Ashley Franklin On “The Masjid Kamal Loves” and the Staying Power of Princess Stories

Ashley Franklin spoke to Fann about her journey as a writer, her love of princesses and how “Beauty and the Beast” and her grandmother inspired her love of words. 

Ashley Franklin On “The Masjid Kamal Loves” and the Staying Power of Princess Stories
Ashely Franklin's platform centers her writing, her background in education and her experience as a mother.

Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.

Ashley Franklin is a writer and educator. Her critically acclaimed debut picture book “Not Quite Snow White” is a story of Tameika, a young Black girl who wants to be Snow White in her school play, but her peers refuse to accept the idea. Franklin’s newest book is “The Masjid Kamal Loves,” a rhyming picture book whose rhythm is an adaptation of the nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built,” about the main character Kamal’s masjid and community on Jumah. Ashley Franklin spoke to Fann about her journey as a writer, and how “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and her grandmother inspired her love of words. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

Ashley Franklin: I've always loved books. I was an only child for almost 10 years and I lived with my grandma for the longest time. Books were a way [for me to have] extra friends and kept me busy and out of trouble. I always liked the ability to transport myself somewhere different or to just see new experiences. I was a very timid child, so I particularly loved books with kids going on wild adventures that I'd be too afraid to do in real life.

I got to live through [books], and so [they] were my friends and my fantasies all at the same time.

I grew up with my grandma, and while I didn't see her read a lot, I would [often] see her engage in storytelling. I loved … the way that she talked to different people — whether it be from her church or a relative or just people she engaged with in the neighborhood, I could see how she would choose her words carefully. I always thought she was so masterful at that. My grandma [contributed] to my love of words. That coupled with my level of books is really what inspired me to love writing.

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Fann Staff: Your book “Not Quite Snow White” is a story that can resonate with not just little Black girls, but many girls of different marginalized identities. Can you tell me about the process of conceptualizing that book and telling a story for kids who do feel that way?

Ashley Franklin: “Not Quite Snow White” was not the first book that I had tried to make my big break into the industry. I had draft after draft, and like many writers when they first get started, I was not getting anywhere. It's so easy to become frustrated when you're in any type of creative industry or career, but I didn't want to lose my love of writing or my love of books because that's something I've always had. I knew I needed to step back from that and I started taking more classes. One of [them] was a course from Susanna Leonard Hill called “making picture book magic.” When she talked about picture book structure and the things that make a picture book memorable, she talked about taking ideas from your surroundings. That really resonated with me. 

I took a step back and I started thinking about things that I saw quite often, and I thought, “Princesses!” The thing with princesses is that they never go out of style. I was a Disney kid — my favorite Disney movie was “Beauty and the Beast,” which clearly had the library of all libraries. Belle was different, and I felt like that as a kid too. I'm not the only Disney adult, and princesses and happily ever after stories have some staying power. 

There were not a lot of princesses that were Black or princesses that were Brown. I wanted to change that — that's where I could fit in. I made [Tameika] a regular little girl that thought she could be and do anything because I thought it was a universal message, and that's really how the story started to take shape. But then I had to pick which princess I was going to do, and … with a Black girl, it had to be Snow White. Just by name alone, that's going to make you think. 

It's been a true blessing. [“Not Quite Snow White”] was overall well-received. I say overall because it was banned for a little bit in that York County (Pennsylvania) ban. They rolled it back, but that whole situation when it was banned really hurt. I [personally] really resonate with this character. [A ban] makes me feel like you're saying that I don't belong. That's not a feeling that any child should have. Everyone deserves to feel that they belong. Everyone deserves to feel validated and that who they are is just enough to be the perfect person in this world taking up space. I think book bans really jeopardize that feeling for a lot of children.

Fann Staff: What was it like getting that email about writing “The Little Mermaid,” especially after writing that story for “Not Quite Snow White” and knowing the larger conversation about women of color being cast as princesses who have been traditionally white? 

Ashley Franklin: It was such a surreal moment. I was like, “Okay, not only is there going to be an African American Little Mermaid, they're asking me to write the picture book along with it.” That's huge.  Also, as an African American woman and a Muslim hijabi woman, I felt so honored and like I was coming full circle. I did have Tameika in [“Not Quite Snow White”] want to be a mermaid, and I realized you really should shoot for the stars because you never know what room your name is going to be spoken in. That taught me a valuable lesson to just go for it, and I think that's a good lesson for anyone trying to be a writer or creative.

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Fann Staff: I've been asking people about how they view representation, that big idea of “Oh, I need to represent my community” that can sometimes be a hindrance to the actual writing process. Do you ever face that, especially as a Black Muslim woman?

Ashley Franklin: As a Muslim — as a revert and a hijabi — and a Black woman, there are so many marginalizing hats that I could wear at any given moment. There's no way possible that I could try to represent everyone to the best of my ability and feel like I need to do them justice. With more and more writers coming up, there's space for us all to tell our individual stories in such a way that the collective voices will do the job of showing justice to stories that were previously untold or told for us. I made that mistake early on after “Not Quite Snow White.” I wanted to do all the things for everybody. 

It caused me actually to have the biggest bout of writer's block. When I wrote, I felt like I wasn't doing enough. I was missing something. And again, I had to take a step back. I wasn't getting anywhere anyway, I had to regroup on a personal level. [I wondered] why I [was] bringing such pressure and negativity to my creative space … and realized I was doing myself a disservice. And really, it would be a disservice to readers. If I tried to make the perfect representation on my own, it wouldn’t hold up because imperfection is what makes us human. If you're pleasing everyone, someone's not being honest with you and you're not being honest with yourself. 

I primarily do like writing stories about joy and love and happiness.

Fann Staff: I wanted to ask you as well about your story in “Once Upon an Eid” because I found it such an interesting spin on Eid being a time to dress up and have fun, since your story is based around a girl wanting to dress up in clothes she cannot afford. How did you come up with that particular story?

Ashley Franklin: First of all, I was scared to death because I've never done anything middle grade before. I had to think about what was very popular and dressing up is one of them — we all see the pictures on social media. But as someone who has faced financial insecurity at various parts of my life, I wanted to bring some realness to that notion. Not everybody is able to afford the most fancy dress or the most fancy abaya or anything like that, but they still want to feel beautiful. They want to feel special and celebratory, especially on Eid. I wanted to include that for the kids and the families who may be trying their best, but … may feel some shame or some insecurities. [They] can't do the absolute most, but [they’ll] still have love and the richness in having that love, and [the ability to] do what you can to go above and beyond within your means or your faith. That's what I wanted to stress — to not just go above and beyond financially, because that's not in everybody's book. Not everyone is able to do those types of things. I don’t think anyone should feel bad or ashamed of that.

Little did I know it was almost going to be a warm-up for me to be in a writer’s community that is Muslim. They were so warm and inviting, and so open with the help that they offered. Initially, I was terrified, and they quickly did all that they could do to try to dispel that. That advice alone was priceless — focusing on the story that I want to put out into the world and what I think people want me to put out. Through the Highlights Foundation Fellowship and being able to see [my community’s] growth “Once Upon an Eid” to now. It almost felt like an insider's scoop on their work process and what it has been like in the industry for them, and this was all information that they shared with love and wanting to see other Muslim creatives succeed. That sense of community and knowing that you should have trust in your creative process [is really valuable], [as is] always trying to give back. Those are huge lessons that I gained from them. 

If I tried to make the perfect representation on my own, it wouldn’t hold up because imperfection is what makes us human.

Fann Staff: Can you tell me a little bit about how you adapted the nursery rhyme rhythm for “The Masjid Kamal Loves?” 

Ashley Franklin: I knew that I wanted to write a shorter picture book because my picture books tend to run on the longer side. When you query things of that nature, they tend to say to make sure picture books are around 500 words. I had to start thinking about how [my book] could be read aloud. I [thought it would be fun] to find a text and a structure all in one that I could adapt. That's how I thought of the house that Jack built. I remembered it from my childhood and I was like, “Okay, well this has some nostalgia, and people love nostalgia.”

I primarily do like writing stories about joy and love and happiness, but I wasn't sure where to go with that. I didn’t want to write a [seasonal] Ramadan or Eid book. I thought I would do Jum’ah instead. I know some people have a huge problem with the word mosque. There aren't so many books out there that are even Muslim-centered. So I wanted to use the word masjid. That's how I came up with “The Masjid Kamal Loves.” I wanted the Friday Jum’ah and I really wanted to depict the community. My family were the only Muslims in our [extended] family in the U.S. We've tried to navigate all these spaces, and I wanted a book that showed just how I felt when I was a child. I felt that belongingness [from] the people who were willing to teach me things and embrace me. I think the illustrations by Aaliya Jaleel really helped to … paint the masjid and the community as more than just a place. It's where we grow in knowledge and friendship, and feel a sense of love being among people, but you don't have to explain yourself and exist in peace.

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Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers, Muslim or not?

Ashley Franklin: Each Muslim storyteller I've gotten to interact with as an artist has given amazing information and knowledge to me, and I think that is something that any writer absolutely can benefit from. Don't think you are alone. Reach out to others. There's bound to be someone who is willing to talk. We may be a little bit busy, but definitely try to find your people. Find someone who you feel comfortable with sharing your ideas with, or a critique partner, or something along the lines of that. Just make sure you have someone because this can be a very isolating industry and profession. You don't want to burn out because you feel like you have to do everything and reinvent the wheel on your own. 

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