Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

Hello, Aisha Saeed! Hello, Shehzil Malik! I’m grateful you’re both here to discuss Omar Rising. Let’s start with the GORGEOUS, BREATHTAKING cover!

Shehzil, please take us on a cover tour! Maybe start with the star in the center? 

Shehzil Malik: This cover went through many, many versions to get right! The idea behind it is to show Omar reaching towards the stars and his dreams. Omar is ambitious and full of wonder- he’s fascinated by science and space travel; he loves soccer and begins to get interested in art- and he knows that getting an education is the key to his dreams. The thorny vines around his wrist show that things aren't going to be easy for Omar- he will have to beat the odds stacked against him because of his class background. The cover is also meant to visually connect to Amal Unbound’s covert art because this book is set in the same universe as Amal’s story. Omar and Amal are friends, and it’s amazing to continue the story through the artwork!

Scenario: Aisha, imagine you’re book talking Omar Rising to sixth-grade teachers. What do you share with them?

Aisha Saeed: Omar Rising follows the journey of twelve-year-old Omar as he sets off for boarding school. As the son of a servant, a scholarship to this elite school is a game changing opportunity for him that allows him to chase his dreams. But upon arriving at the school, Omar is crushed to learn that scholarship kids live by different rules: they have chores, can’t participate in after school activities, and worst of all, they’re held to impossibly high academic standards that almost guarantee Omar will not make it through. The story follows Omar and his friends as they try to work within—and later fight against—a rigged system.

Shehzil, please finish the following sentence starters:

Aisha Saeed’s manuscript for Omar Rising drew me in the moment I began reading. I had the same experience the last time when I was reading the manuscript of Amal Unbound! Aisha is a gifted storyteller and makes you emotionally invested in the character's lives from the first page- you really root for them to succeed! Also, the most surreal part for me was to see my name in the book as part of the plot. Omar researches my art practice in class and realizes that one can mobilize people to fight injustice! I don't think any compliment can top this! Also as a Pakistani, it’s very special to me to read a story about a young Pakistani boy who is kind and brave and fights for justice.

Art is a way of imagining a better way of doing things; an artist can illustrate a different world using their imagination. I often draw from my life and what I hope I’d be brave enough to do-and many times drawing it out has helped me realize those dreams!

Aisha, please finish the following sentence starters:

Shehzil Malik’s art
is amazing. In Omar Rising, Omar is also a fan of Shehzil’s work. Her artwork plays a critical piece in helping Omar navigate his difficult circumstances and find justice for himself and his friends. So readers who dive into Omar Rising will also be learning a bit about the artist behind the cover of the story they're reading. What I love about Shehzil’s cover work for Amal Unbound and Omar Rising is that they both reveal so much about who these characters are and what matters to them. On school visits for Amal Ubound, I saw so many wonderful illustrations in classrooms where kids created their own hands like the cover and put their own dreams and hopes within the art. I think Omar Rising’s cover, which features his hand trying to grasp his dreams, also lends itself to great interactive work for students.

Story is something that, for me, comes out of a mystical and almost unknowable place. I never planned to write more stories in Amal’s universe. But the characters in her world never left me. As time went on, I began to wonder what Omar was up to. In Amal Unbound, we learn he got accepted to a boarding school, and I started to think about what would boarding school might feel like for him and what sorts of challenges might he face there and suddenly a story idea came into sharp focus. Omar Rising is not a sequel. For new readers unfamiliar with Amal Unbound, this story is a stand alone that needs no prior knowledge, but for those who have read Amal’s story, they can have a chance to check in on Amal and see what she’s been up to since we last saw her.

I also love art's power to connect to others, to create empathy and inspire change. It can tell the stories of people that you otherwise may have never met, and it can help us understand one another better and find our common humanity.

Thank you, Aisha and Shehzil!

Look for Omar Rising on February 1, 2022. You can START READING NOW on NetGalley.

Nancy Paulsen Books' Description:

In this compelling companion to New York Times bestseller Amal Unbound, Amal’s friend Omar must contend with being treated like a second-class citizen when he gets a scholarship to an elite boarding school.

Omar knows his scholarship to Ghalib Academy Boarding School is a game changer, providing him—the son of a servant—with an opportunity to improve his station in life. He can’t wait to experience all the school has to offer, especially science club and hopefully the soccer team; but when he arrives, his hopes are dashed. First-year scholarship students aren’t allowed to join clubs or teams—and not only that, they have to earn their keep doing menial chores. At first Omar is dejected—but then he gets angry when he learns something even worse—the school deliberately “weeds out” kids like him by requiring them to get significantly higher grades than kids who can pay tuition, making it nearly impossible for scholarship students to graduate. It’s a good thing that in his favorite class, he’s learned the importance of being stubbornly optimistic. So with the help of his tightknit new group of friends—and with the threat of expulsion looming over him—he sets out to do what seems impossible: change a rigged system.


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