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

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 Reviews

Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan

Cohan, Medeia. Hats of Faith. Walsh, Sarah, Illus. Picture Book. Chronicle Books, 08/2018. 12 pp. $9.99. 978-1-4521-7320-7. Ages 2-5

Review by Mahasin Abuwi Aleem

Not too long ago, I received a wonderful gift of a book that I’d been eagerly waiting to get my hands on: Hats of Faith, written by Medeia Cohen and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.

(Thanks to Chronicle Books for sending copies our way!)

In the past year or so, images of Muslim women wearing headscarves in popular media have increased exponentially; I assumed a Muslim woman would be included and couldn’t wait to see how it would be done.

Would the headscarf be called a hijab, khimar, or something else?

What style of covering will be?

Would the diversity of the Muslim community be represented in illustrations?

 

I was immediately struck by the cover: there are people of various hues wearing a variety of head coverings (ot none at all), including a dark-skinned woman wearing a scarf wrapped upward and a pair of gold-colored hoop earrings, an image that resonates with me, but isn’t often represented when Muslim women are depicted.

Hats of Faith begins with a simple introduction, “Many religious people share the custom of covering their heads to show their love for God.”

The work includes brightly colored illustrations of nine distinct individuals wearing headcoverings that reflect their faith traditions. Simple text at the top of each page, above each individual’s head, explains the name of each “hat” and who wears it.

I admit that it took me some time to figure out how I felt about the term “hat” being used for the variety of religious head coverings that exist. Ultimately, I came to feel the same way about the term as the author does, that the word makes a lot of sense for teaching about diversity in head coverings to young children.

Men and women from the Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish faiths are depicted, as well as a Rastafarian man. Interspersed throughout the work are the illustrations of three individuals wearing head coverings attributed to Muslims.

The first illustration in the book and of a Muslims is of a young woman with light beige colored skin and dark colored eyebrows and long lashes. Her “hat” is a soft pink scarf which is draped around her ears, neck, and falls softly over one shoulder. A white under scarf peeks out from beneath the pink scarf, above her forehead. “This is a Hijab (he-jaab), which many Muslim women wear,” the text states.

The second illustration of a Muslim is of a medium brown-skinned male with a thick grey beard, who appears to be at least middle-aged. His “hat” is white with grey stripes and sits snugly upon his head. The accompanying text reads: “And this is a Topi (Tou-pi), which many South Asian Muslim men wear.”

 

The last illustration in the book is of a dark-brown skinned woman who wears a multi-colored scarf which is wrapped up and tucked into a neat bun, except for a few small barely noticeable pieces of hair which frame her face. She also wears a necklace and matching hoop earrings. The text above her states, “And this is a Head Wrap, which many African Christian and Muslim women wear.” This illustration, the last in the book, is the only one to use a head covering to represent more than one religious tradition.

Both the dedication page included at the end of Hats of Faith and the book’s accompanying website acknowledge the help of people and experts of various faiths who helped make the book possible. Their help is clearly manifested in the authentic details included in each illustration: the white under scarf on the woman wearing the “hijab” and the manner in which her scarf is draped over her shoulder; the well-kempt beard and warm eyes of the Topi wearer, remind me of many a South Asian “Uncle” I’ve known, as do the color and jewelry worn by the woman in the African head wrap. I particularly liked that the authors noted that head wraps are worn by both Christian and Muslim women.

Overall, Hats of Faith does an excellent job representing the diversity of Muslims in such a short work. Still, I would have preferred that the authors be a bit more precise with their language. For example, it would have been better to write, “And this is a Head Wrap, which Christian and Muslim women of African descent wear” instead of “And this is a Head Wrap, which many African Christian and Muslim women wear”. It’s a very particular distinction, but one that is infinitely more accurate: women of the African diaspora can be found wearing this style all over the world.

I would have also liked for a wider diversity of words for the first Muslim woman’s head covering to have been included; “hijab” just isn’t the only word used for a Muslim woman’s headscarf and it isn’t used for only one style of scarf. It’s time that literature reflects that. If the first image in the book is supposed to represent a woman of a particular ethnicity or region who might call her headscarf a “hijab”, it would have been better to state that. Furthermore, some Muslim women who wear their scarves wrapped in an up-do such as the woman illustrated in this book, would certainly call their own “head wraps”, hijabs.

In the FAQs on their website, the team behind the book notes that they hope to issue a future edition that includes other head coverings; perhaps that edition can also include the diversity of names used for the head covering worn by Muslim women.

Hats of Faith is recommended as a good introduction some commonalities between faith traditions. Children and adults alike will enjoy finding and discussing the similarities between the various “hats”. The “hijab” depicted in the book is strikingly similar to the “Chunni” worn by a Sikh woman in the book and the “Head Wrap” is very similar to the “Tichel” worn by the Orthodox Jewish woman in the book, which is part of the beauty of the book.

The book concludes: “Learning about each other makes it easy to be more understanding. Being understanding helps us spread love and peace.” Agreed!

 

Posted in Reviews

Guest Review: Jamal’s Journey by Michael Foreman

Foreman, Michael, Jamal’s Journey, illustrated by the author. Anderson Press, 2016, preschool-grade 2 (Bedouin)

A small Bedouin camel train, consisting of only three camels and their small loads, their drivers, and the drivers’ hooded falcons, crosses the desert to what appears to be an international market in Dubai. Each falcon sits on a saddle horn, a boy rides behind one of the drivers, and trotting behind the caravan is a young camel calf. Together, the number of camels and their small load seems hardly worth a trip across the desert.

On the CIP page, a short note from Foreman that tells how this story came to be appears to be the sum total of his research:

And when I discovered the word for “beauty” in Arabic is jamaal, the root of which means “camel,” a story began to form in my mind.

The camel calf’s name is “Jamal,” and he is the focus of the story. “Jamal” or “Jamaal” is the Arabic word for “beauty.” It’s a boy’s name, but it’s not usually a camel’s name (1). In Arabic culture, according to an article in Gulf News General (2), camels are named for their ages and are assigned different names each year. A one-year-old, for instance, is called “Hewar,” a two-year-old is “Fateem,” a three-year-old is “Haj,” and a four-year-old is “Liggi.”

It also doesn’t make sense that Jamal, the baby camel, would be calling to his parents in Arabic and English—“Mama! Baba! Where are you?”—rather than in the language of camels. (Baby camels call their mothers with a “baaa,” like a lamb. And they don’t call their fathers.) And because Jamal the baby camel is the only character who talks, rather than seeing things through a camel’s eyes, he seems to have adopted a European child tourist’s breathless ideation:

“Oh!” cries the camel. “I can see a great city, far away, and beyond that, the shining sea!”

As Jamal trails further and further behind, he gets tired. He compares himself to the “lucky” falcons:

Jamal looks at the Falcons. They are lucky, too—the birds get carried everywhere, except when they soar through the sky, hunting the small creatures of the desert. But Jamal is a little camel, and camels have to walk, walk, walk.

More about the falcons soon, but one wonders why one species of animal would envy another species of animal. And no: camel calves do not have to “walk, walk, walk.” And they do not follow caravans. Camels are considered members of the family and are treated like children: they are loved, fed, and talked to. Pregnant camels are taken to the desert, where it is safe and quiet, to have their babies; and they come back after about a month. Camel calves begin training at three years, and then they are taught to follow with a rope (3).

Back to the story: Suddenly, there is a sandstorm. Sand is “whooshing and whirling in the wild wind!” Jamal has “sand in his eyes. Sand in his nose. Sand in his ears….sand in his mouth.”

No, again: The author’s alliterative literary devices notwithstanding, camels are built to withstand sandstorms. They have bushy eyebrows, three sets of eyelids and two sets of eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes. They also shut their nostrils to prevent inhalation of sand, they shut their lips to prevent sand from getting into their mouths, and they have thick fur that lines their ears as well.

“He turns his back to the howling wind, making himself as small as possible.” Jamal is lost. Fortunately, he meets a kindly falcon, who guides him towards “a great city,” and beyond that, “the shining sea!” As the falcon “is whirling and looping in the air with the other falcons,” Jamal reunites with his camel parents (and the human boy, sort
of).

OK, here’s the thing about falcons: They’re beloved by the Bedouin people and are a symbol of the Bedouin culture. And, as with Bedouin people’s camels, their falcons are a source of survival. Falcons have an amazing ability to see great distances, and because they can catch wild birds and small animals such as rabbits, they are traditionally trained for hunting. When they are traveling with their owners, their eyes are hooded to keep them calm and not focused on potential prey.

According to the Dubai Tourism & Travel Services,

In the old days, the falcon was caught, trained, used for the season and set free again as they are migratory birds. It would come back to its owner in the next season. Today falcons are kept year-round by their owners (4).

Bedouins do not set their falcons loose to look for lost baby camels and navigate them home. What is it about the author’s idea of Bedouin life, culture or history that might have led him to crate a trio of specially trained Bedouin “search-and-rescue” falcons?

Together they all set off toward the faraway city. Jamal stays close to his “Mama” and “Baba,” and the boy walks beside him: he doesn’t want his camel to get lost ever again. When they arrive at the market, Jamal, the baby camel, has learned an important lesson in geography:

Now Jamal knows the world is more than just sand. When his legs are long and strong, he wants to see it all.

No, no, no, and no: Camels do not see their homes as “just sand” and “the world” as “more than just sand.” The desert, with all of its flora and fauna, clear skies, and sand beneath his hooves, is Jamal’s world. While wanting “to see it all” might be on a European tourist’s bucket list, it’s unlikely that camels have such yearnings—even exuberant camels with “long and strong” legs.

And on that page, the unnamed boy runs to his baby camel with a brand-new halter he has purchased at the market, ostensibly to ensure that Jamal doesn’t wander off again. But. Camels are not trained for their tasks until they are three years old, which is not the case here. And they’re trained with a rope, not with a halter.

On the final page is an illustration of the future. Jamal (now a grown camel, dressed in traveling camel gear) and his rider, the nameless boy (wearing a Bedouin vest but who still looks about the same age as he was when Jamal was a calf), are traversing the desert. And one of those falcons is flying above them:

One day, the boy will ride on him. And Jamal will walk, walk, walk, far and wide, from gleaming cities to shining seas. and he will always take his friendly falcon along, just in case they get lost.

(I read this passage several times, and still don’t get it. Is the author saying that Jamal, the camel, now owns “his friendly falcon”? Has the camel trained the falcon who had led him back to the convoy? Have they become friends? Is there a sequel—Jamal’s Falcon—in the works?)

The cultural and economic reality is that camel calves are far too valuable to lose. For people who live in the desert, camels are a major source of survival—without these animals, they would die. Camels are financially valuable as well (5). They may be given to a bride as her dowry, they may be part of an inheritance, they may be given as Zakaat (a gift to charity as a religious requirement during Ramadan), and they are sometimes used in lieu of money. Some of the hadiths—the set of teaching stories and sayings of the Prophet that remain a source of Islamic religious law and practice—feature camels. (In a particularly well-known hadith, for instance, the Prophet cautions, “Trust in God—and tie your camel.”)

Jamal’s Journey is all about a camel calf. This camel calf has a name, while none of the humans is named. The animals have wide eyes and expressive faces, while the humans have virtually no faces. They look the same. They dress the same. And there is only one woman—a tiny figure in the background of one illustration.

Jamal, the camel calf, gets left behind. Jamal, the camel calf, gets lonely. Jamal, the camel calf, gets tired. Jamal, the camel calf, gets caught in a storm. Jamal, the camel calf, gets rescued by a falcon from the convoy, who swoops down to guide him back. Jamal, the camel calf, gets reunited with his “Mama” and “Baba”—and the unnamed boy.

A reviewer from Publishers Weekly wrote: “Children should find it easy to identify with Jamal’s frustrations at his limitations, fears upon getting lost, and relief and excited curiosity once his journey is back on track.”

No. Jamal’s Journey is oversimplified, confusing and culturally ridiculous. Would this lost-and-found baby animal story have gotten positive reviews had it featured instead a colt who jumps the fence on a horse ranch in Montana, gets lost in a rainstorm and is saved by a friendly hawk who leads him home?

One might think—and one would probably be right—that Jamal’s Journey was produced to garner “diversity” points.

That a young camel calf would be portrayed as trotting behind a Bedouin camel train, getting swept up in a dust storm, and finding his way back (guided by a “friendly” falcon)—or that Bedouin drivers would abandon, lose, or forget about a camel calf—is one giant hackneyed cliché about the peoples whose lives depend on camels. (And the fake “Arabic-style calligraphy” on the cover and title page doesn’t work, either.)

Non-Arab or non-Muslim children reading Jamal’s Journey will learn nothing real, and Arab or Muslim children will once again be disparaged in the classroom or library.

—Beverly Slapin

  1. Although the Prophet named his own camel, this is not a common practice today.
  2. https://gulfnews.com/news/uae/general/camels-a-key-part-of-uae-s-rich-heritage-1.603548
  3. https://www.thebedouinway.com/bedouin-blog
  4. https://dubai-travel.ae/story-about-the-arabian-falcon/
  5. In fact, a new camel hospital, first of its kind in the world—with “pristine operating theaters and state-of-the-art medical equipment”—has just opened in Dubai. For this fascinating story, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?y=UoUjz3BKdPQ.

About our guest reviewer: Beverly Slapin is a long-time education activist and lifelong learner. As co-founder and former executive director of Oyate, Beverly co-edited Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. She is currently the editor of De Colores, a blog modeled after Broken Flute, and reviews and critiques children’s and young adult books about Raza peoples throughout the Diaspora. 

* Muslims usually follow the name of a prophet with a salawat – a salutation or greeting. This often takes the form of “ʿalayhi s-salām (عليه السلام),” meaning “peace be upon him,” (often abbreviated to “PBUH”) or the fuller “ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa- ala ālihi wa-sallam (صلى الله عليه وعلى آله وسلم‎),” meaning, “may the blessings of God be upon him and his family and peace” (often times abbreviated to “SAW” or “SAWS”).  

Posted in Reviews

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

aisha-saeed-amal-unbound-collage

Saeed, Aisha. Amal Unbound. Middle Grade Fiction. Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin , 05/2018. 240 pp. $17.99. 978-0399544682. (RECOMMENDED). Ages 10-12.

I acquired this book during a library conference. When I sat down to read the book, I had no idea what was in store for me. Unlike most people, I rarely read the back/inside cover of a book before starting it. All I knew about the book was that 1) the author was Muslim, 2) the character was a Pakistani Muslim, 3) it was a kid’s book and 4) the cover was GORGEOUS.

Amal Unbound is a middle grade novel which focuses on Amal, the oldest of four girls. She loves school and wants to become a teacher when she grows up. However, with her mother due any day now, Amal is told to stay home to help out. One day, while running errands for her family, she ticks off the village’s wealthiest landlord and finds herself a new servant in his household.

Aisha Saeed, author of ‘Written in the Stars’, weaves a realistic story through the voice of Amal of what could happen to a young girl from a small village in modern day Pakistan. She meets different servants in the household, those she enjoys being around and those looking to make trouble for her. She even teaches one of the younger girls her alphabets. Trouble begins to stir in the household both for Amal and the wealthy landlord. While Amal begins to wonder if her debt will ever be paid off so she can go home she continues to hang on to the hope of one day finding her way out of her situation and finds her escape in studying.

While Saeed does not touch on the Muslim religion at all, she does, however minimally, bring in different aspects of Pakistani culture and how life for girls can be in Pakistan’s smaller villages. The cultural aspect becomes glaringly obvious when Amal’s father tells her that it is her duty as the eldest to stay home from school and help out even though she is only 12 years of age. As the eldest she is often reminded that it is her duty to look after her younger sisters and the needs of the family come before her own. Amal’s village is divided into two classes: high class, which is held by one man who reigns terror over the village and controls the police and lower class, the rest of the village. Saeed also touches on the cultural aspects of traditional clothing and wedding festivities.

I was able to get through the book in a couple of hours. The book itself was a pretty fast-paced read as things pick up the further along you get. This would be would be a great book for realistic readers looking for a hint of mystery and drama while learning some societal and cultural things about the country of Pakistan.

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.