Zareen Jaffery is an editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. She has recently been involved in the creation of Salaam Reads, an imprint for Muslim children’s books, the first of its kind among the big five publishers. MKG recently had a chance to chat with her about her career, her inspiration in creating Salaam Reads, and her hopes for it in inspiring generations of Muslim kids.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background in publishing.
I am an Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. My parents emigrated from Pakistan to the United States in the late 1970s, and my siblings and I were born and raised in Connecticut. Ive always been a book lover so it was not very surprising to people who knew me when I was a kid that I grew up to be someone who worked in the book publishing industry. Ive been an editor for 14 years and in childrens publishing for eight of those years. Its wonderful to be surrounded by colleagues who really care about what theyre doing and are thoughtful about the kind of books we publish, and are welcoming of different perspectives.
What was your inspiration to create Salaam Reads?
I had been having conversations with Justin Chanda, publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and the co-creator of the imprint Salaam Reads, for a couple of years about acquiring more childrens books that feature Muslim kids. I have five nieces and nephews and they range in age from three to nine years old. Of course, since Im such a book lover and I work in the industry, I would always send books their way and share my favourites with them. As I was reading with them, I realised that the books didnt really reflect their experiences. I was someone in the childrens books industry, and the children that I loved the most in the world, I wasnt able to represent. I wanted to give them an opportunity to see themselves in books, as helpers, heroes, adventurers, classmates and neighbours, and these characters were just not there.
Also, I wanted my nieces and nephews, and Muslim kids around the world, to grow up with stories that reminded them of the great diversity that exists in the world, and how those differences are beautiful, and meant to be shared. And that despite the differences, we all share so much as human beings, too. And what better way to share our common humanity than through sharing our stories in literature?
I should say that none of the books we publish at Salaam Reads will be religious because were not a religious publisher, so they will really be about Muslim kids and their experiences in the world, both in the United States and abroad.
So I was reaching out to different writers, and thinking about ways to represent this diversity, when Justin suggested that we create an imprint specifically for this purpose. Creating an imprint for Muslim themed books announces our desire to seek out these stories from among the author community, and it also shows to childrens book readers that this imprint is place where they can come and find these stories. I think a lot of people are welcoming and interested in reading them.
What kind of books do you hope to publish?
A wide range of Muslim kids books! Which I will elaborate on below, but first, Id like to explain what I mean by Muslim books versus Islamic books. The terms Muslim and Islam are often used interchangeably and I feel it leads to misunderstandings and the potential for misrepresentation. Islamic books teach Islamic theology, history and values, and as such, need to be vetted by scholars and experts. The books Salaam Reads will publish will be books that center on the experience of Muslim kids and families they will be entertaining stories where the main character is a Muslim child. Their religious experience will come across in the way these characters interact with the world, and their family traditions and their holidays. There will also be books we publish at Salaam Reads with characters who are Muslim but secular, because that experience also exists within our community. I want Salaam Reads books to show that theres no one way to be Muslim.
Whilst there has always been smaller publishing houses that publish books for Muslim kids, being the first major publisher to create an imprint specifically for Muslim kids books is a big deal how difficult was it to make this happen?
Getting approval for the imprint from within the company was not difficultit was immediately embraced. And we have gotten an overwhelming amount of support and enthusiasm from the world since its been announced, as well. Im grateful to be in the position to be able to bring these books to the mainstream publishing world
In your opinion why is it important to have such books on the market?
One of my hopes by creating this imprint is that it makes Muslims even more interested in the arts. Literature is a pathway to empathy, in so many different ways, and that has been proven in study after study. But how can you empathise with people whose stories are never shared?
I hope that Salaam Reads helps to create a space for people who come from all over the Muslim community, to share their storiestheir truth–and I hope it can lead us to being more empathetic towards each other. The Prophet Muhammad SAW was once asked what is the path to Gods mercy, and the answer was Be yourself merciful to those on Earth and the one in the heavens will be merciful to you. That hadith is the guiding light for everything I do.
What are your tips for prospective authors wanting to submit to Salaam Reads?
Ill be publishing about nine books a year, sometimes more, sometimes less. The competition is fierce and I want to make sure that Im publishing the best among the submissions. There are a couple ways to stand out in the crowd.
The number one thing which seems sort of obvious is to actually complete the manuscript Ive gotten many submission emails that present only a brief idea, and ask whether I feel the idea is worth pursuing, to see if they should take the time to write it. An idea is really a small part of the publishing process. A lot of people have great ideas, and not everyone is able to execute the idea successfully. There is no way for me to judge an idea without knowing how well a writer is able to bring it to life on the page. So write and revise a manuscript first, perfect it as much as you can.
I would also recommend that prospective authors be as educated as possible about the childrens book world. Many people assume that writing a childrens book is easy. You need to take childrens publishing seriously as an art form and a business, revise your drafts and get feedback. The books we publish will be up against some of the best books for children, and they need to be of that calibre.
In general, please remember that this is a profession that requires significant research and attention to craft, and it is not a hobby that can be taken up on a whim.
Also, just because I might not choose to publish your work, does not mean your work is not good enough. Art is incredibly subjective. Im not going to connect with every single book about a Muslim kid or family that is sent to me. And I have to fall in love with the story in order to warrant taking it on and championing it for publication. I hope that any book that I dont take on finds a home at a different publishing house with an editor that feels strongly about it. There are plenty of non-Muslim editors who have, and will continue to, fall in love with books that feature characters outside their own culture.
And as an editor, your tips for writers in general?
It really depends on the kind of book that youre trying to write, but if you have completed that first step and have a finished manuscript, I would suggest that you put it away for at least two weeks and then come back to it and try to look at it with an objective an eye as possible. Try to read it as an editor or reader might so that you can see the places where you can improve things. Take care and take your time with it.
Read as much as possible in the category of books that youre trying publish, preferably ones that were published by the publishing houses youll be submitting to. Try to read books that are currently being published, because thats what the readership is reading. If youre trying to publish a lyrical picture book about a cultural tradition, there may not be many Muslim ones available but there are books that exist about other cultures so read those and see what made them work. And then try to think about the techniques that that writer used to get their story across. What resonated and why?
If youre working on a novel, middle grade or young adult, think about the books that made the most impact on you. Figure out what your favourites among them are and read each carefully. I like to recommend reading a book three times in order to adequately study it. The first time read all the way through, and afterwards, jot down the things that stand out to you without going back what are the moments or pieces of dialogue or descriptions that you remember? Then go back to those scenes and study the language thats been used, the pacing, the structure, the style, to figure out what techniques the writer used. Finally, go back and read just the first two chapters and the last two chapters and try to understand why the writer chose to open and close their story that way. Think hard about it because that will give you a lot of information on story and character arcs.
In a more technical sense, for first-time authors some of the things I notice a lot are unnecessary details if youre going to take a long time to describe something, it has to be of enormous importance!
Another thing is sentence structure variation you have to vary your sentence structure otherwise the story gets boring. When you use similes, metaphors or any other literary device, remember that they are meant to highlight certain things in your plot or about your characters, and not meant to highlight your own talents. You want the reader to be immersed in the story.
What has the most challenging thing about being an editor?
The most challenging thing about being an editor right now is not having enough time! Its a job that requires a lot from you. As an acquiring editor, Im essentially like a project manager for any book I buy for the house. Im the point person for the editorial work (specifically working on developmental or big-picture edits with the author), but I also work closely with design on the cover, with publicity and marketing on promotional plans, and with sales on the pitching.
The biggest challenge is actually finding the time to sit and edit, and the time I do have, I really have to block everything out and focus. This can lead to an inbox full of emails I need to answer!
What is your favourite childrens picture book?
I cant recall any picture books I read when I was a kid, but there are many that I love as an adult. Its hard to choose just one. I love The Three Questions by Jon Muth, which is inspired by a short story by Tolstoy Its a beautiful mediation on life and living in the moment and its really well handled. Its a great example of taking a complicated concept and then describing it to kids in a way that is memorable and understandable.
I also love to read The Book with No Pictures by BJ Novak to my nieces and nephews its a fun book and they cannot get enough of it.
Another book that I read recently, which just won the Caldecott medal, is called The Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena, which is about a grandmother and grandson on a bus ride, and its a beautiful story about seeing the good in things, and appreciating your unique perspective.
And two absolutely gorgeous picture books that S&S recently published that I love are FLOAT by Daniel Miyares and THE NIGHT GARDENER by Terry Fan and Eric Fan.
Favourite Middle Grade book?
Anne of Green Gables was one of my favourites. When I was growing up there wasnt very much in terms of diversity in pop culture, so Anne, being a red head, was almost like odd person out. She was outspoken and she cared more about her brain than her looks and I found many ways to relate to her. I absolutely loved those books.
Favourite Young adult book?
While I did like reading Christopher Pike and RL Stine, and those types of books as a teenager, the books that had the biggest impact on me were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Outsiders.
What do you hope the future will hold for Salaam Reads?
What I really hope is that we inspire generation after generation of Muslim artists. Thats my lofty goal. I also hope that we can plant seeds of empathy, as we spoke about earlier, throughout the world, and that we get to share the great beauty that exists within the Muslim community. And of course, entertain kids, all along the way!
What is the one thing youd like Muslim children of today to know?
That its important to always continue learning because learning leads to growth and understanding. Id like to inspire them to share their stories, and feel confident about being the main characters in their own life story.
Is there anything else youd like to add for our readers?
Id like to take this opportunity to say that there are many other companies out there that are doing great work and publishing books for Muslim children that are very much based on Islamic valueswonderful companies like Noor Kids in the United States and Shade7 in the United Kingdom, just to name two. And Miraj Audio does fantastic stories via audiobooks!
Salaam Reads is not publishing books that are religious in nature and I hope that the amount of attention that we have so gratefully received for Salaam Reads creates even more of a marketplace for all of these books. My intention is to help raise all of us up inshAllah.