Today Burhana Islam talks to Ian Eagleton about her hilarious new book Mayhem Mission, which is illustrated by Farah Khandaker and published by Knights Of!
Firstly, welcome to The Reading Realm! I wondered if we could start with you introducing yourself and telling us about Mayhem Mission, the first book in your My Laugh-Out-Loud Life series?
I’m a secondary school English teacher and the author of Amazing Muslims Who Changed The World, and I’m definitely someone who’s determined to get Muslim voices out there, particularly one that’s reflective of my own Bangladeshi-British experience. Mayhem Mission is exactly that. It’s a tale that lives up to its title. We follow 9-year-old Yusuf Ali Khan, who has been told by his older sister to ‘step up’ and become the man-of-the-house. Because he doesn’t quite understand what that entails and fails in his first few attempts, he sets about to ‘protect’ his family under the guise of ruining his sister’s wedding by any means necessary. It’s just a recipe for disaster really.
What was your journey like to getting an agent and publisher?
My journey was a peculiar one because I managed to win a place on Penguin Random House’s #WriteNow mentoring scheme for under-represented writers. Because of that, I already had an editor at Penguin Press for a verse novel that’s still in the works. This was despite not having an agent or a publishing contract. Another publisher actually made an offer for my working manuscript and, at the time, I already had another idea, which eventually became Amazing Muslims. A friend of mine told me to use both the offer and the idea to garner agent interest, and I had loads. However, I collected about 21 rejections altogether, but every single person was kind enough to offer me feedback. After a bit of reflecting and a lot of soul-searching, I found Polly, who was recommended to me by a friend in the States. It was nice because I wasn’t just searching for any agent anymore, I was searching for the agent I wanted as my partner and my guide. It was a very humbling and enlightening experience. The rest, as they say, is history.
How was writing your debut fiction book different from writing your non-fiction book, Amazing Muslims Who Changed The World?
Amazing Muslims was jam-packed and the schedule was incredibly tight. I’d be reading, researching, and drafting five chapters per week, and simultaneously redrafting the five from the previous week, all while art work was trickling in and fact-checks were being completed, and at the same time I was somehow trying to balance a teaching career. My editors were amazing and everything happened so quickly. I look back and wonder how we even managed it. Mayhem Mission was a completely different experience. It was the story I didn’t even know I had in me. I think we did it in three drafts – the original, a round of edits, and final tweaks. This one felt like I was coming home so, in comparison, it was a lot easier to write.
What does a day in your life look like when you are working on your children’s books?
Stare at the screen, stare at the screen, stare at the screen, write two paragraphs and then stare some more. Then repeat. I think that’s a really accurate reflection of my writing process. I wish I was joking. Alongside that, I talk to my family a lot. I’ll write a chapter and then send it to my sister who’ll voicenote me some suggestions. Mayhem Mission was a family affair so a lot of suggestions from them. Because I’ve been writing comedy, I’ve also been watching a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Kenan and Kel and the likes – all in the name of research, of course. I reference Marvel a lot, even though I have absolutely no clue what’s going on in the MCU with the exception of a 17 minute Youtube clip that summarised the entire series.
What is the editing process like for you? What does it involve? What did you have to edit out of this book to make it work?
If you don’t count my family giving their input, the editing process was actually quite smooth. I’m a planner though, which meant Eishar (my editor) knew exactly what she was getting. I plan out every chapter to the tee. I usually submit something like a 7000 word plan before I start writing. That doesn’t mean I stick to it though. There are some natural digressions. This one was quite smooth because Eishar and I were on the same wavelength and I was just adding a few things to make in more streamline. The next one has had a couple of characters written out of it and a few scenes too. It just makes the process a little short for me. Patience isn’t my strongest virtue.
What’s the best thing about being a children’s author?
Reader reactions. Everyone has been so positive about this one so far and one of the nicest things is that it’s been a real eye-opener to our culture. I love that there are those out there learning about us and then there are others who see themselves in these pages too.
Did you have a favourite story when you were younger?
I LOVED Chicken Licken, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosy Lucy, Turkey Lurkey, Drakey Lakey, Cocky Locky, and Foxy Loxy unconditionally. I must have read it a million times.
As a teacher yourself, what advice would you give to teachers about how to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms and schools?
Nothing is more powerful than showing your own enthusiasm for reading. I’m always talking about books to my lot and always getting excited about them. I’m a chatterbox and I always link those stories to the real world. It makes reading so relevant. It’s important that books are at the right level for students as well. Something too easy will bore them. If it’s too hard, it’ll put them off. Don’t forget to always read aloud. Know how to do that skilfully. Know the rhythm, the beat, the lilt when it comes to reading. Know when to pause, when to stop, when to speed up the pace, and all those little things like ‘OH MY GOD, I’ve just accidentally seen what happened at the end and you wouldn’t believe it! I’m not going to show you either – MUHUHUHAHAHA’. I know it sounds silly, but whether they’re in Y1 or Y13, everybody loves being read to.
How would you envisage teachers using your book in their classrooms? What age group is it aimed at? Do any activities or ideas spring to mind?
If I had the time, I’d make a scheme of work on it. I don’t want it to be used in a tokenistic manner in the sense that ‘we’re learning about someone’s culture’. No, let this be your class reader. Enrich your class’ diet with diversity without pointing it out as a stark difference. We have more in common than our differences. Human nature always strives for comfort, belonging, familiarity and the likes. You don’t have to be Muslim or Bangladeshi to find yourself in here. There is so much you can do with this too. Instructional writing for the food scenes, descriptive writing for the party scenes, a how-to-guide to planning your own Asian wedding, a diary entry when everything goes down the pan, persuasive letter writing to Umar Bhai to stop him from marrying Affa, a monologue after THAT SCENE, and so much more. You should never teach race in a tokenistic manner – embed it into the curriculum and your class reader is a great place to start. Then make it cross curricular – start those philosophical discussions. Not everybody’s mindset or worldview is the same. There’s a lot of potential here. I think it’s perfect for Y3 and beyond. I had a Year 3 class I tested this on last year. I’d do this with Y8 reluctant readers to be honest. In fact, I used one of the scenes with Y12 for the Introduction to Comedy unit. They had to explain the science behind the comedy – it actually worked really well!
Can you recommend a book you’ve enjoyed recently and one you’re looking forward to?
Always. I’ve recently re-read Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, which is a verse novel about a Vietnamese refugee, trying to find home in America after the fall of Saigon. It’s perfect for reluctant readers – as is Kwame Alexander’s Rebound. I don’t think it gets enough love in the UK and I definitely think it should. A book I’m looking forward to is Zoulfa Katouh’s As Long As The Lemon Trees Grow, which is a YA set amid the Syrian Revolution.
Finally, can you describe Mayhem Mission in three words?
Complete, utter carnage.