Saadia Faruqi Reflects on Her Journey and the Growing Community of Muslim Writers

"You would be surprised how many people complain to me about my books. If you want to read a book about perfect people then I don't know what you'll read because that would be boring. Nobody would do anything. There would be no story."

Author Saadia Faruqi smiles, placed atop a collage of her children's books. Text: Fall Into Reading.

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.

Saadia Faruqi is a prolific author who’s best known for her children’s and middle grade books. Her first children’s book series, “Yasmin,” received critical acclaim and was recognized in several Best Children’s Books lists. Faruqi also wrote the award-winning "Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero," which follows the titular character’s struggles with Islamophobia twenty years after 9/11. Her most recent book is her first graphic novel, "Saving Sunshine," which tells the story of two quarrelsome siblings who must connect with each other in order to save an ailing turtle. Faruqi spoke to Fann about her journey as a writer and how much work she had to put in to get where she is today.

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an author?

Saadia Faruqi: I've been writing stories since I was a little girl. I was maybe 8 or 9, maybe even younger, when I started writing in a notebook … [I would] write down my thoughts and journal, but I’d also come up with my own story ideas, and I continued that throughout my childhood — but not for the purpose of becoming a writer. It was just something I did.

I kind of lost touch with that [for a while], but after I immigrated to the U.S. and had my kids, I realized that there weren't any books for them that had Muslim characters, [or really any] characters that looked like them. You know, not even faith-based, but also cultural. [There were no] immigrant kids or first generation kids; I felt like it was a missed opportunity to not have that.

And I didn't think that was really good for my kids. I grew up in Pakistan, so I had a lot of representation because everybody was like me. When I read books, I [wasn’t lacking for] stories that were about kids like me, but I felt like my kids [were] missing that piece. They didn't really know it wasn’t there. So I decided to write a story about kids — kids like my kids — and see whether it went anywhere. And it did.

Fann Staff: You started out writing for adults, right? How was it transitioning from that to writing for younger age ranges? 

Saadia Faruqi: I started out writing for adults, not that it was really going anywhere. I'd been trying to write a novel and I had written a lot but wasn't really successful in that. I did publish a short story collection based in Pakistan, but it was published by a really small press so it didn't really get any publicity. Most people didn't even know it existed. I was working on another novel when this opportunity came about to write for kids. When that started growing as a career path [for me], I decided to stick with it. It's been interesting going from writing for grown-ups to writing for kids, and even within the kids’ books, I have different age groups that I write for. I write for little kids — picture books [and early readers] — and then I write middle grade novels, and now I'm working on a young adult novel, which would be for teens and older. So it's something that you have to get used to. It's a challenge, but it's a good challenge. It keeps me on my toes.

Fann Staff: You’ve written for a wide range of ages even for kids, and the issues that you're tackling in books like "Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero" and "A Thousand Questions" are heavy topics that can be difficult for kids to process. How do you tell your stories in a way that helps communicate heavy issues to kids in a way that isn’t overwhelming?

Saadia Faruqi: Well, first of all, it's not that [these topics] are too heavy for kids, because kids go through those things. If you're experiencing something like poverty, or you're experiencing Islamophobia or racism, why can't you read about it? Kids will pick up those books and say, ‘Oh, I know exactly what this is talking about.’

I don't put issues in the books that I write for younger kids, [those at] the age of probably 10 and younger. [Take] my "Yasmin" series, which is a very popular early reader series for kids who are maybe 6 or 7 years old — there are no heavy topics in that. My picture book “Rani’s Remarkable Day” doesn’t have a heavy topic, [nor does] my "Marya Khan" series.

But when you get over 10 years old, that's where I put in [heavier issues]. You know, all my novels for that age and older do have serious topics in them. And that's because kids, by the time they're in fifth, sixth and seventh grade, are dealing with a lot — especially kids like my kids, who are first generation and Muslim. They have all these identities, and they [might be] struggling to adapt to or figure out their place in a larger world. They face all of those things [that are ‘heavy topics’]. Even though they're all books that are fiction, they're still based on reality. So I don't think that I've had any questions in my own mind, let alone my readers’ minds, of ‘Why am I writing it?’ or ‘How do I write it?’ You just have to make sure to write in a way that's not too traumatizing for a younger audience — even though kids go through a lot — so they can read about it. If they can experience it then they can read about it, I believe. 

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Also, a lot of my readers are actually not kids. A lot of my readers for those middle grade novels are grown-ups. I get messages from people who are older — who are teenagers, who are in their twenties, who are grandparents — telling me that they read one of those books. The reason is because they have the themes [that they do]. So it's not like it's a little kids’ book, [it’s] for everybody. It just so happens that the main character and their world is [meant] for that age group.

Fann Staff: It's so interesting that there are adults also reading your books. Has there been a favorite reaction you’ve had from those people reading your books that their inner child would have liked?

Saadia Faruqi: I don't think it's [about their] inner child, though. I think that's the misconception held by a lot of people who don't read books at that age group. They think, ‘Oh, this is a kids book.’ But it's really not, you just have to change your mindset and think, ‘This is a book with a good story. It just so happens that it's about a kid.’ That doesn't mean it's only for kids. It's for everybody. There are so many middle grade novels read by adults. Many of my fellow authors and I do not think that the reader is a kid only; the reader could be any age. So you want to make sure that it's written in a way that appeals to any age.

I can't think of any specific comment I've had that stands out. I'll do book events at a library or a bookstore, and a good 20 percent of those people [attending the events] don't have any kids with them. They came because they read one of my books and they liked it. I really appreciate that because I try really hard to make sure that my works aren't childish. You know, they're just books, [they’re] good stories.

Fann Staff: Good stories can absolutely appeal to anyone of any age. I've been pleasantly surprised that there are quite a few Muslim middle grade and children's authors. What is it like being part of that group of authors and artists who, from what I can tell, are often very supportive of each other?

Saadia Faruqi: When my first children's book, “Meet Yasmin!,” came out in 2018, there were very few [other Muslim writers]. But in the last 5 or 6 years, there have been a lot of people who have come into this industry, and it's so nice to see. We see each other at conferences and we have groups online. Obviously people like me, who've been here for a few years, are always happy to help and support those who are newer. Then [eventually], they help somebody who's brand new [to the industry] as well.

It’s very heartwarming to see, because honestly, you have to have the readership in order to get those books out. That ultimately means that people are reading our stories. [Before], I don't think it was that people didn't want to read stories like mine, but it was [believed] that nobody would be interested. Now it's understood that yeah, people will read stories, and it doesn't matter what your religion is. Inshallah we'll see more and more of those authors becoming successful and writing their first stories.

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Fann Staff: We already talked about how you navigate writing picture books versus chapter books, but now your first graphic novel, “Saving Sunshine,” just came out. What was it like writing that sibling-focused story for a graphic novel? Is it similar to writing for a picture book, or are there different elements that you have to navigate?

Saadia Faruqi: Writing a graphic novel is very different [from writing a picture book]. I think it's easier for people who are also artists who are going to be making the art [as well]. But I wasn't, I was only writing the story, so I think that was really hard for me. I wrote “Saving Sunshine” at a time when there weren't a lot of examples out there. Now a lot of middle grade graphic novels have been published in the last three or four years. That subsection of books has really exploded. 

It takes several years for a graphic novel to be published. I think I wrote this in 2019, so I had to learn and figure it out for myself. The story was secondary to me because I have a grasp on storytelling, so it was more the mechanism by which [I was telling] the story that was different. It took me a while to know how to write a graphic novel and make sure that it would translate well. I think it's very different from picture books because they're much shorter, so you don't have to worry that much about how it's going to look [visually]. You’re writing much less in a picture book and much more in a graphic novel. [Incidentally], I also found picture books hard to write. I'm not a visual person. Anytime there's a lot of illustration-heavy storytelling, it’s hard for me. 

Fann Staff: You talked about your aim to write books for your children, for them and children like them to see themselves represented. When people decide to create in the greater aim of representation for people like themselves, it can sometimes feel like a burden. Have you ever felt that way? If so, how do you navigate it?

Saadia Faruqi: No, I never felt that way, because that was never my aim. I think my aim was to write a story that's authentic to my family's experience. The first thing I wrote for kids, which was the “Yasmin” series, was based on my daughter and my family. I was just writing a story about somebody who literally could be my child and a family that literally could be my family, so I never really looked at it as a burden. Even now, as I write more and more, it's very apparent to me that within the Muslim community, everyone's not the same. Within the South Asian community, everyone's not the same. 

To me, my job has never been to represent entire communities, just to open a little window into how some families are. Some are more religious, some are less religious; some are more culturally attuned and others aren't. I don't think that one story can showcase all of that. In some of my novels, I'll have characters who are on the [religious] spectrum, so there will be somebody who's more on the religious side and somebody who's not. I try to make it obvious to readers that everyone's not the same. For example, in “Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero,” [Yusuf’s] mom doesn't wear [a] hijab. But then there's another woman who's constantly judging [his mom] because [that woman does] wear [a] hijab and was always trying to convince [Yusuf’s mom to do the same]. Anybody who reads that book would be able to tell [that] they're both the same religion but they are practicing differently. To me, that's more important. That’s telling more than one story. 

Fann Staff: That leads so well into my next question. I wanted to ask about “The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World” and your experience writing that book alongside your mother. Was there anything that surprised you while writing with her, or about the people that you were writing about?

Saadia Faruqi: My mother is a writer, but in a different format. She was an educator, so most of her writing has been in education-related topics, and she’s retired now, so most of her writing [days are] done. I actually wanted to include her in this project because [when we wrote the book] she had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. After living a busy and full professional life, I think she was feeling she didn't really have a role. I had just started writing “The Wonders We Seek” and asked her if she wanted to work on it with me, and she agreed, so it ended up being a joint project. It was really interesting because I don't usually work with somebody else … It’s personally a challenge for me to [write] with other people.

I learned a lot [working on the project with my mom]. When [my mom and I] were writing “The Wonders We Seek,” we had to come up with a list of [famous Muslims who shaped the world] because there are a lot of people we could include. We decided on the criteria, and then we divided how many she would research and how many I would research. I also had a research assistant who helped with some of the information from Arabic and Persian sources; we needed some help with that. 

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All the people that we researched — even the ones that we couldn't put in the book because they didn't fit our criteria — were just so inspiring, so amazing and so incredible, whether they're still alive or lived a long, long time ago. It was just so fantastic for me to learn about all these people. I read a lot of books — for example, a memoir or two of an entire person — and then we would put the highlights into a two or three page biography. I grew a lot, and I know [my mom] often talks about what she learned about these people.

I wish that everyone would read these biographies. They're so amazing; [I think that people] can really be inspired by them.

Fann Staff: Is there anyone in particular that you really wish you could include but weren't able to?

Saadia Faruqi: I'm from Pakistan, and there was a humanitarian, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who also lived there. He’s passed away now, but he was an incredible person. He spent the majority of his life founding and maintaining the humanitarian organization The Edhi Foundation, which helped poor people in a variety of ways. He had a whole ambulance network set up that was supposed to be the largest private ambulance network in the world. He was feeding poor people, and he had orphanages. He passed away a few years ago, but his organization is still there. His wife and other people are still working on it. The way he lived, you wouldn't be able to tell that he had any money. He probably didn't — he probably put all of his money in [the Foundation], but he was well respected there.

I wish I could have included him. The reason we didn't was because we only wanted to include people [who influenced] more than one country.

There are a lot of people in every country who don't get the recognition they deserve but aren’t doing it for the recognition. They're just working quietly because they want to do something, whether it's something to help other people or accomplish something in sports or science or anything else. For our book, especially because this book was going to be published in the U.S. and Europe, we wanted to make sure [we featured] people whose work was not confined to one country. We have included a couple of people specific to the U.S., like basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, because their reach and the work that they're doing now is not limited just to the U.S. Otherwise, every country has their stars. 

Fann Staff: What is your least favorite Muslim character that you've seen on screen and what is your favorite?

Saadia Faruqi: Even if there was somebody [I didn’t like], I don't like calling people out in a negative way on any kind of public platform. I'm going to try not to do that because characters are authentic to the creator. My liking or not liking something doesn't mean anything; it just means I don’t have a personal preference for it. But that doesn't mean that there’s anything wrong with that character. In terms of Muslim stories and Muslim characters, I feel like a lot of people object if a character is not how they perceive a Muslim to be.

If you have Muslim characters in a TV show or a movie or a book and they are not behaving the way you think they should behave, you automatically think,‘Oh, this is not Muslim representation.’ [But] this is how people are. There are Muslims who do all kinds of things, and nobody else has the right to say ‘this shouldn't have been done,’ because that's just showing reality. You get a lot of people, especially a certain subset of readers, who only want very specific Muslim representation in books. [Some of the] more conservative parents only want ‘good’ Muslim characters who behave how [those parents] think they should. That's about opinion, and that's about outlook and perspective. I don't really agree with that. It’s just very subjective. Unfortunately, we all have this hope that whatever media is out there will show this ‘perfect’ view of Islam, myself included. But that is not really the point of fiction media. Its job is to entertain, and also to more or less portray reality.

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I write fiction, but it's all based on reality. A lot of my Muslim characters are really not very ‘Muslim’ in the way that somebody else would think they should be. But that's not the job of my book. I'm not preaching or trying to convert people. I'm not trying to show how Islam should be; I'm trying to show how Muslims are. Some wear a hijab, and some of them drink. Some of them work, and some of them talk to boys and have dating lives. All of that is reality. All of that shows us our human nature, and to the person who says, ‘Don’t show any movies of Muslims doing anything except praying,’ [I would say that] that's not the purpose of fiction. They should watch a documentary or read a nonfiction book instead. 

You would be surprised how many people complain to me about my books. If you want to read a book about perfect people then I don't know what you'll read because that would be boring. Nobody would do anything. There would be no story.

These [books] show the complexity of human life and human experience; they’re not there to preach a message. There are a lot [of good representations]. For me, good representation doesn't mean perfect. I think you should make sure [books with representation are] written by somebody who's part of that [community] represented in the book. If you're reading a book about Muslim characters and it's written by somebody who's not Muslim, I think that’s problematic in a lot of ways. But reading books shouldn't be so complicated. It shouldn't be something that you have to argue over.

If you're trying to limit representation to a certain look, you're basically removing millions and millions of people out of that representation. 

Fann Staff: That is a very unique answer, so thank you for that. Who is a Muslim artist or author that inspires you a lot?

Saadia Faruqi:  A Muslim writer who inspires me … There are a lot of my peers who are doing amazing work. As you know, I started with books for adults. A lot of the people that I looked up to weren't actually in the children's publishing world but writing for adults. The first person that I read that made me sit up and say, ‘Oh! Muslim stories are really good’ and inspired me to write something was this British writer, Leila Aboulela. She wrote this book “Minaret” that was really, really amazing, and it’s what got me started. I heard that after a very big break, she put out a new novel “River Spirit” this year, which is exciting. 

Everybody who's in my space with me is just so inspiring in different ways. You know, all the artists [and illustrators] that work with me are amazing. I don't have that skill. I look up to them as well.

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Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for Muslim authors, or authors of any marginalized background? 

Saadia Faruqi: Unfortunately, there's no substitute for working really hard. I know that seems easy to say, but especially with work like writing, you really cannot get away from [doing the] actual writing. Everybody who you ask will tell you that they wrote many, many, many scripts that never got published, and they got rejection after rejection before they were able to sell something. There are a lot of people who reach out to me on social media, and even my friends will ask me the same thing: ‘Oh I have an idea for a book. How do I get it published?’ I think you have to get out of that mindset. Do you have an idea for a book? Write it, then throw it away, and then write something else, and then write a third one and maybe by your 50th one you might sell an actual book that people will read. You have to keep writing in order to get good enough.

I wrote unsuccessfully for years before I got published. You can't get from step one to step 50 without the other 49 steps. If you're just writing once in a while, it's not going to work. There are a lot of classes you can take about publishing and writing. You can learn from authors, too; I often teach writing classes, and since COVID, many classes have been virtual.

If you're in the children's world of publishing like I am, there are several good institutes like the Highlights Foundation where you can take a couple of classes or a seminar. Not only does that help you become better, but then you also meet other people who are learning the same as you. You could also join the SCBWI, which is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It's all about networking and meeting people who are in the same boat as you so that you don't feel alone.

Fann Staff: Where can our readers find you?

Saadia Faruqi: I have a website with all my information, but social media is where you can connect with me. I’m on Twitter, which is now X, and Instagram a lot. I do a lot of giveaways for my books, and that's where you find out what other books I have coming out. I have a graphic novel that just came out that I'm really excited about, and in the New Year, I’ll publish my next middle grade novel, “The Partition Project,” which is about the partition of India and Pakistan. I’m looking forward to all the new things that I'm going to show my readers.

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