written and photographed by Claire Miller
For several years, aspiring writer Reem Faruqi (M.Ed. ’08) became accustomed to seeing her writing housed solely in Microsoft Word documents.
She’d pen her children’s book stories and send those files off to various publishers in hopes of seeing her words in print one day.
Most publishers turned down her submissions, so Faruqi sought out advice from other authors, purchased books on how to get published, and continued to write and submit pieces for consideration.
“I was naturally disappointed, but receiving rejections is a natural part of the publishing industry. Rarely do authors make it the first time,” she explained. “However, I had a glimmer of hope when one publishing company, Tilbury House Publishers, held onto one of my stories longer than usual for extra reviewing. Knowing that my story was good, but not quite good enough, gave me the hope I needed to keep on going.”
Her persistence paid off in 2015 when Tilbury House published “Lailah’s Lunchbox,” a story she wrote that mirrors her own experience immigrating to the United States as a young child.
The titular character – a young girl who is adjusting to life in America after moving from the United Arab Emirates – prepares to celebrate Ramadan, a holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer for Muslims. Her mother writes her teacher a note explaining that Lailah won’t be bringing her lunch to school during Ramadan, but Lailah is nervous to tell her teacher and classmates about the celebration.
With a little encouragement from the school librarian, Lailah writes a poem about Ramadan and bravely gives it to her teacher, who applauds her efforts and asks Lailah to share her words with the class.
Faruqi, a former second grade teacher who took time off to be a stay-at-home mom, understands the impact a story like this can have on students who feel different from their peers.
“I wrote this book so that those who are Muslim can open up by telling people they are Muslim and be proud of who they are,” she said. “If my book can help them share about Ramadan or their faith and culture eagerly, I will feel that my goal has been accomplished. I want this book to be an icebreaker, bridge-builder and confidence-inspirer.”
Faruqi and “Lailah’s Lunchbox” have received several accolades in the two years since it was first published. The book was named a featured book of the month for the Anti-Defamation League, a 2016 American Library Association Notable Book for Children, a 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, and was named to the International Literacy Association Choices Reading List.
But some of the most meaningful experiences have come when Faruqi has shared the story with elementary-aged students and other Muslims.
“I have had people tell me with a hint of nostalgia that my story brought them to tears and that this story reminded them of their days in the lunchroom during Ramadan,” she shared. “It has been a pleasure to read to students and to educate them about my faith and culture. It’s the moment when my book comes to life!”