[Interview] Alexis Y. Lumbard on what inspired her to write children stories with Islamic themes
There was a book Alexis wanted to read to her children, but it did not yet exist. Inspired by her experiences of motherhood and the gap in the market, Alexis Lumbard picked up her pen (or laptop) and began to write!
She has created an interesting range of spiritual and beautiful Islamic books for children including: The Conference of the Birds (Sept. 2012), Angels (Oct. 2013), and a digital app: The Story of Muhammad, based on the life and of Prophet Muhammad.
I talk to Alexis about the principles of good storytelling, how she overcomes challenges with her projects, and how we can tackle misconceptions surounding the Prophet Muhammad.
What inspired you to become a Children’s book author?
“When we were expecting our 2nd daughter and our eldest was ready for storybooks, I couldn’t find any that were Islamic-themed and well done. So I picked up my pen (or laptop) and began to write. It was a messy beginning and my first stories were terrible, but a few thoughtful individuals held my hand along the way.”
What are the principles of good storytelling and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
“Please do not write for children because you think it is easy. It is not easy and it should not be. Children’s literature has all the same meat as good books for adults—i.e. a tempting beginning, a middle that builds and an end that satisfies. And I’d have to agree with Jane Yolen, children’s books need not rhyme but they must be lyrical.
As far as basic principles go: 1) Less is more. 2) Do not talk down to children when writing. 3) Talk up—children need books that elevate, more now then ever before. I created a little list on www.childforallseasons.com, perhaps some of your viewers will find it helpful.”
Have you faced any challenges with your projects, and if so, did you overcome them?
“All the time! My main struggle is that some of my stories are too “Muslim” for the general market while others are not “Muslim” enough (or not the right kind of Muslim for Muslim Publishers).
Sometimes I make a few concessions as I do hope to have more stories published, but at the end of the day, I, as the creator of the story, have to be happy with it. I am a reader first, and if I don’t enjoy reading my own work, then I cannot expect others to either.
When I look at the pile of rejected manuscripts sitting on my desk, I remind myself to practice patience and detachment and to simply enjoy the art of storytelling.”
“I couldn’t find any that were Islamic-themed and well done. So I picked up my pen (or laptop) and began to write.”
In your works including “The story of Muhammad ﷺ” the illustrations are done in a miniature style. What was your reason of selecting this art style?
“Beauty to me is the strongest argument for the goodness of goodness. I also believe that children can be moved in the depths of their hearts just like we are as adults. And since this story is about our beloved Prophet, may peace be upon him; I felt that it needed a classic Islamic look. The miniature style was the best fit. Maram al-Hidmi, the artist behind my app, did an amazing job. The scenes concerning the Prophet–especially those other worldly moments like the isra & miraj, are done with so much depth that the animations feel utterly magical. ”
What kind of response did ‘The Story of Muhammad’ based on the life & teachings of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ receive so far?
“Most of the feedback has been encouraging and wonderfully positive. The best was from a father who said, “My seven year old has never been this fascinated by the Prophet. He reads the app twice a day, at least.” Masha’Allah, what an honor to have one’s intentions and goals realized in this way.
Of course, we have had our fair share of negativity—from people who think that Islam is monolithic and that what we have done is “haram” or “bida.” But this doesn’t bother me as most of these people suffer from compound ignorance.”
How do you think we can tackle misconceptions surrounding the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, and prevent others to negatively portray him?
“We can prevent such misconceptions by living his Sunnah to the best of our abilities: to be wise, balanced, loving, and patient, and above all, sincere.”
You’ve experience in distributing your works in print & digital. How has your experience been with these two mediums? For a storyteller is one more powerful than the other?
“Hmmm…that is a tough one. As far as distribution works, the digital medium is far more convenient. With animations, sound effects and voice narration, digital books can be quite evocative—like a powerful film. At least this is what they can be when they are done well. But like printed books there is a lot of rubbish out there and unlike the printed medium, digital books are not healthy for kids in high doses. Parents should limit their children’s screen time with any devices—they do have developing brains after all! Finally, when I read my stories live to an audience of eager minds, I do prefer a physical hard copy book. Some how it is a more natural reading.”
“Beauty to me is the strongest argument for the goodness of goodness. I also believe that children can be moved in the depths of their hearts just like we are as adults.”
How have your life experiences shaped who you are today, and have these influenced your work?
“I became Muslim nearly 15 years ago after a short visit to Istanbul. One moment in particular has had a lasting effect. I was sitting in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque and as I listened to the call to prayer, I felt something stir within. I guess you could say it was the first time I felt a sense of the sacred. Everything I do now, as a children’s book author, is an attempt to expose children to that same reality— through fiction and non-fiction. This is why I love the picture book genre. Picture books are a dance between words and images that are meant to spark the imagination and for me it is the moral and spiritual imagination, which deserves the most attention. Subtle books of substance—that is my focus. And why subtle? Because kids do not need to be force-fed the truth. If we treat them according to the fitra they will respond.”
Where can our readers find your works?
“My print books are available through Wisdom Tales Press and any major retailer. They are The Conference of the Birds (Sept. 2012), Angels (Oct. 2013) and two upcoming titles, Sparrow & Pine: A Cherokee Legend and Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World. My app, The Story of Muhammad, is available on all digital platforms.”
What are you future plans?
“Remember that pile of unpublished manuscripts I mentioned? Well, I haven’t given up on them just yet. I was thinking that it would be great fun to perform them through shadow puppetry. Of course I have no experience in this area, but why not try? My girls will enjoy making the puppets with me and perhaps, if I get any good at it, I’ll post them on YouTube (if you follow me on Facebook expect something come January inshaAllah.)
In fact, I was utterly fascinated to learn that there is a rich tradition of puppetry in Islamic lands, from Turkey to Indonesia. In the Sumatra much of Islam spread through puppet shows preformed by Sufi Saints. They made use of Islamic and Buddhist imagery to reach the people. Isn’t that awesome?”
Last but not least, what do you think of Sufi Comics?
“I love Sufi Comics! So does my 8-year-old daughter Layla. I delight in watching her read them, as I know she is acquiring golden nuggets of wisdom—some of which will bloom now, others, in due time. Thank you and keep up the great work!”
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