WNDMG Wednesday: Author Interview with Maleeha Siddiqui
I’m so excited to be able to introduce you to accomplished middle grade author Maleeha Siddiqui today. Maleeha’s newest book is ANY WAY YOU LOOK (Scholastic) and it launches on May 7, 2024.
This book is a must have and a wonderful read, as I had the pleasure of reading an ARC, and Maleeha’s other novels are also favorites. Maleeha has a beautiful way of writing that is full of emotion and heart and craft!
Everyone should buy a copy for themselves and their classrooms and libraries.
About ANY WAY YOU LOOK
Description taken from online:
When boys from her community start harassing her, Ainy needs to figure out how to get them to stop—while still staying true to herself.
Dress Coded meets Amina’s Voice in this new middle grade novel by Maleeha Siddiqui.
Ainy is excited for summer! She plans on working at her mom’s clothing boutique, having adventures with her best friend, and maybe even starting to wear the hijab—just like her big sister. But when certain boys from Ainy’s Muslim community keep showing up at the store to give her unwanted attention, she goes from possibly wanting to wear the hijab someday to feeling like she needs to wear it to get the boys to leave her alone.
But wearing the hijab doesn’t do what she’d hoped: It doesn’t deflect the boys’ attention at all! If anything, they’ve found something new to harass her about. With the help of her best friend and her older sister, Ainy must channel her inner creative strength and find the confidence to stand her ground and get the respect she deserves.
This is a compulsively readable, feminist, and thought-provoking book about staying true to yourself by acclaimed author Maleeha Siddiqui.
Interview with Maleeha Siddiqui
I loved getting to talk to Maleeha about her new book and I think you will enjoy meeting her and Ainy as well.
SSS: What a compelling synopsis! I truthfully was so intrigued right away to read just based on the important topic alone.
What is the inspiration behind AWYL?
MS: First, thank you for having me! I’m thrilled to be bringing this important, thought-provoking story to readers. ANY WAY YOU LOOK is many things, but it’s primarily a story about sisterhood and finding the confidence to stand your ground and get the respect you deserve.
Unfortunately, the inspiration behind AWYL comes from many concerning stories that I’ve heard over the years from women and girls in my life – both Muslim and non-Muslim – about behaviors and comments they are subjected to that are too often ignored.
In 2020, I read Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes you. It was the first book I read that addressed the issue of sexual harassment for young kids and it made me realize that these themes can be in a book for young readers, and I had a lot to say on the topic. The day I started writing Ainy’s story, I had just come home from an event, and I was furious about a comment I had heard made to a young girl there. Female rage really drove this whole book for me.
SSS: That makes total sense and I know exactly what you mean!
As a Muslim American, reading this story resonated with me. It really feels authentic and honest, and yet very raw and hard to read as well! How was that experience for you writing it? Did you worry about the balance of marginalized representation with also the responsibility of calling out injustice, even in our own communities.
MS: I think I’m honest about how much I love the Muslim community, but I’m also not afraid to call out its flaws. Writing about certain topics in the book did make me nervous, and yes, balancing the marginalized representation with the responsibility of calling out injustice did stress me out at times. However, I constantly reminded myself who I was writing the book for and that no one’s experiences, or journey is one-size-fits-all. I try to show balanced opinions and characters in my books, because that’s the composition of the real world.
SSS: I love that!
How is Ainy as a character similar to you? How is she different?
MS: Ainy is not a lot like me, honestly. She’s a fashionista, and I’m not (at least, not anymore). She’s kind of messy, and I’m a neat freak. One thing Ainy and I do have in common is our passion for doing what we love. In my case, it’s writing and sharing my love for reading. For Ainy, it’s designing clothes and helping people feel beautiful.
SSS: The subject of hijab and dressing modestly is important in the book—can you talk more about how Ainy struggles to decide whether hijab is for her or not?
MS: Bodily autonomy is a big theme in AWYL. I will say this. If you’re the type of person that believes hijab, like the five daily prayers, should be done no matter how you feel or where you are in your spiritual journey, then this book is not for you. I always knew that I wanted to write a book about a young girl debating on whether she’s ready to observe hijab or not.
A large part of it stemmed from my frustration with global conversations surrounding hijab. How are enforcements and bans being imposed with little to no regard of the opinion of Muslim women who simply want their freedom? Don’t we get a say? Ainy’s struggle to decide whether hijab is for her or not closely mirrors my own from when I was young.
I don’t want to spoil the book, but I am the confident hijabi that I am today because I was given the time, space, and grace to explore my relationship with Allah (SWT) and connect with my faith on a deeper level before making the commitment. I wanted Ainy’s character arc to show all the different external and internal influences that can get in the way of that.
SSS: That definitely resonates!
Muslim books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does having faith/deen play a role in your book?
MS: Having faith/deen plays a role in all my books, Alhumdulillah! Some more than others, but at the end of the day, my main characters are all Muslim and I like to show them existing on the page at different points in their spirituality. After all, I’ve been in all their shoes at one point or another!
The central Islamic message in AWYL is the importance of one’s relationship with their Creator and how, as Muslims, that – not the opinion of others – should be the driving force behind our choices. And Ainy’s got some big choices to make in this book!
SSS: Will there be more Ainy (or other middle grade) in the future?
MS: AWYL is it for Ainy, but I do have more middle grade books in the works for the future!
SSS: When did you start writing AWYL and was the process a long one?
MS: I conceived the initial idea for AWYL in 2020, but I started writing it–slowly–in May 2022. I finished 90% of the book from September 2022 – January 2023. Four months might sound like a long time to draft a 45K MG novel, but AWYL is by far the easiest book I have written so far.
It’s my most intentionally crafted book. I paid close attention to every plot beat, character arc, pacing, etc. I heard every character’s voice, especially Ainy’s, so clearly in my head. As a result, the story poured out of me effortlessly. I truly think it’s my best work to date, and I’m very proud of it.
SSS: As a fellow middle grade novel, I LOVE plotting, but I also feel like the characters have a mind of their own at times. Do you plot or pants your novels?
MS: I’m a hardcore plotter! I hate first drafts, so having a detailed synopsis makes it a little less painful. I do pants 5-10% of the story, though. Like you said, sometimes the characters have a mind of their own.
SSS: Any advice for fellow middle-grade authors?
MS: Read, read, read! Read middle grade books published in the last five years and explore different genres! I love reading horror and fantasy in addition to realistic fiction. And remember middle grade should be representative of today’s kids, not back when we were kids, though much of the pre-adolescent emotional experience remains universally the same!
SSS: Bonus question! Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share with us?
MS: ANY WAY YOU LOOK is my third MG cotemporary and a culmination of a lot of things I’ve learned about writing craft over the years. That’s not to say I am not proud of my previous two books, BARAKAH BEATS and BHAI FOR NOW. Both are very dear to me, and it warms my heart when readers tell me reading one led them to pick up the other. Now I hear from readers that they are excited for my next book. So, while this interview is about ANY WAY YOU LOOK, I’d like to give a shoutout to BARAKAH BEATS and BHAI FOR NOW. I hope readers love Ainy as much as they’ve come to love Nimra, Ashar, and Shaheer.
Thank you so much Maleeha for answering my questions! I hope everyone picks up a copy of your beautiful book.
About Maleeha Siddiqui:
MALEEHA SIDDIQUI is an American writer of Pakistani descent who loves to tell stories for all ages about the American Muslim experience. She can’t live without caffeine, rainy days, and books with a whole lot of heart. Her previous novels, Barakah Beats and Bhai for Now, were both Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. Barakah Beats was also an ABA Indies Introduce pick. By day, Maleeha works in the biotech industry. She grew up and continues to reside with her family in Virginia. Find her at maleehasiddiqui.com and on Instagram at @malsidink.