Hena Khan's books for children include Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Night of the Moon, The Worst Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Mars, and The Worst Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Amazon. She is based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: How did you come to write for children? Is it something you've always been interested in?
A: I got my start writing for kids with Scholastic Book Clubs, for their Spy University series. At the time, I was working in public health communications, and was accustomed to writing about serious and technical subjects for adults.
It was a big switch for me to suddenly write for kids, and challenging at first, but ultimately I fell in love with it. I appreciated that the writing was direct and jargon-free, often silly or adventurous, and ultimately feeding kids’ curiosity about the world. I went on to work on a few other Scholastic series before writing my first picture book.
Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. As a kid I wrote poems and plays and even a family newspaper about happenings in my home called the “Khanicles.” I was a huge reader and, like so many others, dreamt of writing books one day.
As I grew older, I wrote for my school paper, and later gravitated toward the writing and editing roles at every professional job I held. But I never really thought I would be lucky enough to do what I love every day, and am so thrilled that writing remains such a big part of my life.
Q: You've written for different age groups. Is your writing process similar regardless of the age of your intended audience, or does it differ?
A: My process varies quite a bit depending on the type of book I’m writing. Many of the middle grade books I have written have required research, including interviews and working with experts.
When I approached my choose-your-own adventure novels, I needed to extensively outline and plot multiple story lines before starting to tell the story. And for picture books, my process really depends on the style of the story, like whether there is a pattern or formula or not.
Whatever type of writing I do, I tend to write in spurts, and alternate between feeling comfortable with what I’ve done and thinking it is garbage. I spend much more time editing and rewriting than I do initially getting words on a page. I’m sure there’s a more organized and productive writing process out there for me, but I haven’t figured it out yet.
Q: Some of your work explores aspects of Islam. What do you hope readers--both those familiar with and less knowledgeable about Islam--gain from your books?
A: For readers who practice the faith, my hope is that they feel represented and see their lives reflected in my work. I didn’t have books with characters who looked like me, had names like mine, or who celebrated my holidays when I was growing up. It makes me happy to know that kids today will have that chance.
For those who are less familiar, I hope that they come away from my books with a better sense of Islam and Muslims, including our families, traditions and culture.
I know people today, especially in the U.S., are more curious about Islam than ever, and there is unfortunately a lot of misinformation and misperception out there. My goal is for readers to recognize that Muslim core values—community, family, charity—are the universal ones shared by our fellow Americans.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: My favorite authors growing up were Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Louisa May Alcott. I have always been a huge fan of stories with families at the center, and strong character development.
I continue to be inspired by them and a number of contemporary authors who successfully bring a multicultural perspective to their audiences, like Grace Lin and Linda Sue Park. Both have mastered picture book and middle grade writing brilliantly.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have been working on a multicultural middle grade novel and several picture books over the past year, and they are either in submission or getting there. I’m about to start a new picture book and chapter book.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I was excited to sign with literary agent Matthew Elblonk of Defiore and Company last summer, after managing my own writing career for a decade. It has been wonderful to have an advocate and to get advice and help navigating this often confusing industry.
I’m really excited about the future, and hopeful about having more books to share with kids soon. And I feel extremely blessed to have been supported and encouraged by many people on my journey to become a children’s author. In case you’re wondering, I do still write and edit the serious technical public health stuff too, alternating between the two worlds.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb