Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns

Bad hair daze

Mom and me, during one of my haircuts. Note the fear on my face.Tonight, even though spring is in full swing and it’s warmer than it’s been in a while, my nine year old son asked me to blow his hair dry for him after his shower. As I ran my fingers through his hair, hot air tickling his face, I saw his look of utter contentment and had a flashback: me standing in my mother’s bathroom and her doing the same for me at that age.

Since that time, I’ve been to countless hairstylists who’ve dried my hair for me—from cheap cuts in strip malls to fancy blow out bars with menus. As a “curly girl,” it’s always a treat to have my hair straightened, as are occasional head massages and deep conditioning treatments. But tonight I realized, with a pang of longing and nostalgia, that almost nothing has ever felt better or been more comforting than standing in my pajamas, feeling the love from my mother’s hands as she tried not to burn me with her antique Norelco hairdryer with the comb attachment.

The part of the memory that I have tried to block is the haircuts my mom used to also give me. Not just a straight trim—she overconfidently believed she could give me the latest Dorothy Hamil or Lady Diana hairdo. And with her lack of training and my curly hair brushed out into waves, you can imagine the outcome. I only noticed recently while looking through old photos that I wasn’t actually as unattractive of a child as I had felt at the time. Underneath the horrible haircuts, I was actually kind of cute.

My mom also offered to cut my son’s hair for him when he was younger but I firmly declined. She then encouraged me to do it for him myself. “But I don’t know how to cut hair,” I argued on deaf ears amidst grumbling that I like to waste money.

Thank you, Mom, for everything you have done and still do for me. I can never repay you, even if I wasted all the money in the world. And my dear son with a great looking head of hair….you’re welcome.


Under the bridge

Not my troll, but still cuteMy nine year old son looked alarmed when I told him he had “Troll toes” after his bath tonight. He thought it was a condition of some kind, but I explained that when I was his age, I had a big picture book of fairy tales that I used to read over and over again. Alongside the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff was an illustration of the Troll who lived under the bridge. He had bulging eyes, scaly skin, a few hairs on his bald head, and unforgettable toenails that were long and yellow.

Ever since then, whenever I see unkempt or overgrown toenails, the Troll of my childhood pops out of from under the bridge of my memory and comes to life. My son nodded thoughtfully, understanding my association. I know that he, like me, has pored over the pages of his picture books, pausing at the illustrations, savoring them and making them part of his understanding of the world.

In an increasingly digital age, I’m still a sucker for the traditional picture book. To me, there’s something beautiful about the way the ink sets on a page of a book, one that starts to fray over time from repeat usage. There’s something exciting in the cracking sound of hardback book binding and satisfying in the thud of flipping it shut. I love the feel of more than just turning the pages—it’s the imprinted letters, foils, endpapers and jackets. I think beautiful books are works of art to treasure, and I still buy them even though my kids are moving past the age where they read them.  

I also wonder if I would still remember Troll toes if there were images I saw on a screen, competing with the countless others I’ve seen throughout my life. It was those actual pages that brought him to life for me, and, thankfully, all these years later encouraged my son to go find a nail cutter. The sad part is, since I don’t have it saved somewhere virtually or in real life, I don’t remember the name of the book, even though I can envision the white cover and recall the drawing with vivid detail. Does anyone out there know which one I’m talking about? I’d love to have a copy again.

Getting around the writer's block

During school visits, I’m often asked about “writer’s block” and how I overcome it. I generally talk about how I take a break, read something else, or just push through. And that’s true, for the most part. When I was as young as these kids, I imagined writer’s block to involve anguished moments of staring at a blank page. I’d be unable to pull words out of my brain, frozen like a stubborn hourglass on my outdated laptop. But now that I write for a living, I realize that’s not quite how writer’s block manifests in me.

There are many times where I’m unmotivated or uninspired to work as I stare at my computer screen. And then my fingers sneak away from the keyboard to the mouse, where I click on social media, shopping sites or my inbox. Sometimes, like I tell the kids, I do manage to push through, telling myself to put something on the page that I can edit later. On rare occasions I have a burst of creative energy and the words flow out easily. I recognize those moments because I am literally pounding on the keyboard and the sound distracts me enough to pause and be pleased with my progress. And then somehow I end up back on Facebook before my inner voice scolds me to return to what I was doing. Yes, I inevitably end up wasting a lot of time when I’m “writing.” But that isn’t actual writer’s block. It’s just the way I work.

For me, writer’s block is self-doubt—those moments of despair where I question what I’m doing altogether and am “literally” paralyzed. This can strike at any moment, although there are of course the obvious triggers: rejection letters, the black hole of non-response from agents or editors, and at times, even other writers’ new books and the ugly, envious feeling of “why not me?” The hardest moments are when I read what I’m working on with a self-hating lens. Suddenly, the exciting project I’ve been devoted to for days or months seems futile. “This is horrible!” my inner voice moans. “Will anyone want to read this? Will anyone publish it? Am I just wasting my time?”

So what do I do in these instances? I wish I was the kind of person who could read an inspirational quote or do yoga to get out of my funk. But more often than not (okay, pretty much always) I owe it entirely to someone else. A friend who reminds me how lucky I am to do what I love. My critique partner, who commiserates and shares a personal low moment. Or a stranger who reaches out to tell me she loved my books for no reason other than kindness.

I recently received one such beautiful note from an educator in Iowa named Jane. At the time I was deep into a full-blown pity party that might have included the phrase “this is pointless.” It shamed me and thrilled me at once to read her letter, including how much she appreciated Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, how she shared it with others, and how she was even thinking of framing pages from it for her home. And she closed with an encouraging, “please continue to write more books!”

Jane’s message served as the giant reboot I needed. It snapped me out of my ungrateful mood and reminded me that there is an audience out there welcoming and appreciating what I am doing. I turned back to my screen reenergized and recommitted to my writing, and hopeful for more people out there like her. Because even though this industry can be filled with rejection, and at times lonely, confusing and bleak, you all make it completely worth it. Thanks for being the remedy I need.


Bitten by the creative spider

People often ask me what inspired me to write my first picture book. I owe a lot of my motivation to a spider named Sammy. Over a decade ago, when my older son was attending a cooperative preschool, his teacher read a sweet book to the class about how Sammy wanted to spin a dreidel during Hanukah. As I watched the captivated kids shout out the refrain, “Spiders don’t spin dreidels, they spin webs,” I realized that Muslims also needed to spin some engaging tales of our own.

Up to that point, I owned a handful of picture books about Islam and Muslims, gifts for my son from my inlaws purchased at various conferences. Somehow, they all ended up buried at the bottom of our book bin. That evening I dug them up, searching for a Sammy Spider, or anything close to it. But all of the books lacked the charm of his simple story. Even worse, they were didactic, or boring, or simply unattractive. And none were appropriate to share with a general audience.

On the other hand, as I rifled through my budding home library with renewed interest, I realized that several other multicultural titles were already some of our favorites. My son often asked me to read How Nanita Learned to Make Flan, Ruby’s Wish, and Anansi the Spider—all rich and colorful stories that brought diverse cultures to life. It saddened me to realize we had no equivalent books about our culture to read together, or share with friends at school. I started to hunt for any I could find, and my goal became to create appealing books about Muslims that captured the attention of young readers and didn’t end up collecting dust.

Today, there is nothing more gratifying to me than to hear parents say their children request Night of the Moon or Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns repeatedly. Even better is when they tell me their little ones can recite them from memory. I’m thrilled to see the thought conversation around diversity in children’s literature include Muslims and am encouraged by the growing commitment to represent all voices. I hope to have more to add to the collection.

Thanks for the kick in the pants, Sammy Spider.

What are your favorite multicultural picture books?

Make books not war

When I wrote that picture books play an important role in starting conversations and can serve as an agent for change in an article, I didn’t imagine that my simple rhyming book about colors would lead to a twitter war a few months later. But when author Kate Messner tweeted a recommendation of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as a way to introduce “the real” Islam to young readers, particularly in light of what they might be hearing on the news, it had unexpected consequences.

Kate was attacked by an anonymous poster who criticized her for sharing Golden Domes and for being positive about Islam. When I first heard about the exchange, I felt a twinge of fear and dread over the negativity toward Islam that is becoming all too familiar. However, I was quickly encouraged and reassured by Kate’s decision to engage in a public debate and take a stand against prejudice. I’m enormously grateful for her commitment to “responding to hate with poetry and education” and for the positive reactions it has fostered (read SLJ's article about it).

I’m also deeply indebted to all the people who have been so supportive of me in my effort to share my culture and traditions through children’s books. There are many champions of Golden Domes in particular, from my editor and the team at Chronicle Books who backed it since its inception, to the gracious members of the ALA Notables Committee and others who have honored it, to all of the wonderful teachers and librarians who are using it to expand the worlds of their students.

Because of all of you I believe even more strongly than ever that picture books can add to the culture of inclusiveness and diversity that the vast majority of my fellow Americans treasure. And I’m inspired by your recognition of the need to add more voices to the conversation to continue to write more. So thank you all from the bottom of my heart for all that you do.