I was thrilled to interview children’s book author Alexis York Lumbard, and am doubly thrilled to welcome her to story and chai on Earth Day, as we celebrate her new picture book, “When the Animals Saved Earth,” a retelling of a 10th century animal fable. – Jennifer
Jennifer: So often, people express an interest in writing children’s books, and picture books in particular, and seem to think it’s an “easy” thing to do. But it’s actually quite difficult to get a picture book published. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided to write children’s books and describe your path to publication?
Alexis: My path to publishing began when I was expecting our second daughter, some 8 years ago. Like many before me, such as Hena Khan, Omar Khawaja and veteran Rukhsana Khan, I noticed a dearth of quality Islamic books for children and wanted to do something about it. I was a poor writer at that time, but thankfully someone nudged me in the direction of SCBWI. Add critique groups, webinars and some healthy bruises to my ego, I learned how to write. And I am still learning.
Getting published? Well, that was also a learning curve. I was fortunate to find a small publisher that was actively seeking unsolicited manuscripts and multicultural stories. It was a good match and I’m grateful for it. It is much easier to “break in” with the smaller publishers than the big names, as it is a highly competitive industry.
Jennifer: Your books have all been so well received. Do you have a favorite? Is there one you hold a little more dear to your heart?
Alexis: That is sort of like asking me to say which of my kids I like best! I can’t do it. But if I had to choose (between my books, not my kids!), the answer would be my app The Story of Muhammad. It was beautifully illustrated by talented and super sincere Maram al-Hidmi.
This is my only self-published book. I revised the manuscript for several years, searched high and low for the right illustrator, worked closely with her to carefully plot out each page and special effect, and ran a successful, but exhausting kickstarter campaign to fund it.
Many years after the release, I heard from a mommy who had recently returned from Umrah with her young family. She prepared the children for the lesser pilgrimage by reading our app. She said it made all the difference. They were thrilled to be at the Kabah and were reciting lines from the book. MashaAllah. What an honor.
Jennifer: The illustrations in your books are gorgeous. Do you have any say in who illustrates your books?
Ultimately that is always the publisher’s decision. But Wisdom Tales Press is very author friendly. They have always asked my opinions along the way, and I have been delighted by all the outcomes. From Demi to Beatriz Vidal, Alireza Sadeghian and Flavia Weedn, I’ve fallen in love over and again with the width and breadth of the picture book form. It is a magical process into which a great deal of thought and soul is given.
Jennifer: Your work has been described as an effort to bring the wisdom and beauty of the world’s religions to children. Is there more to that goal than just education? Do you feel like your books can help create understanding and affection among children of different faiths?
Alexis: I certainly hope so. Books can be different things to different people. Some children’s books stay with us for a lifetime. Those that achieve that do so not by mere education, but through creating a magical space in the heart of the reader. They touch upon our own deep sense of joy and wonder, truth and goodness. If any of my books do even a smidgeon of that, well, my hopes are realized.
Jennifer: How have your books been received by the Muslim community?
Alexis: Depends on the book. Angels did not seem to resonate with the Muslim community. A few of my Muslim friends loved it, but on a whole, many viewed it as “too Christian” in its illustrative content. Conference of the Birds, on the other hand, continues to be a strong seller. I write what is in my heart and it goes wherever it is meant to go. I’ve learned to take a step back and just watch what happens.
Jennifer: Congratulations on your new book, When the Animals Saved Earth, which is a retelling of a 10th century Iraqi fable. How did you decide you wanted to tell this particular story?
Alexis: Nature has always been my go-to-mosque. As the Qur’an says, “You will see my signs upon the horizons and within yourselves.” There is a deep connection between our own spiritual health and that of the environment. As Muslims, we owe it to ourselves and to our kids to highlight this existential relationship. God is beautiful and He loves beauty. We need to protect that beauty.
Jennifer: I’ve been a vegetarian/vegan for the past twenty years, so I am sort of “the choir” for a children’s book like this. But most Muslims are not vegetarian. How do you think Muslims will respond to this particular narrative?
Alexis: It is true that Muslim culture is rather carnivorous. But it wasn’t always this way. I recently read a fascinating article about the Prophet’s meat eating habits (may peace be upon him). Apparently he ate meat quite sparingly, so too did most of the early community. I think this is the approach we need to take when discussing the consequences of our lifestyle choices with regards the environment and all the amazing creatures still inhabiting this planet. As adults we need to reorient, reconnect.
Kids, however, are a different story. You don’t need to convince them of these issues. They get it. And they always side with animals.
Jennifer: What advice do you have for writers, especially Muslim writers, who want to write picture books?
Alexis: I have a 4-P philosophy. Be PATIENT, PERSERVERANT AND PROFESSIONAL. And don’t forget to PRAY. Not for publication, but to just keep thing real, among the obvious reasons we pray. I recently read the following in a Salon interview with Ann Lamontt and I think it is spot on: “The most degraded and sometimes nearly evil men I have known were all writers who’d had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won’t, it can’t. But writing can. So can singing.” Amen to that!
Jennifer: What is next for Alexis York Lumbard?
Alexis: I would like to venture into Middle Grade fiction. Over the last year I’ve been mentally plotting two different novels in my head, one somewhat historical, the other pure fantasy. Next year our last and third child will be off to kindergarten. I am calling it my golden year. I’ll have longer stretches of time to dig deep and work hard. God willing. Life is NEVER predictable.
Alexis York Lumbard is an American Muslim children’s book author, whose debut picture book, The Conference of the Birds (Wisdom Tales Press 2012), is a contemporary retelling of the classic Sufi poem written by Farid al-Din Attar and illustrated by award-winning artist Demi. Alexis is also the author of “The Story of Muhammad” the first interactive children’s book app about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. www.storyofmuhammad.info).
Born on a military base in coastal North Carolina, Alexis moved with her family to Northern Virginia, where she spent most of her childhood. When she was 18, she traveled to Istanbul and it was after hearing the call to prayer outside the Blue Mosque, that she eventually converted to Islam. She met her husband while completing her BA in Religious Studies at George Washington University. After living abroad in Egypt and Jordan they moved to Boston area, where they currently live with their three young daughters. Her other picture book titles include Angels (Wisdom Tales Press, 2013), Everyone Prays (Wisdom Tales Press, 2014), Pine & Winter Sparrow (Wisdom Tales Press, Feb. 2015) and the newly released When the Animals Saved Earth (Wisdom Tales Press, April 2015). She is also the children’s book and product review editor. forwww.londonlinkmag.com