Aya Khalil: Hello and salam! I am SO thrilled to interview you today for Kidlit in Color's blog. I read an advanced copy of Salat in Secret, and wow! What a stunning picture book. Can you briefly tell readers what your newest picture book is about in your own words?
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: Wa Salaam Aya and thank you so much! Salat in Secret is the story of Muhammad who receives a salat/prayer rug on his seventh birthday, the age when young Muslims are encouraged to observe their five daily prayers. He wants to observe all of his salat prayers on time. However, one occurs during the school day and he’s too shy to ask for a place to pray.
AK: I love this book for so many reasons. First, my son is seven years old and his name is Muhammad! Reading this reminded me so much of him. It also reminded me of my younger self. There were many times growing up where I would feel embarrassed of praying in public. But my parents always did. In fact, I remember one time my dad prayed in a coat closet at a restaurant and the police were called. Something similar happens in this book, would you like to explain to readers a little about why you put that part, and also the mean lady (we're all familiar with her) who presumably called them?
JTB: The police scene in the book occurs when Muhammad’s dad is praying on the sidewalk and a woman calls police officers over. The police stand and watch and it is a scary scene for both Muhammad and his dad. It’s loosely based on something my father told me about when he was working as an ice cream man. Another ice cream man, an Iraqi immigrant, got out and prayed on the sidewalk in the middle of his work day and police were called on him. They watched and threatened him and then questioned him afterward. The man was crying when he told my father this story and he kept repeating “why” because he couldn’t make sense of it. I included this scene because part of the fear of making our obligatory prayers is the criminalization of Muslims and our faith. This is always in the background for us. Muhammad’s fears about asking about salat aren’t unfounded. There are always people like the “mean lady” in the book who see our very existence as needing policing. It takes a real act of bravery to pray anyway.
AK: Hatem Aly does it again with his stunning illustrations! What is your favorite spread or page? For me, that sunset spread with the ice cream truck took my breath away.
JTB: Honestly, that sunset spread is such a brilliant work of art that I have to agree with you. It’s my fave! I love that and so many of the elements that Hatem brings to the work. I am particularly enamored with the salat rug end papers because they are so intricate and beautiful and I enjoy the way they open up like actual rugs.
AK: What do you hope kids who are Muslims take away from this book? What about kids and adults of other faiths?
JTB: I hope Muslim kids feel seen and that they learn that they are entitled to ask for what they need to practice their faith. Kids should know their voices are powerful even when their voices shake. Speaking up is bravery. I’m hoping that readers of other faiths (or no faith) see that too. That they can and should ask for what they need to be comfortable in the school space and to be empathetic when others are voicing needs that may be unfamiliar to them too.
AK: You dedicated this book to your Dad (Allah yerhamo). Is there a reason for this, was he an inspiration while writing this book?
JTB: Ameen, thank you. I was inspired to write this book a few weeks after my father passed away. While I was processing my emotions of grief, I also found myself feeling a profound sense of gratitude that I had had a father like him to grieve. I looked back and thought about his life and the many joyful memories I shared with him. I was a true daddy’s girl and I remembered the fun we had working on his ice cream truck and the way we would stop and find places to pray. I remembered how proud and unapologetic he was as a Muslim, and I thought about how much that impacted my sense of self. I wanted to put a father like that into a book. Meanwhile, my youngest child was turning seven. I was thinking about what gifts to get him, and a salat rug occurred to me because of the spiritual importance of his age. I thought about how excited my father would have been if he could see that, and I had this story.
Photo Credit:: Michael E. Gray
AK: How long did it take for you to write this? It also was preempted! Do you want to talk a little about that for those unfamiliar with a pre-empt?
JTB: This may be the fastest I’ve ever written a picture book. I wrote a first draft in one sitting. Once I had the story it was itching to get out and I couldn’t do anything else. It just flowed out of me and my pen had to keep up. After a couple of weeks of working on it, I felt it was ready for critiques and then my agent submitted it to multiple editors. It was then preempted by Ann Kelley at Random House Studio within days. A preempt is when an editor basically takes a book off the table for other editors, but they have to do this quickly – before other editors have a chance to make an offer. If an editor wants a book badly enough and thinks there might be competition, they can offer a deal strong enough to convince an agent and author to not let other editors offer on it and prevent a possible auction.
AK: After you announced this book, I remember someone asked his followers where was the most interesting place everyone has prayed at. I have prayed at college staircases and changing rooms. How about you and your family?
JTB: Probably the funniest place was during our family vacation last year. We found a patch of grass near a body of water in a parking lot at Disney World. It was kind of secluded so we thought we’d found a good spot. My husband was beginning to lead and I turned around and noticed there were signs behind us saying to beware of alligators. I hollered and we bolted out of there.
AK: 😂😂 That is hilarious. I recently read your newly released middle grade, Grounded, that you co-wrote with three incredible authors. I absolutely love it. Not only was it hilarious (I read it on the airplane and was giggling so hard), but the friendship theme is so great. What was it like co-writing a book and what was your favorite part about writing it?
JTB: Co-writing was such a nice break from the usually solitary work of writing. We were constantly sharing new ideas and surprising each other with funny things to add. More importantly for me, it helped build up my confidence as an MG writer because this is a relatively new genre for me. The positive and almost-instant feedback made this project incredibly special as a developing MG writer.
AK: Any tips for aspiring authors?
JTB: Yes, read, read, read your genre. Then, read some more.Books are the best class you’ll ever take. The other is to not back down from telling the story you want to tell. Be unapologetically you in your books.
AK: Where can readers find you and your books?
Please follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jtbigelow and on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authorjamilah/
And visit my website: https://jamilahthewriter.com