Multicultural children's books

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?


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?