Written by Rachel Walman
This blog post is part of a series on this year’s four finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Follow along each week as we interview the authors to learn about their awesome books! Read all four books, then starting April 24, vote online for your favorite to help us choose this year’s $10,000 prizewinner. Get your own copy of this week’s book, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, from the NYHistory Store or check it out from New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, or Brooklyn Public Library.
If you’ve already started reading It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, then you’re probably too engrossed in the story of Zomorod (or Cindy as she renames herself) and her Iranian family adapting to life in California in the 1970s and 80s to be surfing the web right now. But, we urge you to put this amazing, poignant, and hysterically funny novel down for a moment to read what author and Children’s History Book Prize Finalist Firoozeh Dumas has to say about writing it!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: From the very first pages of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, we know that your protagonist Zomorod (AKA Cindy) has a great sense of humor. Why did you think humor was an important element to include throughout the novel?
Firoozeh Dumas: I am an accidental humorist. After my first book, Funny in Farsi, was published in 2003, I discovered that humor is the secret sauce. Nobody expects a book written about an Iranian to be funny. (I would like to take this opportunity to thank Iranian politicians for setting that humor bar so low.) I also discovered that there is a whole category of students called “reluctant readers” who are basically kids who have not yet fallen in love with reading. These students particularly loved the humor in my stories so I knew that if I ever wrote a book specifically for younger audiences, it would have to be very funny.
I have to admit that I also use humor in my daily life to cope. (I’m an Iranian-American, married to a Frenchman, living in Germany. I need humor.) I don’t know how anyone can go through life without laughter; life is so much richer if we can see the absurdities. My humor, however, comes from a place of kindness; I never get a laugh at the expense of anyone else. I know that my audience really appreciates this. Laughter at the expense of others feels like bullying, and that is the opposite of what I preach.
DCHM: In your author’s note, you tell readers that this book is “semi-autobiographical.” How do you think your childhood compares to Zomorod’s?
FD: I went through the same emotional roller coaster as Zomorod. That part is all true and that is the part that matters. All the historical information is also true, as are the anecdotes about kindness, which serve as the soul of the book. I changed some of the details to make the story flow more easily. For example, in real life, I have two older brothers who were not essential to this story so I made Zomorod an only child. (Apologies to my brothers, whom I love dearly. And to my readers, do you see how much power writers have? We can eliminate people!)
DCHM: Why did you choose to set part of this novel during the Iran hostage crisis that took place from November 1979–January 1981? What did you want kids to learn about this event?
FD: That was the most pivotal event in my childhood. Suddenly, it felt like all of America hated us even though we were also against the hostage situation. (Do I even need to say that?) My life fell apart as my father lost his job and could not find a new one. I wanted readers to see that events in far off lands affect people in ways that we cannot imagine, and I wanted them to think twice before jumping on the hatred bandwagon. My classmates used to watch the news, turn off the TV, and go back to their lives. We did not have that option. The events on the news were literally changing our lives on a daily basis.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this novel? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
FD: I literally spent an entire year researching the historical information. I watched videos, read articles, and talked to people. I relived that period of my life for a second time and somehow, it was even more painful. I could see how the events of that period are still affecting people today. Let’s just say I will not be writing about that time again! Living through it twice was two times too many.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical fiction?
FD: Historical fiction is the most enjoyable way to learn history. We all love a great story. Add to that an interesting historical period and you have a winner!
DCHM: What three words best describe It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel?
FD: Surprisingly funny. Relatable.
To learn more about the Children’s History Book Prize and all the finalists, check out this blog post. Don’t forget to read all four books and vote for your favorite starting April 24!