The Backstory: ZAHRA'S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY
Today on The Backstory, Shirin Shamsi joins us with her latest picture book, ZAHRA'S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY (Barefoot Books, 2022) with illustrations by Manal Mirza. Read on to discover all about this beautiful book that has been decades in the making and for your chance to win a copy of your own.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind ZAHRA’S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY.
Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Zahra’s Blessing is a story set during the month of Ramadan. As little Zahra looks at the new moon, that heralds the start of the holy month, she prays that Ramadan will bring her a longed-for sister. While helping her mother pack clothes to donate to charity, her teddy goes missing, and Zahra finds herself grappling with feelings of loss. Over the next few weeks, as she volunteers with her mother at a local shelter for asylum seekers, Zahra befriends a displaced child, and what follows is an unexpected Ramadan blessing.
What a gorgeous story! Every child will be able to see themselves or their feelings reflected somewhere in this book. From the longing for a sibling to the misplacing of a beloved possession to new friendships, this book has so many beautiful layers.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
My inspiration was always – and still is – my children. When they were young, I wrote stories for them. I laminated them and turned them into books. Zahra’s Blessing was one of the stories I wrote for my children many years ago, although it was a completely different version, with a different title. I wanted my children to see themselves represented in stories. I wanted them to have a book about Ramadan, so I wrote it.
Wow! This is incredible. How wonderful of you to ensure your children were able to see themselves in a book and now you have given this gift to so many others.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now ZAHRA’S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately, or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
I can honestly say, it took decades – from the seed of an idea, to what is now ZAHRA’S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY.
As I mentioned, I wanted my children to have their own holiday story, so I wrote it myself. The story was originally about a teddy bear who by mistake ended up in a charity shop and made his journey home through many obstacles. I realized that I needed to change my perspective and write about Zahra instead.
Decades?! I love that you stuck by this story, but were also willing to experiment with revisions in order to make it what it is today. I always find it fascinating to look back at first drafts of pieces I now consider polished. While seeing some of those early drafts might be a bit cringe-worthy, it is a cool exercise in seeing the evolution of a piece and also a nice way to observe our growth as writers.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Inspiration is everywhere. I tend to find it when I least expect it. Sometimes, at 2:00 in the morning! When I find I’m stuck with my writing, then I read, sketch, paint. I find it very helpful writing ‘morning pages’ recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I am also part of many kid lit groups that are so supportive and generous. I am inspired by my critique partners who help me to keep learning and growing.
Oh, I hadn't heard of 'morning pages.' What a great habit to incorporate into a morning routine! And I can never say enough about critique partners. They are worth their weight in gold and are huge sources of inspiration.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
I have taken many classes and read many books on creativity and writing. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Big Magic have been so helpful and inspirational. Mathew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World has been an eye-opener and provides very useful exercises that really helped me.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
I find I work best in the mornings. I love to reflect while watching the sunrise, then write my “morning pages” My father’s typewriter sits beside me, almost as old as I am. I am inspired by what it represents, but it’s too much to convey in a short blog post.
My favorite place to write is in a peaceful sunny spot, where I'm surrounded by my favorite books.
It sounds like you have a lovely, peaceful routine for yourself. And I love the idea of keeping meaningful objects close as a source of inspiration and motivation.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
I would encourage everyone to follow their dreams. I often thought mine was an impossible and elusive dream, but I simply could not let it go. I held on to it, because it was the only thing I wanted to do, to write for children. It took years of hard work, perseverance, and persistence. Don’t give up on your dreams.
YES!!! This dream can seem so unattainable, but it does not have to be. Keep showing up, putting in the work, and growing your craft. This is a message every writer (and child) needs to hear. Don't give up on your dreams!
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I’m thrilled to share that I have another picture book out in the Fall. THE MOON FROM DEHRADUN: A STORY OF PARTITION (Atheneum) It’s a work of fiction but was inspired by my mother’s true experience during the partition of British India in 1947, which was the largest forced migration in history.
Congratulations! Another needed book on shelves and in classrooms. I can't wait to learn more about it.
Where can people connect more with you?
Readers be sure to connect with Shirin on Twitter and check out her website. Also, make sure to get your copy of ZAHRA'S BLESSING: A RAMADAN STORY (Barefoot Books, 2022) with illustrations by Manal Mirza, releasing TODAY, 3/29/22.
Shirin is generously giving away a copy of ZAHRA'S BLESSING to one lucky winner. (US only)
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT SHIRIN SHAMSI
Shirin has lived on three continents and sees herself as a global citizen. Through sharing stories from her heritage, she hopes to inspire an appreciation for all the diversity of our beautiful planet. A member of SCBWI since 2010, Shirin is now represented by Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch Literary Agency.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary Agency.