Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Hena Khan

Hena Khan is an author of Picture Books and Middle Grade books for children, and range from her Scholastic Worst-case Scenario books to her books about Islam and Muslim identity. Her latest series Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream focuses on third-generation, Pakistani-American Zayd and his dreams of playing professional basketball. You can find out more about Hena on her website, following her on Twitter or checking out her author pages on Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint or Chronicle Books.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

  1. When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?
    I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid who wrote stories, plays, and epic poems because I thought it was fun! I’m pretty sure that my love for books and reading for pleasure, which was a big part of my childhood, was what inspired me to want to write myself.
  2. How did you decide to write for youth and what is your main message to them?
    I started to write for kids because that was the time in my life when books impacted me the most and helped shaped who I am today. I love the idea of my books resonating with kids the same way my favorites did with me. I don’t think I have a message for youth as much as I want to create books with relatable characters they can connect with, and content that excites them and makes them want to keep reading. At the same time, many of my books do have Muslim themes and characters as I think we need these stories that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I hope my stories help bring understanding and hopefully foster compassion and tolerance in addition to serving to represent kids who haven’t always been included in the literature.Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns
  3. For Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets what was your thought process in deciding which Islamic elements to relate with different colors and shapes?
    When I wrote Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, I picked concepts and objects that represent the major tenets of the faith, like prayer, fasting, charity, etc and linked them to various colors. Some of the elements were obvious color choices, like dates for brown, while others aren’t necessarily correlated in real life. When writing Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, I kind of wished I had saved a few things from the first book that would work great as shapes! But I tried again to focus on things are very significant in the Muslim faith or Islamic traditions and link them to shapes.
  4. When you talk about Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, you mentioned that the people in the book are Muslims from all over the world and mention specific countries. If you can, please tell us which countries, if any are represented in each spread, particularly rectangle and hexagon. Was this your choice or preference, your illustrator Mehrdokht Amini’s choice, an editorial decision or a collective one? In the book you do not mention specific countries, why? Was that an intentional choice?
    The idea to represent different countries was a natural fit when presenting shapes and highlighting Islamic art and architecture. It was my initial suggestion, but everyone agreed and was on the same page. It was a way to highlight the diversity that exists among Muslims and include things that are found in different parts of the world. We considered mentioning which countries are depicted in the author’s note, but chose not to since many of the spreads could represent more than one. In other cases, like the Ka’aba spread, it’s obvious where it is. I’ll tell you that the rectangle spread is Zanzibar, Tanzania, and that we might include a list of countries on the discussion guide that is being finalized.
  5. This is your second collaboration with Mehrdokht Amini are beautiful in being both visually striking and having textual flow. We understand that editors/publisher pair authors and illustrators together. Was is just luck that Amini was able to work with you on the second book, a request from you, or a decision to create continuity?
    We were overjoyed to work with Mehrdokht on Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which was actually the first children’s book she published in the US. Both my publisher and I discovered her portfolio, were blown away, and wanted her for the project. And she did such a phenomenal job. When it came to a sequel, we couldn’t imagine anyone else illustrating it, and luckily she agreed since she has been busy working on a number of gorgeous books.
  6. Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets has a lovely author’s note that we appreciate for its references to geometry and shapes in Islamic art and architecture, which we know from school but many readers will not. It is a great discussion point and may create further curiosity and inquiry in students. We noticed that Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns does not have an author’s note. Is there a reason why it does not? Was the decision to include an author’s note in Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets based on a need you saw for further information?
    Shapes and geometry have a special significance in Islamic art and architecture that I felt was important to highlight, which is why we included an author’s note in Crescent Moons. For Golden Domes, there wasn’t the same need to delve deeper into the role of colors.
  7. Because there are so many extensions that can be done with these books for Muslim and non-Muslim children did you ever feel like you had to include teaching resources or more back matter?I’ve been delighted to see all the ways that my books have been used, and the creative lessons, crafts, and activities people have developed over the years. Chronicle Books is in the process of developing comprehensive teacher guides for Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets which will be available for download soon, including on my website.Amina's Voice
  8. Your middle grade book, Amina’s Voice, features a Pakistani-American middle schooler whose experience, while representative is also quite universal. Have you seen it resonate with children of different religious or ethnic backgrounds from Amina?
    Absolutely! I’ve had children and adults of all backgrounds, races, genders and ages tell me that they connected with Amina and her story and could relate to her on many levels, which is enormously gratifying. I’ve had a librarian in upstate rural New York tell me that a little white boy in her book club said he could sympathize with Amina, a teacher working with a Somali refugee in Atlanta say that the book was the first her student was motivated to read in full, and immigrants from all backgrounds, from Ecuador to Ethiopia, tell me that they could relate to her experience. It was really important to me to create a character that people could see themselves in and connect with, despite differences.
  9. You mentioned on your website that the masjid in Amina’s Voice reflects elements of your masjid growing up. Did your community also have a similar demographic? What is your community like now?
    When I describe the physical structure of the masjid inAmina’s Voice, it’s actually the masjid that was constructed while I was in grade school located in Maryland. It was primarily attended by the Pakistani immigrants who built it back in the 1980s but it has shifted to have a more diverse population over the years. There are a lot of communities in my area now, including some that are trying to overcome ethnic divides and create a more unified community.
  10. You have spoken before about how your parents were supportive of your dreams and did not pressure you to become a doctor or an engineer. (Ariana: Those were my Pakistani-American husband’s two choices). Not everyone has parents who are as supportive of choosing different careers. What words of encouragement do you have for children (or families) of aspiring writers, whose families may not be as supportive?
    As a parent, I can understand the desire to steer your children towards careers where they will have a stable income. My parents recognized that I was more verbal than scientifically or mathematically inclined, and even though they didn’t push me to be a doctor or engineer, my mother would have loved for me to be a lawyer, which I considered for a little while. I ended up worked in international health communications, writing and editing and disseminating research findings, and writing children’s books on the side. I only started writing full-time as an author in the past few years. I would encourage anyone who loves to write to DO IT! Do it in your spare time, even if you have another career to pay the bills (which you will likely need). And hopefully what is a passion can turn into a profession eventually. You don’t need to study creative writing or get an MFA to succeed as a writer. Just make sure to keep reading and working on your craft. And families will come around when they see you are serious about it and have skill and hopefully some success. But it take a lot of hard work and commitment.
  11. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
    I saw aspects of myself in some of the books I read as a kid. I loved the book Little Women, probably because that family was more traditional and conservative than modern American families, and I could relate to it on many levels. But I never saw a true reflection of myself, a Pakistani American Muslim girl, in the literature. When I was in college I searched for myself and found South Asian authors, but most were women from India, so I could only relate to a point. I saw elements of my experience in other literature I read–African American, Caribbean, and East Asian. But the first time I truly recognized myself and my life in a book was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri when I was in my 30s.
  12. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change?
    zayd saleem.jpgI think there are books that feature Muslims both positively and negatively, written by Muslims and non-Muslims. I hope the trend will be to move away from books related to the terrorist narrative, and away from books that highlight pain, oppression and discrimination, or “otherness” and in favor of more books that feature other themes or kids who aren’t struggling with identity issues. That’s why I’m excited about myZayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series–it’s fun and lighthearted and I think Muslim kids deserve to be heroes in books and deal with regular kid issues.
  13. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I have a lovely and pretty extensive collection of picture books, since I bought everything I could find from mainstream publishers over the years, including early Ramadan books like Ramadan Moon and My First Ramadan, Eid stories like Nabeel’s New Pants and The Best Eid Ever, folktales and poetry like The Conference of the Birds and Mulla Nasruddin, and successful self published titles like Ilyas and Duck. I have non-fiction books, and books published by Muslim publishers of varying quality. And now I’m happy to have a growing collection of middle grade and young adult fiction, including everything by N.H. Senzai, Sheba Karim, Randa Abdul Fateh, G. Willow Wilson, and more, along with my fellow Salaam Reads authors, Karuna Riazi and SK Ali. Plus it’s exciting to see a new crop of Muslim writers publishing new titles that are coming out this year!
  14. Have you ever felt pressure to edit anything out of your books or fulfill a certain image of a Muslim or Muslim family? Do you feel like Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include specifics about Muslims or Muslim communities in their narratives from publishers, editors, agents or even readers?
    No, but it took me a while to accept the fact that I cannot and don’t have to represent all Muslims in my work, especially since early on I was one of the few Muslim children’s writers out there. I put that pressure on myself and worried about writing things from a Pakistani perspective, and how others might react to that or question their authenticity. In general, I have tried to challenge stereotypes in my work, for example by requesting a variety of races, cultures and styles in the illustrations of my books. I think we all hear things or get feedback from readers from time to time about what should and shouldn’t be included, but I haven’t been pressured by my editors, agent or publishers.
  15. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature? What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years?
    Honestly, the best things you can do are buy books written by Muslim authors (preferably from independent bookstores, but anywhere will do); leave reviews and help promote them among readers, librarians, bloggers, and others; be positive and encouraging; and celebrate the success of others. We need more Muslim librarians, agents and editors as much as we need Muslim writers, if not more, so I hope to see more of them in the years to come. And in the future, I hope Muslim writers just be seen as writers and that “diverse books” are just seen as books that reflect the world we live in and don’t need to be called out for what they are.
  16. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I’m so incredibly grateful to everyone who has read my books, made them a part of their lives and their families, and shared them with others. I have days where I feel low or insecure or anxious about the future, and alhumdulilah I will get a note or a message or something that reminds me that my work is valued and means something to people, and it makes all the difference in the world to me and keeps me going. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. I need it more than you know!
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Posted in Book Discussions

Book Discussion: Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. By Hena Khan. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books (9781452155418)
Publish date: April 10, 2018

This is the newest title in Hena Khan’s picture books about Muslims and concepts. The previous title was Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.

This book discussion was conducted on May 20, 2018

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Hadeal: So what did you all think? I know that this is something small, but besides the artwork and illustrations, I love that there is a cat on the cover at the masjid. I don’t know why, but I just love it.

Ariana: I liked the details in the illustration, they are really rich, even to the point where in the spread with the circle/daff there is a child with a bit of a unibrow.  

Mahasin: I see it now.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minaretsAriana: I love that there are so many different looks of people depicted. I do think that some of the criticisms of the book seem minute, one mentioned that the previous book seemed like the protagonist is a child in a “western country”, but this one is international and may reinforce stereotypes around clothing, but I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think that some images of children could work for a child who lives in the “west.” Especially in the oval spread, where “oval is the table where we break our fast, when the sun sets it’s iftar time at last.” There is a tagine, the decor is neutral, it could be Morocco, it could be here. The diamond spread, that could also be here. The last place with the crescent moon and a car, has a license plate convention that is not American, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a European country. I don’t think it’s a big concern.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minarets oval

Hadeal: I love the author’s note at the end. It’s not just a note about showing you shapes and whatnot, but wraps things back around to the importance of shapes and mathematics in Islam. I like the rectangle spread with the masjid and the light coming from the doorway into the prayer hall. I think the detail there is exquisite. The clothing too, puts it in context and gives it life to the community around it.

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Sara: Especially with the laundry line. And that’s how it is back home, the masjid is right in front of your home and you hear the adhan from different blocks. It conveys that feeling.

2018-06-11 22-54Ariana: I do wish, a little bit, in the author’s notes that they would say where an image is from, especially for that spread. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview with Chronicle before the book was published, and the editor had put up pictures of the doorway that inspired this spread, and I wanted to know more about the architecture specific to this country/location. I think that they may have said specifically, but I don’t remember right now, and I don’t want to guess. I mean, some may look at it and say, it’s the Muslim world and somewhere perhaps in West Africa*, but it’s not specific. Some families may recognize themselves based on the cloth, or other aspects, like the kids in the first spread look to me, like they are Malaysian or Indonesian, but maybe I’m completely wrong? But I do think it would be a nice touch, especially for Muslim children who aren’t often depicted.

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Mahasin: I agree with that. I was really excited about the diversity, and when I got to the page where the little girl had cornrows, the mother had a scarf wrapped up and the little boy, maybe it’s a girl, had tight curls, it was clearly African heritage, and that was really important to me because a lot of times my folks get left out of the narrative. That page made me really happy. The rectangle spread, with the women and all the colors on the page made me think, “Nigerian Muslims!”* and that was my first thought. So I really appreciate the diversity. The daff spread made me think of my time in Syria where the women would have maulids celebrating the Prophet (saw) and get together. A lot of it rang so true and authentic to me. I really liked the spirit of the book.

Hadeal: I like that wording, about the spirit of the book.

2018-06-11 22-45 1Mahasin: The one thing that was a bit tricky for me was that some of the shapes I had to stretch a little bit to connect, particularly the square and the orange trees – my mind went went immediately to a circle because they were oranges, but a square as a garden was a different cultural context for me. There was another one with the triangles on the minbar, that was also a stretch for me.

Hadeal: I still can’t see the triangles, can you see it?

Mahasin: It’s on the side.

2018-06-11 22-47Ariana: Right, the space between the railing and the stairs.

Sara: I can see that in the minbar, they do look like triangles from the side.

Mahasin: I guess I can see that, especially from a child’s perspective, but some of the shapes did feel a little bit of a stretch, but I feel like it a little mincing. A co-worker brought the book to me and said that they thought that the people were all in traditional dress, and should have been in modern dress and I have been toying with that in my head. I haven’t read any of the reviews. On the one hand, is that a critique of Muslim “modest dress?” Maybe people would call the ways we put together modest outfits “traditional,” even though I don’t know how traditional they are since they might just be long and flowing, or extra layers. The other part of me says, “what if they are traditional?” I don’t know if I agree with that critique. In the spread with the daff there is a little boy with a- what is it called with the number on the back?

Hadeal: a jersey.

Mahasin: Right, thank you. But that is pretty non-traditional to me.

Hadeal: Even the girls’ dresses. They’re just dresses.

Mahasin: Yeah. So, what if it is traditional? I think that they look like what Muslims really wear. It’s happy, colorful clothing. I don’t know. Does someone need to be in jeans and a t-shirt to make it not stereotypical?

Ariana: I mean, I think of me growing up and my parents –

Sara: I love that it’s traditional clothing. Because on Eid day when the kids go out, they are wearing their traditional clothing.

Ariana: Exactly!

Sara: I don’t often see kids in “western clothing.” They are taking pride in wearing something different.

Ariana: To build on your point Sara, if it was Eid or a gathering, and I was ten years old and I said to my parents, that I was going to go out in jeans and a t-shirt?

Sara: That would be a no-no.

Ariana: Yes, they would say, I couldn’t come. “The rest of us are going to go out and have fun. We’re going to auntie’s house and eat all of the delicious food, and the other kids are going to play. You’re staying home. Sorry.”  

All: (Laughing) It’s true.

Mahasin: I went to Target for my daughter’s Eid outfit and I saw, what I would call, “a Wakanda-inspired outfit.” And I was thinking, “cultural appropriation for the win.” African-inspired outfit for Eid.

All: (Laughing)

Hadeal: When it comes to clothing, I think of how the author didn’t indicate specifics. I don’t see how, in a way, where you could indicate areas. So I don’t understand why a reviewer would focus on that instead of what the book was intended to do. It is a book about shapes in the Islamic world. But what is traditional? What is non-traditional? It bothers me.

Sara: Right, I can see what you’re saying in that it’s not the focus of the book where these people are from, it’s more that they are seeing shapes in their every day and their beliefs and why we associate shapes in our religion, in our masaajid and our artwork and that kind of thing. It’s not focused on where they are coming from or why they dress why they do, but how we incorporate shapes into our daily lives. Is that what you were trying to say? I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

Hadeal: No, it is. I just feel like there is so much, I mean, even when we write our reviews we will get feedback about what others saw, but when it comes to this, it is so obvious to me that this is a book about shapes, architecture and Islam, but we’re going to focus on clothing? I mean, I understand, Mahasin had mentioned the spread with the family – the mother with the scarf wrapped and the little girl with the cornrows and to me, I think that’s important too, and we mentioned it, but for someone to just focus on that? I don’t know.

Sara: Why should that be the focus of the book when it is not intended to be? I love the fact that she’s incorporating everyone, the different styles of hijab and hair, but it is just showing you that these shapes have made their way through the Muslim world rather than associating it just with one group of people or another.

Hadeal: Even kaftan. Not all Muslims wear it, but to do the simple research, I don’t think it’s attached to certain countries or communities, multiple people do wear it and some definitely don’t. It’s just bothersome.

Ariana: For me, it’s a point of curiosity. I would like to know where it is from. I wish there was a bit more back matter so that if I was interested I could do further research for myself, but you’re right in that, it doesn’t matter too much. It would be one thing if really was asserting that there is this foreign otherness – but the reality is that Muslims do bring these cultural elements into our celebrations and our dress. That’s one time where, I mean, I married into – my husband is Pakistani American, and I think on Eid or celebrations I have no problems wearing Indonesian clothing, or a gown or a Pakistani style dresses. And often for children, especially for little girls that don’t dress themselves, they are often wearing “American” party dresses.

So I don’t know if this is actually offensive, reviewers making an assumption about the kinds of clothing people will wear. I’m glad that they are focusing on different aspects or elements of Muslim diversity, but it doesn’t mean all the spreads are or have to be international. So the spread that Mahasin was talking about with the hexagon, it could be an African country, it could be in a home here. Right?

Sara: I think that’s the beauty of the book actually, that you don’t know where it is. It could be anywhere in the world, and anyone who picks it up can find themselves in the pictures. The fact that she’s not pinpointing the places I’m reading it here, but the laundry spread reminds me of Egypt and being right across the street from the masjid. And someone from Pakistan can pick up the book and see orange trees and see themselves. This is why I am glad that she didn’t pinpoint where people are from. You can associate yourself with the spreads and go from there.

Mahasin: I’m looking at one of the reviews right now about how “Muslims dressing in non-cultural clothes are largely missing from the illustrations and potentially reinforce a  stereotypical image for non-Muslims.”

Ariana: I mean, perhaps that is a bit true, but here’s the thing, maybe the book is a nice window into our world, but it’s not really for the non-Muslim reader. It is a window that is important but it’s for the Muslim to see themselves. In the page following the hexagon, the oval, now I’m looking at the table and there is kibbeh and-

Hadeal: And samosa.

Ariana: Right.

Sara: They are all different kinds of food, not one specific culture.

Ariana: And the features of the people at the table, they have east Asian features. So my reaction first was, were these Uyghur Muslims? But it doesn’t look like there are Uyghur foods on the table. But there is also a little boy with really curly hair. And I think it’s supposed to be a blend, or blended family, or at least, that is what I’m reading. And where would you find that blend? Here. You could find it in other places and other countries, Moroccans can look like everything, but you can also find that here. That’s my take.

Sara: I agree.

Ariana: Final thoughts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs to the side?

Sara: I really liked it, I thought it was very cute and inclusive.

Hadeal: I liked it.

Mahasin: I liked it too. I would recommend it.

Ariana: I liked it. I mean, I think that the first book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a book that you give to families when they are going have a baby, or for Eid. I mean, this is a book that will be distributed in the Muslim community and become a standard. It’s doing something that we want. You’re putting another book into a Muslim family’s hands and into their household. And it’s not just another – Ramadan or Eid book – which is not the say that we don’t need those books, we do.

Sara: And it’s not a Ramadan book, it’s a book that can be a normal, everyday book.

Ariana: Exactly. Because it has those elements that also conveys those precious times of Ramadan and Eid, and it’s Ramadan now, those feel good times into every day – it’s like bringing in Christmas or those times that just make a child feel warm and special. It’s super important. It’s a great addition to get with the other one, and I feel like this one is stronger. Maybe it is because of the diversity element, but you can read it with even more nuance, than just looking at it as a book.

Hadeal: I also enjoy the formatting a lot. I think the layout and the message is so well put together.

Sara: I love the arch in the mihrab and how dimensional it is.IMG_9419

Hadeal: It all just falls well together. It feels very purposeful.

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*We are completely wrong and Khan clarifies in her interview with us that it is in Zanzibar.