By Cornelius Minor and Nawal Qarooni Casiano
People all over the world fell in love with Amal, the protagonist of Amal Unbound. She was exactly who children needed to meet as they watched their parents grapple with a changing world. The thing about powerful stories is that they are not just about a single character. Whole worlds are open to readers when they are touched by stories that endure.
“There’s that burden of the minority. I worried this could be the only story someone reads about Pakistan or a Muslim,” Aisha Saeed said, when we talked to her about her latest, Omar Rising, which tells the story of Amal’s friend navigating the experiences of a new school.
In Omar Rising, Aisha invites us back into this world, and this time we see it through the tenacious eyes of a servant’s son.
Readers are transported back to Pakistan. Though it may be worlds away from some readers geographically, the Pakistan we encounter here is as intimate and familiar as any home. There are best friends and good times, there are parents and high expectations, and there are the things that Omar is learning to understand—social class, opportunity, justice. Omar is an essential companion for today’s readers. Not because he is perfect, but because he is learning to understand the things that are new to him, and he is working actively to change them.
“I wanted to show Omar as able to take a different path,” Aisha said. He doesn’t have to follow other people’s ideas for success; he can follow his own. “He would be a worthy person no matter what route he took—whether he achieved his dream or not. Because there are many ways to define success.”
Aisha wanted to tell more of the friends’ stories (another is slated after this one). Her own children love series books and she knows, as a former educator, that when kids love a world, they want to stay immersed there.
“And it feels good to have a sustained presence in a place,” she said. “What does it say to readers about normal? If we can immerse readers in a fantasy world, why not a real one?” Aisha understands the challenge of writing about characters who live in a place like Pakistan. It can become really easy for some readers to “other” characters who are not like them. Always the educator, Saeed, welcomes readers back to this village. In doing so, Pakistan is not just a “different” place that we visit once. We get to spend lots of time there. Living the experiences of lots of different people. It’s voyeurism when one story alone lives in a different setting, but it becomes normal if you stay longer, and that feels important: that the canon for children includes more and more texts set outside the United States.
To lovingly flesh out the full texture of the Pakistani town where this book takes place, Aisha referred back to her own summers there as a child. Her grandfather had sugarcane fields; they visited every summer. It was an intimate place, with relatives who still live there, whom she called upon for research about private schools for this book.
Perhaps more important than all of the book’s messages, laced throughout and starkly apparent by the end: we are stronger together. Each and every character in the text seems to rise and take charge of their own paths. And that was what Aisha was hoping to message.
“We are a whole—a collective—and when we elevate one, we elevate the whole. We have to keep track of everyone else too. Ultimately, you can build who you are while building others.”
Aisha Saeed (aishasaeed.com) also wrote the New York Times bestseller Amal Unbound, Written in the Stars, Yes No Maybe So (with Becky Albertalli), Diana and the Island of No Return, and the upcoming Omar Rising, and is a Pakistani American writer, teacher, and attorney. She has been featured on MTV, the Huffington Post, NBC and the BBC. As one of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, she is helping change the conversation about diverse books. Aisha lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and sons.
Nawal wakes each morning to a cup of strong coffee and a head full of stronger ideas. One time zone away, Cornelius does the same thing, but with tea. Over the years, the two of them met through these ideas , and they soon learned to grow many others. Together. As book people, parents and educators, they believe in the power of storytelling as a way to connect our imperfect past to the infinite potential of our future. For families. For children. And for the world.
They are both educators who work in many capacities, but the capacity that energizes them the most is that they share and discuss stories with young people. There is power in this. Especially when it is done with an intentional focus on diversity. They believe that seeking words and experiences that are different from our own help us be more human.