CHICAGO — As Muslims around the world celebrate the month of Ramadan, one local woman has released a new children’s book geared towards Muslim children. A tale that takes place in a Ramadan setting, the book and its author are quickly gaining popularity.
Shirin Shamsi is one of Chicago’s Very Own.
Shamsi has spent years volunteering her time reading story books to school aged children. This week, as she read to middle schoolers at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, she is appearing as an author of a picture book that took her 25 years to get published.
“I just want to write for children because they are the most important people in the world,” Shamsi said.
Shamsi was born in England to Pakistani immigrants. As a child she was a voracious writer. She was constantly documenting her life in her diary. She remembers at age 7 she would fill up the pages so much so, that she’d need to tape extra paper to the pages to chronicle the events of her week.
Years later after having children, she continued her love of reading and writing and wanted to share that with her kids, especially around the Muslim holidays. But she could never find any children’s books representing her culture.
“I always wanted a Ramadan book because I felt like my children didn’t have a book to celebrate their holidays and their heritage,” Shamsi said.
So, she decided to do it herself. She decided to write a book about Ramadan to read to her children. That’s when “Zahra’s Blessings” was born.
“It’s about a little girl at the start of Ramadan. She see’s the Ramadan moon and she wishes for a sister,” Shamsi said.
Her first edition was rejected by publishers. She was disappointed and she shelved the book. But once her children went to college, some 15 years later, she thought it was time to dust off her manuscript and rework the main character.
After entering the revised piece to a Twitter pitch party, this Ramadan children’s tale took flight. Barefoot Books published it in early April. Over a decade after she first put pen to paper. And it’s been quite the hit for readers.
“It’s because it deals with so many themes, it’s not just a theme about Ramadan and family, it deals with displaced people which is such a timely, unfortunately relevant to today, and it deals with giving and charity,” Shamsi said.
The the story behind the story is also remarkable. Although the book went unpublished for two Shamsi decades, continued reading the original version to students.
To her surprise, the illustrator chosen for the book was quite familiar with the tale — Shamsi had read the book to her second-grade class years before.
Shamsi now the author of six children’s books including a books she co-authored with some of her Jewish and Christian friends. She has another one in the works.
“I think with ‘Planting Friendship’ the children will see, yes there are three faiths, and see yes we have different traditions but we all believe in the same values and everyone is really the same,” she said.
She says her goal is to convey empathy and understanding in children.
“For example, if a child is reading ‘Zarah’s Blessing,’ for one child, it may be mirroring experience but for another, it will be like they are invited into a Muslim home and have a positive experience.”
She has been humbled by the positive response to her book, however, she believes there is still a void when it comes to more diverse representation in children’s books.
“I think until every child can see themselves validated in story books we have to keep at it.” she said.
For more information, visit Shamsi’s website.