By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Today we’re thrilled to welcome Shirin Shamsi to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story, illustrated by Manal Mirza and out March 29, 2022!
Shirin, thank you so much for your time in speaking with WNDB. Let’s jump right in by telling us a bit about yourself.
Thank you for having me, Yasmine. I was born and raised in the UK, to Pakistani parents. I moved to the US over thirty years ago with my husband, where we have raised our three children here in the Chicago suburbs. I have a background in Early Childhood, so children have always been my main focus. I began writing for children when I became a mother, as I wanted my children to see themselves represented in books.
Where did you get your inspiration to write Zahra’s Blessing?
Growing up in London, I was the only Pakistani in my class. I never saw myself represented in books, or television or anywhere really. I felt it keenly when I became a mother. I wanted to fill this gaping void—so my children would have books about their cultural heritage. I began with a story about Ramadan. I originally named it A Teddy for Eid. It was very different from the final version. I received a one-page ‘champagne’ rejection in 2002. But I didn’t realise how thoughtful and helpful it was at the time. I had a lot of learning and growing to do before my story was ready for the world. I’m so happy how it has turned out, even if it did take twenty years and has changed so much in the revision process.
Wow, that’s amazing. I guess a lot of times stories are like that. You start off with something, but then what you end up with changes through the thought process.
Definitely, I began with the teddy bear as the protagonist in the original draft. It took me years before I shifted the perspective. And the story is totally different now, with added layers. Writing is all about editing and revision. Ideas come to you and you jot them down. Once you have a rough draft, the story may change many times. At least, that is how my writing seems to work.
In your book you highlight concepts of the Islamic faith and traditions. What is your hope that readers would take away from this very heartwarming story?
I hope readers will see a positive representation of Islam and Muslims. I also want all children to experience what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop calls ‘Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors’ to enrich their worldview in countless ways—which will inspire more empathy.
I truly hope Zahra’s Blessing resonates with every reader, because essentially it’s a human story. Different faith traditions and cultures enrich our world, and highlight our connectedness as human beings.
I hope my story ‘Opens Hearts and Minds,’ just as do all the books published by Barefoot Books. This has been their passion from the start, to showcase diversity in all its beauty. It is such an honour to have my book published by this wonderful company. It really is a dream come true for me. I discovered Barefoot Books in the ’90s and dreamed of one day having my book included in their beautiful collection.
It’s so important to humanise things and to bring us back to question what do we ultimately seek? Many of us strive for happiness, meaningful connections, and to bring good to our communities. That’s why I think your book is very heartwarming. It brings us back to the basics.
Thank you, Yasmine. I appreciate that. As human beings, we all have the same needs and experience the same emotions. Zahra’s Blessing is a universal story, with universal themes of family, loss, giving to others, and gratitude.
You touch upon the loss asylum seekers experience. You convey this as Haleema remembers aspects of her life in the past tense. Why did you choose to incorporate this in your story?
It’s a theme very close to my heart. And it is still relevant today, with displaced refugees seeking asylum. It’s heartbreaking to see children torn away from their homes and families. My grandparents left India during the 1947 Partition of British India. They were forced to flee their home and my mother still recalls the trauma of that experience, of leaving everything behind, and of not knowing if they would survive, or where they would have their next meal.
It is a painful reality and we cannot hide reality from our children any more than we can protect them from life’s vicissitudes. I think picture books are the best way to bring difficult topics to children.
Absolutely. You definitely feel the emotions through your words. There’s a line in your book that says, “Haleema’s eyes held a sadness that was deeper than an ocean.” I read your story to my son and he picked up on Haleema’s loss. It really hit a spot in the heart, which encouraged reflection and discussion. It was inspiring to read the progression of the story, and how Zahra’s interaction with Haleema developed.
As a fellow educator, I found your connection with the illustrator, Manal Mirza, amazing. I only realised this when I read the illustrator’s note at the end of the book. Can you elaborate further on how you knew Manal and how your collaboration for this book came to be?
It is the editor who chooses the illustrator. When Lisa Rosinsky, the wonderful editor at Barefoot Books, told me she had found an illustrator who also happened to live in Chicago, I thought it was a neat coincidence.
Then Lisa emailed me and said she wanted to share something and asked if she could call me. Of course, I agreed. Lisa then told me that Manal remembered me from when she was six years old. She remembered that I had read my own illustrated story to her. Hearing this gave me goosebumps and I was moved to tears. It highlighted the fact that everything we do, no matter how small, has ripple effects in the world. It was a reminder that what we do doesn’t go to waste. Just think of how books impact a child. It was humbling, and so gratifying. This is exactly why I write books for children. I want to make a difference. A positive difference in every child’s life.
Absolutely. When you dedicate your heart towards something, it just has a different meaning. When you do your writing, you have your heart there. It’s because you want to, you want to actually make a difference and you want to communicate to the world another perspective. As a fellow educator, I found your connection with Manal amazing which makes the book so much more than just the story.
Manal is such a talented artist and illustrator. Her illustrations bring my words to life on the page. I am so very grateful for this wonderful collaboration—it really is a blessing!
She definitely did bring your words to life. Through her choice of colours, detail, and charming rosy cheeks, her illustrations have a very distinctive style. She also illustrated the Malala Yousefzai Little People, Big Dreams book in a similar manner.
What are three words you would use to describe your book?
Faith, Hope, Family.
These are words from my heart—and they inform my writing. Everything I do stems from my deep faith. My family is my greatest blessing—and they give me hope.
After Zahra’s Blessing do you have any upcoming books?
In August, in time for the 75th anniversary of the Partition of British India, my picture book The Moon from Dehradun (Atheneum) will be released. It was inspired by my mother’s personal childhood experience. I’m so grateful to have been able to share my mother’s story with the world.
What tools do you use to help facilitate your writing?
I like to keep things around me in my workspace for inspiration. I have my father’s typewriter beside me, which is as old as I am. On the bookshelf are my father’s books. When I write I feel his spirit close to me and it gives me a profound sense of purpose, knowing that our words will be here long after we are gone. I hope they will continue to inspire others.
For more practical tools, I stay connected with my critique partners, who are invaluable. I keep learning through attending webinars and SCBWI conferences. I keep immersed in all things related to writing. And it all helps feed my creativity.
On days when I feel stuck, I set a timer for 30 minutes and just keep writing.
How do you find ways to develop as a writer?
My critique partners are amazing. I can’t imagine writing without their support and advice. I have been a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) for twelve years now. The community of 12X12, begun in 2012, offers invaluable monthly webinars and endless resources for writers. I continue to register for classes because I want to keep learning and growing as a writer.
What are your favourite picture books for children?
I really love Barefoot Books. When I saw that they had a community bookseller programme, I signed up to become a Community Bookseller—and have been sharing these books for over 11 years now. Some of my favourite Barefoot Books titles are:
Whole Whale by Karen Yin
A Gift for Amma by Meera Sriram
Dance Like A Leaf by A. J. Irving
The Girl with a Brave Heart by Rita Jahanforuz
One City, Two Brothers by Chris Smith
The Boy who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz
These books have so much depth, and have many layers of learning, including social and emotional learning.
What motivates you to write?
Children inspire and motivate me. They are the harbingers of the future and if my books can inspire empathy, kindness and an appreciation for the beauty and diversity in our world, then all my efforts are worth it. The world will be better with more empathy and kindness.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write without any critical voice in your head. No original draft will be perfect. But you will have words on the page that you can improve on. It’s important to trust your creativity and write without judgement. Pour everything out onto the page. Then the revision begins. You are sculpting words to find the gem. Keep that persistence. After my rejection in 2002, I persisted for 20 years. If I had given up on that teddy bear story, we wouldn’t have Zahra’s Blessing. So I’m very grateful that I didn’t give up.
When Shirin Shamsi became a mother, she began writing stories her own children would see themselves in. Through sharing stories from her heritage, she hopes to inspire an appreciation for all the diversity of our beautiful planet. Shirin currently lives in the city of Darien, Illinois, USA, with her husband and cat. When she’s not busy writing for children, Shirin spends her days sharing her love of Barefoot Books as an independent bookseller in her community.
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.