RQLA Agent Jacqui Lipton sat down with Salima Alikhan about her picture book, Soraya and the Mermaid.
Jacqui Lipton (JL): How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Salima Alikhan (SA): Well, I was a pretty odd little girl, in that I didn’t seem to be interested in the same stuff a lot of my classmates were into. Like Soraya, I loved fantastical adventure stories — I never wanted to play with dolls, or play house, or play school. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but my lack of interest in them certainly narrowed my potential pool of friends. So did the fact that often, like Soraya, I unintentionally said the wrong
thing at the wrong time, and was left wondering what I’d done to alienate everyone. Soraya’s character grew organically from that. When I used to teach younger kids, several of them were this way, too, and those sweet little outliers always had my heart.
JL: Your two main characters (Soraya and the mermaid) are both characters of color but their cultures are not presented as “issues” in the story, other than the mermaid culture being “different” from the human culture. What are your thoughts on how most effectively to present diverse characters in contemporary books for young readers? What advice would you give other writers on this front?
SA: Hmmm, this is such a big and important question. I would say both kinds of books are vitally important — the kinds in which characters’ ethnicity and culture are deeply explored and play a significant role, as well as the kind in which children of color do not need to center their ethnic heritage, and can exist among their peer groups without a spotlight on their cultural or racial roots (or on any other marginalizing factor). Being mixed race, as a child I longed for a time in which I wouldn’t be asked to explain “where I came from,” which I noticed the Caucasian kids were never asked. I hated these constant reminders of my other-ness, and desperately wanted to belong in a world in which one could be brown without being interrogated.
Discomfort can mean growing pains, and those can only make you a better and more empathetic writer.
At the same time, I know that books that highlight race are critically important. This is one way that we grow out of the antiquated notion of “color-blindness,” and start to practice the much-needed curiosity and tolerance that authentically learning about others demands. That’s how kids (and adults) will learn to truly celebrate different cultures and backgrounds.
To authors struggling to write diversity and interested in writing it well, I would say to do your research, and most importantly, be open to whatever you find. Don’t bend your research to only confirm the story you were already hoping to tell — be open to where the research takes you, because often when researching unfamiliar worlds, the truth of those worlds might demand we adapt and change our stories.
I’ve spoken to a lot of authors who don’t know where to begin with the research process. To that I’d say we’ve all faced this, and don’t be afraid to ask questions; if you’re sincere, humble, non-defensive, and truly listening, your questions will most likely be welcome. And, most importantly, practice empathy when listening — and let minorities and other marginalized communities be the authorities on their own experiences. If this is uncomfortable work, that’s not always a bad thing. Discomfort can mean growing pains, and those can only make you a better and more empathetic writer.
JL: Soraya learns that being “different” is not necessarily a bad thing which is, of course, an important message for today’s young readers. How do you hope readers will react to this aspect of the story?
SA: Well, first I hope that even if young readers feel a little quirky or off the beaten path, there’s still a place for them somewhere in their peer group, even if it’s off to the side with a trusty band of misfit friends. I also hope, even if they can’t articulate this, that young readers come to understand that Soraya isn’t actually isolated because of her eccentric interests, the way she believes. She’s isolated because she keeps herself away from people. So I hope kids see that if they’re willing to put themselves out there a little bit, and accept themselves for their own unique interests, they just might find their posse.
JL: The book also muses on the nature of friendship and the idea that good friendships revolve around mutual respect, even if what your friend wants is different to what you want. How do you hope readers will react to this aspect of the story? Is there any particular advice you would give young readers about how to learn to respect their friends in practice, even in difficult circumstances?
SA: This is an area in which I think adults really need to help kids metabolize the idea that other people have separate realities — it so easily feels like rejection, when in fact it’s just about others needing as much freedom to make up their own minds as we do. To young readers I’d say, it’s OK and normal to feel sad if your friend is doing something without you or wants something different, but it doesn’t mean they don’t value you or the friendship. If something’s really bothering you and you’re feeling up to it, you can ask your friend how they’re feeling, and truly practice listening to what they say. And hopefully, they will also listen to you when you share how you’re feeling. Communication is important in friendships!
JL: This book is the beginning of a longer series. What other adventures and challenges can readers look forward to in later books? What other kinds of creatures might Soraya meet?
SA: Ha! Well, I can tell you that in each book Soraya will be going on a field trip, and meeting various mythological creatures that correlate to wherever these field trips happen to be. So there will be caverns, and a ski lodge…
JL: These are difficult times for teachers, parents, and young readers, with so much uncertainty and isolation in the world around us. What message would you give to parents, teachers, and children as to how best to stay connected in these challenging times and the role sharing books can play in this context?
SA: What a great question. Well, now I teach high schoolers, and yes, things are challenging all around — for teachers,
students, parents. Since what works for every family and person is so different, I have no blanket advice. For example, I have some students whose home lives are so difficult that being able to bury themselves in their devices is a saving grace, and other families who lack the resources for devices but desperately need them to stay connected. I have some students who learn well online and some who don’t. And of course, we teachers are struggling in different ways.
I suppose my only blanket advice would be to have compassion for ourselves. If this pandemic has had a silver lining at all, maybe it’s that it’s truly stripped away the extraneous and highlighted what’s important — which is connection, caring for one another, and if we’re lucky enough, to pursue doing what we love. I hope our perfection-seeking is curbed, and we can shift our attention to what matters. Books are a life-giving way to do that — connection through the power of story, which reminds us of our shared humanity.
JL: And to end on a “writing craft” note, what advice would you give to others who want to write books for younger readers? What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you ever received?
SA: Oh goodness, the most valuable writing advice? I don’t think I can narrow that down, but I really do think the most valuable thing to do when writing for younger readers is to explore our own kid selves, to mine those memories. I mean, I think most writers organically do that anyway, but every once in a while I come across someone who says
it’s valuable to be reminded that rather than trying to talk down to kids or “imagine” them at a certain age, the best thing to do is to dig deep into our own childhoods — that’s where all our delicious confusions, dreams, assumptions, natural selfish urges, flaws, and sincere hopes lie. It’s not always flattering, but it’s honest. Childhood is basically that — our unfiltered selves, and those are the characters kids love and relate to.
Soraya and the Mermaid is out now!
It’s not easy being the weirdest kid in fourth grade. Soraya finds her escape reading comic books about a space superhero who saves the day. But everything changes when Soraya’s class goes on a field trip to an aquarium. Is that really a mermaid in the big tank, talking to Soraya and asking for her help? Can Soraya rise to the occasion and save the day like her superhero idol?
Salima Alikhan is half German and half Indian, and grew up reading German fairytales as well as Indian folklore. Growing up, she wrote and illustrated stories that often featured hilarious combinations of both. Salima has been lucky enough to write and illustrate children’s books for fifteen years now. She attended Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she earned an MFA from their Writing for Children & Young Adults program. Now Salima teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, where she still gets to dream up the words and pictures for stories. Her books and art can be found at www.salimaalikhan.net.