Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
Back in 2017 when I was only just discovering the beauty of diverse young adult literature, I never knew that there was an age category called ‘middle grade’. Though I had read middle grade as a younger reader, it never crossed my mind that I would enjoy middle grade as an adult — that is, until I read Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, which was the book that ignited my love for diverse literature for younger readers.
If you know me, then you may know that Amina’s Voice is one of my favourite diverse middle grade books of all time. It is absolutely wonderful, incredibly hopeful, and such a tender portrayal of what it is like to a young Muslim girl, younger sister, daughter, and friend navigating change that comes with growing up. Reflecting on the middle grade books I have read since then, Amina’s Voice was the book that made me incredibly curious about middle grade books, and opened up a world of wonderful stories for young people, about young people finding their voice, themselves, and their strengths!
You can imagine, then, how honoured and excited I am to have the author of Amina’s Voice, Hena Khan, visiting the Pond today! (And she’s visiting us as a blue bespectacled penguin holding a book!) Ever since reading Amina’s Voice, I’ve been a big fan of her work – I loved her latest middle grade book, More to the Story, and also her latest picture book, Like The Moon Loves the Sky, which is as beautifully illustrated as it is tender and full of love. But before I share with you all the interview I did with Hena, I’d love to introduce you all to More to the Story!
More to the Story by Hena Khan
When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.
Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…
If you love the idea of a retelling of Little Women featuring Pakistani sisters, then you’ll absolutely love this! I’ve had the pleasure of reading this late last year and thought it was such a sensitive and heartfelt story about ambition, sisterhood, and the importance of having a supportive loved ones. If you need any convincing, here is my book review of More to the Story!
Author Interview: Hena Khan
Xiaolong: Hello Hena! A big warm welcome to The Quiet Pond and thank you so much for visiting us for Asian Heritage Month. For our friends out there who are just meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hena: Hi! I am a Pakistani American author of books for kids, including picture books and a range of middle grade fiction. I was born and raised in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, which is where I still live now with my family, and I’m a mom to two teen boys. I love to travel, bake, and read when I’m not writing, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit 35 countries so far.
Xiaolong: Your latest middle-grade book, More to the Story, was absolutely delightful and I loved everything about it! Can you tell readers who aren’t familiar with this story what it’s about and what inspired you to write More to the Story?
Hena: Thank you so much! I’m thrilled you connected with it, because it’s a story I wanted to write for a very long time, and was nervous to start. That’s because More to the Story is actually inspired by Little Women, which was my all time favorite book growing up. My books centers around Jameela, an aspiring journalist with three sisters who is navigating big changes in her life like her father moving overseas for work and one of her sisters falling ill. She also makes a special new friend, Ali, who helps her realize what really matters to her. I like to call it my love letter to my favorite book, and am excited to offer a different take on some of the themes and aspects of the classic that I loved so much.
Xiaolong: I’m a huge fan of your middle grade books, Amina’s Voice and More to the Story, and I love that both books center on brave and kind Pakistani girls who are navigating change – for Amina in Amina’s Voice, it was friendship and her family life looking different and for Jam in More to the Story, it was a new responsibility at her school’s newspaper and family life. Is there a ‘place’ that you write from when you write your younger characters?
Hena: I tend to center and ground my characters in families who love them, and help to give them the confidence to handle big changes, to think of more than just themselves, and to want to make a difference in the world. At their core, my girls are focused on the things that mattered to me most when I was growing up–my friends, being understood, and feeling valued. That actually never changed, I guess! I love that young people have so much passion, curiosity and empathy, and try to capture that spirit in my characters.
Xiaolong: Across your stories, all of your characters are Muslim and Islam is portrayed to be a natural, inherent, and integral part of their lives. What does it mean to you as a writer to write Muslim characters?
Hena: I’m so glad you say that! I never saw Muslim characters in books when I was growing up, and most portrayals in media and Hollywood tended to be negative or stereotypical. I love being able to portray Muslim characters who are regular kids, dealing for the most part with every day kid challenges. I never want their being Muslim to be something they dislike about themselves, or for that part of their identity to be the “problem” in their life. Rather, being Muslim is just woven in to their existence, as it is in my own life and that of my children. I firmly believe that Muslim kids deserve to be the hero in stories, to have their experiences validated, and to be seen by readers of all backgrounds and that is what drives me.
Xiaolong: Something that I really loved was how both Amina’s Voice and More to the Story gently explore how both girls are impacted by racism and ignorance. Why is it important to you that these negative, but very real, experiences are portrayed in your stories?
Hena: Sadly, too many kids face these issues in real life, and while my stories don’t center around them, I think it’s important to be real, to acknowledge that such things do exist and affect even the youngest of us, and to demonstrate that we can stand up against it. We all know that stories can serve to offer kids and adults examples and tools they need to face issues in real life, whether it’s dealing with small scale microaggressions, or bringing a community together after a tragic incident.
Xiaolong: I’m really looking forward to reading all the stories that you write in the future! If you are allowed to share, what’s next for you?
Hena: Yes! I’m excited to have a sequel to Amina’s Voice called Amina’s Song coming out in March 2021, which I can’t wait to share with readers. In the meantime, this summer, you can find a bind-up version of my Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream series with an awesome illustrated cover. I’m currently working on some new picture books and book 6 of the Unicorn Rescue Society series with Adam Gidwitz.
Xiaolong: Last question, and one I like to ask for fun! What is a food that tastes like ‘home’ to you – wherever and whoever that may be?
Hena: Mmmm. I would have to say my mother’s rice, or “matter pulao” in Urdu. She makes it with browned onions, garam masala and peas, and it’s salty with a hint of sweetness from the peas. It’s the ultimate comfort food, and I’m craving some right now!
About the Author
Hena Khan is the award-winning Pakistani American author of popular middle grade novels AMINA’S VOICE, MORE TO THE STORY, and the ZAYD SALEEM: CHASING THE DREAM series, in addition to beloved picture books GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS, CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS, NIGHT OF THE MOON, UNDER MY HIJAB, and IT’S RAMADAN, CURIOUS GEORGE. Hena was one of the first authors of children’s books about Muslims that were traditionally published in the United States and she loves to write about her culture and religion, as well as other topics like space, superpowers, and spies. You can learn more about her and her work at www.henakhan.com.
Friends, we’re getting an Amina’s Voice sequel!! When I read this, I honestly burst into TEARS because I loved Amina’s Voice so much and I would love, love, love to read more about Amina.
I am so so honoured that Hena visited the Pond today. Thank you so much, Hena! It was an utter delight to have you!
Fun fact: Did you all know that the Pond’s very own Amina was inspired by Amina from Amina’s Voice? That’s why she plays an instrument — because Amina Khokar, like Amina the Hedgehog Bard, both love music!