Suzanne Fisher Staples spent her childhood in Pennsylvania and studied literature and political science at Cedar Crest College. She worked as a UPI correspondent in southern Asia for thirteen years in the 1970s and 1980s. Besides working as a reporter, Staples participated in a women's literacy project in Pakistan. During the course of this project, she lived with a Pakistani family in a small village.
Staples returned to the United States in the mid-1980s and began working for The Washington Post. In Publishers Weekly, she remembers experiencing greater culture shock upon returning to the United States than she had experienced when she first traveled to Asia. Americans seemed "frivolous" to her and were not genuinely interested in hearing about her time in Asia. At this point, Staples began to work on Shabanu.
The novel takes place in Pakistan, which became an independent nation in 1947, when the British, who had given up their colonial domination of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, divided the area into a primarily Hindu country (India) and a primarily Muslim country (East and West Pakistan). East Pakistan fought for its own statehood in 1971. In 1972, East Pakistan became Bangladesh. West Pakistan kept the name Pakistan.
The people of Pakistan speak a variety of different languages. More than half speak Punjabi, though this language is not common to the whole population. Others speak Pashto, Sindhi, Saraiki, Urdu, and Balochi. The Pakistani people make their livings mostly by farming, herding animals, and working in factories and service professions. However, Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Many skilled and educated Pakistanis leave the country to make their living abroad.
The country consists of four regions: the mountain ranges in the north, the Balochistan Plateau in the southwest, the Indus Plain in the center, and the Thal, Cholistan, and Thar deserts in the east. The Indus is the country's principal river and supports the country's most prosperous agriculture. The temperature in the desert, where Shabanu is set, ranges from ninety-five degrees in the summer to four degrees in the winter. The July/August monsoon provides most of the year's rainfall: about six to eight inches in the desert.
In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Staples states that she spent three years writing Shabanu. She based the protagonist on a thirteen year old Pakistani girl who did not want to get married. The girl had a grandmother, who, like Aunt Sharma in Shabanu, left her abusive husband and lived alone in the desert. Staples explains that she draws much of her writing from real-life experiences. During her time in Pakistan, she sat with her "family" every night to tell and hear stories. She wrote many of these tales down and used them as material for Shabanu.
In 1990, Shabanu won a Newbery Honor award. Her second novel, Haveli, is a sequel to Shabanu. Haveli tells the story of Shabanu's married life. Her third novel, Dangerous Skies, takes place in the Chesapeake Bay area, and like Shabanu and Haveli, explores the lives of young people struggling with the prejudices and traditions of the adult world around them. She is currently at work on a fourth novel.
Staples has her critics: both Americans and Pakistanis question her right and ability, as an American woman, to accurately and compassionately depict the life of a young, poor woman of a culture with values and traditions so different from her own. Others defend Staples's work, pointing out that Staples lived for an extended period of time in the country whose culture she strives to depict. Proponents of her work also argue that such a depiction, since so few like it exist, serves the unique purpose of making the perspective of a young Cholistani girl available to young Americans.
Shabanu is an example of a young adult "problem novel". Until roughly the 1960s, most literature for young adults was romance, fantasy, or adventure, and, with a few notable exceptions (such as Little Women and the works of Mark Twain), not of the highest quality. As a result of the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, however, publishers became more interested in books for young adults that displayed life realistically. Such novels endeavor to represent the imperfections of the adult world and the difficulties of growing up.