One of my favorite things as an author is to interact with the readers I write for and take their questions. And at school visits, the number one craft question I receive from students is: where do you get your story ideas? The answer to this question surely varies from author to author, but for me, inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere.
My middle grade novel, Amal Unbound, a story about a young girl and her quest for education and freedom, drew from two sources of inspiration. First, I wanted to write a story set in my ancestral lands in Pakistan. While Amal’s village is fictional, it is based on my parents’ respective villages. My grandparents were farmers in Punjab. They grew sugar canes, orange trees, and cotton groves. I had fond memories of playing hide-and-seek in the sugar cane fields with my cousins, plucking fresh oranges from the groves, and visiting the local market.
But based on the things that students would say to me as a child growing up, I knew that the Pakistan that most people heard about was not the Pakistan I knew. And when all we learn about a country is based on the headlines, it can lead to a skewed vision of that place and its people. As Brandon Stratton, of Humans of New York said upon visiting Pakistan:
When there’s only room in the newspaper for a single column about Pakistan, it’s going to be filled with the most compelling story. And unfortunately, that tends to be the most violent story. And those are important stories. Those are the types of stories that expose corruption, stop genocide, and alert the world to emerging threats. . . [W]hen those stories are all that we hear, it’s so easy to imagine a world that’s far scarier than it really is.
I wanted to tell a story that went beyond headlines– a story about a girl growing up in an ordinary village. I knew that most children may not visit a village in Pakistan, or meet a friend in a sugar cane field like Amal does, but they could through a story. This is the unique power of story– it can put us into other people’s shoes– it can remind us of the common threads of humanity that bind us all together.
As I was planning out my story, a global story was unfolding about Malala Yousefzai– the young girl from Pakistan who was speaking out about educational access for girls. Over and over, I’d hear remarks about how brave she was. I thought of the many brave children I myself encountered as an educator who worked with a refugee population. I was a second grade teacher and I’d met kids who had endured a great deal and who were brave beyond measure. Slowly, a story began to emerge, of a girl who was quite brave, but who would never become famous or see her name in print— but whose bravery mattered all the same.
From these two founts of inspiration, Amal Unbound came to.
But sometimes my ideas are inspired by my readers. When I wrote Amal Unbound I had no plans to write any more stories in her universe. But as I met students at school visits, read emails and letters from dear readers, this was a consistent question: Will there be a follow-up to Amal Unbound?
To which I always said no. Amal’s story ended at the last page of that book. But the more people asked, the more I began to think about Amal’s world. I wondered what her friends were up to. Outspoken Hafsa who never takes no for an answer. Her father, Shaukat, who ran the produce stand. And Omar— her best friend Omar, a servant’s son, who lived in the shed behind her home. Last we met him in Amal Unbound, he’d just found out he received a scholarship to attend a prestigious boarding school that could change the course of his destiny.
I started wondering about him more and more. What was he up to? What was life like for him out there? What would be some of the challenges he might face as one of the few kids not from an elite background?
And so, thanks to the questions I was asked so frequently, a story began to form. OMAR RISING, which came out in February 2022. OMAR RISING is a companion novel to AMAL UNBOUND– one does not need to read one to understand the other, though it will enrich the experience to read both. In OMAR RISING, readers follow Omar as he bids farewell to his fellow villagers and heads off to boarding school. He’s eager to learn and be part of the school but soon learns that scholarship kids are treated like second-class citizens. The story follows him as he tries to succeed, the obstacles he faces, and how he bands together with his community to fix a broken system.
The act of writing is a solitary one— one person at their notebook or computer screen pouring their heart and soul onto paper— but stories are not created in a vacuum. There are critique partners, agents, and editors, and there are readers. There is a relationship between an author and their readers. OMAR RISING is the first story inspired directly by this relationship, and I am so very grateful.
Aisha Saeed is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of books for children. Her books, including the middle grade novel Amal Unbound (Penguin), the young adult novel Yes No Maybe So (co-written with Becky Albertalli), and the anthology Once Upon Eid (co-edited with S.K. Ali) received multiple starred reviews. Amal Unbound was selected as a Global Read Aloud for 2018 and was the winner of the South Asian book award. Her picture book, Bilal Cooks Daal (Simon and Schuster) received an APALA honor. Aisha is also a founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books™. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram via @aishacs.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed. Many thanks to Penguin Random House for donating a copy of the book to one of our commenters.
- For a chance to win this copy of Omar Rising, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, May 8th at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 12th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
- If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SAEED. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Congratulations to David Smith whose commenter number was chosen to receive a copy of Omar Rising.