Eid. The simple, single-syllable word holds 2 billion different connotations, one for every Muslim in the world. Traditions, foods, celebrations, rituals—the holiday can’t be narrowed down to a single religious prescription, or a single culture’s experience.
A new collection from New York-based publisher Abrams Books, entitled Once Upon An Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, is a remarkably touching, profoundly uplifting anthology of short stories focused on the unbridled joy of the holiday, targeting both Muslim and non-Muslim children.
And with the year we’ve all been having, it’s high time for something uplifting. Diverse, beautiful, and the antithesis of today’s issues with inaccurate, one-dimensional Muslim representation, the collection is a veritable gift to children everywhere, but is equally enjoyable for young adult and adult readers as well.
It is our hope that we are representing children who have historically not seen themselves reflected authentically in print.
Its diversity goes beyond being a ‘win’ in the Muslim representation column. In addition to reflecting the massive range of backgrounds within Muslim communities, it features a plethora of experiences that at all times maintain the central agency of the young characters, whether they’re navigating the holiday in their recently converted family, experiencing their first Eid in a refugee camp, or learning how they fit into their Bronx-based West African family.
We caught up with the two editors of the anthology — New York Times bestselling author Aisha Saeed and William C. Morris Award finalist Sadijah K. Ali — to talk about the wonderfully joyous Once Upon An Eid.
For more English-language children's books that reflect Arab and Muslim experiences, check out our full list.
The collection also includes a comic called 'Seraj Captures the Moon' (excerpt above) written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by the talented Sara Alfageeh, whose art also appears on the cover and throughout the anthology.
What was the first impetus behind putting the book together? Why do you think an anthology like this is important for young readers?
Sajidah: The idea for this anthology came from a desire to give young readers cozy, happy, warm stories that reflect Muslim experiences. I went to Aisha with this thought: what if a group of authors came together to write stories with a joyful theme like Eid, a celebration that ties our diverse Muslim communities together?
It's a strange time for our book to make its way into the world. Amidst a global pandemic, there is every reason to worry and despair, and yet if we are to make it through we must also hold on to the small moments of joy that keep us going.
Aisha: When Sajidah reached out, I was so excited. We are friends and the idea of collaborating was very exciting. Eid is a holiday all Muslims celebrate, but aspects of the celebrations can vary from culture to culture. A short story collection featuring diverse voices felt like an organic way to share Eid stories. And though one collection cannot represent every Muslim voice because we are nearly two billion people—we hope there are flashes of recognition and feeling seen for all who read.
The cover, illustrated by Sara Alfageeh, radiates the sentiments of love, community, and joy that permeate the book.
Beyond exclusively ‘happy’ stories, many of the stories deal with complex themes. In N.H. Senzai’s ‘Searching for Blue,’ Bassem experiences the first Eid in a refugee community off the coast of Greece. In Sadijah’s own ‘Don’ut Break Tradition,’ Nadia deals with her mother’s illness. How does the book retain its centrality on joy, while communicating heavy issues to children?
Aisha: Thank you so much for asking this question! Some of these stories do tackle weighty topics that are not necessarily joyful on their face. But even during the most difficult times, I believe that joy—finding it and savoring it—is critical to wellbeing and survival. It’s a strange time for our book to make its way in the world. Amidst a global pandemic, there is every reason to worry and despair, and yet if we are to make it through we must also hold on to the small moments of joy that keep us going. These stories are rooted in real life and real life is full of challenges. We hope these glimpses of joy in each story highlight how we can continue to smile and hold onto hope all the same.
There is often a misconception of homogeneity within the Muslim world, and we were very careful in making sure there were a multitude of voices to show the beautiful diversity that I love about our faith.
Sajidah: Being authors who write for young readers, we know that kids love reading about how characters their ages solve problems that they might be encountering themselves or know of. All of the stories have main characters who are active in seeking and bringing joy into their lives through reflection and confidently exercising their agency. The contributors to the anthology were unanimous in keeping the spirit of hope and happiness threaded through their stories—perhaps because the theme of Eid evokes such emotions in us all.
Alfageeh's illustration for Huda Al-Marashi's short story 'Not Only an Only.'
I ask this question especially because I am based within the Arab Muslim World, which is usually over-represented, and the sheer range of backgrounds in the stories is wonderful. The anthology reads as polyphonic, not a single Muslim experience, but multiple. Could you tell me your thoughts on that? Was it intentional, were there any challenges in executing?
Aisha: It was absolutely intentional for us to highlight the diversity of our Ummah in these collections. There is a great deal of diversity in the Muslim world; we hail from all inhabited continents and have so many different and beautiful cultural traditions. And yet there is often a misconception of homogeneity within the Muslim world, and we were very careful in making sure there were a multitude of voices to show the beautiful diversity that I love about our faith. It was very important for us to reflect this as much as possible.
What if a group of authors came together to write stories with a joyful theme like Eid, a celebration that ties our diverse Muslim communities together?
Sajidah: When we asked our contributors for pitches, besides the abundant cultural diversity, we were very moved by the diversity in experiences as well—like family make-ups and socioeconomic differences as well. From the get-go, we hoped this anthology would speak to and connect with a wide variety of readers and our contributors made that a reality with their stories.
Alfageeh's illustration for Hena Khan's short story 'The Feast of Sacrifice.'
My impression is that works of this nature — clear wins in the 'representation' column — often make the choice to either speak internally, for the communities they represent, or speak outward, to 'mainstream' or majority culture. My usual question would be who the book is for, though it seems that you mean the book to be for both Muslims and non-Muslims. How do you make the conscious choice to include, while avoiding 'pandering' or over-explaining to readers that might not necessarily understand the cultural nuances in the stories?
Aisha: With Once Upon An Eid, it is our hope that we are representing children who have historically not seen themselves reflected authentically in print. This is a collection for Muslims to see their stories reflected in words. This is a story also for non-Muslim readers to get a glimpse into our joy and our traditions that are often not seen.
Sajidah: One of the best parts of this project was working with authors who know of the critical issues of representation when it comes to Muslims. There’s been a lot of conversations in the public sphere of what it means to be a Muslim helming our own narratives. There’s no one answer that fits all questions when it comes to this topic.
However, one thing that we began the anthology with was this sense that we were going to give readers who know Eid and readers who don’t know Eid a glimpse into insider experiences as interpreted by each contributor, based on their perspective, rooted in their specificity and context, however they defined it. Wow, that’s a lot of nuance there!
And that’s what we got—nuanced stories that spoke with a sense of belonging, as though the authors knew they belonged in our community of storytellers. I like to believe it helped that both Aisha and I, as Muslim editors, were trusted to understand and honor their contributions as they were.
The book is now available. To find out where to purchase the hardcover or e-book, click here.
Illustrations by Jordanian artist Sara Alfageeh, courtesy of Abrams Books.