Today we are talking to children’s book author – Hena Khan. Hena has written some really amazing children’s books. One of her books, Amina’s Voice, has already been released and she has man other children’s books, like Under My Hijab.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what made you want to become a children’s author?
Like a lot of authors, I’ve always loved writing. But I didn’t always believe I had a story to tell that anyone would be interested in reading. That probably had something to do with the fact that even though I was an avid reader growing up, I never saw myself reflected in the books I read. I started writing books for different series published by Scholastic book clubs, and realized I loved writing for kids since that was when what I read spoke to me the most. And I got my first piece of fan mail, realized that actual kids were connecting with my words, and was hooked. After I became a mother I realized I wanted to write the books I didn’t have a child for my children. This meant books with characters who looked like them.
Hena, what were some of your favorite books growing up?
I loved so many books! I loved Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and looked at the illustrations and scenes and imagined stories with the characters for hours. I adored everything by Beverly Clearly, especially the Ramona Quimby series, since I idolized her. My favorite book of all time was Little Women though, and I’m excited to have a middle grade novel coming out this fall that is inspired by that book! It features four Pakistani American sisters and is called More To The Story.
Let’s talk about Amina’s Voice! I have two small girls (ages 6 and 10 months) and I have been preparing myself for years on how to help them fit in with other children as they grow up. You have such a unique story to tell because not only do you have the fact that Amina is trying to fit in with just other children (which is hard enough), but also a different culture and background. Tell us more about Amina?
Amina is a child of immigrants, like I was, and is balancing having a different culture at home than her peers at school with being a regular American kid. I think it’s amazing to see how kids like her, from any background, are able to adapt to different settings, and to create a new identity that fits all the elements that make up who they are. It was important to me that Amina be a relatable girl, who is dealing with universal challenges like lacking confidence, facing changes in her friend circle, and living up to her parents’ expectations, as she lives life as a Pakistani American Muslim. I also didn’t want her to suffer from insecurity about who she is, or to feel embarrassed by her culture or background. Instead, it’s just a part of her, and many of her struggles are types of things any child might face. But at the same time, her background and culture are a big part of her and are important to her.
What would you say to people struggling to fit in with others?
It’s so hard to recognize that being different, which can make us feel out of place, is also what makes us special or interesting until we’re older. I don’t think I ever really felt like I fit in when I was growing up, even through my twenties. I didn’t feel American enough with my American friends, and I didn’t feel Pakistani enough with my Pakistani friends. I didn’t speak Urdu well, or feel like I understood things about my culture even though I wanted to. As a Muslim, I wasn’t sure where I fit in terms of my practice and understanding of the faith, and grappled with that for many years. I thought I cared more about my relationships than others did, didn’t feel cool, and so on! But in hindsight, I see that I wasted a lot of energy worrying about things I couldn’t change. And the good news is, I eventually realized I was fine that way I was. And hopefully knowing what that feels like to be out of place, helped me to have empathy for others, and to be a better writer. So I would say, be patient, and one day you’ll see you’re just fine the way you are—and there are so many other people who feel exactly the same way as you do, even if they don’t seem like it or admit it!
Out of all of the places that you have traveled, what has been your favorite?
I’m very fortunate to have had the chance to travel quite a bit, even though I’ve lived within the same five-mile radius my entire life, and it’s impossible to choose just one favorite place! I’m a bit obsessed with southern Spain, since I did a study abroad there when I was in college and got to know it well, and because I still have a dear friend there I’ve gone back several times. But I also really love the country of Turkey and the city of Istabul in particular, with its fantastic sites, kind and friendly people, and delicious food. Recently, my family visited Vietnam, which we also fell in love with and didn’t want to leave! And the Grand Canyon and Sedona, Arizona just took my breath away and felt otherworldly! I hope to be able to continue to travel and discover new favorites.
What is your favorite type of stories to write about?
I love writing middle grade realistic fiction that highlights the ways we all have so much in common, and that draws from real life. I had a blast writing a series called Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream that came out last year, about a boy who is scrawny but has big basketball dreams, and the main character is based on a combination of my husband and my younger son. And Zayd’s wacky family is inspired by other people in my life, like my mother. I think kids of all backgrounds deserve to be the heroes in books, and to have lighthearted, fun books that aren’t about overcoming hardship or oppression. So it makes me happy to be able to write them!
If you could give a piece of wisdom to our readers who want to pursue working with writing, what would it be?
For anyone who wants to write, I would borrow from NIKE and say JUST DO IT. So many people tell me that they want to write a book, or have an idea for a book. But so few of them have actual done it. It’ll never happen if you don’t start. So I would say, silence your inner doubt, and go for it! Your first draft will probably be pretty crappy, but they always are, no matter who you are! And then keep working at it. Like anything else, writing takes practice and persistence!
Where can we find your work at if someone wants to purchase it?
Preferably a local independent bookstore if you have one in your area. If not, my books are all available through online retailers. You can purchase in bulk through my publishers’ distributors in case you want a big box of them! No matter where you buy, or if you borrow from the library, I am always grateful for readers, and for reviews and feedback!
Time for our last question which is usually pretty silly and random? You had to trade in your vehicle for one of the following, what would you choose: hot air balloon, submarine, or jetpack? (I like to throw questions that hopefully you have never been asked!!!)
Yikes. Well, I’m a huge scaredy-cat and pretty much afraid of everything—rollercoasters, roller skates, etc. But out of these choices I’m probably most afraid of a submarine. I couldn’t even go into one that was parked at a dock for a tour because I felt too claustrophobic. A jetpack sounds absolutely terrifying, so that’s out. So I would go for a hot-air balloon since it seems the most peaceful and slow moving, and because I’ve always sort of wanted to be in one ever since watching the Wizard of Oz movie as a kid.
Who wouldn’t want to ride in a hot air balloon! Thank you so much, Hena for talking with us today. Be sure to check out Hena’s website.
Thanks everyone and remember to like this site to see more interesting interviews as we continue to ask Questions to Inspire!