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Crescent Moons, Pink Hijabs and ‘Super Yous’

Alum Children’s Author Writes the Books Celebrating Muslim Culture That She Wishes She’d Had

By Sala Levin ’10

four of Hena Khan's books: Amina's Voice, Night of the Moon, We Are Big Time, Behind My Doors

Hena Khan ’95, below, has published 24 books featuring Muslim kids as the main characters. This year, she's releasing five new books, including "We Are Big Time" and "Behind My Doors" (left). "As a young mother, I started thinking about stories I didn't have as a kid where I was the protagonist," she said.

Book covers courtesy of Hena Khan

When Hena Khan ’95 was helping her elder son get ready for a Ramadan party at his Muslim preschool in 2005, she had a startling realization: Though there were plenty of picture books about Christmas, and a few about Passover, Kwanzaa and other holidays, she couldn’t find any that explained the monthlong fast that’s central to Islamic observance. So she wrote one herself.

“Night of the Moon” was the first of Khan’s 24 books, all of which tell the stories of Muslim kids, whether they’re navigating the social politics of middle school, chasing unicorns in the mountains of northern Pakistan or learning how to pray at their community mosque. This year, Khan is releasing a staggering five new books, including May’s “Behind My Doors,” the story of the world’s oldest library (Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco) told from the perspective of the building itself.

Hena Khan portrait

“As a young mother, I started thinking about stories I didn’t have as a kid where I was the protagonist,” said Khan. “I wanted my kids and others to have that, so I started thinking about stories that would include characters that look like me.”

Growing up in Rockville, Md., Khan was a reader whose family treated the library as an especially tempting all-you-can-eat buffet. “We’d take grocery bags from Giant and fill them up with books,” Khan said. “That’s how we spent a lot of free time and vacations.”

The child of Pakistani immigrants, Khan loved authors like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, who satisfied her curiosity “to know how other people lived and how other families worked,” she said. At the time, Khan said, she never questioned why the characters in the books she devoured didn’t reflect her own family’s customs and celebrations.

At the University of Maryland, Khan majored in government and politics but also took many English classes, where she “started searching for myself in stories for the first time,” she said. Courses on Caribbean and African American literature excited her and showed her that “those diverse voices were out there.”

After college, Khan, who still lives in Rockville and is the mother of one current and one recently graduated Terp, earned a master’s degree in international affairs from the George Washington University and worked in public health communications. While she was on maternity leave with her first child, a friend who worked for Scholastic Book Clubs asked for Khan’s help editing a series of books. She went on to write several Scholastic Series books on a freelance basis. “It was so exciting to imagine a kid holding a book I wrote,” she said.

Khan began working on her own books, mining her memories and experiences for ideas; after a decade and a handful of titles, she was writing full-time.

Her catalog includes picture books such as “Like the Moon Loves the Sky,” which uses Quranic verses as inspiration to express a mother’s wishes for her children, chapter books for tweens and a foray into graphic novels with the upcoming “We Are Big Time,” which tells the story of ninth grader Aliya’s attempts to recharge the girls’ basketball team at her new school.

Her most popular titles to date are “It’s Ramadan, Curious George,” which The New Yorker called “groundbreaking,” and “Amina’s Voice,” which was named a Washington Post Best Children’s Book of 2017.

“Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith,” Kirkus Reviews wrote in its review of “Amina’s Voice.” “Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race and religion.”

The best part of writing for kids, Khan said, is seeing their joy when she does events at schools and libraries. “I see the child who’s represented sit up taller and want to make a connection with me. They’re beaming,” she said. “But then I also see their friends get super excited and tell me that they have a friend whose mom wears a hijab. They want to celebrate their friends, and that’s really exciting for me, too.”



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