We had the opportunity to interview Reem Faruqi, an award-winning author who enjoys writing lyrical stories based on her own experiences. Reem talked to us about the story behind I CAN HELP (her upcoming book published by Eerdmans), the challenges she’s faced, and other elements of her journey as a writer.
EE: What inspired you to write I Can Help?
RF: I Can Help is loosely based on some of my experiences as a child.
Like my main character Zahra, I used to help a classmate who needed extra help, but when I was asked why I helped my classmate and was looked down upon for helping him, I stopped helping him to fit in with the more popular crowd. I joined them in teasing him instead. I regretted my actions immediately, but when I wanted to apologize, it was too late because I had moved away to a different school on a different continent.
From then on, I resolved to be kinder to those around me. I wrote this book to encourage others to practice kindness.
EE: What are some challenges you have faced as an author?
RF: The first challenge was getting an offer for my first picture book Lailah’s Lunchbox. I wrote many stories before getting an offer. After Lailah’s Lunchbox was published, I was thrilled!
But then another challenge I faced was going many years without any offers. Since Lailah’s Lunchbox got published in 2015, I worked and worked and worked, and finally after 6 long years, 3 books got offers and are being published in 2021, I CAN HELP being one of them! The other 2 are my debut middle grade novel in verse, Unsettled, and another picture book, Amira’s Picture Day. I assumed after having one book out in the world, the rest would be easy and would automatically come, but that wasn’t the case when I waited for manuscripts to sell. The writing journey can be quite rocky at times and sometimes quite smooth. It’s quite bizarre!
EE: Where do the ideas for your books come from?
RF: Most of my stories are inspired by true experiences that I’ve had. It could be an interaction with a classmate, a relationship with a grandparent, or a challenge I’ve faced. I then weave bits of these experiences in my writing!
EE: Where do you find your inspiration for new stories and characters?
RF: By living life! I am also a photographer and taking photos helps me slow down life and zoom in on tiny moments. Those moments inspire me with writing as well. Also, reading a lot of books refreshes my mind and inspires me to write my own as well!
EE: What does a typical day look like for you?
RF: Before the pandemic, I would wake up early, survive Atlanta traffic, and drop my older 2 children at school and return home with my youngest who was a two-year-old at the time. Near 10 a.m., my mind would feel like it was finally awake. I don’t like the taste of coffee and am not a morning person at all!
When I’m finally up to it, I would set up my little one with an activity or her favorite TV show and I would start to write. I am used to writing with lots of interruptions.
When the pandemic started, the number of interruptions increased greatly! Once my bigger children were adjusted to Zoom schedules, it got easier. I found myself sleeping later because I would be up working late, so 10 p.m. became more of my writing time and then without the morning drive, I got to enjoy waking up a little later.
EE: What is the process of writing a book: how does it go from an idea to a finished work on sale in bookstores?
RF: It starts with an idea, maybe on a Post It note! It may go through lots of drafts. Since a picture book is so few words, every word has to be analyzed! With I Can Help, I remember vividly typing out the story on my couch with the sunlight hitting my keyboard just so, and thinking I really like this story! Maybe it’s the one!
With I Can Help, when I wrote it, it was fully formed and the drafting process was not as painful as it is with other stories. I feel like with this story, I got lucky. Other stories take more time and a lot more tweaks!
EE: What advice would you give to your younger self?
RF: To keep trying! That it will take a lot longer to get books published, but to keep chugging along.
EE: What do you hope kids learn from I Can Help?
RF: I hope that children learn that even if they have made mistakes they regret, they can still make a difference and change their future by resolving to do better.
EE: Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
RF: I can hula hoop for a long time!
Written by Reem Faruqi
Illustrated by Mikela Prevost
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“Beautiful and delicate details in both text and illustration situate readers physically in the school’s art classroom and autumnal playground, mentally in Zahra’s world full of special cooking spices like cumin and turmeric, and emotionally in her hesitation and growth. . . . An illuminating glimpse into how a young child learns to trust her instinct and be kind to others.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Faruqi gives careful attention to all of the emotions Zahra feels, the better for readers to identify them in their own experience. Prevost contributes smudgy, muted tone images of sweet-faced, dot-eyed children of varying skin tones whose expressions are easy to read. Readers may recognize times when they felt as Zahra does—and vow to do better.” — Publishers Weekly