By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Today we’re delighted to welcome Salaam Reads editor Deeba Zargarpur and authors S.K. Ali and Linda Sarsour to the WNDB blog to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the imprint!
Deeba, S. K., and Linda, thank you so much for being a part of this interview.
Salaam Reads was founded as an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2016, and features Muslim characters and stories. In five years, Salaam Reads has sold 1 million copies, received several awards, and holds many best-selling titles. Salaam Reads also presents books from diverse authors.
Deeba, tell us a bit about yourself and how you align with the Salaam Reads mission.
Deeba Zargarpur: I’m an editor at Salaam Reads and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and I acquire across all genres in picture books, middle grade, young adult, and graphic novels. When executive editor Zareen Jaffery and publisher Justin Chanda launched Salaam Reads in 2016, the imprint’s goal was to offer Muslim children, across a wide variety of lived experiences, the chance to see themselves positively reflected in literature, and as Zareen said at the time, to “plant seeds of empathy” in non-Muslim readers.
Growing up, it was rare to see myself in books and if I did, it was unlikely that the author shared my Muslim identity. In my childhood and young adult years, I never saw my identity being celebrated. There was nothing that balanced the stories of pain and hardship. Yes, there is great importance for Muslim stories that do not shy away from the harsh realities that come with our lived experiences, but when the market does not also invest in joy, in celebration, in hope within Muslim stories, the outcome can be very damaging for young Muslims. It was for me, which is why Salaam Reads is so important to me. Every child deserves to feel seen, to be celebrated, to be the hero of their own story, and most importantly, to have hope for a brighter and better tomorrow. I am so thankful to be a part of this imprint and to continue to publish books that invite all readers to admire and celebrate the Muslim experience—the highs and lows, the moments of joy and grief, and every emotion that falls in between—in the hope of finding the threads that bind us all together as people.
As I read through the titles Salaam Reads has published, not only are the books celebratory of Muslim identity, but they are diverse, inclusive, current, and also present quality written talent. Each story is unique and presents an image of the Muslim individual in a variety of contexts. Your books are not catered to only Muslims, but to all readers.
As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop once stated, “Children need books that are mirrors that allow them to see themselves and their own experiences, windows that they look through to see other worlds that they can then compare to their own, and sliding glass doors that allow them to enter other worlds.” This statement holds true for all of Salaam Reads’ books.
What upcoming titles can our readers look forward to?
Deeba: I’m so glad you asked because I am bursting with excitement to talk about our upcoming books releasing in 2022 and 2023. 😊 Many beloved Salaam Reads authors are returning, some with continuations of fan-favorite stories, others with something totally new. And we have some exciting debut voices on the list as well. In 2022, we’re thrilled to be publishing S.K. Ali’s sequel to accoladed novel Love from A to Z. Fan-favorite characters Adam and Zayneb continue their love story in Love from Mecca to Medina, which takes them on a spiritual journey together. From Hanna Alkaf, author of award winner The Weight of Our Sky, comes Queen of the Tiles, a gripping murder mystery set during an intense Scrabble competition, in which teen Najwa Bakri must investigate the mysterious death of her best friend when her Instagram comes back to life with cryptic posts and messages a year after her death.
In picture books, from beloved Mommy’s Khimar author, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, comes Abdul’s Story, a charming and encouraging picture book about a little boy who loves storytelling but struggles with writing until he learns that it’s okay to make mistakes.
In middle grade, we are thrilled to be working with Women’s March co-organizer and activist Linda Sarsour on a nonfiction book titled We’re in This Together, an inspiring and empowering young readers’ edition of her memoir, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders. In this edition for a younger audience, Linda shares the memories that shaped her into the activist she is today, and how these pivotal moments in her life led her to being an organizer in one of the largest single-day protests in U.S. history.
And looking ahead to early 2023, I can’t wait to share The Love Match, by debut author Priyanka Taslim, with readers. It’s a heartfelt young adult rom-com about Bangladeshi-American Zahra Khan, who is exasperated when her meddling mother arranges a match to secure their family’s financial security—just as Zahra is falling in love with someone else. It’s frothy and fun, and sure to delight any reader who loves a good romance.
Salaam means peace, but I also see peace as a means to bring people together. As we come together we learn to collaborate and learn to appreciate one another. We see and experience that there is strength in diversity.
What are some themes Salaams Reads would like to expand further to support diversity through Muslim characters?
Deeba: I am so proud of the Salaam Reads list thus far, but the truth is we have only published a drop in an ocean of stories that are waiting for their moment in the spotlight. There is no one lived Muslim experience, and it is a priority for the imprint to continue expanding our footprint into more genres and formats of books that widen the lens of what a Muslim story can be. I would love to see more stories on our list that highlight the diversity within the Muslim community—to publish more authors whose lived or ancestral experiences are rooted in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, northern and central Asia, Eastern Europe, and more. Muslims exist all over the globe, and I’d love to continue to highlight their stories across all genres.
What advice would you give aspiring authors? What are some common obstacles you have seen aspiring authors get into?
Deeba: I know this might sound cliché, but it’s what I’ve lived by my whole life: never give up. Keep writing your stories, and keep trying, no matter how many rejections you may receive, your words are worth it to keep going. We know the path to publication can be a difficult one, especially for those who’ve historically been shut out of the industry. There are so many barriers to entry that can make it almost impossible for marginalized authors to find their way in. Some of the biggest barriers, to me, are time and access to information. It takes both to seek out and secure literary representation, and we recognize that many Muslim creators may not have access to the time and/or information to go through that process, which is why we have an open submission policy for Muslim authors not represented by literary agents. Our submission guidelines can be found at our website, www.salaamreads.com.
What do you envision for the next five years for Salaam Reads?
Deeba: It feels incredibly momentous to think about what the next five years holds for Salaam Reads. Looking to the future, it’s been my goal to further expand on what the imprint has already been doing beautifully, by continuing to publish books that serve young people. In addition to seeking out unpublished creators, we are also excited to keep growing our current list of authors. Most of the writers and illustrators on Salaam Reads’ first lists were debuts, and it began as an imprint that showcased new talent. As we move into the next chapter of the Salaam Reads story, I’m excited for us to keep growing these established names while cultivating new talent, and to explore further how the imprint can foster longevity for our authors.
S.K., thank you for taking part in this interview as well. Your debut book Saints and Misfits (2017) along with Love from A to Z (2019), Misfits in Love (2021) and your upcoming book Love from Mecca to Medina (2022) are all published by Salaam Reads. Through your writing journey you have become an award-winning, as well as a New York Times-bestselling author.
How has Salaam Reads been a platform to present your authentic voice through your writing?
S.K.: Salaam Reads was established to be a welcoming home for Muslim voices in publishing; this raison d’etre helped me set out confidently when I began my author journey. I was fortunate to work with the visionary editor who launched Salaam Reads, Zareen Jaffery, for my first two novels—Saints and Misfits and Love from A to Z—and at all times in the editing process, felt strongly validated in the way I wanted to tell my stories: with an unapologetically Muslim lens. I’m happy to report I got to continue this with my new editor, Kendra Levin, for both Misfit in Love and Love from Mecca to Medina. This aspect of working with Salaam Reads, I believe, is key in putting out stories that resonate strongly with Muslim readers as well as non-Muslim ones.
As I read through your YA books, you present a variety of themes. From feelings of love, social dilemmas to racism and islamophobia—readers experience what many young adults experience, but through the Muslim perspective. I have to admit, I snickered when I read at the beginning of Love From A to Z the note to your readers, “This is a love story. You’ve been warned”—knowing that some themes can be sensitive in nature.
What are the messages you like to convey through your writing? Why do you choose to write about these themes?
S.K.: I like to write about the aha moments in life; we get plenty throughout our life of course but the ones we get when we’re young, in our teens and early twenties, are, in my mind, searing experiences that have a great impact in shaping who we become and how we choose to navigate through life. I like to explore how we evolve to be stronger, more resilient, make decisions, choose to love or not to, and confront our own inner struggles while being confronted with external ones. Ultimately, I like to write about hope.
Where do you hone your inspiration for your books?
S.K.: I find inspiration in small moments and people and relationships. And art, particularly the art inherent in everyday life—from the way someone arranges the items on their bookshelves to the plants they give prime spots to in their homes to the way they put their spoon down after stirring their tea. Just those little moments that are artful even when they’re not meant to be; they capture personalities and thus create characters in my head…and characters are where I start all my writing from.
Your upcoming book Love From Mecca to Medina is coming out in the fall of this year. What themes will you touch upon and how will it be different from your other books?
S.K.: Love from Mecca to Medina is about that old saying (forgive me as I don’t know who said it and Google hasn’t been able to help me with the task, either): we travel to find what we had at home all along. The story in this sequel to Love from A to Z moves through three continents and ends—at home—in one.
I actually don’t know how this book will be different—except that people who’ve read it have all told me the same thing: it’s unputdownable and deeply spiritual and wildly romantic. (Which I’m thrilled to hear because I think that is a pretty exciting combination. And because I’m happy to contribute to breaking the taboo of writing spirituality in YA books; teens are spiritual people too!) (Also, yay Muslim-romance, the unputdownable kind!)
Linda, thank you for taking the time to be part of this interview as well. You have your upcoming book We’re in This Together: A Young Readers Edition of We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders, coming out this fall from Salaam Reads. You’re also not new to Salaam Reads, as you were also featured in Saira Mir’s book Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time.
Tell us a bit about We’re in This Together and what encouraged you to publish a young readers edition?
Linda Sarsour: Our next generation has lived through perpetual wars, racial unrest, heightened Islamophobia, racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, and a global pandemic. We’re In This Together is my love letter to young people all over the world during difficult times. My book is to not shy away from hard subjects but to remind young people that we are in this together. My mission for We’re In this Together is to instill a sense of worth in young people so they can be unapologetically themselves even when the world may not understand them and that they have everything necessary to make this world a better place for everyone. This young reader edition means a lot to me because it is a book I wish I had growing up as a daughter of immigrants and Muslim in New York City.
How do you feel your upcoming book for middle grade students is in alignment with Salaam Reads’ mission?
Linda: Growing up, I did not have access to many books written about and by Muslim authors. Salaam Reads’ mission is to ensure that more young people have access to the stories and voices of those who have often been marginalized. Arab, Muslim, Palestinian women voices are on the fringes and unless parents and teachers are actively seeking these stories, they may never find their way in to homes and classrooms. Salaam Reads, with the support of Simon & Schuster, provides a necessary and thoughtful platform for Muslim authors and stories to emerge. I am honored and humbled to be part of the Salaam Reads family.
The titles of both of your books We’re in This Together and We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders (Simon & Schuster, 2020) encourage action and change. Many times, when we see a large task in front of us it can become intimidating. However, when we break a task apart and work collaboratively, honouring inclusion and diversity, we find strength.
What inspired you to title your books in this way?
Linda: The way I show up in the world is defined in two ways—fighting against injustice and in unequivocal solidarity with others. We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders is a call to action, asking everyone to ascend to a higher moral and courageous place to never be bystanders to injustice around them and We’re in This Together is an ode to the power of solidarity and that even through the darkest of times, building relationships, standing with one another, learning empathy will get us through every time.
As I read your book We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders, you touch upon important people in your life and those who made a difference to the greater community. From your family to Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who was wrongfully accused of being part of the 9/11 attacks and was later known to have died saving lives in those same attacks, to Basemah’s active role in the community.
How did you capture the essence of your messages from We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders in We’re in This Together for younger readers?
Linda: When conceptualizing We’re in This Together, I drew some stories from We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders that I felt were necessary and can be made accessible to younger audiences. I also shared other stories that were not in my memoir that I felt could illustrate important themes like solidarity, fighting for what one believes in and how to be unapologetically yourself even when others are uncomfortable with who you are. Young people should not be sheltered from realities, yet they should be loved enough to be taught to navigate a world of racism, xenophobia, and more. We have to be invested in our young people as the leaders we seek and we must educate them and instill in them principles of love, empathy and solidarity. I hope this book does just that.
You talked about an essay written by your son, “Life is Like a Nascar Race,” in We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders—recounting his experiences with hostilities in his class as a 13-year-old. Even though he was going to a very diverse school, he experienced slurs towards his identity as a Muslim when he was simply demonstrating his knowledge to solve a difficult math problem.
Restorative justice strategies in schools can help address many social justice issues. As an activist, how do you think your book We’re in This Together could be a vehicle for educators to use to address social justice issues in the classroom?
Linda: We’re in This Together is a resource for teachers who are looking to have important discussions in classrooms about racism, solidarity, immigration, and more. This book provides access through real-life stories and events to give perspective and challenge misconceptions that many young people may be exposed to. I believe this book will be a conversation starter on difficult issues that will root young people in empathy and the importance of seeing their fellow students as people that may be different but that they should still care about. We’re In This Together also has information boxes where we define terms and also share important facts about social justice and/or Islam. I hope every middle grade teacher decides to bring this book to their classroom because I guarantee it will spark important discussions and open the minds of our next generation to facilitate them into great leaders who decide to contribute to their communities.
Deeba, S. K., and Linda, is there anything else you would like to share with our readers at WNDB?
Linda: I wanted to leave readers with my favorite quote that centers me in the work that I do and also in the message I hope is conveyed in We’re in This Together:
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” — Lilla Watson
S.K.: Just that Muslim stories are varied and plentiful and to make sure to read narratives that don’t necessarily resonate with a Eurocentric and/or secular perspective on life; while Muslim cultures are diverse (including European), there are some central articles of the faith that all Muslims ascribe to (even if they don’t practice them all the time) and, the truth is, these often don’t “make sense” to wider society in North America/Europe but make sense to millions of Muslims—such as not drinking, maintaining respectful boundaries in a relationship before nikah, the centrality of prayers and fasting, etc. I’m excited that more publishers are now recognizing these aspects of being Muslim and publishing books with this understanding in mind—like the upcoming Salat in Secret by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, about a boy trying to find a place to pray in the midst of a busy school day.
If we’re truly open to diversity in publishing, it can’t be diversity that only “makes sense” to the white gaze; it has to make sense to those communities being represented. It has to be what they cherish, what’s distinct about their identities too.
Deeba, S. K., and Linda, thank you for your time and sharing your insights.
Thank you, Salaam Reads, for the work you have done so far and providing the platform for Muslim authors to share their stories. A special thanks to all the authors (Hena Khan, Hanna Alkaf, Mark Gonzales, J. Harris, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, S.K. Ali, Aisha Saeed, Rukhsanna Guidroz, Karuna Riazi, Saira Mir, A.E. Ali, Bana Alabed, Radhiah Chowdhury and Linda Sarsour) and illustrators who have published under this special and unique Simon & Schuster imprint.
Congratulations on your fifth anniversary. We look forward to the titles that will be coming out, and for your continued success.
Deeba Zargarpur enthusiastically joined Simon & Schuster in March 2020. A graduate of Drexel University, Deeba began her editorial career at Disney Publishing Worldwide, where she worked on both middle grade and young adult titles, including a few New York Times bestsellers. Then, she took a detour into book packaging, where she created and edited a wide range of children’s and adult literature. Her aim is to acquire commercial books that empower young people from diverse backgrounds. Follow Deeba on Twitter and Instagram at @deebazargarpur.
S.K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits, a finalist for the American Library Association’s 2018 William C. Morris Award and the winner of the APALA Honor Award and Middle East Book Honor Award; and Love from A to Z, a Today show Read with Jenna Book Club selection. Both novels were named best YA books of the year by various media including Entertainment Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is also the author of Misfit in Love. You can find Sajidah online at SKAliBooks.com and follow her on Instagram @SKAliBooks, TikTok @SKAliBooks, and on Twitter at @SajidahWrites. Love From Mecca to Medina goes on sale October 18, 2022.
Linda Sarsour is a Brooklyn-born Palestinian Muslim American community organizer and mother of three. Recognized for her award-winning intersectional work, she served as national cochair of the Women’s March, helping to organize the largest single-day protest in US history. She is the former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York and cofounder of the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPower Change, as well as Until Freedom, a national racial justice organization working with Black and Brown communities across the country. We’re In This Together goes on sale November 29, 2022.
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.