Night of the Moon

Bad hair daze

Mom and me, during one of my haircuts. Note the fear on my face.Tonight, even though spring is in full swing and it’s warmer than it’s been in a while, my nine year old son asked me to blow his hair dry for him after his shower. As I ran my fingers through his hair, hot air tickling his face, I saw his look of utter contentment and had a flashback: me standing in my mother’s bathroom and her doing the same for me at that age.

Since that time, I’ve been to countless hairstylists who’ve dried my hair for me—from cheap cuts in strip malls to fancy blow out bars with menus. As a “curly girl,” it’s always a treat to have my hair straightened, as are occasional head massages and deep conditioning treatments. But tonight I realized, with a pang of longing and nostalgia, that almost nothing has ever felt better or been more comforting than standing in my pajamas, feeling the love from my mother’s hands as she tried not to burn me with her antique Norelco hairdryer with the comb attachment.

The part of the memory that I have tried to block is the haircuts my mom used to also give me. Not just a straight trim—she overconfidently believed she could give me the latest Dorothy Hamil or Lady Diana hairdo. And with her lack of training and my curly hair brushed out into waves, you can imagine the outcome. I only noticed recently while looking through old photos that I wasn’t actually as unattractive of a child as I had felt at the time. Underneath the horrible haircuts, I was actually kind of cute.

My mom also offered to cut my son’s hair for him when he was younger but I firmly declined. She then encouraged me to do it for him myself. “But I don’t know how to cut hair,” I argued on deaf ears amidst grumbling that I like to waste money.

Thank you, Mom, for everything you have done and still do for me. I can never repay you, even if I wasted all the money in the world. And my dear son with a great looking head of hair….you’re welcome.

 

Under the bridge

Not my troll, but still cuteMy nine year old son looked alarmed when I told him he had “Troll toes” after his bath tonight. He thought it was a condition of some kind, but I explained that when I was his age, I had a big picture book of fairy tales that I used to read over and over again. Alongside the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff was an illustration of the Troll who lived under the bridge. He had bulging eyes, scaly skin, a few hairs on his bald head, and unforgettable toenails that were long and yellow.

Ever since then, whenever I see unkempt or overgrown toenails, the Troll of my childhood pops out of from under the bridge of my memory and comes to life. My son nodded thoughtfully, understanding my association. I know that he, like me, has pored over the pages of his picture books, pausing at the illustrations, savoring them and making them part of his understanding of the world.

In an increasingly digital age, I’m still a sucker for the traditional picture book. To me, there’s something beautiful about the way the ink sets on a page of a book, one that starts to fray over time from repeat usage. There’s something exciting in the cracking sound of hardback book binding and satisfying in the thud of flipping it shut. I love the feel of more than just turning the pages—it’s the imprinted letters, foils, endpapers and jackets. I think beautiful books are works of art to treasure, and I still buy them even though my kids are moving past the age where they read them.  

I also wonder if I would still remember Troll toes if there were images I saw on a screen, competing with the countless others I’ve seen throughout my life. It was those actual pages that brought him to life for me, and, thankfully, all these years later encouraged my son to go find a nail cutter. The sad part is, since I don’t have it saved somewhere virtually or in real life, I don’t remember the name of the book, even though I can envision the white cover and recall the drawing with vivid detail. Does anyone out there know which one I’m talking about? I’d love to have a copy again.

Writing your cake and eating it too

My birthday book cake, at the Night of the Moon launch party in 2008It’s always inspiring to hear accomplished writers speak about their experiences. This past Sunday I listened to Candace Fleming, while accepting a nonfiction award from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC, share charming anecdotes and tips about her writing. One thing she said especially stood out to me, as someone who derives much satisfaction from baking and having other people enjoy the things I make. Candace described a time when a student at a workshop told her that she preferred to write non-fiction over fiction because non-fiction was “easier.” Disagreeing with the student’s assessment, she likened the process of writing to baking a delicious cake. 

Fiction, she said involved making this cake using whatever ingredients your heart desires, based on a recipe you choose: chocolate chips, coconut, nuts, and so on. On the other hand, she said non-fiction writing was sending someone else to the store, who returns with an assortment of odd ingredients: liver, boiled peanuts, and cabbage, and then trying to make a cake that anyone wants to eat out of them.

I’ve watched countless episodes of Chopped, the Food Network show where aspiring chefs open baskets of mystery ingredients to dramatic music. They inevitably concoct desserts that look pretty palatable out of unusual ingredients like garam masala, cucumbers and basil. But they also get to add whatever they draw from the pantry to mask, dilute or intensify the flavors. As much as I enjoy the show, I’ve always considered the judging of it to be unfairly arbitrary—some chefs get chopped for not using enough of one ingredient, others for too much, some are told they don’t reinvent them, others lost standing because they aren’t true to form. There is no one formula or path to success.

It seems to be the same with writing. All writers, whether they are working with the ingredients they selected or have been given, use the pantries of their imaginations to transform, enhance and elevate their stories. Their struggle, much like the chefs on Chopped, is to create something they find delicious versus guessing what the judges out there want to taste. As I continue to send stories to the chopping blocks of the literary world, I’m hoping to get the balance right. My goal is to write something so irresistible you can’t put it down until it’s done. Anyone out there have the secret ingredient?

Will the real Hena Khan please stand up?

The actress on the left, author on the rightI’m nearing an important milestone, according to Facebook. The site has alerted me to the fact that I’m only a few people away from hitting 500 “likes” on my author page. Ordinarily, I’d let myself get a little excited about such a moment. But I’m not, because a third of the people who “like” me don’t know who I am. I’m not talking about how they “don’t really know who I am as a person.” I mean that almost 200 of my “likes” mistook me for a Bollywood actress in India who happens to be my namesake.

When I first noticed a bunch of men from the subcontinent liked my page, I was pleased with the global reach of social media and impressed by their enthusiasm for multicultural children’s literature. But once Amit, Prakash and Raj sent me flirty notes, I started to get suspicious and investigate. I quickly discovered the other Hina Khan but wondered if so many people could actually be confusing me with this celebrity who doesn’t even spell her name the same way.

Then I got another note, this time not through Facebook, but through my website. It read, “Hi. I’m your biggest fan. Ur soooo pretty.” Since it came from a girl named Marya, I thought, “Oh, how cute. A little fan. Maybe she read Night of the Moon.” But then Marya proceeded to reply to my website’s automated response saying that I would get back to her soon with:

“Omg is this u
I can't believe I'm talking to a tv actor in real life
It's amazing
By the way my name is Marya
I'm from the uk
And I love watching ur show (yeh rishta kya kehlata hai)
Ur soo pretty and beautiful
I would just like to say in your shows dress more jazzy and in heavy saris”

At that moment, through my embarrassed laughter, I realized that there was no denying it. A good percentage of my Facebook fans are either accidental, or just "like" anyone named Hena Khan. Ever since, a steady stream of Abdurehmans, Guris, and Rajs continue to “like” me. I try not to feel disappointed by them, but I do get happiest when I scan my list of new “likes” and find people who are 1) female 2) have children and 3) actually “like” me for me (again, in the Facebook universe, of course, not those who “actually like me as a person”).

So what do I do next? Do I start posting things about children’s books on the actress’s homepage? Do I audition for an Indian drama and dress in jazzy and heavy saris?  Or do I just embrace this false number of fans and celebrate my milestone?

Yay!

Bitten by the creative spider

People often ask me what inspired me to write my first picture book. I owe a lot of my motivation to a spider named Sammy. Over a decade ago, when my older son was attending a cooperative preschool, his teacher read a sweet book to the class about how Sammy wanted to spin a dreidel during Hanukah. As I watched the captivated kids shout out the refrain, “Spiders don’t spin dreidels, they spin webs,” I realized that Muslims also needed to spin some engaging tales of our own.

Up to that point, I owned a handful of picture books about Islam and Muslims, gifts for my son from my inlaws purchased at various conferences. Somehow, they all ended up buried at the bottom of our book bin. That evening I dug them up, searching for a Sammy Spider, or anything close to it. But all of the books lacked the charm of his simple story. Even worse, they were didactic, or boring, or simply unattractive. And none were appropriate to share with a general audience.

On the other hand, as I rifled through my budding home library with renewed interest, I realized that several other multicultural titles were already some of our favorites. My son often asked me to read How Nanita Learned to Make Flan, Ruby’s Wish, and Anansi the Spider—all rich and colorful stories that brought diverse cultures to life. It saddened me to realize we had no equivalent books about our culture to read together, or share with friends at school. I started to hunt for any I could find, and my goal became to create appealing books about Muslims that captured the attention of young readers and didn’t end up collecting dust.

Today, there is nothing more gratifying to me than to hear parents say their children request Night of the Moon or Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns repeatedly. Even better is when they tell me their little ones can recite them from memory. I’m thrilled to see the thought conversation around diversity in children’s literature include Muslims and am encouraged by the growing commitment to represent all voices. I hope to have more to add to the collection.

Thanks for the kick in the pants, Sammy Spider.

What are your favorite multicultural picture books?

Hole-y holidays

A few days ago my sister mentioned that she was going to read Night of the Moon to my twin nieces’ pre-K class to share the holiday of Eid. Even though Eid currently falls smack in the middle of summer, the teacher was thoughtfully trying to be inclusive of all kids during the holiday season. My sister was going to have the students do a craft I recommended and take a special snack: halwa, a traditional Pakistani dessert made from cream of wheat.

Scene from Night of the MoonWhen I was in second grade my mom had me bring an Eid treat to school: another Pakistani dessert, made with vermicelli noodles and condensed milk. Unbeknownst to me, to make it extra special, she had added fragrant rosewater.  “Ewwwww! It smells like perfume!” the kids all cried in disgust. I brought back the untouched bowl, filled with shame and pretty sure my fellow second graders wanted no part of the strange holiday known as Eid.

Fast forward twenty-five years to when my son was in preschool and his older Pakistani teacher assistant asked me to come in for a class Eid party. As I excitedly walked into the church basement, the smell of frying dough and onions filled the air. Auntie was in the kitchen making pakoras, savory dumplings. And, sure enough, she had brought Pakistani sweets—green and orange squares of sweet cheese, sprinkled with nuts and decorative foil. One by one, the kids wrinkled their noses as she offered the treats. Luckily, remembering second grade, I had come armed with donut holes, which I quickly passed around amidst cheers.

“Take donut holes,” I told my sister.

“You can do that?” she asked.

“Yes. Trust me.”

My sister reported that the kids listened to the story, made paper henna hands, enjoyed their donuts and might even have gained a little understanding of what Eid is—a festive time for family, friends, and delicious foods, whatever that means to different people. In our family, that means donuts and “sweet noodles,” as my kids call them. But we make sure to leave out the rosewater.  

Wishing everyone happy and delicious holidays!