I am thrilled to interview Author Saadia Faruqi and Illustrator Hatem Aly and discuss their new book – Meet Yasmin! Saadia and Hatem talk about their experience developing a story with a Muslim main character and why diversity in children’s books matters.
Saadia, Yasmin is a brave girl who has a big imagination and loves adventure. Why is it important for you to write/illustrate the story of an empowering ethnic minority character?
Saadia: So far we’ve seen brown characters mostly in issues books. They typically face a problem – or issue – that directly relates to their identity. For instance a Muslim main character facing Islamophobia, or an African American main character experiencing racism. Although I do believe that those sorts of books are helpful to our understanding of critical social and political issues, it also means that minority groups are otherized further, they’re seen as different, or only viewed in the context of that issue. Yasmin is the antidote to this problem: a Muslim girl in America, a brown first generation American, who is perfectly normal and average, facing all the issues every child her age faces, and having the same happy disposition we expect to see from all our children. It was really important to me not to make Yasmin or her family “the other” – someone different because of their skin color or their religion or ethnic background. There is a sort of empowerment in that normalization that only minority groups can truly understand.
Hatem, was it important for you to take the author’s background into consideration while creating the illustrations in the book?
Hatem: It is important, However, I didn’t have to work so hard on being familiar with Saadia’s background since I can relate to many elements of her background already being brought up in Egypt and Yasmin’s family seems so familiar to me in a broader sense. I did work on bringing up some Pakistani visual elements but illustrating Yasmin went organically harmonized with the author’s experience and my own as well.
In the recent times, literary agents and publishing houses for children and young adult books have made an open call for submissions from Muslim authors and illustrators. Can you explain why it matters to include diverse characters in children’s and young adult literature?
Saadia: It’s really crucial to have as much diversity in all sorts of literature, not just in terms of characters but also stories. I actually come from an adult literary background, and I see the same calls for diversity in that age group as well, and it warms my heart to witness these changes in publishing. The reason this matters so much is two-fold (and something we in kidlit talk about constantly): mirrors and windows. My children need a mirror. They need to see themselves reflected in the pages of the books they read. Growing up in Pakistan I didn’t have that. I read exclusively white stories, by white authors, and my worldview was shaped with an extreme inferiority complex because of that. I don’t want my children to have the same, and I know nobody else does either. Also, other children need windows. They should be able to read and enjoy books that show a different sort of family than theirs, a different culture than theirs. This is the only way we can have a younger generation that’s more empathetic and understanding and aware than our previous generations were.
Hatem: It is critically necessary to show diversity in literature of all ages and to express a wider range of life elements in people’s lives. In my work I sometimes pay attention to some things that bothered me as a child but also that I found intriguing. For example, I remember almost all comics and story books took place in a sort of a suburban –house per family- neighborhood and I felt strange finding nobody living in an apartment like myself and most of the millions of people in Cairo alone or at least everyone I know. So I felt alienated but amused from a distance longing for something I can’t define. It seemed to me there was a generic way of living that needs to be challenged and I couldn’t put my finger on the issue exactly until I was older. It’s important for children to see themselves and to see others as well in books.
How can parents, librarians, and readers help support books like Meet Yasmin?
Saadia: The key is not only to read the book but to discuss it. You could use the back matter which has some really good discussion guides for students, and there is also an educator’s guide for teachers. Finally, and for me most excitingly, Capstone has some very cool downloadable activities based on Yasmin, which kids are going to love. I encourage parents, librarians and teachers to take advantage of those as much as possible.
Hatem: The best thing is to read the book, and share it with others! Personally I feel that the most powerful way is to read it to students or story time at public libraries as well as parents to their younger children. I find that helps building bonds between children and books. I love libraries, so I ask everyone to walk into their local public library and suggest that they buy a few copies for their shelves. Most libraries have book suggestion tools for their patrons, either online or in person. The same goes for your child’s school library.
Who are your personal author/illustrator idols?
Hatem: It’s more of an emergence of inspiration fueled by a mix of interesting people. Many names come to mind, and many I will forget. Some whose work I enjoy and admire are Bill Watterson, Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Jon Klassen, Luke Pearson, Marc Boutavant, Sempé, Zep, Jillian Tamaki, Lynda Barry, Vera Brosgol, Hayao Miyazaki, Naoki Urasawa, Edward Gorey, Kate Beaton, Carson Ellis, Oliver Jeffers and many more.
Saadia: Some of my favorite writers are my own peers, because I believe writing is best done as part of a community. In early reader and picture books I admire Hena Khan who’s been a trailblazer as far as Muslim representation in kidlit is concerned, and really carved a space not only for herself but for others as well. In terms of illustrators, I’m actually a big fan of Hatem Aly, haha! I feel very blessed that he’s part of Team Yasmin because it’s so important for me to have a person doing the art who really understands what it means to be Muslim, and first generation, and sometimes “the other”. He really gets my stories in a way that I think another illustrator wouldn’t have, and I’m very grateful for that.
What can readers take away from Meet Yasmin?
Saadia: Readers will enjoy seeing themselves in Meet Yasmin, even if they are very different in superficial ways to Yasmin and her family. Yasmin is literally the every-girl, and her family is the same as every other family. With everything that’s going on politically in our country at the moment, I hope that Yasmin can help readers understand that Americans come in all colors, and that there’s beauty and worth in diversity, despite what they may hear in the news sometimes.
Hatem: I believe that readers will have fun with Yasmin and recognize similarities despite some superficial differences. They will be inspired to be curious, creative, and believing in themselves all the way even if things go wrong sometimes. There are a lot of lessons a child can learn, but there’s also a lot of entertainment which is so important to develop in this age group of readers.
Thanks, Saadia and Hatem!
Want to own your very own copy of Meet Yasmin? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below!
You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on Wednesday, August 15, 2018 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.