By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
Today we’re thrilled to welcome author Hena N. Khan to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini and out since March 1, 2022!
From one sun to countless stars, this gentle introduction to numbers also celebrates the many diverse traditions of the Muslim world, encouraging readers young and old to reflect upon—and count—their many blessings. Like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, this latest offering in the Concepts of the Muslim World series has stunning illustrations, rhyming read-aloud text, and informative back matter, and it is equally at home in the classroom or being read on a parent’s lap.
Thank you so much for your time in speaking with us about your upcoming book. You’ve written Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colours, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes, and now you have One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers. What can readers anticipate and look forward to in this book?
They’ll get to see new aspects of life, objects, and concepts that are special to Muslim people on each page. Also, they’ll get to see characters from the first two books as well as a soothing pattern that will be familiar to them from the first two books. The rhyming scheme introduces a term with a very simple, lyrical explanation of what that is, through the eyes of a child.
All of these books are a basic introduction to some big concepts and significant aspects of Islam, obviously whittled down into a children’s book! I hope that readers who aren’t as familiar with Islam will see many of the beautiful aspects of it. And that those who share the tradition will see themselves reflected and things that have much meaning in their lives.
I have read Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns to my son. On the page where it says,
“Green is the Quran I read with pride.
Grandma explains the lessons inside.”
He stopped me and said, “Mom, I’m gonna ask Nanno. Next time I talk to her I’m going to ask her because she reads the Quran.”
Hena, you’re so right. Kids who relate with the traditions of Islam, it brings meaning to them, and they have a connection with the story. As I read One Sun and Countless Stars again, I felt you beautifully captured aspects of life, objects, and concepts special to Muslim people but with the use of numbers.
How did you come up with the title? What was your inspiration? Is there a context behind the title?
I won’t spoil the ending of the book! But for each of the titles of the books, we wanted to highlight something significant, and also make it lyrical. In the color book, we talked about gold and silver. In the shape book, we highlight the crescent and the pointed minaret. We didn’t use circle and square, because that just didn’t sound as pretty.
Similarly here, we could have used one sun and ten stars, but the idea that there are things beyond what we can count was something we wanted to play with. Referring to the one sun indicates that it is a book of numbers.
As a child is reading this book, they can point to the various things and count them on the page. Just like in the color book, where you see lots of each color on the page and the shape book, you see lots of every shape. We wanted the readers to be able to count these very tangible things. That’s why even though I’m dealing with some abstract concepts in all of these books, we make them very relatable and concrete for the reader.
Yes, absolutely. Now that you’ve mentioned this, before I read your book, I stepped back and thought, “How would Hena use numbers?” In my mind, I thought, “OK, there’s one sun; there are five prayers, but then there are five pillars… 2.5% for Zakat charity? Maybe the stars have something to do with navigation, but it’s a children’s book. However, as I read your book, after guessing, it is very tangible and something that kids can definitely relate to in their everyday lives. Similarly to your first two books, there is a very heartwarming message at the end.
There are layers for those who want to delve deeper into what some of these concepts are. In the book it says,
“Two are hands for making dua that I join and raise.
I say a prayer from my heart and offer words of praise.”
So, it explains what the dua is, that it’s a prayer from your heart, but it’s up to the reader to dive into the meaning of dua in a deeper way. Maybe they look for examples of duas or talk about the dua. But, for someone else, it could just be literally two hands, and moving on. It’s up to the reader to bring themselves to this book, and take from it what they feel comfortable with, and what they’re interested in—just like the first two in the series.
The challenge I had as the writer of this book was coming up with fresh terms, but making each book still feel like a full picture of Islam. I mention things like prayer, charity, the Quran, the masjid in various ways. All are big, important concepts in the faith, but I didn’t want to be repetitive.
That’s why in the first book I mention Ramadan, the second book I highlight iftaar, and in this book I include sahur. It’s another way to introduce different aspects of the special month.
Absolutely. It’s also very educational for kids who don’t know much about Islam. They may have seen aspects of it like the thabih, which could be relatable to the rosary. The dua, which is relatable to a prayer. It’s definitely relatable at a very simple level that encourages interfaith thinking, which is great.
How would you describe your book in 3 words?
Comforting, gorgeous (because of the art), and inclusive.
How did you draw upon your experiences when writing this book?
I would say by looking at the things that are special to my children, and wanting to highlight things like the role of family, the specialness of certain days, and certain traditions. In the first book, Golden Domes, like you mentioned earlier, we have Grandma reading the Quran and teaching its lessons. In One Sun and Countless Stars, we have a child reading a surah and Grandpa being proud as he’s reciting it. So, it’s ideas, terms, and just the feeling that you get of love and friendship and family. To me, it was also really important to highlight community, which is so important in Islam.
In a book like this, it’s hard because you’re trying to be representative of something that means so much to so many people. But, of course, you can’t help but bring yourself to it in terms of the things you choose. I chose figs in One Sun, something I love, but they’re also significant and mentioned in the Quran.
In the two previous books you wrote, including One Sun and Countless Stars, the illustrations have a very calming effect. The characters have dreamy eyes; the illustrations are very soft in the shapes and calming. They beautifully present aspects of Muslim life and the Muslim world.
Mehrdokht Amini is an award-winning illustrator. How was your collaboration with her?
I’m so thrilled to see her career explode and to see the many gorgeous books she’s illustrated ever since Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which was her first book published in North America!
I work with my editor, and the designer primarily works with Mehrdokht. Unlike many picture book creators, I comment on the art and see the art while it’s in development. Many picture book authors don’t get that chance.
It’s been amazing to see the evolution from the very first drafts of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and the blending of our vision, because I wanted these books to have a very modern and diverse feeling. I think sometimes in children’s books, we tend to see Islam as something foreign to the Western world, or ancient or just…other. So I wanted it to feel very recognisable, and that was important to me.
I love where Mehrdokht blends East and West and modern and traditional. You see such detail, in things like the fabrics and the porcelain. And readers will see very familiar things, whether it’s the toys that she illustrates in the background, or the prayer mat. I love seeing the progression of these books and how she’s really created this very specific look for them, and how they sort of tell a complete story when you see them together.
The illustrations are stunning. I went back to my copy of Golden Domes and I was trying to see if the images were digitally formed or hand drawn. You can’t really tell. I am curious: do you know? Do you know if she does them digitally?
I think it’s a mix of both, and you see just these layers that are just so evocative and beautiful. There’s this mixture of reality, where you feel like you can reach in and pluck out images from the page. It feels three-dimensional and detailed. Then in other places, the art has a very dreamy quality and a magical feeling. I love what she’s done. I’m not sure exactly how she does it, but the outcome is stunning.
Do you foresee another book coming out after One Sun and Countless Stars? You got shapes, colours, and numbers. Is there going to be one for letters?
We’re talking about the possibility of a fourth book in the series, which is funny because when I did Golden Domes, I didn’t think about it at the time. Had I known that there would be other books in the series, I might have saved certain objects for each book. It’s sort of like a puzzle for me to now figure out how to make these ideas work in this very specific formula that I’ve created.
I’d love to do a fourth book, but I’m not sure exactly what would make the most sense. Like I said, I try to keep each book feeling very fresh and to build upon what’s already there. So if we can pull it off, I would love to, but we’ll see. We’re at the very early stages right now of talking about it.
You shared on your website some of your favourite authors growing up such as Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Louisa May Alcott. Imagining yourself as a child today, which contemporary authors would you add onto your favourites list?
I still love reading picture books and middle grade fiction. Some of my fellow Muslim picture book writers who I adore include Aisha Saeed, Jamilah Thompkins Bigelow, and MO Yuksel. I love Veera Hiranandani, Grace Lin, Jasmine Warga, Minh Le, and Renee Watson. There are countless authors I admire. Karina Yan Glaser, Ruth Behar, Ellen Oh…the list goes on and on. I’m so hungry to read everything because compared to a few years ago, specifically in the Muslim author space, there weren’t many others. For a long time, I felt really alone In this field. And now it’s amazing to see so many more voices.
As an experienced author, what advice would you give yourself as a new writer?
A few things. I think I would have told myself to go for it sooner. To believe in myself earlier. I think I was very much affected by what else I saw and didn’t see. And I don’t think I allowed myself to believe that stories like mine mattered. So, I tell kids all the time who I meet now that your story matters, and no matter what your background is, it’s important. People need to hear it, and I didn’t know that as a kid.
I loved writing. I used to write for fun, but I didn’t even write stories that reflected my own experience. Because I didn’t see that anywhere else. It wasn’t validated. So I wish I could go back and tell myself, “Believe in your stories and believe that they matter. Write them and don’t be afraid to share them.” That’s on an emotional and personal level.
From a craft perspective, I would tell myself that it’s okay not to love every aspect of the process. That as long as you’re happy writing and creating, even if you struggle with certain parts of it, keep going. Because I think it’s really easy to listen to the voice in your head that tells you that it’s not good enough or that no one would want to read what you’re doing and to let things sit and not move forward with them.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of WNDB?
I’m grateful. Honestly, I’m so grateful to the community for existing, and for everything WNDB has done to move the conversation forward. Especially seeing where we were before and where we’re heading. There’s so much more to be done. I think there are so many more stories to be shared, but we’re making progress. It feels amazing to have a community that believes in what I’m doing and what other writers are doing, and to feel that level of support. So I would like to express my gratitude for everything you do that makes a huge difference.
Thank you, Hena, for doing your part to make a difference. We need authors who are out there sharing their stories. All the best with the launch of One Sun and Countless Stars!
Hena began writing for children with Scholastic book clubs, publishing books for a number of popular series about spies, space and more. She went on to write several choose-your-own format books including adventures to Mars and the Amazon rainforest. But, as a mother, Hena yearned to see books that represented kids like her children and decided to write them.
Today, Hena writes full time, often highlighting aspects of her culture, faith, community, friendship and family, and she draws heavily from own experiences. She enjoys presenting to children, educators, community members and others, and being a mom to two now teenaged boys. Whenever she gets the chance, Hena travels with her family, bakes, and reads books written by her favorite children’s authors.