By Nivea Serrao
March 27, 2017 at 08:11 PM EDT

Kids trapped inside a board game are forced to complete challenges in order to escape. Sound familiar?

Well, if you guessed that it as the plot of the classic ’90s film (and Caldecott Medal-winning bookJumanji, you’d be correct. But it’s also the plot of Karuna Riazi’s new novel, The Gauntlet.

The upcoming middle-grade book sees 12-year-old Farah, along with her best friends Essie and Alex, venture into the dangerous eponymous board game when her younger brother Ahmad gets sucked in. Once inside the magical world of Paheli, the kids have to work together to solve the various puzzles they encounter, in order to escape as well as rescue the other players trapped inside the game.

The idea for the novel first arose when Riazi was discussing the Robin Williams-starring movie with Dhonielle Clayton, one of the editors at Cake Literary, a boutique book development company headed by Clayton and fellow YA author Sona Charaipotra, who had been trying to pair the young author (who was their intern at the time) with a writing project.

“They wanted to find an idea that I could work on that fit my voice,” says Riazi of how the book first came about. “Jumanji is one of those ’90s movies that was totally formative. So it ended up being one of those things where [Clayton and Charaipotra] really did an excellent job with an idea that matched my own strengths and enjoyment.”

The novel isn’t just Riazi’s literary debut, but it’s also the second book from Salaam Reads, a Muslim protagonist-focused imprint from Simon and Schuster.

EW spoke to the debut novelist about crafting the world of The Gauntlet.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Besides Jumanji, did you look at any specific board games for inspiration for the challenges the kids face?
KARUNA RIAZI: I actually played a lot of board games around Farah’s age, like Clue and Monopoly. [So] I was pulling on my love of board games, but at the same time, it was hard to find any real connection. It’s funny, a few months after The Gauntlet was announced, I was playing Monopoly with my cousin and I put it on Instagram, and Dhonielle posted underneath, “Bet you’re glad this game can’t swallow you up. Hahaha.” She thought it was so hilarious, but I started thinking, “If I got sucked into Monopoly, I would just go bankrupt within the next few days. It would be a totally miserable experience. There wouldn’t be any good food.” The Gauntlet is a game you do not want to see on the shelves of Target, and you couldn’t imagine someone’s aunt being able to find. So it was hard trying to find some sort of real-life reference besides Jumanji, because in that story, the main thing was there’s this nefarious board game that’s being passed around secretly, and you never know where it started out from. So I think The Gauntlet got the most inspiration from that.

With some of your descriptions of things, like the architecture within the game, it feels like you’re pulling from examples in real life. Was that the case?
Islamic architecture from the past is one of my favorite subjects, and I’m glad [Salaam Reads editor Zareen Jaffery] indulged me and let me get away with a lot of descriptions. One of the particular forms of architecture that really inspired me for The Gauntlet‘s world, and particularly Paheli, was Moghul architecture because it was one of those Islamically dominant empires. Even in historical references, they discuss how it took from other forms of Islamic architecture. There are some Turkish influences and influences from other areas of the Middle East that came into this new form of architecture that was made into these palaces. The Taj Mahal is the huge recognizable one. But as a Muslim author writing in this really horrible political climate where a lot of Muslim kids are not made to feel welcome or at home, or no longer have a physical home to turn to, it was amazing that this architecture felt like welcoming people home. It was a beautiful thing to imagine — someone coming and seeing Moghul architecture from other areas of the world, you know how people used to travel back and forth, and seeing and realizing, “This kind of looks like my city back home,” and feeling more welcomed and recognized there. That was a beautiful thing to be able to put into The Gauntlet, this meeting of cultures and welcoming of each other.

One scene that I loved and was really important for me to write was when they first enter Paheli. Farah is supposed to be scared and feel like this is a strange world that she’s been pulled into. But still, seeing people dressed like people she knows, and having these cultural touchstones to identify them as Muslim or from areas of the world you would associate with being Muslim, she feels this sensation of being home or at least like there are people around her she knows. She knows she’s not entirely lost. I felt that was so important to write and have there, particularly in this time when being Muslim hasn’t been a pleasant experience since I grew up post-Sept. 11. It felt important to me to put in this different experience — that there is this girl, and when she sees people who look like her, it’s a comfort and a revelation that this is not going to be so bad after all.

Usually, adults in stories don’t know about the adventures kids go on, but one of the things that’s interesting about The Gauntlet is Farah’s aunt, Zohra, knows how dangerous the game is, and still lets the kids go. How did you come up with that aspect of her character?
Aunt Zohra has been a really interesting character to develop. It didn’t feel too odd for me to add her as an adult because I have a really huge extended family and a ton of aunts, so it felt really cool to be able to put an aunt in there. [But] she and Vijay are the “Alan” and “Sarah” figures. He’s the one that stayed in the game. She’s the one who’s left behind and confused. She knows there’s something evil about it, but she doesn’t know what else to do besides guard the game and try to keep it away from people. So that’s all that she’s been able to do with herself. It’s kind of sad in a way because she did not get to move on from her childhood. She’s staying with her sister’s family, and she’s just trying to look after her niece and her nephew, and she still feels almost, at first, like she’s failed [because] the game gets the kids anyway. But it’s a triumph for her, too, because she’s able to tell them something of what to do to get Ahmad back. So she didn’t feel like an adult character because she herself doesn’t know what to do but it still felt important to put her there. She’s kind of like the kid “interrupted” in a way. She didn’t get a chance to be fulfilled the way Farah is. She didn’t get that chance to go and set things right.

Farah also genuinely cares about her younger brother and is constantly thinking of him. How did you develop their relationship?
This is actually something I can attribute to the Bangladeshi side of my family, particularly my cousins. I’m the eldest in my family, and we’re always picking up the younger ones. It’s not an uncommon thing for the youngest in the family to be hand-fed and everybody’s worrying, like “Watch out for the baby.” It’s this extended thing. We call our cousins our “cousin brothers” and “cousin sisters.” Because, you know, they’re literally other siblings. Not to mention the fact that I have a younger brother. He’s 15. When he was little, in particular, my sister and I were always behind him, and my mom called us his second moms because we were always worried about him. So maybe I didn’t grow up with that feeling that you don’t look out for your younger sibling. I couldn’t relate to a lot of middle-grades books where the younger siblings get on your nerves. I won’t lie and say that does not happen to me a lot, but there’s more of a sense, particularly in the family at large, that these are the people you take care of. They’re your buddies, they understand you, they’re your blood. You don’t turn your back on them and leave them to fend for themselves. Actually, we all kind of get along. Particularly the cousins. A couple of months ago my youngest cousin, he’s 6 or 7, came over to one of my older cousins’ house, and we were all just sitting and playing board games with him. He was just hanging out with us and chilling. That’s probably the feeling that came through with Ahmad and Farah. That’s what I wanted for them, to be able to work together and for it to be understandable that there’s no way she’s going to leave her brother in the game.

The Gauntlet is currently available for purchase. Order it here.

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