Thursday, May 25, 2023

Q&A with Aisha Saeed




Aisha Saeed is the author of the new children's picture book The Together Tree. Her other books include the middle grade novel Amal Unbound. She lives in Atlanta. 


Q: You note that The Together Tree was inspired by an experience your son had in kindergarten. Can you say more about that, and about how the idea for the book evolved? 


A: During his first week of kindergarten, my eldest son was bullied by his peers. It was an incredibly stressful time for us. One day, I went to the school during his recess time and saw firsthand just what he was experiencing. It was crushing.


That day, I also saw children who were looking on at the events that were unfolding. They were not participating. They were concerned, but they were clearly unsure about how to help. 


The Together Tree explores what it is to experience bullying, and importantly, what bystanders can do to help someone who needs that help. The Together Tree is also a story about imagination.


Rumi, the main character in this story, loves to draw. He draws on his sneakers. He draws illustrations in the dirt beneath a shady Willow tree. For me, creativity and art are how I cope with difficult situations and make sense of things. I loved showing Rumi doing the same throughout this story.


Q: What do you think LeUyen Pham's illustrations add to the book?


A: LeUyen Pham is an absolute genius, and her illustrations are absolutely incredible. She brings the text to life in beautiful and heartbreaking ways.


The main character, Rumi, is shy and withdrawn when we first meet him, but thanks to Pham's illustrations, we can glimpse his interiority through the drawings we can see him imagining in his mind's eye.


Additionally, the climatic peak where the bully inflicts harm upon Rumi gains additional depth and magnitude by the grayscale that Pham uses to lend greater emotional weight to that scene. 


Q: You’ve written for different age groups--do you have a preference?


A: I am guided to each story I tell by the voice that is (for lack of a better word) speaking to me. Some stories that come to me require an older narrator and some voices that inspire me feature younger characters.


I am incredibly grateful that I get to write books for young people of all ages and follow the voices where they lead to tell the stories that are calling to me.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from The Together Tree, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: I love the outdoors and I love trees in particular. They are our silent living companions on this earth who give us clean air and the coolness of their shade. The thought of a tree as a place for children to convene together and build their community felt like a fitting title.


I hope this book will give kids (and their parents and teachers) ideas for how to create similar safe spaces to grow community and compassion. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Coming up next for me is a young adult novel, Forty Words for Love, which is another tale with a tree as a backdrop (I really do love trees!)-- it's my first time writing an original story set in a fantasy world and I am excited to see it make its way into the world soon!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Many years ago I was an educator. I taught second grade. Our first few weeks of school, I would seek out books that would encourage community building within my classroom and among my students.


It is my hope that The Together Tree can be a book that will be utilized in first day of school readings to serve as a starting off point for how to grow community and look out for those who need a helping hand.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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