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Jeannette Winter on Finding Commonality

Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Jeanette Winter

Renowned author-illustrator Jeanette Winter finds inspiration in real life stories. Her picture books introduces young readers to people from around the world making a difference in their communities. Her books Malala, a Brave Girl From Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan, Nasreen's Secret School and The Librarian of Basra tackle the fallout of as well as the human face of war.  

Can you share a little bit about what inspired you to become an author and an illustrator, and your path to get there?

I always loved to draw, to make pictures, to tell stories with my pictures. Being an artist was my goal from as far back as I can remember. I studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago in high school, and in college I knew that I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, to tell stories with my pictures. I pursued this goal intensely, and illustrated my first book when I was in my late 20’s.

In particular, what inspired you to create picture book biographies?

After a number of years illustrating stories that were written by others, I made the leap to writing my own stories. My first nonfiction book was FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD, about the Underground Railroad, and I found that true stories were what engaged me the most. My first biography, DIEGO, told a true story about the artist, and, about Mexico. The possibilities, after this book, seemed limitless.

You've written about people across cultures with sensitivity - Luis Soriano and his Bibilioburro from Colombia, Wangari Mathai from Kenya, a Librarian in Basra, to young children such as Nasreen's from Afghanistan and Malala and Iqbal from Pakistan, and most recently about Zaha Hadid - how do you ensure the you are authentic in your representation - of the person, the culture they come from, both in the text and your illustrations?

I admire the people I write about. I often find my initial inspiration in newspaper stories about these people. Luis, Wangari, and Alia Bakir, the librarian from Basra, all began with an article in the paper. I read everything I can about my subjects, look at many, many pictures of their environment, read what they have written themselves (very important), and listen to music from the countries I am writing about. The music makes me feel present in their lives.

We’re thrilled to see that you wrote so many amazing stories featuring Muslim characters. What inspired you to write about so many Muslim characters - Nasreen, Malala, Iqbal, Alia Muhammad and Zaha Hadid? 

I was so taken with their stories, and I wanted children here to learn about their lives, their bravery, courage, and vision. And yes, to give a human face to what we see of war footage on TV. And to encourage children to identify with people in other parts of the world, living very different lives— to find a commonality.

What would be the one misconception about Muslims you could wave your magic wand and  banish forever?

If I could wave my magic wand, it would be to erase the misconception that Islam is a breeding ground for terrorism, and that it be seen as one of the great religions of the world. Those who use religion for political and criminal purposes are not people of true faith. I would hope people would realize this when they demonize a religion, and its followers.

Check out Jeanette Winter's books in our Inspiring Muslim Leaders book list 

In Nasreen’s Secret School, the illustrations of the doorways and windows which seem confining in the beginning, later seem to open up Nasreen’s world and her imagination. Did you consciously seek to convey this transformation through the illustrations?

Yes, this is what I was hoping to convey. In a picture book, the pictures tell the part of the story that the words do not. Ideally, the words and pictures will come together and join in the mind, to make the story whole.

Your book on Malala and Iqbal book is very inspiring to us. We love that it showcases stories of two children from Pakistan who faced difficult circumstances and chose to speak up against them. What is the key takeaway you would want children to learn from it?

First of all, I would hope children would see how brave Malala and Iqbal were. And that they would be able to identify with them. In their determination to make their world better, these two children had the courage to speak up, and speak out, about injustices in their world. And they both helped to bring about change.

Change begins with one person, even a child. Children are brave, and smart, and can recognize injustice.

A big reason why we launched the “KitaabWorld: Countering Islamophobia Through Stories” campaign was because we strongly feel that kids should be exposed to Muslim characters and topics early on without too much “othering”.

Sadly the current political environment has brought back a lot of replay of hate that was experienced after 9/11. What can parents, teachers and librarians do to mitigate these issues, and raise children who respect and value diversity?

Parents, teachers, and librarians can tell their children stories about people in other parts of the world, with different customs, ways of life, languages, and through this show the connection we all have with each other through our humanity. We’re all in this together. We need this now, more than ever. 

We are humbled and honored to be able to feature Jeanette Winter's interview as part of the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

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  • Lori Boyd on

    I have used many of Jeanette’s books over the years with various grades (I am a K-5 librarian) Last year I started using Malala with my 5th graders and this year I am adding Iqbal also. It can be difficult to teach subjects that are actually frightening and depressing to this age group, so I really appreciate Ms. Winter’s handling of these subjects in a way that elicits an emotional and intellectual response without being too graphic or despairing.

  • Sadaf on

    Thank you Reem! We were honored to be able to have Jeanette Winter as part of our campaign.

  • Reem Faruqi on

    My 2nd grade students also loved “Librarian of Basra” when I read it to them a few years ago.

  • Reem Faruqi on

    Thanks for this inspiring interview! I love Jeanette Winter’s work and can’t wait to read Malala and Iqbal as well as the book on Nasreen. Just put them on hold at my library :). Her work is phenomenal!

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