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Crossing Boundaries To Inspire A Global Village: An Interview With Mina Javaherbin

One Book, One San Diego for Kids is back for 2012! "The Secret Message" by Mina Javaherbin is the children's book companion to "Sky of Red Poppies," and will be featured in libraries and community events now through March. A interpretation of an ancient Persian poem by Jalaledin Rumi, it's the tale of a merchant who keeps a parrot in his shop to attract customers. When the merchant travels to India, he promises to bring something home for each family member, including the parrot, whose unusual request leads to his own freedom.

In a recent interview, One Book's Linda Salem asked Javaherbin about the book and her thoughts on writing.

Author of "The Secret Message," Mina Javaherbin.
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Above: Author of "The Secret Message," Mina Javaherbin.

What message do you have for your young readers?

I want to tell them, thanks for reading, don’t stop, read together and also grab a friend and read to him or her. Sometimes your friends don’t know how fun reading can be, show them.

I like my readers to know that my life has had many ups and downs and theirs will too! I want them to know that when they face sadness, disappointment and unexpected changes they are not alone. I want them to find hope and self-confidence. I want to motivate my readers to empower themselves and consequently change their status quo to their liking.

I want them to know that this is how I do things, and if I can do it they can too. If not, write to me, I’m here for you.

What inspired you to write stories about two different cultures and in two different time periods?

We are leaving our children many challenges and in many cases our future generations need to cross boundaries and look beyond their national borders for solutions and cooperation. Now more than ever we need to open up to many cultures and provide ourselves and our children the multicultural knowledge necessary for our everyday social conduct in the workplace or in our backyard.

By writing stories of and about different cultures I hope to offer a necessary tool for our global village. We live in a world in which we can be connected by a click of a button to people and events across the earth. This accessibility might seem fun and trivial at first but soon it will bring us the knowledge of the “others” and the more we know about the lives and the stories of these “others”, the easier we can live with our global neighbors.

In a way The Secret Message is about reconnecting with one's community for guidance. What do you think about community and the importance of literacy and reading and books in a community?

I really love this question. This is why I write. Writing is about connecting communities. I like to think our community is the world we live in and if we can listen, read and be open to use each other’s resources and respect each other, we can solve many of our issues and evolve to do things we’ve never even imagined. Evolution is the human destiny possible by climbing up that man-made staircase of knowledge we’ve built through communication.

I understand that you were under contract for this book and your book "Goal!" (2010) at the same time. Both books are about characters who find themselves in positions of oppression and about how they use their wits to figure a way out of it. Can you tell me about that theme in your stories?

I should really pretend that I intended this and go on into a deep philosophical discussion about my theme here, but the truth is that this is the first time I’ve even noticed the “theme” and you are absolutely right, it’s there. Actually my third book scheduled to come out in 2014 has the same theme! I suppose somehow unconsciously I’m committing a serial theme.

Maybe I have a secret love affair with being free and independent. I’m one of those people who never belonged to a group, a club, or a clique in my entire life. I thrive on friends and family but I also adore thinking for myself, going to the movies by myself, and keeping to myself just the same. I suppose I like to encourage my readers to tap into their own valuable resources too.

How did you decide to write two genres of stories, one, a folktale, and the other, a story of children playing soccer? Also the stories have different cultural settings and time periods?

When I set out to write, the last thing I think about is really, what genre or what culture am I writing for. I write what flows out of me and it almost always surprises me. Like you said my themes seem to be similar although my genres are in different worlds. I like your observation, maybe because I am living proof that a person immersed in the two cultures of Persia and America can delve into the multicultural scene with more authenticity.

What can you tell us about your experience writing text for an illustrated book?

I am a highly visual being and as an architect I’ve honed those visual skills during college and years of working in the field. Writing picture books is about writing visually. This is a perfect marriage of my two careers of architecture and writing.

The Secret Message is a adapted from the Rumi poem "Parrot and the Merchant.” What was important to you in how you adapted this poem into a story? Is there anything you want us to know, for example, if you added anything to your story, or if you left anything out from the Rumi poem?

I added the merchant’s family, wife and children and so on. This is how it is in the actual poem: “the Merchant asked everyone...”. And the name of the specific city and the details of the activities at the bazaar in India are not in the poem. For a picture book adaptation, I brought in points of visual storytelling while being careful not to take away from the poem’s message.

What do you want readers to take with them from reading The Secret Message? Is there a "secret message" for us in this story?

Rumi’s poetry is like layers of the onion and the meanings unfold as we progress. However, some parts are purposefully charming to instantly engage at all levels. Rumi was not fond of sitting on the scholarly high horse. His metaphors and symbolism can be understood with a higher level of knowledge if the person feels ready and inclined to study them. He purposefully and in many cases started his very long, very hard to read and very philosophical poems with an engaging story such as “The Parrot and The Merchant” and then he went on to deeper discussions. In all cases, that simple story carries in it the concept and the kernel of his further discussions.

What are your thoughts about your book's inclusion in the One Book, One San Diego program this year?

I’m very surprised and delighted by the secret lives of my books. They go out there and bring nominations, awards and more importantly joy to the hearts of my readers. Having been selected as a children’s book author in the prestigious KPBS, One Book, One San Diego program is an honor. I thank San Diego and KPBS for noticing my book. San Diego is a pioneer city in many ways. I admire this city for setting an example by giving importance to authors and books. This encourages me to work harder and produce better work. It allows me a wider reach to promote children’s literacy and the importance of reading to our children. I am also proud that The Secret Message will be included in many 4th grade classroom reading programs this year.

What new projects do you have in the works?

My third picture book is due out in 2014. I’m working on a young adult novel, on a screenplay, and I have continued work on more picture books. GOAL! will be released in paperback this year. As for The Secret Message, it is being translated into Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese.

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