Fann Chat with Athlete-Activist Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir

Fann Chat with Athlete-Activist Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir

This week, we sat down with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a record-breaking Muslim basketball player, athlete and activist, to chat about her upcoming children’s book project. 

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In 2009, at the age of 19, Abdul-Qaadir became the record-holder for most career points scored in Massachusetts high school basketball. She was also the first NCAA Division I basketball player to play while wearing the hijab—and was prohibited from continuing to do so after a ruling put in place by The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) that prohibited players from wearing “headgear” during games, including hijabs. Read more about Bilqis’s basketball journey in our article here.  

Although the FIBA ruling was ratified in 2017, Abdul-Qaadir continues to be an advocate for Muslim girls in sports, educating youth about her story through speaking engagements and creative projects. This past spring, she announced that she will be releasing a children’s book called “Taking the Shot” in fall 2023. Ahead of the book’s release, we had a conversation with Abdul-Qaadir about the book development process and the excitement behind her debut as an author. 

(Bilqis’s interview has been edited for length and clarity)

Fann Staff: How did this opportunity come about?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: Two years ago, I’m driving from Canada back to Springfield, Mass. to relocate. This is when we got kicked out of Canada. We’re driving on our way home and right when I get off the exit I get a call from this Quebec number. This lady says, “Hi, this is Judith Henderson. You probably don’t know who I am, but I wrote the theme song for ‘Arthur’ and the song for ‘Paddington Bear.’ I want to write a children’s book for women in sports.” I found out she was the author of multiple children’s books. I did some research on her and ended up calling her back and said, “Why not!” 

I had to make it known to her that I wanted to keep it as authentic as I could to my story. I wanted to include Arabic words in it—I wanted to include the word “hijab” in it. I wanted it to be known that this is based on a Muslim girl and it’s not watered down. It’s not untrue. 

The book is so amazing. Today I just received the final art cover. Mashallah, we truly did a good job. The illustrator did a great job. 

Fann Staff: Why were you interested in making a children’s book?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: Because I think in the Muslim world a lot of well known athletes and influencers oftentimes write biographies. I think oftentimes they are boring. The only one I didn’t find boring was Malcolm X’s biography. We always find those types of books, and after having kids, I realized I wanted my kids to read about important people or important people to us [Muslims]. Kids are smart nowadays. They can learn [about] different cultures and languages and learn about different people through books. I can say that after having my son and knowing that we wanted him to be a reader, I would love for him to have a variety of multicultural and religious books that he can learn from. The author as well, Judith, wanted that too and so I think we saw eye-to-eye on that. 

Fann Staff: How much say did you have in the book development process?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: I literally told my life story to the author. Because she has the writing capabilities, she first would formulate a page. She wrote a bulk of it but I combed through it and made it make sense to me, and added in verbiage and language that I would use. 

With the illustration, I actually sent in tons of photos of my family, and the pictures of the book are photos and home videos that she took and used our likeness. 

I had four options of illustrators to choose from. The way authors and illustrators see beauty in work I didn’t [initially] see [is amazing]. One of the illustrators was really good, but her work looked very Disney-like. They decided not to go down that route. They wanted to put a little more soul into this book. The illustrator we ended up finding was perfect for me because I wanted to still see myself and I didn’t want it to look too weird. 

Fann Staff: Was it important to you to choose an illustrator that had experience depicting Muslim people and children?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: When I saw [Katherine Ahmed’s] work I was like, “She knows some stuff.” Katherine has done a lot of culture based illustrations for a lot of different types of books. … She was exactly what we wanted. 

Fann Staff: Were there any challenges in coming into this or things you didn’t expect, with this being your first publishing or book development project?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: I didn’t expect it to be so detailed. Since 2020, we started putting the pieces together. The longest part was waiting to hear back who was going to take on the book. We had a few hands in and then some people would give feedback saying things like, “We think this would be better for middle school age or we want a chapter book” — Trying to take your story and run with it a totally different way. Myself and the co-author, we were like “No we want it to be a children’s book for the younger crowd to learn.” That was the longest part.

Fann Staff: Was it difficult deciding what moments from your life to include in the book?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: That was the part I was a little nervous about because of course I wanted my siblings [to be in it]. I have a big family. There is a picture of us all illustrated in the book of when I was first born, and then my brothers were kind of more in the book than my sisters. The book was really based on my mother and my grandmother’s relationship. It really highlighted the strength of my mother and my grandmother. Of course my father played a huge part in my journey but I felt fine with [him not being featured as much] because my father is highlighted in my documentary. 

Fann Staff: Did your work with the documentary “Life Without Basketball” have any influence on how you developed this story?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: I feel I didn’t even blend the two because they told the same story but at different points in my life. The book actually started from birth up until the FIBA decision. The documentary is from the point of the FIBA decision up until life after basketball. I’m kind of getting goosebumps from you even asking that question, and me answering it in that way, because I never thought about the relationship between them and we didn’t even purposely do that. 

Fann Staff: Are there any final things you’re preparing before releasing the book and getting reading for press related to the book?

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: The marketing team from Kids Can Press just reached out and wanted to gather some info, lengthy biographies about myself and my family and where I was located, to start preparing for the book launch. But right now the book is complete, there are some edits being done on the opening flap page and the black flap — little stuff. 

I be preparing to do a lot of book readings in our communities [in the U.S.] and of course in Canada. [Kids Can Press] is a Canadian publishing company and so Inshallah it’ll bring me back to Canada. In turn I have the American pull of communities as well, so I think that was a huge factor for the publishing company deciding if they were going to take the book on, to know that they’ll have two countries to pull from. It was a benefit on both ends. 

I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a lot of book readings too, so I’m preparing and excited about it. I read the book to my son and he memorized the whole book. I’ll stop at a sentence and he’ll follow through with the rest of the sentence. That tells me some 2-4 year olds will be able to keep up with the book, which is important. I’m excited for him because every time he sees the cover he’s like, “That’s Umi’s book!” To leave that for him is a huge part for me.

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