Today in “Meet the Author”; I am honored to interview Yahiya Emerick. He is an author of over twenty books including the Ahmad Deen and Layla Deen series, an educator, a publisher and president of the Islamic Foundation of North America (IFNA).
Muslim Children’s Books and Media (MCBM): Assalamu alaykum brother Yahiya and welcome to the blog.
Yahiya Emerick (YE): Wa alaykum assalam, happy to be here!
MCBM: Tell us a little about yourself.
YE: Well, I was born and raised in a small town in the Midwest region of the United States. I was raised as a Baptist Christian and had a pretty unremarkable childhood. I became interested in theological issues when I was around fifteen years old after hearing a sermon one Sunday that made absolutely no sense. The preacher was trying to explain the concept of the Trinity, and, needless to say, it made me more perplexed than before. I accepted Islam when I was nineteen and away at college. I had been reading the Qur’an for about six months and couldn’t deny the personal appeal from God to the reader. Ever since then I’ve moved about and did some activists work and eventually I became a school teacher. So here I am today.
MCBM: When did you begin writing? Why?
YE: I was an avid reader from an early age. I really got into Sci-fi/Fantasy books at about thirteen years of age, and I always marveled at how skilled writers could weave entire worlds just from their own imagination. I had some helpful creative writing teachers in grade school and I sometimes wrote short stories for fun. I didn’t start seriously writing until after I had become a Muslim. I saw that a lot of Islamic books were written in a very one-dimensional way without much verve or imagination. I wanted to write books that would show people how I saw Islam when I came into it. For me, Islam was a blend of spiritual, emotional, intellectual and practical things all woven together in an artistic tapestry that one could use to decorate their inner and outer world. After being exposed to classical Muslim literature from the “Golden Age” I now know that this is exactly how Islam was lived before by so many, and it is the lens through which we must see Islam again.
MCBM: How did you come up with the Deen family (Layla and Ahmad Deen) stories?
YE: I was teaching a world history class to a bunch of sixth graders, and I wanted to spike up a lesson one day. I started to narrate a tale, totally off the top of my head, about a boy named Ahmad who was exploring some old ruins. My imagination got carried away and I found myself weaving a full-fledged adventure story. The kids were mesmerized and I realized that part of the reason they were happy was that the story had a Muslim hero. So that week I sat down and wrote, “Ahmad Deen and the Curse of the Aztec Warrior.”
MCBM: You have also authored several books on understanding the Qur’an, one especially for teenagers. What was the reason behind writing these books?
YE: As a movement, Muslims have so many blind spots that it’s sometimes unnerving. There’s a reason that Christians and Jews have so many niche markets and books for all levels. Muslims take it for granted that, well, a kid from a Muslim family will be and stay Muslim by osmosis and association. Christians and Jews used to think like that, but then the secular world began to swoop in and steal their children. Muslims have not fully reached this awareness that we have to do da’wah to our own children in order to win their loyalty for life. I write books, therefore, to bring Islam to our young people in a way tailored for them. Too many of our ‘scholars’ live in ivory minarets and fail to see the lives of the real people below them.
MCBM: Are you writing any books at present?
YE: All the time. I always have at least 5-10 projects in one stage of completion or another. If I didn’t have to work two jobs to support myself and my family, I could (inshallah) publish or produce a new product for our youth and for da’wah each month!
Some of the many books witten by Yahiya Emerick
MCBM: Why do we need Islamic stories (fiction) in our schools?
YE: Kids form their attitudes by watching and imitating their peers. That’s how they learn. Most parents recognize pretty quickly that after about eight or nine years old, the average kid is pushing the boundary and seeking to explore beyond the world of mommy and daddy. By puberty, kids look almost exclusively for inspiration and identity from their peer group. Books are another window into viewing and adopting attitudes and if our kids spend their reading time reading only about non-Muslims and their world, then our Muslim kids will feel that the non-Muslim world is the ‘real’ world. Nobody wants to be in the ‘unreal’ or ‘fake’ world, so even if our kids appear to be Islamic to us, in their minds they are only biding their time until they can fully enter the ‘real’ world. After working with Muslim kids for fifteen years, I cannot tell you how many good little Ahmad’s and A’isha’s have transformed after their teenage years into something unrecognizable as a Muslim. Having some books with Muslim characters allows our kids to see that, in addition to the non-Muslim world, there are places and spaces to be Muslim, also. The two can even mix, and in that mix, Islam can still remain.
MCBM: What can parents do to encourage their children to read on the whole and especially to read Islamic literature?
YE: There’s lots of general advice out there on how to get your kids to become readers. Of course, the kids have to see you reading all the time first. Then you have to have lots of kids books and kids magazines around the house so there’s lots of opportunities to pick something up. Weekly trips to the library and bookstore are a must. Let your kids choose what they want to read. Don’t try to blatantly micromanage. Don’t interrogate your kids after every book or require a book report. For Allah’s sake, cancel cable TV. You don’t need it either. In my house, we don’t even have regular TV service – by design. (We only use the TV to watch DVDs.) As for Islamic literature, you need to have a lot of it around! Let your kids select things at book tables, bazaars, etc… If you notice your local Islamic bookseller has little in the way of nice kids books, tell them to get some, or order online.
MCBM: Why did you start the Amirah Publishing Company and what has been your experience as a publisher?
YE: I basically needed a venue to publish my own work. It has never become a big company or anything. I never had the time nor the money to do anything really big. As a publisher, my biggest challenge has been to get booksellers to pay their bills when they order books from me!
MCBM: Where do you see the Islamic publishing industry in the next 10 years?
YE: Consolidated, definitely. I also see it much more diverse. There will be growth in the ultra-conservative publishing houses, who are subsidized by governments, and this makes it hard for the rest of us. The good thing is that the quality of writing from those places is very poor, even if the English is correct, so people will still seek our products out.
MCBM: What are some of the themes/subjects you wish to see Muslim authors write about?
YE: More teenage, real life experiences. A lot more literature for the tween set. We need a monthly kids magazine and a separate monthly teen magazine. These have been tried in the past, but always failed, due to a variety of factors. We also need more diverse literature, not just flighty poetry or political books.
MCBM: What advice can give to young and aspiring Muslim writers?
YE: Write a lot on what fuels your passion. Don’t worry if you can’t find a publisher – start on the internet and then get your stuff on the Ipad or Kindle!
MCBM: Do you have any final thoughts before we end?
YE: The world is entering a very new and untested period. I believe we, as Muslims, need to transform ourselves to meet this challenge. We must come out of our cocoons, smell the chai and see how we can make Islam relevant for the coming centuries. Future generations will either have an easier time being Muslim or a harder time based on our groundwork today. That’s a big responsibility and it is what Allah (swt) requires of us. Strive together in His cause, the Qur’an tells us, and we will be compensated with satisfaction and Allah’s good pleasure. Truly that is what seekers should work to achieve! Ameen.
MCBM: JazakumuAllahu Khairan brother Yahiya, for taking time out from your busy schedule to answer these questions.
May Allah reward you for all the work you do and continue to do.