Growing up in Rockville, MD
So I grew up in Rockville, Maryland. I was born and raised right in Maryland, and I still live there today, about two miles away from the house that I was raised in, so I'm as local as they get. I never really left a five-mile radius that I've lived in my entire life, so, yeah, I'm a Marylander through and through. My parents immigrated from Pakistan to America well before I was born. My father came in 1959, which was really the first wave of Pakistani immigrants that came, so he was sort of a pioneer, and he settled in Silver Spring, Maryland, and after completing his education went back to Pakistan and married my mom and brought her over, so we grew up, you know, in this Maryland suburb, and my father was a scientist. My mom was a homemaker, and I have four siblings, so—well, there's four of us. I have three siblings, and I had a really great childhood, and I went to, you know, excellent schools in Montgomery county, so—yeah, it was a good childhood.
Not too many kids like me at school
There were no other Pakistani families in my school, as far as I knew. When I was growing up I was the only Pakistani-American, and I believe the only Muslim in my grade, if not, one of the very few in the entire school. There was one boy from India in my grade, and when I was in sixth grade I had an unfortunate Lady Diana haircut, so we got often confused for each other, or made fun of, you know, for looking like twins.
But, you know, there was diversity in the sense that, you know, we lived right outside the capitol and there were, you know, children of diplomats and, you know, people from around the world, but I didn’t see too many kids who looked like me in school. We did have a nice community of friends, you know, that my parents had made that included, you know, a lot of Pakistani families, and we grew up together, so I did have that network and that community to be a part of.
Shopping bags full of library books
I spent a lot of time in the library. My mom was a big proponent of reading and took us to the Rockville Public Library regularly, especially over the summer. That was what we did during the summer. We didn’t go to camp or anything else. So we would actually take shopping bags from Giant Food and fill them up with books, and that's what I did most of the time, and I loved to read. I read whatever I could get my hands on, not only at the library but at home.
My family had a small, like—very, very small library, and my sister had more books than me, and I would, you know, take them and read them over and over again, and she would take them back when she'd be mad at me, when she was mad at me, and, yeah, so I just—I loved reading. I—it was such an important part of my childhood.
Favorite books in childhood
My favorite books when I was growing up were really mostly character-driven stories, realistic fiction. I loved stories about other little girls. I loved everything by Beverly Cleary and adored Ramona Quimby. My favorite book of all time is Little Women, which was one of the books that we had at home that belonged to my sister that I would read and read over and over again.
>Looking for myself in books
I don't honestly think it was until I was an adult, and I started looking for when I was—well, young adult, when I was in college, and I started reading other literature, African-American literature, Caribbean literature, and really searching for myself in books and not finding myself even then. I did come across some South Asian literature that was written mostly by people from the subcontinent, and that was the first glimpse I got of myself and my culture, but it still didn’t really reflect me and my experience growing up here in America. And at that time, I started realizing how I had been, you know, deprived of that experience as a child. It wasn't something I think I was consciously aware of when I was growing up, but now looking back, I see how much it did impact me in ways I would—I didn’t realize at the time.
The Khanicles: A journalistic endeavor
When I was probably in third or fourth grade, I kept a family newspaper called the Khanicals, and I would chronicle the events of my household, things that, you know—the antics of my baby brother or, you know, what was—what we were having for dinner, things like that, and I've saved these issues that I wrote on news—notebook paper, lined notebook paper, and I illustrated them myself, and I had a stack of them that I found fairly recently that were yellowed with age, and the tape that I had used to (LAUGHS) keep them together was all peeling off.
And I read through them, and it was really striking to me how absent my culture and my religion were in—on these—all of these pages, and apart from our names, you wouldn't know that I wasn't writing about a white American family. I mentioned a dinner party that my mother was hosting and that she was cooking up tons of food, but I never mentioned that it was Pakistani food, or, you know, the clothing that we wore, that my mother always wore, salwar kameez, which is the, you know, traditional Pakistani outfit, and things like that just were completely omitted, even though it was a huge part of my childhood.
So that, looking back at that and seeing that made me realize that, you know, I could only assume that it's because the stories I read were all of a certain type and, you know, reflected a certain type of person, and I can't think that, you know, it could be anything other than I thought that those stories were the ones that people wanted to hear, and those were the stories worth sharing, and so I ended up deleting huge aspects of myself in order to make these stories palatable, I guess, to what I thought the world wanted to read.
The Halloween costume that never was: A Pakistani princess
Growing up, you know, as a child of immigrants, there was always that push and pull where you wanna fit in and you wanna be like other kids, and then at the same time, you know, you do respect the culture that you're from and you wanna please your parents, and, you know, those—there is that tension, and one of the things that, one of the ways it manifested was during Halloween, which my parents were fully supportive of in terms of going out and trick-or-treating and things like that, but they didn’t understand spending any money on a costume, even though—I mean, compared to now, the costumes back then were pretty simple, but I wanted one of those drugstore costumes with the plastic mask and a trash bag, you know, body part.
And my mom, you know, would suggest, "Why don't you be a Pakistani princess?" And want me to wear my fancy Eid clothes and go—and I didn’t—I just didn't wanna do that, and I didn’t wanna have to explain to people when they opened the door, and I didn't want, you know, them to ask me, "What are you?" or "What are you supposed to be?" 'Cause I felt like that was a question I had to deal with on a daily basis, and the last thing I wanted was to have to explain on Halloween. I just wanted to be a witch or, you know, something easily recognizable. So, yeah, it's just an example of one of the things kids have to deal with.
My Life as an Author
Getting started as an author
I actually started writing for Scholastic book clubs back when I became a new mother, and I was transitioning, well, away from full-time work, and I had been working in the field of public health for a while as an editor and as a writer, and I had the opportunity through a friend of mine who was an editor at Scholastic to help with a series that she was working on, and from there I just started working for a different series, like Spy University, Space University, How to Survive Anything Club, and it was just a really fun way to start writing for kids, which I had to learn how to do coming from a technical writing background.
I realized it was harder than I thought it would be, but I got to, you know, research these interesting subjects, like espionage and space travel, and then write about them in a fun way. So that was my start, and from there I moved into, you know, traditional trade publishing with my first picture book, Night of the Moon, which came out in 2008.
Writing “choose-your-own-adventure” series
I had a really great time writing Choose your own adventure stories because I loved them as a kid, first of all, when I was growing up, and—but one of the things that always bothered me about them was how they would sort of shift sometimes, when you're reading them, from realistic to all of a sudden fantasy, and the endings were very arbitrary. I liked the fact that you could, you know, choose, you know, and direct the story, but there never—there wasn't any rhyme or reason to it.
And the choose your own adventure stories I worked on were more purposeful and mission-driven, so you had to achieve ultimate success by making the right choices along the way, and if you deviated from that and made a mistake you would still have a story, but it wouldn't end up with the ultimate success. So one of them was about being on a mission to Mars, and the other one is about trekking across the Amazon river basin, so, similar to the books I had started writing when I first started for writing for kids, involved a research component and talking to experts and really getting to know what it would take to colonize Mars or to trek across the Amazon and then writing about that and coming up with these crazy scenarios.
So in a way, it was like putting together a giant puzzle because you have to keep track of not only the various story, you know, directions and the multiple endings, but then also when they're doing the design and layout you have to keep track of the word count, and it has to, you know, count for the page turns and things like that, so it's very specific. But it was really fun to write, and I do enjoy that format, and I love seeing kids respond to them 'cause they enjoy them a lot too.
How to stay organized while writing a “choose-your-own-adventure” series
I organized it in, like, Microsoft Visio, which is a very — it's a flowchart program, and that's where — it was that, along with a spreadsheet hat had all the page count, so we would have numbered boxes that were the sections, and then the pages, since they're all scrambled, you know, which page that would actually be and what the word count needed to be for that section, whether it was an ending that was only, you know, a couple — you know, few words or a section that was several hundred words.
So, you know, it was a lot to keep track of, but it's fun to show kids when I do school visits and to, like, show them this, you know, amazing grid of colored boxes that show what, how the story progressed and, and then, of course, there's one, we call it “the golden path,” which is if you make all the right choices how you'll get to, you know, the ultimate success.
Seeing a need for more stories about my culture and religion
After becoming a mother is when I realized I wanted to write about my culture, because I started to look for those books that I didn’t have when I was growing up, and I thought surely after 30 years, you know, the market had changed and we'd—I'd be able to find those books, and I couldn't, and I went back to the same library that I had grown up in and asked the librarians, and I looked at what was there, and I did find really great multicultural books about other cultures, but I did not find anything really about Pakistani Americans and not a lot about Muslims, and certainly not Muslims in America.
The few books that I was able to find were either non-fiction books, you know, teaching about holidays or books set in other countries, and I realized that there was just, you know, I wanted my kids to have what I didn’t have growing up and to feel represented, included, and especially in a school setting. When my son started school, pre-school, and I realized there was nothing for him in a library setting, that was really what made me start thinking about it and wanting to create those books.
The first book with a Muslim theme
The editor who I was working with was very open to the idea, and I had mentioned it to her that, you know, I, this was something that I felt very strongly about and wished existed and that that was something I'd like to work on.
My editor went to a conference where she met with educators who were calling for Arab-American and Muslim-American literature, and specifically were saying that, you know, these children were not seeing themselves represented, so she came back and said, "Why don't you write a, you know, proposal?" So I suggested a few different ideas, and the one we decided to go with eventually became Night of the Moon, so I did feel very supported early on, you know, and I was glad that I had that support 'cause I know for other people it was, you know, a longer struggle to try to be represented.
Night of the Moon
Night of the Moon is about a seven year old named Yasmeen who is a Pakistani-American observing the month of Ramadan with her family, but it's very much from the perspective of a child, and so it's not about the religious aspects of celebrating the holiday or what it means, but really the fun and celebratory aspects, the community elements, things like, you know, having parties and getting presents and doing charitable work and things that really capture the spirit of the holiday from the perspective of this child who's also watching the moon change shape over the course of the month, since the moon sighting is such an important part of the holiday at the beginning and the end of the month.
And we watch them very closely 'cause it tells us how we're progressing during the month, so she's watching the moon, and spoiler alert, gets a telescope, but at the end of the book as an Eid present to help her watch for Ramadan the following year.
Studying the moon during Ramadan
We grew up watching the moon because my mom would always comment every time there was a new moon, or the moon's first crescent she would always congratulate us on the new moon, and it was something that we watched, and especially during the month of Ramadan we would watch because you knew the month was starting when you sighted the moon's first crescent, and then, you know, the Eid holiday was approaching as we saw the moon shrinking. You knew you were getting closer and closer to Eid, so it's something very special.
And in the book Yasmeen's grandmother comments when she sees the moon and says, "Sapanalo(?)," which is something that I grew up hearing my mother and others say when they saw the moon, just a beautiful, beautiful object that they wanted to express their wonder over.
Collaborating with the illustrator to ensure authenticity
I worked with Julie Paschkis on that book, and unlike many other authors I did have the opportunity to offer a lot of suggestions in terms of how the art would turn out, specifically the moon was very important, that I--you know, the moon had to look a certain way on the different pages, so I would send specific moon calendars and say, you know, "Please have it look like the August 3rd moon in this image," and things like, you know, dress and the mosque.
I wanted the book to feel American, so I supplied a lot of images, like what mosques in America look like, 'cause I thought if somebody just researched mosque or mosque they might find, you know, the Blue Mosque in Turkey, or a mosque in Cairo, which doesn't look like what we have here, and coincidentally she ended up using--I gave her multiple images of mosques in America, and she ended up modeling her image after one of the pictures I sent, which is the mosque I grew up attending in Silver Spring, Maryland.
So that was a really nice treat for people in that community to see, you know, our local mosque represented that way. So, yeah, it was a nice collaboration in that regard. We got to--you know, I was happy to be able to give input, and they were very receptive. Chronicle Books, the publisher the book was very, you know, responsive to what I had to say and, you know, making sure everything came together the way it did.
I really appreciated Chronicle Books' effort to make sure that the book was--felt authentic and was respectful, and that they included me in that process, recognizing that the illustrator was coming from outside of the culture and, you know, might not even realize certain things, and--you know, and that happens. She actually took her inspiration for the art from Islamic tile art, which was her idea, which is beautiful, and, you know, she put in many lovely things that, you know, I wouldn't have thought of, that they might not have thought of, but there were other things that, you know, she might not have realized.
And for me, you know, it was important to be representative of the diversity that exists within the Muslim community, so I wanted there to be women who wore the hijab and didn't wear the hijab, for example, and details like that they were very receptive to including, and, again, you know, making sure that Julie was on board with whatever suggestions we made, which were really, you know, content-focused, not--obviously her art was her art, and she did an amazing job at that. But yeah, I was very, very pleased with the collaborative nature of everything and really grateful for that.
Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors
A few years later we worked on Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which is a book of colors, and I was really excited about this book because it wasn't a holiday-specific book, and my goal was to have a book if you went to the little religion section of the bookstore, you could find, you know, a book that represented Muslims, that it wasn't just about Ramadan.
And the book is, it's very simple verse of rhyming couplets, and it just highlights objects and concepts that are very special to Muslims through this color device, and it got a lot of attention, I think, because of the art. The artist who illustrated it is amazingly talented, and it's just stunning the way she put it together, but I just--I think for people too, it was very moving for them to see.
For Muslims, I think, it was very moving to see objects and, you know, things that they love so much, like a prayer rug or a Qu’ran, things that they have in their homes to life come in such a beautiful way on these pages, and then I think it offers a nice introduction for people who aren't familiar with the culture to learn very basic things that are important and sort of give a very light overview of the faith.
My books are mirrors and windows
People ask me often about, you know, who my audience is, and I think ultimately, you know, I have the school library audience in the back of my mind, but, of course, that includes all children. I want the Muslim children to have, you know, the mirror book where they can pick up and see themselves, and I've seen the reaction with--even with Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. Somebody sent me an image of a boy over Twitter at school holding the book and saying, you know, "This is me. This is my life," and all--you see all these heads of other children huddled around him as he's sharing it, or I've gone to schools where, you know, I share the book, and I have a little boy say, "That's my mom," when—(LAUGHS) when I get to the scene—the page with that—the hijab, or "I have that in my house," when I get to the Qu’ran.
So it's wonderful to see kids get excited and to recognize themselves in the book, but, of course, I want others to have a window into Muslim culture and to learn about, you know, something they may not be as familiar with and have it as a tool for expanding their minds.
Writing about Curious George
Curious George was a really fun experience for me on many levels. I was contacted by the publisher to see if I would be interested in writing a book about Curious George and Ramadan. They found me because of the other books I had written, and a lot of people wondered, they were, like, "How did you—you know, how did you do that? How did you manage to write a Curious George book, and how did you get permission?" And I'm always happy to say that it was the publisher who actually approached me, which was a very exciting step and to see that they wanted that representation and inclusion and to add Curious--you know, George celebrating Ramadan to a series of books that they already had with him celebrating other holidays.
So it's, again, a very simple board book where George celebrates with friends of his, who are Muslim, and kind of goes through what fasting is and what the month looks like in terms of breaking fast together, again, focusing on charity, looking for the moon, celebrating Eid holiday, you know, in a very short, compact way. It's written in rhyme, again, and it was just a very fun, sweet little book and, for me, so exciting to have a character that I grew up knowing and loving and then was reading to my children as they were, you know, younger, to be able to write a character like that just felt incredible.
And then to know how much it would mean to people to have this, you know, mainstream loved character include Muslims for the very first time, and that's what I had--I told the publisher when they asked me if I'd be interested in writing it or what I thought the reaction would be, you know, I said I couldn't imagine it being anything but overwhelmingly positive, but I think none of us were prepared for how overwhelmingly positive it ended up being and that the reaction was so huge.
Before the book even sold, when it was listed for preorder, people, you know, discovered it and they were sharing it on social media. It went viral, and just seeing the comments that people have. They're--you know, "Is this a—this is a thing? This is really a thing?" Or, you know, how excited they were, how they wished they had that when they were growing up, or they couldn't wait to share it with their kids. So the book ended up selling very well and getting a lot of attention, and I ended up getting a lot of unexpected media attention and interviews about this--you know, this little, simple book. But I think the timing of it, the fact that we were in the midst of the primary election, there was a lot of negative rhetoric about Muslims, I--it was a nice, positive story to be able to talk about something exciting and happy.
Preparing to write about Curious George
When I was writing the book, it was a different format than a traditional Curious George book, and I know a lot of other authors over the years have written Curious George books in the style of the, you know, original authors, and this one, because it is a board book and it had very limited text, the format was different, and so I didn't start with, you know, "This is George. He's a good little monkey," but instead, you know, just kinda launched into the story.
But I did want to stay true to the spirit of George, and so he does get into a little bit of mischief when he goes to the mosque to help make charity baskets. He sees the shoes that are in cubbies for people who remove their shoes when they are at the mosque, and he starts to add the shoes into the baskets and was told by the Imam, "No, no, no. Those are ours, but, you know, we'll add a clothes drive next year," so the idea of George getting into mischief and then it leading to something positive, and it was my nod to the Curious George, you know, I guess icon.
So before I wrote the book, I did go back and review a lot of the Curious George books that I had. I had a big anthology of Curious George stories on my bookshelf, so that was nice to go back and reread, but I found that I didn't really have to 'cause I had read certain stories over and over again to my children, especially Curious George Goes to the Hospital, so I felt like it--the spirit of Curious George was sort of embedded in me. So it wasn't--it didn't require too much research.
How my kids reacted to my writing a Curious George Book
My kids were overjoyed at the idea of me writing Curious George. I think for them to even being a little bit older at that time, they were so super excited about it, and they understood the significance too, of a character that they knew and loved so much, you know, talking about Ramadan and Eid and things that, you know, mattered so much to them, so it was very special.
How being a mom affects my writing
I think being a mother impacted me a lot as a writer. For one, being able to get back into childhood through their experiences and to reconnect with my childhood through them and those experiences and feelings, and just also being more up to date (LAUGHS), but it's really fun to have child readers in the house, and my older son was my first reader for Amina's Voice when he was that age.
So that's a really wonderful thing, and even the books I'm working on right now, I'm writing a series, chapter book series, about a ten-year-old boy, which is great to be able to write about a boy character as a mom of two boys, but also to have their input because he's a basketball player, and, you know, they both love basketball, and so just being able to go to a basketball practice or a basketball game and to be able to come back and write about a character who's having those same experiences and to be able to ask my kids, you know, "Well, would you call it this or that?” Or, “Give me a drill that, you know, the coach would run,” or that type of thing.
So definitely just from a actual fact—(LAUGHS) you know, fact-checking standpoint, it's wonderful having them around, but also just as a reminder of, you know, what they care about, what they're feeling, what they're thinking, you know, about the stories that I would want them to have and to read, I think all of those things are always in the back of my mind as a mom.
How my sons’ reading preferences are different
My older son I read to all the time. My husband and I both read to him like crazy when he was little, and “book” was his first word, and he just was, you know, a natural reader, and so I was--my biggest joy was watching him read but also watching him reread, which was something I mentioned that I did when I was a kid, and so I saw him pick up a book and read it over and over again, and I just felt like that was the ultimate victory (LAUGHS).
And then my younger son, you know, we read to little less because of time constrictions, but he was not--he did not take to books the same way. He read, but it was sort of, you know, "I'm gonna do my 20 minutes of timed reading for school, and then I'm gonna put the book away. I'm not gonna immerse myself in it or just get lost in it and find that I am reading it for three hours," and that hurt me 'cause I wanted that for him.
And one thing that I finally realized was that as he got older and was, you know, picking books to read, I was giving him books that my older son had read and enjoyed, and they all tended to be more action/adventure oriented books, and my son--my younger son would read them, but you know he'd—he didn't love them, and it took me a while to realize that he actually had a different taste altogether and he liked character-driven realistic fiction, and he loved multicultural fiction, and it was after he read Grace Lin that he told me that, you know, "This was the best book I've ever read," that I realized that he—that that was the type of book he needed.
And I started being more selective in giving him other books like that, and I saw him connect with him in a way that he hadn't before. So it's interesting to see the different tastes just, you know, between the two of them and to realize that it's such an important thing to be able to recognize what kids like, and they may not realize it themselves unless you give them enough variety.
Next on my plate is wrapping up this chapter book series that I'm working on, which I'm excited to have coming out next spring. So just finishing up edits to that, and then working on another novel which hopefully will come out in 2019. In April, we are releasing the sequel to Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which will be called Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets. It's a book of shapes, and it's illustrated by the same artist, so it's beautiful, and it's actually set around the world. So you got a--kind of a global perspective, and especially with shapes, it lent itself well to celebrating the architecture and art of the Muslim world, so I'm really excited to have that come out in the spring as well.
We need diverse books because….
We need diverse books because the literature that's available to kids needs to reflect the world we live in.
Excerpt: “It’s Ramadan, Curious George”
My name is Hena Khan, and I'm going to read a little bit from this book It's Ramadan, Curious George. “Kareem invites George to the mosque. They gather to do a good deed. Together they make food baskets to share with others in need. Wow! Look at George join the action. He knows how to lend a hand, and when he spies a shelf full of shoes, George comes up with a plan.”
‘No, George,’ the Imam says with a laugh. ‘Those shoes belong to us here, but you gave me a great idea. We'll add a clothes drive next year.’”
Salaam Reads is a new imprint that was created by Simon and Schuster to focus on stories about Muslims of all backgrounds, and stories written by Muslims, of course, and it was announced right when I was selling Amina's Voice to them, and Amina's Voice ended up being the first publication that they released in March of this year, 2017. So it was a tremendous honor for me to have that distinct role, but also just so exciting to see, you know, the industry embrace Salaam Reads the way it has, and to--just to have something like that exist after, you know, having had a positive experience with Chronicle Books and seeing things moving in the right direction with regard to Muslim representation, I knew it was just gonna take things to an entirely different level. And to see, you know, this imprint take off and to see the other books that have come since and to be writing more books for them is something I'm really proud to be doing.
So Amina's Voice is something I thought about for a long time and was really happy to start writing about four-and-a-half years ago, almost five years ago now, and I really wanted to write a longer work for middle grade that represented a kid like me growing up. So that's really what it's about, except for that Amina is--she is a child of immigrants, but she's growing up in the present day, not when I was growing up.
And it was just a way for me to explore the things that matter to me when I was a kid and going back to all those books that I read when I was growing up, the things that resonated with me. Really family and friendship above anything else were the things that I connected with and I cared about, and so Amina's Voice is really centered around friendship and family and about a girl who is shy and trying to find her confidence and her place in the middle school years, which is challenging, and starting middle school for the first time and dealing with the changes that brings along and some of the questions that creates.
And then it's also an opportunity for me to explore Pakistani culture and share things that I think are just important for readers to see, things like what goes on in a mosque, things a lot of readers don't have access to and--or just things that aren't shared in stories very often, and just, you know, aspects of Pakistani culture that are so common to me and things that not only Pakistani-Americans but I think a lot of immigrants can relate to, in terms of some of the expectations parents have, or the role of elders and respect and things like that.
So those are themes that are explored in the story, and then there's also a mosque vandalism incident that takes place, which has gotten a lot of attention, I think, in light of current events and the fact that, tragically, this is something that is happening with alarming frequency recently, and it wasn't something that, obviously, I could have anticipated or would have ever thought would be happening, but it was something I included because it was something that did happen from time to time, and it wasn't the point of the story but something I wanted to include to sort of offer that opportunity for the community to react and for Amina to have a role in dealing with it not only, but also overcoming that challenge.
So it's a lot packed into a small book, but something that, you know, is a way to explore feelings more than anything else.
Writing a universal character
I wanted Amina to be a related--a relatable character that any child could see themselves in. You know, we all--we've all struggled with questions of, you know, who is our--who are our friends, you know, having to keep a secret, you know, feeling jealous, things that I think anybody can relate to, and to me, that was most important, and even now, you know, in terms of audience, I wanted Amina to be read by everybody. It wasn't something I thought, "This is for my community, or, you know, children who are like me."
That I definitely wanted those kids to read it too, but just like I grew up reading, you know, stories of children who didn't look--resemble me necessarily, I wanted, you know, Amina to be as relatable as those characters were to me, and now I see--you know, it's amazing to see people tell me that they do connect with her from all backgrounds, to have a, you know, 30-something-year-old white male librarian tell me (LAUGHS) that he saw himself in the book is the ultimate compliment to me.
The importance of names and of saying them correctly
My name was always mispronounced, even though it's a relatively simple name, and that was something I was very conscious of, and I feel like a lot of children feel that, and I actually was at a camp of--for Muslim children over the summer, and they one-by-one went around the room and said what their name was and how everyone mispronounced it.
It something that they connected with so strongly, and I know people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures can relate to that, and I think it's something that people don't necessarily think about, that, you know, taking that extra time to learn how to pronounce a child's name correctly means so much because that child's not going to correct you over and over again, and if, you know, they give up, and that's what, you know, Amina says in the book too, that, you know, after trying to correct somebody once, she just lets people say her name however they want.
But in the story, her best friend, who is a Korean-American, is thinking of changing her name when she becomes an American citizen with her family, and that was actually taken directly from my childhood and my best friend doing the same thing and recognizing how that felt as a child and having a best friend who also had a difficult-to- pronounce name and that being something that bonded us.
And then to have her thinking about changing her name and how that felt and made me feel in a way, you know, in a sense felt like a betrayal of sorts, and so I wanted to explore that theme because it was something that I had lived, but also I felt like other kids could relate to.
Writing about friendship
When I was growing up, I think my friendships, like many people, were so important to me, my relationships. I think I was maybe, perhaps a little insecure because I kept thinking that I valued my friendships more than my friends valued me, so that was something I struggled with as a kid and thought about a lot, and I know for many children that is, you know, especially when you're in the school-going years, such a huge part of your day to days.
You know, who's there for you, and who's gonna be that constant in your life and the person to look out for you or to just be your companion, and so that was something that, you know, was always on my mind as a kid, and is still is, but especially when I was a kid, and so I felt like that was something that, you know, since it is so prevalent and something that so many people can relate to, I felt like it was a theme I wanted to explore and actually am still exploring in other stories I'm writing.
Amina’s Voice is a window
One thing I've noticed just through my experience of sharing Amina's Voice and--you know, I'm so grateful to, you know, the librarians especially who have embraced the book and have, you know, been very positive about it, but to what, you know, we were talking earlier, I did write the book for everybody, and I wanted her to be a relatable character to anybody, and more than anything I wanted people to be able to understand her and her family and hopefully grow to love her and her family and have increased, you know, compassion and tolerance for Muslim people through her experience.
And I find a lot of times people will be excited about the book, and then they'll tell me, "I can't wait to share this with, you know, an Iraqi refugee student I have," and I think that's lovely, but I think an American child of any background would probably identify with Amina more than an Iraqi refugee, and I feel like sometimes that--you know, I've heard that many, many times, or, you know, some variation of that same thing, and I--you know, like I said, I'm grateful that they want to share the book and they're, you know, seeing it as a mirror book for kids, but I feel like I—you know, I've—I want to remind everybody.
I'm, like, "It's a window," and I think right now we need those windows so urgently.
Excerpt: Amina’s Voice
“Mama told me once that she picked my name thinking it would be the easiest of all the ones on her list for people in America to pronounce, but she was wrong. The neighbor with the creepy cat still calls me Amelia after living next door for five years, and my last name? Forget about it. I could barely pronounce Holker(?) myself until I was at least eight, and since I don't want to embarrass anyone by correcting them more than once I just let them say my name any way they want.
Su-jin is the only one at school who gets it. Whenever a substitute teacher pauses during roll call and asks, ‘Oh, uh, how do you say your name, dear?’ I don't even have to look at her to know she's rolling her eyes. We still collapse into giggling fits if one of us mentions the lady who called me anemia, as in the blood disorder, but now all of a sudden Sujan wants to be a Fiona or a Heidi?”
The Experiences of Young American Muslims Today
Why school visits matter
Over the last year-and-a-half, I've definitely prioritized school visits and had a surge in the interest in having me come, but also a desire to want to be at as many schools as possible, as many as I could manage. It gets a little overwhelming at times, but I feel like if I had the opportunity to go into a school and talk to kids about my work and about even Islamophobia in a very light way, it's something that I feel compelled to do.
And I'm grateful for the opportunity because I feel like if I can be in a school--and even for the very little ones, if nothing else, if they remember that they met a Muslim and she seemed nice (LAUGHS) or normal, to me that's enough, and for the older kids, of course, to be able to talk about, you know, why I write the books I do, why it means so much to me, you know, to see the recognition in their faces when I speak to them and they understand--you know, the kids are fair, and they understand, you know, what it feels like to be, you know, afraid or to be bullied or to, you know, feel like the other, and they're very sympathetic.
So I feel like it's a really wonderful opportunity for me. You know, I feel like the people who are inviting me are so supportive and want these messages out there for kids, and it's also just fun to be able to talk about the craft and, you know, other aspects of just writing and storytelling, but especially in the times we're in right now, I feel like kids are-- you know, especially that middle age--you know, middle school-aged kid, they're getting a lot of mixed messages. I think it's hard for them to process, you know, what they're hearing.
I hear really disturbing statistics about the high levels of bullying of Muslim kids, and really, beyond bullying, just the microaggression, the things they're hearing on a daily basis. So anything I feel like I can do to help counter that, you know, I'm going to do. So, yeah, I do think school visits are a really important thing for me right now.
Conversations with kids and educators at schools
I think kids are very receptive to the messages and to the topics I bring up. They do have a lot of questions, and they're—they've just generally been fantastic. I've gotten great questions from kids of all backgrounds, and it's also really rewarding to see people react to the Muslim kids in the audience and to have, you know, a bunch of kids point to the little boy, you know, who's squirming in his seat, you know, because he has a name that I mentioned in one of my books, or, you know, he celebrates that holiday too, or to see those kids themselves volunteer, you know, and to know that there's only a handful, maybe, in a school of 600 kids.
But for them to be able to, you know, raise their hand and share that, “I also celebrate that holiday,” or my--you know, “I'm from this country,” or--and to have librarians actually surprised afterwards, to tell me, "I didn't realize that we had that many Muslim kids in our school," because--especially the younger ones. If one shares, then they all want to start sharing, so she was--in one school in particular, she was very surprised. She didn't--she had no idea. So that's nice to see too, that, you know, they feel confident when they—when I'm there to be, to share and to speak up.
I've had fantastic conversation with educators after I've visited schools, and people come up to me and tell me how much they--how important they think it was that I was there, or how--you know, how it made them think of things in a different way, or how they wanted to continue the conversation with the kids. So it's been fantastic to see the overwhelming support from educators to what I'm trying to do, and to my work in particular.
Books can help combat Islamophobia
I think it's really important for schools to recognize this--the small things, and I don't know how you talk to kids about these things, to be honest, but things like, you know, hearing that--children don't even consider this bullying, per se, or, you know, anything out of the norm, but that for them to hear Muslims being called terrorists, or to hear things like Allah Akbar boom, which I guess is a thing, I found out recently, it's just normal for them.
And I don't know how you--I know schools are great about, you know, telling people that, you know, we are an inclusive community, and we're all together, and, you know, things like that, but in terms of these specific phrases and attitudes and--you know, I don't know how you combat them, other than reminding people, and perhaps, you know, I think books are a way to start, to share stories and to normalize a community that may not, you know, be well understood and to explain why that's, you know, important and being—how--why being respectful is important.
Learning to read with news headlines
My mom was instrumental in teaching me how to read, and I went to a Montessori school and learned to read when I was pretty young. I think I wasn't quite five years old yet, and she was so proud that she would have me perform in front of her friends, or I don't know who these people were, and she would have me get a newspaper or magazine, and she would point to big words, and I could sound them out, even though I probably had no idea what they meant.
And it was just a mortifying (LAUGHS) experience to have to perform for people I didn't know, but I knew she was so proud, and I remember that feeling, and I was just reflecting on that, now that I have children, and how I feel like I have to hide headlines from my kids, and just—I remember distinctly, you know, we were on vacation, and we were getting onto a plane, and they had newspapers ready for people to take onto the plane, and the headlines were so horrible, and there was stuff, you know, about ISIS and Muslim attacks and, you know, things like this, and I literally stood in front of the newspapers and sort of ushered my son along so that he wouldn't see them. And, you know, it's just heartbreaking
Memories of the Iran hostage crisis
When I was growing up I was in second grade, I believe, when the Iran hostage crisis happened, and that was the first time I remember feeling a sense of shame that people who were connected to, you know, my religion were doing bad things, and in a way I felt connect--you know, associated with what was happening, but I didn't quite understand it.
And I do remember at the time that Iran was very much the enemy, quote unquote, not Islam overall, so that distinction was very clear, and I think the difference now, you know, is that the--that distinction is not being made, and if anything I feel like it's being deliberately blurred where all Muslims are being lumped into, you know, the horrific acts of a violent extremist group that they would reject categorically as un-Islamic, and yet, you know, here we are facing a completely different challenge.
So, you know, just thinking back on what that felt like as a little kid, you know, I can't even imagine what kids are confronting now and having to grapple with those emotions at such a young age and make sense of it 'cause it just doesn't make sense, you know? It doesn't make sense to us as adults, and how is a seven-year-old supposed to figure that out?