The books we read as children shape us. But for the majority of kids, those books don’t reflect them or even the realities of the historical times that they represent. A new series of books from Macmillan aims to correct that. Remixed Classics showcases some of the best contemporary authors taking on literature’s most revered titles. Robin Hood has long been a staple of children’s literature and classical western folklore. But in a new reimagining Travelers Along the Way, Aminah Mae Safi tells the tale of the generous thief through a new lens.
Flipping the aspect of Robin being a returning soldier from the Crusades, here Robin is Rahma al-Hud, a young woman in Jerusalem, 1192. Following her sister Zeena into the war over the Holy Land, she’s now more concerned with making it home safe. But Richard the Lionheart’s reinforcements make that a dangerous quest. Soon, the sisters are on one last mission joined by a ragtag crew of travelers to stop the false Queen Isabella. This radical, thoughtful, and adventurous retelling will be instantly recognizable and enjoyable to fans of Robin Hood. To celebrate the release, Nerdist spoke with Safi via email about her exhilarating retelling.
Nerdist: What were your first memories or connections to Robin Hood?
Aminah Mae Safi: Like many kids of my generation (rise up, Elder Millennial hive) my first memories of Robin Hood are connected to Disney’s fox Robin Hood. And that was a major touchstone for me as I wrote Travelers Along the Way. Not so much in terms of content, though I do hope you enjoy the little Easter egg winks at that version that are dotted through the book.
No, fox Robin Hood became a touchstone in terms of tone. The animated retelling makes that big legend of Robin Hood feel fresh and fun. And I desperately wanted that sense of fun because the content of any Robin Hood tale is quite serious. The stakes are life and death. But the tone, ah, well that’s where the fun of a swashbuckling adventure comes in, doesn’t it? I wanted a story that deals with very heavy themes, while never putting that heaviness on the reader. I wanted that sense of joy and laughter that is so integral to resistance. That is so integral to resilience.
I have family members who lived through war and occupation. Through fascism and conflict. And the one thing I learned from them, the thing I internalized more than any other was this: joy is a choice. It is never an easy one. But once you choose joy, no one can take it from you. Even when everything is taken from you. Joy is yours. So I wanted a joyful story amidst a sea of conflict and chaos and the real horrors of the Third Crusades. I’m not sure I could have believed that possible without fox Robin Hood. Thank you, Disney.
What was the origin of Travelers Along the Way?
My editor, Emily Settle, over at Feiwel and Friends was gathering a group of authors for this project of hers. She wanted to interrogate the idea of the “Classics” and what that meant for an increasingly diverse America and an increasingly inclusive generation (Generation Z, rise up. Idk if y’all even say that I’m old AF.) So the Remixed Classics project was born.
For me, that meant an email where she asked if I’d be interested in doing one of the projects. I’m team always-take-the-call, or, in this case, get the full details in an email. When I got the full email and I found out that Emily wanted me to write a Robin Hood remix from the other side of the Third Crusades, this one set in the Holy Land: I swear I went instantly into Galaxy Brain space. I knew it had to be me to tell this story.
I’d written my thesis in graduate school on the ways in which medieval stories become part of our national mythos. I’d studied Islamic Art History and twentieth century nationalism. Robin Hood fit squarely into this paradigm, as our common ideas of this tale come from Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe and exported imperialism. But getting to take that and flip the script, so to speak? Turn that nationalism on its head and show a whole different historical side of the Crusades? Absolutely delicious. Irresistible.
From there, it was me on a good, old-fashioned phone call with Emily while giving her my bonkers Galaxy Brain pitch into near silence. I knew it was one of those calls where I was either crushing it or I was never going to be hired by Macmillan again. Luckily, Emily loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Could you talk about reimagining Robin and crafting Rahma al-Hud?
Rahma was the first character I conceived of, in terms of that initial pitch meeting. She’s for sure the beating heart of this retelling, which makes sense as she really is the main character of the story. But I’d read a lot of Robin Hood retellings (shoutout to all fans of The Forest Wife, near and far), and one thing I’d noticed is that when you flip the gender of Robin, you end up with a tale where she fights sexism. Like, that’s the enemy: the patriarchy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy those stories because, honestly, I do. But I wanted to do something new.
And so I knew I wanted my Robin to be a young woman. And I knew I wanted her to be Muslim. And I knew I wanted her to be battling those same things that boy Robin Hoods get to battle: namely, injustice in the land that hits everyone pretty equally. And also: occupation. I also kept thinking that I wanted a heroine who was Classically Heroic, you know? Charming. Courtly. Chivalrous (in the historical sense of the word, which is: has horses and honor and responsibility).
And I realized that while I think I have gotten heroines like that before—because I did grow up reading so many of those ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s retellings—I hadn’t seen that kind of hero in a long while. And I certainly hadn’t seen her as a young Muslim woman. So I always knew I wanted to tell the story of a young woman who was heroic and brave the way swashbuckling heroes are all heroic and brave. And I wanted a heroine who was good, not because she was sweetness and light and everything nice, but because she did good. Because she made her corner of the world a little bit better and a little bit more just with her actions.
The fact that Rahma reads as a chaotic good really feels like the best thing I did. Because that’s what I set out to do when I wrote her. She’s not the biggest or the strongest. But she is the cleverest. And she has no quit. That to me, is a hero. The fact that Hud is a real Arabic name was also a fun way to create that same rhythm of the name of Robin Hood in a new language. We love a phoneme in this house.
This is such a smart reframing that feels so organic. What was your process for reimagining the story through this lens?
Wow, I’m really about to push up my nerd glasses here. First of all, thank you. Second of all: I used historiography. I told you. Pushing up my nerd glasses. I went back and looked at the actual history of the legend of Robin Hood. And one of the things that I noticed were the following: it started as an oral tale that was passed along from bard to bard. Underpinning those songs was the tale of the Anglo-Saxon resistance to Norman occupation. And it was a story that we have always been telling and embellishing for a thousand years.
That meant that I didn’t have to be precious with the source material. The legend of Robin Hood is about adding to the legend of Robin Hood. That’s your daily meta mind warp for the day. The legend of Robin Hood is also a series of smaller vignettes that add up to this larger legend, add up to this larger story. So that was structurally what I was doing. Take these little stories that don’t feel like much in and of themselves, but when you add them together, string them along into a big ol’ ballad, so to speak—they become this larger narrative arc.
Incidentally, fox Robin Hood also does that. It’s a series of little short stories and hijinks that you follow along until you see you’ve been a part of this larger story the whole time. You never forget your first love, do you?
Is there a moment or page turn you’re really excited for readers to discover?
I really love the chapter titles. I had a lot of fun with those. They’re absolutely bonkers and goofy. But I hope you enjoy them when you read them.
What do you want readers to take away when they pick up Travelers Along the Way?
You know, one of the great gifts readers have given me is when they tell me which character they love best. There’s such a great vulnerability in that. I’ve got this belief in the death of the author; a sort of “the author is dead, long live the author” if that makes sense.
So when a reader tells me which character they love, I feel like they’re telling me how they see themselves. That’s a great act of vulnerability. And it’s a gift to me, because I feel as though as soon as the book launches into the world it’s mine because I made it, but the book no longer belongs to me. The book belongs to readers. And if the book belongs to readers, I’d hate to tell them what their experience of the book should be or shouldn’t be.
I do hope you enjoy your own travels along the way. And I do hope you have an adventure. And I do hope you pick joy. But I hope that for you, regardless of if you pick up my book or not, I hope you know you’re not alone and that you can always be on the team.
Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix is available to order now.