Laila and the Sands of Time
Bok Review by Eve Panzer the Barefoot Librarian for Reader Views Kids (8/19)
Interview by Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views Kids (9/19)
Shirin Shamsi was born and raised in the UK, and now makes her home in the Chicago suburbs. Laila and the Sands of Time is her debut middle-grade novel. Shirin has raised six children—three human and three feline—all of whom have provided much inspiration for her stories. When she is not writing, Shirin enjoys reading, painting, and spending time with family.
Hi, Shirin! Thank you for joining us today on Reader Views Kids! Tell us about your new book, Laila and the Sands of Time.
Hi. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
Laila and the Sands of Time is a middle grade novel for ages 8-12 years. The main character has recently lost her father to cancer. She is struggling with loss, grief and dealing with her relationship with her remaining family, who are her stepmother and baby sister. Laila decides to go on pilgrimage with her aunt and uncle as she had planned to do so with her father before he became ill. Deep down she is hoping to find something of her father’s faith to help her deal with all she is going through.
What was your inspiration behind the story?
The idea came to me over two decades ago when my eldest daughter who was an avid reader, asked me to write a chapter book. You see I was writing stories, often illustrating and laminating them to make picture books for my two younger children, aged five and six at the time.
Tell us about 13-year-old, Laila’s character. What motivates her?
Laila is a regular 13-year-old who has suffered a deep loss. She does not remember her mother, who passed away when she was a toddler. Initially what motivates her is her love for her father and a desire to make him proud. She is trying to make sense of her new life, her changed circumstances- that is, facing life without her father. She is also trying to come to terms with the confused emotions that she feels for her stepmother and baby sister. She begins to resent them for taking away her time with her father.
What cultural and historical lessons will young readers learn about while reading Laila and the Sands of Time?
First and foremost, I hope readers enjoy the book as a story about a girl’s journey. I would hope that readers unfamiliar with Islam and Muslims will learn something of the history and how interconnected all faiths are; how though cultures and religions may be different, our humanity is the same. Loss is loss, grief is grief and ultimately every human being’s wants, and needs, are the same. I hope this book can inspire empathy, understanding and tolerance on some level for there are many misconceptions about Islam out there. For, example, my childhood friend just recently told me she found out that Muslims love Jesus. There is so much in common with all faiths and I believe we should focus on that to build bridges rather than barriers of misunderstanding. After all, we should all live out our lives on this tiny, beautiful planet in peace and harmony.
And, what about the Muslim religion?
The story is about a 13-year-old girl who happens to be Muslim. As a child, growing up in Europe, I did not see books that represented my faith or culture. So much so, that when Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was released and I heard the words “Bismillah” in the song, it gave my heart joy. It’s such a small thing, but for a teenager growing up in London, it was huge- just one word. Fast forward to when I had my own children. I wanted to write books where they could see themselves. I wrote for them. Now they are grown, I write for all children. If they can see they are not alone, that though we are unique with our differences- we are united as one human family.
What are the most important lessons Laila learns from her father?
For Laila, her father’s faith and steadfastness kept her grounded, even though she did not feel it, she knew it was a goal she would perhaps reach if she kept searching. It’s important because children do need to have good examples and role models in order to find their own inner strengths. Laila finds her way when she looks outward, ironically perhaps, when she is lost.
This is your first chapter book, but you’ve also written picture books. How does writing in the two genres differ?
I find they both come with different challenges. In both genres you need a lot of editing. I have to say, even though it may appear that writing a thirty-thousand-word book is difficult (and it is!) I struggle with the low word count in picture books. Also, with picture books, one has to keep in mind that it is a combination of art and story, which is a great challenge, but when it is successful one can read the book over and over again and never tire of it.
Are there any similarities between the two genres?
Yes, of course, it’s all about writing a good story. That is the most important thing. When an idea comes to me, I have to decide if it works best in a picture book, chapter book or middle grade novel.
What does your writing process look like?
In my early years, I thought writing was a pretty lonely job and I was very unorganized. Since joining SCBWI, a whole world has opened up. I have an amazing support network of writing groups, with critique partners both online and local to me. Writing is my full-time job, or so I tell everyone, but although I do not write all day, I try to keep up with writing-related activities for most of the day- with breaks for laundry, cleaning and other household chores. There are days when I read more; there are days when I only edit- or critique work for others. My favorite days are when I sit down to write, my cat Bramble beside me, and the writing flows. It’s a rare occurrence, but wonderful when it happens.
I have decided that whatever time I have left, I would like to devote to creating books for children.
How long did it take you to write Laila and the Sands of Time?
If I go back to when I first had the idea for Laila, then I would say over twenty years. If I’m totally honest, I was not writing seriously. I was fearful and thought it would not be good enough, so I would get stuck or simply procrastinate- and months turned into years. I did not get serious about writing until my youngest went off to college, In 2010 I joined SCBWI and decided I would work on Laila until I complete it. It took about eight years, if you include the edits after signing the contract.
How involved was your research for this book?
I wanted to get every detail right. I had to find out what life was like in Seventh Century Arabia. I read books of fiction to get the feel of the time. I asked for help from the wonderful reference librarians. I would check and double check facts for there is nothing worse than getting historical facts wrong.
When readers told me that they felt like they were sitting in a sandstorm and then realized they were actually sitting snug in their home, it made all the research worthwhile.
What kind of reaction to your writing do you most seek from your reading audience?
I want to write stories that resonate with readers, stories with heart. When a reader told me that she cried when she read the book, I felt moved and gratified that Laila’s story touched her so deeply.
What is the biggest challenge writing for a middle-grade audience?
The biggest challenge is that I no longer have middle-grade children. One of my critique partners suggested I spend time with preteens and teens. I did just that. I keep in touch with children as I want to write books for them. Children are the most important people in the world, and I have many children in my life; great-nephews and nieces, children of friends. I have been volunteering to read in schools as a storyteller for many years now.
What do you like to read?
As well as reading children’s books, I love the classics. I also love to read Marilynne Robinson’s books. Her Gilead trilogy are some of the best books I have read. Her books move me to tears- they have a lot of heart. In children’s books, one of my favorites is Tom’s Midnight Garden. I have read it many times. Each time I read it, I am moved to tears. While I do enjoy books with humor, books that go deep and stir my soul are the ones I choose to read.
Which writers have inspired your own work as an author?
Every writer I have read since childhood has inspired me along my journey, but the greatest inspiration comes from my father’s example. He was an educator and a writer. His life’s example has been my life’s inspiration. In his honor, on what would have been his centenary, I ‘planted’ a Little Free Library in my front yard.
What do you enjoy outside of writing?
I enjoy painting, reading, traveling to visit family across the world. Volunteering as a storyteller and arranging book fairs in schools. I ran a mother and toddler group for two years, just so mothers would have a couple of hours in which they could meet other young mothers with babies. Everything I do is book and child related.
So what’s next? Do you have another story in the works?
I have about fifty picture books, two middle grade books and one chapter-book series in the works. There is not enough time for all the stories I wish to write.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing or about life in general?
You need patience to be a writer, for there will be rejections before an acceptance. Patience is a much under-rated virtue and with patience the human spirit can rise above great challenges. I think that is good advice for living too. In a world that has become fast-paced, it would do good to slow down, be patient, take it all in, for life is precious. Each day is precious. We need to be mindful of every moment that passes.
Do you have any advice for aspiring/emerging authors?
Keep writing every day. Do not worry about editing, just get it all down first. Be patient. Work hard. You need persistence and perseverance to reach your goals. Know that you are endowed with gifts that are unique to you. It is incumbent upon us to use our gifts to make our world better in some way.
Shirin, thank you so much for joining us today on Reader Views Kids, it’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work!
Thank you so much for this interview. Thank you to my readers. Writing truly is a labor of love and it gives me joy to hear from readers. I would love to know what each reader comes away with from the story.