By Alana Ladson
Today we’re pleased to welcome Saadia Faruqi to the WNDB blog to discuss Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero.
The title of the book is Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero, yet he made even me feel brave and strong with his actions! Why did you choose this title?
Yusuf is kind of a nerdy, gentle boy. He just wants to live his life. And he’s an optimist—he likes being happy and making people happy. Throughout the book more and more terrible things happen—not only to him but also to his community, his friends, his parents, his family, his town. And he’s kind of being weighed down by all of these events. It’s easy for him to just bend down like everyone he’s seen (including his parents) and just say, “Well, this is how it is,” but he doesn’t want to. And so at some point, he has to gather the courage to not only stand up for not only himself but for a lot of other people in the community and that is a huge task. Especially when everyone in the book is saying you’re not a hero, sit down son, you’re going to get hurt.
Kids often can see when adults are doing things that are wrong or inadvisable or not the way kids think they should be, but they often don’t have the voice or intuition to do something about it. The title is for all of the readers—to remind ourselves if we see something wrong or see injustice happening, sometimes you do have to be a hero even though that’s the harder choice.
I cried several times while reading this book, sometimes out of frustration, and other times from happiness and hope. How did you feel while writing Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero and what are some parts of the story that spoke to you as an author?
This book is a culmination of 20 years of interfaith activism for me. Additionally, the story itself is a culmination of Muslim-American experiences. Things have changed and also stayed the same over the last 20 years and a lot of things have happened because of attitudes and misinformation after 9/11. I became really involved in interfaith work and I saw the power of community getting together to stand up against prejudice and hatred. There have been so many instances in the last 20 years that I can point to and say: When people in different groups, different cultures, and different religions get together and do something, it’s one of the most powerful messages that you can give to the people in your own community that may not want you to flourish.
There is a running theme of allies versus bystanders that I picked up during my read. There are many points in the story where allies were helpful, and even instrumental, in making positive changes to Frey, Texas. I know that many of us have been in similar positions to Yusuf or have been around the kind of hostility presented in the book. How can we be better allies and present a united front against the real life bullies?
Being an ally means, first of all, starting a communication with another group of people. A lot of us want to be allies but we don’t want to meet others because we think ‘they may not be around, that part of town might be safe if we’re seen in another place of worship what will people think?’
There’s so much that goes into allyship before you become an ally. There needs to be understanding and a lot of communication to understand where someone is coming from. I remember after 9/11 there were people that wanted to come and visit our mosque. It was a scary time because there were so many threats and incidents of violence that most mosques around the country had been shut down to outsiders. So it was very interesting for me to be able to say that if we don’t open our doors and allow people to talk to us and to see what we’re like, we can’t keep complaining that people misunderstand us or don’t know anything about us.
To people who want to be allies, you should take the first step. The other person might be more nervous than you to start communication. It’s about learning about the other person, learning what’s important to them, learning how they want to be defended and asking them, “How can I help you, how can I support you,” instead of thinking or saying that you know better so this is how you’re doing to do it. That could be dangerous for the person that you’re trying to support.
Lastly, don’t be quiet! I think often we’re scared that the ‘bullies’ will turn their attention on us if we speak up, but it takes bravery and it takes courage to do so. Yusuf definitely has courage along with other folks in the story. People come together that are so different from each other but actually have so much in common as human beings. Everyone has to step out of their comfort zone to be an ally at some point.
What do you want the audience to take away from reading Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero?
I wrote the book not just for middle grade kids, but for audiences of any age, so I had that in mind. I want young people to know about things that happened in history that were awful and that affected people in a lot of different ways. That even though 20 years have passed there are communities that are still being affected on a daily basis as a result of 9/11 which is the Muslim-American community, whether that’s through laws and regulations, prejudice, bullying—it’s still affecting us and it’s not an event in the past for us. Sometimes schools don’t always teach about it but it still affects people in a lot of different ways.
I was talking to another Muslim recently and they said that we need to stop talking about it, making ourselves victims, and move on. I agree with that, however, I also think that you should address something that’s happened that has shaped how people view you or how you’re portrayed in books and movies, or how people treat you. You can’t move on if it’s not addressed, explained, and thought about in a critical way. That’s why I don’t think this is just a book for kids. I want my readers of all ages to understand some of those harsh realities. Because if we understand them, we can move towards improving them.
This book also has a few specific examples of things that happen. There’s bullying in schools, protests against mosques being built in communities, vandalism, and destruction of property. These are real things that happen and if we don’t know about them, then we can’t stand up and say, “It’s been 20 years, enough is enough, let’s move on.” Because if you don’t even know what’s happening, how will you do that?
One of Yusuf’s teachers said knowledge is power and I carry that with me because lots of people in my life have said the same. Knowledge and knowing your history are highly important.
It’s such a short phrase and it’s not hugely philosophical, but when you’re talking to a younger person, you don’t have to give a speech. Yusuf understands that and I hope that readers will understand that too. When you learn something and understand something, you not only become a better person, you then have the power to make a change.
And when people try to hide facts, that also is a kind of power. They realize that knowledge is power and if you give people the knowledge of something—whatever that thing may be—people’s attitudes and actions can change. Once Yusuf understands this, he understands what his role needs to be and that he has to be the hero against people, attitudes, and to go against an entire group. He has to find the courage to do that because that’s his power.
Do you have any YA recommendations from recent new reads or any soon-to-be published? Do you have any suggestions for middle grade reading?
Read books about different groups of people! Read diversely and explore groups of people within groups of people. Read books that are set in other countries. We tend to have American-centric books. There are so many good books coming out—it’s hard to choose! There are many books coming out that are talking about marginalized situations. As long as you’re reading and reading widely, that will serve you well. I think you can learn a lot from fiction—you learn to empathize, you learn about people, attitudes, and perceptions.
I have a weird question so bear with me! You mentioned a couple of really tasty-sounding foods in this book. You mention that pulao is Yusuf’s favorite. Is that your favorite as well?
I always have this conversation with my 11-year-old daughter! She’ll ask me what’s my favorite ‘blank?’ And I tell her I don’t really have a favorite and she says I never do! I think when you’re a kid you have favorite colors, animals, foods, etc. When you get older, especially when you’re a parent, you kind of realize, forget favorites—I’ll take anything I can get! Pulao is more like a home dish, but biryani is more popular. It’s a very elaborate and delicious rice dish. Pulao is like the second cousin of biryani but the dish you’d make at home. My mom would make biryani but I would convince her to make pulao instead. She would do it just for me!
Is there any advice you’d be able to give those of us who are facing similar struggles to Yusuf and his community members? To those who may want to tell their own stories?
Whether you’re a child or an adult, if you’re facing the kind of struggles that Yusuf has, you should communicate with other people and find who your allies are. You won’t find them unless you talk with them! Yusuf finds allies with different people he talks to and he then realizes who is going to support him. So I think anyone who’s going through something similar, talking to someone and communicating, letting them know that something isn’t right and it shouldn’t happen, is really key.
Don’t be silent when something happens and don’t wait until something bad happens.
Having relationships in a place where you can go to someone you trust is really important. And for kids specifically, I will strongly say that you should tell adults if you see bullying incidents. Bullies get bolder when they think that adults aren’t involved. Stand up for each other—if you see something happening to someone that you don’t know, stand up to the bully by telling an adult that you trust.
Throughout the book, Yusuf is surrounded by communities, whether it was his Muslim community, school community, or his ecosystem of folks around Frey, Texas. How does Yusuf’s community shape him into the person he becomes at the end of the book?
Yusuf has two communities—he has his religious/cultural community and his regular American community. And oftentimes, there’s a tension within Muslim-American inside themselves between those two communities. Sometimes they may want to hide or not want to be part of one of the communities, especially if it’s a more conservative religious community or more cultural. And I say this as a mother raising two first-generation American kids—I see this on a daily basis. My kids have their mosque friends and then their school friends and they usually never meet.
In Yusuf’s case, he lives in such a small town that they overlap. In the story, his Muslim-American community really shapes him. He’s always been a part of them, but there’s so much that happens around this 20th anniversary of 9/11 that opens his eyes. He’s gaining a level of insight into his religious community that most kids don’t have. He sees what the adults are going through, seeing them doing things that are right and wrong, and listening to their conversations around what’s happening.
He’s absorbing it all and it’s shaping what he thinks—that also gives him the courage to speak out. Overall, he gets a level of insight and understanding about being a part of this 20-year history that’s much bigger than him. And when he sees his town and the community he’s a part of in terms of being American, he sees the same thing but in a different way. All of that pushes him much further than he would’ve gone in his reluctantly heroic endeavor.
What was your favorite part Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero? (Don’t worry—no spoilers included!)
I loved writing all of it for different reasons. For me, my favorite parts of books are often the most difficult parts because as a writer I’m more challenged and excited about writing something. For example, the climax of the book was the hardest for me to write but I enjoyed writing it because it was a challenge for me. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens, but I looked at it as not only writing as an author but writing as a Muslim-American. There was almost a heavy responsibility to write these scenes in a way that really portrayed the truth.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani-American writer, interfaith activist, and cultural-sensitivity trainer. She is the author of the children’s early-reader series Yasmin, the middle grade novel A Thousand Questions, and the coauthor of the middle grade novel A Place at the Table. She was profiled in O magazine as a woman making a difference in her community and serves as editor in chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose. She resides in Houston, TX, with her family.
Alana Ladson is an illustrator and character designer who loves to read, write, and draw. During the day, she is the program coordinator for an after-school program at Yale Peabody Museum. At other times you can find Alana sipping chai lattes with oat milk, taking online courses, or reading all types of books— from adult fiction to young adult to poetry to comics to picture books. Alana’s current favorite picture books are The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Bilal Cooks Daal, and The Proudest Blue. She is currently working on writing and illustrating her own children’s picture book. You can find her illustration work at alanaladsonart.com.