Interview with author Alexandra Alessandri
by Aya Khalil
Isabel and her Colores Go To School author, Alexandra Alessandri shares the importance of bilingual picture books and how her experiences are weaved into her writing.
Aya: Hi Alexandra! I am so excited to interview you today for our blog. Your second picture book, Isabel and her Colores Go to School, comes out on July 15th. Would you please tell our readers a brief summary of your picture book?
Alexandra: Thank you so much for having me on the blog, Aya! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is about Isabel, who’s nervous about starting school and making friends because she doesn’t speak English. Isabel is artistic and processes emotions and language through color, both of which help her navigate—and ultimately bridge—the language divide.
Aya: I love that the book is bilingual and when I read the advanced reader copy, I was filled with so many emotions. I have a background in teaching English as a second language, so I've taught many English Language Learners. You're an educator yourself. Is this picture book based on any real experiences?
Alexandra: This made my day—thank you! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is based on my own experience of starting kindergarten in New York City while not knowing English. My story was slightly different—I literally got lost in school because I didn’t understand the teacher—but I tried to bring those emotions to Isabel’s story. And, as an educator at a college with a large number of students who are English Language Learners, I know this is a story that is true for many immigrants and children of immigrants.
Aya: I love that it's written in both English and Spanish. How was the process like? Did you write the manuscript in both languages or did you need a translator? How was it like going on submission with a bilingual book?
Alexandra: I’m incredibly excited that this will be a bilingual book. I wrote and submitted Isabel and Her Colores in English with Spanish sprinkled in, as this code-switching is a natural part of my own way of speaking. My wonderful editor suggested it be published as a bilingual text, and it was everything I didn’t realize I wanted. I had the opportunity to translate the story then, and I’m grateful to have had my family and fellow Spanish-speaking authors who helped me where I stumbled.
Aya: Wow I love that your editor made that suggestion! I’ve noticed there are some recurring themes in your picture books that I definitely relate to. Being introverted, finding your voice and being multicultural. Why do you think these themes are important nowadays?
Alexandra: As a shy introvert who is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, these themes are personal to me, and I think (hope!) they speak to many others. Often, kids who are shy and introverted aren’t receiving the message that their voices and ideas matter, too, and I think it’s important for them to know their voices matter, too.
As for the theme of being multicultural, one of the reasons it’s important for me personally to write about Colombian American characters is because I grew up with the microaggressions that came with being Colombian in the 80s and 90s—the jokes, innuendoes, and stereotypes—and I hated it. It’s perhaps why I’m determined to share other stories of the Colombian and Colombian American experience. Nowadays, it’s more important than ever that we push back against the “single story” and show the beautiful tapestry of the human experience.
Aya: I absolutely agree! What are some challenges you have faced in the publishing world, or just in general, as a Colombian American?
Alexandra: I think I’ve been lucky in terms of how my characters and stories have been received in the publishing world, though that might be in part because I embraced writing from my cultural identity around the time that the push for diverse stories grew. However, when I first started writing (with a YA fantasy!) I didn’t see a place for my reality in that genre. Even now, the number of Colombian/Colombian American stories are limited, especially in the fantasy genre. I’m hoping to see that change.
Aya: It’s definitely because you’re a great writer! Why do you write children's books?
Alexandra: Because I want to help raise readers. Books were always a refuge for me as a kid, and I want to offer children stories a place of solace in a world that is often hard.
Aya: What would you tell writers of color who are nervous to put their words out there for the world to see and get their work published?
Alexandra: It can be scary because it’s so easy to think our stories don’t matter, that no one’s going to want to read about our realities. But they do! Our stories and experiences are important, they’re enough, and they can be that lifeline for a child who might not see themselves in the literature they read. (On the flip side, we don’t only have to write about our lived realities. We should not be boxed in!)
Aya: Yes, absolutely! Is there anything else you're working on that you're allowed to tell our readers?
Alexandra: I have some exciting things happening, but nothing I can say right now. I’m hoping to be able to share soon, though!
Aya: Fair enough - publishing is so secretive ha! Where can people find you on social media?
Alexandra: I’m infrequently on Twitter and Instagram, but I love connecting with readers, teachers, and authors!
Aya: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I can’t wait until I get my physical copy of this beautiful book that is much needed in the world!
Alexandra Alessandri is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman) and Isabel and Her Colores go to School (Sleeping Bear Press). The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also an Associate Professor of English at Broward College and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.
People often ask me about my writing process for a picture book (PB), including this question, which always trips me up: How do you go from an idea to a complete draft of a PB? I know the person asking is often looking for a strategy, but I never know how to simply describe my strategy in a clear way except to call it “gathering.” This article is my attempt to lay it out. Maybe, it will be useful to some writers out there. At the very least, I hope it will be entertaining.
Strategies That Don’t Work for Me: Pantsing or Outlining
Lots of PB creators simply dive in and draft. Theoretically, pantsing a PB of less than 1000 words is easy compared to a 50,000+ novel. Yet and still, it has a lot of the same pitfalls for writers like me: it leads to unfocused, meandering writing. For me, it means never getting to the end of the story and probably getting bored.
Other authors outline. Hundreds of great PB templates exist on the internet. However, I’ve always found outlining a picture book painstaking. If I try to structure a new story idea, I experience a lot of creative blocks and can’t figure out how to move forward. I need some messiness to generate ideas.
My Strategy: Gathering
Because the two methods above don’t work for me, I gather. Another way to explain my process is intensive brainstorming–it’s days of brainstorming–and gathering or collecting my notes from that brainstorming.
To show what I mean by this, I found old notebooks where I gathered brainstorms for Your Name is a Song and took pictures.
Yeah... I wrote pieces for Your Name is a Song in four notebooks... on random pages, interspersed with diary entries, random lists, and brainstorms for other books!
Did I mention I struggle with organization?
Through looking back at these old scribblings, I was able to figure out just what I am doing during my process, and I’m proud to say I did organize that process here!
1. A Very Long Free Write (maybe multiple)
I started out knowing that I wanted to write a book called, Your Name is a Song, but had no idea what the story was about. That title came to me as I was reflecting on a child’s beautiful name, and I decided to write a story that could fit that title.
These are some pages from an almost five-page free write I did to get ideas. Free writing means quickly writing all of your ideas during a set time period without stopping to edit those thoughts. I find writing without self-censoring a therapeutic way to start a book. It took me at least two free writing periods to have a clear direction for Your Name is a Song.
2. Writing Down Words, Phrases, and Sentences I Want in the Book
Once I pinned down that Your Name is a Song would feature many names from multiple cultures, I was constantly making random name lists.
In addition to important words, or in this case names, I will write sentences, phrases, and major ideas I want to put in any book. I don’t necessarily know how or where these will fit in the narrative but I jot them down. Here, I was focusing on language around made-up names.
3. Notes of Encouragement
Finding old notes to myself made this dig into old notebooks pretty special. I, like many authors, often doubt myself while writing a book. I write myself encouraging notes when I’m having those moments. I think they’re an important part of the process.
I hesitated to share the note I found in the middle of my brainstorming. It makes me blush. The language is so lofty, and it talks about my work as genius . However, when I’m having a moment when I don’t feel good enough to write something, I need a note to lean into grandiosity. (And authors, if the note is helpful to you in your own writing, please use it!)
There are no limits to genius. Because it [genius] isn’t yours. But you can hold on to and grasp as many pieces of this infinite mass [of genius] if you want it enough. If you crave it enough. You can create this work of art because it is there to be created.
4. Asking Myself Questions
My questions are interspersed throughout my brainstorming pieces. They are in my freewrites. They are in places where I wrote about scenes. An important question to ask yourself again and again throughout this pre-writing process is “why?”
Here I ask myself: Should I give [my MC] a name? I answer: Shaherazadrina. Of course, I later changed that!
5. Write Messy Versions of Two Key Scenes (typically from the beginning and the end)
I write quick and short versions of scenes. From this photo, you can see just how short sometimes. The important thing at this stage is not that I’ve written a long detailed complete scene but that I have a clear idea in my head of the complete scene.
Here I am teasing out the beginning scene of the book when the girl stomps and say “I never want to go back there again!”
Time to Draft!
After gathering ideas, words, and scenes, I have a good sense of my picture book. I know where it’s going and what it needs to do. I know and love my characters. And I am DYING to finally write the thing. When I have to write the story, I know my idea gathering is done.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based educator and children’s book author. Her works, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She writes picture books and middle grade fiction. Her books include Mommy’s Khimar, Once Upon an Eid (contributor), Your Name is a Song, and Abdul’s Story. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years.
What inspired you to write Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
The idea first came to me one warm spring evening. As I strolled through the neighborhood with my family, I kept hearing a squishy popping sound. I wondered what it was and tried to find out. No one else seemed to hear it. After many more walks, and research, I learned that I’d been hearing worms!
What if I wrote a story about that? After watching my students on the playground and other kids in the neighborhood, I wanted to capture their imaginative play, and the way they invent whole worlds with very little. Along with memories of my own childhood, playing outside with my siblings, Jayden’s character emerged—though he wasn’t yet named Jayden. The worms didn’t survive the many drafts, but the idea of a kid who noticed those kinds of details in nature, did.
Jayden lives in an urban setting which makes it difficult for him to connect with nature, but you provide ways to make that happen for children like planting runner beans in a milk jug. Where did these great ideas come from?
On my walks, I notice all kinds of planters, bird feeders, and bird houses. The hand made ones usually catch my attention first. I love seeing how others recycle materials. There are lots of great ideas online as well. It’s amazing how many different ways people can use milk jugs!
Growing up, we decorated old cans and bottles and boxes all the time. We used what we had. It’s essential to recycle, but I think it’s important to show children the joy and satisfaction in using your hands to make things.
Jayden forms a friendship with an elder neighbor who also enjoys being out in nature. Tell us why that relationship is important in the story?
Their relationship is special because it’s formed by shared interests. Jayden and Mr. Curtis become allies, each helping the other enjoy the outdoors even more. Their relationship is mutually beneficial. At times, Jayden helps Mr. Curtis. Other times, Mr. Curtis helps Jayden. Jayden is interested in hearing Mr. Curtis’s memories and Mr. Curtis enjoys creating new stories with Jayden. Their intergenerational relationship highlights the respect for elders in African American culture.
The illustrations by Ken Daley are vibrant and colorful. Tell us about your illustrations and working with Ken.
Though I had expressed a few art preferences before production began, typically, authors are not in direct communication with the illustrator. The creative director thought Ken’s style would suit the story best and relayed info and questions through the editor to me and vise versa.
I was thrilled when I first saw Ken’s sketches. They were in black and white, and so energetic and expressive. He conveyed so much so swiftly. But that was just the beginning. I was blown away when Ken added color. His palette is so bright and expansive that Jayden and Mr. Curtis nearly jump off the page!
I loved Ken’s vision of Jayden, Mr. Curtis, Mama, and the neighbors. They were all clearly depicted as individuals that you might actually meet down the street in your neighborhood. Yet his style is also playful. I loved his animals too: the bird at the window, the curious rabbit.
That’s one of the reasons why I love picture books. You get to work with a wonderfully creative team of people, each adding something to produce a beautiful book that young readers can hold in their hands. Ken’s illustrations truly bring Jayden to life.
What do you hope children learn or take away from Jayden’s Impossible Garden?
I hope children see themselves as heroes of their own stories, no matter how fantastical the vision or how humble the actual setting. I hope children gain an appreciation for elders in their life and the role they can have in building relationships. I hope Jayden sparks more creative play and exploration of nature nearby. I hope children are inspired to cultivate community with their human AND nature neighbors.
What are you working on next?
Jayden may have another adventure or two in the works! I’m also working on another picture book biography, this time in collaboration with a poet. And, I’m always researching and writing other topics that bounce into my brain!
Mélina Mangal has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden. Mélina also works as a school library media teacher in Minnesota and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family.
If you’d like to learn more about Mélina Mangal please visit her social media links below!
Interview with Sarah Kamya, founder of Little Free Diverse Libraries
by Lisa Stringfellow
I'm excited to welcome Sarah Kamya, the founder of the Little Free Diverse Libraries movement. As a steward of a Little Free Library myself, I was inspired by Sarah's work to build a Little Free Library in my community that served a two-fold need; that of BIPOC children who needed to see themselves reflected in the books they read and that of BIPOC authors and illustrators whose work I wanted to amplify. My library, The Little Free Kidlit Library, launched in April in my home of Hyde Park, MA and I'm so excited to have Sarah here to talk about her journey and what inspired her to start this movement!
Lisa: What was the inspiration behind Little Free Diverse Libraries?
Sarah: I was inspired to start Little Free Diverse Libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. After many weeks in isolation I found myself passing the same three Little Free Libraries on my nightly strolls, and as someone who has always been an avid reader and book lover, I would always stop to see what books were inside. When the murder of George Floyd occurred on May 25th, I knew I had to do something within my community. Fueled by the current tide of civil justice, I had the idea to create and install a Little Free Library to amplify and empower Black and Brown voices within my community of Arlington, MA. I wanted to create a Little Free Library where the only books that filled the library were books featuring diverse characters, written by BIPOC authors, purchased from Black-owned bookstores. I set out to normalize diverse stories and bring diverse narratives to the forefront, especially for Black and brown youth, who so often cannot find themselves represented in literature. My mission throughout this project has been to amplify and empower diverse voices, one book at a time.
Lisa: You're also an educator. How has that influenced your work?
Sarah: As a school counselor at a Title 1 Elementary School in New York City, the majority of the students I work with are Black and brown, and come from low-income communities. My work as a school counselor involves teaching coping skills, helping one build self-confidence, stress management, and more. My work in this field has influenced my work with Little Free Libraries significantly. I strongly believe that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. With a lack of representation of BIPOC characters in literature, the children I work with are significantly being impacted. As I continue to work with future change-makers, leaders, and activists, I am passionate about elevating their voices, and helping them see their worth. This can be as simple as seeing a character that looks like them, that becomes an astronaut for a day or goes on an adventure with their grandmother. When I was growing up I did not have books and resources where I saw myself. This impacted me greatly, and it is not something I want my students, or any other BIPOC individual to face.
Lisa: What’s been the biggest surprise about this project?
Sarah: The biggest surprise about this project has been the outpour of love and support across the United States and Canada. I have connected with a Little Free Library lover or steward in all 50 states, and have been able to send diverse books to fill a Little Free Library in every state. This connection and impact is something that goes beyond me. The books that enter these Little Free Libraries are shared, borrowed, held tight, and passed along. Knowing that these diverse books are in the hands of many across the country is unbelievable. I have also loved connecting with people on Instagram. There are so many incredible humans doing amazing work. I feel so lucky to be connected to other diverse book lovers and those who are continuing to support this project.
Lisa: What books have been popular in your own Little Free Library?
Sarah: In my Little Free Diverse Library in Arlington, MA books are constantly leaving and new books are being returned weekly. Since we live five minutes from one of the elementary schools, the library can be a frequent stop on the way to or from school. Many families can be seen stopped outside the library selecting books, trading books, and promising to return back another day when they have a book to leave. Some of the most popular books have been, Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, Becoming by Michelle Obama, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.
Lisa: How do you select titles to include? How do you keep your library/libraries stocked?
Sarah: When selecting books I like to mix between children’s books, young adult books, and adult books. As of lately there are more children’s books in the library as I am focusing on collecting books for children, and find that there is so much to learn and take away from a children's book. We keep a back-stock of books so that the library is never empty, and thanks to the Amazon wishlist people have been kind enough to send books to our house.
Lisa: What’s your favorite story about the Little Free Diverse Libraries project?
Sarah: This is a hard one! I mean meeting Ryan Seacrest and Kelly Ripa was pretty spectacular…. But I would have to say the day I installed the Little Free Diverse Library. My Little Free Diverse Library is installed in the front yard of my family's home in Arlington, MA. This home is where I grew up, where I was raised, where I was the only Black girl in school until 6th grade, where I learned who I was. Installing the library outside my home was a very significant and memorable moment.
The day of the installation was a beautiful July summer day, and I was surrounded by my family, childhood best friends, and neighbors who have seen me grow up. Seeing the installation of the Little Free Diverse Library signified change for not only the small town I grew up in, but for myself. The library reminds me that the quiet, lonely, isolated Black little girl who never saw herself represented in literature, or the people around her, was making something of herself, and changing the narrative so future little Black girls never have to not see themselves represented, supported, amplified, and empowered in books, or when they walk down our street.
Lisa: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a Little Free Diverse Library?
Sarah: My advice for someone who wants to start a Little Free Diverse Library would be to just do it!!! If you have the passion and the dedication to diverse literature (and the ability to stick something in your yard or community) then why not! When setting up a Little Free Diverse Library think about your community. Who is represented? Who is not? What conversations are missing? How can you foster a diverse space for sharing, communicating, and inspiring? It is absolutely incredible to see how the community has come together because of this library. I see a Little Free Diverse Library as an educational tool and resource for non BIPOC community members, and a beacon of hope for BIPOC authors, children, and adults. There is so much to gain from having a Little Free Diverse Library, and personally it feels like my very own baby.
Lisa: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sarah: I hope to install 10 more Little Free Diverse Libraries before January 2022 (totaling 20 Little Free Diverse Libraries in one year)! I am eternally grateful for the team at Little Free Library for all their support, and the incredible organization that they created that allows others to connect with literature, any day, anytime, for free.
Sarah Kamya is a child of an Ugandan immigrant, has a Masters from NYU in Counseling and Guidance in Schools K-12 and now works at P.S. 191, a K-8 Title 1 Public School in New York City as a School Counselor. It is here she witnessed first hand how hard it is for young Black and brown students to find their own experiences reflected in popular media, especially literature. What started as a passion project turned into a small movement. In the first 10 days LFDL raised over $6,000 to purchase books from Black-owned bookstores. To date, Kamya has raised over $20,000, has sent diverse books to a Little Free Library in all 50 states, and has installed 10 Little Free Libraries at schools in Boston and New York City.
You can find out more about the books Kamya is reading, sharing, and amplifying on LFDL’s Instagram (@littlefreediverselibraries).
Interview with award-winning author, Reem Faruqi
By: Aya Khalil
Aya: Hello and Salam, Reem! First of all I am so excited to be interviewing you. I don't know if I have shared with others before but you were the first author who really inspired me to publish a book, traditionally, after falling in love with your debut Lailah's Lunchbox in 2015. And our books were both published with Tilbury House, and you answered so many of my questions along the way, so thank you for that! You just released a new book called Amira's Picture Day! Congratulations. Would you tell us a little about this book?
Reem: I’m SO glad you were inspired, Aya. I've loved watching your writing journey unfold! I also loved your book The Arabic Quilt and can’t wait to read more from you. And yay for Tilbury House Publishers – I’ve had a great time with them.
Amira's Picture Day is a story about wanting to be in two places at once and speaking up when you want to make a change.
About Amira's Picture Day: Ramadan is over and Amira can’t wait to celebrate Eid. Spotting the new moon, she celebrates because Eid is tomorrow and she gets to miss school to go to the mosque for the Eid prayer and brunch. But then she realizes that tomorrow is Picture Day at school. How will her class remember her if she’s not in the class picture? What will Amira do?
You can order here.
Aya: My kids and I really enjoyed Amira’s Picture Day and gifted a copy to their library! Your MG debut, Unsettled comes out on May 11th! Could you tell us a little about this novel in verse?
Reem: You can see the summary on book ordering sites, but this is what I originally had in my query:
My #ownvoices middle grade verse novel, Unsettled, has a strong, female character and a poetic voice. In my lyrical 14,100 word manuscript, Unsettled, Nurah reluctantly moves continents. In a new land, she sticks out for all the wrong reasons. At school, Nurah’s accent, floral print kurtas, and tea colored skin contribute to her eating lunch alone. All she wants is to fit in. If she blends in enough, will she make a friend? For now, all she has is her best friend brother Owais. In the water though, Nurah doesn’t want to blend: she wants to stand out and be just like her star athlete brother and win a swimming medal. However, when sibling rivalry gets in the way of swimming, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates and Nurah might risk losing the one friend she ever had…
Aya: That sounds incredible! You have a third book coming out called I Can Help in a few months. Would you please tell us about this?
Reem: Zahra often happily volunteers to help a fellow classmate who needs a little extra assistance in school. It is only when she gets picked on by two popular students for helping him, she decides to distance herself from the fellow classmate to fit in more with her popular classmates. Later, she feels regret for her actions, but it is too late. Now, she decides to take matters into her own hands…
You can preorder on Amazon or from Eerdmans.
It comes out in the fall on August 10th just in time for the beginning of the school year.
Aya: Perfect for the beginning of the school year. What inspired you to write these three books and the inspiration behind them?
Reem: I love incorporating real experiences from my life into my stories and each of these 3 books has these elements. Also, I wrote these books all at different times over the past few years- they just all happened to fall for publication in 2021.
Aya: What are some challenges you have faced throughout your publishing journey?
Reem: My most recent challenge is launching two books within one month which is a great challenge to have ☺. Amira's Picture Day release date got delayed so I have two books that will be launched within Ramadan – Unsettled and Amira's Picture Day! I am just trying to get through each day, one fast at a time, while juggling emails!
Another challenge I faced was going many years without any offers. Since Lailah's Lunchbox got published in 2015, I worked and wrote and gave up and prayed and tried again and after six long years, three books are releasing this year! I assumed after having one book out in the world, the rest would be easy and would automatically come, but that wasn’t the case when I waited for manuscripts to sell. The writing journey can be quite rocky at times and sometimes quite smooth. It’s the weirdest thing.
Aya: What a great reminder about how it’s never easy to sell a book but you persisted and made it happen. What advice would you give to writers, especially BIPOC writers, who want to publish a book?
Reem: I would advise you to connect with authors and critique partners who look like you and share your beliefs as well as connect with authors who don’t share your faith and culture and race. That way you can get a wider variety of opinions and insight on your manuscripts. I think it’s important to be in both worlds. I’m in a traditionally published Muslim Author group (you’re in it and we’re both admins, Aya, along with Saadia Faruqi and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow – all authors I admire!) that I really have enjoyed being in and often ask maaany questions there.
Aya: I do love a good support group! What are some of your favorite books recently?
Reem: I love reading but this Ramadan haven’t had the chance to delve into books as much. A recent read I’ve loved, for picture books is Inside My Mosque by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly.
For middle grade, I’ve enjoyed Hena Khan’s Amina's Voice and the way she shares her love for Pakistan with her friends as well as navigates middle school and its challenges .
For YA I just read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and loved it. I happened to watch the movie first! Both were powerful.
Aya: Great suggestions. Tell us more about yourself. Where do you live? Do you have another job besides being an amazing author? What are your hobbies?
Reem: I live in Atlanta. I work for the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta and schedule speakers for a variety of organizations. I am also a seasonal photographer but am finding less time for that!
Hobbies – doodling, NOT COOKING, making messes, napping (does that count?), Pilates
and walking. I recently discovered these Pilates workouts with Robin Long and love them. I love that the Pilates exercises (https://thebalancedlifeonline.com/) are 10-15 minutes and are a nice computer break.
Aya: I love napping too, when I can. Ha. Where can people find you? Twitter, Instagram, website and where can they purchase your books?
@ReemFaruqi on Twitter and Instagram
Please check out my photoblog at www.ReemFaruqi.com .
They can purchase my books at indie bookstores near them or on Amazon with the links provided.
Aya: Thank you for letting me interview you! Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Thank you for having me Aya! I love seeing our books the world and am so happy the younger generation is FINALLY seeing themselves in books!
Reem Faruqi lives in Atlanta with her husband and three daughters. She is the award-winning children’s book author of Lailah’s Lunchbox, a book based on her own experiences as a young Muslim girl immigrating to the United States. After surviving Atlanta traffic and the school drop off, Reem spends her days trying to write, but instead gets distracted easily by her toddler, camera, and buttery sunlight. You can find her at www.ReemFaruqi.com or on Instagram or Twitter.
Aya: Hi and Salaam, Susannah! I am so excited to interview you about HALAL HOTDOGS! Would you please summarize the picture book in a couple of sentences for us?
Susannah: The children's book, Halal Hot Dogs, is about an Arab-Muslim boy named Musa who cannot wait to share halal hot dogs with his blended family, which includes his mother, father, sister and grandfather!
A: I looked at some of the preview photos online and noticed some delicious food in the book, which I loved! Can you tell us some of the foods mentioned, and why you included them?
S: I think what makes this book special, is that it features multi-cultural street food which adds depth to the story because not only does it celebrate halal food, but also celebrates foods from all over the world like churros, bao and samosas. The story also includes Middle Eastern specialties, like kufta (spiced meat), riz b'haleeb (rice pudding), and molokhiya. I feel that delicious food brings people together, so really, we celebrate cultures through cuisine!
A: I am getting really hungry now. I love kufta and I mentioned it in my own picture book too! Why did you write this book? Is it inspired by anything?
S: Halal Hot Dogs is inspired by my many years living in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My children are Brooklyn kids. They had all the streets in the neighborhood memorized by the age of four! We loved strolling around Fifth Avenue, getting our shopping done at the many local Middle Eastern businesses, like the halal butchers, grocers, and produce stores. We frequented the local masajid (mosques) often, and afterward, my kids would always ask for halal hot dogs from the many halal food carts around the city!
A: I won't tell my kids this, because they LOVE halal hotdogs! Tell us a little about the illustrations and the illustrator. What emotions did you feel when you first saw the sketches and illustrations?
S: The book highlights the charm of living in a large, diverse city. I feel that Parwinder Singh was really able to capture the magic of that in his illustrations! I was instantly taken by Parwinder's sketches. He is extremely talented, and I love how he gave a comic-style feel to the characters!
A: I love the lively illustrations he did! I've noticed that Palestinian Americans are VERY underrepresented in kidlit. Who are some of your favorite Palestinian American writers? What can we do to help amplify Palestinian-American writers and creatives?
S: It goes without saying that all cultures and religions should be represented in children's publishing. I find it exhilarating to learn about other cultures through picture books. As a librarian, I have parents anxiously calling me, asking for more diverse books. A handful in the library really doesn't cut it. I hope to see more in the near future. I hope to see more Arab authors, I hope to see more Palestinian authors, I hope to see more Muslim authors from countries all over the world! The publishing world has only just scratched the surface in terms of publishing diverse stories.
The best way to amplify Palestinian/Arab voices is to support the authors! Invite them to speak at various conferences, and book events. Include their books in your lesson plans, purchase classroom sets of books, and read them during story-time. Multicultural literature is needed in the classroom. We need every kid to see themselves in books, and that is the goal!
I recently came across a picture book retelling a Palestinian folktale. I was disappointed to know that it was not an #OwnVoices author...not even close! There is a culturally rich heritage to Palestine, and many are not aware of the importance of the oral storytelling; the folktales, lessons, songs, and sayings that have been passed down for many generations. I would love to see more of it in traditional publishing, documented by Palestinian/Palestinian-American authors.
The diverse publishing community is strong, and it is very reassuring when they amplify writers and artists from other underrepresented, or marginalized communities. I am proud to be a part of that community. As long as authors from diverse backgrounds can have a platform to speak, share, and contribute to the publishing/creative world, then we can continue to see change throughout the traditional publishing world. I think the movements that have brought us We Need Diverse Books, and #OwnVoices are amazing, and I think authors supporting these endeavors are critical and have already made some significant, positive change.
Some Palestinian-American poets to note include:
Naomi Shihab Nye
Many of their words have resonated with me
Arab American Authors/Illustrators that I think are great:
Aya Khalil (The Arabic Quilt)
Hatem Fathy Ali ( Illustrator) In My Mosque
Susan Muaddi Darraj (Farah Rocks the Fifth Grade)
Saladin Ahmed (Amulet)
Nadine Kaadan (Arab-British) (The Jasmine Sneeze, Tomorrow)
Muslim Authors that I think are terrific: (To name a few)
Jamilah Thompson Bigelow
Rabiah York Lumbard
A: Thank you for all of these great recommendations. Are you working on any other writing projects that you can share with us?
S: Nothing to share as of yet...but a few things in the works! My best work gets done at random coffee shops that I stumble upon throughout the Tri-State area. As a wanderer, I find that traveling long distances enhances my creative process. I hope coffee shops fully open back up soon so I can get back to a better writing routine!
A: I can't wait to hear more! Thank you so much for answering my questions. Where can people find you and also purchase your books?
You can request Halal Hot Dogs at your local library, and purchase Halal Hot Dogs from any major book retailer.
You can find me and my cats (oh yeah, and kids) on: Instagram
Susannah Aziz is a creative/freelance writer and children's book author living in NYC. She writes stories that focus on Arab and Muslim characters and hopes to see more culturally diverse characters, as well as neurodiverse characters represented in traditional publishing. Her debut picture book, Halal Hot Dogs (Little Bee Books), features an Arab-Muslim character named Musa that enjoys a special treat with his family after Jummah prayer at the local masjid. Susannah is also a librarian with a MSLIS from St. John's University (NYC). She hopes to create more library programs for children with Autism. As an urban librarian, she loves running into patrons all around town. Susannah also spent some time teaching as a middle school educator at an Islamic School. She is an advocate for UNRWAUSA https://www.unrwausa.org/. UNRWA USA National Committee (UNRWA USA) aims to promote a life of dignity and human development for Palestine refugees by informing the American public about UNRWA’s work and generating support for its programs in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Susannah lives in a very old, creaky, squeaky house with her husband, three kids, and two cats. Her favorite summer activity with her kids includes trying to hit every halal hot dog stand in NYC in search of the BEST hot dog! They still can't decide on just one!
Muslims throughout the world begin Ramadan this week. The formal definition of Ramadan is that it is the 9th and holiest month of the Islamic calendar and is marked by daytime fasting, Quranic recitation, and increased prayer and charity. I had the pleasure of asking Muslim children’s book and YA authors to weigh in about Ramadan and am excited to share their responses with you all.
Ramadan is eating together.
"Ramadan is sleepy-eyes suhoor and iftar smiles.” –Susannah Aziz
"Ramadan is faces full of peace, hearts full of smiles, and bellies full of rice… I swear we eat our weight in biryani.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is long nights and sleepy days. Ramadan is tangy chutneys and crispy samosas.” –Marzieh Abbas
"Ramadan is my mother’s ginger rice pudding.” –Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
"Ramadan is when we all gather together and eat dinner at the same time...for once!” –Reem Faruqi
"Ramadan is spending the night at the masjid. Communal suhoors of halal bacon, cheese grits, and pancakes... or at least it used to be...you know before Covid.” –Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins
Ramadan is a new beginning.
"Ramadan is starting over, family traditions and excitement.” –Aya Khalil
"Ramadan is a blissful renewal, a chance to self-observe, reflect, and ground. The perfect excuse to intentionally initiate the best in you, and to appreciate what is occasionally taken for granted.” –Hatem Aly
"Ramadan is a chance to feel whole again.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is also a lot about new beginnings and resolutions. I find so much barakah in time and effort- it's amazing how projects started in Ramadan have this blessing. Alhamdulilah...” –Marzieh Abbas
Ramadan is giving and having and being thankful.
"Ramadan is giving; giving thanks, giving prayers, giving food, giving charity, giving time. Ramadan is having; having strength, having endurance, having remembrance, having blessings, having faith.” –Razeena Omar Gutta
"Ramadan is days spent in gratitude for things we have and things we don’t.” –Sana Rafi
Ramadan is heart and soul, joy and tears, journeying and stillness.
"Ramadan is love in action.” –Ashley Franklin
"Ramadan is heartfelt sacrifice, a journey towards righteousness and joy.” –Saadia Faruqi
"It’s also a time for learning- soaring, journeying to Divinity. I cant quite explain it in words. But it is truly so much more than the decor and the iftaar. Ramadan, and especially the last few nights... are an aura, a magic, 'peace, until the rising of the dawn.'" –Marzieh Abbas
"Ramadan is closeness - to others, to the Lord, and to your soul.” – Omar Abed
"Ramadan is an opportunity to dig deeper, make big bold duas and connect with essence of Islam.” –Rahma Rodaah
"Ramadan is the tears cried in night prayer.” –Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow
"Ramadan for me is my “Ghar-e-Hira” time. I find myself gravitating toward isolation and introspection (although the pandemic has been one long period of isolation) I choose to focus on the internal and try to cleanse myself spiritually. Throughout the year, we are so caught up in the world and all it’s preoccupations. This is my month to focus on my relationship with my Creator. It’s quiet, peaceful and replenishing for my soul.” –Shirin Shamsi
“Ramadan is the stillness of our souls, weeping in the night, asking for guidance and forgiveness.” –Ameenah Muhammad-Diggins
"Ramadan is the stillness before fajr after a simple meal fills us with gratitude.” –S. K. Ali
Rhonda Roumani, a journalist, MG writer, and 2019 Pitch Wars winner, captures so much in this poetic response:
Ramadan is friends and family; large, happy iftars and sleepy suhoors
Ramadan is empty tummies and full hearts
Ramadan is dates and nectars and yummy foods
Ramadan is no sleep
Ramadan is happy kids and tired parents
Ramadan is a time to realign, reset and renew
Ramadan is about turning inward and remembering we are all one in our hunger,
in our needs, in our rights
Ramadan is about community and the individual soul
Ramadan is hard; and every year, we do it again and are in awe that we did it again.
I am thankful that we’ve been asked to do it only once a year…
For the reminder of both our weaknesses and our strengths as humans
For the reminder that Allah (swt) has bestowed so much upon us
And that we must continue to do more for those who have less.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based educator and an award winning children’s book author. Her works, which feature young Black Muslim protagonists, have been recognized and critically-praised by many trusted voices in literature, including American Library Association, School Library Journal, and NPR. She writes picture books and middle grade fiction. Her books include Mommy’s Khimar, Once Upon an Eid (contributor), Your Name is a Song, and Abdul’s Story. She’s taught youth in traditional and alternative learning settings for 15 years.
Kirstie: I was looking through old emails and saw that we started our group at the end of December last year. Wow. I can't believe that much time has passed. Initially we were called Diverse Debuts and we were more focused on marketing and promotion.
Would you like to share why you wanted to start this group?
Aya: I really wanted to connect with authors who had similar experiences in the publishing world and understand how it's extra difficult to break into the publishing world as a BIPOC. We had similar feelings about issues we faced and agreed that having like-minded individuals share their experiences and support each other would be helpful!
Kirstie: We have such talented authors in our group. I give you credit for that because you made many of those connections and you're on Twitter promoting our group every day.
What do you think the members bring to our group that makes it unique?
Aya: I love our group! You do an incredible job on Instagram and create the best content and graphics! The members are awesome and so supportive. I remember feeling comfortable sharing and asking how much advances they made because that helps us grow and ask for more advances in the future! The authors are beyond talented and many of them have critiqued my manuscripts and I am truly grateful for their support! We are like one big family!
Kirstie: I remember the book advance discussion. That was such an eye-opener and really helps those of us that are new to this moving forward. It wasn't long after our discussion that this topic was trending on Twitter and we saw the poorly paid advances BIPOC authors received, even those who had sold quite well and had big followers.
What are your goals for our group moving into 2021 and beyond?
Aya: Continue supporting each other. I love that we can ask for advice and people are genuine and truly we want each other to succeed. I hope we can do more Instagram Lives together and Instagram Take-overs because that's always fun!
Kirstie: Yes, that is fun. My biggest goal for the group is we do a retreat or conference once it's safe. I think connecting in person is our next step.
What are some things you have learned while in KidLit In Color?
Kirstie: I learned firsthand how supportive the writing community is. I can call or email any of our members and ask for help and they make themselves available to me. My book was last to debut in November 2020, and I remember reading that authors who debut last are oftentimes cheated out of support from their fellow members because the year is nearly over and people are over it, but that wasn’t the case with our group. I felt very supported by our members. Everyone went above and beyond to promote me and my book.
What are some of your favorite moments in 2020 from our group?
Kirstie: I have several favorite moments. I enjoyed attending member virtual events and our NYE Zoom party was big fun!
One favorite or special moment that really stands out is also a painful moment. The protests were happening in response to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police brutality, and our group was a safe space where we could openly share our pain. I remember we were scheduled to do a panel and collectively our spirits were so heavy that we couldn’t do it. I remember you sending a text just checking in on me and that meant the world to me in case you didn’t know.
KidLit in Color is a group of traditionally published BIPOC creatives. We nurture one another, amplify diverse voices, and advocate for equitable representation in the industry.
Creativity helps to support our mental health and well-being by allowing for a connection to self-expression. Modern research suggests mindfulness-based meditation practices can help us contact creative flow by:
Age-old yoga and mindfulness philosophies have always reminded us that when we intentionally pay attention to present moment experience with kind curiosity and care, we create the space to connect with our innate strengths, including creativity. When we can bring a caring, mindful presence to whatever it is we are doing, we naturally create the conditions necessary for creative intelligence to flow through us.
Looking for a quick creative boost in the middle of your day? Consider trying this mindfulness meditation practice known as the Sky of Awareness. Invite a fresh perspective, and explore what arises. Enjoy:
by Rashmi Bismark, MD, MPH, Mindfulness educator and author of Finding Om
The events of this past year have certainly amplified the importance of self care and community care for all. As a kids yoga teacher, one of your priorities has been family wellness. What does that look like for you at home, and where does yoga fit into it?
Family wellness has definitely been the core inspiration behind all that I do. It's a work in progress and often changes. I talk to my family about eating a balanced diet, hydration and exercise to maintain a healthy body, but we also talk about maintaining the spirit within our body. We talk about how breathing can change how you feel, and we practice different ways to do it. The conversation about wellness is continuous in our home. This helps because kids will call you out on just about anything! So when I slip into a funk and am not being mindful of what I am providing for nourishment, or if we haven't moved our bodies in an intentional way they say, "Hey Mom..." One thing that stays pretty consistent is our breath.
What inspires your relationship with yoga?
My relationship with yoga is inspired by the memory of how I felt before beginning a practice with meditation and the difference in how I felt once it became a lifestyle. I was at a breaking point, and not only did I benefit from my practice but my whole family did. My relationship with my husband improved. My interaction with my kids improved, and my perception of things completely changed. When I reflect on the trauma that has affected generations of Black people and the lack of access to heal, I am inspired to share my passion for yoga.
Part of your mission is expanding the face of wellness for Black kids and families. Tell us more about your vision and the @blackkidsdoyoga Instagram movement.
My vision of expanding the face of wellness for kids wellness started with our social media pages, helping others to acknowledge that representation is a problem and supporting the cause to change the media. It extends to providing resources and a community through our books and Black Kids Do Yoga Club. My goal is to flood various platforms with positive images of black children learning, understanding and being empowered by mental and physical wellness. I want those children to have available access to resources that support their practice. Finding books, videos and communities that mirror and embrace parts of your identity should not be a research project.
Your work has also led you to self-publish a picture book called Our Family’s Doing Yoga and start a YouTube channel to explore yoga as a family. What were some of your inspirations for this book and your YouTube channel? How do you hope kids (and their adults) will be impacted?
As a child I was blessed to have images of people who positively resembled my reflection presented to me in my home. Outside of my home it took more work to find. Books that showed positive images of the Black community weren't readily available. Images on television often portrayed us negatively, and even within our own community we faced internalized racism. When I envisioned motherhood one of my top priorities was to be a mother whose children felt seen and heard. When my children took interest in my yoga practice, I wanted them to know that this practice was for them. I wanted them to visibly see it in the books and videos we used as support but the options were slim. Writing Our Family's Doing Yoga was a way to share our story and empower my children to embrace their practice as theirs. As we began to influence others, I was often asked about YouTube videos that showed children of color. Once again our children were underrepresented in the industry on the platform, so we began creating videos to share. I am a mother and an educator. It is woven in my make up to nurture and nourish. That's what I hope my work is doing.