Salma Hussain - The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan
Interview by Gabriele Davis
GD: Congratulations on your middle grade debut, Salma! Tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it.
SH: Thank you so much for the warm welcome and the congratulations, Gabriele!
The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan is a middle grade novel set in 1991 about a young, Muslim Pakistani girl growing up in big-city Dubai, in the U.A.E. Due to the first Gulf War her parents decide to immigrate to North America. They end up in small-town Dartmouth on Canada’s east coast. The novel is a year-in-the-life of young Mona as she journeys through immigration, puberty, and general tween concerns – “When will my chest grow, Allah? Why is my mother not like the mothers on T.V.? Why is Aba ruining our lives by moving us to Canada?”
To answer the question about what inspired me to write this novel, I’d like to share its origin story: When my daughter was five, she turned to me sleepily at bedtime and asked, “Mama, you were born outside Canada, right? Were you a regular kid just like us?” That one question was the spark behind this entire novel. I knew in that moment that I wanted to write a book in a child’s voice to answer my daughter. I wanted to explore in what ways might the kids who grow up outside Canada be different? And in what ways might they be the same? I wanted this to be an immigration story, and I chose these particular locations because I know them very well! I grew up in the U.A.E. myself (until grade seven) and immigrated to a small town on the eastern coast of Canada when I was a teenager (I completed my high school years in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia). I have a familiarity and love for both places, and as they are under-represented in children's literature in North America, I wanted to amplify and celebrate them.
GD: Your story is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl writing in her diary. Why did you choose this format?
SH: Multiple reasons in no particular order:
GD: Your characters deal with challenging, worldly issues as well as more light-hearted preteen concerns. Was it difficult to find the right balance between the two?
SH: Yes, it was a challenge! I was passionate about exploring both simultaneously because that is how life is lived, no? Especially for children who have been or are in the process of being displaced due to war and conflict. There’s somber tragedy as well as gut-busting joy. I hope I struck the right balance! Again, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13 ¾ was a sort of mentor text in paving the way for me in this regard: Adrian dealt with parental separation, adultery, abortion, and economic uncertainty, but the author never lost her sense of humor about life and gave readers that joy. It’s something I’ve aspired to do in this text.
GD: What message do you hope readers take away from this story?
SH: There are a few different messages, but first and foremost, I would love readers to simply laugh and enjoy Mona’s story. I hope that they can recognize and accept that each of us are on a journey and doing the best we can. Readers of this novel are ideally at a place in their lives where they are looking out at the world in wonder and marveling at both its splendor and absurdity – something that seems to happen to most of us right around adolescence!
GD: How long have you been writing for children, and what was your publication journey like?
SH: This is the first book I’ve written for children. I was a member of two writing groups when I was writing this novel. I also went through a mentorship program through Diaspora Dialogues (an amazing free mentorship program in Canada). After I finished the mentorship, I submitted 10 sample pages for a flash assessment at a literary festival to which publishing professionals volunteer their time. I was paired with an agent who handles childrens’ literature and she instantly “got” my story, loved it and requested a full. We vibed really well and the rest is history! Everyone says publishing moves slow but in my case, I felt it moved really fast!
GD: Mona’s diary entries inspire some laugh-out-loud moments. Does writing humor come naturally to you?
SH: Thank you for this compliment! In everything I write, I do somehow end up inserting comic moments. Comedy is something I’ve always gravitated towards. I believe half my friends would begrudgingly admit I’m pretty funny, and the other half would roll their eyes and advise you not to encourage me.
GD: What advice would you give writers wanting to write funny stories?
SH: Read funny books. Watch funny movies. Spend time with people who are funny or, at the very least, who will encourage your wacky sense of humor. Find your tribe - in books, movies and real life. Then start writing funny.
GD: Do you have any favorite humorous middle grade novels?
SH: Again, I LOVE the whole Adrian Mole series but only the first one would qualify as MG, and the rest of the series move into YA/adult territory. I also really LOVE It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas.
Salma Hussain writes prose and poetry for children and adults. She grew up in the UAE to parents from Pakistan, and moved to Canada as a teenager. Her debut novel for kids and kids-at-heart, The Secret Diary Of Mona Hasan is out May 3, 2022 by Tundra/Penguin Random House. She lives in Toronto.
Find Salma online at:
Twitter & Instagram: salmahwrites
Congratulations on your debut book, The Juneteenth Story! Please give us a brief summary of the book.
Thank you! The Juneteenth Story is a picture book highlighting the events and circumstances that led to the day that came to be known as Juneteenth, and follows the progression of Juneteenth until it became a national holiday in June 2021.
The Juneteenth Story starts with the position and treatment of Black people in the United States starting in the 18th century until present day. What was your research like for this project? What tools did you rely on and how did you organize it all?
Based on previous knowledge, I had a loose outline of how I envisioned the book flowing and started filling in some of the blanks with whatever information I could get my hands on. I learned so much, but of course, I couldn’t include everything.
I was conducting research during the pandemic, so most of what I did was through resources I accessed online and through my local library. But I found so many treasure troves of information, especially some excellent primary sources. These included the Library of Congress’ recordings of interviews with formerly enslaved people, articles, interviews, and video clips of Juneteenth celebrations throughout the country, and even news articles from Texas shortly after Emancipation Celebration. This information and more helped create a more nuanced narrative than I could have imagined.
From a tools perspective, I keep it simple. I’ve been a Google Docs girl since it launched. I found it to be the easiest thing to use to build out my outline, keep facts and sources organized, and to work on the book on multiple devices. For digital resources, especially, it was nice to be able to link directly to the source in case I needed to go back for additional context.
The book is formatted in a present/ past manner with a modern Black family learning about Juneteenth with illustrations and historical information to match. Did you set out to write The Juneteenth Story that way or did it organically flow into this version?
I didn’t initially set out to do it this way, but my editor and I were talking about using a visual device to keep kids connected to the story since it does take a number of twists and turns throughout. One idea was to put a little girl and her grandparents talking about Juneteenth into the illustration- and for those folks to be inspired by me and my family.
I was excited about the possibility, and my grandfather ultimately was, too! Unfortunately my grandmother passed away in 2015, but my grandfather is 90 years old and sharp as a tack. I provided some older photos of us that were then used to inspire the illustrations.
My grandfather was surprised at how well Sawyer captured his essence, and my absolute favorite illustration of my grandmother is the one in the author’s note where she’s wearing a beautiful green dress. Plus, Sawyer’s kids are always adorable, so I’m honored little Alliah and her giant pigtails received the Sawyer Cloud treatment.
Did you uncover any surprising facts during your research for A Juneteenth Story, especially anything you wanted to include in your book but couldn’t?
Oh so many. I had limited space, so I couldn’t share all I learned, but here are some of the most fascinating.
4. Also, while Al Edwards was known as the one who helped make Juneteenth a Texas state holiday, from a federal perspective, there were a number of lawmakers and activists who were advocating for it for decades, such as Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Opal Lee [not related], known as ‘The Grandmother of Juneteenth.” Although the closing illustration took a different, albeit powerful direction that I love, I would have loved to figure out how to incorporate the image of them helping sign Juneteenth into a national holiday.
The cover of The Juneteenth Story is so vibrant and joyful. What did you think when you first saw the illustrations by Sawyer Cloud?
Sawyer did an unbelievable job with her illustrations- and she’s booked and busy. I personally know two other awesome authors who released books with her this year! In some parts of the story, the material is very difficult. Her vibrant images and the adorable children she depicted throughout the book help balance it out. She has a gift for bringing so much emotion and movement to still images. Some images were so vibrant I honestly felt like I could hear them.
This was a challenging book because it covers centuries of material, different styles of dress, etc., not to mention the fact that she is illustrating people I know and love- but she did it masterfully!
Juneteenth is a special holiday for your family. Please tell us about your personal connection to the holiday.
It is! My grandfather was part of BUILD, an activist organization in Buffalo, NY (my hometown). In 1976, while much of the nation was busy planning for America’s bicentennial, the BUILD organization planned to make a ‘culturally relevant’ alternative freedom celebration for those who didn’t have 200 years of freedom. The celebration became one of the largest in the nation. But as I said in one interview, I was probably in utero during my first Juneteenth! We were at the festival every year when I was growing up.
What are your plans for Juneteenth this year?
This year I’ll be in Buffalo! (I now live in New Jersey). I’m looking forward to it. My grandfather and the Juneteenth Festival committee are just as excited as I am about the book coming out, so I can’t wait to be on-hand at the festival and in my hometown to celebrate.
Do you have any advice for debut or aspiring authors?
Your first draft is probably bad, let it simmer. Be a relentless reviser.
Read a lot. Especially in your genre.
Feeling stuck and looking for inspiration? Sometimes inspiration is right in front of you. Don’t take your lived experiences for granted. Someone else may find them fascinating.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve got a couple in rotation right now! Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley - so good. I also just read the ARC for Tameka Fryer Brown’s holiday PB Twelve Dinging Doorbells– that book made me hoot and holler! Can’t wait until it’s in the world.
When not writing you can find me….?
Visiting bookstores, playing Uber driver to two kids, deliberating if I should hop on the Peloton, listening to podcasts, and cracking jokes on one of my many group text chats.
Tell us about your next project that’s scheduled to hit shelves in 2023.
My next project was actually my original book baby! It is a fiction rhyming picture book called Big Tune, scheduled to launch with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Winter 2023. Big Tune is a story of Black boy joy, featuring a tenacious, thoughtful, dance-loving Jamerican boy in early 1990s Brooklyn. The illustrator is the incredible Shamar Knight-Justice, who is also a school principal! He’s absolutely one to watch.
Alliah L. Agostini grew up celebrating Juneteenth in Buffalo, NY; Her grandfather was one of the co-founders of the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo. Founded in 1976, it grew to become the third-largest Juneteenth celebration in the world.
A trained marketer with a passion for children's literature, Alliah writes with a commitment to spread joy, truth, and to help more children see themselves on the page. Alliah lives with her family in New Jersey, and has both an A.B. and an M.B.A from Harvard.
Learn more about Alliah at http://www.alliahagostini.com
Instagram + Twitter: @alliago