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Imagine traveling to a land where compassion and inclusion could be right at your fingertips.
In the new children’s book Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity, readers can do just that and venture to a peaceful place called the Soulful Forest. It is there that the story’s characters can discover that what makes someone different is not something to be feared, but to be celebrated.
The creative minds that contributed to Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity exemplify the book’s message about the importance of promoting a culture of kindness and understanding. The book was co-written by 11-year-old Mariam Azeez of Newtown and sisters Terry Murphy of Southbury and Deborah Clarke of Maryland, and it received illustrations by an artist named Tian, based out of India.
Together, they all worked to blend their backgrounds and expertise into a book that they hope inspires all of humankind to be just that — human and kind.
The first incarnation of the story began years ago in a Panera Bread, where Ms Murphy and her friend, singer Christina Connors, met to talk about a dream they had to create a television show about the Soulful Forest.
After the birth of Ms Murphy’s granddaughter, Sydney, she not only found the inspiration for the project’s main character, but she also decided to pursue writing the story she and Ms Connors had co-created as a book series instead of a television show.
It was not until Ms Murphy reached out to the local Islamic community — Al-Hedaya Islamic Center and Mosque, on Mt Pleasant Road — while looking to help a friend of hers, that her journey to selecting the book’s topic on religious diversity began.
“I had a little trepidation,” Ms Murphy admitted of her feelings prior to visiting Al-Hedaya. She had never interacted with Muslims before, she said, and could not help but be aware that she was feeling nervous.
It was at the mosque that Ms Murphy met Mariam’s mom, Eman, and was able to openly talk about her reservations and ask questions to learn more about their culture.
Today, the two women have become very close, and Ms Murphy says, “I love her, I trust her; she’s amazing. She’s taught me a lot.”
Ms Murphy began devoting her time teaching a vocabulary program with the children at Al-Hedaya and felt the stirring that she needed to do something so others could see the religious group in the positive way she now did.
“It occurred to me that I’m not thrilled with the ways things are going in society right now,” Ms Murphy said, referring to the negative portrayal of Muslims in many media outlets. “People need to know Muslims are peaceful people.”
Mariam, even at her age, says she is aware there is injustice and that it makes her family “scared” when there is an attack done by a Muslim, because “then we become targets — us peaceful Muslims.”
Ms Murphy wanted the book she had in mind to not only educate others about Muslims, but ultimately to establish a world that represented how people could live in real life that was “safe and free of judgement.”
The book’s setting mostly takes place in the Soulful Forest, which has specific locations within it like the Gratitude Garden, Field of Forgiveness, Diversity University, Tranquil Tree, and Camp Kindness.
Wanting to represent diversity in the story, Ms Murphy felt it was important for the character interacting with Sydney to be Muslim. So, she went to the Al-Hedaya community to pitch her idea for the story and asked if there was a child there who was good at rhyming.
Among those she spoke to, Mariam was the first to jump up enthusiastically, wanting to participate and contribute her writing to Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity.
In December 2017, the two began working together to create the story’s first draft of prose, then enlisted the help of Ms Murphy’s older sister, Ms Clarke, for editing.
“Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity would not be what it is without her,” Ms Murphy said about her sister.
Ms Clarke, who spent 40 years as a high school English teacher, has always had a passion for poetry and was excited to be able to collaborate on the project.
“I have an appreciable level of experience in revision and editing,” Ms Clarke said. “And I believe that my experience as a teacher imbued me with an understanding of and an appreciation for people from all walks of life, which is embedded in the message promoted by Soulful Sydney.”
She added that it was a “privilege” to be part of crafting the book, and she is proud of what they were able to all accomplish together.
Mariam agrees, saying the reason the book turned out so well is because they had so many people involved in helping make it.
Opening Minds And Hearts
After just four months of collaborating on every detail, from the specific word choice to the color of characters’ clothing, Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity officially became available for purchase online April 27 through Amazon.
“You know you’re doing the right thing when all the right people come in, everything lines up, and the wind comes in and just takes your sail,” Ms Murphy said. “We knew it was blessed.”
The feedback they have received has exceeded their expectations. The book was a huge hit when Mariam sold copies at the mosque during Ramadan, and copies of the book have been taken to Malawi, Sri Lanka, and England for people to read.
“I have a feeling this book is going to be everywhere in the world,” Mariam said. “It’s got such a powerful message… it’s something everyone can relate to.”
The authors all agree that the book is not about recruiting people to a specific religion. Instead, it is about respecting one another and celebrating diversity. That is why in the back of the book, they have also featured children from all across the country who come from different religious backgrounds to talk about what it is like for them to be a Baha’i, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Taoist, or Zen Buddist.
“Every step has been joyful,” Ms Murphy said of the process of crafting Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity. “I think this [book has] a powerful, timely, and relevant message right now. I’m honored that the Muslim community has embraced me and allows me to participate in this… getting to know this community has transformed my heart.”
“Hopefully,” Ms Clarke said, “our little book will open other minds and other hearts.”
Coming Together To Celebrate
There will be a special book launch party for Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity on Sunday, July 15, from 1 to 3 pm, at Edmond Town Hall, 45 Main Street.
Families of all faiths are invited to come together for an afternoon of music, food, activities, and a book signing with all three co-authors.
Ms Murphy says Senator Richard Blumenthal is projected to attend, and the goal is to be able to send a copy of the book to every United States senator as part of their kindness campaign across the country.
Soulful Sydney Explores Diversity is currently available on Amazon and Kindle. For more information, visit soulfulsydney.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To watch author interviews and hear the Soulful Sydney theme song, sung by Christina Connors and created by Disney composer David Friedman, search “Soulful Sydney” on YouTube.