Tuesday, January 7, 2020

TBR: Farah Rocks Fifth Grade (Book #1 in the Farah Rocks series) by Susan Muaddi Darraj

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences? 

Farah Hajjar is a smart, funny fifth grader who is protective of her little brother, who has learning challenges. She’s applying to an exclusive magnet school for sixth grade, but when a bully starts harassing her brother, she wonders if it’s better to stay where she is. She hatches a plot to solve the problem on her own, which causes havoc for everyone who loves her, including her parents and her best friend.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Farah’s character itself was fascinating to create – she was originally based on my daughter (who is, in fact, the one who asked me to write a book about a Palestinian American girl like her). But then, as all characters do, she began to take over the story in her own way. She was funnier than I thought she would be. And more stubborn.

The character who was the biggest challenge to write was Samir, because I wanted to make sure I represented him accurately. He has learning challenges because he was born pre-maturely; at the same time, he’s smart and very witty. In other words, I wanted him to have a distinct personality, and to make sure that his learning challenges didn’t consume his entire story. There were also details I didn’t know, about how schools incorporate special help for kids who have certain needs, so that took some careful research. In addition to reading books, articles, and websites, I talked to friends who had children with learning challenges. I hope I got Samir’s character right. He is a big figure in the book – an important member of the Hajjar family.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Writing about Palestinian American or Arab American characters is difficult in its own way. There are so many questions: Are you representing the community accurately? Is your depiction authentic? Are you sentimentalizing things that should be discussed with more rigor?

But then you run up against the way that the publishing industry views our community. In general, I have noticed a trend in the publishing industry (it stems from that the fact that, though there are many wonderful, well-intentioned editors, the the industry itself is not diverse). So publishers do want stories by writers of color, but often they prefer what we call “crisis” or “trauma” stories. They want stories of Arab American women who are facing racism, sexism, etc. There are tons of books on this topic, and it’s very important.

But guess what? Kids of color deserve to see themselves in books in which the characters who look like them are living happy, healthy, normal lives. They need to see themselves facing the same problems every American kid confronts. For example, in this first book in the series, Farah is dealing with a bully in her school, and the adults are not paying attention; which kid hasn’t experienced this? They all know how scary it can be to get on that school bus when there’s a bully on board.

Another difficulty I had was the fact that this is my debut children’s novel. I feel very lucky to be working with Capstone Books – their book list is already so diverse, and they are very open and inclusive. But I had a lot to learn about writing for children. My editor, Eliza Leahy, is phenomenal. She really helped me make the transition from writing for adults to writing for the 8-12 year-old age group. It’s a different world in many ways – and I had a lot to learn about it. She was a patient and helpful teacher. I think I revised my first draft seven times! And it’s only 20,000 words! I definitely felt myself “stretching” as a writer in the same way you do if you’re a poet who tries fiction, or if you’re a novelist who tries to write a play.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Well, my least favorite piece of writing advice is “write every day.” That is virtually impossible for many people to do. I mean, a lot of us have jobs, kids, family obligations. Who can actually write every day unless they’re wealthy and outsource help for housework, childcare, etc? So what I will say instead is something that worked for me: Make time for your writing life every day. If you can write, write. Some days you won’t be able to. But maybe you can read that new book by a writer you admire. Revise the first few pages of a story? Maybe you can sit with a blank page and work on a character sketch for a character. Maybe you can read an article on writing better dialogue. Maybe you can make a list of journals or contests where you want to submit your work.  In other words, spend time every day filling the well that is your writing career. I do this by making an appointment with myself every day; I wake up very early and sit with my coffee and my books and notebooks for a couple of hours, before the rest of the house wakes up. Some mornings are productive; others are just me, daydreaming, reading, thinking. It’s all good. It all counts. It’s all part of the process.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book? 

I was surprised by how important it was to me that I depict Farah and her family as working class people, dealing with the realities of life for the working class. They’re not technically poor, but they’re on the edge. Their security is precarious.

Furthermore, it was vital to me, as I kept writing, that Farah be aware of her family’s money problems. Many books show kids feeling secure in their family’s financial situation – the evidence of that is in what you don’t see in the book: the character never worries or talks about whether or not mom and dad have money. It never comes up in their minds.  For Farah, it does – and to me, that is quite authentic. Kids who grow up in poor and working class families are hyper-aware of their parents’ money woes. I wanted Farah to be that character that many young readers will recognize.

How did you find the title of your book?

In Arabic, “hajjar” means rocks or stones, and in the book, you learn that Farah’s friends have called her Farah Rocks since they were all in first grade together. So it seemed natural to continue from there, to play on the word “rocks” – it’s a word with a double meaning, and it seemed a fitting way to reflect the Arab American experience: there are layers of meanings.  The first book is Farah Rocks Fifth Grade; it’s a 4-book series, and each book’s title follows this formula.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Well, of course, in any book about Palestinian or Arab Americans, there will be a lot of food! As you might know, because I’ve been vocal about this on social media, I really dislike the way hummus has been repackaged into some kind of gourmet food. It’s sold in stores and doesn’t even taste very good, and there are all sorts of horrifying variations, like red velvet hummus and guacamole hummus. And it’s expensive! Hummus costs just pennies to make at home, and it takes less than five minutes. So yes, Farah is sharing the Hajjar family’s recipe in a special bonus section of the book! [Editor's note: This hummus is fantastic!!]


READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.SusanMuaddiDarraj.com


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.