Kidlit in Color member, Aya Khalil, had the honor to interview author Rahma Rodaah about her upcoming picture book, Dear Black Child, which publishes on September 27th. They chatted about her journey from self publishing to traditional publishing, advice to aspiring authors, and more! Read more below:
Aya Khalil: Salaam, Rahma! Thanks for letting me interview you for Kidlit in Color. I was so excited to see your announcement about your new picture book, Dear Black Child, published by HarperCollins and illustrated by Lydia Mba. This is not your first picture book. Can you give our readers a bit of a background of your publishing journey?
Rahma: I am so excited to be featured here, so thank you for this opportunity. Dear Black Child is my third published picture book but my first traditionally published work. I self-published my first picture book titled: Muhiima's Quest in 2017 when I noticed a lack of picture books featuring Black Muslim characters. The following year, I self-published another picture book titled: "Little Brother For Sale." I wrote these books because I was having difficulty finding books that celebrated being Balck and Muslim. These two identities, which dictate how we are perceived in this world, were not common, so my first goal was to fill that gap for my children. I started writing because I wanted to make sure my kids saw themselves in books. In 2020 I was fortunate to be discovered by an editor who wished to publish my manuscript "Dear Black Child" and thus began my journey in traditional publishing.
AK: Wow, that's so inspiring! Can you tell us a bit more about the idea for how Dear Black Child came to mind, how long it took, and how it went to auction?
RR: This manuscript was first written on my phone back in 2018. One day I was sitting in my living room watching my kids, and I had one of those moments when I saw myself at their age. I remembered how difficult it was for me to adjust to my new life in Canada at the age of eight, not speaking the language and being the only Black Muslim girl in my class. It just poured out of me, and then, months later, I realized how special this piece was. I decided not to self-publish it because I wanted to reach many children worldwide. And so I queried some agents. I even did a few Twitter pitches, but nothing happened. Finally, in the summer of 2020, at the height of the BLM uproar, an editor heard me recite my piece during an online Black author event. She reached out to me and offered me a deal on the spot. I had no agent, but things moved very quickly. I got an agent, and then my book went to auction within a few weeks. It was honestly a surreal moment, and I had absolutely nothing to compare it to, so I was nervous the whole time. The auction process was incredibly nerve-racking because it can be intense, and you are on edge all day waiting to hear the news. I was grateful for my agent, who kept me calm and celebrated with me every step of the way.
AK: I love that the editor found you during an online Black author event! There's always a lot of buzz around whether people should self-publish or go the traditionally publishing route. Since you have done both, can you tell our readers a bit of both, the differences, and which route aspiring authors should choose?
RR: I am glad I decided to Self-Publish first because I believe it gave me more awareness and confidence in the publishing industry. I like to tell people a Self-Published author is essentially a small business owner. Because as a Self-Published author, you are used to doing everything alone, whereas now I need to constantly remind myself I am part of a team. For example, I don't need to worry about the distribution and marketing of the book. Therefore, a mind-shift is definitely required when going from Self-Published to Traditional Publishing.
Ultimately the choice depends on the individual and what they feel is right for the book. Both options have pros and cons, and each path has a set of obstacles and triumphs. My advice would be to read up on both, ask authors from both sides, consider your goals and capacity, and make a decision with all that information in mind.
AK: That's great advice. I read an e-arc of Dear Black Child, and it is such a beautiful book. The illustrations are so vibrant! What was your reaction when you first saw the illustrations?
RR: I was very fortunate to have Lydia as an illustrator. She is so talented and connected to the text right away. I was blown away by the beauty of each page and the incredible images she attached to my words. She has truly captured the heart and essence of my manuscript.
AK: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
RR: I think the single and best advice I ever received was not never to give up. Believe in your story and keep trying no matter how long it takes. I would also add investing in your craft by taking courses, attending conferences and immersing yourself in the publishing community.
AK: I love that! Thank you so much for letting me interview you! Where can our readers find you and pre-order your book?
One of our members, Aya Khalil, interviewed Razeena Omar Gutta about her upcoming picture book, Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs, illustrated by Manal Mirza, and published by Barefoot Books. Read more about her journey to publishing and more information about her and her books! Also, we are really excited to be giving away a copy of Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs from Barefoot Books, so check us out on Instagram to learn how to win one!
Aya: I am so excited to be interviewing you for Kidlit in Color. I have been following your Instagram "Razeena Reads" for years and always enjoy reading your book reviews. Could you please tell the readers a little about your IG page and about yourself.
Razeena: Thanks Aya, I’m a big fan of Kidlit in Color, and of your books too, of course! I’m ethnically South Asian, born in Zimbabwe and now living in Australia. I’ve been part of the writing and reviewing community for a long time, Alhamdulillah. Razeena Reads on Instagram initially started out as Read Little Muslims, way back in 2014. At that time there were so few books with Muslim characters in them, that I thought I’d start a page to share all the Muslim books I could find, and where to buy them from. In fact, at one point I even sourced books from across the world, to sell in Australia, as books were so hard to find locally. I also self-published my first few books. As the years went by, I started reviewing all the books I could find, on Read Little Muslims, and I watched the incredible growth of Muslim kidlit. More and more people began writing and releasing books, and more reviewers started sharing their Muslim books finds. I remember when you announced your first traditional publishing deal, and I was SO excited!
Read Little Muslims eventually evolved into Razeena Reads when I began to become more discerning with the books I reviewed and also when I began writing for the traditional publishing market. Read Little Muslims was an incredible community that connected so many readers to books, and even inspired so many online book shops to find Muslim books for their communities, and I hope Razeena Reads can continue to do that in some way. With 3 kids, a writing career and lots more to juggle, I don’t get to post as often as I’d like, but I hope to continue sharing books I love with readers worldwide.
Aya: Your picture book, Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs, releases this September. I read an arc and absolutely love it: the main character is so fun and full of energy. Can you briefly tell our readers what your book is about, in your own words?
Razeena: Hana’s Hundreds of Hijabs is a fun, colorful book about creativity. Hana loves wearing her hijab and she has a vibrant and over-the-top, innovative style. This sometimes causes a few issues for her, and she needs to find a way to be able to express her creativity while making sure she doesn’t add to her problems of endless clutter, often being overdressed, and always being late. She comes up with a clever idea, which shows her entrepreneurship, and her love for her community and allows her to showcase her talents.
Aya: How did you get this idea for this picture book?
Razeena: I wanted to write a book about hijab that was positive and fun. I wanted to make sure there was no teaching and preaching in it, and I made sure to focus on the character and not the hijab. The book, primarily, is for Muslim children who get to see a character much like themselves have a positive, confident, glowing relationship with hijab. We all know the importance of hijab already, but we don’t often get to see how so many women thrive in their hijab, doing amazing things, and just being their splendid selves. Of course the book is for the many, incredibly supportive non-Muslim readers out there too – and I hope that when they read this book, they’ll appreciate that Hana has her own style and personality just like any other character, and I hope all children will be able to relate to her love for collecting things, her love of color, style and new ideas, and her smart and innovative ways to solve her problems. The back matter has a little deeper information about hijab too.
Aya: What's your favorite spread in this book and why?
Razeena: Wow, this is the toughest question of this interview. You’ve seen it, and seen how incredible Manal Mirza’s illustrations are. I can tell you the first spread is my favourite for its calming, radiant glow, and the second is my favorite for it’s incredible attention to detail, and the third for it’s … you can can see that I have something to say about every single spread and I am grateful to have worked with Manal on this! The illustrations are gorgeous and the art direction by Lisa Rosinksy and Autumn Allen of Barefoot Books is incredible.
Aya: Well, the illustrations are beautiful, so it is definitely hard to choose just one spread! I know many girls will love seeing this fun and positive hijab picture book! What do you hope young readers will learn or think about after reading your picture book?
Razeena: I hope young Muslim girls will see and appreciate Hana’s confidence in wearing her hijab. I hope that if they decide to wear the hijab when they’re older, they will always be comfortable and confident about it. I hope that it inspires them to have some fun with hijab while they’re young. Obviously hijab is not a fashion statement – it’s a part of faith. But for young girls who still want to have fun, who don’t have to wear hijab at all, I hope it makes them want to try it out. And for readers who are not Muslim girls, I hope this can serve to break down stereotypes and normalise hijab. Yes it’s a part of our faith, but it’s not a burden at all. Many of us hijab-wearing Muslim women, love it. I hope that some of this love shines through the pages of this book.
Aya: That is so true - I love Hana's confidence throughout! Please tell us your journey on how Hana's Hundreds of Hijabs got published (for example, finding an agent, how the process was, being on submission, etc)
Razeena: As anyone in the industry knows, publishing is a slow, slow business. But Alhamdulillah, patience does pay off! HANA is not the first, second or even third manuscript I wrote, and yet it will be my debut traditionally published book. It wasn’t even the manuscript that got me my agent. I started querying agents in 2019, and it was a long and hard road. When I think back, my writing definitely wasn’t up to scratch, and I did get very many rejections. But with each agent that offered even snippets of feedback, I improved steadily. I continued to revise my manuscripts and continued to learn the craft of writing, and the querying and rejections continued too. When Shari, my agent, said yes to another manuscript in early 2020, and offered me representation, I was thrilled. And then COVID hit. She submitted far and wide, and we waited and waited. While the initial manuscript was on submission I had a clearer plan for writing, and HANA came together relatively quickly. It took 3 months on submission before we got that all important yes, and wow, that was an incredible feeling, Alhamdulillah. It’s been a joy to work with Barefoot Books!
Aya: Oh, I love that! It's always a great feeling getting that YES! Any advice for aspiring authors reading this interview?
Razeena: Absolutely! Don’t give up. I remember reading something early on in my querying days that the people who get published are the ones who are most persistent. And that fuelled me. I wanted this, and I was willing to wait, be patient, accept feedback willingly, and it has paid off. Write your own stories, your own truths, the books that make you smile and sing. Take professional advice – not the advice of just anyone because that can be harmful. Be patient and fill your days with positivity – connect with other writers, build support groups, improve your craft. Be flexible, within reason of course, but know that good feedback is worth so much. And lastly, write because you love it, and because your stories are important, and you’ll never regret any of the time it takes – because it will take time!
Aya: Our stories are important, indeed! Where can readers find you and buy your book?
Razeena: Instagram is my main social hangout, and you can follow and chat with me @razeenareads. I’m also on Twitter @razeenareads too, and I’d love chat there..
To pre-order, click here: razeenareads.com/?page_id=158
This month is AAPI heritage month. Please tell us what it means to you.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are an integral part of the American cultural mosaic, encompassing a wide range of diversity. There are many different Asian diasporic cultures and experiences, and we need more stories that span all reading levels and in different genres. I hope more AAPI authors will feel compelled to write stories for our young people. I hope agents and editors will solicit our stories from our talented writers and illustrators. And I hope librarians, educators, and parents will work hard to connect young people with our stories.
As an educator, how do you address Asian American Pacific Islanders missing from books or being depicted using stereotypes?
I encourage educators to reflect on how they are presenting AAPI history, cultures, and communities within their classroom. All students need to develop positive self-identities and learn to understand and respect the identities of others. In my debut picture book, Meena's Mindful Moment, young readers are introduced to a diverse story that reflects some of their experiences and/or exposes others to the wider world. We need more books that celebrate diverse AAPI cultures, communities, and people.
Tell us about your MG historical fiction book, Orange For The Sunsets.
We see a lot of Historical fiction written by AAPI writers. These books are how we acknowledge our past. We see that in my MG book about the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda. It is not merely my history but a living, vital part of our present...how that historical event shaped a community. These stories are an attempt to capture the texture and richness of a wide scope of experiences, recent or distant, and to share the future we hope to see.
What does the phrase "We Need Diverse Books" mean to you?
We hear that phrase quite a lot in the book industry and in the education environment. However, when we say, "we need diverse books," we don't mean books by marginalized people that are only for marginalized people. Everyone needs diverse stories. Being able to imagine someone else's life vividly enough to feel it within yourself is how we reshape culture and unlearn false ideas.
As an educator for over thirty years, how do you feel about the fight for the removal of books in school districts and public libraries?
All children have a right to quality education and access to books that reflect their communities. Books can be used as tools to develop anti-racist foundations and help students think critically. Across the county, school boards are removing, or fighting to remove, books by non-white authors instead of diversifying our stacks. Presently, marginalized groups are absent from our K-12 public education core curriculum or represented by a very small percentage. How can we move forward and build a more cohesive world, if we cannot see all of us in it together?
Tina Athaide was born in Uganda and grew up in London and Canada. While her family left Entebbe just prior to the expulsion, she has memories of refugee family and friends staying with them in their London home. The stories and conversations she listened to through the years became the inspiration for her book Orange for the Sunsets. Tina now lives in California with her husband, Ron, and their daughter, Isabella.
You can learn more about Tina at https://tinaathaide.com/tinaathaide.com/
Kirstie Myvett interviews author Michelle Coles on her debut novel, Black Was the Ink.
Congrats on your debut Black Was the Ink! I’m a HUGE historical fiction fan and I’m so glad I read your book. It’s now one of my favorites. Tell us what inspired you to write this book.
Black Was the Ink was inspired by the Mother Emanuel massacre that took place in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. At the time of the massacre, I was on maternity leave from my job as a civil rights attorney, and I struggled with how to prepare my infant son to enter a world filled with so much inexplicable hatred towards people who look like him. I was surprised to learn that Denmark Vesey, the leader of one of the largest attempted slave rebellions, founded the congregation that became the Mother Emanuel Church, and Pastor Richard ‘Daddy’ Cain, one of the first Black members of Congress, led the church during Reconstruction. Also, Booker T. Washington spoke there, and Coretta Scott King led a protest on behalf of striking hospital workers from the church’s steps where she was met by bayonet-wielding members of the South Carolina National Guard. Suddenly, the link between slavery, the collapse of Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and present-day racial injustices crystallized for me, and Black Was the Ink was born.
Your transitions from modern day scenes to the 19th century flowed so naturally. Did you set out to write a contemporary/historical book or did it just happen that way?
I did. Because I wrote Black Was the Ink with my children in mind as the audience, I wanted to write something that they could relate to while gaining a deeper understanding of how the past influenced the present. Having a kid from the present travel to the past so he could see for himself what it was like for Black people as they were emerging from slavery seemed like the perfect way to do that.
Readers will certainly appreciate the rich historical stories weaved throughout the book. (I especially enjoyed seeing one of the Downing’s mentioned since I’ve been working on a book about the patriarch for some time.) I know your background as a civil rights attorney played a role in your vast historical knowledge, but tell us about your process and how long it took you to compile all this research for the book?
Surprisingly, I hardly knew anything about the Reconstruction Era before I started writing Black Was the Ink. I figured that if I, as a 9th generation Louisianan, civil rights attorney, and HBCU law graduate, didn’t know this history, who would? I loved writing this book because I was able to unearth a fascinating and extremely consequential period in American history and present it in a way that was both entertaining and easy to understand.
I spent about 9 months researching the Reconstruction Era before I began writing. Some of my resources included:
· Philip Dray’s Capitol Men, a non-fiction account of the first Black members of Congress;
· W.E.B. Dubois’s groundbreaking Black Reconstruction, which was one of the first books to challenge the dominate narrative that white supremacists peddled which claimed the Reconstruction Era was an abject failure;
· Several books by Eric Foner, the preeminent modern scholar on the Reconstruction Era;
· A first-hand account of John Roy Lynch, a Black Congressman from Mississippi in the 1870s, called The Facts of Reconstruction
· Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died about the Colfax Massacre
· But my favorite resource was the Library of Congress’s Congressional Record because it gave me access to the actual words of the first Black member of Congress from floor debates.
Although these came out after I had written my manuscript, Henry Louis Gates’ documentary Reconstruction and Netflix’s Amend are also excellent.
I truly loved and cared for the protagonist, Malcolm, a lot. He’s such a well-rounded kid, and you captured his voice perfectly. I had many laugh out loud moments, especially when he would use modern lingo in the 19th century and catch himself. I’m curious how you nailed that voice down so well.
Thank you! My husband was a big help. He would read drafts and sometimes say, “A guy wouldn’t talk like that!” Also, I am a mom of 4 boys. They are all young, but I tried to imagine their teenage selves. And I have been blessed with really great friendships with guys my whole life, including my twin boy cousins that are the same age as me. Tragically, one of the twins died in a car accident right before the book went to print, so I changed the name of Malcolm’s cousin to Kliff (one of Baton Rouge’s finest) in honor of him. Their voices were all with me as I wrote Black Was the Ink.
Malcolm’s relatives embody southern hospitality. Did you rely on your own memories of visiting family in the south to create that familial bond?
Definitely. I was born in Baton Rouge and most of my extended family still lives there, so southern hospitality is natural to me and what I embody no matter where I am physically. You come to my house, you’re gonna be treated like royalty and eat good!
What do you want young readers to get from Black Was the Ink?
I hope this story makes Black children feel proud and empowered from witnessing the strength of their ancestors. I want them to know that no matter what they are taught in schools, Black people have always been more than slaves. The Reconstruction Era is proof because we came out of slavery READY: ready to learn, ready to reunite our families, ready to innovate, ready to own land and businesses, and ready to participate in democracy. I want them to know that the inequalities and injustices that they see and experience are not their fault. It’s not because Black people didn’t work hard or try. It’s because some people used the immense power of our government to keep Black people from enjoying the privileges of American citizenship.
For white children and children of other races, I want them to feel empowered to be a part of the change that is necessary to make America a more just nation. I want them to look at the pervasive racial inequalities that exist and question their root cause. I want them to use their voice as part of the American Majority to demand that we undo the harm caused by denying Black people equal citizenship rights for centuries.
Malcolm’s illustrations throughout the novel are really special. Tell us about the illustrator and what were your thoughts when you saw those sketches.
My publisher, Lee and Low, found the illustrator Justin Johnson, and I think he is incredible! He is a middle school art teacher in Washington D.C., which was perfect since Malcolm was from Washington D.C., and he captured Malcolm’s style and essence beautifully. His interior art was magical and really helped to bring the past to life. When I saw how everything came together, I was overjoyed!
What are you working on now?
I am writing a historical fiction novel about the Haitian Revolution that also has a past to present angle. My husband is Haitian-American so my children are half-Haitian. I’m excited to write something to help them understand this part of their background better.
What are your favorite writer tools, apps, etc.?
I am really bad at keeping up with technology. My phone and computers are usually at least 5 years old, and I only got on social media last year to help spread awareness about my book. I’m not aware of any apps (but please let me know if you have a recommendation), but I do use excel. Since my stories involve multiple timelines, an excel spreadsheet is really helpful to keep those threads organized.
When I’m not writing you can find me….?
Hanging out at home with my husband and four sons. They are my pride and joy and whom I am doing all of this for.
What are you currently reading?
I’m grateful that someone recommended that I read Stephen King’s On Writing. What a great resource for writers! I’m also reading several books about Haiti including The Black Jacobins, Haiti: the Aftershocks of History, and Dear Haiti, Love Alaine.
Do you have any advice for aspiring MG/YA authors?
I would suggest that they think about what kinds of stories they needed when they were young that would have had a positive impact on their development and worldview and then get to writing!
Michelle Coles is a debut novelist, experienced civil rights attorney, and mother of four. She is a proud graduate of Howard University School of Law and the University of Virginia. As a 9th generation Louisianan, she is highly attuned to the struggles that African Americans have faced in overcoming the legacy of slavery and the periods of government-sanctioned discrimination that followed. Her goal in writing is to empower young people by educating them about history and giving them the tools to shape their own destiny.
You can keep up with her work by signing up for updates on her website: www.michellecoles.com or following her on Instagram @michellecolesauthor. For speaking engagements, Michelle is represented by The Lavin Agency: https://www.thelavinagency.com/michelle-coles.
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
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.