Today it is my great pleasure to introduce you to author Inda Ahmad Zahri and her debut picture book Salih.
Salih will tear at your heartstrings and fill you with hope as we follow a journey from a war-ravaged home to a new land of promise.
About Inda Ahmad Zahri
Inda Ahmad Zahri believes in a world of wonder. Her stories are inspired by natural and cultural gems curated from her travels and lovingly added to her Malaysian heritage.
She is also a surgical doctor, swapping her writer’s hat and paintbrush for scrubs and scalpel when duty calls.
Like a turtle, Salih carries his home on his back. He must cross a raging sea in search of a safe home. Salih paints his happiest memories and sends them as messages in bottles. Will someone find them and understand? Will Salih find a new home?
My response to Salih
I was captivated by the blurb (shared above).
It immediately tugs at our hearts. We feel Salih’s pain and his need, his hope upon hope that someone will understand and that he will find a new safe home.
When there are so many displaced people in our world, our communities and our classrooms, this book provides us all with an opportunity to feel with and for another, to feel compassion, empathy and understanding. It is sometimes too easy to view refugees as ‘other’. Salih ensures we identify what connects us when he shares his memories, so similar to ours, and wishes he could forget the bad times. He shows us the importance of the simple things that bring us all joy. This picture book empowers readers of all ages to understand life from another’s point of view.
Inda Ahmad Zahri’s beautiful and perfectly chosen words combine with Anne Ryan’s haunting illustrations to bring Salih to life for us and urge us to not abandon him but to wrap him with love and kindness. Every smallest detail, from Salih’s symbolic turtle backpack to heart-shaped waves and skies that brighten with hope, helps to create Salih’s changing world.
Salih is a picture book for every home and classroom. It is one whose story you will not easily forget.
Hi Inda, welcome to readilearn.
Thanks for having me.
First, let’s talk about Salih. What gave you the idea for Salih and why did you feel it important to write?
Salih is a story about a refugee boy who finds himself in a hopeless situation through no fault of his own as he flees with other travellers who have been displaced from their homes.
I’ve always felt very keenly about this living tragedy – millions of people around the world forced to leave everything they know while risking their lives to find a better place. In university, I learned a lot about refugees through an organisation called STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and continued to take a keen interest as different situations unfolded in the news.
When I wrote Salih a few years ago, a couple of things happened in my life that pushed this story to the fore. I had become a mother, and felt a new level of empathy for those who had to flee with their families. I wondered what it would be like to make that horrible journey with a child, then I imagined what it would be like from the point of view of a child.
At the same time, there were increasing reports through the news about refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Africa or the Middle East into Europe. I later learned that in 2018 alone, 139,000 people arrived in Europe, though many perished along the way. What’s sad is that often, there was no true refuge at the end of their journey – they faced prejudice, detention, persecution, and I wished so desperately for a warm welcome for them.
So, I wrote this story to acknowledge their journey, and because I wanted a world where kindness was easy to impart, and that Salih and his companions could find safety, even if within the pages of a children’s book.
What do you like best about your story of Salih?
What I like best is the fact that hope finds a way, even if it is as brittle as paintings in empty bottles tossed away at sea. I also like that those paintings encouraged the inhabitants in the new land to act with kindness and generosity, something that I wish would happen more in real life.
Do you like the way Anne Ryan has illustrated your story?
Absolutely. Anne has done a tremendous job at not only conveying the story but a whole host of emotions, and I am so grateful to my publishers for intuitively pairing her with this story.
I love her interpretation of Salih’s alter-ego, the turtle. Sometimes the turtle appeared a part of Salih, sometime next to him, and if you look closely, a family of turtles find refuge alongside the boat people in the final spread. I thought it was such a gentle take on a child’s psyche.
What is your favourite illustration? Why?
There are two illustrations that stand out for me, one painted in warm colours and the other in cool colours.
The first is a double page spread in desert reds and browns where Salih and the refugees are painting their memories. It’s the first sign of hope, and for the first time in a long time, they are almost happy.
The second is a soothing blue and green illustration of Salih and the turtle peering over the side of the boat that is an imagined turtle’s shell, looking out to a sea that has finally calmed.
There are so many emotions in both illustrations!
How did you feel when you wrote Salih?
Sometimes, I felt incredibly sad. I have come across many accounts of refugee journeys, either from speaking to people, reading articles or books, or from the media, and even when these things are happening half a world away, it is not that hard at all to close my eyes and imagine what it would be like if things happened out of our control and my life changed in an instant.
How do you hope readers will feel?
A part of me feels guilty about writing a sad story for kids! But I do hope that beyond that, they would have a sense of hope and a confidence that kindness will always prevail. I really, really hope that the story might plant a little seed of empowerment and empathy. For example, if a conversation came up about refugees, or if some were to be settled in a reader’s community, they would be reminded of the things they have in common and how much it would mean for someone new to be welcomed after a long journey.
How would you like teachers to present Salih to children?
I would like them to bring up the awareness of displaced persons, even if it’s as simple as explaining how and why some people are forced to leave their homes. It would also help to relate Salih’s journey to aspects of the children’s lives – what is home? What are the things that you like and dislike? What emotions do you feel at different times? What do you wish for? How is kindness important?
Older children may want to take the discussion further. After all, we are a country who receive refugees and asylum seekers and there are great debates about our treatment of these families. There are also lots of ways for us to reach out and help within the community. I feel like children have a great sense of justice and often see things more clearly than adults, and it would be interesting to develop these thinking skills.
What are the most important messages you would like them to discuss?
Above all, the overriding message I would like them to discuss is kindness. Why it matters, how it changes the world, how it can change a life, and what happens in its absence.
Now let’s talk about writing. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Always! Writing has been a passion of mine since I was a little girl. I was very lucky to have grown up surrounded by books and given encouragement to read and write. I wrote terrible stories as I was growing up, but they turned into decent essays in school, and I carried on for many years with diaries and blogs. I travelled a lot, and so I revelled in new experiences, and was always hoping for that something to happen to me that I could turn into a novel.
I hadn’t thought of writing children’s books before, but that changed when I became a mum. And now I absolutely adore children’s literature and count myself grateful to be part of an inspiring writing and illustrating community.
Where do you write? Do you like to be by yourself in the quiet, or do you like to write in a noisy space?
I prefer relative quiet. I don’t do well with loud conversations or blaring music, but I don’t mind it in the background, for example in cafes or libraries.
What do you use to write – pencil and paper or computer?
A mixture of both. I never leave home without a notebook. I often scrawl in it as I’m working something out, and later refer to these barely legible scribbles when I have time to sit in front of my computer to write.
Sometimes I email short snippets to myself, for example just before going to bed.
When do you write?
When I can. Even now that I’m only working part time, I feel like there is so much to get done during the day that I’m creating in the cracks. I’ve come to accept that I won’t have hours on end to write, and so I really appreciate when I do have that time.
Sometimes I make a point of going to a café or library to get a chunk of writing done.
When do you get your ideas?
At the most random times! Often when I’m doing something manual like weeding, dishes, tidying up. I also like prompts, like the ones that are given as exercises during writing workshops – a few of my stories have come from those 10 minutes of mad and random scribbling.
Do you think of the story in your head before you write it?
Yes, I do. I mull over it for some time before setting down pen to paper.
Have you written any other books or stories?
My second picture book, ‘Night Lights’ is scheduled for release with Little Pink Dog Books in September this year. It’s one of the first picture books I wrote. I’ve also just been offered a contract for a new picture book which I hope I can share soon.
There are several other picture book manuscripts which are in various stages of revision and submission. I’ve also written a middle grade adventure novel and I’m excited to begin a mentorship to develop it further under the 2021 ASA Award Mentorship Program.
Do you have any advice for teachers in their role as writing guides?
I can only answer this from the point of view of a once-young writer, rather than a teacher.
Encouragement and nurturing from a teacher or role model is always valuable. Prompts are helpful, even now. It is also useful to track progress, for example in the form of a diary, or periodically revisiting earlier works, because it allows the student to see how far they’ve come.
Writing can also be a form of catharsis, like the story ‘Freedom Writers’ where the teacher took on a class nobody wanted and encouraged them to write their own stories.
Do you have any advice for children as writers?
I feel like children have more advice to give us about writing and art, rather than the other way around. They do it so naturally, without the kind of hang-ups that we have.
I would simply say: have fun and write from your heart!
What is your favourite picture book?
A very difficult question!
I delight in so many types of picture books, from silly to sweet. So this list is not likely to be very comprehensive!
I love heartfelt books like ‘Amy & Louis’ by Libby Gleeson & Freya Blackwood, ‘Spirit’ by Cherri Ryan & Christina Booth, ‘My Two Blankets’ by Irena Kobald & Freya Blackwood and ‘Old Turtle & The Broken Truth’ by Douglas Wood & Jon J Muth.
I adore rhyme, and some of my favourites are ‘You Nest Here With Me’ by Jane Yolen, Heidi E. Y. Stemple and Melissa Sweet, ‘All The Ways To Be Smart’ by Davina Bell & Allison Colpoys and ‘Beach Wombat’ by Susannah Chambers & Mark Jackson.
‘The Proudest Blue’ by Ibtihaj Muhammad, S.K. Ali & Hatem Aly, ‘I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me’ by Maggie Hutchings & Evie Barrow and ‘Windows’ by Patrick Guest & Jon Bentley are some recent ones that deal with important issues.
But there are so many others!
Who is your favourite author? What do you like about his or her work?
Again, another difficult question.
This is especially hard for picture books because the illustrations tell so much of the story, but a couple examples who come to mind are Douglas Wood for the honesty of his writing, and Jackie French was her command of verse, especially in the natural disaster series that she did with the inimitable Bruce Whatley.
For middle grade and YA, I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Acevedo, Karen Foxlee, and the late Steph Bowe. I’ve also just finished Helena Fox’s debut novel, and her voice is simply stunning.
Inda, thank you so much for sharing these insights into Salih’s story and your motivation for writing it. It was also interesting to find out a little more about your writing process and what books you enjoy as a reader. I’m sure many will now include Salih as one of their favourite books as I have.
Where to purchase Salih
Salih is available in all good bookstores and libraries.
It can be purchased from the publisher, Ford St Publishing https://fordstreetpublishing.com/book/salih/
where you can also download teaching notes.
Signed copies are available from Inda’s website
while stocks last.
Find out more about Inda Ahmad Zahri from
Her website: www.indabinda.com
Or connect with her on Social Media
Instagram – @inda_binda
Facebook – facebook.com/indabindawriter
This interview is now available free, in a ready-to-print format, in Literacy Resources Author Spotlight Author Spotlight – Inda Ahmad Zahri, along with interviews with other authors. The information may be displayed in your classroom or included in a class book about authors and illustrators.
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