Pretty much, it’s an inverted Jumanji with Middle Eastern flair. I think the jacket copy is the best thing since sliced bread, since it gets in all the key elements so perfectly:
“A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.
When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.
Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?”
The only things said jacket copy won’t give you:
a. The fact that Farah is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim girl (like me, or mostly like me, since I’m a half-Bangladeshi American Muslim girl!)
b. Exact details of how I had to close my eyes and type as fast as possible to clear that spider scene
c. The delightfully carb-loaded experience of an actual slice of bread.
I think I started around four, though I can’t put a proper date to the moment when I really realized I loved stories. My mom still has my first book around that age, which she hand-bound at home. There’s this little story involving a girl and a bunny in her backyard, all in this very large script and illustrated by yours truly. She has this plan to show it off at my release party, which I’m not sure if I’m going to allow. I seriously started writing with an (well, I thought) awareness of how the industry worked around middle school and my actual first YA series, which is trunked for a lot of good reasons, can be placed around the fifteen-year-old mark…which explains the vampires.
3. You are a great champion for ownvoices, why do you think ownvoices is so important in publishing (and kidlit specifically) and can you describe your own journey in finding your “ownvoice”?
4. How are you inspired by your life, culture, and personal interests in your writing?
5. How was it working with Cake Literary (boutique book development company)?
I am ridiculously biased, but I think you cannot go wrong with considering Cake if you are interested in working under a book packager. I’ve been working with Sona and Dhonielle for several years now – I was their intern before I became a writer – and they are both so full of heart, warmth and giving. Every step of the process is transparent, readily and willingly explained right down to the contracts. Victoria Marini of ICM handles the representation and red tape for Cake and is honestly one of the most wonderful agents I know. I’m sorry that this turned into a little Cake testimonial, but I’m very happy with them. I also think that being with them and having good people at my back while also on my case to get chapters done, turn this around on this day, etc, has improved me as a writer and my sense of how I write, what works for me and what doesn’t. I do not regret by any means. (Also, for the record, as a lady of color, having two other incredible ladies of color who get how differently the industry looks from our perspective and are always ready to advise me on the best way possible to stay afloat in it, it’s just been utterly amazing.)
6. Can you give some words of advice for ownvoices authors just starting their journey?
Also, find your people because they are out there. Make connections with the other people of color and marginalized groups on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not saying that you won’t find your people outside of your own niche, but it’s also good to have friends who get the struggle, get what it takes to be here and speak up and understand the particular stresses that come with being a marginalized author.
7. How have you seen the industry changing to embrace authentic diverse stories?
I’ve definitely seen, and appreciate, more acknowledgement and open calls for diverse voices, particularly in the wake of the wonderful Corinne Duyvis’s #ownvoices push, but I still think there is a lot more to be done. A lot of other Muslim authors, for instance, rightfully pointed out that they wish agents would have been more vocal for the need to give Muslim writers space and welcome their stories sooner rather than being galvanized by current affairs. I still think there needs to be more realization that #ownvoices are needed most and those stories are far more important at the end of the day than an outside voice, once again, telling the story the way they can only assume it is from their research. Too many people have reacted to me recently in a way that goes something like this: “I feel so bad about the lack of representation! Now I feel responsible to tell your stories for you!” That’s not what we need. We need respect for our stories coming from us and encouragement and initiatives for us. The CCBC numbers for this year are proving that: yes, it’s good that we finally have diversity as a mainstream buzzword, but that’s not going to mean a thing if the publishing slots each year are going to be filled by writers who are not marginalized. There are still boundaries in place that are institutionalized and must come down.
8. Is there anything you think others can do to boost ownvoices and authentic diverse stories?
Pass on an opportunity that you think a marginalized writer could use and appreciate – that can be for work-for-hire, an agent looking for a specific voice in a client, even like some very lovely writers and agents have been doing recently and paying people’s way to conferences like SCBWI or MWW. Part of the boundary for us is that lack of attainable, affordable education and boosts upward to network and hone our skills. See which books are coming out from marginalized writers for the year and put your shoulder and your voices and your wallets behind them so that readers who need them can get them and publishers can see that these stories do pay off, literally. Share your platform, step aside and boost when you know it is a marginalized issue, and let these voices be heard.
Also, this is a bonus from me, but…stop asking us to educate when you have Google or even previous essays or threads from us to tide you over! Please respect our time and realize that education and getting involved in ill-meant community discourse only takes away from the time we can spend on our own stories and helping other writers develop their stories as well.
Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. Besides pursuing a BA in English literature from Hofstra University, she is an online diversity advocate, blogger, and publishing intern. Karuna is fond of tea, Korean dramas, writing about tough girls forging their own paths toward their destinies, and baking new delectable treats for friends and family to relish. Her dessert of choice is a lemon bar, which always promise a sharp zest of intrigue along with the reassuring sugar of a happy ending. Find her online: Twitter
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