Alexis York Lumbard is the author of The Conference of the Birds, her first published children’s book. Alexis recently published a storybook about the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):The Story of Muhammad: A Ballad for the Young. Alexis is the proud mother of three children and lives with her husband and children in Massachusetts.
MH: You mentioned in your biography that your father was in the US Marine Corps, how did your family moving frequently impact your passion to write and the content of your children’s novels today? Do your travels impact your inspiration for your children stories?
Yes, most definitely. In my early childhood my father was stationed out west on Whidbey Island, Washington State. I remember vividly riding the ferry back and forth to Seattle and watching with wonder the many seagulls in flight. It is interesting then, that my first published piece is an adaptation for children of the Persian classic The Conference of the Birds (Wisdom Tales Press, Sept. 2012). Later on my father was stationed at the Pentagon in Washington D.C, an area that is culturally and ethnically diverse. Most writers draw upon their own experiences, in addition to their imagination, to craft a story. My childhood, as well as my experiences a parent, play a huge role in what and how I write.
MH: Tell us more about your first book, The Conference of the Birds. How did it come about? What sparked the idea?
My husband is an academic and Sufism is one of his specialties. One evening he causally suggested that I read a translation of the original Persian masterpiece. I bought the Penguin classics version and immediately cracked open the book. What an extraordinary story I thought to myself. I knew within a few pages that I wanted to capture the essence of the original in a way that was accessible to young children. For they are denied, in so much of what they see and hear today, a sense of the sacred. So strange too, since children a naturally spiritual. They live in the moment. They find joy and wonder in nearly all things. In some ways they are much closer to the fitra that are we, and so, I book such as this can indeed have a strong impact on their inner lives.
MH: You seem to have had a great time in Amman. Tell us more about your husband’s job as an Interfaith adviser in Jordan. What did you do exactly? How did he land such a great position? How is interfaith work abroad? Is it the same as in the US?
My husband was teaching his second year at the American University in Cairo, when he received a phone call from Prince Ghazi of Jordan who wanted to offer him a position as “Special Advisor to His Majesty for Interfaith Affairs.” I remember this very well as I was the who answered the phone. Prince Ghazi was very polite but did not introduce himself as “Prince,” so I had no idea who was calling! What a shock it was! What happened you see, is that their first choice declined the position due to family reasons (he was caring for an elderly family member and couldn’t leave this person’s side). And this person, also a Western trained scholar of classical Islam, referred my husband. And that is how my husband came to be known as the “Mustashar.” It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but he had a wonderful time. As one of the speech writers, my husband often traveled with his Majesty King Abdallah. Interfaith work in Jordan is similar to that in the United States. However it differ in that there is also an “intrafaith” dialogue–the Jordanians are doing wonderful work to build bridges between Sunnis and Shiite, as well as Muslim and non-Muslim. Our precious year in Jordan definitely planted the seeds for my upcoming book Everyone Prays.
MH: Tell us more about Everyone Prays and what it’s about.
“Christians, Jews and Muslims all pray. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Many others pray too,” so begins Everyone Prays a concept book for children ages 5 and up. My hope in writing this story was to present religion through the simple act of prayer and to show that prayer, though experienced differently by different people, is a beautiful and universal act. As a Muslim American and mother, I am acutely aware of how poorly understood Islam is in America. At the same time, however, many Muslims know little about other faiths. If we want to be better respected as a faith community then we must show the same regard towards others.
MH: Do you feel the Muslim American community is lacking in quality children stories and books? How can the Muslim American community appreciate the art of story telling?
Yes! I say, shouting at the top of my lungs! I cannot tell you how many times I have picked up a book at a mosque library or Islamic store and well, put it back down. Astaghfir’Allah (Allah forgive me), I do not mean to rude, but I believe our children deserve the highest quality literature. We need books that uplift, educate and inspire, in both picture and prose. Are there ways for Muslim Americans to better appreciate storytelling? Yes, definitely! Go to the library with a big old bag and fill it with books, especially from the fable and folktale section, for while there might not be many stories written specifically for us (though we are seeing more), there are thousands of excellent children’s books with universal messages that we as Muslims, may also use to educate our little ones.
MH: In your opinion, what can the Muslim community do to create educational and fun reading material for Muslim children?
As parents we need to support children who want to become artists. There is a trend in the community to push our children towards medicine or business, but we also need to value the arts. Only then will we have our own Caldecott or Newbery award winners. So let us strive to be the very best (and not just for Muslim children, but all children).
MH: You have a new children’s book about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s life story, The Story of Muhammad: A Ballad for the Young tell us more about it. How are you presenting his story for little children to understand and appreciate?
The Story of Muhammad: A Ballad for the Young,” is my upcoming book app for children. This is the first manuscript I wrote, some five years ago. You see I wanted a story about our beloved Prophet that would capture the imagination of a very young child, as little as age 4. Written as a “story within a story” it tells the essential aspects of Muhammad’s experiences as a Prophet by a mother cat to her three kittens during bedtime. I chose cats because not only do children love animals but I’d like to think that were animals telling their young stories, the lives of the Prophets would be foremost! Did you know that there is a beautiful legend which says that Muhammad (peace be upon him) had a favorite cat named Muizza? She was once sleeping in his prayer robe with the adhan sounded. Instead of waking her up to retrieve his robe, he cut out the sleeve and left her sound asleep. I love this image! So you see my hope is that by crafting the story in this light, children will not be engaged with the story, but find it sweet and reassuring. The Prophet’s life has many facets, so I keep the inner story very simple—but my hope is that children will finish this story feeling as though they know our Prophet personally and therein develop a deep love for who he was.
MH: How can people support your recent book, The Story of Muhammad: A Ballad for the Young and also where can we find more of your work?
Allahu kareem! I recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to bring this story to life as a bookapp and ebook. We had people coming in with generous pledges from all over the U.S, U.K, and in a few Muslim countries. I will post updates on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/alexisylumbard.books) as soon as it is available for purchase. I also have a website called www.childforallseasons.com wherein one find other great books for Muslim families.
MH: What recommendations, tips or advice would you give aspiring authors of children books who would like to pursue a similar career path as you?
First rule, READ! As much as you can as often as you can. Secondly join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Authors also known as SCBWI. They will hold your hand along the way. Lastly, follow my three P rule: be patient, professional and persistent. It is not an easy to get your foot in the door of publishing, but if you love the art of storytelling, then God willing a door will open!