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  • Writer's pictureManju Howard

How Shirin Shamsi Writes Picture Books with Hope and Empathy

I hope you’re all enjoying sparks of creativity this summer. Today, I’m delighted to share Shirin Shamsi’s new picture books, titled Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story and The Moon from Dehradun: A Story of Partition.

For our Kidlit Creatives Members, you have a chance to win a picture book critique from Shirin Shamsi. To WIN this special prize, follow the directions at the end of this post.

First, I want to share illustrator Manal Mirza’s heartwarming cover art!

About this book: Zahra hugs her cherished teddy bear and prays that Ramadan will bring her a longed-for sister. When her bear subsequently goes missing, Zahra finds herself grappling with intense feelings of loss. Over the next few weeks, as she volunteers with her mother at a local shelter for asylum seekers, Zahra befriends a displaced child, resulting in a newfound sense of gratitude and an unexpected Ramadan blessing.

Published by Barefoot Books in March 2022.

Manju: Namaste, Shirin. Congratulations on your new picture books! Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story is told through the eyes of a girl named Zahra. But in early drafts, her teddy bear was the main character. How did your story change by shifting the point of view to Zahra?

Shirin: Namaste Manju. Thank you so much for having me here. Yes, Zahra’s Blessing is very much a story from the girl’s point of view. Twenty years ago, the girl’s teddy was the main character of the story. It was a very different story – although the themes of loss and giving were very much part of it, even then.

After my initial rejection from a publisher, I shelved the manuscript, thinking it unworthy. It was years later, after joining SCBWI and finding a critique group, that I realized that every revision takes you one step closer to a polished manuscript. I also realized that rewriting the story from a different perspective can strengthen it – and it certainly did.

Next, I want to share illustrator Tarun Lak’s moonlit cover art!

About this book: Azra knows that wherever she goes, her doll Gurya will follow. Even if it’s on a train that will take her far away from the house her family has lived in for generations. Even if there is a new flag flying in Dehradun, and no place left in it for Azra. At least she will be taking a piece of home with her.

But when Abba comes home and says they must leave right now, Gurya gets left behind in the scramble. Will Azra be strong enough to face the long journey alone? And what will happen to Gurya, now hundreds of miles behind them?

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers on August 30, 2022.

Manju: During the 1947 Partition of India, my father was 12 and lived in Amritsar. He never spoke of the Partition. The Moon from Dehradun: A Story of Partition is based on your grandparents during the Partition of India. Did your grandparents or mother share their experiences with you? Did you do any additional research?

Shirin: The Moon from Dehradun is based on my mother’s account of her childhood experience of the Partition. I had heard her story many times while growing up. When I began writing for children, I knew I wanted to tell my mother’s story. But every time I thought of writing it, I felt a heavy burden of grief.

Over the next few years, I worked on it, while researching the history of Partition and watching documentaries. It was painful – and emotionally draining. But I felt I had to share this story and pursued it.

Manju: Which themes thread through your stories? Why are those themes important to you?

Shirin: Manju, that’s a very interesting question. My family migrated from India to Pakistan, then to Europe and now North America, so the themes of family, loss, longing and belonging, are threaded into everything I write. Perhaps because I want every child to embrace their differences as strengths. I want them to feel that no matter what their background or lifestyle, that they do belong, that they are unique and their presence is extremely important to the world.

Manju: In both of your books, the main characters turn their sense of loss into empathy and hope. Please share the importance of empathy and hope in picture books.

Shirin: It is of the utmost importance. Picture books are usually a child’s first introduction to the wider world- so having books that inspire empathy and hope are crucial to a child’s development. It warms my heart to see more children’s books that focus on stories of empathy, inclusion, tolerance, respect. I honestly believe children raised on such books will grow up as empathetic citizens and that gives my heart so much hope for a brighter future. It will save us all!

Thank you so much, Manju!

Thank you for sharing your stories with us, Shirin!

Shirin Shamsi has always made children a priority, with her background in Early Childhood. Having lived on three continents, she views herself as a global citizen and now spends her time sharing stories with children of the world. Shirin has raised six children- three human and three felines, and lives in Illinois with her husband. Her books include:

Laila and the Sands of Time (Clear Fork Publishing, 2019)

Zahra’s Blessing (Barefoot Books, 2022)

The Moon From Dehradun (Atheneum, August 2022)

Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom (An inter-faith picture book, co-written with Callie Metler and Melissa Stoller, Clear Fork Publishing 2021)

Prize offer: For a chance to win a picture book critique (under 700 words, non-rhyming) from Shirin - read the post, leave a comment on our Kidlit Creatives page (must be a member) and share this interview on your Twitter or Facebook.

Deadline to enter is Saturday, June 25th.

All posts on Manju's blog promote members of Kidlit Creatives: Create, Query & Support. Request to join us by hopping over to our FB page.

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