Congratulations on your new book, Together We Ride! Please tell us what inspired you to write this picture book?
The inspiration for Together We Ride is the children my husband and I saw riding bikes in our neighborhood during the COVID shutdown. In particular, during our daily walks, I witnessed a girl who had just learned how to ride a bike; I noticed her progression as she became a better, more confident rider. Learning to ride a bike – without training wheels – is such an exciting milestone for children that I decided to write a story about that experience.
Bike riding is a rite of passage for young people and one I clearly remember as a child. You perfectly capture the glee, inevitable falling, and decision children face of “do I get back on or forget about this.” Did you draw from your own childhood memories when writing this book?
That’s a great question, Kirstie. I remember that I enjoyed riding my bike with my cousins and friends. We’d ride up and down my street and also over to my elementary school playground, which was around the corner from my house. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact moment when I learned how to ride a bike. I think these memories are embedded within me though, which is why I was able to portray the experience and feelings in this book. We all know that riding a bike takes practice – falling, getting on and off again – to be able to ride independently and successfully.
The text is really simple and easy for early learners and readers. But we all know the simplest text is often the hardest to write. What was that process like for you and how long did it take you to finish Together We Ride?
Surprisingly, this is the book for which I wrote the fewest drafts. I think I had three. Since I maintained the same end rhyme throughout (with one exception), I was limited with the words I could use, so I think that’s what made it quick work. I shared it with my critique partners twice, and then it was “done.” When I signed with my agent, this is the first book with which he went out on submission. It went to auction and resulted in two two-book deals.
Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s authors?
Kirstie, this is a question authors are often asked. I think the simplest response is that if you want to write, do it, and don’t give up. Also, study, meaning read, read, read in the genre you’re writing. Read to study (think mentor texts), not just for pleasure. Also, read books about craft, and attend classes and webinars. Equally important is to immerse yourself in the writing community by joining a critique group and writing organizations.
The illustrations by Kaylani Juanita are so detailed and captivating. Did you have a lot of illustration notes and what were your thoughts when you saw the beautiful pages Kaylani created?
I didn’t even envision it as a father/daughter story, per se; that was my editor’s vision, which worked for me. Therefore, the only illustration notes I had were to denote which words were attached to the child and which connected with the adult. My ending illustration note expressed what/who we should see on the last page.
When I saw Kaylani’s first sketches, I was very pleased because, as you can see, she’s a talented artist. When I saw the actual color spreads and then held the book in my hands, however, I was especially thrilled. She certainly captured all of the special moments associated with a child learning how to ride a bike.
As an educator, your commitment to children was recently honored with a SERC Equity Award. Please tell us about that honor.
Kirstie, it was indeed an honor to be recognized for my commitment to equity. I believe that all children – all people – need to feel welcome and that they matter. In my work as an educator, I want all students to feel welcome in classrooms and to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. When reading books, I want children to have that same experience – to see themselves, those like them, those who share similar experiences. Schools and books also offer opportunities for us to learn about those who are different from us and have different experiences. If everything around us only reflects one type of person, one view, one story, how will we learn about, enjoy, and appreciate the diverse world in which we live?
Here’s an article I wrote about why representation matters in children’s books.
How are you celebrating your second book release?
I’m going to celebrate by taking a personal day from work on release day and visiting my elementary school alma mater to read to kindergarten and first grade students. I’ll also visit the Barnes & Noble in my city – Stamford, CT – to sign books.
I want to be able to celebrate with everyone who wants to celebrate with me. Thus, I’m having two launch events. One will be in-person, which should be super fun for kids with a lot of activities, and the other will be virtual. For that one, I’ll read my story at the beginning of the program, so kids can tune in, and then a conversation will occur that will be of more interest to adults – especially parents, educators, and writers.
When not writing you can find me….? Teaching, walking or reading.
What are you working on next? I’m working on my books that will release in 2023. I’m also trying my hand at a chapter book series.
Valerie Bolling is the author of LET’S DANCE!, a 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award winner and CT Book Award finalist. In 2022 Valerie is happy to welcome TOGETHER WE RIDE (April) and RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN! (October). Sequels to these books (TOGETHER WE SWIM and BING, BOP, BAM: TIME TO JAM!) as well as a Scholastic early reader series, RAINBOW DAYS, are slated for 2023.
A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie has been an educator for almost 30 years. She currently works as an Instructional Coach for Greenwich Public Schools and is on the faculty at Westport Writers’ Workshop. She is also a WNDB mentor and deeply immersed in the kidlit writing community, particularly involved with SCBWI, the 12X12 Picture Book Challenge, Black Creators HeadQuarters, and Diverse Verse.
Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing.
Salam Reads (Simon & Schuster) Celebrates Five Year Anniversary: Interview with Editor Deeba Zargarpur & author S.K. Ali + HUGE Ramadan Giveaway
A few years ago Salaam Reads, an imprint at Simon & Schuster was started to uplift Muslim voices. This year they are celebrating five years! KidLit in Color’s Aya Khalil had the honor to interview editor Deeba and author S.K. Ali about publishing, books, and what’s coming up for them. Plus, in honor of the anniversary and Ramadan, Salam Reads is giving away a copy of ALL OF THEIR BOOKS!
A.K: Salam Deeba! Thanks for letting me interview you for KidLit in Color. Can you please tell us your official title and full name and title?
D.Z.: Deeba Zargarpur, Editor at Salaam Reads and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
A.K: Can you tell the readers how Salaam Reads was started and why?
When Salaam Reads was founded, it was, to my knowledge, the first imprint at a major publisher focused on joyous, positive, and diverse portrayals of Muslim characters and stories. When executive editor Zareen Jaffery and publisher Justin Chanda launched it in 2016, their goal was twofold: to offer Muslim children, across a wide variety of lived experiences, the chance to see themselves reflected in literature, and as stated by Zareen, to “plant seeds of empathy” in non-Muslim readers.
While I was already an adult when the imprint launched, its books had an immediate impact on me. Prior to the imprint’s creation, I never saw myself in books. In my childhood and young adult life as a reader, I felt invisible, like my voice and lived experience were not meant to be part of the American experience. As an Afghan-American Muslim who grew up in a post 9/11 world, my identity was both erased and feared in mainstream media. It wasn’t until I read Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, part of Salaam Reads’ inaugural list, that I finally got to see a positively depicted Muslim perspective that felt close to my own. It was a powerful moment for me. It gave me a sense of peace and belonging that I’d been missing my whole life. And, five years later, there’s still so much need for stories that offer this experience to readers, which is why Salaam Reads remains essential for young people today. Every child deserves to feel seen, to be celebrated, and to be the hero of their own story.
A.K: What are some upcoming books from Salaam Reads and what are they about?
D.Z: I’m so excited about the books we have coming up 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 much-anticipated sequel to her much-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 middle grade, we are thrilled to be working with Women’s March co-organizer and activist Linda Sarsour on a nonfiction book, 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 US history.
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.
And looking ahead to early 2023, I can’t wait to share 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, but with a layer of depth, and sure to delight any reader who loves a good romance.
A.K: Wow, so many amazing books! What kind of books are you looking to acquire for Salaam Reads nowadays and how can interested readers find out more information about submission guidelines?
D.Z: Since joining Salaam Reads in 2020, it’s been my goal to further expand on what Salaam Reads has already been doing beautifully, by acquiring even more genres and formats of books that center positive and joyous portrayals of the Muslim experience. We want to share stories that center Muslim characters without depicting their religious identity as a major source of conflict, whether in contemporary realism, historical fiction, fantasy, or any other genre. Some projects I’d love to see in my inbox for Salaam Reads include grounded and epic fantasy, non-Western myths/fairytales/folklore, anything that sparks imagination and wonder, and stories that feature non-traditional families.
We recognize that finding a path to publication through the traditional (and historically marginalizing) channels can be limiting, so we have an open submission policy for Muslim authors not represented by literary agents. You can find our submission guidelines at our website, www.salaamreads.com.
A.K: This is very helpful for authors, thank you! What future do you see for Salaam Reads?
D.Z: I’m excited about what the future holds for Salaam Reads. In the past five years, we’ve seen an increase in literature for Muslim children across all publishers, which we’re thrilled about—it means Muslim readers don’t need to depend solely on us to find books that reflect their experiences, and that (we hope) more and more Muslim writers and illustrators will create incredible work, knowing it can find an audience. I can’t wait to see what those creators will make and look forward to partnering with more of them to share their stories.
Since its inception, Salaam Reads’ books have sold a million copies worldwide. We intend to continue publishing picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult novels that serve young people. From contemporary to fantastical, science fiction, and more, Salaam Reads remains a home for literature that widens the lens of what it means to be Muslim, offering readers a way to see themselves reflected in the pages of our books and to discover the wide variety and many intersections of what the Muslim experience can be. There are so many facets of the global Muslim experience that we have yet to publish books about, and so many varieties of voices I’d love to find homes for on our list. I’m hopeful for what the future will bring for Salaam Reads, and excited to be a part of shaping that future.
A.K: Incredible that millions of copies have been around the world, inspiring so many children and adults. Thank you so much for answering my questions and Ramadan Kareem!
Interview with S.K. Ali
Aya Khalil: Salaam! Thank you for letting me interview you! I am a huge fan of your books and I'm so grateful to be interviewing you for KidLit in Color. Love from Mecca to Medina comes out this fall! Can you tell readers, especially those who haven't read the first book Love from A to Z, what it's about?
S.K. Ali: Thank you! Excited to be chatting with you. Love from Mecca to Medina is about two young people, Adam and Zayneb, going on Umrah shortly after their nikah. They join a group of Muslims traveling to Mecca and Medina and it’s about what Adam and Zayneb encounter on their journey — to the center of their faith, and the center of their souls. And how traveling reveals parts of you that you may never have faced before. It’s also about the “after” part of the “happily-ever-after”. Wow, this all makes it sound sort of ominous. But it’s not; it’s got light, humorous moments as well as romantic scenes. And soulful parts. Soulful explorations of our human weaknesses. But happy soul parts too! I will stop talking now.
A.K: Your books tackle important topics, especially for Muslims in America, like racism within the community, Islamophobia, and other struggles and also joys like love and travelling. What are some themes we will be seeing in Love from Mecca to Medina?
S.K Ali: How to fall and still get up and keep going. What’s in our hands and what’s not. What we lowly humans are tasked with and what we're not and how to give ourselves breaks and still aspire to the heights we can reach. (I don’t know if these are themes but I wanted this book to be spiritual while being real so let’s say the theme is Real Spirituality.)
A.K: I love that. I actually vividly remember the first time I saw Saints and Misfits (this was your debut, right?) at my local Barnes & Nobles, grabbed it and read it right away. I was so inspired and loved that a beautiful, authentic book written by a Muslim author was on the shelves and it inspired me to look into publishing! What do you hope your readers will discover and perhaps learn when they read your books?
S.K Ali: Aw, I love this! I’m so glad that Saints and Misfits inspired you! I hope when readers encounter my books, they feel the way you did — that there are spaces for us to share our stories. I also hope that readers learn that they can bring their whole selves everywhere, both in the physical sense (at workplaces, educational settings, etc.) and creative spaces like in the pages of books and on screens. I hope by reading my books where characters are allowed to be fully Muslim, that readers also feel they don’t need to edit their identities to be “palatable”.
A.K: Did you face any struggles while writing Love from Mecca and Medina? Can you give readers a sneak peak at a few lines?
S.K Ali: I faced the struggle of incorporating spirituality in a Young Adult novel. Teens are spiritual people too but it’s very rare to find YA novels exploring that aspect of our lives and there was a voice inside telling me I wasn’t “allowed” to do this; but I kept on because I don’t want spirituality to be a taboo topic. When we’re breaking down so many barriers in storytelling, why not this one? Why not explore that so many of us, of all ages and backgrounds, regardless of faith or lack of it, think about our souls, why we're here, the bigger questions of life?
And oh, a sneak peek? Here you go:
She was standing by the pillar umbrella to the left of the main gate. In a black abaya, open at the front, under which she had a yellow dress on.
On her head was a black hijab; on the shoulder of one arm, the strap of her backpack.
I took all these details in hungrily, like she would disappear any minute.
(This is not one of the spiritual parts.)
A.K: This is all so beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about your upcoming books? How can readers connect with you?
S.K Ali: Just that I’m working on more stories – in new genres! Think historical, mystery, adult rom-com and even sci-fi. I love writing all sorts of things so I’m in my element right now. To connect with me, find me on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and on my website at skalibooks.com.
Thank you for having me on KidLit in Color!
A.K.: Thank you so much for answering all of my questions and Ramadan Kareem!
Readers, make sure you enter our giveaways on Instagram and Twitter for a chance to win all of these books!!
KM: Congratulations on your new book, Wei To Go! Please tell us what inspired you to write this middle grade book?
LM: Thank you so much, Kirstie, for having me. My inspiration for Wei To Go! came from seeing children in multicultural families who’ve been in America for several generations. Depending on where they live or their family dynamics, they sometimes may not know one part of their heritage very well.
My main character Ellie and her brother Kipp are third-generation Americans who are part Chinese. They’re pretty much all American and know little of the language. Ellie isn’t always obedient, and English is her forte, not math and science. Her brother Kipp is good in competitive sports.
Traveling to Asia for the first time opens their eyes and gives them a tie to their heritage. I had fun capturing their reactions in a new environment and couched it in a mystery involving international business.
KM: The story is based in California and Hong Kong. What type of research was involved in creating the setting for these locations?
LM: I lived for many years in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area with tiny neighborhood parks and athletic fields for schoolkids. Ellie’s neighborhood and house is based on that locale, including the stunning jacaranda trees that bloom for a weeks in the spring.
Previous business work took me to Hong Kong a number of times. My kids and I also visited Asia for a few humid weeks one summer long ago. While I had studied a little Mandarin Chinese in college, the Cantonese Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong was unfamiliar. Through Ellie’s voice, I tried to capture this reaction to the bewildering language. I also showed her comical attempts to do normally simple things like navigating mass transportation.
KM: Ellie and her brother have a typical love/hate sibling relationship. Was this in any way representative of your own sibling relationships?
LM: Being close in age to my sisters, we probably had the same dynamics of both conflict and loving support while growing up. As a parent, I saw sibling relationships more clearly with my own kids and those of their friends. I tried to incorporate that in my book as humorously as possible.
KM: What do you hope children get from Wei To Go?
LM: I love this question! Middle schoolers who are curious about the world may like this novel. If they’re on the cusp of being independent and enjoy competitive sports, maybe they’ll also see parts of themselves on the pages.
American children may not realize that people overseas are as curious about us as we are about them. My character Ellie encounters people who tell her she speaks with an American accent or are perplexed that she’s unfamiliar with certain customs, even though outwardly she looks Chinese.
KM: The cover illustration is colorful and lively. Tell us about the illustrator and your thoughts on the cover scene?
Penny Weber is my fabulous illustrator. After I gave her a rough sketch of a cover idea, she drew my imagined faces of the characters with the Hong Kong skyline in the background. Moreover, she perfectly captured their playful banter as they team up to solve a mystery.
Please check out Penny’s website on https://pennyweberillustrations.com/.
KM: What are your favorite writing tools and resources?
I have several books on middle-grade writing. However, for day-to-day writing, I rely on a Scene Structure Checklist by C.S. Lakin which includes a handy checklist. I also use two writing tools I made for myself. One is a basic (I’m low-tech!) Excel spreadsheet with the chapter titles and page count. For each chapter, I add the goal, conflict issues, characters involved, and any miscellaneous notes.
My second tool is a plain old Word document to type in impromptu notes. I also include a list of all the characters and their features. For example, for Ellie, I wrote she wears a AAA shoe size and for Kipp, that his best friend is named Wynnie.
KM: When not writing you can find me….?
LM: Concerts, travel, and spectator sports are my favorites. I also love taking walks with my dog, curling up with a favorite book, and spending time with family and friends.
KM: What are you currently reading?
I have a wonderful TBR list of mostly middle-grade books. Three that are on top of the pile are Midnight at the Barclay Hotel by Fleur Bradley, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser, and A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow.
KM: What are you working on next?
LM: I’m at the revision stage with a related book about Cat, Ellie’s friend, in Wei To Go! She’s a dead ringer for a lady that Raphael painted during Renaissance Italy. Like Ellie, Cat hasn’t thought much about where her mom’s family came from ages ago. However, she’ll have to solve the art mystery to be more acquainted with her ancestry.
Lee grew up in a small Pennsylvania town with a fabulous library. After studying international relations in college, she worked for a magazine in New York City and then went on to graduate studies in business. Her California-based international banking work included a stint in Asia for a few years. Eventually, she became a freelance writer and editor for grades 6–8 English language arts and social studies and then pivoted to writing middle-grade fiction. She lives with her family in New York.
Learn more about Lee at www.leeymiao.com and Instagram @leeymiao.writer.
Ramadan Mubarak! We spoke with several Muslim authors to discuss how they incorporate writing during the holy month of Ramadan. Please scroll through to read their thoughts.