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Muslim Bookstagram Awards: Meet the Judges! – Shifa Saltagi Safadi

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The nominations for the Muslim Bookstagram Awards have been rolling in, and the judges are incredibly excited! In anticipation of the awards being announced in January, MuslimMatters will be featuring a mini-series of podcasts with interviews with the judges.

Our first episode is with Shifa Saltagi Safadi, who is the author of three books published by Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, and is an Islamic book reviewer. Shifa has written Pepperoni, Pitches (and Other Problems), Spell It Like Samar, and Heaven Is At Mama’s Feet. You can find her on Instagram (@muslimmommyblog) and on her website: Muslim Mommy Blog.

Transcript from the Interview

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Zainab bint Younus: Let’s just dive right into it. So first of all, tell us about Muslim Bookstagram. How would you describe the Muslim Bookstagram space? When did you first join it? What has your experience been like? 

Shifa Saltagi Safadi: I started my Instagram page in 2019, and I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, and my third child was a one-year-old at the time. I had started looking online, on Amazon – I didn’t know any Islamic bookstores back then. 

Back then, there were a lot of Goodword books, and then, there was Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, which was new. It was so refreshing to see! I ordered one of her books, and my kids were amazed that there are these Muslim characters doing normal things in books, and learning Islamic lessons. Once I got one of her books – I think Nusaiba and the 5th Grade Bullies was my first book -, I literally went and bought every single book.

I started discovering more and more. I was showing them to my sister and some friends, and they were like, they had no idea that there were Islamic books out there! SubhanAllah, the more my kids got older, the more I felt the importance of introducing Islam to them in a way that they would understand and really remember. My sister pushed me; she told me, “You should do an Instagram page, and share your experiences with your kids, any crafts and books.” I started in 2019, and it’s been almost three years now, subhanAllah, I can’t believe it.

Z: Time really flies! 

S: Time flies, yes. SubhanAllah. When I started, I didn’t expect to be here, where I am now. I thought it would be just a small group of people, but alhamdulillah, Bookstagram has expanded. The book industry has expanded. And even my page itself has evolved. I met so many people. 

Z: I find, too, the Muslim Bookstagram circles have been really interesting. I only really got into it last year, and even then, started off slow. I already knew a couple of people who had joined Muslim Bookstagram before, and then I started finding out more and more about all the amazing Muslim Bookstagram resources that there are! I’ve always been into Muslim books since I was young, and you know how little there was to begin with. Goodword books were the standard. 

There are two books that I remember from when I was younger – middle grade or YA (young adult). They were really good. I don’t know if you ever heard about the Jinn and the Clock, and the Wicked Wazir, by Juwairiah Simpson.  I feel like they need to be reprinted, and they would stand the test of time. They set the tone for me.

Yes, there can be something such as really well-written Muslim fiction stories, that carry Islamic values, but the most important part being that the stories are as well-written and as well-told as all the other non-Muslim fiction books that we have.

It’s been so amazing to see over the years that Muslim books have really been evolving. The Muslim kid lit, and middle grade, and young adult scenes have been evolving – the fact that Muslim Bookstagram exists at all, and that it’s as significant as it is! SubhanAllah, it’s such an amazing development, and speaks to the fact that we are changing and growing, and we’re recognizing what works and what doesn’t work. Obviously I feel like we’re still in a stage of growing pangs; there can be a lot of controversy about certain things and you’d be like, “Why are we arguing about this?”

Bouncing off of that tangent, as an author, what do you think has been, and is still missing in Muslim kid lit?

S: Since were talking about middle grade and YA,  I think good Muslim middle grade and YA. My kids are now at the age where they love chapter books more. Picture books, alhamdulillah, I feel like there’s so much out there, and on so many different topics. I can’t even pick which ones I like the most, just because there’s so much. 

For middle grade and YA, honestly, there’s like a handful of YA, and then middle grade, there’s a bigger list. But a lot of them kind of deal with the same things; a lot of the same tropes about immigrant families -which is fine, but I think our kids don’t relate to that. With my kids, I try to give them these books, they’re like, “Okay…,.” A book that maybe means a lot to me won’t be the same for them.

Z: It’s definitely a different experience! It’s funny, these books are written by us, for us, our inner child. But something to be noted is that I’m starting to recognize the value of those specific stories, because in my city we have a lot more Muslim immigrants coming in, especially from Syria. And when those kids borrow these books from our madrasa library, I can see that they relate to it, in ways that my daughter doesn’t, but that’s because it’s a totally different background. They are immigrant kids or from immigrant families whereas our kids are not; our kids are just homegrown, and so their perspectives are very different. I agree with you that I really wish there was more coming out now for those kids who are not from the same backgrounds that we had.

S: I think the exception would be Planet Omar, honestly. My son loves those books, because they’re about a kid that fits in so seamlessly with his friends and just does adventures and mysteries and stuff like that. 

Like you said, there is a place for immigrant stories, and you know we relate to them so well, but I do want to see more of that kind – you know, kids that aren’t bullied, or aren’t dealing with a different city or different country; that are actually American or Canadian Muslim, like our children, and just going on adventures. Just doing normal things and putting Islam within -like, living Islam so unapologetically. That’s another thing that I really feel like is missing.  In YA I think S.K. Ali is the most unapologetic–we need more of that, where Islam is part of their life, part of their passion, and not something that their strict parents are enforcing.

Z: Exactly! Because that’s the other trope that we have to deal with: the religious conservative parents who are oppressing their kids by doing this, that, or the other, and the kids prove how liberal they are or whatever. That’s the other popular mainstream trope that’s really pushed. S.K. Ali does an amazing job of just not engaging with that at all. Her characters are unapologetically Muslim and that’s part and parcel of the storyline.

I think what really shows the success of it, is that her books are mainstream published, and they have glowing reviews from non-Muslims who are coming to realize that they don’t need every little thing explained to them. To be like – it’s not a classroom where they need to be walked through everything, they can figure it out. They can learn from context, and I think us Muslims, as writers, need to internalize this. 

We don’t need to treat non-Muslim readers with kid gloves and fall over ourselves to explain ourselves away. It’s like the memes say: if white readers can get through an entire high fantasy series and learn different elvish language on their own, they don’t need us to handhold them through explaining our culture, explaining our faith, explaining every little detail – just let the story be what it is.

S: It really works to make you feel seen. The first time I read a novela YA novel with a main Muslim character, was Saints and Misfits, I think, by S.K. Ali. I remember just being in shock. I felt so seen, like, this is a character that has Muslim struggles, and I was almost crying. I can’t believe this exists, you know, and everything in it impacted me because she feels so many of the feelings that we feel in the bookfeeling like Muslims have flaws but we’re still proud of our Islam.

Z: And it’s not like, “Oh you’re less than perfect, well, now you suck!” Janna, the main character, recognizes her character flaws, her religious failings, but she tries to do better. What really stood out for me is the fact that you have an extra religious, conservative Muslim who is so awesome and is not villainized at all. She plays her own epic role in it and she is presented as being conservative, so you have that representation there. It’s a positive example of representation instead of the whole “Oh there’s the villainous conservative Muslim who’s going to “haram police” her, which is unfortunately a trope that has been pushed by so many Muslims, and it shows up in a lot of middle grade and YA books.

S: For sure. It’s all over the place. It’s so important that we see more and more books being unapologetically Muslim, and just making us feel like Islam is part of the character and not something separate – not just a hijab on their head, or just something they do once a week.

Z: Exactly. I think that ties into the next question: what are you most excited to see in Muslim kid lit recently?

S: Kind of what we’re already talking about: unapologetically Muslim books. Also, honestly, the rise of self-published books has opened up both negatives and positives. Something that’s really opened up, is so many options with non-fiction resources. That’s something I’ve noticed to be new. The rise of Islamic history books, Islamic scientific achievements, Islamic resources, praying resources… 

The new book that I read was Environmental Sunnahs. I wanted to show my kids a book like this. It’s non-fiction, but it just teaches so much, and it has scientific facts and it’s just so creative! I love that there are so many options. Like I said, there’s some negatives because some of the books do have quality issues, editing issues… 

Z: Quality control is something we need to work on, for sure.

S: It is. But it’s also exciting. I feel like the fact that this industry has grown shows the need for it, and because of that, authors are starting to see, we need to make ourselves unique. Even myself, when I see all these books, I’m like, what’s missing? You need your book to stand out. You can’t just write, oh these two characters went to the masjid, they said ‘alhamdulillah’, went back home. No, it needs to have a deeper meaning, you know? The rise of the amount of books is just amazing, alhamdulillah

Z: I think that ties into my next question, which is, what advice do you have for Muslim kid lit authors, aspiring authors? 

S: When I started reviewing, I also wanted to be a writer. I’ve loved books since I was a kid. So I started writing. I was like, I love reading so I can just do this, I can write. And I wrote a few manuscripts and then I remember submitting them to Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, but my first few manuscripts were genuinely not good. [laughs] They were so bad. I think I flooded Asmaa with questions and emails and -oh my gosh. I am amazed that she even published me!

I realized at some point, okay, something’s not working. Asmaa told me I needed to work on my writing a little bit, and that the ideas were good, but something wasn’t working. A friend recommended a children’s writing course, so I took that course, and I took a bunch of other courses by Children’s Book Academy.  I took three or four courses, and then those really helped show me the things to avoid, the structure of a basic picture book.

When you’re an adult, you think you don’t have to really put effort into children’s books, but there’s so much that goes on into a picture book; so many layers, so much editing. 

Spell It Like Samar was my first book to be published. After I wrote that, I submitted that, and alhamdulillah it got accepted by Asmaa. After that we edited, we did more edits (We have Hajera, who’s an amazing editor for Ruqaya’s Bookshelf), and even that process, that editing process, it takes time, but it’s worth it.

As a reviewer, you see where the quality and the words change with editing. You see the effects in the end. Because a book that hasn’t been edited, it’s so clear.

It’s so much more than just a comma or anything. It’s like the layers of the story, the complexities, the feelings, the emotions. That’s why, when people ask me for editors, I recommend developmental and children’s picture book editors. Because any old editor won’t do; it has to be someone who’s experienced in the children’s book industry. 

Z: I can attest to this. I am a freelance editor, and there is a massive difference between editing an academic paper or even the difference between a memoir or some other kind of non-fiction compared to writing a novel or writing a short story, even. 

Any time you’re writing for kids, even that you cannot generalize. Like, “Oh, I’m writing a kid’s story.” Okay. Which age group? What is your target  demographic? What are you trying to communicate here? Because there’s such a difference in the way kids absorb and process information, and ideas, and stories. Obviously a toddler is going to be very different from an eight or nine-year-old. But then even between somebody like a toddler or a kid in kindergarten, they are already learning and developing so much. 

A lot of Muslim authors I feel, don’t realize this and…it makes me sad because there’s so much potential, and we really have so much that we need. It’s not like we only need like five books and that’s it. We need so many stories. We need to not fall into the danger of the single story, the single narrative, right?

Again when it comes to kids’ books, I will receive books and I’ll read them and I’ll be like, wow this had so much potential and this could be so much better. I really wish that we could drive home the point that it’s okay if it takes you three years to reach the point that you’ve written your manuscript, to getting it edited, getting it looked over, having it fleshed out and discussed – not just like a handful of beta readers who are your friends who are like “Oh yeah, this is so great! I loved it!” Versus people who will genuinely be critical and constructive.

That’s something that I’ve noticed, unfortunately; some Muslim writers really struggle with accepting constructive critical feedback. We’re not saying this because we don’t like you, and we don’t want you to succeed. It’s because we see that there’s potential. It’s because we know you can do better, and you should do better. We need to raise the bar for Muslim literature, and I feel like that’s a struggle that we continue to have.

S: Absolutely, that’s the problem. Even my own children – I’ll give them a book and they will lose interest and drop it immediately within the first few pages. The reason that I said we need more is because I give these books to my child, and my son will be like, “Muslim books are boring.” Why are Muslim books boring? And a lot of readers have this problem. We don’t want to discourage them from buying other books, so we really want something high quality that people can spend money on. And I think that’s why Ruqaya’s Bookshelf is so successful, too.

I can attest to how long books take until they’re published. I’ve seen the process. It takes us over a year to even polish a manuscript, honestly. And it’s because so many people are involved, and you’re really getting into the editing aspect, and spending so much time coming up with this story that you feel is interesting and has so much depth.

It’s raised the bar and it’s not any old story. You feel like it’s a story that can hold up to both English standards and Islamic standards–which is a whole other topic too, the whole Islamic content that we really need for our kids. And not anything inappropriate, which is also something we’ve been seeing with traditional books, you know. 

Z: I think that’s another huge thing even from Muslim writers. Besides the spelling, grammar, structure, editing; we’ve also got the issue of Islamic editing. Are the Islamic facts mentioned actually accurate? We have that come up in all kinds of things and it makes me frustrated. As a Muslim teacher, these books – they’re not textbooks, they’re not meant to be textbooks, I recognize that. But kids are still learning, and they often remember information tidbits from a story that they won’t remember from a class or a lecture. So, if you say in a story, “Oh, this angel’s name is such-and-such.” Or “Hijab is for XYZ,” the kid will read that and they’ll store that, and that impacts their understanding.

It’s not enough that, “oh, you’re a Muslim,” that you can say whatever. You do need to fact-check yourself and make sure that you do have authentic Islamic references, even if it’s for a tiny tidbit.

Finally I want to ask you – again, all of this is like tying into each other -, so now that we’ve talked about these different elements, how would you say that it all comes together to make a good story? What really makes a good Muslim kid’s story? 

S: Yeah, I mean it kind of ties into everything we’ve been saying. So, something Islamically authentic, something written well… and then I also find humor to be so important. My kids love any book that is so funny they will read it over and over, and they’ll learn Islam but in such a humorous way. And just making sure it’s edited!

People will be like, “It’s a hundred fifty dollars!” I’m like, “It’s worth it!” The editing takes a book from mediocre to something that we’ll pick over and over. As parents we don’t want to spend money on a book that our kids are going to toss. We want a book that impacts them.

Z: Yeah, the cost element, I’m glad you brought that up because I forgot about it, but that’s definitely a huge thing that I’ve noticed. You know, cutting corners does not help anyone. You might find it expensive right now, but what is your intention? Is it just throwing out anything? Or are you really trying to contribute something of value to what we have in Muslim kid lit?

I know I’m really harsh, I will literally be like–I would rather this was just never published at all. Because it’s a waste of paper. It offends deeply. I’m like, “You wasted a tree for this?” 

Aspiring writers, if you’re listening to us, pay for those editors. Even if you put five hundred dollars into multiple different editors over the course of your manuscript, when you get that positive review from us at the end… your book is really contributing to Muslim literature and raising the bar, and really benefiting people instead of us being like, “Don’t buy it! It sucks.” 

Kids will be bored. They’re not going to learn. The negative impact of a badly-produced book is going to discourage Muslim kids from wanting to read Muslim books. And we don’t want that. So again: check your intention. It’s not just about, “Oh, I’m a Muslim and I’ve written a book and I think it should be published.” Is this genuinely going to help Muslim kids and are they going to be excited to read about it?

One last question. When writing down your story ideas, how does knowing who your target demographic is – Muslims versus the general public -, how does that influence the shape of a story? 

S: It used to be that kind that babied the reader a little bit, because of maybe not understanding the Islamicness of the story. But now, a lot of authors have shown us that we can just write for everyone; that being authentic Islamically translates into a better story. 

As an author for Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, knowing that I’m working with a Muslim publisher and that I’m publishing for Muslim kids, makes it easier for me. It frees me up so much where I don’t have to worry about quoting a hadith. I don’t have to worry about basing a whole book on the ‘Jannah taht aqdaam al Ummahaat’ – Heaven is at your mother’s feet. I know my readers are already going to have that basic frame of reference. It’s amazing to write for Muslim kids. It frees you up to be just completely authentic in what you do.

Z: Thank you for that! We have managed to cover so much great information. I really hope Muslim writers are listening to this and taking notes, especially if you are planning on submitting to the Muslim Bookstagram Awards, this year or in upcoming years, inshaAllah.

We’re very excited about it. We have some very, very, promising nominations, and the winners will be announced on the 14th of January inshaAllah.

Take care inshaAllah, and stay tuned for further episodes of “Meet The Judges.” JazakAllahu khayr.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

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