As a young girl, who lived in a rowhouse in South Philadelphia and played Wiffle ball in the street, I loved no book more than Anne of Green Gables. Anne was an orphan who was adopted by a pair of siblings who initially had wanted a boy to help them manage their farm. Instead, they got a spunky, red-haired, intelligent girl who stole their hearts. Though she was poor, Anne roamed through the woods and ran through the green fields of Prince Edward Island, a place that was far more beautiful than the paved streets and narrow alleyways of South Philadelphia.
As the daughter of immigrants, who often felt isolated among her American friends, I connected with Anne who was also an outsider in the town of Avonlea; people tended to think the worst of her because she was an orphan, and she dealt with their judgement fiercely. And her imagination and her loneliness often combined in ways that brought tears to my eyes, such as this sad moment when she faces being returned to the orphanage: “I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here forever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”
I’ll say that later, as an older child, I realized that all the books I was reading starred white children; that bothered me more and more, because I could imagine myself in anyone’s shoes (that’s the power of readings, after all), but couldn’t there be a book that met me halfway? A book that, while I stretched my imagination to connect with it, simultaneously reached out to me?
Therefore, when I finally decided to write a children’s book, I wanted to carefully craft it so that it would reflect my values and my ideals. Therefore, I decided four things:
First, my main character would be a Palestinian American girl. Like me. Like my own daughter. It would be an #ownvoices book. I named my protagonist Farah [which means “joy” in Arabic] and gave her some fun traits — she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s curious, and she can be stubborn. She speaks Arabic at home with her parents and English at school with her teachers and friends, and I included a glossary of Arabic terms in the back of the book.
Second, Farah would be working class. This was very important to me, because many times, the characters we see in #kidlit books tend to be privileged kids. Money is never discussed because the reader is supposed to assume the character is financially comfortable. Farah’s family, however, struggles financially — her parents work hard, but they’re always pinching their pennies, and like any lower-income kid, Farah is acutely aware of this. It’s a testament to my own upbringing; I was raised in a family that was often short on money but had an abundance of love and affection.
Third, this book would be the first in a series. For example, as a kid myself, I read Anne of Green Gables several times before I saw, in a Scholastic flyer, that there was … a second Anne novel? Indeed, Anne was a character who spanned an entire series: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, and more. The story didn’t end at the closing of the first novel. I realized, with a thrill, that I never had to lose Anne. At its core, this is the appeal of the book series: the joy of finding a good book and realizing there’s a whole bookshelf at the library or bookstore with the Boxcar Children, Ramona Quimby, the Sweet Valley High twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Later, I became a big Agatha Christie fan and followed Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.
The fourth thing was that Farah’s story would be a chapter book. I didn’t want to write a picture book, nor did I want to pen a novel for older, more advanced readers. I wanted kids in the younger grades as well as older kids who were still emerging readers to meet Farah Rocks. This was a deliberate decision because very little attention is given to the chapter book, one of the hardest-working genres in children’s literature. A chapter book, loosely defined, is a book targeted towards readers who have graduated from picture books [although, in my opinion, nobody should ever “graduate” from picture books] but who are not yet ready for novels. The chapter book is a happy medium — a long story, broken up into shorter chapters, lightly illustrated throughout.
The chapter book is a victory for the emerging reader. It’s a “real book”, as my own kids used to say, with just enough pictures to break up the text but not so many that the prose is de-emphasized. Finishing a chapter book makes a young reader feel like a big kid, and it creates a positive vibe around the experience of reading independently.
I’m excited to see where Farah goes on her adventures, but no matter what, I’m glad that she, and the series, reflect my values and my commitment to my readers.
Susan Muaddi Darraj won an American Book Award in 2016 for her novel-in-stories, A Curious Land. She teaches creative writing in the graduate programs at both The Johns Hopkins and Fairfield Universities. Her #ownvoices chapter book series, Farah Rocks, debuted in January from Capstone Books.