By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
“Do you believe you can fly? I know I will fly—not immediately but definitely,” captures the drive and resilience of Loujain’s will to fly in a place where girls are not allowed to. Inspired by the true story of Loujain AlHathloul, who fought to change the laws in Saudi Arabia that made it illegal for women to drive cars. This heart-filling and beautifully presented story will entice our children, parents, and teachers alike to support and empower our future change-makers where it is needed in the world around us. As Lina and Uma put it—it’s an “impactful, beautiful, and inspirational” story, and I couldn’t agree more with them.
Today we’re thrilled to welcome co-authors Lina AlHathloul and Uma Mishra-Newbery to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book, Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers, illustrated by Rebecca Green, out March 1, 2022!
At what point did you decide to write this story?
Uma: I’m just trying to remember the timeline.
Lina: September 2019
Uma: We had decided to write the book after Lina had come to Geneva, when I was the executive director of Women’s March Global. We had the Free Saudi Activists Coalition, and part of that coalition, I reached out to Lina, on Twitter, to ask her to come to the Human Rights Council session, and deliver the family’s first statement to the Human Rights Council.
While Lina was in Geneva, she came over to my place and met my daughter, who was five and a half at that point. My daughter naturally started to ask a lot of questions about who Lina was, why is she here, who is Loujain, why is she in prison.
Being a parent, I got the book Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and the Little People Big Dreams series for her, and while those books are great, when you look at active human rights defenders their stories are not told unless it is posthumous. It’s usually after they are murdered or pass away, so I proposed the idea to Lina to write a children’s book about Loujain, because writing the nonfiction version would have been too risky, because Loujain was still in prison at that time. That’s really when we decided to do it.
What was the catalyst that encouraged you both to co-author this book?
Uma: The catalyst was my daughter, and trying to figure out how to talk about what’s actually happening to women, and those who are fighting for women’s rights, to kids. To make the stories accessible to them, in a way. Where you are distilling reality, which is horrific and what happened to Loujain, in a way we can educate and make our kids more aware of what’s actually going on with the fight women still have to undergo.
It was also my daughter’s interaction with Lina, and how interested she was in Loujain’s story.
Lina: I absolutely agree with what Uma just said, but I would also say that the idea we had was not only to raise awareness, and educate kids, but to inspire them. A lot of young girls know Loujain, and now that she is out of prison, they see her as a fighter and not as someone who suffered. One of the most important messages we want to put out is that if you “fight you can win”.
Who is Loujain?
Lina: Loujain is the 4th in line of a family of six. She is the one who is always there to gather us. She is the one who books our vacations, she is the one who does everything for the family and on a broader scale she is the same in society.
When she was in university, at UBC in Vancouver, she stood in solidarity with everyone. She always initiates things to help people, and she believes that when people gather, there is a common cause—there is always a way to win the fight.
She is very brave, and not to say that it is natural but she is also very stubborn, which is why she manages to get her message out. When she is convinced of something she will do everything that is in her capacity to achieve it.
Uma: I think out of the entire family, Loujain is the one who is the most outspoken. She was the one who started to speak out about issues in Saudi Arabia whether it was the campaign for women’s right to drive, for civil liberties, or women who are trying to escape domestic violence. She was the one who was propelled to do something about it, out of the entire family. She is also really funny and she is really really hilarious.
If you look at her old videos on now defunct social media sites, she is so humorous but she is also talking about some really serious issues. Even though I’ve never met her and I don’t really know if I ever will, she’s like any other amazing woman that I’ve ever met that has gotten into the social justice sector. She’s really grounded, but has optimism that things can and will change.
How have you communicated with Loujain in real life about Loujain in your book—Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers?
Lina: Loujain read it and she really sees herself in the character.
First of all, we really wanted the character to look like Loujain. Rebecca Green, our illustrator, asked for many pictures of Loujain as a child, so the character really looks like Loujain physically.
The character as well, she was always very close to her parents, but she was also always challenging and questioning them for everything. This we see in the book, when she sees our Baba flying. She goes into the garden and asks why she cannot fly, and asks, “Can I try it?”—even though she’s not allowed to. This was really Loujain when she was young.
One day when she was young in Saudi Arabia, she asked her father if she could go swimming in the pool with him, and she did. People were really shocked that she did, but she was a kid (laughs).
She was always trying to change things when she saw that it was unjust. And in the book you can see that she is sad and angered when she sees injustices.
Why does Loujain dream of sunflowers?
Uma: Loujain was in prison when we wrote the book, and we couldn’t ask her what her favourite flower was. When we were thinking about this story, as a writer I have some little prompts that would come to my head that I keep in Evernote. One of the things that I had written was ‘the carpet of a million sunflowers’, and it just fit so beautifully when I shared it with Lina and I thought maybe we should try to get this in the book. Maybe we should think about sunflowers, and I think sunflowers just fit beautifully with the personality of the young Loujain that’s in this book.
Also in the colours aspect, we were able to incorporate the colours of sunflowers into the book itself. As a result, visually the book is stunning, because of it.The reality of it was we couldn’t ask Loujain what her favourite flower was—so sunflowers it was, because that was what I had available as a writing prompt! I think it’s worked beautifully in the end.
Lina: When Uma told this to me—I didn’t really know what yellow represented, but the sunflower is such that it always turns its back to the dark always. It always seeks to reach light and that really represents Loujain’s activism.
Loujain AlHathloul in real life is a Saudi women’s rights activist and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, among many other notable accolades. What is the impact you hope to convey to your readers?
Uma: I think, especially as this book is for children, we would love for them to know that if they see something unfair that they have every right in the world to speak up about it, and to ask for that change.
We also hope that in this story it wouldn’t be what it is, and Loujain’s real life story wouldn’t be what it is—without the support of her parents. We hope as well that it encourages parents to support their kids in fighting for that change, and encouraging the bravery of kids who advocate for themselves and advocate for what they see as an injustice. It has been noted by our editor at mineeditionUS that children have a very innate sense of injustice. We really hope that it really encourages parents to really help support their kids in fighting for that, but also showing kids that there are real life living heroines and people who fight for our rights. They are out there in the world, and they are doing everything that they can to create change.
Loujain is very much alive, but she cannot speak out in the way she did before her imprisonment. She is still alive, offering such amazing inspiration to so many. We really hope that for kids and parents it equally inspires them.
Additionally, we have a teaching guide that is attached to the book. We really hope that educators are able to utilise this book to not only teach about human rights generally, but also why somebody would persist in the way that they do, and why Loujain’s fight was so important. At the back of the book there is a short biography of Loujain, because we wanted our readers to know who Loujain actually is and what she’s done in the fight for justice. We really hope people are inspired both in the book but also in real life.
What was your favourite part of writing this book? What were some challenges you faced?
Lina: The best part for me was how it developed. At the very beginning we really wanted her to live in a really black and white world only, not a grey one. How the story really developed was really impressive for me—day after day we made it come to life.
The challenges would be, I think, that it is a picture book. Us not being illustrators, I think it was very difficult to write the story imagining the pictures but not having them on paper.
Uma: The best part of writing the book was working with Lina. I think that period of time was really intense in the campaign, and the writing of the book offered some sort of respite for us to be able to just work on something that was centered around joy and inspiration and imagination. When in reality, what was actually happening was far from that.
The challenge, I remember very clearly, was literally going over word for word in the book and just making sure that what we were saying wouldn’t further bring harm to Loujain or her family, because we had no idea when this was going to be published—we didn’t know if she was still going to be in prison. We didn’t know if Loujain would even see it. One, if it was representative of her, and two, would it further harm her and the family that is still in Saudi Arabia in any shape or form? That was the biggest challenge that we encountered.
What is a question you wish you were asked more—and the answer?
Lina: I don’t know how to put this, by being defenders of human rights defenders it is a bit difficult because you are a bit out of the spotlight, and you always talk on behalf of someone. Sometimes it’s heartwarming to see that our fight counts. The impacts are not just what Loujain has but also people like Uma, she really was like a mother to me during that time. She travelled with me. She called me at midnight when I didn’t feel good. I think that for people like her, and I also, to ask what their impact is also not just the human rights defenders they are defending.
Uma: One thing that I think about it is that the story would have never been written without Lina or another member of the family. If they didn’t approve of it this would have never come to light. I think especially, we see a lot of stories about other people being written by people who are not from that background or that have no context with the family—we’ve seen this happen a lot.
I don’t know how to put it or how the question would be framed, but if we are writing stories about people that are in active situations, in terms of human rights, integrating the family in these stories is so uniquely important because without Lina, literally saying ‘we can’t use this word’ and without her being here in the process—this book would have never happened.
There is a responsibility that people have who tell stories about human rights defenders and about activists to ensure that we are not further harming not only the defender, but the family. There is a whole process because what a lot of people forget Lina, Walid, and Alia, the three siblings that are outside of Saudi Arabia, they too have put themselves at risk in fighting for Loujain. This is an important point we need to remember.
Will Loujain, from your book, be taking on any future adventures?
Lina: Uma and I have been talking that we wanted to make Loujain grow through the ages. Now we have a children’s book, and then the second book is when Loujain is a bit older and the readers would be a bit older. We have not started this yet, but of course this is something we would love to work on.
What are some of your favourite examples of picture books growing up?
Uma: I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha, which are comic fable stories centered around history, mythology, and Indian gods and goddesses.
For me being a parent, my favourite picture books are We are Water Protectors, which is one of my favourites that Leela is reading, but also ones that talk about the reality of things. Not Quite Snow White is a favorite—along with The Many Shapes of Clay, about emotions. So books that are rooted in reality, but also give my child the understanding of the diversity and the intersectionality of this world, which is vitally important.
Lina: Same for me. I used to read a lot of French picture books. I never really liked when it didn’t have any goal—it had to have a message. I wasn’t really a Disney fan either and I’m still not. Mostly French comics with inspirational messages at the end.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
Lina: I would encourage everyone to watch the book trailer, to get a glimpse of what this story is all about.
Lina AlHathloul is the youngest sister of Loujain. Since her older sister was detained in May 2018, alongside more than a dozen other women human rights defenders, Lina has become one of the few family members able and willing to speak out on behalf of an incarcerated relative. A lawyer by training, Lina is based in Brussels and therefore more able to speak and travel freely—many relatives of Saudi political prisoners are subject to travel bans themselves and/or are cowed by fear of retaliation by the present Saudi government. Lina has become a tireless advocate for her sister Loujain and has spoken to numerous media outlets, at international events and gatherings, and to representatives of the U.S. government and the United Nations.
Lina continues to bring to light the widespread mistreatment and torture of prisoners such as her sister at the hands of the Saudi government.
Uma Mishra-Newbery is a global social justice and women’s rights leader and the former Executive Director of Women’s March Global. Her transparent, visionary yet grounded leadership was instrumental in furthering the mobilisation and assembly of women globally around women’s rights issues with Women’s March Global. Uma has organised and built coalitions around the issues of women’s human rights defenders, freedom of association and assembly, bodily autonomy, and white supremacy in the women’s rights and funding space. As a leader in the global women’s rights movement Uma has been interviewed by CNN, Jane Dutton, Newsweek, Devex, and published by Ms. Magazine, TIME, and IPS.
Uma helped to bring Loujain’s story to the United Nations and was instrumental in coordinating efforts for Lina’s first statement in support of Loujain at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Uma currently serves on the board of directors of Minority Veterans of America and Women’s March Global and is the initiator and facilitator of The Racial Equity Index. Uma has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Cedar Crest College.
Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi is an international educator who is passionate about inclusive education. She has taught various age groups from primary all the way up to Grade 12. She is a trained teacher in Special Education, English as an Additional Language, Geography, Science, and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Teacher. Yasmine strives to advocate for inclusive practices, promotes and supports diversity, and speaks up for injustices no matter how small they may be. She’s a Canadian at heart, born in London, England, but a global traveler who has lived in the Middle East and the US. She currently resides in Switzerland.