A Weird Place to Be

The Muslim Community Center depicted in Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

The Muslim Community Center depicted in Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

Four years ago I wrote a book about an 11-year-old girl named Amina. The story centers around Amina dealing with the start of middle school, friendship drama, family conflict—familiar challenges for any kid. But Amina is also a Pakistani American Muslim, and the book is a window into her faith, culture, and community.

Amina’s Voice is finally due to come out in less than two weeks. I’m proud that it’s the first release on Salaam Reads new list of Muslim-centered books. It was a long road to publication that I won’t bore you with here. But at a time when Muslims are more misunderstood than ever, it feels extremely timely and relevant. The response to it ahead of publication has been wonderful.

At the same time, it feels unreal that the fictional events I wrote about in Amina’s Voice are becoming a reality in more and more communities across America. In the book (spoiler alert!), Amina’s community faces tragic mosque vandalism. The community center she knows and loves is trashed and filled with hateful graffiti, and their beautiful mosque is burned.

While I was writing the book, Islamophobia was already firmly rooted in America. Headlines shared tragic events, including mosque attacks, Quran burnings, and a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which I chose as the setting for my novel. But these events, thankfully, were far and few between, and my hope was that they would become less and less common as our community matured, and as Islamophobes were exposed as the self-serving hate-mongers they are.

I drew from my personal experience when I imagined the community in Amina’s Voice. To anyone who knows the Muslim Community Center (also known as MCC: The Place To Be) in Silver Spring, Maryland, the physical descriptions in the book will be familiar. Years ago I was happy to discover that MCC was illustrated in my first picture book, Night of the Moon, after I had given the artist examples of mosques in America. When I wrote Amina's emotional reaction to the heartbreaking destruction of her community center, I pictured myself walking through MCC's lobby, the community hall, past the library and the kitchen.

I never in my worst nightmares imagined ever being in her shoes and actually having to grapple with those emotions in real life. But today, in an alarming rash of threats across the country targeting mosques and Jewish centers and schools, MCC was threatened. My heart stopped when I read the news, even though I know it could be much, much worse, and pray it never is. Other mosque communities around America have already been vandalized, burned down, marred with hate speech at an alarming pace over the past year. Perhaps most distressing of all was the unthinkable desecration of Jewish cemeteries that took place over the last week, motivating our communities to unite in solidarity in the effort to rebuild.

How in the world is this happening in 2017? How do we wrap our heads around this outpouring of hatred? And even harder, how do we explain any of it to our kids? It helps to point to the heartwarming reactions of people standing up and choosing love. But it’s been an extremely difficult year for all minorities in America. And it’s a weird feeling to celebrate a book birthday in this climate, when such awful events are unfolding around me.

Despite all this, I’m still hopeful that a book like mine will help to start important conversations when we need them more than ever. I hope reading about Amina, and seeing her as a friend, will help foster compassion and tolerance among children of all backgrounds and faiths. And I hope that stories like hers, will help create a generation of kids that will vaguely remember the events of today in the future and wonder how it was ever possible. Please consider reading Amina's Voice and sharing it with the children in your life. Thank you. 

Giving me shelter

As another Fourth of July holiday and Ramadan wind down, I’m thinking of an unusual invitation I received this month. It was from an old friend, a neighbor, who I grew up with, alongside her children. I’ve spent countless hours in her family home, making dandelion necklaces in her backyard, hula-hooping on her driveway, and it was a treat to see her number on my screen.

“If you ever need it, God forbid, we will shelter you,” she said to me over the phone.

I’m pretty sure I mumbled incoherently as she went on to explain that as a Jewish child in Europe, she often wondered who she would turn to for help if the need ever arose.

“I thought I would go to my father’s secretary,” she shared.

I accepted her offer with thanks, almost as if it was to attend a dinner party, aware that my response felt completely inadequate but unable to say more in that moment. Her husband had independently emailed me only a week earlier with a similar message. He had congratulated me on the success of It’s Ramadan, Curious George, and all the media attention it garnered, and added that, “Heaven forbid that it ever comes to pass, but if it does, please shelter here with your family. We will do all in our power to protect you, a really wonderful family we are so fortunate to know.”

We went on to exchange a few jokes like usual, lament about the current state of the world and the fact that we had come to where we are today, and made promises to get together soon. And then I hung up the phone, filled with emotion, and wept tears of gratitude over the gesture and its significance.

In the wake of the Trump-fueled madness and backlash against American Muslims, interactions like these, along with the faith that things will improve, are what keep me sane. I’ve been asked recently about how I explain Islamophobia to my children, how I “feel” about violent extremism, and how I find the space to write books on Muslim themes in this climate. I haven’t had really good answers for any of those questions. And meanwhile, the news keeps highlighting incomprehensible events more horrific than the last.

What I haven’t been asked is what gives me hope during this time, apart from the wonderful and heartwarming response to the book. And I haven’t been able to say that it’s those who have supported me with thoughtful demonstrations of friendship: a simple email from a fellow author saying “I’m thinking of you.” A note from a friend who made the point to donate a set of my books about Muslims to all of her children’s school libraries. A total stranger, identifying as a Buddhist lesbian, who emailed me to say she wanted me “to know there are others supporting you and your community with love and well wishes.” And the ultimate offer of protection, coming from a place of unconditional love.

Many of the individuals who reached out are other minorities, who know what it is like to face discrimination, oppression, and even holocaust. They feel the fear of watching our country go down this terrible path in a deeply personal way. It’s a terrible club to be a part of. But everyone who has contacted me, minorities or not, are disappointed as Americans who believe in the founding principles of this nation by the current state of affairs, and are watching them be trampled with dread. I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. Because of you, I remain hopeful that the collective memory of past mistakes will serve us all, that common sense and fairness will prevail, and that my family never actually has to seek shelter, as much as I appreciate the invite.

A book birthday for Curious George!

It’s here! Today is the book birthday for IT’S RAMADAN, CURIOUS GEORGE. The past few months for me have felt like anticipating the birthdays of my childhood—only bigger because I got to share the countdown with you. It’s been thrilling to see the reactions of people from all over the globe to news of the book, to share it with the media (check out all the great coverage it got here), and to plan future events around it. And now it finally hits the shelves and ships out to all those who pre-ordered. A huge thank you to everyone who made this book happen, and to all of you for your support and enthusiasm for it. I hope you'll take a moment to let me know what you and your kids think about Curious George celebrating Ramadan and Eid with his Muslim friends. 

Can you wipe away hate with a sponge?

My gut reaction when I heard about the hatred-inspired anti-Muslim protests that are taking place later this week across the country was to grab my children, crawl under the covers of my bed, and distract us all with a Sponge Bob marathon. It’s overwhelming to try to wrap my head around the idea that these events are actually happening. So my instinct is to retreat to a safe haven and hide, much like I did when I was young child.

The difference is that when I was little, I had to wait until Saturday morning for the Looney Toons, and the threats were largely external—fostered by a Cold War and a common enemy that united us all in fear of a nuclear holocaust. Today, in this increasingly confusing world I wonder, who exactly is the enemy? Is it . . . me? My children? My Muslim family members who do amazing things that don’t make the headlines: strengthening government systems for the Department of Homeland Security, conducting flight safety tests on aircrafts, performing skin grafts on burn victims? Is it ISIS? The Taliban? Russia? Or is it the armed hate groups united under a false banner of “humanity” planning to target mosques and Muslim communities to intimidate and bully us in an attempt to take back America from “people like you”?

How do I explain any of this to my kids, from under my blankets, as they stare at me, wondering what is wrong? They aren’t little enough to shelter them the way I want, or interested in snuggling with me anymore (although Sponge Bob is still a hit). One is a teenager who towers over me and the other is quickly catching up. They can’t be distracted or shielded from the ugly parts of American life. They will hear about them, and they need someone to help make sense of them. But how do you make sense of this insanity? (This is not a rhetorical question. I’m serious. I have no idea.)

What finally gets me out of bed, apart from needing to drive my kids to basketball practice, is the hope that comes with remembering that for every hate monger out there, there are many more non-Muslim Americans who still value the principles of inclusion, diversity, equality, and freedom. I make sure I tell my kids about them and what they are doing to make sure people learn about who we really are and what we represent.

In my own experience, these are the librarians who invite me to Houston to share my multicultural books that introduce Islamic traditions with library patrons as part of an exhibit called “Poetic Voices of the Muslim World.” These are the teachers who will bring their students, who are part of an Arabic language immersion program that was already the target of protests and hatred there, to hear me speak. These are the editors who push for a book where Curious George celebrates Ramadan, in an effort to represent all major holidays. They took a chance, without knowing the incredible joy a little monkey would bring American Muslims, who feel honored by the gesture, and the message it sends that we are worthy of being included.

These actions, and the countless others like them who have given voice to American Muslims like me and encourage us to share our lives, do a lot to combat hate and vile behavior. I strongly believe that the vast majority of Americans are above these protests and embrace love and true humanity. I desperately want to believe that my kids don’t need to be scared—and that the only thing that will come out of these protests is shame for those who promoted and participated in them.  

Librarians: A lifeline to education

The beautiful library at the Awsaj School, DohaI recently went on my biggest adventure as an author yet, one that took me all the way to Doha, Qatar, where I was invited by a group of librarians for a week of visits at five schools. It was my first time in the tiny Gulf state, and a wonderful chance to share my books and experiences as a writer. Doha is a fascinating place, with massive construction projects everywhere and a huge push to develop, particularly the education sector.

I was warmly welcomed at each of the schools, and ushered into the most impressive schools libraries I have ever seen. The large and breathtaking spaces were staffed with both upper and lower elementary librarians, as well as several assistants. I was struck by how the schools truly seemed to value the crucial role that librarians play in the academic development of their students. Connected to each student, the librarians worked to develop special projects, helped with research and assignments, set up programs and guests, and fostered a love of reading and seeking knowledge. 

I spent lovely time with the librarians, who took care of me during the school days, even packing me homemade lunches and snacks, and went above and beyond to entertain me after hours. They took to me to delicious dinners, invited me into their homes (where I, overcome with jetlag one afternoon, even napped), and went sightseeing with me. I learned about their lives and their families, where they had worked before, and what their futures held. Among the librarians I met, the Americans and Canadians were fairly certain that they would remain abroad until they retired. I assumed it was because life overseas was exciting and romantic, because they were part of such a close-knit expat community, or because the compensation and lifestyle was so comfortable. But, that wasn’t always the case.

“There are no jobs for us back home,” was what I sadly kept hearing. I was jarred by this news. It breaks my heart that these talented and committed educators feel like they can’t come home if they want and share their knowledge and expertise because there aren’t enough opportunities left for them. But we still need them! In a recent Huffington Post blog post, Sense and Sensibility: Why Librarians Remain Essential to Our Schools, Yohuru Williams defends the role of librarians (aka media specialists) and other key staff, and why they must be preserved in spite of budget cuts. I hope his arguments, and others like them resonate with lawmakers and those who make tough staffing decisions. Librarians, as Williams says, must be seen as lifelines who, in addition to all of their traditional roles, “help students to unlock and decode the vast amount of information now at their fingertips.”

The creative "lesson tent" at the Greenfield Community School Library in DubaiI am eternally grateful to the librarians who have championed my work and who continue to share it with their students, taking care that all are represented. They have made me feel at home wherever I visit, preparing their students and creating excitement around my presentations. And they serve as a great source of ideas and sounding boards, especially since they are so in tune with what kids like to read. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to make an amazing trip to Doha and spend time with such kind and thoughtful people. And as an author whose greatest ally is the librarian, I hope that America isn’t willing to lose any more to far away places, or at least not to let anywhere else value them more than we do. 

 

 

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.

Loving the time of Cholera

Screen shot from original Oregon Trail gameWhen I was in fifth grade, my social studies teacher Mr. Sindall organized our class into an amazing race. He grouped us into wagon teams and told us we were Pioneers on a simulated journey out West in the year 1848. The game presented us with challenges and we made tough decisions about life on the Trail. In real life, it was 1982, and we didn’t have computers in my school. I didn’t know then that our project was based on the now iconic Oregon Trail game, the first and most successful educational software for children of all time (read a great story about how it was developed here).

Mr. Sindall fostered an appreciation in me for all things Pioneer, which was further fueled by my love for the Little House series and the idea of living in a log cabin, scrounging for bent nails as Pa fixed the roof, churning butter, hearing the sound of coyotes howling at night. The draw of the wilderness was so strong that I even begged my parents to take me camping. They, immigrants from Pakistan, didn’t understand. Why would we leave our house and go sleep in a tent, when Howard Johnsons existed? That wasn’t fun, they assured me. It was lunacy. 

Over the years, I thought of Pioneer life, like every time I filled my sugar bowl and remembered how much of a luxury something so simple was for Laura Ingalls and her family. Or when I considered how to ford a river from the days of the game. So I was recently thrilled to be invited to write a series of choose-your-own adventure stories based on the original Oregon Trail computer game. Suddenly, I was back in fifth grade, but even better, because I got to pick the challenges this time, and I got to understand Pioneer life at a whole new level.

The assignment had a tight turnaround and was at times grueling. But every time I started to complain, I read accounts of Pioneers burying their children, resorting to cannibalism in the case of the Donner Party, succumbing to Cholera, Dysentery and all sorts of treatable diseases, and suffering horrific accidents—drowning, accidental gunfire, getting crushed by the wheels of a wagon. It was unbelievable. At the same time, there was this amazing sense of wonder and adventure, of braving the elements and the unknown that was awe-inspiring. I often asked myself, how they survived and if I would have had the strength or willpower to pull off a journey like that in a non-simulated experience.

I imagined filling a twenty-foot wagon with enough food and basic supplies to survive a four to six month journey during which I would travel fifteen miles a day. I wouldn’t be riding in the wagon, which was pulled by a team of oxen, but walking since there was no room to sit inside. I’d have nothing personal but the clothes I was wearing and maybe a book if I was lucky. When the morning bugle sounded, I’d scarf down a ration of bacon and beans and panbread, do my chores, and head off, walking past the hurried graves of fallen Pioneers, ignoring the stench of the animals and people around me and the blisters on my feet. I’d walk every single day, through rain or shine, heat or snow, wearing down the ground as the wagon wheels carved deep grooves that can still be seen today. For fun, I’d scratch my name into major landmarks, like Chimney Rock or Devil's Gate.

Could I do it? No way. I whine when I haven’t eaten for three hours. I get a headache from being in the sun for more than an hour and have seasonal allergies. And they didn’t have GPS back then so I’d likely end up going in circles. I’ve accepted that I’m weak and wimpy. The desire to go camping? It’s gone, replaced by my inherited love for climate control. But I do want to get out to Nebraska and Wyoming by airplane and see some of the Trail sites--wagon ruts, gravestones, and rock formations. And then I’ll go back to my air-conditioned hotel, eat something delicious, look at my pictures and read. Some of us were destined to live out wild adventures. Others were meant to write about them.

What do April showers bring?


My garden? I wish! Tulips at Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, MDSpring has finally arrived after one of the most grueling winters I can remember, and with that comes the desire to abandon my laptop, feel the sun on my face and get some garden dirt under my fingernails. I’ve always fancied having a green thumb. The problem is that my thumb, like the rest of me, is brown. The desire to cultivate a gorgeous garden is fueled by the fact that my neighbors all have them. Some of them are professionally maintained, but several are meticulously cared for by people who not only have an eye for what looks appealing but also the ability to keep things alive.

I, on the other hand, struggle to keep up with the Johnsons and the Kucklemans. When I moved into the neighborhood from a no-maintenance townhouse, I followed their lead, getting a hand seeder and bags of turf builder . I even bought a wheelbarrow to haul mulch and leaves like they did and felt really great about myself. And then, after the weeds slowly choked out all of our grass over several seasons, a lawn service was called in to fix my mess. 

Next, I planted a variety of bushes and perennial flowering plants to fill the beds in front of the house. It looked pretty for a very short period of time, until the plants grew out of control or died and a professional landscaper was called in to . . . fix my mess again.

Since last year, I’ve come to term with my limitations and I now stick to potted plants. I’ve spread a bunch of planters on my deck and around the entrance, which I fill with bright annuals. So what do April showers bring? May flowers, of course. But let’s see if they can make it to July. I’ve learned which ones are the hardiest varieties that thrive with neglect. Because once the heat, humidity and mosquitos kick in, my laptop wins over the great outdoors, and those suckers are on their own.

Getting around the writer's block

During school visits, I’m often asked about “writer’s block” and how I overcome it. I generally talk about how I take a break, read something else, or just push through. And that’s true, for the most part. When I was as young as these kids, I imagined writer’s block to involve anguished moments of staring at a blank page. I’d be unable to pull words out of my brain, frozen like a stubborn hourglass on my outdated laptop. But now that I write for a living, I realize that’s not quite how writer’s block manifests in me.

There are many times where I’m unmotivated or uninspired to work as I stare at my computer screen. And then my fingers sneak away from the keyboard to the mouse, where I click on social media, shopping sites or my inbox. Sometimes, like I tell the kids, I do manage to push through, telling myself to put something on the page that I can edit later. On rare occasions I have a burst of creative energy and the words flow out easily. I recognize those moments because I am literally pounding on the keyboard and the sound distracts me enough to pause and be pleased with my progress. And then somehow I end up back on Facebook before my inner voice scolds me to return to what I was doing. Yes, I inevitably end up wasting a lot of time when I’m “writing.” But that isn’t actual writer’s block. It’s just the way I work.

For me, writer’s block is self-doubt—those moments of despair where I question what I’m doing altogether and am “literally” paralyzed. This can strike at any moment, although there are of course the obvious triggers: rejection letters, the black hole of non-response from agents or editors, and at times, even other writers’ new books and the ugly, envious feeling of “why not me?” The hardest moments are when I read what I’m working on with a self-hating lens. Suddenly, the exciting project I’ve been devoted to for days or months seems futile. “This is horrible!” my inner voice moans. “Will anyone want to read this? Will anyone publish it? Am I just wasting my time?”

So what do I do in these instances? I wish I was the kind of person who could read an inspirational quote or do yoga to get out of my funk. But more often than not (okay, pretty much always) I owe it entirely to someone else. A friend who reminds me how lucky I am to do what I love. My critique partner, who commiserates and shares a personal low moment. Or a stranger who reaches out to tell me she loved my books for no reason other than kindness.

I recently received one such beautiful note from an educator in Iowa named Jane. At the time I was deep into a full-blown pity party that might have included the phrase “this is pointless.” It shamed me and thrilled me at once to read her letter, including how much she appreciated Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, how she shared it with others, and how she was even thinking of framing pages from it for her home. And she closed with an encouraging, “please continue to write more books!”

Jane’s message served as the giant reboot I needed. It snapped me out of my ungrateful mood and reminded me that there is an audience out there welcoming and appreciating what I am doing. I turned back to my screen reenergized and recommitted to my writing, and hopeful for more people out there like her. Because even though this industry can be filled with rejection, and at times lonely, confusing and bleak, you all make it completely worth it. Thanks for being the remedy I need.

 

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?

The next chapter

My baby boy with his favorite bookToday, I became the mother of a teen. And while that comes with its share of anxiety, disbelief and nostalgia for my baby boy, there are many unexpectedly wonderful things about having an older child. One is being able to share books with him in different ways than when he was younger.

My son has always been an enthusiastic reader. “Book” was actually his first word, uttered to an ecstatic mom before his first birthday. We read everything together since he was an infant, graduating from The Going to Bed Book to Where the Wild Things Are to the Chronicles of Narnia. And then, it stopped rather abruptly. My son started reading on his own, impatient to continue a story beyond where we left off at bedtime. Occasionally he’d come into his little brother’s room, squeeze onto the bed and listen to his old favorites. But mostly, reading became a solitary endeavor for him.

Since we didn’t read much together anymore, I started to pass on to him the books that I had loved as a child. But I had mixed results. He loved Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing and A Wrinkle in Time. But he rejected the Lord of the Rings, even when I bribed him with the reward of watching the movies when he was done. If he rejected Tolkien, I had no chance he would pick up my all-time favorite, Little Women. But I stubbornly tried.

A better approach was for me to start to read the books he was reading. I found myself eagerly waiting for him to finish the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson and, later, Hunger Games. And then I suggested we both read recommended books that were new to us both. We both loved Wonder and Shooting Kabul and, recently, A Long Walk to Water. When I asked him what he thought of the latter, he actually said he “felt like a better person” for having read it—once again to an ecstatic mother.

I couldn’t be more proud of my big boy and look forward to sharing more stories with him. Even still, I do miss snuggling him on my lap and letting him turn the pages of the picture books I could recite with my eyes closed. So happy birthday to you, son. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.

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?

Make books not war

When I wrote that picture books play an important role in starting conversations and can serve as an agent for change in an article, I didn’t imagine that my simple rhyming book about colors would lead to a twitter war a few months later. But when author Kate Messner tweeted a recommendation of Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as a way to introduce “the real” Islam to young readers, particularly in light of what they might be hearing on the news, it had unexpected consequences.

Kate was attacked by an anonymous poster who criticized her for sharing Golden Domes and for being positive about Islam. When I first heard about the exchange, I felt a twinge of fear and dread over the negativity toward Islam that is becoming all too familiar. However, I was quickly encouraged and reassured by Kate’s decision to engage in a public debate and take a stand against prejudice. I’m enormously grateful for her commitment to “responding to hate with poetry and education” and for the positive reactions it has fostered (read SLJ's article about it).

I’m also deeply indebted to all the people who have been so supportive of me in my effort to share my culture and traditions through children’s books. There are many champions of Golden Domes in particular, from my editor and the team at Chronicle Books who backed it since its inception, to the gracious members of the ALA Notables Committee and others who have honored it, to all of the wonderful teachers and librarians who are using it to expand the worlds of their students.

Because of all of you I believe even more strongly than ever that picture books can add to the culture of inclusiveness and diversity that the vast majority of my fellow Americans treasure. And I’m inspired by your recognition of the need to add more voices to the conversation to continue to write more. So thank you all from the bottom of my heart for all that you do.

A writer's retreat

My son sets up our spot at Navio beach. Could you work here?

I’ve always loved the thought of writing on the beach. I’d sit under an umbrella, listen to the soothing sound of waves, and feel inspired to create. So when an extended weekend beach getaway approached while I was in the middle of a writing groove I thought I’d test my idea.

I packed my laptop, backed up my files on a flash drive, and made sure I had my outline. And then my family arrived at the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico. Excited to see the pristine beaches I’d heard about after we checked into our charming hotel, I helped load the back of our Jeep with chairs, a cooler and towels. There was plenty of room left for my laptop, but I didn’t give my computer a second thought.

The beaches in Vieques were everything I had hoped for and more—it took a bit of effort to get to them by dirt road, but once we did, they were perfection. For the next two days we relished in the powdery white sand, soaked in the warm crystal clear waters with fish circling us, and watched the intense turquoise sea blend with royal blue sky on the horizon. Best of all, we were often alone. It was quiet and there were no distractions other than a crab running across the sand or the beautiful shells my son collected. I could have pounded out a chapter or two. But my laptop stayed safely stowed in our cozy hotel room, untouched.

The laptop came home with a tanner and slightly wiser version of me, as I learned a few things I probably should have already known. First, sand and laptops don’t really mix—a detail I hadn’t really thought through before. Second and equally obvious, relaxing and unplugging are not only good for the soul and for the family but reenergize and get creative juices flowing. Finally, if I’m picking a writer’s retreat location in the future, it’s got to be somewhere where it is really cold outside, preferably with a fireplace. Unless someone has some beach front property they are looking to give away—then I’d learn to get used to it.  

Caracas beach at sunset

The writer is IN

I recently got a call from a friend of a friend looking for advice about marketing children’s books. I chatted about my personal experience and offered opinions, curious to learn about this aspiring author’s project. At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for my time and for my willingness to talk to him. When I said “of course” and that it was a pleasure, he went on to say how he had trouble getting other authors to speak with him. In fact one successful author, whose Muslim-themed books I’ve admired in the past, flat out told him that she “didn’t have time to give advice.”

Disappointed, I said that I hope that, even if we both are wildly successful one day, we will never consider ourselves too busy to offer advice to others looking to break into a confusing, evolving and intimidating industry. I know that I continue to seek—and thankfully receive—insight from a number of extremely busy people. And I know that, like the person I spoke to, I learn something from every conversation I have with someone, even if they are new to the children’s book publishing world. So, to all the generous advice-givers out there, thank you again. I couldn’t have gotten anything published without you freely sharing your time with me. And to the advice-seekers, step into my booth. What little I know, I’m more than happy to pass along.

What's in a name?

Elizabeth Bone is an inspiring and strong woman, and she has been a dear friend of mine for a quarter century. She wrote this beautiful essay, which I'm honored to share with you this Mothers Day. Thank you, Elizabeth!

“I had a dream about Sophia last night,” my mom said suddenly from her hospital bed. I was confused, not sure exactly what she was referring to. Then I remembered our conversation from the day before. My mom had asked me what I would name a baby. This would have seemed like a cruel question from anyone else. I was still recovering from an emergency surgery a few weeks before, where I lost my baby, a fallopian tube, and possibly the chance to ever have children. My stomach ached from the surgery and my heart ached for the loss of life. After five years of marriage, spent traveling around the world as naval officers, my husband and I were ready to start a family. But it wasn’t just that we were ready to be parents – I knew deep down that my mother was not going to be able to fight her aggressive form of lung cancer forever. She wanted to be a grandmother more than anything, and I knew I could give her that experience if I could just get pregnant fast enough. And I did, but then tragedy struck.

Answering my mom’s question the day before, I had quickly replied, “If it’s a girl then her name will be Sophia and if it’s a boy….” My mom had stopped me. “It won’t be a boy,” she said confidently. I had to laugh. My mom was as strong-willed as they come, and it was one reason her doctors said she was still alive three years after being diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if she managed to will me a baby girl. And after having two girls herself, boys were foreign creatures for my mom, in her eyes rambunctious, messy foreign creatures definitely not suited for her orderly world.

A few weeks before, still getting used to the idea of being pregnant, I had doubled over in pain one night while at home. The pain was intense, searing, the kind of pain one never forgets. My husband was on a business trip in Singapore, but I knew if I could just drag myself over to the phone I could call the one person who could make this all go away – my mother. To this day, I wonder why I didn’t think to call an ambulance instead. My mother lived 40 minutes away in another state, and more importantly, was completely weakened by her debilitating cancer treatments. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in a life and death situation – an ambulance would have been the much smarter choice. Emotionally, though, I needed my mother. I made it to the phone and called her – and then slid to the floor after she said she would be there right away.

My mother’s face said it all when she arrived to rush me to the emergency room. As a nurse, she could quickly assess the medical situation, and knew it was dire. As a mother, she could feel my pain. In her expression I saw extreme sadness, not just for the pain I was in, but for the loss of a dream we both had shared. Although we had never talked about the cancer treatments not working, I believe my mother knew then that her time remaining on Earth was short.

Shortly after I had returned from the hospital, my mother entered the hospital for what would be her last time. Our conversations stayed light, except for the conversations about children. My mother wondered aloud what I would look like pregnant. She talked about things her friends had told her about their daughters getting pregnant. She talked about her dream of Sophia. Although in my head I was screaming, “Stop talking about this, it’s never going to happen now,” I let her talk about it because I knew that she needed it, needed to visualize what my life as a mother would be like.

Not too long after our “Sophia” talk, my mom’s one remaining lung finally gave out and her brave fight ended. She had left me with many gifts as her legacy – the gift of fighting hard for the things that you want, the gift of a strong woman role model (one that didn’t think twice about rolling down the car window and telling theperson in the next car to turn their music down, much to her children’s dismay), the gift of always being there for your children while still taking care of yourself (my mother started running for the first time at age 50 and ran a half marathon shortly after; she also completed her PhD while undergoing chemotherapy).

I didn’t know then that her last gift to me had been the gift of hope.

As the next two years following her death unfolded, my husband and I found our hope and faith tested again and again. The IVF treatments were not only unsuccessful; they also made me incredibly sick. I found my hopes raised and dashed as we got the dreaded phone call from the infertility clinic that yet another treatment had not worked. My husband’s conviction that we would someday be parents helped me get through – and on the days when I doubted his faith, I remembered my mother’s dream of Sophia.

Three years after my mother passed away, we received the news we had waited so long to hear – we were finally going to be parents. We decided not to find out the sex of the baby. But as I grew larger and larger, there was still one thing that didn’t make sense. One piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit. Everyone, from the nurses in my doctor’s office to the hairdressers in my beauty salon to the guy behind the deli counter, was convinced I was having a boy. As boys predominantly run in my husband’s family, this made sense. But yet….what about my mom’s dream about Sophia?  

In late February 2005, my labor pains began and my husband and I grabbed our hospital bag. Ten not so short hours later, our baby was born, and the doctor declared, “Congratulations, you have a new baby girl.” I should never have doubted the power of motherhood.

Fast forward seven years later and I have a beautiful, sweet little girl who makes us laugh and smile every day. Sophia Mary Bone has her grandmother’s name, “Mary,” and I can only hope some of her traits. And yes Mom, that rambunctious, messy boy that you were so afraid of – I have one of those now too, and Connor is one strong-willed three year old. He gets that from you.

Olé

When I first visited the south of Spain at the age of 20, I probably didn’t know the difference between “flamingo” and “flamenco.” But during that trip, my dear friend Raquel’s father who I call “Tio” (or Uncle) introduced me flamenco music, and to a guitar master named Paco de Lucia. It was instant love for me, and from then on I couldn’t get enough flamenco. On future trips to Sevilla I sought out live performances in bars and theatres, and for the past two summers Raquel and Tio treated me to concerts in the exquisite gardens of the Alacazar palace. At home, I played Paco de Lucia cds, studied flamenco dance for several years, and dragged my husband to flamenco festivals and even a painfully boring film on the subject in a tiny independent theatre that he still groans about. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of last night, when my husband more than made up for mocking me all these years and gave me a wonderful gift: front row seats for Paco de Lucia’s concert at Strathmore Hall.

I knew we were in for a treat, especially with the incredible acoustics of the Music Center, but didn’t realize the effect watching someone I’ve so long admired—a true musical genius at the height of his craft—up close would have on me. I’ve been lucky enough to see musical legends like Eric Clapton and Prince in concert before, both incredible talents who can certainly tear up a guitar. But witnessing Paco de Lucia’s fingers effortlessly glide over the strings gave new meaning to “while my guitar gently weeps” and actually made me weep. Plus being up front meant I could catch the subtle exchange as he orchestrated his peers, guiding them with a small smile or nod, and feel the reverence they had for him. I could appreciate the expressions of the singers, pouring out their souls with words of longing for love and places I remember like Sevilla, transporting me there. I could almost touch the dancer who spun and stomped his feet so fast I thought he might create smoke. It was amazing, inspiring, and humbling all at once, and I wish each of you could have been there to experience it with me. If you haven’t ever heard anything by Paco de Lucia, please check him out and tell me what you think.