Beyond The Bio: Hena Khan


Just two more days until Hena Khan's newest book comes out, and we over here at PickMyYA couldn't be more excited! Amina's Voice is sure to be the first of many amazing releases from the new Salaam Reads imprint that Aisha Saeed, author of Written In The Stars, was hyping in her Beyond The Bio segment last November. Amina's Voice is about a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while also blending in at school. Sure, it's more of a middle grade book than a young adult book (like we typically feature on this website), but Amina's Voice is timely, important, and beautiful. There's no way we could pass up this opportunity to highlight this incredible book and its equally incredible author, Hena Khan. Hena is a Pakistani-American Muslim herself, and she loves Spain, pottery, food, flamenco, and good coffee. I can't wait for you to get to know her in this week's Beyond The Bio!

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James: Hi Hena! Thanks so much for joining us today! You have a new book coming in just a few days, and I know I’m not the only one who’s super excited to get my hands on it! Can you tell me a little bit about Amina’s Voice?

Hena: It’s a pleasure! Amina’s Voice is a middle grade novel about a sixth-grade girl living in a Milwaukee suburb who is navigating changes in her friendships, middle school, and family, and struggling to find the confidence to perform—themes that I hope will resonate with many readers. Amina also happens to be a Pakistani American Muslim, so the story also offers a glimpse into her culture, community, and the role of the Islamic center in her life. Readers will experience a tragic incident that Amina and her community must overcome, and I hope they will come away with a better understanding of an American Muslim family.

James: How much of Amina’s story is inspired by your own experience?

Hena: A good amount of it! Her friendship with Soojin is based on a relationship I had when I was in elementary school. Her visiting uncle from Pakistan is modeled after my own. And the Islamic center her family is a part of is in many ways a reflection of the local Muslim community center my family attends. Parts of Amina’s personality mirror mine when I was a child—like the fact that she is shy in the spotlight and trying to please her parents, even if she makes mistakes along the way. There’s a part where she remembers a kid asking her why she has grass growing on her legs in Kindergarten . . . yup, that happened to me. Amina’s singing and musical talent however (my family would be quick to agree) is something that I don’t share with her!

James: Amina’s Voice is not the first time you’ve written about the Muslim experience. You’ve written several beautiful children’s books (including It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Night Of The Moon) that highlight Muslim culture, holidays, and characters. Why do you think these stories are important ones for today’s readers?

Hena: Thank you! I think it’s more important now than ever for readers to learn about Muslims, at a time when we are so highly misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s distressing to me that Americans are expressing record high negative views of Muslims; however those views are strongly associated with them saying they don’t know a Muslim personally. I hope my stories help introduce a Muslim “friend” to readers, and highlight the ways in which we are similar and share common values and dreams. I want it to become normal for kids to see Muslims of all backgrounds in the literature, as part of the great tapestry of people that make up our country.

It’s also so important for American Muslim kids, who are going through a challenging time, to feel represented and included—and for them to know that they are important enough to have stories about them published.

James: What other books and authors would you recommend that feature positive Muslim representation?

Hena: I would recommend picture books by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Na'ima B. Robert and my editor at Chronicle introduced me to Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, which is lovely. For middle grade, Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai is a family favorite, and I enjoyed The Garden of my Imaan by Farhana Zia. For young adult, I recommend Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah and the soon to be released That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim. I love the brilliant Ms. Marvel comics, featuring an awesome Pakistani American Muslim superhero who happens to share my last name! Plus, of course, Salaam Reads is coming out with an exciting list of books for all ages featuring several talented authors.

James: And what’s one book that you wish the President would read, and why?

Hena: I would want the President to read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park for its beautiful depiction of the struggle of Sudanese refugees, which is so timely and relevant today. It manages to be both heart wrenching and uplifting and is one of the best books I’ve read. I would hope that the story would open his heart to the plight of people who are forced from their homes due to war, famine, or other circumstances, and underscore the responsibility of those who are in a position of privilege to help them. My older son read it in one sitting when he was in middle school, and said he felt it “made him a better person,” and I would hope that after reading it, the President would reconsider his position on welcoming refugees into our country.

James: In addition to writing children’s books, you’ve also co-authored two Worst Case Scenario books, both of which allow readers to make choices as they read in order to reach different endings. I used to love Create-Your-Own-Adventure books as a kid. What is it about these books that holds such appeal to young readers?

Hena: I loved reading them when I was a kid too, but the one thing I found puzzling about them was how the endings seemed so arbitrary and the genre could switch to fantasy all of a sudden. The choose-your-own-adventure books I wrote are a little different in that the reader has to make good choices to achieve ultimate success, and the stories are based on research and science. I think these kinds of books in general appeal to readers because of the agency it offers—the idea of being able to control your destiny and drive the story forward. You get to go on amazing adventures and decide what happens along the way, which is thrilling. Plus, it’s so fun to go back and reread the books over and over, and discover what all the other choices lead to. I remember being disappointed as a kid when I realized that I had exhausted all the possibilities and truly “finished” one of the choose-your- owns I was reading and wishing there were more pages to turn to!

James: What’s next for you, Hena? Any future projects you can tell us about?

Hena: Yes! I’m currently working on a chapter book series that will be published by Salaam Reads in Summer 2018. It features a male protagonist who is scrawny and loves basketball, and it’s been really fun to write about him and his colorful family. I’m also finalizing the sequel to Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns with the team at Chronicle. It will be a shape concept book called Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets and also illustrated by the amazing Mehrdokht Amini.

James: One last question, so let’s make it a fun one. I know you’re a phenomenal baker. Any chance you can share a favorite recipe with us?

Hena: Ooh, that’s a first, and a super fun question! I do love to bake and I even ran an underground bakery for a few weeks (that my friends called the “fakery”) out of my kitchen. I make cakes, bars, and cookies from scratch—but the cake that I get the most requests for actually uses a boxed cake mix and Cool Whip! It’s so easy it’s embarrassing, but it’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser and I always confess the ingredients and share the recipe, which I found online years ago. For some reason, even people who aren’t crazy about coconut in general seem to love it. Here’s how you make this Coconut Cake:

Make a butter recipe cake mix according the directions on the box. I use a full stick of butter and bake it in a 9 x 13 pan for a couple minutes less than instructed. When it is still warm from the oven, poke holes all over the top with the back of a spoon. Pour a can of cream of coconut and a can of condensed milk evenly over the top and let it soak in (use 2/3 of each if you don’t like it extra sweet). Frost with Cool Whip and coat with a generous sprinkle of sweetened coconut flakes. Enjoy!

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That's it for today's interview with Hena. If you have any questions for Hena or want to let her know how much you love her books, be sure to check out her website or visit her on Twitter. And don't forget to check our Twitter account, where you can win a signed copy of of Amina's Voice and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. And whatever you do, don't forget to come back next week, when we'll be interviewing Zoraida Córdova, whose Labyrinth Lost was one of my favorite YA books from last year! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to stuff my face with some of Hena's delicious Coconut Cake...

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