Courtesy of WNDB Team member Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, we have a special guest blog post featuring a Q&A with Saadia Faruqi, who has an early chapter book series called Meet Yasmin coming out on August 1!
- What planted the seeds for the YASMIN stories? Where did you find inspiration? How did you develop Yasmin as a main character?
My daughter was in kindergarten and just starting to read independently. It seemed to me that she couldn’t find any books she was really invested in. She’d read a lot of Barbie books, and then she’d complain that Barbie was nothing like her. She also expressed ideas such as being very different from her other classmates and talking about skin color a lot. It was frustrating to me, and worrying, and so being a writer I decided to give my daughter – and other little girls like her – the role models they needed in early reader books. Characters who would make them feel at home in their brown skin, and comfortable being different. Naturally, Yasmin ended up being modeled after my daughter, and many of the stories are things that have happened to her.
- Why do you think readers will identify with Yasmin and her adventures?
I hope readers will identify with Yasmin – and her family – because she’s so normal. We have a problem in diverse books at the moment that almost all books about South Asians are issues books. They tackle very important topics like immigration and bullying and Islamophobia. They are needed and valuable. But they also unfortunately end up othering brown kids even more. I hope kids will love Yasmin because she’s a happy, friendly little girl with no problems other than the little everyday obstacles she faces in the series… getting lost, tearing up her mom’s dress by accident, not knowing what to paint for an art project. These are challenges every child faces, and that’s why I hope they’ll identify with her. They’ll see themselves in her, and their own family in hers, and their classmates in Yasmin’s classmates. It’s all very ordinary, and that’s the real charm of the series.
- You’ve written quite a bit for adults — fiction, and nonfiction. What led you to children’s books? Early readers are a particularly challenging genre — not picture books, not chapter books. How did you approach this type of writing, and what would you recommend to writers who’d like to give it a try?
First of all, I didn’t know that early readers were so challenging. Coming from an adult writing background, I thought, how hard can kidlit really be? I was wrong! Getting your point across in 500 words, portraying complex personalities, is all hard work. Luckily the art takes some of the burden off, and I have an amazing illustrator, Hatem Aly, who’s Egyptian Canadian. So together we use words and pictures to tell the stories. It’s a lot of fun.
I suggest kidlit writers read a lot of early readers and picture books, to see what style and stories appeal to young readers. Write a lot, get critiqued by other writers, and keep submitting. It took me a long time to find this opportunity, so I believe in never losing hope.
I initially started writing fiction because I found nonfiction writing to be very dry and unexciting. I’m a grant writer by profession, so my entire day is just writing facts, statistics and information. I also offer cultural sensitivity trainings for law enforcement and other groups, and one day I realized that stories have the power to change perspectives in a very unique way. So I wrote my first short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan to showcase a more positive and realistic side of my birth country. Then I got the fiction bug, and wrote several more adult manuscripts, one of which I’m still working on, and somehow stumbled into children’s storytelling. It’s really been an interesting journey.
- What are some of your favourite memories of growing up in Karachi? What are some of your favourite cities around the world to visit? How does your international experience and worldview impact your writing for children?
I have so many awesome memories, many of which I incorporated into Brick Walls. I studied in a Catholic convent called St. Joseph’s and had a really amazing education. Karachi is very cool and cosmopolitan, sort of like New York City. It’s fashionable and stylish and urban and hot and messy and so much more. I remember eating mangoes in the summer, and roasted peanuts in the winter. I remember my university and the beach we visited each year, and the food sellers on the roadside selling everything from sugarcane juice to spicy kabab. It’s just a pile of colorful memories that make it my number one destination to visit each time. I also loved Oslo when I visited last year, it’s such a sophisticated and peaceful place.
As far as writing, I think my South Asian upbringing definitely affects everything I write. There are many themes in my books that I find myself including even if I hadn’t decided on them in the beginning. Food is one. Grandparents are another. Both of these were my stalwarts growing up, and so they’re important aspects of my writing. They’re also themes that many of my young readers can identify with, because they are common in all cultures.
- Tell us a bit about your podcast. How do you believe that books can bridge cultural divides? How can readers move out of their “comfort zones”, and why is that important?
I co-host a podcast with fellow kidlit author Ann Braden, who’s a fantastic person and very dedicated to community issues. It’s called Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide and we focus on bringing book recommendations to librarians, teachers, parents and kids. In each episode Ann interviews someone – usually a teacher or a librarian but we’ve also had a young poet laureate and a spoken word artist – about their favorite books and how they bring those books to readers who may be hard to reach. Then I have a little segment called Books You Never Heard Of, where I pick a topic and recommend lesser known books on that topic.
Books – especially fiction – are a huge bridge builder. Children can learn about other cultures and religious groups in a way that’s entertaining, and doesn’t seem like work. It’s also a way to highlight issues some groups may be facing, and while I yearn for “normal” books I also realize those issue books are critical for all of us. They help us see what’s going on in other people’s lives, it opens up our own world view and shows us different perspectives. This is always important, but to me it seems that our current political environment makes it essential. It’s really up to the adults – librarians, teachers, parents – to know what sorts of diverse books are being published and make sure kids know about them. Book recommendations are one way, but also reading the books ourselves. Kids want to read what the adults are reading, so we all need to read those books that are about “the other” and encourage everyone around us to do the same.
- And of course, what’s next?
Well, the Yasmin series is ongoing, so that’s a big work-in-progress always. I’m also co-authoring a Middle Grade novel with my good friend Laura Shovan about two girls, one Muslim American and the other half-Jewish. There is a ton of food in that story, which is sort of a celebration of cultures and identity and friendship. I’m very excited about that. I also have an adult short story collection about refugees in Texas, which I’m editing for the umpteenth time, but they say that’s what a writer’s life is all about!