Hena Khan is an author extraordinaire who has written picture books such as Night of the Moon and chapter books including Worst Case Scenario Series: Mars. I was introduced to Hena’s gorgeous writing quite recently when I encountered an unexpected Ramadan display at my local Barnes and Noble with her book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as one of the four books on display. I had the pleasure of getting to know Hena and interviewing her. Below she shares her insights into the writing process as well as what it’s been like to write Muslim-centric literature for a non-Muslim world. – Aisha
Aisha: Many people are fascinated with writing children’s books, particularly picture books. Can you share with us a little bit about your journey to publication?
Hena: Sure! Although I’ve always loved writing and also work in communications, I didn’t start writing for kids until after I had my older son twelve years ago. I was consulting in public health at the time, and an editor friend approached me about writing for Scholastic Book Clubs. It was for a series called Spy University, and I was excited about the opportunity and ended up writing several books for it. Spy U included activity-oriented books organized around different themes like “Hiding Places” or “Escape and Evasion” and involved doing research and presenting information that wasn’t by its nature kid-oriented in a fun and age-appropriate manner. It took me a while to get a feel for it, and then I went on to work on several other series as a “writer for hire.” At the time it suited me just fine to get a book assignment and produce something that was guaranteed to be published—and to have tight deadlines to follow!
After that experience, I was fortunate to be able to pitch ideas for my first trade published picture book to Chronicle Books, and they were receptive to what eventually became NIGHT OF THE MOON. I’m grateful that they recognized that there was a dearth of books for the general public about American Muslims and wanted to help change that. And since then, I’ve gone on to do more of my own personal writing and other book assignments, such as the WORST CASE SCENARIO series.
Aisha: How do you select someone to illustrate your books?
Hena: My understanding is that the norm in traditional publishing is for picture book authors to have little or no say in who illustrates their books. However, my publisher and I worked together to find the illustrators for both NIGHT OF THE MOON and GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS.
For NIGHT OF THE MOON, we ideally wanted a Muslim artist who was familiar with the culture to illustrate it, but couldn’t find someone with the right style or experience. They then suggested approaching Julie Paschkis, who had done other beautiful books that showcased her versatility and interest in other cultures, and she agreed to take on the job. I gave her a rough mock up with ideas of what elements I wanted included on the pages such as the changing shapes of the moon, or people hugging in front of a mosque, and shared a bunch of images of mosques, traditional Muslim clothes, henna, and so on. She came up with the rest, sharing sketches and making adjustments as needed. Her use of Islamic tile art for inspiration was her own idea, and we were thrilled with it!
For GOLDEN DOMES, the folks at Chronicle and I were again trying to find a Muslim artist and we both happened to discover Mehrdokht Amini’s portfolio and fall in love with her layered and evocative style. We were so happy when she signed on to the project and couldn’t be more overjoyed with the results.
Aisha: As the writer, do you and the illustrator work together to create a book that encompasses both of your visions or does the illustrator typically have autonomy in deciding what sort of pictures will embody your words?
Hena: I think it depends on the publisher, but typically the editor of a book focuses primarily on the words and the designer focuses on the art components and liaises with the illustrator. As I mentioned before, often times an author and illustrator have absolutely no interaction, but for both of my picture books I was invited to give input and feedback at each round of sketches. However, I didn’t directly give my comments to the illustrators. Rather, they were shared by the designer, who added her own thoughts. For GOLDEN DOMES, the designer and I fortunately shared a common vision for the book in terms of wanting it to feel modern and set in the West. The first sketches were quite different and had a bit of an ancient and foreign feel to them, but Mehrdokht graciously reworked them significantly. Oh and I should add that the book cover art is something that a wider circle of people weighs in on, including the marketing and publicity teams.
Aisha: Your books such as Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns focus specifically in educating both about everyday things such as colors, but also teaching children about Muslims. What made you decide to focus on the Muslim community in particular? How has the Muslim community responded to your books?
Hena: I wrote a blog post about my particular inspiration for NIGHT OF THE MOON, which came from a Jewish-themed book about Sammy Spider but in general I wanted my children to grow up feeling represented, and to have books that reflected their reality. I grew up in a Maryland suburb, and even though people were very open minded and tolerant of diversity, I didn’t feel understood as a Muslim, and I couldn’t share my traditions and culture even as I embraced those of my Christian and Jewish friends. I wrote both of my picture books with public schools and libraries in mind and hoped that they would be read by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I’m happy to see that the books have made their way into libraries and school systems, and that they are so well received by educators and librarians. Adding an educational component beyond introducing Muslims was my reason for focusing on color in GOLDEN DOMES and introducing the lunar cycle in NIGHT OF THE MOON.
The Muslim community has also been very supportive of the books and I have received wonderful feedback and touching notes from people who have told me how much my books mean to them and their families. They have mentioned sharing them with their schools, using them to decorate their homes, and reading them until they fall apart, which makes me do a happy dance.
Aisha: I read an article in the School Library Journal that parents were trying to ban your book at a Scholastic book fair in Georgia because they felt a book about Muslims at the book fair was inappropriate despite the fact that there were books representing other religions at the fair. What were your thoughts about this controversy? Do you generally receive positive feedback from outside the Muslim community or are such issues unfortunately the norm?
Hena: Although I wasn’t shocked to hear that it happened, I was of course extremely saddened and disappointed not only that it happened but that it made the local headlines, including the Atlanta FOX news affiliate. One man’s prejudice and intolerance obviously shouldn’t be newsworthy.
The upside to the situation was that the school book fair organizer of the school where the disgruntled dad went to return the book (that his wife had purchased for their daughter) was the one who first contacted me, warning me that the man was making a fuss and going to the school board. She gave me the full story, including how she had spoken to the man herself when he tried to return the book and had pointed out other books about other religions in the school book fair to him. And then she went on to share with me a beautiful letter she had written to the school superintendent about the incident, including how that man wasn’t representative of the values of the diverse school or the overwhelming majority of parents who celebrated the multitude of cultures they shared. It was so well written and heartfelt that it made me cry, and she vowed to me to fight the man and make it her personal mission to ensure he couldn’t ban it from future book fairs.
Apart from her, the outpouring of support from around the country was overwhelmingly positive. Plus there was a spike in sales, so what they say about no bad publicity was true in this case! Overall, the response to my books from people outside the community has been just as positive as from within.
Aisha: One perk of writing children’s books is visiting schools to read one’s book and talk about it with children. What sort of responses have children had to the books?
Hena: Reading my book to kids is one of my favorite things to do, and they are always so enthusiastic and excited to meet an author that they make me feel like a rock star! The kids tend to have very insightful questions about the traditions, and it’s impressive to see how accepting they are of everything I tell them. And it’s always so gratifying to visit a school or library and see the Muslim kids in the audience sit a little prouder or volunteer their own experiences.
I have heard from parents that their kids pay special attention to the moon shape after reading NIGHT OF THE MOON and a Jewish friend said they started a new tradition of eating everyone’s favorite foods on their holiday. Others say that their infants and toddlers love and point to the girl in GOLDEN DOMES and request it every night. My friend’s son Adam is the biggest fan of GOLDEN DOMES I know, and at age two he can recite it from memory. His mother told me that when Ramadan started Adam pointed to dates and asked “what’s that?” and she recited “Brown are dates plump and sweet, during Ramadan they’re my favorite treat.” She said his eyes widened and he ate three of them and now calls them “plumpy dates.”
Aisha: What advice would you have for aspiring picture book authors when it comes to writing about one’s faith or culture?
Hena: I think it’s most important to be sure you identify your audience first, and keep it in mind. Writing for people inside the faith or culture can be quite different that writing for general readers. For a general audience, it helps not to over-explain or include every detail and I think to focus on universally appealing themes. Avoid being didactic and have people from outside the faith or culture review and comment on your story. Also, no matter who the audience, try to keep the word count to a minimum and let the illustrations tell as much of the story as possible.
Aisha: What’s next for Hena Khan?
Hena: I’ve been working on a few more picture books and a multicultural middle grade novel, and the next step is to find the right publisher for them. I’ve recently started to work with an agent and hopefully that will free me up to focus on writing more. Please stay tuned!
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Hena Khan is the author of the award-winning picture books GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS (Chronicle Books, 2012) and NIGHT OF THE MOON (Chronicle, 2008) as well as middle grade choose-your-own-adventure style novels, WORST CASE SCENARIO ULTIMATE ADVENTURE: MARS (Chronicle, 2011) and AMAZON (Chronicle, 2012). She started writing children’s books for various Scholastic book clubs, including the Spy University, Space University and How to Survive Anything series. Hena also works as a communications consultant and lives in Rockville, MD with her husband and two sons. You can learn more about her and connect at www.henakhan.com, @henakhanbooks and www.facebook.com/hena.khan.books.