The 12-year-old protagonist in Hofstra University student Hebah Uddin’s new book is desperately trying to rescue her younger brother, who is trapped in an evil board game come to life. The fact that the main character Farah is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim who wears a hijab is secondary.
However, it’s the primary reason Uddin’s middle-grade adventure story, “The Gauntlet,” was selected to be the second book published by a new imprint from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Children called Salaam Reads. The imprint — Salaam means peace in Arabic — seeks to publish stories that feature main characters who are Muslim.
“The first time I saw the cover I actually cried,” says Uddin, 24, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in North Babylon and who wrote her novel under the pen name of Karuna Riazi, combining her nickname with a name of her paternal grandfather to create her nom de plume. “I was overwhelmed because when I was growing up it wasn’t common to see Muslim girls on the cover at all. There are going to be kids who look at the cover and feel that they see themselves.”
And, in addition to Muslim kids seeing themselves as they read, children who aren’t Muslim will also learn about kids who are different — but not so different — from themselves, says Zareen Jaffery, the executive editor of the new imprint and herself a Muslim born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut. “There’s so much misinformation and misrepresentation about Muslim lives,” Jaffery says. “It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Muslims are very demonized due to the actions of a deviant minority.”
NINE BOOKS A YEAR
The new imprint, which published its first book, “Amina’s Voice,” earlier in March and Uddin’s book March 28, is expected to publish nine books a year, including children’s picture books, books for middle grades and books for young adults, Jaffery says. The books won’t be about Islamic religion or Islamic history, she says, but rather stories that are emotionally compelling and authentic.
Early in “The Guantlet,” for instance, an exchange between Farah and her friends Alex, who is African-American, and Essie, who is white, exemplifies the novel’s meshing of items familiar to people from Muslim-majority countries and references to mainstream American pop culture. The three friends — who live in Queens and Manhattan — have entered into the board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand to search for Farah’s 7-year-old brother, Ahmad, who ran into the game without realizing its danger. They land in a Middle Eastern marketplace.
“A souk,” Farah said.
“It’s beautiful,” Essie whispered.
“We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore,” Alex pointed out, “but I think this is the closest to a yellow brick road we’re being offered.”
As the characters face challenges, readers also incidentally learn about some different foods and clothing, such as chenna murki, a treat made of sweet cheese, and a salwar kameez, a traditional outfit worn on special occasions that includes a long dress over matching pants with a matching scarf.
Uddin is a senior-year English major at Hofstra — she says it’s her first “brick and mortar school” after being home-schooled through high school along with her younger sister, Sumayyah, who is 22, and younger brother, Sahnoon, who is 15. Uddin’s mother, Javette, an educational consultant, is African-American and American Indian, and her father, Mirza, a perfumer, is Bangladeshi, which is why the character of Farah is from Bangladesh, Uddin says.
Uddin has visited the country, but not since 2003, she says. “This has always been home,” she says of Long Island. “Most of the cultural background is from my experiences growing up here with my cousins. I have a really huge family.”
While Uddin was in high school, she became a book blogger, reviewing middle-grade and YA books at Watercolor Moods. In 2014, she joined a grass-roots, online movement called #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which is geared to increasing books featuring characters and authors from underrepresented races, religions, sexual orientations and with disabilities.
Through that she “met” Jaffery, introduced by a friend via email. Later, when Jaffery was seeking writers, she came in contact with Uddin again and learned she was working on a novel. Uddin finished it in March 2016, working on it at points in the Hofstra University library. She chose to use a pen name because she wanted to protect her privacy, she says.
“It’s been very whirlwind,” Uddin says of getting a book contract. She was stunned. “I had to sit down; I was literally shaking. I had been totally working myself up for rejection. It still doesn’t feel real.”
On April 22, Uddin will be one of the middle-grade and YA authors featured at Authors Unlimited, an annual event on Long Island that brings together writers and young readers. “I was a teen volunteer the very first year they had Authors Unlimited. Now I’m going back as an author,” Uddin says.
She says she’s excited to hear how kids feel about her book. “I hope a lot of them see themselves in Farah,” she says. “The most powerful thing about the book is that the hero just happens to be Muslim. You could put any girl in there and it would work just as well.”
Other books coming in 2017 from Salaam Reads
“Saints and Misfits,” by S.K. Ali, is a young adult novel scheduled to be published in June about an Indian-American girl named Janna who suddenly finds herself caring what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks.
“Yo Soy Muslim” is an illustrated children’s book by Muslim and Latino poet Mark Gonzales about a father who encourages his young daughter to find joy in her multicultural identity. It will be published in August.
“Salam Alaikum” by Harris J is a children’s picture book that features the lyrics of Harris J’s YouTube hit of the same name. Salam Alaikum means “Peace be upon you.” The book will be out in September.
— BETH WHITEHOUSE