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“I hope it sparks conversations about our shared humanity and the things we have in common.” Debut PB Author M.O. Yuksel and Illustrator Hatem Aly on IN MY MOSQUE

By Sara Truuvert

M.O. Yuksel never imagined she would be an author, but that changed when she was asked to read to her son’s preschool class a picture book about a Muslim holiday. Unable to find such a book suited to her son’s age group, she decided to write one herself, launching her journey to authorship. After years of writing and rejection, M.O. published In My Mosque, her literary debut. 

In My Mosque celebrates the diversity, traditions, and joy we can find in mosques around the world. It serves as a beautiful introduction to Muslims and Islam and reminds us that mosques are welcoming centres for community and love. The book also features an author’s note, a glossary, and additional educational material. It launched on March 23rd, 2021 from HarperCollins and is widely available to order.  

In addition to her passion for diverse voices and books, M.O. loves travel, yoga and meditiation, and cheering on her children at their soccer games. You can find out more about M.O. on her websiteTwitter, and Instagram

Illustrator Hatem Aly’s work has appeared multiple times on the New York Times bestseller list. These books include The Proudest Blue,the Yasmin series, and The Inquisitor’s TaleHe lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and many pets. You can find out more about Hatem on his websiteTwitter, and Instagram

Q for M.O.: A huge congratulations on your PB debut! You grew up attending mosques around the world. Are there any particular memories from these mosques that found their way into this book?

M.O.: Thank you so much! Yes, the text reflects my personal experiences attending mosques. The first line of the book, “In my mosque, we are a rainbow of colors and speak in different accents.” comes from my experience attending mosques around the world, particularly in New York City, Istanbul, Samarkand, and Mecca. In these cities, I loved seeing the diversity of people streaming in for prayer, especially Friday prayer, which is the holy day of the week for Muslims, people who practice the religion of Islam. I love the serenity and peacefulness of being in a safe space together as a community as we listen to the sermon of the imam, and the melodious sound of the adhan, or call to prayer. 

I have a lot of fond memories, like being with my dad at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey and feeding the pigeons outside the mosque. Eating naan, samsa, and sweet melon slices after prayers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. And visiting the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia with my mother and brothers, and being awestruck by the sight of so many ethnicities and cultures from around the globe becoming one as we circumambulated around the Kaaba. All beautiful memories that I get to share in this book and cherish through the remarkable illustrations of Hatem Aly.

Q. Would you tell me a bit about your journey to publication?

M.O.: To be honest, I never imagined being an author. I’m a first-generation immigrant, with roots in Uzbekistan and Turkey. I came to the U.S. as a child, not knowing any English. Fast forward 40 plus years, I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to write books that serve as mirrors and windows – a mirror for Muslim children of all ethnicities who are underrepresented, and who need to see themselves and their cultures represented in books. And a window for those who are not familiar with these stories.

I became interested in picture books after I had kids of my own. I was invited to read a picture book about our holiday at my son’s preschool, but I was surprised that I couldn’t find any books appropriate for his age group. So, I decided to write one and my journey into authorhood began. I worked on my craft for several years. I joined SCBWI, attended conferences and workshops, took classes at the Highlights Foundation, joined writing communities like the 12×12 picture book group, took online classes like the Children’s Book Academy, and Storyteller Academy. After I had several polished manuscripts, I queried agents, received many rejections, continued querying, and finally, in 2018, I signed with my agent, Jenna Pocius at Red Fox Literary

M.O.’s workspace (photo courtesy of M.O.)

We went on submission with a manuscript, received rejections, never heard from some editors; we submitted more manuscripts, received more rejections. Publishing involves lots of rejections! But you only need one ‘yes’, and with In My Mosque, we received three offers of publication! Which was a dream come true. I eventually signed with my wonderful editor, Megan Ilnitzki at HarperCollins. 

Q. Is there a moment in this book you are particularly proud of or excited for people to read?

M.O.: There are so many stunning illustrations in this book I’m excited to share. I love seeing the diversity of people and mosque architecture on the pages of In My Mosque. Often, Muslims are presented as a monolith and seen in a limited, negative, and biased lens. I wanted to celebrate the breadth and diversity of the most ethnically diverse religion in the world, practiced by more than 1.8 billion people across the globe in every country, in every skin color, language, and culture. And Hatem Aly’s illustrations showcase this beautifully. I hope this book broadens the scope of understanding and sheds light onto a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith and people.

Q for Hatem: Would you tell me a bit about your illustration process for In My Mosque?

Hatem: It required more thought process than anticipated. As I read the manuscript, I got a little anxious. I’m familiar with mosques and all the terms mentioned in the book, but how can I make it visually intimate was concerning me. I’m not the most accurate or factual person when it comes to drawing and giving character with an emotional line to locations, especially when they are the hero and not props or backgrounds. I realized despite my direct connection and prior knowledge of mosques that I should start researching some books and go online to get some ideas. You quickly get the validation that just like languages, accents, and cultures, different things can be so diverse even within the same category. It was “kind of” up to me to jump from one mosque to another throughout the book, so I wanted each page to be as distinct as possible.

This introduced some challenges, not just how can I make it intimate in a subtle way while keeping  it authentic, but also how can I incorporate my own experience? That was when I took a deep breath and started to just get a few spreads sketched out and see what came up. I knew I should put mosques from Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Turkey, so here are three countries covered, and as I sketched I found myself adding pigeons to many scenes. I’ve always seen pigeons around many mosques, as well as cats, and it just made sense to have them present all around the book, and things started to shape nicely.

One lovely process story is that while the world was going through a pandemic, my wife was making face masks for family and friends at that time, so she was approached by our public librarian (and friend), Diane, to make a few masks for herself, the library staff, and some of her family members as well. She also gave my wife some fabric she had lying around and told my wife to feel free to use it. So I scanned some of these to use in the book as clothes’ patterns and textures just to capture the moment in an implied way, and it worked out pretty well and was perfectly fitting. The illustrations were rendered digitally with the help of some scanned textures. I am glad that the pigeons and the fabrics kept things cohesive and tied the spreads with an invisible thread.

Q for M.O.: Something that can be a challenge for writers is creating a story that educates as well as entertains. How did you find that balance when writing this story?

M.O.: One thing we’re always cautioned not to do as writers is to be didactic. So, to educate as well as to entertain is a tricky balance to strike. I think tapping into our childhood self, mining our cultural heritage, our family history and traditions, knowing who we are, and sharing our experiences from a place of authenticity helps in creating a story that educates as well as entertains. 

Q. In that vein, do you have any advice for young writers?

M.O.: Oh, I love giving advice! Ask my younger brother – I give him unsolicited advice all the time. But joking aside, I think advice for any writer – newbies and veterans – is to surround yourself with professionals you admire. Join SCBWI, attend conferences, workshops, work on the craft of writing and illustrating. Even if you’re not an illustrator, I think it’s important to understand illustration because picture books are 50% text and 50% illustration. Picture books are visual storytelling, and it’s helpful to be knowledgeable about illustration even if one doesn’t illustrate. 

One other tip I find especially useful is to reverse engineer books that you love. Type the text of the picture books you admire and study the page turns, the arc of the story, the parts that resonate with you, and notice how the story looks completely different without the illustrations. And to prove I love giving advice, I also have a list of resources on my website.

Q for Hatem: Do you have any advice for young illustrators?

Hatem: Have patience, work hard, show your work, look at art, explore life, challenge yourself, communicate with a group of people you admire – online is fine – and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or do work that you’re not completely satisfied with. Just move on to the next one. It also helps if you figure out what you want and try to get closer to that world you want to enter…it could be frustrating at first but it’s like approaching a planet – you’ll get sucked in by gravity once you reach a certain point. Just keep at it. 

Q for M.O.: What sorts of conversations do you hope spring from this book?

M.O.: I hope many conversations are sparked by In My Mosque like the diversity of Muslim people, cultures, and mosque architecture; the joy and beauty of community in a place of worship; but most importantly, I hope it sparks conversations about our shared humanity and the things we have in common.

Watch for M.O.’s next book, One Wish: How Fatima al-Fihiri Built the World’s Oldest University, from HarperCollins in spring 2022.

Sara Truuvert completed her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. She also holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers and a BA in English, Drama, and the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada among other publications.