Hena Khan is the author of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story, two children’s books geared toward American Muslim children. Altmuslimah’s Asma Uddin speaks with Khan about Khan’s books, writing, parenthood, and growing up Muslim in America.
Tell us your story – what inspired you to write children’s books? How did you get started?
One of my oldest friends, who went through grade school with me, encouraged me to write for children. She was working as a children’s editor and needed help on a series called Spy University for Scholastic. We had written together for our high school newspaper, so she asked me if I would be interested. At the time I was working in public health, and accustomed to writing for a completely different type of audience, so it was a big switch. But it’s a step I’m so glad I took, and I owe it all to her.
Your book, Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story, is told from the perspective of a young girl exploring her family’s traditions during Ramadan and Eid. How did you come up with the idea for that book?
Hena Khan: I wanted to write a book about our traditions that all kids could identify with, and one that was suitable for sharing in multicultural settings, so I focused on the aspects of Ramadan and Eid that would most interest a child—parties, presents, and dessert! The “night of the moon” (or chaand raat) is a festive occasion and includes henna, which all kids are fascinated with, so I picked it as an overall theme. But I also tied in the moon’s changing shape to add a universal element, and to build in the surprise ending.
I loved how, in the book, you explained the young girl’s experience being Muslim in America. She is excited to tell her classmates about her religious traditions and to show them her hands covered with henna. What role do you think your books play in creating and reflecting an authentic American Muslim culture?
Hena Khan: It’s important for American Muslim kids to feel represented in the literature, and to have something to share with their peers at school, and I hope my books serve that role. I wanted my books to reflect the American Muslim community as diverse and colorful, but also distinctly American. Lots of kids’ books present Muslims as foreign rather than as making up part of the great American tapestry and sharing universal values.
Your second book, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, is so amazingly beautiful. My daughter has piles of children’s books, but this one takes the cake for its gorgeous illustrations. Tell us more about your illustrator for the book, Mehrdokht Amini. How did you choose her? Where did you find her?
Hena Khan: My editor was keen on hiring someone from inside the faith if possible to do the illustrations for the book, so I set out on a search on-line using databases of illustrators. I came across Mehrdokht’s portfolio and fell in love with her rich, layered, evocative style, and my editor agreed. When she shared her work with the design team at Chronicle, they had coincidently just been admiring her art as well. Thankfully, Mehrdokht agreed to do our project, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome.
Aside from your Muslim-themed books, you have written quite a few books about spies and space exploration. On your website, you write that these books are your way of escaping your reality and embarking on adventures. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Hena Khan: I’m one of the most risk-averse people I know, when it comes to potential physical harm. I fear everything from ice skates to rollercoasters. As a writer, I can be brave in the face of thrills and danger, and trek through the Amazon or blast off on a rocket ship, without actually having to DO any of it. I also really enjoy the research that is involved to write on these subjects, including interviewing amazing people like astronauts, adventurers, and spy experts and feeling connected to their experiences.
I happened upon your blog and your post about how you’ve made yourself available to other aspiring authors – something not everyone is willing to do. Do you consider yourself a mentor to new writers? What type of advice have you gotten over time?
Hena Khan: I don’t think I’m experienced enough to call myself a mentor, but I certainly love to talk to aspiring authors and writers. The publishing industry is very confusing to navigate, and I believe we all need to help each other. I’ve gotten lots of helpful advice from my editor, experienced authors, and friends. Recently, when I was frustrated at how many versions of a picture book manuscript I had produced, a member of my writers group pointed out how even one bad word choice or phrase can ruin a picture book, which motivated me to finish.
You’re not just an author, you’re also a mom. How do you cultivate the love of reading in your children?
Hena Khan: Reading to your kids is obviously key, but as they get older and spend less time on your lap and more time doing other things (i.e. video games), it gets a little more challenging to foster a love of books. It helps to take your kids to the library and to bookstores, to read what they are reading and discuss it, and to recommend material that your kids will like based on their personality and interests. I promised my 11-year old that we’d watch the Lord of the Rings films together once he finishes the series.
Are you working on any new books?
Hena Khan: I’m working on a couple new multicultural picture books and also a middle grade novel, which I am hoping to publish. The novel is still in its beginning stages, and is about a Pakistani-American family. I recently (finally) started to write daily, something I wasn’t doing before since I also work as an editor and wear other hats that keep me distracted. I’m hoping to maintain my new found discipline, and to extend it to working out and other aspects of life, too!
Hena Khan is a Pakistani-American who was born and raised in Maryland. She enjoys writing about her culture as well as all sorts of other subjects, from spies to space travel. Hena lives in Rockville, Maryland with her husband and two sons. You can learn more about Hena by visiting her website: http://www.henakhan.com