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