Today we’re pleased to welcome S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed to the WNDB blog to discuss their middle-grade anthology Once Upon An Eid, out May 5, 2020!
Once Upon an Eid is a collection of short stories that showcases the most brilliant Muslim voices writing today, all about the most joyful holiday of the year: Eid!
Eid: The short, single-syllable word conjures up a variety of feelings and memories for Muslims. Maybe it’s waking up to the sound of frying samosas or the comfort of bean pie, maybe it’s the pleasure of putting on a new outfit for Eid prayers, or maybe it’s the gift-giving and holiday parties to come that day. Whatever it may be, for those who cherish this day of celebration, the emotional responses may be summed up in another short and sweet word: joy. The anthology will also include a poem, graphic-novel chapter, and spot illustrations.
The full list of Once Upon an Eid contributors include: G. Willow Wilson (Alif the Unseen, Ms. Marvel), Hena Khan (Amina’s Voice, Under My Hijab), N. H. Senzai (Shooting Kabul, Escape from Aleppo), Hanna Alkaf (The Weight of Our Sky), Rukhsana Khan (Big Red Lollipop), Randa Abdel-Fattah (Does My Head Look Big in This?), Ashley Franklin (Not Quite Snow White), Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (Mommy’s Khimar), Candice Montgomery (Home and Away, By Any Means Necessary), Huda Al-Marashi (First Comes Marriage), Ayesha Mattu (Love insh’Allah), Asmaa Hussein (Bismillah Soup), and Sara Alfageeh (Squire).
Where did the inspiration initially come from for this anthology?
S.K.: The idea for this anthology came in response to something I noticed: a lot of books centering Muslim characters (including my own!) dealt with pain or trauma. I started to think of what that must feel like for young Muslim readers growing up now—to not see cozy, happy, warm stories that reflect our experiences. I went to Aisha with this subsequent thought: what if a group of us came together to address this gap, writing stories with a joyful theme like Eid, a celebration that knits our diverse Muslim communities together?
Aisha: I loved this idea so much! Eid memories are among my fondest childhood memories and to capture these experiences for young readers felt wonderful. While stories about difficult topics and issues are also necessary, and we need more of those stories too, it also is critical for there to be stories of joy centering people from marginalized identities. It makes me smile to think about this collection in classrooms and libraries.
From the range of stories in the anthology, it’s clear that you were intentional in representing diverse Muslim experiences and intersecting identities within the Muslim community. Why did you feel this was important?
Aisha: There is a great deal of diversity in the Muslim world as we hail from all inhabited continents and have so many different and beautiful cultural traditions. It was very important for us to reflect this as much as possible.
S.K.: And when we asked our diverse contributors for pitches, besides cultural diversity, we were so moved by the diversities in experiences we saw too—like family types and socioeconomic variances. From the get-go, we’d set out with hopes that this anthology speaks and connects to a wide variety of readers and our contributors made that happen with their stories.
How did you choose the authors for this anthology? Did you have any specific themes in mind for their stories or did you allow them to choose how to represent Eid on their own?
S.K.: Each author brought their own takes for their stories and if there were any overlaps, contributors were able to adjust and make things work. In the end, everything fit together due to the variances in the way contributors interpreted the themes of joy and Eid.
Aisha: We love the stories in this anthology and were honored our contributors were excited to be in this anthology. It was great to see how the stories, though created independently, wove together so seamlessly while maintaining their own unique touch.
Why did you decide on a middle-grade anthology? What about this age group felt like the right audience for these stories?
Aisha: I love middle grade so much. For me, that was the age when I truly dove into the world of books and reading. The stories and characters I met at that age stay with me to this day. I also distinctly remember wishing at that age especially for stories that reflected me and my faith. It feels like a blessing to be able to have an anthology of stories for this age group now.
S.K.: There’s something magical about middle-grade stories. Like Aisha, I too discovered my intense love of reading when I was that age—at the end of fourth grade actually. And the stories I read at that time were all hopeful, cozy, warm stories like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Judy Blume’s Fudge series and we wanted to replicate that feeling of reader-contentment for young readers but with Muslim characters.
What was it like working as co-editors on this anthology? Aisha, you have collaborated with co-authors/co-editors on other projects, but S.K., you haven’t. How did you find a rhythm that worked for you?
S.K.: I loved it! Aisha and I have this rhythm where we see things in helpful ways for each other. And because during the editing and publishing process, we both had busy times at differing points due to our own independent projects, we were able to step in when the other couldn’t. And being friends in real life helped us support each other through it all. I enjoyed this collaboration with the fantastic Aisha so much that I’m currently involved in another collaborative project now.
Aisha: I love collaborating with authors and I enjoyed co-editing this anthology with Sajidah! Having a partner with you to take on a project gives you someone to always bounce ideas off of and to work on tackling just about everything together with. As Sajidah mentioned, we were friends before this anthology and the rhythm worked quite organically for me. I am grateful to have her partnership in bringing this anthology to life.
Beyond the overall joy of celebrating Eid, were there other aspects of the holiday not usually portrayed in media that you wanted this anthology to highlight?
Aisha: Though there seems to be a lot of understanding of Ramadan (and to a lesser extent the pilgrimage of Hajj) in the United States, I’ve discovered not many people know about the holiday of Eid even though they are the most important holidays of our faith. And though all Muslims celebrate Eid, we celebrate in our own traditions and cultural ways.
S.K.: We didn’t set out with an intent to highlight any one aspect of Eid but what we noticed as all the contributions came in was that food seemed to be so very important in almost all the stories. And that like many holidays for other communities, coming together to feed loved ones and eat special foods was a key focus. It’s a simple joy knitting Once Upon An Eid stories together that will hopefully resonate with many readers. (But perhaps a warning should come with the anthology: please have yummy food close by while reading!)
What are some of the best parts of working on an anthology and what are the benefits for readers of short story collections?
Aisha: I love this anthology so much because I believe there are so many different accessibility points for young readers. There is gorgeous art for each story illustrated by Sara Alfageeh and there are shorter stories, lengthier ones, there are poems and there’s a comic. It’s got stories for reluctant readers as well as all readers.
S.K.: The diversity of stories and story-telling is one of the best parts. And discovering new authors to read and follow up on—something I do myself when I read anthologies. This anthology, in particular, is truly special because besides featuring diverse Muslim authors, there are also variances in story styles, forms, voices, and formats, as well as art accompanying each contribution. Like Aisha said, there are just so many access points for all kinds of readers.
What other anthologies or MG novels do you think Once Upon An Eid is in conversation with? Do you have any recommendations for kidlit books that are published or upcoming?
Aisha: There are so many lovely books coming out that we’re so excited about. Hanna Alkaf’s THE GIRL AND THE GHOST comes out in August and is a lovely spooky but sweet story about growing up and coming of age. Hena Khan’s MORE TO THE STORY is also a lovely contemporary retelling of LITTLE WOMEN and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s MOMMY’S KHIMAR is a wonderful picture book for the younger set.
S.K.: For anthologies, I’m going to share one I contributed to: HUNGRY HEARTS, which is a set of diverse, food-focused, intertwined stories all taking place in one neighborhood. For MG, I second all of Aisha’s choices and add Aisha’s own book, the rightfully much-acclaimed and best-selling, AMAL UNBOUND. For another picture book suggestion, check out Ashley Franklin’s fantastic NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE.
Aisha Saeed is the author of Written in the Stars, which was a YALSA Quick Pick, and Amal Unbound, which was a New York Times bestseller and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books.
S. K. Ali is a teacher whose debut novel, Saints and Misfits, was a Morris finalist, an Entertainment Weekly Best YA Book, and a Kirkus Reviews Top 10 Teen Novel. Her second novel is Love from A to Z. Her writing on Muslim culture and life has also appeared in the Toronto Star.