When Ambreen Tariq was eight years old—not long after she, her older sister, and her parents emigrated from Hyderabad, India to Minnesota—her father announced that they were going camping: it was what Minnesotans do. That trip and others that followed, with all the attendant ups and downs, sparked a lifelong love of the outdoors. To encourage more people of color to join her in hiking and camping, Tariq began writing about her experiences and launched a digital storytelling project on Instagram, @BrownPeopleCamping—work that eventually caught the attention of Penguin’s Kokila imprint. A deal was finalized in early 2019, and her first picture book, Fatima’s Great Outdoors, makes its debut later this month. We spoke with Tariq by phone while she was in Rochester, N. Y., hand-delivering copies of the books to her family, which now includes a niece, age nine, and two nephews six and three. “This book is such a special part of my family’s journey,” she said. “Now it can be on their bookshelf, and they’ll see their mother, and their grandparents and me, in these pages.”
What was the trajectory from your advocacy work to writing to this book?
Since 2016 I’ve been working really hard—coalition-building, writing, and contributing to magazines as an immigrant advocate about what it feels like to be an underrepresented identity on the trails. We need to encourage everyone to get outside, because the environment needs to be protected through advocacy, and the people who are doing it are still significantly white—that’s not keeping up with the demographics of America. If we don’t get more people to love the outdoors, we’re not going to have enough people to protect it.
What I didn’t expect were the responses I got from incredibly angry, racist people: the entire spectrum of hate. It overwhelmed me. I thought, if we can’t explain to all these communities why diversity is important, we’re in trouble. So in 2017 I wrote an essay for Outside about what it means to get out there as a child, and to bring your own culture out there, and how that allowed me to be confident. I painted this scene about our family camping trips, how we brought our own food, we told jokes in our language, we sang our own songs. People left us alone and it was a moment of joy that was formative in my life.
That article and my Instagram posts struck a chord. My agent, Zoe Sandler, connected with the people at Kokila an imprint of Penguin Random House focused on inclusiveness. At first, I didn’t realize this was full-on a pitch for me to write a book—I’m usually asked to contribute a quote or an excerpt. I’m truly grateful to write about my story and share it with children, because my experience, my advocacy, is based on what happened to me as a child.
As an experienced writer of personal journalism, what was it like making the transition to writing a children’s book?
I still have the first journal from when I was 10 years old—writing has been a love of my life. We moved around, but I was always involved in the school literary magazine. Still, I had never written for children, and it was daunting. The way I write is very narrative: it’s about moods and feelings and it’s literary. Some of those elements made it in, like when I write that “Papa’s bear paw clapped” Fatima’s shoulder after they put the tent together.
I learned that children need less explanation in the narration that sets up scene—partly because there’s an illustration accompanying it. There’s a moment when the girls see the white families at the campsite, and I wanted to over-explain how they felt. And my fantastic editor, Joanna Cardenas, said, “You’d be surprised how much kids understand.”
The title took us almost two months to agree on, but I picked the name Fatima because it’s my middle name and a family name, and I also wanted my South Asian Muslim identity to be obvious. At the same time, it’s a name that’s actually special to a lot of different communities—and that was important to me, too.
It was very much a team environment to put this together, with Joanna and with Zoe, who was incredible for bouncing off ideas. I’m completely new to publishing and it’s hard to keep straight who does what, but it was an incredible collaborative process to help me find my voice to speak to kids.
Fatima’s family and their experiences are so vividly imagined—how much of it is biographical, and what does your family think of the book?
The book is about 90% what actually happened. My dad literally started spraying lighter fluid on the fire, and he got so frustrated— it would roar up and then die down. And my sister and I would see white families sitting around laughing and we were thinking, “Why, again, can we not be just like everybody else?” There are themes in the story that I find very universal, regardless of whether you’re Indian or Muslim or an immigrant—the fact is most kids growing up want to be like everyone else. You don’t want to be empowered and unique. And then, especially as an immigrant, you just want to get accepted into the world around you.
I was very much struggling; my parents were working two jobs, my sister and I didn’t know American English, and we were being bullied in school. We used to take a lot of road trips because that’s all we could afford, and at the end I’d get this heavy feeling in my heart—I didn’t want to go home, because home meant we’d go back to all of those things. In the book, everything gets better. But in real life, it’s not so easy, not so linear.
My family is very excited. For my parents, it’s just surreal—this isn’t reality, this isn’t something that happens to them. To capture a time in our life that was difficult and still joyful while we were struggling in different ways... surreal is a good word for describing it. They also find it hilarious to see themselves illustrated. I’m hearing, “I wanted to look skinnier; I wanted to look younger,” but I told them, “I wanted you to look the way you look.” They’re very proud.
How did you collaborate with illustrator Stevie Lewis on the art?
The illustration process was a constant back and forth—I didn’t write the book, send it off and not see it again. I gave Stevie family pictures. I said it was important for Fatima to be goofy and awkward because I was goofy and awkward.
I remember the first sketch I saw of the family characters—they looked like white people who were colored brown. There were touches that she would put in and I would say, for example, “No, we couldn’t afford head lamps [when we went camping].”
I didn’t know how to articulate what I was seeing and what I wanted. It’s been an incredible process working with Stevie, who can take direction and literally visualize my idea, but I also had to learn how to give that direction—to say South Asian people have different-shaped features. The texture of our hair is different. Our brown is different. Our bodies are different. Stevie and I worked so closely, and we developed such a great friendship.
It was really fun for me as I started to learn how visualization works—I was able to suggest different things. It was really important for me to have bacon [in the campfire lighting scene]. But we don’t eat pork, and I explained how we went to a halal butcher and got beef bacon. So you’ll see in that scene that on the package that Fatima’s holding, Stevie was able to write “Halal” in Arabic.
Fatima’s Great Outdoors by Ambreen Tariq, illus. by Stevie Lewis. Kokila, $17.99 Mar. 30 ISBN 978-1-984816-95-5