The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Shirin Shamsi and Review of Zahra's Blessing: A Ramadan Story

Shirin Shamsi was born and raised in the UK. Having lived on three continents, she views herself as a global citizen and spends her time sharing stories with children of the world. She has raised six children- three human and three felines – and lives in Illinois with her husband.


Shirin is the author of many books for children, including Laila and the Sands of Time (2019) and the upcoming The Moon From Dehradun (Atheneum, Fall 2022).

For additional background information see out earlier interview (here).


Her newest picture book, Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story, releases March 29th.

Welcome back Shirin. Thank you so much for stopping by to chat about your new picture book and writing.


Thank you for having me Maria. I appreciate this opportunity and your support of the KidLit community.


Thanks Shirin. What was the inspiration for Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story?


My children have always inspired me. When they were young, there were hardly any books on Ramadan. I wrote this book for them, as I wanted them to see themselves represented in books. Though now they are all grown, I feel this book is for all the children of the world.


Hopefully, they'll share it with grandkids, one day. How many revisions did Zahra’s Blessing take from idea to publication? Were these big revisions or “minor tweaks”?


If I say over one hundred, I may not be far from the mark. Although I don’t keep track of my revisions. From idea to publication, it took over twenty years – so that would mean not just minor revisions but a major overhaul.


Wow! Definitely a book from your heart. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Zahra’s Blessing?


Zahra’s Blessing is about a girl, who loses her teddy bear at the start of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Zahra helps her mother volunteer at a local shelter, where she becomes friends with Haleema, a girl who has lost everything. Zahra realizes that while she has lost her teddy, her friend has lost so much more. I don’t want to give the story away, but it has universal themes of family, loss, friendship, and of course it ends on a note of hope.


When you first saw Manal Mirza’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you about them? Which is your favorite illustration?

Text © Shirin Shamsi, 2022. Image © Manal Mirza, 2021.


I was moved to tears when I first viewed the illustrations. Their depth of color and richness simply blew me away. Manal’s illustrations have truly enriched and deepened the story.


So, what was the hardest part of writing Zahra’s Blessing? The easiest?


Writing is never easy. I would say the theme was probably the easiest as I knew I wanted a story on Ramadan. Originally the teddy bear was the main character. I held onto that for the longest time. I finally realized that I needed to have a human protagonist. I think changing the main character was really difficult for me, as it meant completely rewriting the story.


Cutting or changing the main character is so tough, but it worked out beautifully. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


It may sound strange, but I am working on four middle grade novels and ten picture books. I cannot work on one project at a time, so I work on one until I get stuck. Then I put it away and work on another, and that is why I have numerous works-in-progress.


The one I can share is about to be published in August, it is The Moon From Dehradun (Atheneum, 2022) and is based on my mother’s experience of the Partition of British India in 1947.


What a stunning cover. How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?


On days when I cannot write a single word (and there are many of those), I listen to audiobooks. I also draw and paint. I keep my pencils, paints, and paper sprawled over my dining room table, so that I can sketch or paint whenever I feel the need for a change. It’s a different creative outlet and I feel replenished by it.


One last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I would love to visit the Redwood National Park. It would be so inspiring to look up at Sequoia sempervirens, the tallest trees on earth. I can’t imagine how wonderful, awe inspiring and uplifting that would be. I get goosebumps just thinking of it.


They are impressive! Thank you so much Shirin for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


Thank you Maria. It was such a pleasure.

To find out more about Shirin Shamsi, or contact her:

Website: https://shirinshamsi.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shirinshamsiauthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shirinshamsi1/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShirinsBooks


Review of Zahra's Blessing:

A Ramadan Story


Because release dates are a bit fluid these days, I get to offer you an early, sneak peek at Shirin's newest, touching and hopeful picture book . Look for it to release on March 29th.

Zahara's Blessing: A Ramadan Story


Author: Shirin Shamsi


Illustrator: Manal Mirza


Publisher: Barefoot Books (2022)


Ages: 5-8


Fiction


Themes:

Ramadan, refugees, loss, sharing with others, family, and hope.


Synopsis:

Zahra hugs her cherished teddy bear and prays that Ramadan will bring her a longed-for sister. When her bear subsequently goes missing, Zahra finds herself grappling with intense 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, resulting in a newfound sense of gratitude and an unexpected Ramadan blessing.


Opening Lines:

The silver moon hung like a sideways smile.

"It's the Ramadan moon, Teddy," Zahra whispered.

"Mama says blessings are all around us during this

month. Maybe Ramadan will bring a sister for me.

And we'll make crescent cookies together."


A prayer rose from Zahra's heart like

a sign and floated up into

the starry sky.


What I LIKED about this book:

The opening line - "The silver moon hung like a sideways smile." - is such a wonderfully lyrical way to describe a crescent moon. It's accompanied by a comforting, cozy image with the moon framed in the arch window as Zahra hopes that since blessings occur during Ramadan, maybe she'll get her wish for a sister.

Text © Shirin Shamsi, 2022. Image © Manal Mirza, 2021.

This touching story follows Zahra and her family as they collect clothes for a refugee shelter, fast, gather for iftar, and pray at the mosque during Ramadan. Unfortunately, Zahra also misplaces her best friend, Teddy. Now, she's praying to get a sister and to find Teddy. When Zahra helps take the boxes of clothes to the shelter, she meets Haleema, a young refugee who's lost everything, and as they become friends, Zahra wishes she had Teddy to share with Haleema whose "eyes held a sadness that was deeper than an ocean."

Text © Shirin Shamsi, 2022. Image © Manal Mirza, 2021.


With another beautiful phrase, Shirin describes the month's progress, "some days of Ramadan crawled like a snail, while others skipped like a squirrel." Throughout Ramadan, Zahra returns to the shelter to play with Haleema, further developing their friendship. On the night before Eid (the final day of Ramadan), Zahra's parents share a surprise...


Manal Mirza's vibrant illustrations show a variety of patterns and clothing, from traditional shalwar kameezzes, hijabs, and topi hats to western style clothing. Sharp eyed readers may catch a hint early of what happened to Teddy, or enjoy going back and hunting for the tiny clue. Shirin's text weaves traditions, foods, and phrases into a beautiful story about hope, blessings, and family. Notes in the back helpfully expand upon Ramadan and refugees. Unfortunately, with so many political and environmental refugees in the world, this is such a relevant reminder that each of us can (should) find ways to help provide hope to others. Overall, it's a touching story of hope, sharing, and caring.


Resources:

- make your own crescent moon or other Ramadan crafts - like a placemat, lantern, or games (http://www.karimascrafts.com/2013/08/30-days-of-ramadan-crafts-roundup.html)

- donate clothing, stuffed toys, or time to a shelter or participate in a clothing drive in your area.

- make a list or draw a picture of your blessings. What you are grateful for? What would you wish for?


Decorative scroll design
Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Decorative scroll design

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