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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Mark Gonzales’ picture book Yo Soy Muslim (2017), illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, is written as a letter from a father to his daughter. In soaring language that’s accompanied by boisterous art, the book invites readers into a sacred space and reminds them that life is filled with beauty as well as questions—about faith, family, and culture. Gonzales—poet, educator, and storyteller across mediums—answered questions about his experiences writing this unique book.
You have a young daughter. Have you shared the book with her, and if so, what was her reaction? Why was it important that you have this conversation with her?
GONZALES: My daughter is a three-year-old bundle of brilliance who started preschool recently. She saw the first visuals of Yo Soy Muslim when she was learning her first languages (French and English). Her reaction in each language is the same now as it was then: “Yay, that’s MY book, Baba! Are you going to go share my book with people? Can I come?” When I was invited to speak at a public gathering with Define American, I shared excerpts of the book as an example of simple ways we can kickstart a conversation on belonging versus solely on immigration. Midway through the presentation, when the visuals were on large-scale projection behind me, she came and sat on my lap and asked for the mic so she could say, “My name is Sirat, that is my book, and I am brave.”
As for importance, my formal training is in the field of education, focusing on how human beings learn many things, like identity, behavior, and possibility. My daughter is at an age where she is experiencing all of the world for the first time, and I thought how wondrous would it be if she had what so many of us didn’t: a positive narrative to embrace her heritage and faith as part of the first memories of her life. This becomes even more important in a world of toxic narratives and one-way monologues, for even if children don’t always understand what adults say, they can feel the emotions we say them with. For if we continually flatten human identity to a single concept, we make children (and adults) choose between the wondrous parts that comprise all of us, like love, culture, heritage, belief, dreams, and more.
Can you imagine if we raised an entire generation of children on positive narratives, infused with emotional intelligence, to equally embrace differences and their own identity with? How different could our national narrative be?
This is your first foray into the children’s book world. What was the experience like for you? How did you adapt your writing process for a younger audience? What was it like to see your words paired with illustrations?
GONZALES: The experience is wondrous. I’ve curated language across a variety of mediums, from stage to start-ups and beyond. I took the best parts of a 20-year healing journey and shaped them into a personal guide for social good, titled In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty (2015), that is equal parts typography and story. I led language design for the iconic #WeThePeople campaign with Shepard Fairey and other artists. Pairing text with illustrations is a process I’m quite familiar with. Yet even though our team literally made history with #WeThePeople, there is something uniquely special (for me) when you excite the human imagination in a project that is a direct letter to your own daughter, especially when you do it in a way your 81-year-old father can read and smile with.
COOPER: Although there are almost two billion Muslims in the world, it’s common, at least in the U.S., to associate Islam with the Middle East. You mix the public with the personal here, introducing the idea that Muslims are everywhere, along with a sense of love, pride, and history to individual children. What were your thoughts as you worked through these ideas?GONZALES: I’ve always said a community does not make sense of the world through statistics, but stories. Are there two billion human beings practicing Islam in the world? Yes. Are there seven billion human beings on this planet? Yes. Yet neither of these facts make the statistics a homogeneous group, and I find stories are the best way to provide depth, aesthetics, emotions, and generational journeys into articles that have reduced people to numbers.
For the simple truth is, Muslims will soon be nearly everywhere on this earth because humans are nearly everywhere, and humans are complex creatures who ask questions including, “What is the purpose of life?” So, if you want to understand how a person or a people answer that question, Muslim or not, I invite us all to engage each other directly and listen before we begin projecting the abstract ideas of what we think another person believes.
It has been said that many of our current problems stem from the tribalism that is so prevalent today. Any thoughts on this in general or in relation to the book?
GONZALES: As a student of civilizations, I always share the reminder: tribes are a model for social order that kept human beings alive for at least 80,000 years of our existence on this earth, including surviving famine, drought, and more. If you consider that truth, then tribes, as a model for being, have to hold some wisdom, beauty, and power. How can we explore their best practices, and pair it next to the fabulous failures of nation-states? How can we then explore the takeaways of both to shape a new model for human society that fits our twenty-first century needs? For I don’t subscribe to a narrative that places tribes on one end of the binary and nation-states on the other end, especially how this binary too often calls one end “savage” and the other “civilized.” We need to expand our analysis as well as upgrade the language we engage it with.
The text of this book is beautiful. Did it come easily or was it a more difficult work?
GONZALES: The text came quite quickly; the concept took far longer. Yet, this is always the way it seems to go—exploring what needs to be said and how, and playing with forms of inspiration can take sooooooo long, as you wait for the aha moment to come!
Yo Soy Muslim. Illus. by Mehrdokht Amini. 2017. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads, $17.99 (9781481489362). PreS–Gr. 2.
Further Reading: Intersectional Picture Books
Below, find a selection of picture books that, like Yo Soy Muslim, work to embrace a more inclusive world.
Drum Dream Girl. By Margarita Engle. Illus. by Rafael López. 2015. HMH, $16.99 (9780544102293). PreS–Gr. 2.
A talented young girl with a passion for drumming dreams of playing music in this upbeat story based on the life of Cuban musician Millo Castro Zaldarriaga. Though told repeatedly that girls cannot be drummers, she refuses to give up.
Grace for President. By Kelly DiPucchio. Illus. by LeUyen Pham. 2008. Hyperion, $15.99 (9780786839193). Gr. 1–3.
When Mrs. Barrington shows her class pictures of the presidents, energetic African American Grace asks, “Where are the girls?” In a class election, Grace runs against popular Tom, with each of the remaining students in the multiethnic class representing a state.
King for a Day. By Rukhsana Khan. Illus. by Christiane Krömer. 2013. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781600606595). Gr. 2–4.
At the time of Basant, the spring kite-flying festival in Lahore, Pakistan, people enjoy the spectacle of a sky filled with kites, and welcome the renewal of spring. A boy in a wheelchair overpowers the neighborhood bully with his kite-flying savvy and keen, compassionate eye.
Why Am I Me? By Paige Britt. Illus. by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. 2017. Scholastic, $17.99 (9781338053142). K–Gr. 2.
Two children—an African American boy and a light-skinned, red-haired girl—consider each other’s lives and those of the many diverse individuals both inside their train car and outside its windows, wondering why they are themselves and not someone else.
Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam. By Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Illus. by Chiara Fedele. 2017. Lerner/Kar-Ben, $17.99 (9781467789387). K–Gr. 3.
Yaffa and Fatima are neighbors in the Land of Milk and Honey, where each tends her own date grove. Every day, they pick and sell their dates, cook and share tasty foods, and pray to God—Yaffa in the synagogue and Fatima in the mosque.
Ilene Cooper, Booklist Contributing Editor, is the author of more than 35 books for children and young adults.
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