Q: You note that the inspiration for Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero came from the story of the Texas teenager who was arrested because he brought a disassembled clock to school. Can you say more about how that led to the creation of your character Yusuf?
A: Yusuf Azeem is an amalgamation of several boys I've known over the years, Ahmad Mohammad, also known as Clock Boy, was one, but there were many others too, including my own son who was bullied for his faith and culture in school.
In Yusuf, I wanted to create a character that was sweet, gentle, curious, and loving. Unfortunately, Americans often have a very stereotypically negative image of Muslim males as unyielding and harsh and possibly even violent, and I yearned to shatter those stereotypes.
Q: What do you think the novel says about heroism, and about different ways to be (or not be) a hero?
A: Many of my kid readers ask me about the significance of the title: Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero, when by the end of the book he definitely shows himself to be one.
To me, it was the process of heroism that became more important. Who is called a hero, and why? Do heroes want to be seen thus, or as Shakespeare says, do they have "greatness thrust upon them"?
Yusuf is just trying to do what's right, despite his fears. Everyone around him warns him against his actions, tells him to stop trying to be a hero, and worry about his personal safety instead.
But what Yusuf learns - and what I hope my readers take away from this story - is that heroism is often a difficult choice. You may be worried about the consequences, but decency and love sometimes propel you to act in ways that are seen as heroic to others. The book shows Yusuf standing up to bullies, both adults and children, and thereby encouraging others to do the same.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it "A timely, emotional story full of hope and love even in the face of discrimination and prejudice." What do you think of that description?
A: I'm grateful for the recognition that Kirkus and other reviewers have given to this story. This sentence is a very apt description of the book, not only because of what I wrote but also because it reflects the lived experiences of so many American Muslims over the last 20 years.
I wanted to focus on the ugly, harmful repercussions of 9/11 but only from one perspective: how a path forward exists for all of us who want to be a better nation. I wanted to highlight the discrimination and prejudice that's been showered on us from all quarters - media, government, society - but frame it in a way that reminds us of the humanity that still exists around us.
I think Kirkus and other reviewers captured these sentiments really well.
Q: Why did you decide to include Yusuf's uncle's journal as part of the story?
A: Yusuf's uncle's journal is the story of 9/11 from a Muslim American's perspective. My aim with this book was to bring 9/11 alive for readers who weren't even born when it happened.
Young people today don't understand why we keep talking about a historical event with such passion, but more importantly, they are not even aware of how our entire society changed as a result of that event. How we live everyday life from the workplace to school to the airport, how we treat each other, how our laws discriminated against fellow citizens.
I wanted to write the story of the repercussions of 9/11 today, but it would have been impossible to do that without showing what happened 20 years ago. The journal is the window through which readers can see what happened then, and how it affects us today.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on more middle grade novels, including one about the Partition, a devastating political event that led to the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947.
I'm also working on two new series for younger audiences, including Must Love Pets about a girl who starts a pet sitting business, and more Yasmin titles.
Finally, I have a graphic novel coming out next year called Saving Sunshine, about a pair of twins who find an endangered turtle on the beach and repair their own fractured relationship as they help it survive a storm.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Saadia Faruqi.