At the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Alex Rah interviewed Hena Khan on behalf of We Need Diverse Books. Hena is a Pakistani-American Muslim author who hails from Maryland and, in addition to her fiction, writes and edits for international organizations that work to improve the health and lives of people around the world.
- What was the inspiration behind the CHASING THE DREAM chapter book series?
Hena: I really wanted to write a book that featured a boy main character because I have two boys, and I was inspired by their lives and also my husband, who is a huge basketball fanatic. Basketball is a huge part of our household, and games are always on. We go to Wizards games whenever we can. So it’s just fun to be able to channel that into a story that is really about sports, but also about family, friendship, culture, and other things that you don’t find in sports books. I really wanted it to be a nice book for kids who love sports and are passionate about it, but also offer a lot more, so I hopefully keep them entertained.
- If POWER FORWARD had a theme song, what would it be?
Hena: Oh my goodness. That’s a great question. Hmm… a theme song? I think it would have to be some awesome, like, pump-up, sports-related song. I don’t know how many of those are appropriate.
Alex: Anything from the Wizards games? They always play those songs.
Hena: I know right? I’m still stumped. I think I know pump-up songs, but nothing’s coming to mind that are PG.
- Do you think you will ever write Young Adult or any other genre?
Hena: For now, I’m very committed to writing for kids. I’ve had kids actually ask me, “Do you want to write for adults?” and that’s something I’m interested in doing in terms of books, you know, writing other things for adults like essays and things like that. But I think I really enjoy the middle-grade genre the most. I do write picture books as well, and I’m continuing to do that, and I enjoy that. But in terms of middle-grade vs. young adult, right now I’m enjoying middle-grade and that’s where I want to stay for a while.
- If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be?
Hena: Beverly Cleary’s books are amazing and such an inspiration to me. She’s still alive and kicking, which is amazing, at 102. So I’d be amazed to have a conversation with her. I think she did just such an amazing job creating characters that still resonate with me, and really she’s my hero, my literary hero.
- If you were stranded on a deserted island and you could bring any book, what book would it be?
Hena: Well, the book that I read the most and read over and over again. I’m a re-reader, so when I love a book, I do go back and read it again. The book I read the most and loved as a child and just found really soothing whenever I wanted to kind of retreat from the world was Little Women. I read that so many times, and I feel like that would the book I would bring with me.
- Have you noticed a difference in diverse book offerings since you were a child? In what area do you think We Need Diverse Books has had the most impact on you?
Hena: Definitely a huge change from when I was a child. When I was growing up, I never saw myself represented in a single book that I read, and it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I finally had that shock of recognition and saw “myself” in a book for the first time. So it’s encouraging to see that trend, and even after being a mom for seventeen years and looking for books for my children, I’ve seen the offerings change and the variety improve. Representation is definitely more widespread, but what I would love to see more of are books that are light-hearted and fun representing diverse protagonists, that aren’t “issue books” and aren’t books related to a struggle, or oppression, or discrimination.
And that’s why I’m really excited about this series, because Zayd Saleem is a fourth-grade boy who loves basketball and has big basketball dreams, and that’s really his passion, and it was fun to be able to write a book that definitely highlights his culture but in a fun way. I got to focus on the quirky, humorous, and interesting aspects of Pakistani culture from his perspective, and get into his story and background but not make it in any way part of his struggle. He has ordinary, everyday kid struggles, with regards to wanting to make the team or wondering why his friend is acting weird, or getting in trouble in school for goofing off, or lying to his parents, things like that.
I do see a trend slowly getting there; even in my career, I’ve seen the evolution from my first books being more informative. I think those books are necessary, and I’m still producing books that are more so introducing what Muslims believe and what our traditions are, who we are as a community, things like that. But I’d like to see more fun books and a variety of books that are just for pleasure.
I hope it continues. I hope the trend in that direction continues, and I hope publishers see the value of these books. It’ll have to get to the point where it’s not a conversation anymore.