Guest Post: Salima Alikhan & Editor Sarah Brian Discuss Collaboration

By Salima Alikhan

My most recent release, Soraya and the Mermaid, illustrated by Jen Naalchigar and Atieh Sohrabi (Reycraft, 2020), is the first in a series. The second book, Soraya and the Dragon, releases this spring.

Working on a series means constant collaboration and communication with an editor. I am so thankful that my editor, Sarah Jane Brian, is one of the most wonderful human beings ever.

Working on a series together means getting to know each other’s personalities and working styles pretty well. Lucky for me, Sarah is a joy to work with, and almost as lucky for me, she agreed to do an interview with me—with the provision that she got to ask me some questions, too.

We are excited to share with Cynsations readers our discussion of the creative and collaborative process, diversity, character in middle-grade fiction, inspiration, and our passion for books in general.

SA: Hi, Sarah! Thank you so much for talking with me today!  

Thank you, too.

SA: You have such a lively, lovely voice that it never just feels like it’s just the phone. It feels very 3D.  

And we always end up taking like an hour longer than we plan to also.

SA: Very true! Okay. So that’s a great segue because that leads me to my favorite part of working with you. Our brainstorming sessions are so much fun, and we get to be so wacky and off the wall, and it feels like we’re both equally invested. I’m curious about your usual process of working with authors. 

It really depends on the type of book that I’m working on, and on the author, too. I think you and I have a really good rapport in our way of brainstorming. We always figure out first what will happen with the next book. But some authors don’t even like to do an outline because it’s not their process. They will send you a draft. And then if you say, well, this part isn’t quite working, they prefer to just redo the whole draft.

Somehow the conversation sparks inspiration for them to do something totally new. That’s a choice that some writers make as they’re working. So it really depends on how an author works best and the relationship that you have with them.

Salima’s work space.

SA: You’re a very flexible editor that you’re able to really tune in to different authors’ needs. I know some editors are a little more specific in the way they like to work, but it feels like you are able to really adapt to authors processing things. And it’s really impressive.  

Salima, that’s so sweet. I definitely try to do that. I would like to allow the author to have their voice shine through. I feel like my role is to figure out the best way to coach each manuscript into its best possible form. You and I have so much fun working together, and it’s been a great relationship.

You have this very free ability to just come up with these wild ideas that are so creative and so much fun and just so outlandish, that I would never think of–things that a kid really responds to reading about.

And then, my role is that I want to make sure all the things that are in the real world make sense with the magical elements. I think it’s more compelling for the reader. For instance, in Soraya and the Mermaid, Soraya puts Estelle the mermaid into a janitor’s bucket to sneak her out of an aquarium. I found pictures of janitor buckets to send to the illustrator because this is a ten-year-old mermaid. How is she fitting into this janitor’s bucket? So I went online to all of these janitorial supply websites, looking for pictures of a bucket that were big enough for a little girl.

SA: I have so many thoughts about this. One of which is, how lucky am I, that my editor is so invested! The second thought is: Oh my God, I hope Sarah had some fun doing that, looking up janitor’s buckets!

SJB: I just can’t rest until I feel like this could all really work. You know, you suspend your disbelief about mermaids existing and living in a kingdom in the Mariana trench, but that means everything else has to work in the real world.

SA: I think so, too. I’m really actually grateful that you’re so pragmatic, and that you always bring it back to the question of: How do we make this happen realistically? It’s necessary to have this focus on mundane nuts and bolts, to make the rest believable. If we weren’t so exacting about things like hiding places in the aquarium, it wouldn’t work.

You had me really focus on what happens spatially–for instance, if they go from this place to this place, how would it work and look? That’s what makes it strong, because it eliminates the reader constantly confused and having to orient themselves. I think that’s such a strength that you bring to the books. 

SJB: Thank you! That’s why I feel like we’re a good team. But I have a question for you. Where do you get your inspiration for these fun ideas?

Salima as a child

SA: This is something all artists get asked—where do you get your ideas? I do remember I was very much in a dream world when I was a kid. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an illustrator, too, but I do remember walking around and everything I saw was just a springboard for a story.

I’ve taught creative kids at this point that I think are similar–kids who almost feel like there’s an overlay of a magic world kind of superimposed over the real world. Everything always felt so evocative, to me. I think that that’s pretty common for creative kids. 

SJB: Another thing I really appreciate about you is the way you conceptualize your characters. Soraya feels emotionally real as a fourth grader.

When I first started working on the book with you, my daughter was in fourth grade at the time. I think fourth graders are amazing. They’re developing so much and they are interesting and they’re interested in the world around them, but at the same time, many of them have a lot of insecurities. Social anxiety is really growing at that time, and it keeps growing over the next few years.

And Soraya’s emotional landscape is very true to all of that. So I wonder about your feelings when you’re writing this character: What do you imagine that your readers will take away from reading about Soraya? Who do you imagine they are and how do you feel they will relate to the books?

SA: So first of all, the choice to make Soraya the way she is wasn’t conscious. It’s just kind of how she came out. But I do think I know where it came from. When I was growing up, I couldn’t bear the characters that seemed two-dimensional or perfect or Pollyanna-ish–kids that always had an unnaturally wise and measured response to things.

It just seemed ridiculous to me; even as a kid I could tell those characters didn’t respond like actual children. I loved characters like Beverly Cleary‘s Ramona and Madeleine L’Engle‘s Meg Murry–kids that had jealousies and anger and impatience and rivalries and had to work through real things. I knew I was never going to write a character that felt like no matter what, they’d always make the right decision, you know? 

SJB: Yes. Even if you have friends at that age, you can still feel socially awkward and isolated, and often you don’t really know where you stand with them. Right now it’s exacerbated because of the pandemic, but even without a pandemic, this age and all the way into middle school is so tough.

SA: Oh, there is. I taught art to fourth graders for a while in a Montessori school. And we had first, second and third grade in one classroom and fourth, fifth and sixth in another classroom. It was very interesting because I could observe—

SJB: You could observe the differences between the grades! That’s really important.

SA: It’s really important. And fourth grade was the beginning of having to figure out: Where do I fit in with my peer group? Which identity do I claim? I mean, they’re almost pre-teens. 

SJB: They really are. And I think that it just continues to ramp up over the next couple of years to sixth grade. And I want to quickly go back to what we were saying earlier about “real” characters.

That made me think of one of my favorite books when I was a kid, which was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper and Rowe, 1964). As you were saying, Harriet’s not a likable person all the time. She’s very complicated, and her emotions feel very true to a reader. You can understand why she does some of things she does, even if they are not such great things to do.

SA: I agree! She’s a little girl with an uncompromising independent agenda, which was unusual enough to see. And she’s working on how to be a person in the world with this mission and also, you know, have friends. Great recipe for a book.

But, back to what we were saying—when I was a kid, even though I was pretty odd and really wanted to fit in, I privately really admired the kids who were quirky and just accepted themselves, and didn’t care much about fitting in. There weren’t many of them, but they existed. I was amazed by how they were OK with their own quirks. They were my heroes, and they were also the ones who modeled for me that that’s possible. 

SJB: I’m thinking of the character of Christoph in the Soraya books as you say that.

SA: Yes! For sure. So this is one of the things I wanted Soraya to realize in the books: Just be you, you’re fine as you are. She’s developed this complex that she doesn’t have friends because she’s odd, but it’s in fact because she isolates herself from people. She’s no odder than several of her classmates—it’s just that they’re okay with who they are, and that’s possible for her too.

I know there are other factors that go into this of course, like supportive parents, but it can still help to see quirky classmates who march to the beat of their own drum. I want kids to understand that there are people out there like them, and that they will find them.  

SJB: I think that’s a great message and it’s very true. I do think that readers are going to relate to Soraya for that reason.

SA: It is. I have one last question for you if you have time. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being an editor? I’m so curious.  

SJB: I love working with authors. I’ve been working on kids’ publications and literature for a long time. And because reading has been a very important part of my life, especially as a child, I’m always thinking about the kid who will be the reader. I’m imagining somebody in my head who is reading it, and how does this book affect them? That is one of my favorite things. I also feel very strongly about kids having access to a lot of different kinds of books because they’re not all going to like the same one.

And it’s really important that they love what they’re reading and that it inspires them. It grows their ideas about the world. That makes me the most happy–when I can just imagine the kid who is going to read and need a book I’m working on.

SA: I just love what a passionate advocate for kids you are. 

SJB: And you are too, you are too. I also think it’s so important for kids to be exposed to representation of all different kinds. I love that you have done that in your books. There’s a growing focus on kids from different cultural backgrounds, and different kinds of families.

I know you and I have talked about your choice that Soraya’s family situation is that her father has left. I think there are many kids out there who are living in this situation. And even kids who are not living in that situation need to see a representation of another person and the feelings of a person going through that. It will increase their empathy and their sensitivity to kids in various family situations.

SA: Thank you so much for saying that. 

SJB: As far as my least favorite, it must be when I don’t have as much time to devote to something as I want to. And that unfortunately happens a lot. I want to give the books everything I have so that they can be the best they can be.

SA: Well, that makes so much sense. I can only imagine how much COVID has exacerbated all of that. 

SJB: It has. The last nine months have been a whirlwind. But it will calm down again. Overall, I can’t complain!

SA: There’s one more thing I wanted to share with you – I just started an art channel on YouTube! It’s so exciting. I’ll be exploring the art process, materials and techniques, inspiration, etc. I’ll also be doing poetry- and history-inspired art! So I get to bring a little bit of writing into it too. 

SJB: That sounds great! I can’t wait to check it out!

SA: Thanks! Sarah, it’s been so great to talk to you. It’s always so much fun! 

SJB: Same! I always love talking with you!

Cynsational Notes

Salima Alikhan has been a professional writer and illustrator for over fifteen years. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is also a college English and Creative Writing professor. She feels very lucky that she gets to create worlds that other people want to explore.

Sarah Jane Brian has been writing and editing children’s materials for more than 25 years at companies including Scholastic, American Girl, and Sesame Workshop. She is the author of dozens of fiction and nonfiction books for kids. She lives in New York City and currently works as an editor at Reycraft Books/Benchmark Education.