Ali the Great: A Conversation With Author Saadia Faruqi
Ali the Great: A Conversation With Author Saadia Faruqi
Like MANY of my generation, I grew up reading—and loving and re-reading—Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Ramona was as real to me as anyone I’d ever met. I have spent my career chasing after that magic-on-the-page spirit of Ramona Quimby, and when I came across a character named Yasmin by author Saadia Faruqi six-plus years ago, I thought, “Hello, new friend!” It has been a pure delight to work with Saadia on many Yasmin stories since—22 and counting!
After a while, we heard a little voice from Yasmin’s friend Ali saying, “Hey—Hello!!! Do I get a turn?” Ok, it was a loud voice. Ali wanted—and deserved—a series of his own. Little girls like Ramona and Yasmin run this publishing town (as they should!), but little boys like Ali have just as much charm and moxie as their female counterparts, and they have so much to share with their readers, like that kindred feeling of, oh, he makes mistakes just like me! It’s my hope that every reader who meets Ali will say, “Hello, new friend!”
I had the privilege of asking Saadia a few questions about her new series, Ali the Great (Capstone, 8/1/2023), and how it came to be:
Before we get to Ali—WOW! Readers really love Yasmin! Why do you think they have responded so strongly to your character and her stories?
I'm forever grateful to readers who have embraced Yasmin so completely. It really warms my heart to see the response not only in the U.S. but around the world to this character and her adventures. I believe the response is because Yasmin is just like them. She's a regular kid doing things that every kid does in life, from painting and singing and gardening, to going to the zoo and the library and so much more. Readers see some part of their own lives reflected in the Yasmin books, and they value that more than anything else. Plus, so many of youth today are children of color, children of immigrants, and children who see their family experiences mirrored back to them through Yasmin's Mama, Baba, Nana and Nani. For all these reasons, Yasmin remains the beloved character she is.
Ali is a friend to Yasmin in your first series with Capstone. What was it about Ali’s character that inspired a new series idea?
In many ways, Ali is the complete opposite of Yasmin. Where she tries to be a good girl, always wanting to help others and do the right thing, Ali is a jokester, wanting to have fun and be the center of attention. I wanted to explore that juxtaposition, to give readers an inner look at what Ali's life is like, and how you can be a good kid even if you're joking and playing games all the time. When you read the series, you find that even though Ali likes to have fun, he's also a very responsible kid in his own way.
I love that Ali gets into “fixes”—sometimes because of his own mistakes. Can you share a bit about the importance of imperfect characters for kids to read about?
Well, everyone can't be perfect like Yasmin! Just kidding, Yasmin has her own flaws too. Ali just seems to be imperfect, because he's not always serious or studious. He's got other priorities in life! That's why I wanted to write some stories from his perspective, because I wanted to explore what it means to be a flawed character. I want my readers to understand that it's okay if you're not perfect at a subject in school, or if you have a hard time sitting quietly in one place. I want them to know that if you have questions and comments, you can speak up. Ali does all that. He’s got a lot of great qualities that we discover because we give him a chance.
At times, Ali relies on his friends to help him solve problems or see things in a different way. I love the idea of focusing on friendship for a second-grade boy. Can you talk about that dynamic in Ali’s stories?
Ali's got some great friends, namely Yasmin and Emma, plus Zack. They're the same group of friends you see in the Yasmin series, but Zack has more of a presence here. They support each other, help solve issues that arise in each story, but also just have fun. Friendship is always an important element in stories featuring young children, but in many books it's less prominent when the main character is a boy. Somehow girls are seen as more "friendly" or "friend-centered" whereas boys are shown as loners. I don't like those stereotypes, and also don't think they are true. My hope with the Ali series is to showcase positive examples of relationships, not just with parents and grandparents, but with friends as well.
Tell us about Ali’s family and why you wanted to show an intergenerational family.
Intergenerational families are very common in South Asian families, whether they are in their homeland or in the diaspora. I grew up with my Dada and Dadi living in the same house, and my Nana and Nani lived about ten minutes away. Everyone else I knew was the same. So many of my memories include those family members. Raising kids here in the U.S. has been different, but I know countless families like mine who have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. close by. It makes for an amazing childhood, and I wanted to reflect that in the Ali stories, just like I did in the Yasmin series.
Ali’s religion and culture play a strong role in the series. Talk about the direct and indirect ways you weave details about Islam into the stories.
I decided to put more religion and culture in these stories than I have in the Yasmin series. Ali's family is unapologetically Muslim, and this identity is highlighted in countless ways. Some are illustrated, such as Amma being a working professional wearing the hijab, while others are part of the story, such as in Ali the Great and the Eid Party Surprise, where the family goes to the mosque for Eid prayers. There are also cultural elements, such as henna, shalwar kameez, sari, desi snacks, and more. These are important aspects of life as a Pakistani American, and I wanted to reflect them in this series.
Can you give us a sneak peek to what’s coming next for Ali?
It's too early to say, since I'm still working on the new stories. Please know that more Ali stories are coming soon (August 2024!), which means more jokes, more escapades, and more heartwarming family life.
The Ali the Great series debuts with four titles:
- Ali the Great and the Dinosaur Mistake
- Ali the Great and the Eid Party Surprise
- Ali the Great and the Market Mishap
- Ali the Great and the Paper Airplane Flop