Children’s author Saadia Faruqi. Image by QZB Photography, used with permission from Saadia Faruqi.
In the Fall 2020 semester, children’s author Saadia Faruqi held a virtual Q&A session with students enrolled in LIT 219, Introduction to Literature for Young Children. Faruqi visited shortly after the class studied her chapter book “Meet Yasmin,” which follows a young Pakistani-American girl navigating the ups and downs of second grade. According to Faruqi’s website, “Meet Yasmin” has earned a variety of accolades, including a spot in the School Library Journal’s best books of 2018 list.
During the Q&A session, Faruqi discussed her experiences in the publishing industry and offered advice to future authors. Here’s a sampling of what she had to say.
How did you choose Hatem Aly as an illustrator for “Meet Yasmin,” and how much did you collaborate on the book?
It’s different if you are self-published, but if you are publishing with a big company, you most of the time do not have any say in who does your art. I am lucky that my editors always ask [for] my advice. I personally always want to have another South Asian or Muslim artist because I feel that I have a platform and can help promote other creative voices. Most of my friends who write are just told, “Hey, this is your illustrator.”
And it’s not collaborative in terms of the illustrator telling me how the story goes. Writers of picture books and early readers just write the text; unless you’re somebody who also does the art, you’re just thinking about the text. Once the story is done, the illustrator decides where the art will go.
Did you ever approach a publishing company that rejected you because you had a non-white character [as the protagonist]? How did you overcome those situations?
First of all, as a writer, you face rejections every day. It hasn’t happened to me where somebody’s actually said that [featuring a non-white character] was the reason they were rejecting me. I don’t think anyone does that anymore. Before I was a published author, there were hundreds of rejections — and I’m guessing that could have been the reason — but they’re not going to say that. Their rejections are always like, “This isn’t a good fit for us.” It becomes incumbent upon me and other writers to approach publishers who are a good fit, making sure they’re already on board with publishing diverse works because if they’re not, it’s harder to convince them.
My stepsister has been interested in doing some kind of kid’s book. When you write the story, how does the process look in eventually getting it published?
Usually, if you want to be published by a large or even a mid-sized publisher, where your books can be in a bookstore or a library, then you would want to go to an agent because publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It took me several years to finally find somebody because they are very selective; I wrote several books that were not accepted by agents before. They get thousands of requests each year and only select the ones they think are going to sell. You write, revise, practice and take writing classes before you ever get to the stage of submitting, then you write your manuscript. Just write something, get it revised and critiqued by a few of your writing partners and search up agents online. Every agent will have instructions on their website about how to submit to them. I must have submitted to at least 100 agents before I found someone. It’s a nightmare, but you have to get through that process!
For any of the drawings in the book, was there ever a point where you could leave a note for the illustrator about how you wanted something to be drawn?
When I write the text, I can leave art notes. It has to be essential, though, something that is important to the story and not obvious. I’ll give you an example. In one of the books for next year, “Yasmin the Scientist,” she is insisting on doing this science experiment at home by herself, but her dad is worried she’s going to do something wrong. So he tells her, “Okay, you can do it by yourself,” but then he’s peeking from behind the door. So I put an art note, “Baba is peeking from behind the door,” because that’s not obvious from the text. I can’t do it a lot because the art people start to get annoyed with me for starting to take over! You have to be very judicious because you have to understand that it’s a collaborative process. I’m often surprised in a positive way about what they do with the art!
Since you’ve written these books, have you noticed more books coming out with Pakistani characters, or do you find that you are one of the only people that writes about them in children’s books?
I’ve definitely seen an uptick in overall diversity; there are a lot more South Asian characters than there used to be. I don’t think it’s because of me. Definitely in the “Yasmin” age group space, there isn’t anybody else right now; I’m sure in the next few years there will be, but older series, picture books and middle-grade, I’ve seen a lot more. When you have one book that’s a success commercially, like “Yasmin” is, it also encourages publishers to take more of a risk. Because for publishers, you have to understand, it’s not only being “racist.” They’re a business. Until they know something is going to sell, it’s hard for them to take that risk. If one book becomes commercially successful, that’s a sign to publishers that they can take those risks. Then it’s also a sign to other writers to look at that author and say, “Oh, she did it, and she got published. Maybe I should take time out and actually write!” I will never take any credit that [the increase in South Asian protagonists] is because of my series, but the market is definitely changing, which is a great thing!
A special thanks to Ms. Saadia Faruqi for her permission in sharing these questions and answers and for her time in visiting West Chester University. For more information on her life and work, visit saadiafaruqi.com.
Christopher Borroughs is a fourth-year English Writing major. CB923088@wcupa.edu