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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

There’s Room for Everyone In This Interview with Naaz Khan

If you’re anything like me then you tend to begin your day by seeing what’s going on at fellow children’s literature blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Over there you’ll find that Jules Danielson has her finger firmly on the pulse of what’s going on in the world of children’s illustration. And as recently as yesterday, the site featured spreads from the remarkable Room for Everyone by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López (you can read Jules’s review of the book for BookPage here).

Sometimes things time out well, because by coincidence today I had a chance to talk to Naaz myself. But what’s the book? It’s best described, I think, by this:

“Set in Zanzibar, this lively rhyming picture book follows a young boy on a crowded bus as he learns, after many stops, that there is always room for everyone.”

And there’s room too on my site today to talk to Naaz.

Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you so much for coming on my blog! Now I had a chance to look over your bio and in addition to a diploma in refugee studies from the American University in Cairo AND a master of arts in international education from Columbia University, you’ve somehow had time to also live in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kenya, and India, where you were born. Now on top of all of that you’ve written a picture book too. So how did ROOM FOR EVERYONE get started?

Photograph © Nadia El-Dasher

Naaz Khan: First and foremost, thank you for welcoming me into your space! I’m still a bit giddy about the invitation. This is a first for me! I also just wanted to clarify my geographical background – I grew up in Saudi Arabia till I was 12, at which point my family moved to the United States. Egypt happened during my degree in refugee studies, which is what eventually took me to East Africa, and where I got the initial idea for Room for Everyone. I was visiting Zanzibar, and just like the characters in the book found myself on a jampacked ride to the beach. I literally remember wiggling, giggling and thinking to myself – gosh, someone has to turn this into a children’s book. When I returned from my trip, I told a number of my Swahili speaking friends about the ride and the story idea, in the hopes that one of them would write and publish the story. I didn’t care who wrote it, I just wanted it to exist. As I shared the juicy details and described my vision however, we all ended up laughing hysterically, and the group eventually encouraged me to write the story myself.  

BB: The book is set in Zanzibar, a Tanzanian archipelago that you haven’t lived in, from what I can tell. What inspired you to write a book set in this East African region? 

NK: You’re right, I have never lived in Tanzania, nor am I East African, which is why I was initially hesitant to write this particular book. I was however, living in Kenya and working as a curriculum development specialist at a refugee resettlement agency. Part of my job was helping unaccompanied refugee children transition into foster care, and one of my favorite parts of the job was curating book collections and creating stories for teachers to use with kids in order to safely explore emotions and challenging situations. As I traveled around the region, including Tanzania, I also had the incredible opportunity to educate myself about the diversity of cultures and languages in the region. As a Muslim, who was born in India and grew up in the Middle East, it was exciting to see how Zanzibari culture – music, food, language, architecture, clothing, etc, reflected a mix of several worlds I already felt connected to. Since Zanzibar is also a predominately Muslim island, I ended up traveling there with a friend for one of the Eid holidays. I love learning about the various ways that the spirit of Islam is manifested in traditions and cultures across the planet – Part of the inspiration for writing this book is also rooted in my hope that it will help people understand and appreciate the richly diverse landscape of people who identity as Muslim.

BB: ROOM FOR EVERYONE does double duty not simply as a book of overcrowding in the vein of Zemach’s IT COULD ALWAYS BE WORSE but also as a counting book, which I love. In the course of your writing process, did you always have the format of the book down pat, or did it change in the course of the writing and editing? Was the counting aspect there from the start?

NK: The counting aspect was there from the moment I witnessed a bucket of kitchen equipment being hauled up to the top of the daladala I was in. I remember specifically thinking – this should be a counting book. Knowing it was going to be a counting book helped me create a skeleton and structure from which I could work from. I’m a bit of a rambly writer – so having that parameter to reign me in with the writing was very helpful!

BB: You’ve been paired on this book with the art of Mercè López. Did you have much input on the illustrations? How do you feel about the final product?

NK: I never imagined the story inside my mind could be interpreted into such a gorgeous palette of colors and strokes of stunning detail. I’m a new, nobody author after all – so having an artist as talented as Mercè López bringing this story to life, is really a gift. Going into this I had NO IDEA what the process was and I’ve learned a lot since then. I was initially unaware that I would not be speaking with the illustrator directly, for example. There was, however significant consultation, not only between myself and the illustrator, via the publisher, but also with people in Zanzibar, who served as cultural sensitivity readers and offered invaluable feedback and insight. Friends were also super helpful throughout the illustration process. I remember early on having a conversation with one of my East African friends who was darker than her siblings and her telling me, “Naaz, please make sure they don’t end up making everyone medium brown.” Having that range of skin tones was really important and something we all discussed from the very start of the process.  I may have been on that daladala, but I am a brown Indian born woman, not black and not Zanzibari. Authenticity was a crucial factor for everyone and I would not have felt comfortable with publishing the book had we not been careful about doing the research, asking questions, listening and having the right people involved in the process.

Prayer beads on the bicycle, lattice work on the daladala, prints on passengers’ head scarves – which were also differently styled, and the burqini diving outfit are just some of the details reflecting how Mercè was able to use her talent to capture and bring the story to life in a way that felt authentic, thoughtful and incredible joyful. I’ve personally never seen a fun, lighthearted picture book with a Muslim woman or girl swimming fully covered, for example.  It’s exciting to know that kids from all kinds of backgrounds will get to see and experience that (and more) in this book.

BB: Tell me a little bit about Infinite Gems, your monthly roundup of recommended children’s books for families to share and enjoy together. It looks like you’ve been making these recommendations since November of 2019. How did you get started? 

NK: I was working at an independent bookstore when I got started, and organizing the children’s story time every Sunday morning. I loved gushing about a new discovery, and with so many friends who have kids, found myself sending emails or texts with book suggestions to multiple people, some of whom suggested I try to start some kind of a blog. A trip to Alaska solidified my interest. The PBS show, Molly from Denali had just come out, and I was blown away (literally brought to tears) when I saw how brilliantly they dealt with the horrific history of residential schools. After some conversations with educators and booksellers during my trip, I felt inspired to share some of the treasures they had shared with me – especially books related to language revitalization. That is what my first blog “episode” was focused on. I had (and still have) a lot to learn, about lots of things, including the land that I live on (ancestral land belonging to the Nacotchtank/Anacostan/Piscataway people).

The books I select and post are inspired by real conversations I have with kids and grownups as we all try to navigate our inner and outer worlds. It’s important to share as we’re learning though – we’re all learning together I think. And books help us create a space to explore, break open, grow, reflect, process and be joyful together while we’re on that journey of discovering the hidden gems buried within us all. That’s the idea behind the blog –

The name is inspired by a quotation I’d come across around that time: “Regard [hu]mankind as a mine full of gems of inestimable value, education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures.” Books help us with the excavation process, and wow, when you get the right book, in the right hands at the right time, and witness someone accidently discover a gem within themselves that they never knew existed–the heart begins to sparkle – that is what inspires me to share the books I share.

BB: That’s awesome. So finally, what are you working on next?

NK: Oh gosh! That’s a tough one. Lots of notes and drafts and ideas, and in lots of places –tucked into folders and notebooks and pockets, on my computer, and even more swirling inside my mind. I wish I had one specific story that I could tell you is on its way, but I’ll have to just wait and see which one of the many an editor will want to bring to life.

Many thanks to Naaz for so patiently answering my questions and to Lisa Moraleda, Morgan Maple, and the folks at Simon & Schuster for coordinating this. Room for Everyone is on shelves November 9th.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.