers but we need to shoot high.

Hadeal: This interview may be read by librarians and other library professionals. Is there anything you want to say to those librarians that are responsible for getting books into the hands of children?

Jamilah: Fight for the kids that are in your libraries, your readers, fight to have them be represented. Buy those books; support those books. Care about those kids that come in every day and think about what they might not be seeing on the bookshelves.

*Photograph by Michael E. Gray, Jr.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Rukhsana Khan

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

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More info:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. What are you working on next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stories need to be deeper than that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Author Interviews

Author and Illustrator Interview: Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly

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

i-aly_hatem

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

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

Questions for Both Saadia and Hatem:

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

Questions for Saadia:

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

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

Questions for Hatem:

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

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