This year will be another abundant one for children’s author Hena Khan. By the end of 2024, she will have published five more books: Drawing Deena (Salaam Reads, Feb.), a tenderhearted middle-grade novel; The Door Is Open (Little, Brown, Apr.), an anthology of interconnected stories that celebrate the diversity of South Asian American experiences; Behind My Doors (Lee & Low, May), about the Al-Qarawiyyin Library—the oldest library in the world; We Are Big Time (Knopf, Aug.), a middle grade graphic novel featuring an all-girls, hijab-wearing basketball team; and Best Wishes: Like a Boss (Scholastic, Nov.), the fourth installment of the paperback series about a magical wish-granting bracelet. PW spoke with Khan about visual storytelling, collaborating with her peers, and her 2024 TBR list.
How does your Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith inform your work?
I write characters I wish I was more like when I was growing up. The very things that made me feel uncomfortable or slightly embarrassed are the things I celebrate in these books. Heritage and faith are a part of my characters’ existence. My characters don’t grapple with their identities or wish they were somebody else. They’re dealing with challenges—confidence, artistic expression, wanting to make a basketball team—while also being Pakistani and Muslim. The stories I loved reading were fun. I wanted to be those characters—or at least one of their friends—so badly. I hope my characters are just as relatable and likable as the characters I read about when I was growing up. They were different from me, but I loved them so much. I want Desi Muslim kids to feel proud to have my characters represent them and I want other readers to wish [my characters] were their friends.
We Are Big Time is your first graphic novel. Can you describe the creative and writing process, including your collaboration with Safiya Zerrougui?
One of the things that surprised me when I first started writing picture books was how little input I had over the art. It was fun to get to do that [with this project]. My first experience writing sequential art was through a talent development workshop I did with DC Comics. It was a huge learning curve, but such an incredible experience. That’s where I understood how comics work—the freedom that the form affords you and how to write panel-by-panel. I love the format, and I can see why kids love it so much. Seeing Safiya bring my descriptions to life felt magical. She brought enthusiasm and energy for the game and these characters.
Drawing Deena is a middle grade coming-of-age novel, in the vein of your Amina stories. What inspires you to write middle grade?
Deena is a young artist trying to find herself, and [her journey] is reflective of my own struggle as an artist and a creative person. How do you stay true to yourself and shut out the external noise, especially on social media? How can other people’s opinions influence your art and creative process? In Deena’s case, she’s also recognizing the signs of anxiety and learning how to ask for help. I like the sweetness of middle grade. That’s where my heart lies. Even though middle grade characters puzzle or grapple with big issues, the writing isn’t fussy, melodramatic, or angsty.
What type of research did you conduct in writing Beyond My Doors? How did you decide where to adhere to fact and where to yield to artistic interpretation?
I pitched a [picture book] about Fatima al-Fihri’s founding of the Al-Qarawiyyin University years ago, but the concerns then were that there was little known about the construction of this university and the details of this person’s life and that the university experience is far removed from that of the picture book audience. I noodled for many years until the story of the renovation of the library was in the news. The library was founded by a woman in the ninth century; she was an unlikely founder. Another Moroccan woman, Aziza Chaouni, led the renovation and the preservation of the library. I knew this was the story I wanted to tell.
This library was deteriorating. Its tiles were falling off the walls. There’s a branch of a river flowing underneath and threatening to destroy the books. I imagined this poor library wilting and suffering—and then getting saved. I decided to tell the story from the perspective of the library. It wants to be a place of learning and discovery and wisdom, and it’s fighting for that. Many libraries are fighting to keep their doors open; this story is relevant to today.
What motivated you to compile The Door Is Open?
When my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, my father traveled from England on the Queen Elizabeth 2. On board, he met a Hindu man from India, who became one of his closest, life-long friends. People outside of the [South Asian] community don’t realize how much of an instant bond we have. Despite our differences, we have a shared heritage; I wanted to highlight that. The stories are centered at a community center and are linked: characters from one story appear in another story, and there’s a larger narrative arc about the community center itself. It was nice to bring all these authors together to focus on what we have in common across political and ethnic and religious lines.
Best Wishes is a multi-author series. What was the experience of writing Like a Boss like?
It was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had. It’s such a fun premise and Sarah [Mlynowski] is an incredible co-author. The series is so clever, and characters from previous books appear in future books. My character, Maya, is a Pakistani American girl who wishes to be in charge—something she’s not particularly good at or used to, which leads to all sorts of antics and adventures. It’s really funny. We’re in copy edits now and I’m laughing as I reread it. This is the second time I’ve had this sort of opportunity. I co-authored book #6 of the Unicorn Rescue Society series with Adam Gidwitz. The characters and premise are established, and I get to play in these fun worlds.
What are you currently reading and what would you recommend?
I’m in the midst of reading James Ponti’s City Spies because we’re touring together. I’ll be reading The Liars Society by Allie Gerber next because we’re also touring together. I finished Amil and the After [by Veera Hiranandiani] recently. I got an advance copy at NCTE. I adored it and I’m excited for that to make a splash. I’m looking forward to Mid Air by Alicia D. Williams because Alicia is a brilliant writer and I love the premise of this book; Unstuck by Barbara Dee since it also deals with creativity and anxiety through the lens of a young writer; and The Hoop Con by Amar Shah because it sounds hilarious and is about a kid after my own heart who lives for basketball.
Do you think you will ever write for older teens or even adults?
I’ll never say never, but for now I’m a children’s writer. I’d intended We Are Big Time to be YA because it features a high school girls basketball team. But 10 out of 12 interested editors asked me to age it down. It’s still about a girls’ high school team, but is very much a middle grade book. My protagonist is a freshman in high school. I’d consider writing for older teens as long as I didn’t have to write too much romance. I’m very bad at it; I’m so awkward! I’m also not cool enough. There’s a certain coolness factor that readers pick up on.
Drawing Deena by Hena Khan. Salaam Reads, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-5344-5991-5
The Door Is Open: Stories of Celebration and Community by 11 Desi Voices, edited by Hena Khan. Little, Brown, $17.99 Apr. 23 ISBN 978-0-316-45063-8
Behind My Doors: The Story of the World’s Oldest Library by Hena Khan, illus. by Nabila Adani. Lee & Low, $20.95 May 7 ISBN 978-1-64379-423-5
We Are Big Time by Hena Khan, illus. by Safiya Zerrougui. Knopf, $21.99 Aug. 6 ISBN 978-0-593-43048-4; paper $13.99 ISBN 978-0-593-43047-7
Best Wishes #4: Like a Boss by Sarah Mlynowski and Hena Khan, illus. by Jennifer Bricking. Scholastic Press, $16.99 Nov. 12 ISBN 978-1-5461-0269-4