Hena Khan and Amina’s Voice

I first met Hena Khan five years ago at an event we did for an organization called JAM DC. (The JAM is for Jews and Muslims.) At the time, I had just released The Schmutzy Family and Hena had just released Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors. There were parallels in why we wrote the things we wrote: trying to give our respective kids the books we wished we had growing up, and trying to give other kids an entry point into understanding the traditions that were important to us.

9780811879057_largeHena is also the author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Night of the Moon, and a slew of nonfiction books. Her newest book, a middle-grade novel, is called Amina’s Voice, and it’s the first on Simon and Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint. The book follows Amina Khokar, a Pakastani-American girl trying to balance fitting in and maintaining her family’s culture, in a world where some people are not always accepting of that culture — and they show it. She is finding her voice — and herself. In this blog post, Khan addresses some of her own feelings about writing a book that has become even more relevant in recent months, with a rise in Islamophobia, with acts of vandalism against mosques, and with a proposed travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries constantly in the news cycle. (To many stories to even link to here.)

aminas-voiceThe middle-grade novel is a jump in genre from Hena’s recent picture books, just as her fiction was a jump from her non fiction. Still there are things about each genre that inform each other. So today, I thought I’d celebrate Hena’s new book by asking her some of my questions for genre jumpers.

Me: What was the first thing you ever published? And yes, I mean ever!

Hena: Other than my self-published family newspaper in elementary school, my first official publication and kids’ book was “The Spy’s Guide to Escape and Evasion” which was part of a Scholastic Book Club series (where kids receive a book and kit every month in the mail).

Me: As a professional writer, which came first for you: Chicken or egg, picture book or novel, fiction or nonfiction?

Hena: I worked on a bunch of series for Scholastic that were nonfiction, including Spy University, Space University, and How To Survive Anything. And then I went on to fiction.

Me: When did you publish something in a different form?

Night_of_the_MoonHena: In 2008, I published my first picture book, Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story with Chronicle Books. And then I went on to write a couple middle-grade choose-your-own-adventure style novels with Chronicle. My latest, Amina’s Voice, a middle grade novel that is realistic fiction, just came out on March 14 with Salaam Reads.

Me: How has it been, having Amina out there?
Hena:  I’ve been so moved by the outpouring of love and support that it is getting. It is so heartwarming to get photos of kids with the book, read lovely reviews, and to hear the reactions to it. It makes it all feel very special, and it’s a huge relief to see that readers are connecting with Amina and her story in a way I had hoped for!
41y48Nf8fkL._AC_US430_QL65_Me: As a kid, I always loved choose-your own adventure books. Could you talk a little about writing those?
Hena: I loved choose-your-own-adventure books too, and I had a few copies of my own that I reread like crazy. My favorite was The Abominable Snowman. The only weird thing about those books was how they would switch from realistic fiction to fantasy all of a sudden, and the endings felt arbitrary. In my books, the choices are mission-driven, and in order to reach ultimate success you have to make good choices. There’s a guide in the back with resources and clues. It was crazy trying to put together an outline with all the alternate endings, and it felt like working on a giant puzzle.
Me: Are you a one-project-at-a-time person, or do you mix it up?

Hena: I’m mostly a one-project-at-a-time person, but occasionally I will mix it up. I have worked on a longer narrative and a picture book at the same time. But I like to focus on one thing and think about it and sit with it for a while.

Me: Are there themes or places that you tend to explore, both in your writing for your readers and your writing for older ones?

Hena: Yes, I tend to focus on stories and themes that focus on American Muslims.

Me: What has writing in one format taught you about the other?  

Hena: Writing picture books has taught me how one word can throw off an entire manuscript, henaand made me be more careful when writing a novel or chapter book, and pay attention to every word.

Me: Is there anything that surprised you when you switched forms?

Hena: I think the challenge of nailing down the voice in a middle grade novel is something that surprised me the first time. It’s a lot different than writing a picture book!

Me: Is there a genre you’d like to try that you haven’t tried yet?

Hena: Yes, I’m working on my first chapter book series for Salaam Reads now, which has been a lot of fun. And I’m looking forward to writing my first young adult novel soon!

 

Thanks, Henna! You can find out more about Hena by visiting her website at henakhan.com.

You can also check out her recent interview with Mr. Schu Reads and you can read an excerpt here.

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Bird watching

I’ve been experimenting with a new camera and, for the most part, FAILING. But out of 10 attempts to take a photo of this cardinal, I did come up with one that made me happy. (The rest are blurry and in photo trash.) I love his eyes.

 

Who's watching who?  Madelyn Rosenberg

Who’s watching who? Madelyn Rosenberg

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Learning from Rejection

Wendy Shang tipped me off to this Tedtalk by Jia Jiang about learning from rejection. I’ve made my kids watch it. Now I’m making you watch it, too:

 

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Achievement Unlocked

I got to spend Read Across America Day the way it’s supposed to be spent — reading to kids. But I also got the added bonus of meeting LeVar Burton, who has been a hero for many moons. Roots, Reading Rainbow, Star Trek … and did I mention Reading Rainbow? My author friends at the event, which was sponsored by the National Education Association, were huge fans as well. We HAD to meet him. We explained this to our hosts, who were equally big fans. It was tricky, given that he was scheduled for two events at the same time. But we caught him on the way out. I think we look quite composed, don’t you?

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From Left to Right: Me, Mary Quattlebaum, Erica Perl, LeVar Burton and Calef Brown.

Here’s a photo taken by Kevin Lock from the event:

Read Across America! Photo by Kevin Lock

Read Across America! Photo by Kevin Lock

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Georgia on My Mind: ALA Recap

My acting history is fairly short. I was a box of granola in a play about the four food groups. (I know there are more food groups now; I’m old.) I was a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was Jill in an updated play based on nursery rhymes. And that pretty much covers it. Our high school did mostly musicals, and I learned long ago that if I sing like a bird, it’s probably more magpie than nightingale. That kept me in the audience.

Until last month, when Scholastic put on a Reader’s Theatre for librarians at the ALA meeting in Atlanta. For the event, they divided us up, seven authors for six books (I cowrote my upcoming novel with Wendy Shang, which makes for fuzzy math). We performed scenes from our own books, and from other authors’ books as well. I was the narrator for Natasha Tarpley’s just-released Harlem Charade. I was the mom in Gordon Korman’s upcoming Restart. And I was one of the grandmothers in my book with Wendy, This is Just a Test. (Gordon played the main character, David, in that one, making me both his mother and his grandmother in a span of 15 minutes. Wendy played the other grandmother and Natasha played the mom.)

We had a full house. I did not pass out from stage fright. All in all, a success. Plus? It was so much fun. I loved being able to present our work that way, and to make the characters sound a little bit the way they sounded in my head. I loved hearing people laugh in all of the right places. And I loved hearing Wendy sound like a trouble-making football player for Restart.

For part two, the other three writers/readers mixed it up on stage, including the stellar Emma Donoghue, (The Lotterys Plus One), Kathryn Lasky (Night Witches) and fellow Virginian Lamar Giles (Overturned).

I don’t have any photos of us reading (if I get some, I’ll add to this post) but I do have these:

Pre-reading: Some coaching from the pros who make Scholastic move and shake: David Levithan, Emily Heddleson and Lizette Serrano.

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Our script!

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Me and Wendy in front of the Scholastic booth. (Photo credit: Lizette Serrano)

 

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