Interview Shaila Abdullah Author of Children’s Book About an Autistic Sibling, A Manual for Marco

Interview Shaila Abdullah Author of Children’s Book About an Autistic Sibling, A Manual for Marco

Shaila Abdullah is the award-winning author of five books, Saffron Dreams, Beyond the Cayenne Wall and three children’s books My Friend Suhana, Rani in Search of a Rainbow, and A Manual for Marco. Abdullah has received many awards for her work including the Patras Bukhari Award for English Language, the Golden Quill Award, and the Norumbega Jury Prize for Outstanding Fiction. Several academic institutions have adopted her books as course study or recommended reading.

February 1st, 2015 was the release date for her beautiful children’s book, A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling. This is the third children’s book for Ms. Abdullah who also does many of the clever, vibrant  illustrations. A Manual for Marco is about sibling relationships when dealing with autism. It is a genuine, caring story in the words of an eight-year-old girl about growing up with an older, autistic brother. Read our review of this delightful children’s book about an autistic sibling,

Special Needs Book Review reviewed Ms. Abdullah’s first picture book, My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsywritten with her daughter Aanyah. My Friend Suhana is a juvenile fiction book for kids ages 6-8. The mom, Shaila Abdullah, told us that it is a story about a little girl who forms a close bond with a girl who has cerebral palsy. The little girl finds that through her art, she can reach her nonverbal friend Suhana.

We thank Shaila Abdullah for an awesome guest post introducing their children’s book, My Friend Suhana.  We thank her for sending us the information to review her third book, A Manual for Marco, a children’s book about an autistic sibling and now for agreeing to this interview.

My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsy by Shaila Abdullah and Aanyah AbdullahLorna: In your guest post introducing My Friend Suhana, you wrote that back in 2011, when your daughter, Aanyah, was barely 7, she wrote an essay in class about her friendship with a non-communicative girl with cerebral palsy. The essay touched you deeply, as did the friendship between the two girls. Please elaborate.

<<Shaila Abdullah: Thanks for having me. Yes, my daughter, Aanyah is the spark behind our children’s book My Friend Suhana. Aanyah met Suhana—a non-communicative girl with cerebral palsy—at a community center when she was 7. I saw the two girls form a close bond based on love and art. Later, Aanyah wrote an essay in class about her friendship with Suhana.

The essay touched me deeply and I felt that the message needed to be shared with a larger audience. Around the same time, I noticed an alarming gap in children’s literature dealing with disability, especially those that encouraged friendships between mainstream children and children with special needs. I felt that a book like My Friend Suhana would be instrumental in providing tips and tools for both children and parents of special needs children who often find it hard to explain their children’s disability to other children.>>

Lorna: Writing a book with a well-known, mom-author must have been a very special time for you both. What do you cherish of this experience? 

<<Aanyah Abdullah: I was thrilled when my mother decided to turn my essay My Friend Suhana into a children’s book. I enjoyed working with my mom on creating illustrations for the book. I helped her think of ideas for the sketches, choose the right colors for the drawings, and even suggested clothing for each character in the story. It was a special time for us, even though we were frequently interrupted by my sister who was one at the time.>>

Lorna: I read that in Karachi, during your childhood, your home was filled with books.  That you believe in the power of books and that it is never too early to share books with a child. What advice do you have for new parents about this topic?

<<Shaila Abdullah: I believe that children grow up to be excellent readers if they are exposed to books regularly when they are young. I observed clarity in speech with both of my children very early on, as well as their understanding of complex concepts, and I attribute it largely to their love for books. My advice to young parents is to make books accessible and read to their children regularly, and several times a day. We keep books on both floors of our home and we routinely visit the local library and bookstores.>>

Lorna: Your bio says you are an author and designer based in Austin, Texas. What do you design? Which takes more of your time, writing or designing?

<<Shaila Abdullah: Design is my daytime job and pays the bills. I am a graphic, web, and multimedia designer for an education non-profit in Austin. I also have a design business on the side. My primary clients are authors and writers for whom I develop websites, marketing materials, book covers and book interiors. Writing on the other hand is a very serious hobby that often takes a back seat because of the demands of the day. When I write, it’s often at night when the whole house is quiet and I have some time to myself.>>

Lorna: Your second picture bookRani in Search of a Rainbow: A Natural Disaster Survival Tale, was launched November 1, 2014. What prompted you to write this book? What goals did you have in mind when you decided to write it?

<<Shaila Abdullah: Rani in Search of a Rainbow is based on the 2010 floods in Pakistan that affected 20 million people. Nearly 8.6 million of them were children. This devastating event touched me to my core. Any time a child is displaced from his or her familiar surroundings, it can be a frightening experience. One of the goals for writing Rani in Search of a Rainbow was to showcase children’s resilience in moving forward after the initial shock and trauma of a tragedy wears off. Children know how to make the most of any situation, just like Rani and Juju did in the book.>>

Saffron Dreams (Reflections of America) Paperback – February 5, 2009 by Shaila Abdullah (Author)Lorna: Your first book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall: Collection of Short Stories came out October 17, 2005. In 2009 you wrote an adult book, Saffron Dreams. Several academic institutions have adopted your books as course study or recommended reading, including the University of California, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Indiana University, Boston University, California State University, and George Washington University. What are some things these university students will learn from your book?

<<Shaila Abdullah: Saffron Dreamsis based on the basic premise that the preservation of cultural and religious identity of any group is the cornerstone of a civil society. In the terrorist attack of 9/11, the shards of glass reached far and wide wounding the hearts of Americans who had been very accepting of the melting pot their country had become. The event put the locals at odds with a community that had come to this country with very simple objectives: to work hard and lead honest lives. In Saffron Dreams, I have attempted to capture how ordinary Muslims were affected by the tragedy of 2001—Beyond the Cayenne Wall: Collection of Short Stories Paperback – October 17, 2005 by Shaila Abdullah (Author)the silent majority who lead very normal lives and are law-abiding citizens of this land. They are the ones we never hear about because their lives are too ordinary to be the subject of the nightly news.

The tragedy of 9/11 was a great shock to the American psyche. Some of that anger was directed towards those who shared the race and religion of the terrorists, especially those who publicly exhibited symbols of their faith such as veils, beards, or even their own names. With Saffron Dreams, my intent is to convey that most Muslims lead their lives guided by the general principles of goodness and peace. One has to also recognize that terrorists do not represent mainstream Islam.

In 2014, Washington and Lee university researchers conducted a study that showed that reading certain passages from my book Saffron Dreams can actually make someone less racist. See >>

A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling Paperback – February 1, 2015 by Shaila Abdullah (Author), Iman Tejpar (Illustrator)Lorna:  Congratulations on your latest children’s book, A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling. I enjoyed the story immensely and, like your other books, the illustrations support the text very well. It includes artwork by IMAN TEJPAR, a 12-year-old artist from Canada. Explain how this came about. Is the family or some of the characters in this story based on a people you know?

<<Shaila Abdullah: Due to a genetic link of sorts, many of my nieces, and my own daughters are artistically inclined. I decided to enlist the help of my 12-year-old niece, Iman in Calgary to develop the sketches for A Manual for Marco. Another niece in Houston—Sophia, who was 9 at the time, took over the task of developing some geometric and organic background patterns. My own 10-year-old daughter Aanyah took a stab at creating some of her own background art. Not to be left behind, I handed some paints and halved onions and potatoes to my two-year-old daughter Aaliyana who developed some of her own visual conquests.

In any family where there is an autistic child present, neurotypical siblings may sometimes feel slighted, confused, angry, or embarrassed. They are the ones who have to deal with plans being altered at the last minute because of a meltdown. They are the ones who have to change their way of living because the needs of their autistic brother or sister are greater. I noticed a shortage of literature on how a sibling can cope with an autistic brother or sister. Zain, his younger sister Sofia, and parents Arif and Dr. Salima Ali of Austin, Texas, are the inspiration behind A Manual for Marco in which a little girl recounts the joys and woes of living with an autistic brother.At the age of two, Zain was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that affects 1 in every 68 children. His mother Salima is a dear friend of mine and also runs the community center where we met Suhana (who inspired My Friend Suhana).>>

Lorna: Thank you very much for making the time to take part in our Author Interview Series. It was a pleasure to learn about all your books. Please let us know if you write another book that helps children with special needs.

<<Shaila Abdullah: Thanks for having me, Lorna. It’s an honor and a privilege.>>

Follow Shaila Abdullah:

READ Also:

Buy Books by Shaila Abdullah:

  • A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling
  • Rani in Search of a Rainbow: A Natural Disaster Survival Tale  – November 1, 2014 

This post was written by Lorna
Lorna d’Entremont: Co-owner of SentioLife Solutions, Ltd. the company behind KidCompanions Chewelry (2007) and SentioCHEWS (2013), mother of three, grandma of 5 and wife. She is a retired teacher and special needs advocate. Throughout she has taught all levels from grade 2 to grade 9. Lorna loved teaching and enjoyed seeing the students progress in the school system. During her 30 year career she took a few years off to raise her three children.