Podcast: M.O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly

Jun 21, 2023 | Muslim Storytellers, Podcasts

What You’ll Find In this Podcast

Author M.O. Yuksel and Illustrator Hatem Aly were on campus for the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship Symposium. George Brown hosted them on our podcast to talk more about their projects, their takeaways from the Muslim Storytellers Symposium, and the art wall at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center.

Podcast Highlights

M.O. Yuksel, on the spread selected for the art wall:

The text fits in perfectly within the Highlights [Foundation] Barn because the text on that spread is “We eat naan, samsa, and sweet melon slices after prayer.” And then the text on the next page is, “We zigzag, sneak, peek and play hide and seek in our secret playground.  I hope it’s never time to leave.” And that’s how we feel when we’re at Highlights, especially in the barn where it’s the dining area: we’re eating sweet, fresh, fulfilling meals and we never want to leave.

Hatem Aly, on researching and illustrating M.O. Yuksel’s book In My Mosque:

I knew I had to depict a lot of mosques around the world, so I had to do a lot of research. And I also knew, I have to include Egypt, Uzbekistan and Turkey. So those are three spreads already planned. I also wanted it to be as honest as possible in terms of everything that Mindy said, like about diversity and architecture and accuracy, from personal experience, and from stuff I can see around the world.

M.O. Yuksel, on her take aways from attending the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship Symposium:

My take away was we have a lot more work to do in the field and industry, but with community and with support from amongst ourselves and publishing industry friends who support us, it seems a little bit more manageable, and you feel a little bit more motivated to continue doing the work even though it’s challenging.

Hatem Aly, on his take aways from attending the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship Symposium:

I think what stands out is this, having your back or having a circle of trust…there is a mutual feeling.

Full Transcript

George Brown: Welcome to the Highlights Foundation gather podcast, where our mission is to positively impact children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves. We’re broadcasting from studio four at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center. Today’s guests are MO Yuksel and Hatem Aly. Hello, Hatem and Mindy. Thanks for being with us. Mindy is the author of the picture book In My Mosque and Hatem is the illustrator. They’re both here as part of the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship program, which seeks to create space for more diverse, authentic Muslim narratives for children and young adults, and to address common misperceptions of those narratives. In the children’s publishing industry. We’re just finishing a three day symposium which included the 16 fellows of this program plus mentors and publishing industry professionals. Mindy and Hatem are both mentors in this program, and Mindy is a part of the program committee that designed this two year fellowship, which is made possible with funding from the Doris Duke Foundation through its Building Bridges Program. The Building Bridges program supports national efforts working with US Muslims to increase mutual understanding and well-being among diverse populations for the benefit of building stronger inclusive communities. Mindy and Hatem, there are so many topics I want to cover in the next 20 minutes or so, so I’m hoping. We can just dive right in. First, let’s talk about In My Mosque and. Maybe wait before we. Do I just want to set the scene here at the Highlights Foundation In My Mosque, the art Hatem, you are artist of the year, and we have a display of the In My Mosque. Some of the spreads up on our art wall which will be featured at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center for the whole of the 2023 program season. The first thing guests see when they enter are your photos, your BIOS and a little bit about the book, and then as people enter into the main room, they see the beautiful pop of color from those spreads. So that’s the reason why we’ve brought you here for this podcast to talk a little bit about In My Mosque. So maybe start with you as the author, tell us a little bit about that story or the story behind the story, how that came about. 

M.O. Yuksel: Yeah, unfortunately the inspiration was due to a tragic event. The New Zealand mass shooting happened in March of 2019 and that’s when I started writing the story, because during tragic events we feel helpless, and we want to help in some way. And for me, since I write picture books, I wanted to write about my experiences attending mosques and fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to attend different mosques in different countries and I wanted to share that experience. And I’ve had adults ask me what do you do in a mosque because there’s lack of information or misinformation about this place of worship and what goes on inside and so I thought this would be a great opportunity to share this not only with children, but with adults as well, and I came it at it from a place of joy, even though it was inspired from a tragic event. 

George Brown: And I think I appreciate hearing that story so much because the book is joyous, right? So, talk to us a little bit about kind of what the journey of the book is for those who haven’t yet read the book. 

M.O. Yuksel: So, it’s told from two different perspectives on each page. The first page is from the community point of view and the second page is from the child’s point of view and from the community point of view for example the first spread its about diversity, how diverse Muslim people are, and it’s not what the usual stereotype or misperception is that all Muslims are from the Middle East or from South Asia, but there are a multitude of different ethnicities and that’s shown beautifully in the illustrations. And the other pages walk you through the experience of being in a mosque, in a place of worship, and the commonalities we have as human beings, the joy of, like the sensory details of a child, like what they would experience from being in prayer, being distracted, maybe misbehaving, playing around instead of praying. Eating and you know, hearing or seeing birds and so on and also. The variety of architecture throughout the world. We showcase different countries around the world and the different architecture of mosques where you might happen to see a mosque in one particular way in media or the movies, but you might not know that depending on the cultural setting might look different and Hatem Aly did a beautiful job of illustrating those different architectures. 

George Brown: And I think so. What a tee up for Hatem , tell us a little bit about the art process because there is both the architectural, but also there’s the, you can feel the kids and the whimsy or the mischief or the whatever is on that spread, you can really feel that. 

Hatem Aly: Yeah, I am not going to be redundant to what she said because everything she said I had in mind too, but. Uh, once I got the text, I knew like I had to depict a lot of mosques around the world, so I had to do a lot of research. And I also knew, like I have to include Egypt, Uzbekistan and Turkey. So those are three spreads already the planned. I also wanted it to be like as honest as possible in terms of everything that Mindy said, like about diversity and architect, architecture and accuracy and uh from personal experience and from stuff I can see around the world. I wasn’t fortunate, as Mindy, to visit a lot of mosques. But I know a lot of different mosques in in at least my experience, my life experience and the first spread I chose it to be Egypt just because it’s experienced and I know it and I’ve seen it and I grew up and I. Know like when I was young, 80s and 90s, I’ve seen a lot of people from all cultures there. There was a lot of Bosnians coming from the war there. There was a lot of people from Senegal, Somalia. So, there were people coming from all over Asia. So I would see common faces a lot and I chose just to do this just because it was like normal. We just  start off like this without trying too hard to make it, like impose diversity. And as I went through, I was an advocate for this, kind of mischief in law from kids because this is how it works. Like this is reality like as a kid I was playing around and adults would just leave us, do whatever, some of them that could be like just behave and stuff. But of course, like you just do what you want. I wanted the kids to see that too, because, like, this is what happens. And Muslim because when they see this, they’re like, oh, yeah, I do that like, I’m not, like, almost like a good boy or a good girl. So that was an important aspect for me. And also like if someone doesn’t know what goes on, this is what goes on. Like it’s just children being children. Yeah, I’ll, I’ll like, I’m not going to talk too much about the research I’ve done about the architects. 

George Brown: But talk a little bit. What was your approach? I was looking at the end papers and I thought that was cut paper. Oh, you said everything is digital. 

Hatem Aly: Everything is digital. The patterns have been like put digitally all over the place. But some of them are like scan things like you know you put it in a scanner. That scanner is like, you know, they transfer something into the computer, like I take a picture and you apply it on the digital thing. 

George Brown: So, some of the pieces you start traditionally to get to a certain stage. 

Hatem Aly: Some of them, yeah, especially out. Well, the story was I started to do that for fabrics, as if, like, there is a like patterns and fabrics and stuff like that for clothes. Because I know that it’s going to be a colorful and cultural, cultural differences and fashion and all that stuff too. Like people dress differently. So I started to do some like some floral things and different patterns myself. Actually, there was a funny story, maybe Mindy knows it. Well, when I was working on the book, the pandemic happened. It was 2020 and at that time, my wife was making some masks for friends and family. And one of our friends was the public librarian. And then she asked my wife to just, can we either hire you to do some further staff there over there? And then I said, yeah, sure. Of course I’m going to do that because it’s required and deliver and said we have a bunch of fabric laying around. We don’t do anything with it, so why don’t just take it and do that? So I was working on the book and I had a bunch of fabric all over the place. My wife was working on it, I was like oh just have to do this, and I was like, how can I just? I should put something about the pandemic in the book and I don’t want to put masked people because it’s not gonna last. So that’s what I’m going to take some of the fabrics that are people are wearing as and I’m going to put it in the book as like, you know, clothes or something like that. 

George Brown: I like that. 

Hatem Aly: And it worked perfectly. Like because, when I look at it, I smile. Like there’s something like, you know, there and not a lot of people know it. But when I tell it in school visits and stuff, they get, like, really excited about it because they experienced it too. Like, you know, this kind of “Oh yeah.” 

George Brown: It’s like the illustrator secret. 

Hatem Aly: I also tried to connect all the mosques in a certain way. Like, put those birds all over the book. Because I’ve seen a lot of birds, I don’t know. Like it’s common amongst a lot of things, churches and all that stuff. But just in my experience, when I go to, I went to different mosques, and I always see like pigeons and specifically they’re very, very like comfortable around humans. So I’ve seen pictures too, I think. I’ve checked with Mindy and she said she has the same experience. So I thought, okay, well, I’m going to put birds and sometimes cats because cats exist in mosques a lot just to kind of make a thread that connects the world together so little elements like that make a big difference. 

George Brown: And I think, you know, Mindy, from what you’re talking about and Hatem, what you’re talking about, like, you put the pieces together and that’s the magic of a picture book is when you, you know, what the author is thinking and striving for. And then the art does that piece. Now let’s see, Mindy, there was one spread that you really wanted us to use as a piece of art. Tell me about that one. 

M.O. Yuksel: So my parents are from Uzbekistan and one of the spreads featured in the book is a mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. And this is the first picture traditionally published picture book that features any place in Uzbekistan and when I first saw the illustration, I was deeply moved and then I showed it to my mom who, she saw the folding gather. She didn’t see that the actual book come out because she passed away shortly after she saw the folding gather, and she didn’t speak English. So I read the story to her and I translated the text and I showed her the pictures and I dedicated the book to her and my father, who’s also since passed, and she was also deeply moved and grateful. She said please thank the illustrator for me. And uh, so it it’s just, uh, you know the personal connection of home, she said this is my Vatan this is my homeland and to see that it was extra special for her and she thanked me. Which was, you know, which was an emotional moment where, you know you don’t have those moments with a parent where they’re thanking their child sort of thing. And so I was grateful, you know, to have that opportunity to share it and for her to see it and hold it. And I think that was the last picture I took of her was her holding my book. And she passed away like, three days after. So I requested when we were chatting about the art wall, if it could be one of the pictures on the wall and also it. The text fits in perfectly within the Highlights barn because the text on that spread is we eat naan, samsa, and sweet melon slices after prayer. And then the text on the next page is we zigzag, sneak, peek and play hide and seek in our secret playground I hope it’s never time to leave! And that’s how we feel when we’re at Highlights, especially in the barn where, it’s the dining area, we’re eating sweet, fresh, fulfilling meals and we never want to leave. We are and where we feel like we’re playing in our secret playground creating and learning and we don’t want to leave. So I thought the texts of that particular spread in the book would fit perfectly in that art wall. 

George Brown: Yeah, that’s a lovely connection. Well, speaking of that, talk to me a little bit about your, your work as a creative, as an author. Tell me, let’s see, a couple of books you’ve been working on. What you might be working on now. 

M.O. Yuksel: So this happened to me the last time I was on Highlights. I don’t know if there’s like some sort of magic here, which we hear others say also, but today at Highlights, I just got wonderful news from my editor that One Wish Fatma Al Fikri and the world’s oldest university the picture of a biography that came out last year in 2020 was selected as Bank Street best Books of 2023 and I just found that out. 

George Brown: Wow, that’s great. That’s while you were here. 

M.O. Yuksel: While I was here and previously when I was at Highlights, I think this was last year. 

George Brown: I love that. 

M.O. Yuksel: I found out, the School Library and Journal gave a starred review, again for One Wish and this is a book that took a lot a lot of heart and soul and a lot of perseverance to write because it’s about a woman who lived in the 9th century and there isn’t a lot of research or information about her and the information that is available is in foreign languages. It’s in Arabic, French, Moroccan Arabic is different from the other traditional Arabic. And so I had to do a lot of digging and translation work and justice to have this person’s story out there I feel like it’s so important because there’s a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about Muslim women and their rights that they have. The stereotype is that Muslim women are oppressed and they are submissive, they don’t have rights. The story of Fatima al-Fihri was that she lived in the 9th century in Fez, Morocco. She was originally from Tunisia, so she was a refugee. To they moved to Morocco, and in that day and age she was able to not only inherit money, buy land, but she was able to build a university. And this university still exists. Today, as a functioning university, a continuously operating university for over 1200 years, and they, after the book was published, I found out that they actually have her and her sister Mariam’s final exams and diploma from the al-Qarawiyyin University, so that she also attended and there were female teachers. In the university at the time teaching, both men and women. Uh, so the concept of, you know, Muslim women not being able to do things. Through this story, we see that it that is completely incorrect if there are, there are places there are countries where Muslim women are not able to do certain things, but that’s not related to the religion it’s related to the culture and the politics of that country. 

George Brown: Wow, I love that there’s the, just thinking about the depth of research that you go through to pull all the pieces together into this story. 

M.O. Yuksel: And I had a lot of help. There was a professor at Princeton University, Doctor Matthew Shuman. He was instrumental and then there is a professor at Fez, Morocco. She was very helpful, Doctor Fatima Siddiqui. Yeah, it takes a whole village to write a picture book.  

George Brown: And Hatim, what are you currently working on? 

Hatem Aly: I will talk about what I’m working around, but it takes about takes a village. I’ve also contacted some academics when I was working in In My Mosque because there were some specifics that I wasn’t sure about and I had to just make sure I’m doing the right thing. Yeah, it’s a lot of research and work and they have to just dig to get it right. So I’m working now on a few things actually, so I don’t want to like, just elaborate too much on one thing. Now I’m working on the final steps, hopefully I’m going to miss the deadline for a book with Mindy again. Yeah, it’s called Ramadan Kareem it’s about the month of Ramadan. And it’s going to be a lot of fun to see and read. It’s really lovely. It’s really like, as In My Mosque, it’s really beautifully written. So I’m try, I’ll try my best to make it as beautiful. Once it’s done, it’s going to be out next year probably before Ramadan. 

Hatem Aly: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

M.O. Yuksel: In Sharma, God willing. 

Hatem Aly: I’m working on the third companion for The Proudest Blue series book trilogy. Yeah, that’s the trilogy. It’s going to be called the Boldest White. This should be done by maybe mid summer or something like that, or it’s in the summer and I’m working on the last four books of the Yasmin series. These are going to be done too soon. 

George Brown: And tell me again how many books does Yasmine series is?  

Hatem Aly: So 1st 20 is going to be 24 Now. Well, I think that’s going to be it. 

George Brown: A that’s quite a few books you’ve been working on. 

Hatem Aly: Yeah, yeah, I was just done with some, so let’s see. 

George Brown: And So what does your typical day look like? Are you illustrating all the time? 

Hatem Aly: Uh, well, I tried to kind of control it a little bit by I like to when I can. I like to get up before everyone else. Early, early as possible. Just begin the day before the day begins and try to see what I should do today. Just so let’s just to see it out of my head because it’s overwhelming and start working and then I drive my son to school. And then I spend some time with my wife, so I’ll count some coffee, some breakfast or something like that, and then back to work a bit. Some breaks in the middle try to work after that, like see like it ends around like you know, five or six or something. And then I I’m just. 

George Brown: It sounds like a day job. 

Hatem Aly: Sounds like it. Yeah, but it’s from home. I try because I’m not a disciplined person and I’m, I’m kind of like, messy and all over the place and not very methodical or structured like I don’t have a structure exactly. I just go with my feelings a little bit with the work. Uh, so that makes like that compensate the messiness of the thoughts into just like, you know, a box time frame just to make you like a mini deadline everyday kind of thing.  

George Brown: And can you bounce from? You said you’re working on like 3 projects at once. Can you bounce or do you try to do one? 

Hatem Aly: One thing I don’t I don’t wanna like over confidently say that I can, but I do. I don’t know if I’m efficient in that, but usually it’s different phases. Like say, I’m working on some book like say the Boldest White that I’m working on. I’m just selling the sketches face, so I send it over and while I wait for feedback, I’m working on something else, and then when I get the feedback they usually say. We want something in two weeks. Start right away. I just continue what I was doing and then like a week before I just checked with myself how long I’m going to need for that other one. So I kind of tried to kind of juggle, but like wisely, not make it all on the same day or something like that. 

George Brown: That so, it’s, I love hearing the different approaches everyone takes to their work and we, we talk to authors and illustrators who are full time in their creative work or have full time jobs in the illustration and the writing takes place on the weekends or in the morning. So thank you for sharing that. How about you, Mindy? Do you have a regular writing practice? Are you a in line scheduled person with that or? 

M.O. Yuksel: Look, I love what Hatam said about, I like to begin the day before the day begins me. And I know a lot of authors who wake up like 4:00 AM in the morning and start writing. And you know, by 9 or 10, they’re finished or something. And that’s really inspiring like to have that motivation to wake up early and have the discipline, you know, in order for me to wake up 4:00 AM, I have to go to sleep at 8:00 PM. 

Hatem Aly: Right, right. Yeah. 

M.O. Yuksel: And my kids, I have three kids. They’re not going to be asleep at 8:00 PM and some sort of bound to their schedule and yeah, usually my day begins after my kids go to school and then. If I’m having trouble starting to write, I’ll use a timer. And I’ll put on some use the Pomodoro method or app and some you know, there are other apps out there for and then I’ll set my timer for 45 minutes. And just focus and not get easily distracted by, you know, my phone or checking e-mail or social media or other things, unless my cat walks in and starts meowing and then uh, then that’s when you know. 

George Brown: So you’ve learned how to turn off the distractions of your phone, but not your cat. 

M.O. Yuksel: Yeah, my cat tends to be very insistent. Like, if he starts meowing, he won’t stop. But then I I try to think of that as a blessing, like he’s coming to tell me I need a break and then I’ll, I’ll take a break. 

Hatem Aly: That’s funny like that, right? 

M.O. Yuksel: I’ll say I’ll be like, okay, my cat is telling me I need a break. Let’s take a break and go tend to his needs. And uh, but yeah, usually having the timer helps me focus where if I’m having trouble getting started and. Deadlines help me a lot, because as writers or illustrators, it’s a very secluded life and you know, thankfully we don’t have a boss over us supervising us. 

George Brown: But you do have deadlines. 

M.O. Yuksel: And having deadlines helps structure. 

Hatem Aly: Time is our boss. 

M.O. Yuksel: For me, it’s a motivator. And so it helps me structure. My time and what I need to do, but if I don’t have a deadline, then uh, I’ll have, like, my critique groups say, OK, this is when we need to submit and this is our deadline. And that’s what helped me recently, where I was procrastinating on revising a middle grade novel I’m working on. And so we got together with a few friends and said, OK, this is our deadline and we’re going to exchange our manuscripts. This day, and so that kept me going. Whereas if I didn’t have that accountability, I wouldn’t have finished. 

George Brown: And did you have that session with the manuscript exchange yet or is that coming soon? 

M.O. Yuksel: Oh yeah, we already had it actually. Our motivation and reward was to meet here at Highlights and to do and in person critique of our novels, because the other critique partners are coming from different states. And so we all met up here and we did a personal retreat. So that was a motivation and also a reward. 

George Brown: I love that I did not tee that up, but I love the idea that you’ve got your critique group and you decided to meet at the Highlights Foundation for some time to work together. 

M.O. Yuksel: Yeah, yeah, that was great. 

George Brown: Oh, well, thank you for doing. 

Hatem Aly: That it was wonderful. You get, like, the fed and feeling like you got, like, mutual motivation when you have, like, gather with other people that are doing the same thing you’re doing. 

George Brown: Well, I told you I’d only talk for 20 minutes. I think we’ve gone a little longer just because the conversations been so great. But I don’t want to leave without talking about why you were here. Right. So this was the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship Symposium where we had publishing professionals join in the conversation. And it’s kind of unfair of me to ask you this, but like, so, what’s your take or what’s the take away like? And there were so many moments throughout the last couple of days, but I wonder Hatem is there, something that stuck out to you or that you can think of as I put you? On the spot. 

Hatem Aly: There is many things actually, because we’ve been discussing a lot of things. I hope I remember all of them, but I think what stands out is this, having your back or having a circle of trust, there is a lot of difficulties that I’m going to say. Muslim authors and illustrators, but any marginalized group have in the industry. And usually it’s an awkward position to react how you’re going to react to this. Are you going to be like offended or you? Are you going to educate? Are you going to be acting out of? Are you going to act out from your feelings or you going to think about it or what we’re going to do? How are you going to process this information? And many times I, I usually go. I usually go to like I’m gonna ask a bunch of people that I know that I trust, get me out of my mind a little bit and see. Like, OK, what do you think about the situation? I don’t feel comfortable with this. How should I just do this? And I found like everybody does that like it’s this is the thing like you have to have this kind of community and people that have more experience or maybe a more you know rational or more emotional or more value? Oriented or more like practical, you have all that input and then you can decide what you can do about these kind of situations apart from problems of course, or anything like conflict or anything. It’s good to have this. I find like this., Like I said, there is a mutual feeling. Thing you’re not always receiving or giving, it’s just always both, always both and it’s very important to feel that you’re. All that is a story of something, and it’s going to ferment and branched out and all these people are going to be educating other people too, and inspiring other people too. It was just like a growing hard experience for me. I know that I have other points too that I remember that I got from all that, but I can’t recall the words to say it right now. I could make a long list, so I’m going to just give some time to Mandy to say, to say something. 

M.O. Yuksel: Yeah, I agree with everything you said that it was. Very powerful bonding experience and it was very nurturing and nourishing and in different you know ways and there are a lot of deep discussions and a lot of sharing of experiences and learning, and my take away was we have a lot more work to do in the field and industry, but with community with support from amongst ourselves and publishing industry friends who support us, it seems a little bit more manageable and you feel a little bit more motivated to continue doing the work even though it’s challenging and the Highlights Foundation has been the first to initiate such a program and George, you talked about how The Highlights Foundation is a family, you know, it originated from family and it’s a place where you welcome people as part of the family. And we felt that way as the Muslim storyteller fellows. And community members and mentors, we felt welcomed and in a safe space and. We felt part of the this the Highlights family and we’re, you know, immensely grateful for that. And for this opportunity to have this sense of community, because we’ve never had that before. And like Hatem said, we’ll carry it with us and continue. You know, to grow, God willing. 

George Brown: I love the there was a couple of times we talked about the tree and the seeds and so like this program, now we’re coming up on two years from when the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship started with 16 fellows and then six members of the program committee and then mentors. And now, as we brought in the publishing. We can see this tree is growing and sprouting and now, thanks to more funding from Doris Duke, we’re able to continue on the next steps with our Muslim storytellers programming. And so we’ll have a crash course, which is kind of like the intro everything you need to know about publishing. That will be specific for a cohort of Muslim writers who are and illustrators who are relatively new to the kid lit world, and it will be taught by some of the fellows who have already gone through this program. So that part’s pretty cool. And then like the second track is the whole novel for Muslim writers, and so then for people who are further along on their writing and working on the novel, we’ll have that program specifically for Muslim writers thinking about their novels. So it’s it’s so refreshing and I talked about this is just the end of chapter one as we move on to the next chapter. But it is it’s really created this framework. So now there is a community of Muslim writers in Kidlit who have this connection and you feel like there’s a there is a community to be a part. I love it. 

M.O. Yuksel: Definitely. Yeah. Yeah, it’s wonderful. And I hope it continues to grow for any industry professionals listening out there. We would love your support and sponsorship of more programs like this. 

George Brown: Well, it is just about dinner time and I believe this evening there’s a special celebration dinner for you all. So I don’t want to keep you. So thank you. Hatam Ali and MO Yuksel, also known as Mindy, for joining me in studio four at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center. I look forward to our next visit. 

M.O. Yuksel: Thank you for having us.

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