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Five contributors from the short-story anthology Once upon an Eid discuss the many joys to be found in the Muslim holiday and the importance of intersectional representation within Islam.
In May of 2020, Abrams Books published, through their Amulet imprint, Once upon an Eid, a first-of-its-kind anthology that collects 15 short stories from a diverse selection of Muslim authors. The entries cover a range of festive experience, all connected by their mutual celebration of Eid, which—as the book explains in its introduction—“is an Arabic word meaning ‘celebration/feast that repeats’ (i.e., that comes around each year). There are two Eids that are primarily celebrated: Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha.” And while the traditions, cultures, and customs involved in the celebrations vary widely, the one element they all have in common—as this anthology beautifully highlights—is a resonant joyfulness.
We spoke to 5 of the 15 contributors, including coeditors Aisha Saeed and S. K. Ali, about what makes Eid—and Once upon an Eid—so special.
Aisha Saeed is a New York Times best-selling author and one of two editors of Once upon an Eid. Her story, “Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake,” is about a boy taking on the all-important responsibility of preparing his family’s traditional Eid brownies.
Khuri: Take us through the genesis of Once upon an Eid.
Saeed: Sajidah (S. K. Ali) and I have been friends for years. When she approached me with an idea for an anthology collection of joyful stories about Muslim children, centered around the holiday of Eid, I was excited. With rising Islamophobia around the world and the resultant increased bullying that Muslim children face in school, we wanted to put together a collection of stories that could be a joyful place where Muslim children could see themselves in print—and celebrate their identity—and where non-Muslim children could have a window into our lived experiences. Abrams was immediately excited about the idea and shared the same vision we did.
Khuri: When it came to the creators and content, what did you want to make sure to include in the anthology?
Saeed: We were intentional in choosing an anthology format for this project because Muslims are not a monolith. We come from many different cultures and socioeconomic circumstances, which we wanted to reflect both in the stories and through our contributors. We loved that, though each story was completely different from the next, they were all connected by the singular thread of a holiday we all share, even if we celebrate it differently.
We also consciously sought out different formats of storytelling in the anthology to provide different access points for different readers. As such, in addition to short stories, we have poetry and a comic. Sara Alfageeh, who designed the cover, created art for each story that captures the joy we wished to portray.
Khuri: What about Eid did you want to explore through Yusuf’s story specifically?
Saeed: In “Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake,” Yusuf is charged with making the annual Eid brownies but loses track of time and burns them instead. The story is about sibling rivalry and tradition and what happens when things don’t go according to plan. As a child, I loved the story “Stone Soup,” where a community comes together to create something out of nothing. In this story, members of Yusuf’s household come together to salvage the brownies and keep the tradition going as well as find new ones to celebrate. Yusuf’s Eid experience is much like my own. Lots of cooking with the family in preparation for the big day. Large gatherings with friends and family to share new gifts and celebrate the day.
Khuri: Other than your own, what’s one story in the anthology that you appreciated?
Saeed: I loved all the stories in the collection because they each provide something different to a reader and potentially a unique mirror for a Muslim child to see themselves in. Huda Al-Marashi’s story, “Not Only an Only,” was one that I really appreciated, as it spoke to the experience of being the only Muslim child in school and how isolating that can be when others put their expectations and misconceptions about what it is to be Muslim upon you. There are many kids around the country who are the only Muslims not only in their schools but also in their city. I appreciated this reflection of Eid—when, although it’s perhaps not the way you might have imagined it would be, you still find unexpected joy.
What makes Eid special for you?
Food! Our stories in Once upon an Eid also inadvertently share this common theme, as well—the joy of eating together with those we love on the special day.
Brownies or fruit tart?
I’m with Yusuf: I’m not one for fruit in my dessert. Brownies all the way!
Agrabah or Themyscira?
This is like choosing my favorite child—impossible! Love them equally.
Favorite Eid tradition?
Making Oreo pops with my boys to give out as treats to friends on Eid day!
Favorite section in the library?
Depends on the mood. These days, it’s poetry.
One recent book you wish you’d had as a child?
Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan. I saw so much of my own childhood in that!
Amal Unbound. 2018. 240p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen (9780399544682). Gr. 4–6.
Bilal Cooks Daal. Illus. by Anoosha Syed. 2019. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads (9781534418103). Gr. 1–3.
Diana and the Island of No Return. 2020. 288p. Random (9780593174470). Gr. 4–6.
Far from Agrabah. 2019. 336p. Disney (9781368031707). Gr. 5–8.
Written in the Stars. 2015. 304p. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen (9780399171703). Gr. 8–11.
Yes No Maybe So. By Becky Albertalli. 2020. 448p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062937049). Gr. 9–12.
S. K. Ali
Beyond being a coeditor on Once upon an Eid, S. K. Ali is a teacher, young adult novelist, picture-book author, Morris Award finalist, and New York Times best-seller. In her story, “Don’ut Break Tradition,” Nadia must find a way to make Eid feel special again, despite her mother’s debilitating illness.
Khuri: “Don’ut Break Tradition” takes an unusually—and in a way, refreshingly—somber approach to a holiday tale. What about Eid did you want to explore through Nadia’s story?
Ali: Like other holidays, Eid is often celebrated via traditions specific to each family. I wanted to explore what happens when those traditions get affected by a change in family circumstances. Do we still hold on to old traditions? Do we make new ones? Or do we do a bit of both, like Nadia discovers? And how do you make a holiday happy when the people you’re used to spending it with are not around you?
Eid is a very communal holiday, and yet there are situations where we can’t be with others to celebrate—our recent experiences observing Eid during the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example—and yet it’s a very human thing, it seems, to find ways to continue to connect and attempt to soar beyond our situational limitations. The myriad creative responses to the cancellation of graduations and weddings and other happy gatherings testify to this truth. People still found new, beautiful ways to share these joyous occasions with each other. “Don’ut Break Tradition” is a capturing of this phenomenon in the microcosm of Nadia’s family and neighborhood.
Khuri: What kinds of responses have you received from children or educators toward the anthology as a whole?
Ali: I can only describe the responses as overflows of bubbly, emotional joy! I’ve had friends send me pictures of their kids riveted by the book, who keep pausing their reading to bust out with “This is exactly like what happened to me on Eid!” or “My name is in a story!” or “I didn’t know people did that on Eid—can we do it, too, next Eid?” and so many more variations of the feeling, Wow, I connect with this book, and this book connects with me.
The other special thing is that we’ve heard of so many grown-up readers in tears because they finally got to see some of their joyous Eid experiences as children recorded on the page. People have been passing the book onto others simply for nostalgia’s sake, as well, which is so beautiful to see.
Khuri: How do you hope the anthology will affect Muslim readers and perceptions of Muslims?
Ali: I hope this book becomes a perennial favorite for Muslim readers, a book that’s reached for again and again whenever readers (of all ages) want to experience feelings of coziness and warmth and the embrace of this truth: on the pages of this book, you and your lives are valid and valued.
In terms of perceptions of Muslims, I don’t really know. I think, for many of us who contributed to this anthology, it was just that we wanted to tell our stories as they are, as we are, and share it with the world. People who like great stories will find great stories in this anthology. But, of course, people who like great stories who don’t know a lot of Muslims will also find that they invariably learn about Muslims while reading these great stories. Which is always a good thing—to learn about the lives of people who come from communities you don’t interact with.
Ali: Huda Al-Marashi’s story, “Not Only an Only,” was beautiful at expressing the feeling of belonging to a minority community within a minority community. It also really captured that sense of entrapment you experience in middle school, when one awkward school/classroom situation or incident continues to follow and define you throughout the year. It was so well done—I loved it!
Family traditions, hanging out with friends at the huge gathering at the mosque, and Eid fashions.
Favorite kind of donut?
Nadia’s favorite: old-fashioned plain. [Insert sheepish-shrug for being so unglamorous.]
Romance or horror?
Getting special flowers for all the women in my family.
700s in the Deweys—where ALL the art books live.
Easy: Once upon an Eid all the way!
Love from A to Z. 2019. 352p. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads (9781534442726). Gr. 9–12.
The Proudest Blue. By Ibtihaj Muhammad. Illus. by Hatem Aly. 2019. 40p. Little, Brown (9780316519007). K–Gr. 3.
Saints and Misfits. 2017. 336p. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads (9781481499248). Gr. 9–12.
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a picture-book author (Mommy’s Khimar, 2018) and longtime educator. Her story, “Perfect,” follows Hawa as she struggles on Eid to reconcile the Mandinka culture of her father’s family with her American upbringing.
Khuri: What about Eid did you want to explore through Hawa’s story?
Thompkins-Bigelow: I wanted to explore the family situations, both the uncomfortable and the loving, that often arise when relatives get together for the holiday. And I was interested in the ways Eid makes us zero in on our ethnic and cultural backgrounds—and that interplay with family, too. Many of us have hybrid identities, like Hawa, meaning maybe our parents are immigrants but we aren’t or maybe we are multiethnic, and the holidays are often the time when we take a deeper dive into some part of our ethnic identities. I share the same identity as Hawa, so as a child, Eid was often a time to visit West African immigrant family members and learn about that culture more fully. Like Hawa, I felt like an insider and an outsider on those Eids. There were misunderstandings but also moments to bond, and those moments made Eid special.
Khuri: Why is intersectional representation within Islam so important?
Thompkins-Bigelow: There are almost two billion Muslims in the world. We have countless intersections and variations of Muslim identity. When we represent our many intersections, we represent our full humanity. This is especially important when people want to tell a single story about who Muslims are. If people present us as or see us as one-dimensional, they create a narrative that makes us less human and, consequently, less worthy of the dignity and empathy that all human beings deserve.
Khuri: As an educator, do you have any thoughts on how Once upon an Eid could be incorporated into classrooms?
Thompkins-Bigelow: I think Once upon an Eid is a great resource for anti-bias education for a number of reasons. For one, it could be used to break down stereotypes. Muslims rarely get to tell their own stories in Western media, and this means stereotypical narratives are often created about them. It would be interesting to look at the depictions of Muslims in literature, movies, and other media and contrast them with the depictions in a book like Once upon an Eid, where Muslims are authoring their own tales. I think our anthology is also great for teaching kids to simply appreciate diversity. Students could make their own connections with it, learn to celebrate and discuss differences, and even explore the differences between the Muslims within the book itself. Probably most importantly, this is a great mirror book for many Muslim students. Muslim kids can find themselves in it and develop a proud sense of self.
Thompkins-Bigelow: N. H. Senzai’s “Searching for Blue” makes me cry every time I read it. I cry at the difficult situation that the main character and his family find themselves in as Syrian refugees. And then I cry happy tears when the community comes together at the end and finds a way to have a real Eid celebration. It’s so beautiful and so joyful.
Tastiest Eid treat?
For all the hijabi-nistas out there: favorite color to wear?
Singing the Takbirat in the car on the way to Eid prayers.
The Proudest Blue, by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S. K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly.
Any plans to publish more middle-grade work?
I am quite literally beginning the submissions process on a contemporary middle grade as we speak. InshaAllah, there will be more to tell soon!
Mommy’s Khimar. Illus. by Ebony Glenn. 2018. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads (9781534400597). K–Gr. 3.
Your Name Is a Song. Illus. by Luisa Uribe. 2020. 40p. Innovation (9781943147724). Gr. 1–3.
Ashley Franklin is an author, educator, and mother. In her anthology story, “Creative Fixes,” Makayla, whose family converted to Islam, struggles with socioeconomic insecurity as she and her new Muslim friends select their Eid dresses.
Khuri: What aspects of Eid or Islam did you want to explore through Makayla’s story?
Franklin: Islam is simple. We (Muslims) can sometimes overcomplicate it. Eid can easily become overwhelming when you’re new to it. You’re coming off of a long fast, and now you’re trying to quickly assemble your best food, clothes, gifts, and decorations. It can be a financial challenge for some, and I wanted to explore this notion through Makayla’s story.
Khuri: It’s uncommon to read a story about religious converts. Why was that background important to include?
Franklin: It was important for me to include my story. I wanted to share some things that those born Muslim may not ever think about—like being introduced to new foods when attending the masjid, being the new kid/family and trying to fit in, or just knowing what to do in any interaction. And for those who are converts, I wanted them to feel seen. It’s hard abandoning holidays and celebrations you once loved. However, there is joy in each step you take in learning more about the faith. That’s something that I felt as a new convert.
Khuri: As an educator, how do you think students would benefit from Once upon an Eid being taught in classrooms?
Franklin: Teaching at the college level, I’ve found that, by the time students get to me, many have had similar experiences of only reading canonical texts which typically aren’t overwhelmingly diverse. Having Once upon an Eid taught in classrooms could open up so many different conversations about race, class, culture, religion, family structure, and so much more. The text is great for inspiring organic conversations that don’t feel confrontational or forced.
Franklin: I adored “Maya Madinah Chooses Joy,” by Ayesha Mattu. I am all about choosing joy, so the title alone got me when I first saw it. I really loved the range this story has with the topics it covers—anxiety, expected vs. unexpected behaviors, shifting family dynamics, and making the decision to find joy in an ever-changing world.
The feeling of accomplishment and achieving something so great with family and friends—just the overall celebratory mood. Good vibes only.
Describe a memorable Eid dress (or outfit) from your past.
The first Eid that I was able to share with my husband and our first child, I wore the abaya that I wore when we got married. It was mauve and silver, and I loved it.
Spicy food or mild?
Making Eid decorations.
The entire children’s section—heavily leaning toward picture books.
Black Is a Rainbow Color, written by Angela Joy and illustrated by Ekua Holmes!
Not Quite Snow White. Illus. by Ebony Glenn. 32p. 2019. Harper (9780062798602). K–Gr. 3.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning, Australian author and speaker with a PhD on Islamophobia, racism, and everyday multiculturalism. Her story, “Eid and Pink Bubble Gum, Insha’Allah,” tells of Deyana, who must survive a road trip with her three little siblings on the way to celebrate Eid with their grandparents.
Khuri: What about Eid or Islam did you want to explore through Deyana’s story?
Abdel-Fattah: The chaos, love, noise, adventure, humor, and patience that comes with family life, especially in times of festivity. I wanted readers to dive into a familiar setting, the family road trip, and see how Islam weaves into their lives, routine, and attitude.
Khuri: As an academic, what interests you in writing fiction for children?
Abdel-Fattah: I will always be a writer first. It is what I’ve done since I was a child. I love writing for and about children. I’m naturally a nostalgic person, always losing myself in my memories. I have such vivid happy memories of my childhood and especially of the books I read. I look back on those books not just as stories I read but rather worlds I experienced, moments of my life where I felt as though I was truly time-traveling. I love writing about childhood and adolescence because it means I can experiment with those feelings again and hopefully gift my readers the memory of a story that stirs intense feelings in them as they go through some of the most formative stages of their lives.
Khuri: What do you think Muslim children will gain from Once upon an Eid? Non-Muslim children?
Abdel-Fattah: Seeing yourself in the pages of a book is magical. It can mean validation, the comfort of familiarity, the joy of being part of an “inside joke.” I also think Muslim children will gain an insight into the rich and diverse ways Eid is celebrated among Muslims of all backgrounds. As for non-Muslim children, I hope they can open their hearts and imaginations and see how joy and festivities are celebrated among Muslims. I think children of all backgrounds, both Muslim and non-Muslim, will read this anthology and find something to laugh about, be inspired and moved.
Abdel-Fattah: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s “Perfect.” As an Arab Muslim, it frustrates me that Black Muslims are often erased and marginalized. Jamilah’s story shatters the misconception that Eid is an Arab or Asian experience. It rightly centers Black Muslims’ stories. I also related to Hawa’s experience with her new Eid clothes!
Drinking a cup of coffee the morning after Ramadan ends.
One tip for coping with younger siblings?
Throw logic and reasoning out the window. Find out how to blackmail them.
Konafa, a Palestinian dessert that I could happily live on for the rest of my life.
Big family breakfast with the extended family and cousins, which includes presents for the children and a massive food coma.
One Australian children’s author more Americans should read?
Maxine Beneba Clarke.
Nevermoor, by Jessica Townsend.
Does My Head Look Big in This? 2007. 368p. Scholastic/Orchard (9780439922333). Gr. 7–10.
The Friendship Matchmaker. 2012. 208p. Bloomsbury/Walker (9781484404621). Gr. 3–6.
The Lines We Cross. 2017. 400p. Scholastic (9781338118667). Gr. 9–12.
Ten Things I Hate about Me. 2009. 304p. Scholastic/Orchard, o.p. Gr. 7–10.
Where the Streets Had a Name. 2010. 320p. Scholastic, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
Ronny Khuri is an Associate Editor, Books for Youth, at Booklist magazine.
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