Planet Omar: Why it's about time young Muslims saw themselves in children's literature
The New Arab caught up with Zanib to find out more about her book and how she broke through publishing boundaries to become a full time author.
Zanib's path to publishing is anything but conventional. Despite her passion for writing she followed a love of science to become a teacher.
"I fell in love with writing when I was a little girl," she explains. "I would fill notebooks with my poems, heavily inspired by Dr Seuss. But at secondary school, I found a new love – science."
It was only after having children of her own that Zanib got the idea to write books about Muslim characters.
"I realised that things hadn't changed since when I was at primary school. Diverse characters were still missing from children's books," she says.
Determined to create something her children and other Muslim readers could relate to, Zanib decided to write her own stories.
She began by self-publishing, but knew that in order to make a real difference she'd have to take the plunge and go all in.
"I made a career change and focused on writing and publishing books featuring diverse characters full time."
However, with publishing notoriously difficult to get into, especially for Muslim and BAME authors, Zanib's success didn't come easily.
"My path into publishing was a bit unconventional," she explains. "I published The Muslims, which is now Planet Omar, under my own independent publishing house. It won the Little Rebels award in 2018, which is when it truly gained the spotlight and got the larger publishers interested.
"I'd say I broke through when I finally started being me. When I realised that we don't all have to be the same to get along. We can be who we are, unapologetically, and also love and accept who other people are."
Told through the eyes of an eight-year-old Omar, the story revolves around a quirky Muslim family living in London. It begins when they move to a new house and school, causing Omar to become a target for the class bully, due to his 'differences'.
The idea for Planet Omar was heavily inspired by Zanib's son, who was nine-years-old at the time.
"He has a clear Muslim identity as well as a clear British identity," says Zanib. "He's funny, cheeky, kind and can be quite a trouble magnet!"
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The story doesn't shy away from hard hitting issues that are affecting the youth right now such as bullying and racism, and approaches it in a thoughtful, clever way.
"With Trump's campaign for presidency and Brexit in the UK, there was a lot of prejudice afloat that even children in the playground were not sheltered from," says Zanib.
"The impetus for writing the book came from wanting to give the world a regular Muslim family, which much like any other family, is full of quirks, silliness, sibling rivalry and mischief. I wanted the book to correct some of the negative stereotypes of Muslims."
Speaking about the themes in the book Zanib adds: "Bullying is something that, unfortunately, a lot of children will relate to. I hope they seek comfort in seeing Omar struggle through the same thing, and how he handled it. They will also be prompted to think about what makes people nasty towards others in the first place.
"I hope that Muslim children are empowered by finally seeing themselves as the hero in a book and that readers of other faiths can learn something about Muslim families too.
"There is some insight into our Islamic practices, woven into the pages. Perhaps it may answer questions that people have but were too afraid to ask."
Speaking about the future, Zanib promises more middle-grade books: "Planet Omar is a series of books, so look out for more to come. I love writing for this age group. The second book is called Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy."
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is out now
Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London. Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman
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