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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Capstone.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Ronny Khuri talks to Susan Muaddi Darraj, the award-winning Palestinian American author of the Farah Rocks series, as well as Siman Nuurali, author of the Sadiq series, which was named one of Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best books.
Both Farah Rocks Fifth Grade and the first four installments of the Sadiq series are available now from Capstone.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
RONNY KHURI: Thank you so much for joining me, Susan and Siman. Susan, if you don’t mind, can you kick things off by telling us about Farah Rocks?
SUSAN MUADDI DARRAJ: Farah Rocks is a fifth grader, and she has a brother with learning challenges, and her parents are in a precarious financial situation. They’re immigrants, so the finances are not quite strong. She’s very aware of that, as most kids of working class families are. She’s planning to attend a magnet school for science. At that same time, there’s a new girl at school who starts bullying her little brother. Farah tries to protect her brother, and her plan involves some lying to adults and hiding things from her parents, all in a well-intentioned effort to shield her little brother from this bully. It unravels from there. They’re a very close knit family and she’s a very brave, funny, and—I think—adorable character.
Siman, if you could please introduce us to the Sadiq series.
SIMAN NUURALI: Sadiq is an eight year old Somali American boy. He has four siblings and lives with his mom and dad as well—just, for lack of a better word, an everyday, very normal kid. He’s got two best friends, Manny and Zaza. He gets exposed to different things at school, and when this happens he gets this idea about creating clubs. He’s a happy kid who doesn’t really encounter a whole lot of hardship. He has just a very normal family, a very normal upbringing. I don’t really like using that word—“normal”—because I think it is different for a lot of people, but I think what our previously understood meaning of the word “normal” was is how I would classify Sadiq and his family.
You’re both writing characters of ethnicities that are underrepresented in publishing. Farah is Palestinian American, and Sadiq is Somali American. While these books are certainly not about their identities, I’m curious, what about their backgrounds were you conscious of and trying to get across to younger readers who may be encountering those cultures for the first time? We’ll start with Siman.
NUURALI: Yeah, so I think when I was writing it, just to go back to that theme of normalcy, it was really, really important to me that his identity be enmeshed in a very simple way throughout the book. It wasn’t this thing where, when he stepped outside of his home, he would have to shed his Somali skin and put on his American one, then walk through the world in that skin, and then come home, take that off, and put on his Somali one. It was really important to me that his identities were essentially the same and he didn’t really see a whole lot of distinction between the two, because for him, they were both equally important or they meant the same or he had just never thought about it. He had just always been Somali American, and so it was just second nature for him.
I think it was something that came out of a lot of Somali kids who live here and who exist in that world and who have to have this consideration of what it means to be American, especially just in recent years. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be Somali? Are the two mutually exclusive? Do they go together? I just did not want this eight-year-old kid having that conversation either out loud or in his head. I hoped that other Somali American kids would read that and think, “Oh, hey, it’s just a part of who I am, and it’s my identity. I don’t have to reconcile the two aspects of it.”
That was really important to me, and I know that sometimes in immigrant communities and in minority communities there can be this sense of fascination with background—but not in a positive way. Often we are looking for the trauma of that background to make it to the forefront, and I just was not interested in that. I just wanted this kid to be like any other kid and for any child that picked up a Sadiq book to be able to see themselves in him, even if they were not Somali, even if they were not American. I just tried as much as possible to enmesh the two identities together to the point where you couldn’t tell them apart. They were just essentially the same kid.
Susan, same question: What about Farah’s background did you want to get across to young readers?
DARRAJ: Let me just say, I really feel what Siman is saying about not wanting a character who is American at school and Somali at home, like shedding his skin. I think I feel that because that’s how I grew up, actually. I would shift my identity depending on where I was. If I was with my friends at school, I was American. When I came home, I was Palestinian. I entered a different world. I think writing the Farah Rocks series for me was like I was writing the world that I wish I had grown up in.
Farah is a character who moves very seamlessly between these two worlds. I realized that in order to create that, I had to make her world at school a very diverse one. I went to a school that was ethnically homogenous, so I had to make sure that Farah’s friends at school came from many different backgrounds.
Her best friend is Chinese American. She has a lot of friends who are African American, who are Latinas. It was important for me to create that, because this way, Farah expressing her ethnic identity was just something normal to do. All of her friends brought their ethnic food to school for lunch and that sort of thing. I wanted the same situation to exist in my book. I wanted Arab American kids to look at Farah and say, “Yeah, I can live between both worlds and not feel separated, not feel divided.”
Farah is very happy being a Palestinian American. She speaks Arabic at home. Sometimes, she’ll bring her Middle Eastern food to school, and it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t have the angst and identity crisis that I endured when I was a kid. She is, for me, the ideal, the projection of what I wished I had at that age.
Susan, speaking more generally, can you talk about what inspires your writing in a bigger way?
DARRAJ: Well, reading books—the growing #OwnVoices movement and reading books by other writers of many different ethnic backgrounds, by LGBTQ writers. I feel like there’s a movement now in kids’ literature that I don’t see mirrored in literature for adults, to be quite honest. There’s something in kids’ literature that is very groundbreaking. It’s pushing boundaries. We’re seeing more and more characters in middle grade and YA novels who are LGBTQ, who are from immigrant communities, who are from communities that have been marginalized historically in this country. That’s a very exciting time to be reading kid lit and to be writing it.
I don’t think my book would have been possible 15 years ago, and even though we know that there is still a lack of diverse characters in children’s literature, that is changing as well. That is steadily, slowly but steadily, getting better. I’m inspired by the other books that I read.
Siman, you as well: Speaking more broadly, what are some of the inspirations behind where your writing comes from?
NUURALI: My inspiration was my kids. The characters in the books are based on my kids. I have five kids. I think I also felt this sense of responsibility and anxiety. I continue to have that in the way that I wrote Sadiq, because as much as this is how I wanted to write him, I wondered if the other side of that coin was that there were people in my community who wanted him written a different way, who wanted to have his Somali-ness centered a whole lot more than his American-ness.
That was always in the back of my mind, and it’s something that I struggled with and I continue to struggle with. Again, like I said, I think it was just really important to me for the sake of those Somali American kids who were born here, whose entire reality was made up of the American life. It was important for me that they understood that this was not something that they had to either fight or debate or try to figure out, that it was just a straightforward thing.
Well, on that note, Siman, have you had a chance to connect with your readers or educators directly and get a sense for how it’s being received?
NUURALI: Yeah, it’s has been absolutely fantastic. I’ve done school readings. I’ve done library readings, and I’ve had just an entire spectrum of different people: kids who are so excited about seeing kids that look like them, that are drawn like them; girls who wear hijab during a running competition, and it’s just second nature, and it’s not something that had to be pointed out in the book. (It was a runner who was wearing a tracksuit and they just had a hijab on). Little girls were really excited about that. Their eyes would light up when they would find the Somali words, so they would see hooyo and dugsi and just light up and get so excited. We had kids who would say, “Oh my god, this looks like my mom. I’m going to go show her,” and then run off and go talk to their mom and show them the pictures.
We got really good, fantastic support and feedback from parents who, up until that point, were like, “We’ve never seen kids . . . we’ve never seen books that had Somali kids in them,” and who were grateful we got support from libraries—and schools who are like, “We take care of a diverse population. We did not have the books to help our kids feel welcome and feel accepted and feel they are part of the literary narrative that exists for all other kids.” That was just really humbling, and it was just really refreshing and nourishing to hear that feedback. That continues to happen, and I’m just absolutely so grateful for that.
And Susan, have you had a chance to hit the road and talk to readers?
DARRAJ: I have. I’ve done several school visits. Even now during this coronavirus lockdown that we’re in, I’m participating in a program called Write to an Author. It’s a hashtag launched by Laura Shovan. What we’re doing is we’re promising kids that if they write to us while they’re home from school, during their school closures, that we will write back. I’ve already received several letters from kids just expressing how excited they are to meet an Arabic-speaking character and her family and how much they love getting to know Farah’s culture.
The back of my book has an Arabic glossary in it and a hummus recipe, actually. Some kids are actually making hummus with their parents while they’re home from school. Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed meeting children and going to their schools and visiting their libraries. Even now during this quiet time, I’m still finding ways to connect with them. It’s been very, very refreshing and beautiful and very affirming, as well.
Yeah, I suppose it’s not a bad time to point out that both of your books have activities in the back, which—if you happen to be stuck indoors—is not a bad thing.
Susan, can you talk a bit about your relationship with libraries and how they’ve influenced you and your writing?
DARRAJ: Oh, well they’ve only saved my life. I mean, I was the eldest child of an immigrant in an immigrant family. Visiting the library was my escape. It was my way of connecting with everyone else and just understanding American culture and American life in many ways. I spent hours and hours in my public library, in my school library. At one point as a seventh grader, I read my way through the entire Agatha Christie section. I love Agatha Christie novels. Even now, when it’s my writing time, I will often leave my house and go to my local public library here and set up camp at a table and write in the library. There’s just something about being surrounded by books and by people who love books that inspires me.
Siman, I’ll ask the same question to you. How have libraries has been a part of your life and your writing life?
NUURALI: I mean, I share the same sentiments as Susan. I spent a ridiculous amount of time in libraries when I was growing up. I think about it as a place of refuge. I think the association we get from a word like that is that you are running away from something horrible, but it wasn’t. I was running to it, so I wasn’t running away from something, I was running to it. It was where I picked up my love of basically everything I hold dear. I always make this joke with my friends that if I was ever a ghost, I would like to haunt a library because, I mean, what better place to spend all of eternity?
They’ve just shaped everything that I know about learning and about education and about reading and the level of reading and the ability to disappear into different worlds just through the pages of a book. It’s such a simple concept: words on a page in a book, and you get transported to all of these different places and get to have all of these different adventures. I think that is entirely magical when you’re a kid, and then you think, I’m just going to grow out of it, and you really don’t. I’m just grateful to them. I wish there were more. I wish more people understood the value that they bring to society.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Capstone, the publisher of Darraj’s Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, as well as Nuurali’s Sadiq series, both available right now.
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