A debut book by Toronto-based Asim Hussain has librarians and bookstore owners stumped by where to place the book on their shelves.
“One library classified Khadijah goes to School as an adult book,” Hussain says. “They said it was a serious subject and wanted to put it in the philosophy section.” Another library felt the 28-page book, full of whimsical drawings, symbols, prose and poetry, belonged with the children’s books.
According to Hussain, Khadijah goes to School -- A story about You, which crosses barriers of faith, language, culture and age, could find a home alongside books about education, multiculturalism, philosophy, or even parenting. The story follows Khadijah, a young Muslim girl, during her first three weeks at a new school. Although Khadijah suffers from nerves and shyness in her new surroundings, her teacher and classmates teach Khadijah that life is about helping yourself and helping others. Themes of personal contribution, self-fulfillment and lifelong learning are highlighted.
Hussain views his story as a primer, designed to challenge stereotypes, promote diversity and create discussion about how every person’s contribution is special. “If you have issues with self-esteem and feel like a nobody, this book will tell you that your contribution is important,” Hussain says. Hussain feels his own lack of formal writing training is a perfect example of what an individual can achieve. “It’s possible to write a book, even if you have no background,” he says. “I’m just a regular guy with something inside of me to share.”
A University of Toronto and UTM graduate with degrees in computer science and political science, Hussain wrote and self-published the book during a six-month period. Hussain’s three children, ages nine, eight and five, drew most of the book’s colourful illustrations. To edit and polish the manuscript, Hussain took a grass-roots approach, testing his book with school principals, parents, and pedestrians on the streets of Toronto. He even read the draft aloud to a homeless man who didn’t have his glasses. “He told me that people judge him by his cover,” Hussain says. “He liked the messages in my book and encouraged me to publish it.”
Although written in English, Khadijah goes to School opens left to right, like Arabic and Hebrew. The pages include symbols and text from 220 languages, as well as colour-coded words where each letter’s hue represents a flag from a different aboriginal group in Canada. A first generation Pakistani-Canadian, Hussain feels it’s important to spark a dialogue about what it means to be a Canadian. “In Canada, there is very little writing from Middle Eastern or Islamic communities,” he says. “When there is no dialogue, stereotypes creep in.”
Khadijah goes to School has attracted attention since it hit bookshelves in June 2011.
Toronto’s NOW magazine calls it “innovative, colourful and ground-breaking”. The $10 book has its own iTunes app, a Facebook page and is sold through Amazon, independent bookstores like A Different Booklist and Toronto Women’s Bookstore, as well as the book’s website http://khadijahgoestoschool.com.
Hussain believes that although his hybrid book may baffle readers and booksellers at first glance, the key messages are simple and practical. Hussain hopes to share Khadijah goes to School with local schools and youth organizations, where he feels that exploration about self-esteem, identity, and social contribution can help prepare young people to become productive citizens. “It's not strictly the academic nature of subjects that help you deal with issues throughout your life, it's much more,” says Hussain. “It comes from deriving social meaning of academic subjects, awareness of ‘soft skills,’ knowing who you are and what you are capable of.”