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.

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!