Award-Winning Author Firoozeh Dumas On Navigating the Awkward Tween Years

Researchers believe that there are six basic emotions that make up the entire human experience. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust… That’s what it all comes down to. That’s all you get. Seventy-nine years (give or take a few) broken down into six individual emotions. It feels pretty reductive doesn’t it?

I suppose it does, until you flip your perspective… Until you realize there are 7.6 billion people out there and no matter their background, gender, age, or life story, you share these six universal emotions. You have the toolkit that allows you to connect with each of these people, hear their stories, and to tell your own.

We caught up with New York Times bestselling author Firoozeh Dumas to talk about diverse voices in literature and how they can help tweens navigate the most awkward years of their lives. Author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs written for adults, Funny in Farsi and Laughing Without an Accent, as well as an award-winning middle grade novel It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, Firoozeh believes that everyone has a story to tell and that everyone’s story counts.

You’ve written two New York Times bestselling books for adults. What compelled the switch to middle grade fiction?

My first book, Funny in Farsi, is a memoir of growing up as an Iranian immigrant in America and it was written with adult readers in mind. However, it ended up being used in middle schools and high schools as well, and is currently part of the recommended reading list in California.

Funny in Farsi

by Firoozeh Dumas

Back in the day, when I was visiting middle schools to talk about Funny in Farsi, I realized there was another story I needed to tell. I was coming to these students with my own personal narrative – a story of being on the outside and of eventual assimilation – but as I looked at my audience and as we connected through our experiences, I came to the realization that, at this age particularly, children are also feeling like outsiders on some level, whatever the reason.

I wanted to write a book that would not only be a love letter to my community but one that would use history and humor to let other kids know they are not alone. That became the basis for It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel.

The tween years are definitely interesting ones. Popularity and ‘fitting in’ become top of mind while, at the same time, kids are both marginalized and dismissed under this ‘tween’ header that’s neither here nor there. What makes this age special to you?

I really felt like it was the time my childhood came to an end. For me personally, it was when the Iran Hostage Crisis began and so did a dark period of my life. I was the only Iranian in school and didn’t feel like I had anyone who could relate to exactly what I was going through. So I began to live two separate lives, one at school and one at home, and was just in a constant state of anxiety.

I would see t-shirts or bumper stickers declaring “Iranians Go Home”, turn on the radio and hear “Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran”, watch my father be discriminated against, and so on.

But, I was lucky. I consider myself a well-adjusted immigrant thanks to all the kindnesses I experienced here. I can’t even describe the generosity I’ve known. I was able to transcend that outsider position by finding commonalities and shared emotions behind what would otherwise be seen as very different experiences on the surface level. I learned, as a child, that the human experience is entirely universal.

The thing is we’re all outsiders at some point, especially as you mention in those very confusing tween years, which is why I dedicated It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to “all the kids who don’t belong, whatever the reason.” But the message of my book doesn’t end there because we also have the ability to go through something that’s completely gut-wrenching and difficult and lonely, and we can come out of it a kind, well-adjusted human being. I wanted younger audiences to understand that and to understand the power of kindness.

Why do you think it’s important for younger audiences to be exposed to literature from diverse voices?

Growing up, I was an avid reader but I thought authors had to be English and dead. Reading different voices validates the notion that everyone has a story to tell…and that includes youngsters who can often feel like they don’t have a voice.

Stories expose the universality of human experience. They have the power to resonate with people of all backgrounds, age groups, genders, etc. – like music or art, there is no set audience. But they help readers build emotional connections between themselves and the characters on the page, and by extension with people throughout the world.

We’re living in a world where we all have to be global citizens. It’s a life skill we all need. Some people are defining themselves not by who they are, but by whom they hate. It’s really important that children read stories about people, where they’re able to connect on a human level, before they hear about them on the evening news. I believe in person-to-person diplomacy: The more we talk to each other – the more stories we share – the more hope there is in our world.

That’s beautiful. I love the message that everyone has a story to tell. But there’s another way that you’ve been trying to give kids a voice. Could you tell me a little about The Falafel Kindness Project? 

As an immigrant, I really feel the US was very kind to me and for that, I’m extremely grateful. I’ve become very focused on modeling kindness and giving back.

Middle school can be a tough experience – when bullying and teasing are at their worst. It was certainly a dark and difficult period of my own life where I didn’t fit in for many reasons. But there were these small acts of kindness that truly shaped me when I needed them most. We have the chance to model kindness for children and that’s the goal of The Falafel Kindness Project.

Endless conversations about bullying don’t get much accomplished. Instead, I go into schools and I give children a voice. It’s the students who work together to identify issues that exist at their own specific school – for example, at one school some kids had no one to eat their lunch with – and then, they come up with a solution to their problem collectively. The goal is always to empower the kids to create a kind, safe environment that diffuses bullying. It’s very action and solution oriented.

What would you say to tweens who feel like they just don’t belong?

In the fourteen years I’ve been on the lecture circuit, I’ve yet to have a single negative experience. I’ve traveled to larger cities like Los Angeles, with a large Iranian-American population, to small towns in the Midwest, where I was the first Iranian-American the audience had laid their eyes on.

When I go out to talk, I don’t have an agenda in mind. I’m just there to tell my story. I’ve found that when you listen to someone’s story live, you understand their intention. You live through their words and share their emotion. Seeing people from all walks of life relate to my stories has, for me, confirmed just how much we all share.

We could all spend more time telling our stories and listening to others. We all have a voice and we all have a story to tell… Tweens especially, who often feel the most alone. You just need to open yourself up to other people’s stories and share your own. No one needs to be on the outside.

Do your tweens read literature from diverse voices? What are some of your faves?

Tags : relationships   parenting   tweens   

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