The daughter of an engineer who loved to tell stories, Firoozeh Dumas (fee-ROO-zay dew-MA) started writing at age 36 to tell stories to her own children. Her third book — and first for young readers — is “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.” It’s one of the selections for the 2016 KidsPost Summer Book Club.
Part autobiography and part novel, the book follows a girl named Zomorod who, like Dumas, moves from Iran to California in the late 1970s and struggles to adapt to her new home. Things get more complicated when anti-American students storm the U.S. Embassy in Iran and dozens of workers there are taken hostage. This causes many of Zomorod’s classmates to turn against her. Fortunately, she’s got a good sense of humor — and a few goofy allies in class.
Were you a big reader as a kid, like Zomorod?
Oh yeah. I was a bookworm. When I came to America is when my love of reading took off. When I was 7, I got a library card at the public library in Whittier, California, and that was like my magic carpet. Any book I could get my hands on, I read. When I was in sixth grade, my dad got me a subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine. That was one of the big turning points in my life. I was such a big Reader’s Digest fan, and then my father — who, God bless him, was, like, one of the most frugal men on earth — let me buy the Reader’s Digest condensed books. Devouring those books as a 13-year-old kid, I learned that there’s so many ways to tell a story.
It seems as if “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel” is one of the only English-language kids’ books with Iranian characters.
After [the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001], a friend of mine said, “You should try to get published because there’s nothing out there that has to do with a Middle Eastern family that is even remotely humorous.” And I thought, that’s true: If you go to the bookstore and look for the “humorous Middle Eastern” section — it’s not there. Now there are three books, and they’re all mine.
Did it bother you, growing up, when none of the English-language books you read featured Iranians?
When I was a kid in America, I was the only Iranian I knew of. I never thought there would be a book in America with any Iranian characters. There just weren’t enough of us. But I do think diversity in books is extremely important. I hope that every kid will be able to see him- or herself in a character somewhere.
At one point in “Falafel,” Zomorod’s Iranian parents say they don’t understand why it’s funny for someone to get hit in the face with a pie. Is humor very different in Iran than in the United States?
Well, we certainly do not waste food in Iran. You don’t see someone throwing baklava in someone’s face.
A lot of the book deals with the Iranian hostage crisis. What do you most remember about that period, which lasted until 52 American hostages were released in 1981?
My most vivid memory is of how shocked I was that Americans hated an entire country. That was something that I could not digest. During the hostage crisis — which lasted 444 days, a long time — I remember people kept asking my family what we felt about it. We just kept looking at them and thinking, “What do you mean how do we feel? Of course we’re horrified.” Even people just asking that question was shocking to us, because it was so obvious. I am still amazed people cannot differentiate between the actions of a few and the entire other millions of people in a country.
Was there anything in particular that motivated you to write this book?
When my first book, “Funny in Farsi,” came out, I went down to Orange County, California, for three weeks to speak. I went to a middle school and asked the kids what they think of when they hear of Iran. Every one of them said “terrorism,” “war.” And I thought, “This is amazing; this is Southern California, where there are actually Iranians.” And I knew I wanted to write a book for middle school.
But I also knew that I wanted to write a book for middle school because when I was an adolescent, I went through something that was so difficult and so painful and I was so alone going through it, and I know that there are kids all over going through very similar things. So I wanted to write a book that gave them hope.
The book is dedicated to “all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason.” What do you say to those kids who are struggling to belong, and to other kids who might be able to help?
You only need one friend. The worst thing is to be alone when you don’t want to be alone.
In school, I had a nerdy posse. We were the kids who were never asked to dance — that part of the book is painfully true. I would have been the perfect bullying victim, but I had my nerdy posse. And they’re still my friends. We’re all a bunch of 50-year-old women now. Everybody needs a posse. Be a part of somebody’s posse. Make a difference.
You were able to find that posse eventually, but do you have any regrets about your earlier efforts to fit in at school?
Absolutely. You waste so much time worrying about things that at that moment are so important to you, but you later realize are not important at all. You want your hair a certain way, or want certain kids to like you.
In middle school there’s such a ranking, such a hierarchy. You have people who are popular, people who are maybe one notch below but are still popular. What’s interesting is that popularity is not a permanent state. Some of the kids who are way on the bottom end up turning into really interesting people.
I have one friend in particular who in middle school and high school was the most popular girl at all times. It’s funny how alike we are. I wish we had been friends when we were in middle school, but we just couldn’t be. It was like being from different sides of the tracks.
Who is your favorite character in “Falafel”?
Skip. [He’s an older neighbor of Zomorod’s who loves to fish.] He’s really a symbol. Sometimes there’s people in our lives who end up being angels [even though] they’re not wearing a robe with angel wings.
You have to open up your mind and open up your heart, because the people who end up making a big impact on your life aren’t necessarily the ones who look just like you.