Interview by: Susan Muaddi Darraj
SUSAN: Congratulations on this newest picture book! I loved learning about Abdul’s storytelling talent, as well as his encouraging interaction with Mr. Muhammad. What inspired you to write it?
JAMILAH: My inspiration for stories almost always comes from specific experiences in my life and the inspiration for Abdul and Mr. Muhammad is no exception. While working for a community center, called Mighty Writers, I was teaching a writing workshop to early elementary aged students. Most of the children were enthusiastic about this workshop and filling up their little notebooks–most of them except one student. We’ll call him “H.” H wrote one sentence and then told me he was done. When I prodded him, asking him if there was more he wanted to add to the story, he eventually told me “I’m not a writer like them,” referring to the other kids in the workshop. H was maybe six at the time, and I remember thinking how does a child that young decide that about themself?
I ended up coaching him through adding more and more to his story, and I remember him continually wanting to stop and correct his handwriting and spelling. This is something I’ve noticed quite a bit as an English teacher and writing workshop leader: kids stopping and self-correcting so much they don’t get their ideas out. I had to push him to not care and to keep going. I had to keep emphasizing that more than anything, I was excited to hear what happened next and I was not looking at his mistakes. He needed to know that the story he had to tell was what made him a writer. When our workshop time was over, he had filled up his notebook and couldn’t wait for his dad to pick him up so he could show what he had done. H had never had the experience of writing so much.
SUSAN: Abdul has some anxiety around the fact that he flips letters when he reads and writes. How did you decide to build this into his character?
JAMILAH: Having taught young children writing, I’m very aware that many children, with or without diagnosed disabilities, struggle with writing, and that regardless of diagnosis, they can all be very self-conscious about it. I left whether Abdul has a specific disability open for a few reasons. One is that there are multiple disabilities that could lead to his struggles. Within my own family, we have Abdul’s same issues with writing but these are due to autism, not dyslexia or dysgraphia, which are the more obvious disabilities that could be at play in this story.
The other is in my experience these issues are often not tied to a disability at all. Letter flipping for example is still within the range of typical development through second grade. I wanted kids with all kinds of learning differences that lead to writing challenges to feel at home in this book, and I wanted those children to understand their writing challenges as a common experience and not something to be ashamed of.
SUSAN: Mr. Muhammad shares his writing journal with Abdul and points out how writers always write "messy" at first. Do you keep a journal like this? Can you share with us your own messy process?
JAMILAH: Messiness is definitely a part of my process. I can’t create something new without creating a mess first so then I can organize my mess. I talk a lot about this process here. I’m definitely not a complete pantser but I need to be a messy pantser for a while before I can start plotting and organizing my ideas. My notebooks have my crazy scrawlings (and sometimes doodles), often out of order, and my most obnoxious habit (it gets on my nerves that I do this) is writing in random notebooks for the same story. I’ll have bits and pieces of stories in multiple notebooks. When I need to get an idea down, I grab the closest notebook and just start writing. I do work to at least label the bits and pieces and make sure that each of them has a specific purpose. Like Abdul, drafting for me means writing a less messy mess.
SUSAN: The illustrations by Tiffany Rose are remarkable. I love the depiction of Abdul's neighborhood and school and classmates. What was it like working with Tiffany Rose?
JAMILAH: Honestly, we didn’t communicate a lot during the process except about the initial character sketches. I did wish for Abdul to look like my sons with tall hair and skin “the color of an orange-brown sunrise.” She also asked if it would be okay to make Abdul a lefty like herself, which I thought made perfect sense. However, other than that, we didn’t talk much at all. I think artists should be trusted as professionals to own the picture books they illustrate, and she definitely owned this book!
I knew looking at her previous book, M is for Melanin, that Tiffany would create beautiful, diverse Black children and communities of color. I’m in love with seeing the beautiful depictions of Philadelphia children and adults. I also love how she depicted aspects of the Philadelphian neighborhoods I know well. She captured a corner of South Philadelphia that’s close to one of my favorite Philly mosques and the community center that inspired this book! She put in the El train that I traveled on a lot as a kid and young adult. All of this was without even speaking with her.
SUSAN: We always use Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop’s metaphor – that kidlit should provide mirrors and windows for children. What are the mirrors and windows being provided to young readers in Abdul’s Story?
JAMILAH: In a lot of ways, this book is a mirror for me as a girl, for my children, and for people like us. We are neurodivergent, Black, Muslim, and from a specific urban context. Even down to little things it is a mirror–I struggled with sloppy handwriting (although strangely, people now compliment my handwriting) and as a girl was made to feel very self-conscious about it. So, this book is for that child who has been made to feel self conscious about the way they express their learning too. I didn’t struggle with writing but I’ve known and loved a lot of kids who do and wanted this to be their mirror.
In a lot of ways this book makes me feel very vulnerable because it is so much me and my loved ones on the page. When I write, I don’t like to think about the window that I’m opening because it can take away the focus from the kids inside who need the mirror–the kids who are in my in-groups. However, I do hope now that it’s coming out into the world that other children will find these experiences relatable and empathize even though they might not know Black Muslims or might not struggle with writing or might not have experienced living in cities.
I also want them to see value in the stories of these kids who are different from them. One of Abdul’s biggest lessons to learn is that being different doesn’t mean his stories don’t have value in the classroom. In fact, in many ways, his differences make his stories more valuable.