'Think big and aim high': St. Cloud author hopes to inspire children to follow their dreams
St. Cloud author and entrepreneur Hudda Ibrahim published her third book and second children's book, "Lula Wants to Wear a Badge," on Jan. 18, 2022. Ibrahim, who is Somali, wants the book to show young Muslim children — and all children for that matter — that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.
ST. CLOUD — Author and entrepreneur Hudda Ibrahim has called St. Cloud, Minnesota, home for the past 15 years. Born in Somalia, Ibrahim moved with her family as a child to the United States.
She holds a master’s degree in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor’s degree in peace and conflict studies and English literature from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.
Ibrahim received her master's degree in 2015, after which she returned to Minnesota to accept a position at the St. Cloud Technical and Community College.
Ibrahim began working on her first book, "From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis," while teaching classes on diversity and social justice and working as an admissions counselor at the college.
"I noticed how the central Minnesota community was really interested in learning and understanding about Somali culture," she said. "So that's what actually kind of inspired me to write."
Ibrahim spoke with leaders of the Somali community in central Minnesota, posing questions about individuals' sense of belonging, and asking their thoughts on living in the region. Another aspect of the book was a focus on the experience of moving to Minnesota as either an immigrant or a refugee, and what assimilation or integration may mean.
"My first book really talked about the experiences of refugees and immigrants, and how they immigrated, and also how they've contributed to the local economy — what they're doing to really make an impact in the community we all live in," Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim struck a balance between her full-time job and her writing.
"Because I was working full time, I used to do my research after work, which was like 6 to 7 to 8, sometimes 9 p.m.," she said. "I conducted research, talked to people, interviewed them."
It took her a year to conduct and transcribe the interviews needed to share the Somali immigrant experience in central Minnesota, and another year to shape the story into a book. "When you're a full-time worker, and you're trying to get the right people to talk about their experiences, it takes time," she explained.
A changing demographic
The changing demographics in St. Cloud sparked Ibrahim's pivot from biographical narrative to children's books.
"St. Cloud has changed, for the better, over the last 15 years," Ibrahim said. "We are growing as a community. Sixty-two percent of the children in the 742 district are kids of color."
And as both a diversity and inclusion consultant and an author, Ibrahim was in a position to both see that growth and do something about it. "I wanted to contribute to this community by actually writing children's books that inspire the next generation of leaders," she said.
Ibrahim's grandfather, a teacher, was also a writer in the 1960s in Somalia. Her mother, for a time, was also a teacher. Her father was a colonel in the Somali army, but he was also a minister of justice.
"I came from a family of educators and professionals," she said. "The majority of the immigrants you see are folks who do work at those manufacturing companies. And so, we want our children — and every child — to have the opportunity to see (not only) themselves in the books that they read, but also people who look like them who are professionals."
Her second book, a children's book titled "What Color is My Hijab," was released in 2020, and saw a tremendous response. The book features women of many different professions, from doctors to teachers to artists and politicians, who all have one very important thing in common: they all wear hijabs in daily life.
Released in both English and Somali, "What Color is My Hijab" teaches readers about the importance of diversity, and also provides young Muslim girls with characters who look like them.
"We sold over 5,000 copies," Ibrahim said. "It was absolutely amazing; I received overwhelming support from my community, and also across the United States. People really want to see children's books, or books (in general), that do have characters of color, and particularly immigrants and children. I do think that people really want to see more diverse books, and stories that are written for kids of color."
Furthermore, Ibrahim strongly believes that there is strong support for books written by authors of color. That's one of the reasons that she and her husband, Abdi Mahad, started Diverse Voices Press in St. Cloud.
"Because Abdi saw that I had passion for writing, and that this is what I love to do, he wanted to support me," she said. "He started researching about what it entails to open a publishing company; he wants to help people like me tell their stories — their authentic stories."
'Think big and aim high'
Ibrahim released her second children's book, "Lula Wants to Wear a Badge," on Jan. 18.
Inspired by Ibrahim's younger sister, the book tells the story of a young Muslim girl named Lula, who shares her desire to be a police officer with her classmates. However, her dream isn't well-received by her teacher and classmates, and she's disheartened.
Real-life Lula, herself inspired by a female police officer while growing up in San Diego, California, was discouraged by her family, "because they felt that being a police officer was a difficult job, and also dangerous for Lula at that time," Ibrahim explained.
Last summer, while reading "What Color is My Hijab?" to children in her neighborhood, Ibrahim was reminded of her sister's onetime dream when a young Somali kid "looked me in the eye and said 'I want to be a police officer when I grow up.' And at that moment, then I thought, 'Wow, I have never heard or seen any kiddo who wanted to be a police officer,' in particular those first-generation Somali kids," Ibrahim said.
"We all know that kids of color need to see themselves, or imagine themselves, as police officers and firefighters and paramedics and plumbers and electricians, and so forth. Those are professions that are not really known to the first-generation immigrants and their children, or refugees, for that matter," Ibrahim said.
Lula has already ordered a copy of the book for herself, and for her three-month-old daughter, a decision of which older sister Hudda very much approves.
"I really want to inspire girls like my niece to believe in herself and not to be limited no matter what anyone tells her," she said. "I want girls to have a piece of literature that reflects them and inspires them in the face of these preconceived notions about who can do what professions."
Ibrahim encourages her young readers to "think big and aim high."
Ibrahim will have a reading and discussion session for "Lula Wants to Wear a Badge" at the Willmar Public Library on Thursday, Feb. 24, at 5 p.m. The reading will be followed by an activity and a discussion about potential careers.
To purchase Ibrahim's books, visit huddaibrahim.com. Her books are also on shelves of bookstores around the region, and at many local libraries. To contact Diverse Voices Press to set up a reading with Ibrahim at your local library, email firstname.lastname@example.org.