Hello hello! As you know, here at NQD, we’re always on the lookout for inspiring individuals who are major contributors to the world of publishing. One such author is Muna Rabieh. Muna has written two children's books, one in English (Otter) and the other in Arabic (النعامة السحرية). Both have very strong themes (such as self-love and human compassion) that have resonated strongly with its readers. Her hope for the future is to continue to write books that will further enable her to plant healthy seeds in the minds of youngsters, through the power of storytelling.
Najla Qamber Designs: Welcome Muna of Otter and النعامة السحرية ! We’re excited to talk to you. Tell us, have you always been into writing? What’s your origin story?
Muna: I'm excited to be speaking with you as well! Thank you for reaching out.
That question is a little tough to answer. My relationship with writing has shifted and evolved over the years, often quite unexpectedly. When I was young, I decided I was going to write my own chapter book and wrote three (mini) chapters. For some reason, I never finished the story and didn’t try again after that. Over the years that followed, writing became a private outlet for me to process and navigate difficult situations. The urge to write often came sporadically and randomly. I could go for months without writing a single word and then suddenly feel a rush of emotions urging me to write from the depths of my being, as though my sanity depended on it.
NQD: Do you have any unique rituals or funny habits that put you in a good writing mood?
Muna: Not at all. To be honest with you, I don’t feel like I have much control over my writing (when and how it happens). I can’t always write. In fact, I often find it difficult. However, there are moments in my life when I get a calling, a little nudge from something beyond me that tells me it’s time to put pen to paper. And in those moments, it all just comes pouring right out.
NQD: Do you have any children's book authors that you look up to? Have they influenced your work in any way?
Muna: Of course! I love Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss. You know I never really thought about it, but I don’t think they have influenced my work. If anything, I would say my family has influenced my writing the most.
NQD: What resources did you go through to help with your self-publishing journey, and what lessons have you learned?
Muna: The Bahrain Writer’s Circle definitely played a big role in this. I didn’t realize I could write until I joined their creative writing challenges. They were incredibly supportive and encouraging. The biggest inspiration for me personally was when a fellow member and author, Seumas Gallacher, referred to it as ‘the business of writing’. Since I had a business background and was extremely self-conscious of my work, hearing this made it much easier for me to shift my thinking and attitude. Instead of worrying about what people might think of me as a writer, I now looked it at as a business that may or may not succeed -- the outcome of which may have nothing to do with my competency as a writer. This way, I was able to detach from the outcome and make the process a lot less personally, which I’ve learned is crucial to being successful in this field.
When it came to the actual publishing process, I simply took it one step at a time. Everything was new to me and I learned along the way. My network of friends and family helped me a great deal by connecting me with illustrators and printing presses.
I’ve learned that there’s no one path to any destination. My first book took two and a half months from writing to publishing, while my second book took me three years to finish! The experiences have been completely different, yet, both equally rewarding.
Another important lesson I learned early on, is that you need to be flexible and able to adapt to obstacles that will (most certainly) come your way.
Finally, being a perfectionist increases the likelihood that your book will never be published, so be wary of that critical voice in your head.
NQD: As a self-published author, you get to collaborate with an illustrator of your choice. How did you know where to look? What was that process of narrowing down the perfect illustrator like?
Muna: Since it was my first ‘business’ project, it really went down to cost (without compromising the quality of course). It just so happened that one of my friends had recently met an illustrator and connected me with her. I immediately loved her work and we were able to come to an agreement on the process.
NQD: You’ve been invited to read at different schools and organizations. What has been the most surprising moments from these events?
Muna: After I read my books, I often ask the students if they’ve ever experienced anything similar to the characters in my stories (being bullied or told that they were something that they weren’t). The experiences they share are usually raw and vulnerable. It’s so humbling to see them relate to my stories and learn from them. That is the whole purpose of my writing: to help children address and navigate difficult situations.
NQD: In an interview with GDN you talked about the importance of self-worth, of staying true to yourself and not being easily influenced by others. You’ve captured that in your book, Otter quite well according to many readers. Why is the theme of self-worth important to you personally?
Muna: Self-worth and self-image are extremely important to me because they form our identity, and yet, we are not taught how to have a healthy relationship with them. Children (and adults) get overwhelmed with so many messages about how they should be. It’s never about figuring out who they are and staying true to it. And that’s what I’m trying to change through my books.
NQD: You’ve also published an Arabic title for children that centers around loving people, regardless of the differences in appearance, language, etc. What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Muna: My favorite part is that I hadn’t realized how layered the story was until after I published it! The more I read the story, the more I realized that it touched on a number of social issues (discrimination, bullying, animal cruelty). And all because of an ostrich that lost her colors! This is the beauty of the creative process: you don’t realize how much you’re putting out into the world until it’s in its final form.
NQD: Since your illustrator was in Chile when you collaborated, did you find it difficult to communicate and get the ideas across clearly? We’d love to know more about your relationship!
Muna: The first book was very easy to complete because it was done in a short amount of time. However, because the second book took so long with delays on both our ends, it made it a little difficult at times. Generally speaking though, I loved working with her! My advice to aspiring authors is to have a clear idea of what they want from their illustrator. Create a storyboard and clearly state what you expect from him/her. The experience should be enjoyable for you both and there’s nothing fun about an author who keeps changing their mind! I must add that there’s also nothing fun about working with an illustrator who doesn’t stick to the storyboard either – it works both ways. Thankfully, Camila and I found it very easy to communicate our ideas with each other even though we only communicated via e-mail.
NQD: Some children have chosen to read your books night after night. And some who are usually picky with the books they read, fell completely in love with yours! What do you think is the secret ingredient that makes your book or any children’s books, a success?
Muna: There are several factors to consider:
It has to be relatable, something the child has experienced before. The feedback I received from some parents on Otter, is that it made it easier for them to explain the concept of projection to their children, that not everything people say about them is true. It was also important because some children had been experiencing this with friends and family frequently.
You need captivating illustrations. Children tend to have vivid imaginations and short attention spans. I would also say that it helps to challenge what they already know. For instance, in The Magical Ostrich (sorry I can’t seem to type in Arabic on Word), the main character looked different than a real-life ostrich. In fact, the story guides the child’s thinking by drawing connections to other animals instead. This gets the child curious about why the character is the way it is and motivates them to finish the story.
Try to add to the plot page by page. Since children get distracted easily, you don’t want to be repetitive or include details that don’t matter. An easy strategy would be to ensure that every page/illustration you have adds something new to the plot that wasn’t included before.
Conflict in the story is key. Children like to problem solve, so if you introduce them to an interesting problem, they will more than likely pay attention. It’s important to note that you can have conflict at different parts of a story (in Otter it was at the beginning whereas in The Magical Ostrich it was in the middle). You can also have multiple (but related) problems that need solving. For example, the first problem that Otter is faced with is that he’s lost. The second is that he doesn’t remember what he looks like. The third is that the animals that do try to help don’t end up giving him accurate descriptions of who he is. So, the story moves along with multiple problems related to the main conflict (who is Otter really?), all of which move the story along. Of course, you need to remember to solve each one. Never leave plot holes in your story!
NQD: Any upcoming books in the near future that we can tell our followers about?
Muna: There are no plans at the moment. I’m waiting for that voice to nudge me again! I will definitely announce it on @booksbymuna once I do, so stay tuned!