Zibby and her daughter interviewed author Saadia Faruqi about her latest book, A Thousand Questions, as part of the Washington Post KidsPost Summer Book Club. Although it’s a middle-grade novel, Saadia hopes that readers of all ages will enjoy it and learn something about Pakistan. She talks with Zibby about why she wants to write books for kids about other cultures that go beyond news headlines, invite young readers to have complex conversations, and feature characters that are not often seen in books. Link to join the KidsPost Summer Book Club here:


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Saadia. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss A Thousand Questions.

Saadia Faruqi: Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Zibby: I’m so excited to do this, in particular because it’s part of The Washington Post KidsPost Book Club. I’m thrilled to be supporting that. I saw a huge write-up of it in The Washington Post one day. I was like, this is amazing. I have to get my daughter, who’s sitting right next to me, to do this. She picked two of the eight books and said, “These are the two I want to read.” One of them was yours. That’s why we’re here today.

Saadia: I’m honored. Thank you so much. I’m very honored and grateful for that opportunity with Washington Post because it means that more kids can get to learn about a different culture and a different country and hopefully find out that we’re not all that different.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter what we wear or how we look. It’s the same issues, these same girls playing in the courtyard and dealing with poop emojis and whatever else in the book.

Saadia: Oh, my gosh, yes, all the poop emojis that are in my book.

Zibby: Saadia, why don’t you tell us what your book is about? What inspired you to write it?

Saadia: A Thousand Questions is a middle-grade novel although, kids and adults of any age can read it and, I hope, get entertainment and benefit out of it. It’s a friendship story, basically. It’s a story of two girls. Mimi is an American girl who is visiting Pakistan for the first time for summer vacation to meet her grandparents. She’s never met them before. Her mom’s from there, and so she’s been dragged for summer to spend time in this big mansion. She hates it. It’s too hot for her. The food is too spicy. She doesn’t know the language. She just wants to go home. There she meets Sakina. Sakina is the other main character. Sakina is the servant in her grandparents’ house. Sakina is kind of irritated by this rich American spoiled girl who now she has to serve and kind of be her companion because they’re the only two kids in this big mansion. Nobody wants to deal with them. Everyone’s got their own issues and dramas going on. The more time they spend together — they kind of have to in the beginning, but they realize that they’re not as different as they had thought. They both have these impossible dreams that are hard for them as kids, as eleven-year-olds, to even wrap their heads around. Mimi is looking for her dad who left them when she was little. Sakina wants to stop working at a rich person’s house and go to school, but she doesn’t know enough English to pass the test to go to school there. They decide to help each other and hopefully achieve some part of their seemingly impossible dreams. They become friends in the process. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. It’s basically, like I said, a friendship story that I think will resonate with a lot of readers.

Zibby: Absolutely. I have to say, I found it pretty heartbreaking, the way that — what is the main character who came from America? What is her name again?

Saadia: Mimi.

Zibby: Mimi, of course. Mimi, that’s what we call my mother. The way that Mimi writes letters to her father and is always reliving the experience through his eyes, writing what everything is like, updating him, this constant need for approval and attention that she just sends out with hopes into the ether, if you will, tell me a little bit about that and this need for love from all sorts of places, even though the mom was like, good riddance to bad rubbish, and all of that about the dad.

Saadia: Right. That’s where the title of the book comes from. Mimi is the kind of girl who always has a lot of questions, like most kids do probably. Her problem is that there’s nobody willing to answer any of her questions. She has so many questions about her father, why he left, what he’s like. Where is he? What is he doing? Does he miss her? Her mom’s not interested. Nobody around her wants to answer these questions, so she starts writing in this journal. She never meant for anyone to see that journal. It’s just her way of processing these difficult feelings that she has. I hope that a lot of my readers and your listeners will also see writing as therapeutic. I certainly do. It can be a way to process your feelings. She does. We’re all looking for love. We’re all looking for answers to questions that we all have in our minds. It’s not always possible to get the answers. I think that what Mimi does is smart in a way that she documents her own grief and her longing and her questions. I guess people should read the book to find out what happens with this journal and her questions. Does she ever get them answered or not?

Zibby: Dot, dot, dot, question mark.

Daughter: Wait, I didn’t realize both her and the servant were both eleven.

Saadia: Yeah, they’re both the same age. In fact, at one point, Sakina tells her father that, “She’s my age, but she is taller than me.” He says, “Yeah, because she’s from America. Kids get more food and more air and a better life, so they’re able to grow more.” It’s just one of those little things that maybe you might want to — when you’re listening also, the audiobook will — you might miss a few things.

Zibby: I don’t know, we’re sitting here 5’2″ and five feet. I don’t know if we didn’t get enough sun or water or something here in America.

Daughter: No, because my brother’s 5’5″. My dad is 5’10”. I could’ve been so tall, but I’m not.

Saadia: That’s her father’s way. The thing with fiction is that fiction is not reality. You can’t read a storybook to find out real facts, what it would really be, height or genetics or things like that with different people. That’s the reason that Sakina’s dad gives her, maybe as a way of telling her not to — he doesn’t maybe want her worrying about how she looks. That’s what he says to her. I always heard that growing up too, but who knows? Diet, exercise, genes, who knows what’s what with different people?

Zibby: I was also struck by when Mimi and her mom got to Mimi’s mom’s childhood home in this beautiful mansion, although falling apart a bit at the seams, but that she was so dismissive of what she calls the servants who were there working. She wouldn’t even say hello. She just blew right in the front door. Mimi was left to be like, aren’t we supposed to say hi to this girl over here?

Saadia: Servant culture is very interesting, I’ve found, for Americans or probably all Europeans. I guess I didn’t introduce myself, but I’m originally from Pakistan. I was born there. I grew up there. I went to school and college there. Then I came to the US as an immigrant when I was twenty-two years old. I kind of have these two halves of me, this part of me that’s grown up in this one kind of culture that has a lot of great things but also has — every culture is like that. Wherever you go, you’ll see things that you don’t like and things that you do like. They make up you and your experiences. I think even the negative things, you can’t really dismiss them because they’re a part of who you are as well. In a lot of poor countries, servant culture is really an important part of the economy. There are a lot of poor people. They are employed by the richer people. That’s how they survive. It’s very interesting dynamics of that. Then a lot of times, some rich people do get snobbish and they’re not really treating their servants the way they should. It’s all very complicated. Her mom is used to that like I was growing up there. When Mimi’s mother goes back, she’s automatically gone back into that mindset of these people — a lot of times, you don’t even see servants if they’re there throughout. For Mimi, this is new. There are people serving us. I don’t have to get up to do anything. My stuff is done for me. One of the many themes in my book is classism and what poverty means in a country like America versus a country like Pakistan. They’re not the same thing. Saying somebody’s poor here is very different from what it means to say someone’s poor over there.

Zibby: Let’s say there are two kids who just read your book who live here in America and didn’t know much about Pakistan to begin with and just finished reading your book. What are some of the things they should know the most? What might not have gotten in the book? What’s the behind-the-scenes inside scoop for kids who now have this newfound interest in a culture they weren’t as familiar with before?

Saadia: First of all, I tried to be very comprehensive. I tried to put in as much as possible. There are a lot of different themes. If you read the book, you’ll see there’s an election going on in the background. There’s talk about democracy. There’s talk about what corruption means. It’s not only a kids’ book. I really don’t think so. I don’t know, Zibby, if you enjoyed it or not.

Zibby: Of course, I did.

Saadia: I wanted it to be something that adults could also enjoy and maybe get something out of, and kids as well. I think that if kids are listening or reading this book, they should get a pretty good overview of a lot of different things, but it’s not possible to get everything in one book. That’s why I always encourage people to read multiple books from different cultures so that you can get different perspectives. This was my perspective. This was the story from my experiences and my lens. I grew up in Pakistan. I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t as poor as Sakina. I’m in that background where I knew a lot of what Sakina felt in terms of just being angry at the way things were. Why were some people rich? Why couldn’t I have what other people had? I wish I could go to America. All those kind of feelings, but then, I also wasn’t working. I was in school. Thankfully, I didn’t have that much of a negative experience. When you read different books — read my book. Then read another book. Read maybe nonfiction as well. Then you’ll get more of a rounded view of Pakistan. Just don’t read negative news articles because I think that that’s what happens. One of the reasons I wrote this book and one of the reasons I write books in general for kids and adults is that I don’t want people to read headlines of newspapers when something bad happens and think this is the only thing about this country that’s worth knowing. That’s literally the least important thing worth knowing, which comes on CNN or Fox when something bad happens. Stories can be a really good bridge between those two gaps.

Zibby: Is that why you started your publication?

Saadia: I did. My first ever book was a short story collection set in Pakistan for grown-ups, actually. I wasn’t writing for kids originally. It was all adult fiction and nonfiction. I used to do a lot of, and I still do a lot of interfaith work, which means that I would go out to different communities and groups and talk about similarities and faith and culture and things like that as a way of bringing people closer together. I realized that so many people often have the same questions when they would find out I was an immigrant, when they found out that I was from Pakistan. They would keep asking me the same kind of sometimes stereotypical questions, sometimes weird questions, but they’re all in people’s minds. You can’t dismiss people’s questions, like the whole title of my book is, just because you don’t think it’s a good question. After several years of doing speeches and presentations and just going over the same thing again and again, I decided, why don’t I write a book which is a story, but it’ll bring across a lot of things? That’s what got me on this path. With children’s books, I wanted my kids to see themselves in books. My kids were growing up here. They’re first generation. They didn’t find any books that were about kids like themselves. I decided, well, I’m a writer, so why not write kids’ books too to bring across that, help kids and other kids like them?

Zibby: Perfect. As I mentioned earlier, maybe before we were recording, my daughter and I listened on one pair of headphones split between the two of us sitting side by side for most of this book. Do you have any questions? My daughter’s fourteen. We just listened to the audiobook.

Saadia: Who was your favorite character?

Daughter: I liked Mimi because that is also what I call my grandma.

Saadia: It’s interesting. I have readers who are from South Asian background. They all hated Mimi. They were like, she’s so spoiled. She’s so rude. She’s so this. It was funny because a lot of my other readers love her. Everyone’s going to love different characters. That’s funny.

Daughter: I liked the mom because she likes art. I really like art.

Saadia: I put a lot of me in her, not necessarily experience-wise, but I’m creative. Obviously, I write. It’s a profession that’s not really considered a good profession. It doesn’t earn a lot of money. In Pakistan and a lot of South Asian cultures, if you’re not a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer or somebody making lots of money, you’re a failure. I was like, okay, Mimi’s mom is going to be a failure. You put your characters in all kinds of difficult positions.

Zibby: Do you have any other questions?

Daughter: I was just thinking, since your kids are first generation, I’m probably . On my dad’s side, I found out that —

Zibby: — We don’t have to talk about it.

Daughter: I found out I’m on your side too.

Zibby: I know, but we don’t have to talk about it.

Daughter: I’m sixth, seventh.

Saadia: What she’s trying to say is every one of us, most people in this country are from somewhere else originally. I’m just from somewhere else myself. When you’re talking about kids, they’ll be like, no, we’re from here. My parents are from somewhere else. For other people, it’s their grandparents or their great-great-great-grandparents. I love that. I love that about America where we can bring our different cultures and experiences together in one place and then meld it into something else that’s beautiful. It also comes with a lot of challenges. You may not face those challenges because you’ve been here many generations, but people who’ve come newly to another country, wherever they go, those are unique challenges. Some of my other books talk about those as well, what it means to not really fit in because even though you’re from here, you look different. People look at your parents, and they think you must be like them too. It’s hard. I like to put that in my books and explore that so that my readers can think about it.

Zibby: How about the process of writing? How long does it usually take you to write these books? Do you outline the whole thing first? What’s your process like? How do you come up with your characters and your plots and all of that?

Saadia: I’m a very fast writer. I know a lot of authors who are constantly like, oh, my gosh, how do you do it? I get very obsessed with writing, which is, I don’t know, good or bad, whatever. I like writing. I have a lot of ideas. I’m usually writing multiple books at the same time. I often have multiple books coming out every year. Next year, I think I’ll have seven or eight books coming out. I have an early reader series that comes out every year. I have my middle-grade novels. Because I do that, while I’m writing multiple books, it’s important for me to outline really carefully and have it all down in my mind and on paper before I start. Otherwise, I get totally mixed up. That would be bad. Yes, I do a lot of outlining, very, very specific. I’ll have a summary of the entire book completely done before I start writing. I know exactly what’s going to happen. Then I do chapter summaries. Every chapter, I summarize. Then I write it. It changes. Obviously, it’s not going to be completely set in stone in the outline stage. I really recommend if you’re a writer, that. Oftentimes, we write with a great idea. Then in the middle, we’re stuck because we didn’t really think it through. What’s going to happen? I recommend plotting and just having all the characters really defined and their qualities and everything so that you know what you’re doing. It works for me. I don’t think it works for every writer.

Zibby: I know you said you have seven or eight coming out every year. What upcoming book are you most excited to release?

Saadia: Oh, my gosh, glad you asked. This is my new — I don’t know if you’ve seen it, Zibby.

Zibby: No.

Saadia: This is my new middle-grade novel. It’s called Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero. It’s a 9/11 book. We know that the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is later this year. This is a story about a boy, Yusuf, who is living in a small Texas town and getting ready to really over-the-top commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. There’s a lot of things happening, bullying not just of kids, but of adults as well, and vandalism. The town is not doing well because of this event that’s coming up that’s making everyone upset and unhappy with memories and feelings and things like that. He finds a journal of his uncle who was a kid at the time of 9/11. It’s a back and forth between two time periods. There’s Yusuf’s story going on. There’s a robotics competition. He wants to win. Then other people are not happy with him or his community. He’s also reading his uncle’s journal and realizing that even though twenty years have passed, a lot of things are still the same. He has to figure out a way to stand up for himself and his community and maybe heal a little bit of the wounds that we see all around our nation for the past twenty years. I’m nervous because it’s a very important but deep and heavy topic. I want kids like your kids and my kids to know about this. They don’t care because it happened before they were born. It’s something that we need to talk more about and move forward as a nation with.

Zibby: I agree. We definitely talk about it.

Daughter: I feel like me and my twin care more than my middle siblings.

Saadia: If parents talk about things and if they hear things at school, it’s easier to grasp it and understand it. It’s been twenty years. My community, the Muslim American community, has been deeply affected for the past twenty years because of laws, because of regulations, because of things that have been done politically, because of the wars that have been going on outside of this country that affect our friends or our relatives. Those are things that it’s hard to move forward from. I interviewed countless people who were kids at that time. Then I put a lot of that in my book as well. It’s good to talk about it. Then when you hear about people who have negative reactions, we have to talk about them with them too. That’s the hard part, to bring people to the table who don’t want to be there or who want to have not the nicest things to think about when you’re concerned.

Zibby: It’s true. Were you about to say something? No?

Saadia: You had known someone, so I think that’s why we know more about it than some of my friends.

Zibby: Yeah. I lost my best friend on 9/11, and so I told my kids about it. We remember her.

Daughter: Last year, we watched the ceremony.

Zibby: We watch the ceremonies.

Saadia: If you have a personal connection, I think that it’s important. It might not be easy to talk about it, but it’s something that one feels that is necessary to discuss with kids. Most of the kids are not like that. If you have friends or relatives or somebody who went through something on 9/11, you’ll talk about it. Otherwise, unfortunately for our nation, it’s like a wound that hasn’t actually healed. Just imagine having a twenty-year wound on your body that’s not healed. You’re not happy as a person because of that even if you’re going through your regular life. It’s just bothering you. You don’t know how to fix it. This story hopefully is a way for kids to understand some of those things. It’s a good story because there’s a lot of fun in it too. It’s not all sad or boring, I promise. I’m excited about that. Keeping my fingers crossed. I hope I don’t get hate mail or something.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Saadia: Aspiring authors, actually sit down and write something. I think that a lot of us want to write, but we never find the time. Yeah, life is hard. I started writing after I became a mom. I was like, what am I even doing? I don’t have time for this. Actually, sit down and just write even if it’s a little bit at a time. Don’t think that, I’ll do it later. Even if it’s not good, that’s fine. The first many books I wrote were total trash. I would never show them to anyone. That’s how you become better. Read a lot of books, especially books that are similar to what you want to write. If you want to write a children’s book, read a lot of that. You’d be surprised how many people don’t read, but they want to write. Don’t do that.

Zibby: Amazing. Saadia, thank you so much. Thanks for talking to us about A Thousand Questions, about your upcoming book. Thanks for being a part of The Washington Post KidsPost Book Club. Thanks for talking to my daughter and me today. We really appreciate it.

Saadia: Oh, my gosh, I appreciate your having me on. I love talking about my books, obviously. You can tell. I hope that your listeners give books from other cultures a chance because it can be so fun to learn about somebody who’s different from you. I promise that at the end of the book you’ll figure out you’re not that different. Thank you.

Zibby: I love it. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Saadia: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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