Meet Yasmin! (Capstone, Aug 2018) is an early reader series (grades K-2) featuring a South Asian American character Yasmin Ahmad and her multigenerational family. To celebrate the launch of Meet Yasmin! author Saadia Faruqi and illustrator Hatem Aly interview each other here. They talk about their writing journeys, their immigrant lives, and of course, the character they both created, Yasmin:
H.A: So Saadia, what made you write Yasmin? Why not something more mainstream, more “American?”
S.F: On the contrary, I think Meet Yasmin! is as mainstream and American as I could get. North America has increasing South Asian and Middle Eastern populations, as you and I are both testament to, and there are so many children for whom Yasmin is exactly the perfect character to read about. There is diversity around us in both our countries, and this book is just a reflection of the reality we live in.
S.F: Hatem, I’m so happy you agreed to do Yasmin’s art. I’m dying to know, what was your reaction when you were approached about illustrating Meet Yasmin?
H.A: Oh, my pleasure, Saadia! When I was approached to illustrate this series my first reaction was of excitement but also at the same time utter frustration! I was so busy at the time, I wasn’t sure how to make this fit into my schedule, but I also felt a great need to make it work. So I rescheduled and managed my other projects in a way that I’d be able to work on this series. I was so eager to design the characters right away and bringing them to life, especially Yasmin!
H.A: What was your favorite part about writing Meet Yasmin?
S.F: Coming up with stories is definitely the best part, the little situations that Yasmin encounters. It’s always the fun part of any new writing project, of course, but this is more of a collaborative effort with my children. I sit down with them and ask what they think Yasmin should do next. They’re very competitive so they try to come up with the best story, the best idea. It’s lovely to watch.
S.F: Okay, now you. What was your favorite character to illustrate? And it’s okay if it’s not Yasmin, because her entire family is beloved to me.
H.A: They were all fun to illustrate, but if I have to pick I’ll definitely go for Yasmin. She is a great character to illustrate because once I sketched her out she became her own entity and was telling me how I should draw her.
S.F: That’s right. She does have a very distinctive personality, doesn’t she?
H.A: We’re both immigrants. I’m from Egypt, you’re from Pakistan. I moved to Canada in my late 20s and it was quite a change. But what about you? Tell me about your immigrant story.
S.F: I emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in my early twenties as a young bride. It was really a difficult experience for me, being away from family and friends, but I started college here, and then work, so things settled down. After 9/11 everything became difficult for Muslims in the U.S. and I realized that I wanted to help bring about some change in the way we were viewed. We were part of the American experience, but still “other”. I turned to fiction as a way to remove those stereotypes, and I hope Meet Yasmin! will be a tool for that as well.
S.F: As I said earlier, my kids have really supported me in my writing journey. Hatem, you also have a young son. How does he feel about your art, is he inspired by it or it’s just boring dad stuff for him?
H.A: Oh, he would never be so obvious, but I can see him feeling proud and showing off my work to his friends! He’s also very creative and loves to make stop motion animation videos. I like to ask his opinion sometimes and he asks me questions about the story I am illustrating. What I find interesting is that he likes me to read him some books before I illustrate them and then he later sees how I did it. I really like that!
H.A: You’re very busy, aren’t you Saadia? You write essays and you have a writing business, plus you train groups about Muslims. How on earth do you find all that time, and do you think all that other work takes away from your fiction writing or helps it?
S.F: Ha! I’m a workaholic! I love having different projects going on at the same time because I have a very short attention span. I get bored doing the same thing for long periods of time, unfortunately. I find it helpful to have several tabs open on my laptop, so I can flip from project to project during the workday. And yes, everything I do has a sense of service or activism behind it, and my fiction also is inspired by things I feel strongly about.
S.F: You keep busy too, Hatem, don’t you? You’ve done art for some really cool books, including Newbery Honor book The Inquisitor’s Tale. And you have many new projects now. How do you juggle your time with all the different illustration projects you’ve got going on?
H.A: I don’t know, Saadia! I’m not sure how I pull it off. What I can say is that each project has its own unique world and illustration form. This helps tremendously because it means I can move among a few projects without feeling I have to be unplugged from each. That serves time better for me. However, I could do better. If you have any suggestions, I’m listening!
S.F: Ha! Wish I did!
H.A: What’s next for you Saadia? What does 2019 look like for you?
S.F: Wow, busy I guess! I’m working on a couple of Middle Grade novels, and also some picture books. Plus of course the Yasmin series. I’m grateful to have so many things to do! How about yourself? Any new projects your fans need to check out?
H.A: There are a couple of projects I’m not sure I should mention yet, but I’m excited about the Unicorn Rescue Society series by Adam Gidwitz, and collaborating with other authors as well! Two books are out and the third will be out by fall. Also, a picture book by Ryan Miller called How to Feed Your Parents that you should find in book stores this summer!