The first novel I read by Hena Khan was Amina’s Voice. But I vividly remember audibly gasping when I saw the cover for More to the Story. (Illustrator: Abigail Dela Cruz | Cover Design Credit: Krista Vossen). As someone who’s never read the classic, I was very eager to explore a modern, MIDDLE-GRADE retelling! I loved every word, as you’ll see in my review (up next Monday).
But after finishing this book (and clutching it to my chest, AND thinking “I love this book, I love this book”), I knew I had to talk to Hena Khan. We talked about her love for Little Women, why she finally started to believe she could write books for a living, and the best writing advice she’s ever received.
Hi Hena, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I LOVED More to the Story. Jameela and her sisters are my absolute favorites! You mention in your author’s note how much you loved Little Women. I’ve never read the classic myself, but who was your favorite sister, both in the classic and in your book? And why?
Thank you! I can’t tell you how happy your reaction to the book makes me. Yes, I was completely obsessed with Little Women when I was younger, and my favorite sister was definitely Jo. I thought she was so cool, with her creativity and passion for writing, her loyalty and big heart, and her rebellious desire to travel and experience life beyond what society dictated. I also identified with the fierce love she has for her siblings and, unfortunately, her quick temper too!
My admiration for Jo was what prompted me to write More to the Story from the perspective of my “Jo” character, Jameela. So my book is in the first person, compared to the classic, which is in third person and features chapters on each of the sisters. I wanted my story to focus on Jameela’s thoughts and feelings, while still introducing the cast of her sisters, who are extremely important to her, and their unique personalities.
I loved that the Mirza’s religion isn’t “addressed” in this book, but is really just a part of their lives. Not many middle-grade books feature religious young people. Is this something you were conscious about representing?
Honestly, not in this book. As someone who also writes books that are focused on Islam, I didn’t initially set out to represent it or religion in general in this particular story.
My characters are Pakistani American Muslims, and their culture and faith do both play a role in their daily lives. But Islam is very much a way of life for many Muslims, factoring into decisions, daily routines, expressions of joy, grief, and hope, and so on. And as a result of that, I included moments in the story where my characters do things like mention God or pray, because those actions naturally fit with what was going on in their lives at the time.
When I spoke to my editor during revisions, she asked me to help give the reader more of a gauge of how (for lack of better terms) observant or liberal or conservative I intended the Mirza family to be. So I went back and added in some small clues that were more deliberate, for those readers seeking representation and those perhaps looking at how to relate with or place them.
I find it fascinating that there are so few middle grade books that include religion or people who practice, since I hear that it so often is a part of many young people’s lives in one way or another.
Jameela’s love for writing is so inspiring — were you writing at Jameela’s age? What drew you into writing, and did you always want to write books for kids?
I was! I started writing from a very young age, and I think it grew naturally out of my love of reading and stories. Actually, I remember writing plays and epic poems with a creative young friend of mine when I was maybe age nine or ten. And, like Jameela, I published a family newspaper filled with the latest happenings of my household, except mine was handwritten on lined notebook paper that I taped together since we didn’t have a stapler in the house!
I also wanted to be a journalist when I was younger, and was delighted to work on my high school newspaper as Editorial Editor. When I got to college, I ended up studying political science and then picked a focus on international development instead of journalism. But over time, I came to realize that writing was my strength and I focused on communications professionally — and did a whole lot of technical writing and editing.
I never dreamt of writing books for kids, or writing books at all! It was one of those dreams that seemed completely unattainable to me, and something that people like me didn’t do. I’m confident that lack of confidence stemmed from never having read books that featured characters like me, or that were written by anyone like me!
I was very luckily brought into children’s writing by my childhood friend, also the Editor-in-chief of my high school paper, who hired me to write for Scholastic book clubs. That experience taught me how to write for a young audience, and awakened the desire to keep doing it, and to eventually write my own stories.
I enjoyed Amina’s Voice and More to the Story. I know you’ve also written some picture book and a sports series for middle-grade readers. Would you ever consider writing young adult novels? Or any other genres? I’d love a book about Maryam!
Yay, thanks! I’m very open to other genres. I’ve written a few choose-your-own style books and love the format, and am planning to work on some more. I’m also interested in writing a graphic novel, ever since I completed the pilot talent development workshop with DC Comics and studied the art of comic writing a few years ago.
Young adult novels are something that I’ve been intimidated by, so far. In fact, I actually first envisioned More to the Story as a young adult novel and started writing it with Jameela as a sixteen-year-old protagonist. But it didn’t feel right to me, and I didn’t think the voice worked, so I went back and reworked the outline and aged it down to middle grade!
But we’ll see — maybe I will have the inspiration and confidence to write young adult in the future. I appreciate the encouragement!
Is this the end of the Mirza family? Do you think you’d ever consider a sequel?
I didn’t think about writing a sequel when I wrote this, but I would definitely consider it if readers crave it! I think I could squeeze out a bit more to the Mirza story!
Now, some fun questions:
- Which middle-grade novels have you enjoyed recently? I’ve enjoyed several, but my favorites recently are The Night Diary, which was incredibly moving to me, Other Words For Home, which is simply gorgeous, and Redwood and Ponytail, which is sheer genius.
- What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Probably that creative writing happens not just when you’re sitting at your computer, but also when you’re thinking of your characters or a plot point, fixing sequencing issues, or crafting dialogue in your head. I work in fits and spurts and often feel guilty about my undisciplined habits and low daily word counts. But when someone told me that all the time I spend doing other things and thinking about my writing, and letting ideas germinate, counts as working too, I felt a lot better about myself.
- Can you share anything about what you’re currently working on now? I would love to! I’m working on a sequel to Amina’s Voice and a new picture book right now and am super excited about both. Soon I’ll be starting Book 6 of the Unicorn Rescue Society with the amazing Adam Gidwitz, and I have some other fun projects brewing. You can see what I’m working on or learn about new projects by connecting with me on Twitter or IG and checking out my website!
Thanks so much for your time, Hena! Hena Khan’s More to the Story is Out September 3!
Meet Hena Khan
Hena Khan is a Pakistani American children’s author. Her middle grade novel Amina’s Voice was named a Best Book of 2017 by the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, NPR, and others. She is the author of the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series: Power Forward, On Point, and Bounce Back and several acclaimed picture books including Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Under My Hijab. More to the Story is her newest novel, and is inspired by Hena’s favorite book of all time, Little Women. Learn more about Hena at www.henakhan.com.