Gardens of Kindness

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I am at a ‘Graduation Ceremony’ or a ‘Moving Up Ceremony’ or a ‘Pre-K Presentation,’ whatever you call it.

Z is going to Kindergarten.

I always want to spell it with a D. A garden where kindness grows and friendship blooms.

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We have heard the poem over and over in our house. Z taught it to A which means we hear it double.

Kindergarten Here we Come!

We Know We’ll Have Lots of Fun!

Lots of Things to Make and Do!

Counting, Reading, Writing Too!

The Pre-K Children are dressed up and walk in with a mixture of pride, confidence, and shyness. Friendship has bloomed here in the world of Pre-K.

The chairs are hard and metal and I’m struggling to get a good view of Z, but I’d rather be here than anywhere else.

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A month ago I was recovering from a health issue. I was hooked up to an IV waiting for Health to visit again.

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Now I am healing. I want to preserve health. Wrap it up gently and hold on to it tightly the way one holds a toddlers hand crossing the road. Tightly. Firmly. Not let go.

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To do everyday day tasks is a blessing. To go to a grocery store, pick up a child from school, work on a computer with your brain slowly sharpening again, is a blessing. What used to be mundane and trivial is now done with a sense of accomplishment.

To not have doctor appointments scheduled with high frequency, tainting white squares of the calendar is a blessing.

For so many things in life we work at to get. Wealth. Education. Careers. We put in long hours with the hope our efforts will pay off.

But not so with health. We can exercise and take care of ourselves, yes, but health can go away stealthily and silently, without warning. It can flee you when you most need it leaving you struggling and wallowy. Get Well Soon is a phrase you learn to dread hearing, a phrase said to you with a smile, a phrase that taunts you. Sometimes you Don’t Get Well Soon. Every fiber of you wants to heal, but the body has a way of betraying you sometimes.

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So when you finally get your health back, when it finally returns slowly and surely, like a sun ray falling in your lap, you want to cherish it and not let it go.

You’d rather keep those calendar squares white and empty, free and unblemished when you can. You’d rather hold on to health and the toddler with a tightly gripping hand, cross the road, and attend a kinder- garden ceremony. A place where kindness blooms. A place with new beginnings. You. The toddler. The preschooler. And health with a capital H.

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“Take benefit of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness,  your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death,” ~ Prophet Muhammad (Narrated by Ibn Abbas and reported by Al Hakim)

Words with Weight

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“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” ― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

“What does the author look like?” asks the little boy at Read Aloud time.

I assume the role of ‘the author,’ stand up, and wave at him with a smile before sitting down.

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It is much easier for me to write that I have published a children’s book. But to tell others is something else.

At the library, I am the mother of the 2 children who like to play Tag at Check out. Those 2 children who choose to find something funny and erupt in laughter interrupting the studious and revered silence with punctuated giggles.

Telling librarians or people in real life about my book is challenging for me. Like my character Lailah, I find it hard to get the words out.

But through writing, I find ease, solace, and comfort. It is easier for me to be ‘poised’ in writing. To use the Backspace Button when needed. To edit. But to be poised in real life with words is harder.

 

Words — You can…

  • Release them
  • Watch them float away, weightless.
  • Modulate them – Hold on to them like Sugar
  • Share only a baby spoonful at a time
  • Or … Don’t share them at all
  • Be stingy with them

Words can be …

  • Heavy and once released change the air around you.
  • Mixed and Stirred
  • Warm
  • Chilling
  • Evoke Memories
  • Erase Dreams
  • Build Dreams

I would love to be more poised in real life, to not regret saying so much, or to regret saying so little at times. I always admire those who hold onto their words and when they release their words, their words are listened to, heard, and respected. Their words have a reassuring Weight. Importance.

 

I’ll attempt poise in real life. But for now, writing will do…

 

 

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Say, “If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement” – Quran 18:109

New Voice: Reem Faruqi on Lailah’s Lunchbox

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I have read Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s blog Cynsations for a while. It is a great place for author information, resources, and most importantly, inspiration! I was featured as a New Voice on her blog here.

Below is an excerpt…

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Trying to write and mothering young children can be very tricky! I have a two-year-old and four-year-old and have learned that you get better at working through interruptions. When I’m writing, I’m usually receiving interruptions from my children to take them to the bathroom, for another snack … the list goes on!

When my four-year-old is at school, I have my interruptions cut in half with just my two-year-old’s needs. That’s when I feel I get the most writing done.

I do try to write sometimes at night when the children are asleep and find it semi-successful. I find I work best during daylight. I love natural light and find it conducive to working and getting my ideas flowing.

At night, it is easy to feel tired after a busy day!

When I quit teaching to stay home with my children, I wrote a lot of children’s manuscripts when my first child was a baby. She slept a lot during the day so I enjoyed getting that time to write.

Those stories didn’t make it in the publishing world, but through them I now found a stronger voice that works for me.

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I do think it’s important though to rest when your children are resting as that time is precious and when your mind is rested, it is easier to write. Sometimes whole stories will pop in my head when I am doing something random like getting my children ready for bed. It’s as if I can visualize the story, the words, the illustrations, but sometimes when I sit down at the computer, it is frustrating when that story disappears! But if it’s a good story, I believe it will resurface.

The title for my story, Lailah’s Lunchbox, popped into my head when I was cooking: I thought it would be fun to write a Ramadan story about a child who “forgot” their lunchbox every day during Ramadan. I wrote the title on a sticky note and put it away for some time before coming back to it.

For those trying to write and raise children, I would tell them there is no such thing as having it all! You may have a great manuscript you’re working on but you will be eating left-overs for dinner for the third day in a row and children that need a bath! Or you may be itching to write a story, but find yourself caught up in bathing children, cooking food, laundry, dropping and picking up children from school, etc!

Something has got to give way when you write. Sometimes I may be caught up in a story and look around at my house and children and think What Happened?!

This happened when I was writing once!

At those times, find reassurance in your words that you have just worked on and know that because of entropy, your house will continue to keep getting dirty. Putting your words out there takes work and in due time your work will pay off!

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

For the answer and to read the rest of the article, click here to Cynthia’s blog!

Copyright Cynthia Leitich Smith (Cynsations, 2015). Used with permission.

10 Question Illustrator Interview with Lea Lyon

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“I tried to make the illustrations be both a mirror and a window for the reader,” – Lea Lyon, Illustrator.

I really wanted to know Lea Lyon’s thought process for illustrating my story Lailah’s Lunchbox. I usually interview authors so interviewing illustrators was insightful. For example, when I first saw Lea’s pictures, I was struck by the warmth that I felt from her paintings. The characters looked genuine.

I also was impressed by the touches of home that I saw in the book. I sent Lea a few photos of my home to show how my house was decorated with Pakistani touches, and it’s really cool to see little bits of that in the story. Lea has painted some spice jars that are similar to my house, and even added an ajrak looking cushion, a common Pakistani fabric, to one that Lailah sits on.

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Do you see the spice jars?! Mine are similar!

I also got to ask Lea how she pronounces her name Lea Lyon. I have been saying it the French way, but it’s actually pronounced “Lee Lion.” Good to know for future book readings! Also, another cool factoid is Lea is Jewish so she is familiar with fasting! She has illustrated The Miracle Jar, a Hanukkah story and now my story, a Ramadan one.

Interview below!
1. What was the process of illustrating Lailah’s Lunchbox like? (I know you sent pictures of which child was going to be our Lailah which was exciting. I never knew that was part of the illustration process!)

There are many steps to illustrating a book. I received the manuscript from Tilbury House Editor, Audrey Maynard, with some suggestions as to where to have page breaks. Picture books are usually 32 pages including the title page, etc., so there are parameters that make it less overwhelming to make a book out of your words.  I first did some thumbnail sketches (a story board) to get ideas for what image to put on each page. The images should enhance the words, not just show what they say. I tried, for instance, to put as many references to Pakistani and Islamic design into the scenes that were at home, rather than at school. So much of the book takes place in the school, and I wanted to give the cultural flavor of the book as much as possible. Also, since I knew very little about Ramadan and your culture, I did lots of research. Interestingly, the thing I really needed your help on was the “cream rolls,” as I had never seen that brand of snack cake here in California. Now I have found them. (Like when you get a new car, you see that kind everywhere.)

I need to paint from models, or photos of real people, rather than out of my imagination. So the next step, when the thumbnails were approved, was to find models for the book. I needed to find a 10 year old Muslim girl who does not wear a head scarf. I knew this aspect of Lailah because she says in the book “They don’t even know I’m Muslim,” and I figured that if she wore a scarf, they would have known.
2. Did you visit schools for Lailah’s illustrations? I love the diversity of the students you painted.

Once I found my model, Eshal, and her family and they were happy to be part of this project, I contacted the principal at the school Eshal attends in San Ramon, CA. I have used schools for two other books I illustrated, and it works so well. We have so much fun and I get all the photos I need. The school agreed, with excitement, to be part of this project. Each child had to get a permission slip signed by his or her parent or guardian, as I was taking photos of them. This, even though I wasn’t using the actual photos in the book.  I was not able to take any other kids in the cafeteria except for the ones in this class. I did a short presentation about how picture books are made and then had them act out the story while I took many, many photos.I also took lots of pictures of the kids going through their day. I was only there about two hours, and went back one more time for some retakes of the cafeteria scene.

In the San Francisco Bay Area it was easy to find a diverse class, as there is such wonderful diversity here. In fact, I had to add some Caucasian children to the class to make it more recognizable  for other parts of the country, specifically the Atlanta area. I told the class this and they thought it was very funny. So do I.

3. How did you discover the Lailah that you based the illustrations on?

I found Eshal, my Lailah, through a colleague of  mine (a children’s book writer) who is, herself, Muslim but her daughter is too young to be Lailah. She suggested several friends, and sent me photos. Eshal looked perfect. I later realized that she is rather tall for her age, so looks older. I had to shorten her in a few paintings and make her look younger.

4. Were you familiar with Ramadan and fasting before illustrating Lailah’s Lunchbox ?

I was not very familiar with Ramadan before this project. I mainly researched it through children’s books and some websites about Muslim books for children. That way I figured I would see how the subject is presented to kids. I also did much research on the Islamic patterns and designs. I put some ceramics in the first page kitchen scene with patterns on them.

The only fasting I know about is for Yom Kippur, as I am Jewish. I think it is so cool that a Jewish illustrator illustrated your book. With all the strife between the two groups (in the media, at any rate) this can only help.
5. I know you edited illustrations to get the look right. How hard is it to edit illustrations?

Usually publishers want the original paintings for a book and then they have them scanned into digital images. It is very hard to change something on a watercolor painting, although not as impossible as folks think. Many colors can be washed off, depending on what they are made of. But often you have to repaint the whole painting.

In this case, to save time, Tilbury House asked me to get the paintings scanned here. Once they were in digital form, I was able to modify various parts of the paintings as needed in Photo Shop.   I even added a new face here and there. I liked a whole painting, except for one face, for example. So I repainted that face and pasted it in using Photo Shop. This really
worked out well. And I’m happy with the result.

6. How long does it take to complete an illustration the way you want?
Usually an illustrator gets from 9 – 12 months to illustrate a picture book – and there are usually 14-15 paintings in a book. That gives you an idea how long it takes. For Lailah’s Lunchbox, I only had about five months, so I really worked fast. I have learned two lessons –

1) Always leave time to do a painting over,

2) Don’t paint them in order, or the end paintings will be better than the beginning ones. I paint them in a random order.

7. How did you get to be an illustrator? Any tips to those trying to make it in the publishing world?

My main tip for anyone trying to make it in the children’s book publishing world is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) There are local conferences and workshops as well as national ones, and you make new friends of people who share your interest. In my case, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator when I grew up, but then forgot about it. About 14 years ago I saw a class at UC Berkeley extension on “Illustrating Children’s Books” which reminded me of my dream. I took the class, joined SCBWI, and learned so much. I sent samples to art directors at publishers who used similar styles to mine. Tilbury House was the first to hire me to illustrate a book. This is my fourth book with them. They have all won awards, and the first one, “Say Something,” by Peggy Moss, has sold over 70,000 copies, which is really a lot for a picture book. I now have illustrated 6 trade picture books, all still in print.

8. Anything else you’d like to share about yourself? 

I have a degree in English Lit and an elementary teaching credential. I only substitute taught, however, because they weren’t hiring teachers at the time (the “baby bust generation”) and I got involved with  making dolls and puppets which I sold through stores. Then I went to work in the greeting card business and went to gift shows etc.  Eventually (when I was 40) I went back to school to get an MBA. I worked for a while as a high tech product manager. Now I find the MBA is very useful as I get more involved in this new industry.  I have become quite involved with SCBWI as the Illustrator Coordinator for the San Francisco, South region. I organize a one-day Illustrator conference each year in SF, which has become quite popular. Over 80 illustrators attend each year.  I get to use spread sheets and other MBA types tools, as well as network like crazy.  Because it is San Francisco and SCBWI, I can invite anyone I want to speak and they usually say yes. So I have met the art directors at most of the big houses.   When they  need  my style of art, I already have a relationship with them. I’ve become a known quantity.

9. Do you think children will enjoy the illustrations & story of Lailah’s Lunchbox ?

I think this is a lovely, accessible story about Ramadan, and, really, about solving the situation of being different in any way from most of the kids around. Most kids have something about themselves that makes them feel not quite like everyone else. It is what makes us special, but they don’t see it that way. Lailah is a courageous girl who is proud of her culture and wants to not only practice the rituals, but share it with her new friends at her American school. The lovely librarian helps her find a solution, without finding it for her.

I tried to make the illustrations be both a mirror and a window for the reader. I showed a regular school with a varied student body so everyone could identify with someone in the class. I made the characters sympathetic,likeable, warm people.

10. What do you want people to feel when they see your illustrations?

I want them to feel warmth and to smile. I want them to identify with some of the kids and make this a believable story for them.

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** To view more of Lea’s heartwarming illustrations, check out the Look Inside! feature on Amazon here. For those of you have ordered Lailah’s Luncbox, it should be mailed to you tomorrow or sometime this week! I hope you all like it and cherish this story!

Darkest of Nights and Brightest of Days

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I’ve noticed an uneasy trend in life. When some rejoice, some are mourning. When some are mourning, some are rejoicing. When some are struck with the most unimaginable tragedies, some are blessed with the greatest of joys. When some are dying, some are being born.

It seems like it doesn’t add up. Or at least in our minds it doesn’t. But if you look around, you notice an easier balance, a predictable reliance of nature that is supposed to be.

The brightest of days become the darkest of nights which then become the brightest of days. Flower buds still boldly bloom among tragedies. The birds will still sing unabashedly every morning. The sun will still gently shine on us.

But when you read the news like Nepal’s earthquake, Yemen’s turmoil, the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, and road accidents in which young people die , we can either shake it off and think at least it’s not me and busy yourself with everyday life. Or you can mull over it, let yourself feel for them, pray for them, reach out to them, and help them with small kindnesses.

We are after all human.

 “The example of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” – Prophet Muhammad

Sneak Peek: Lailah’s Lunchbox!

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“Did you order a book?” my brother asks holding up a package outside my front door.

I love books and often order books online. My mind takes a minute to register. I just ordered Always Mom, Forever Dad by Joanna Rowland and loved it. This time, this book on my doorstep was my book Lailah’s Lunchbox!

It’s a real book! The illustrator Lea Lyon said the same thing when she received her book in the mail too. When you work on a book and are awaiting it for a year, you forget how real the book is, until you hold the book in your hands, feel the glossy pages, smell the scent of fresh-new-book!

I love the way Lea has illustrated Lailah and her emotions. Here is a sneak peek below of Lailah’s Lunchbox! It comes out May 1st…THANK YOU for all those who have ordered it and supported it! I hope you all like it!

 

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getting my niece and mother to sign the back of my book. Others have signed the back of my first copy so now it’s not as yellow anymore!

On a side note, I spoke with my grandmother joking that now I should give away laddoos in luncboxes as a gift to celebrate. The next thing I knew Nana had bought little lunchboxes, filled them with sweet laddoos, and started gifting them to celebrate the publishing of this book! At first, I thought I can’t believe Nana actually did this, but then no, this sounds just like Nana!! Thank You Nana!IMG_9784

 

Author Interview: Razeena Gutta of “Read Little Muslims!”

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Razeena Gutta is the author and founder of Read Little Muslims. I first noticed her a few months ago on Facbeook. I saw her site pop up and instantly clicked ‘Like.’ Her words resonated with me. She’s based in Australia and is passionate about books being produced for Little Muslims from around the world. Her site supports children’s books from other authors and illustrators and she is quick to feature their work proudly on her site, making her site an exciting hub for literature for little Muslims!
She sent me her book We’re Little Muslims all the way from Australia, a book that Z has already said is her favorite book(it has been added to her bedtime books!) and that it reminds her of Sunday School. I enjoyed the child-friendliness of the book and the gentle way it introduced facts about Prophet Muhammad in there.  I can’t wait for more books from her. Interview below!

1. How did you choose the characters Faatimah & Ahmed?

 
I chose the names because I wanted them to be immediately identifiably Muslim and I wanted children with those names and those who know children with those names, as they are so common, to see themselves in a book. I wanted Muslim children to relate to them immediately. They are both slightly older than my two children are currently and as this book started out as just a story for them, I needed them to be characters that they’d look up to.

2. What is it you want children and parents and teachers to get from reading your book? I liked the way you shared just a few facts — my 4 year old Z latched onto them!

I wanted this to be a book children would WANT to read and not one that they’d have to be coaxed to read. Its bright, colourful and shows two children having a bit of fun but learning at the same time. I want to pass this attitude on… It’s important to inculcate a love for learning from young, and I hope that this book can be a tool to help parents and teachers help their little ones to learn.

3. When did you start Read Little Muslims?
I started Read Little Muslims in July 2014. Alhamdulillah it has been a great journey so far!

4. How did you get a good following for them? I noticed you have 6,000 + likes!
Read Little Muslims seemed to attract a lot of interest on Facebook when I first started out – While Facebook has its limitations, it is a great tool to spread the word about what I am trying to do – which is create a forum to find, view and review great books and to support Muslim authors – After Facebook, I started a website where I also sell other great quality books (mainly to my local market in Australia), and joined Instagram and Twitter. Through these outlets I made contact with so many people worldwide, all looking for the same thing – a way to teach our children in a manner that is age-appropriate, has an impact on them and that will create lasting memories, at the same time making things fun and light. Children’s books can do just that – they can be so simple and yet they can have such an impact.
5. What are your goals for all our little Muslims and their world of children’s books?
So through Read Little Muslims, I hope to keep searching for and finding great books to Muslim kids, encourage people to consider writing books if they feel they have a story to tell, and support those who do. On readlittlemuslims.com we also have some free resources which people can download and use for their children, and we hope to keep building that up. Through guest writers, bloggers and author interviews, we also hope that Read Little Muslims becomes a place that people can go to find behind-the-scenes info about books, seek out the latest books for kids and share any great resources they may come across and help us to spread the word. Insha Allah, I also hope to have a 2nd book in the Faatimah and Ahmed series completed soon too!