I’ve known Hannah Moushabeck since she first appeared on the New England childrens bookselling scene in 2011 as Odyssey Bookshop’s new kids’ buyer. She has gone through a number of book facing career iterations from then to now, as a rep for Flying Eye, Quarto, Chronicle and finally to SImon and Schuster, where she is currently ensconced. A more thoroughgoing, amiable, talented and insightful book person is not on offer. It is the simple truth that Hannah is beloved in the New England bookselling community and thus, while it is always of interest to see a bookseller clamber over into an author’s chair, word of Hannah’s production of a picture book was particularly marked.
It is an awkward tension of course to be hoping a book by someone you know and like will be good and always a sizeable relief to find the object of attention of great independent worth such as to scoff at our unneeded solicitude. So it was with Hannah’s Homeland an exceptional blend of memory, history, and family which calls out for exploration. With that in mind I posed Hannah some questions.
Kenny: Keys are a critical element in Homeland. Do you see the book itself as a kind of key?
Hannah: The key as a symbol is deeply important to Palestinians. Palestinians living in exile have used the key as a symbol for the “right to return,” which is a movement that would allow indigenous Palestinians the freedom to return to their homeland. Many Palestinians still have the keys to their houses, like my family. Keys also represent an opening or unlocking, which feels particularly relevant to my story. As a second-generation Palestinian, I find myself constantly seeking out and learning more and more about my culture and ancestry. One of the tragedies of displaced families is that so much of what makes up your culture and identity is lost through distance, time, and assimilation. This book unlocks truths about my culture that took me many years to discover. It took years of pestering my family members for stories, recipes, and photos. I am still unlocking new wonderful parts of my culture—even now as an adult.
Kenny: The illustrations in the book really extend the text both figuratively and literally. Can you share what the process was like? Did you have a working exchange?
Hannah: I am privileged to have been able to work so closely with my talented illustrator Reem Madooh. Homeland is also her debut book and I felt so grateful to work with someone who understood Middle Eastern culture and the historic importance of this story. Over the course of working on this book, I sent Reem hundreds of photos from my family’s archive, which ended up as the endpapers that chronicle my family’s journey from homeland to diaspora.
Kenny: The story deals with a hard historical fact, the Catastrophe, which is at once an event fixed in time and an event that continually impacts the ongoing present moment. What do you hope young readers take from the story in this regard?
Hannah: The displacement of Palestinians from 1948 until the present is tragically not an uncommon practice in our global history. People from around the world are being displaced from their ancestral homelands and unable to return, with devastating results. While this book is a love letter to my homeland, I hope it sparks curiosity and will inspire readers to learn more about displaced populations. I also hope that the book will give Palestinian readers a feeling of pride in their culture and homeland, as I do, offering them an alternative to the negative stereotypes portrayed in popular media.
Kenny: Speaking of keys, memory plays a very dynamic role in the fabric of Homeland. How did you approach memory’s role in the book?
Hannah: Memory is, of course, tricky, especially when every family member tells the same stories differently. When my family fled Palestine, they took nothing with them other than a small bag, expecting to return any day. Because of this, we have so few real tangible items that tell our history. Since early childhood, stories told from memory were the only connection we had to our homeland. And yet these stories managed to instill in us a deep love for a place to which we had never been. In my book, I hoped to offer readers a glimpse into the power of transferred memories and the tradition of oral storytelling.
Kenny: Is there a particular song or recipe that embodies the spirit of the book?
Hannah: The food item that jumps from the page for me is lifit. In my book, my father helps plate these pickled pink turnips in his Sido’s café. As soon as I see the hot pink beet-stained turnips, my mouth puckers and salivates, as I imagine their tart flavor. I have a jar of freshly pickled turnips in my fridge right now that my aunt made and delivered to me and my siblings on her last visit.
Kenny: As a longtime bookseller and publishers’ rep, your professional life has been steeped in handselling. How would you handsell Homeland sans your personal connection?
Hannah: I love this question! Naturally, I have thought about this a lot. As booksellers, we know that the art of the handsell is all about your audience. Here is a breakdown of how I would handsell my book to different people.
Educators: This diverse, own-voices, multigenerational picture book is an ode to the power of storytelling and a window into Palestinian culture. It is also a love letter to a homeland out of reach. Perfect to share during Arab-American history month or Father’s Day!
Parents/Grandparents: This beautiful picture book is a celebration of memory and multi-generational storytelling: the story follows a father who recounts his adventures with his grandfather on a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem. This book will leave kids inspired and curious about their own family stories!
Kiddos: Have you ever wondered what your parent was like as a child? In this book, a dad shares stories of his childhood with his daughters at bedtime, including the time when he fed beans to his neighbor to make him fart and the time when he smashed all the dishes in his grandmother’s kitchen. There’s also a kitty to look out for on (almost) every page! Can you find it?
Kenny: Thanks so much, Hannah.
Hannah: Thank you so much, Kenny. I cannot wait to see my book on bookshelves at wonderful bookstores I have loved and supported throughout my career.