Reem Faruqi on Ramadan stories, Muslim author communities and the joy of writing in verse

When I was growing up, I couldn't just go to the library and find a bunch of fun books by Muslim authors. But now you can, [and] it's really exciting. I'm happy to be one of those people in the community. I think uplifting each other's voices just helps us grow stronger.

Reem Faruqi on Ramadan stories, Muslim author communities and the joy of writing in verse
Author Reem Faruqi's new middle grade novel-in-verse, "Call me Adnan," is out now.

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.

Reem Faruqi is a picture book writer and illustrator, whose debut “Lailah’s Lunchbox,” based on her own experience of moving to Peachtree City, Georgia from Abu Dhabi, was published to critical acclaim in 2015. Her most recent middle grade novel-in-verse, “Call Me Adnan,” tackles a family’s terrible tragedy and their journey navigating their loss. Her most recent picture book, “Swimming Towards a Dream” is a biography of the Syrian Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, illustrated by Asma Enayeh. Reem Faruqi spoke to Fann about writing books about Ramadan, her personal investment in water safety for toddlers and the joy of writing in verse.

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

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

Reem Faruqi: I think because I was a teacher — I used to teach second grade — I would read a picture book every day, and I really loved that moment, especially read-aloud. When I had my own children, I remember thinking I wanted to write my own book, and it took a few years, but I'm excited to be an author now.

Fann Staff: Is there anything in your writing that is inspired by your children, or something that you specifically wanted to show your children? 

Reem Faruqi: We're all Muslim, so I love weaving parts of our identity into my writing. Little anecdotes that will happen to them at school I'll sometimes weave into my writing, like in “Amira's Picture Day.” My daughter was sick on her picture day, and she was devastated because she thought her class would forget about her if she wasn’t in the school photo. She was in kindergarten. So then, for “Amira's Picture Day,” I thought, “Oh, my gosh! What if it's Eid and Amira wants to be there for picture day, but she can't be in two places at once?” That dilemma of missing picture day is such a big deal for children, and I kind of forget how those little things are such a big deal for kids. 

Fann Staff: Can you tell me about your writing process for “Call Me Adnan” and finding Adnan’s voice? I really liked how you played with shape and tone.

Reem Faruqi: I love writing in verse. I just think it's really fun. You can make the words bigger when you talk about things that are big and you can make them small, you can play with the spacing. There's a lot of white space, and I think it's really good for heavier writing. “Call me Adnan” is a joyful story, but it's not a light story. It's got a lot of heavy moments in there. So I think the verse with the white space lets you process it, hopefully, and it might have more of an emotional punch.

Fann Staff: It felt very much like a 12-year-old's voice. The way you wrote almost as if they were diary entries or little lists was really interesting.

Reem Faruqi: Yeah, I love doing lists in verse. I feel like the less you can say is sometimes more; not just to do lists, but lists of things that he likes or how he feels. Words can be so powerful. One word is sometimes better than 20 words … Not with verse but with prose I've been told, “Oh, can you just add a little more?” And I'm like, “What are you talking about? It’s enough.” That's hard for me, actually, sometimes.

Fann Staff: Would you say that's because you're so used to writing in verse, or is it just a matter of you trying to be very succinct in general?

Reem Faruqi: No, I think it's probably just because I was used to writing in verse at that time. With a picture book, though, you have to tell so much in such few words, so if you wanna get used to writing less, I would suggest writing a picture book. It's really hard to edit one, too, because every word literally matters. 

Fann Staff: I wanted to ask about the focus on safety in swimming pools, because obviously, it's a very personal story for you. Could you tell me a little bit about the personal connection you have to “Call me Adnan” and the story around it?

Reem Faruqi: Yes, so my grandmother’s cousin, when he was a toddler, passed away, and it was the day before Eid. He was in his crib, and you know how toddlers are: he got out of his crib, and he just wandered out in the garden where he turned the water hose on. It probably made a little puddle or a pond type thing in a ditch, and it was so sad, he just drowned. 

I think when the family woke up they were searching for him, and they couldn't find him. And then the gardener found him, which was so devastating. Eid is such a joyful day for us, and knowing that he passed away because the moms are probably busy ironing, getting their clothes ready or cooking [is really sad]. He just wasn't spotted until it was too late. 

With toddlers, water safety is really important because — I didn't know this until I wrote the story — but it only takes a few seconds for them to drown. They're not going to be yelling or screaming. They're just quietly drowning, which is really hard. There's all these rules of water safety: If you’re by a pool that doesn't have a fence, make sure it has a fence. Have a water watcher — a designated adult to make sure that you know no one's going in the water when it's not swimming time. Puddle jumpers are these special floats that my kids had, and it holds the child up in a vertical position, [but] the vertical position is the drowning position.

[It’s important to teach] your kids that without their floats they can't swim. A lot of times, if a kid only associates joy with water, they're used to being in the water with their float, but when they don't have their float on they don't know that they can't swim, and that's pretty scary.

Fann Staff: It sounds like this is not only a message for a middle grade audience, but also for their parents. Would you say you wrote this with a wider range of ages in mind?

Reem Faruqi: Yeah, I think when I write, I usually write from the child's point of view. If it applies to the parents, that's cool, too. I think this story is one where it does have lessons that a parent could implement, too, but also a kid. [There was a] 12 year old, and she had read the book, and we [were both at] this party.

There was this big pool, and there was no fence. It was a party by the poolside, and she was like, “We don't have a water watcher! … I'm gonna watch the water to just make sure.” I thought that was great. I was happy to see that a kid could read that book and just have a little more awareness of the whole water safety thing.

Fann Staff: I wanted to also ask about “Lailah’s Lunchbox,” which was your first published book. Can you tell me a little bit about the conception of the book and the reaction to it?

Reem Faruqi: I've been writing a lot of stories for a long time, and this story was one of the first ones that I wrote about my faith and my culture. I remember being really excited because it got an offer. It started [because] I knew Ramadan was a topic that editors might be interested in, and I researched a lot of Ramadan books. I noticed that very few of them, if any, took place in a school setting. A lot of them were taking place at home, or maybe at a party, and I thought I should have it in a school setting — a kid spends so much time in school, and almost all my books have a school setting.

I thought it'd be really interesting to have a story where a girl “accidentally” forgets her lunch and is too shy to tell her classmates why she's actually not eating. I remember when I was in high school, it was hard to explain to my classmates why I wasn't fasting. I had moved from Abu Dhabi to Peachtree City, Georgia. That was something that I personally dealt with.

When I wove it into the story I noticed people connected with it in a way that I wasn't expecting. Something exciting is that almost each Ramadan, I'll get pictures from people, or they'll tag my book on social media [where] their child is taking my book to school. It's really cool to see teachers [do it too]. Librarians have even told me that during Ramadan they'll specifically have a space for Muslim kids who are fasting, they'll say, “Oh, Muslim, kids are helping me stock books, or they're just having a foodless place to relax.” I thought that was really great. It's been really cool and rewarding to see that … one of the books that has made such an impact that I wasn't expecting. It’s really beautiful to see that.

[It's really important to] just be happy for other authors, too — posting about their work when you can, supporting them, buying their book, talking about their books to others, even just donating their books to a classroom, checking their books out from the library or leaving a book review. A kind word just makes such a difference.

Fann Staff: You mentioned that you knew editors would be interested in books about Ramadan. I was speaking to Ashley Franklin, who wrote “The Masjid Kamal Loves,” and she didn't want it to be boxed into a seasonal genre — a lot of books by Muslim children's and middle grade authors are based around that time. Do you feel that way about your own books, that editors are looking for very specific things? How do you navigate that?

Reem Faruqi: Yeah, that is such a good point. I had written a few stories [before Lailah’s Lunchbox], and none of them got any interest. And then one day I was reading “The White Nights of Ramadan” by Maha Addasi, and she had written on her blog or an interview that when she had said she had a Ramadan story, an editor was immediately interested. I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should write a Ramadan story.” That was back when there weren't as many Ramadan books as they are now. I was excited that it got interest, and “Amira's Picture Day” is actually about Eid [too]. Those two are definitely seasonal.

The other ones, I would say, are less seasonal per se, but a hidden pro about having a seasonal book is that each year, I'll notice around that season I get more sales, so that's pretty cool to see. I think writing a balance of both is nice. But I totally understand what Ashley's saying. You know how Christmas is kind of commercial now? I feel like Ramadan is probably getting to that point where, if you look on social media, every Ramadan, there's so many products that people are selling. 

Fann Staff: What is it like being a part of the growing community of Muslim women who are children’s literature and middle grade authors?

Reem Faruqi: It's great. I've been really excited to see that people like me are writing books, and my children, I think, take it for granted. When I was growing up, I couldn't just go to the library and find a bunch of fun books by Muslim authors. But now you can, [and] it's really exciting. I'm happy to be one of those people in the community. I think uplifting each other's voices just helps us grow stronger.

Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about the picture book of yours that's come out about Yusra Mardini.

What was important to you in telling her story in a picture book? You've already discussed a little bit about how you have to be so careful with your words. Is it different for you to write about someone's real life story and try to package that into very succinctly-put words?

Reem Faruqi: Yes, it's really challenging, because you want to do justice to someone's life. It's one thing to have a picture book, but it's another thing to have a picture book biography. It's telling a whole life story. You're usually capturing a certain angle of someone's life, and you're trying to make it interesting and kid-accessible. It is definitely very challenging. But I think what was nice was that we had a Syrian illustrator, Asma Enayah, and she did a beautiful job. She grew up in Damascus too and did a beautiful job bringing [her experience to it], and drawing illustrations of a swimming pool in Syria, and places that she had grown up in. That added a really nice element to our book. I think it takes time to write a picture book biography. A regular picture book you can maybe churn out a little bit quicker, but a picture biography requires a lot of research and a bibliography of resources.

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Fann Staff: Who are some fellow Muslim writers that inspire you? Was there someone you read growing up, or someone that inspired you to take this step?

Reem Faruqi: When I was just starting out, I didn't know as many authors but there was one, her name is Asma Mobin-Uddin, and she had written “Party in Ramadan” and “My Name is Bilal.” My parents had actually gone to an ISNA Conference, and they met her, and I think they told her [that their] daughter wants to become an author too. It's really cool because I reached out to her a few years later, and she was so helpful. She told me some books to read, so she gave me a start. She even read my manuscript, which needed a lot of improvement, but she was so nice. Having those authors in the very beginning that you can connect with, especially when you don't have work out there, they really stand out. And nowadays, there’s just so many amazing authors that I've connected with that are Muslim. I think that one would be the main one who really made an impact in the very beginning.

I asked her, “Hey, can you read my story?” And I know now that it's so hard, authors have such little time. I think she was at karate practice with her kids, and she was like, “Sure!” I remember hearing all the kids yelling in the background, and she took that time out for me.

Fann Staff: What is your advice for up and coming authors — whether Muslim or of any marginalized community?

Reem Faruqi: I think one thing that really helps is reading a ton of picture books or middle grade books, or whatever books you're trying to write. Just read a bunch of them so you can see what's already out there, and you can be inspired to write your own. I think something that really helped me was when I taught second grade for four years, every day we were reading a new picture book. I think that really helped me get that picture book voice down. Not that my voice is perfect, but I think it just helped connecting with other writers like yourself. I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and that helped me find a critique group who are people just like yourself, who look over your story and give you feedback.

[It's really important to] just be happy for other authors, too — posting about their work when you can, supporting them, buying their book, talking about their books to others, even just donating their books to a classroom, checking their books out from the library or leaving a book review. A kind word just makes such a difference.

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