On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes author Hena Khan to the show on Monday, March 1 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
A talented singer too shy to share her voice. An outsized basketball player who’s full of heart. A budding journalist denied the freedom to write.
Hena Khan’s books for elementary and middle graders feature characters that grapple with some of the toughest parts of growing up.
And they’re stories about Muslim Americans — a group that’s long been hard to find in children’s literature. These are the Pakistani American kids Hena Khan wanted to find in the books she read as a kid. As an adult, she became the writer who would create them for the next generation of readers.
We welcome her to the show, and the students of Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. We’re eager to hear their questions for Hena Khan, and yours too — if you’re a kid.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 23 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Hena Khan Author of "Amina's Voice" and 13 other books for young readers; @henakhanbooks
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Hena Khan loved to read as a kid but she didn't find any books with characters who were, well, like her, Pakistani and Muslim-American. When she grew up and became a writer, Hena Khan brought those characters to life in books that all kids can relate to, whether it's Amina trying to find her voice or Zayd trying to make the basketball team.
KOJO NNAMDIHena Khan is here today to talk about writing books kids love to read. We also welcome the students from Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, who have already started calling, by the way. We look forward to their questions for Hena Khan. I'm not sure that Hena Khan is on the line, but allow me to try. Hena Khan, can you hear me?
HENA KHANYes, I can. Hi, Kojo.
NNAMDIThat is absolutely wonderful. Hi, there, Hena. We'll get to your books in a minute, but first, tell us about what it was like when you were a kid. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
KHANI’m a local, girl so I grew up in Rockville. I was born in Bethesda Suburban Hospital, and I've lived here ever since.
NNAMDIYou really are a local. (laugh) Since you're from around here, tell us where you went to school as a kid. Some of our listeners may go to those schools.
KHANYeah. I went to Cold Spring Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School and Thomas S. Wootton High School. And then I actually went to the University of Maryland. So, I stayed local.
NNAMDITell us about your family. Where were your parents born, and why did they come to the U.S.? Do you have siblings?
KHANI do. So, my father immigrated from Pakistan first, way back in 1959. He came here to finish his studies and then went on to work at Children's Hospital in D.C. for 40-plus years. He went back and married my mom, and they decided to settle in Maryland. And I have three siblings. I'm the second out of four. And, yeah, we grew up in a suburb of D.C. and had a really nice childhood, overall.
NNAMDIYou loved to read as a kid. What were some of your favorite books?
KHANOh, my gosh. I loved so many books, but I think my all-time favorites were everything by Beverly Cleary. I adored Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. And probably my all-time favorite book is "Little Women," which I used to read over and over, as a kid, until I had parts of it memorized.
NNAMDIWhat was it like going to school, when there weren't any other kids who were Pakistani or Muslim? And, for those who don't know, for our kids who don't know, what does it mean to be Muslim?
KHANSo, when I was growing up, being a Muslim was something that was very poorly understood. It still is, but I think that people often hadn't even heard the word Muslim when I identified as one. They often hadn't heard of Pakistan or didn't know where to find it on a map. So, I think when I was growing up, I sort of felt a bit invisible, that people maybe just didn't know much about who I was or I came from. They didn't know my traditions and, you know, my beliefs and my holidays and all of that.
KHANSo, you know, people were kind and curious, to a point, but I didn't feel like I was really included in other conversations around holidays and celebrations and culture and everything like that. You know, and being Muslim means you are adherent to the religion of Islam, that you, you know, are one of almost 2 billion people in the world who practice this faith. And it's part of, you know, the great tradition of Abrahamic religions, so something that people are starting to learn a little bit more about now.
NNAMDIDid you always want to be a writer? When did you start writing?
KHANI started writing when I was a kid. I was a writer, as a child. I wrote plays and poems, and I even had a family newspaper that I used to write at home. I didn't think I would necessarily ever be published, and I didn't think I could be an author. I think probably because I never saw books with characters like me in them.
KHANI also never met an author or talked to an author. And I didn't really even think about whether the names on the books that I read were people who were living or not, so they were just names, without faces to me. But, you know, I always had this urge to write, probably because I loved reading so much and I loved the stories and being around them.
NNAMDIWell, I'm going to ask six-year-old Morgan from Oakridge, the school we're hosting today, so to speak...
NNAMDI...who kind of has the same question. Morgan, go ahead, please. Your turn.
MORGANWhy did you become an author? Why do you like being an author?
KHANThank you, Morgan. I became an author, one, because I love to write. But I also wanted to write the stories that I didn't have when I was a kid. And when I was growing up, I never saw a little Pakistani girl, a Muslim girl like me, somebody with a name like mine, family like mine, someone who sort of was balancing being Pakistani-American with fitting in at school. So, I wanted to write characters like me and my children.
KHANAnd I love everything about it. I love getting to think of these stories and writing about what's in my head and pulling from my past and my memories. I love being able to share stories with kids and hearing from readers. So, there's many, many things to like about being a writer.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Morgan. And I have to ask eight-year-old Sabrina also at Oakridge, Sabrina, did Hena Khan just answer your question?
SABRINANo. So, my question is: When did you know you wanted to be an author?
KHANOh, wow. So, well, like I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a writer for a long time, but I didn't actually know I wanted to be an author until I had the chance to start writing books for kids, believe it or not. I have a friend who I have been friends with since second grade. And she was working at Scholastic Book Clubs, and she asked me to help her with a series she was working on. And before that, I didn't know I could be an author or write for children.
KHANAnd once I started working on these different books for different series like "Spy University" and "Space University," I realized that it was so fun and that I had stories inside me that I really wanted to tell. And that was really the moment -- because I had the chance -- that I realized I wanted to be an author.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call, Sabrina. When you were a kid, Hena, you published a family newspaper called the Khanicals, named for your family the Khans. Can you tell us about that newspaper?
KHAN(laugh) Sure. So, it had sections. So, I had, you know, frontpage news, which was a lot of, you know, family happenings, a lot of me tattling on my younger brothers, (laugh) And then there were sections like food, where I talked about what I wanted to eat. There were letters to the editor that I used to write and answer, an advice column that I also wrote questions into and then answered.
KHANI had a little stock market that I used to rate my siblings with. So, their stock could go up or down, depending on how I felt about them that issue. (laugh) So it was a lot of editorializing, presented as news. And I tried to illustrate and put comics in there, as well.
NNAMDIRichie, six, who goes to Oakridge Elementary wants to know what Hena Khan's favorite book was when she was six years old.
KHANOoh. When I was six years old, I'm guessing it might have been one of the Ramona Quimby books that I loved so much. I also had a bunch of picture books at home. And I had this one picture book called -- I don't actually remember what it was called. It was a book of fairy tales, and it was, you know, something I read over and over again. I also loved Richard Scarry's books. I think it's called "The Best Word Book Ever," which is almost like a dictionary, an illustrated dictionary with scenes in them. So, I loved looking at those pictures and imagining stories in my head as I looked at those.
NNAMDIHere now is 11-year-old David, also a student at Oakridge elementary School. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHello. Yeah, I was wondering, Ms. Khan, are you interested in making any movies or TV series based off of your books?
KHANThanks, Davis. I would love to. I actually do have a film and TV agent who is working with me. And, you know, we get inquiries now and then. We haven't had any deals yet, but it would be amazing to see one of my books or some of my books turned into films or TV shows. I think it's a fun way to reach kids. And I'd be excited to see how it turned out, especially because I never saw characters like me on the big screen, and certainly not a lot of Pakistani-American children. So, that would be really fun to see.
NNAMDILet's talk about Amina, who is the main character in "Amina's Voice." What is that book about?
KHANSo, "Amina's Voice" is a book about a girl named Amina, who, like me, is a child of immigrants, a Pakistani-American Muslim girl. And she -- like me, as well -- is sort of shy and inhibited, but very close to her friends, starting middle school for the first time. But unlike me, Amina has a beautiful singing voice. She's gifted with this amazing musical talent, but she's very, very stage shy and afraid of getting up in front of an audience, even though she wants to have the guts to perform, especially at her school's winter recital.
KHANSo, the story's really about her growing, finding confidence, dealing with changes in her life as she's, you know, starting middle school, and her friendships and her family and really finding the courage that she needs to bring her community together, ultimately, during a time of crisis.
NNAMDIWell, a new book about Amina is about to come out very soon. It's called "Amina's Song." And the bookstore Politics and Prose is going to virtually launch that book on March 10th. Can you tell us about "Amina's Song"?
KHANYeah. So, thank you. So, I'm so excited about this new book, because it gets to continue -- you know, readers get to continue Amina's journey, and literally a journey at the beginning of the story. The story begins with her in Pakistan visiting her relatives and her uncle, who we get to know in the first book. And she's so amazed by, you know, this place that she hasn't known very well before, the sights and sounds and smells and everything that's making up this country that she falls in love with.
KHANAnd when she gets home, she -- I tried to reconcile all this new passion she has. She's trying to keep her promise that she makes her uncle to share the beauty of Pakistan with people back home. But like I experienced when I was a kid, you know, people aren't necessarily as interested or don't necessarily have the right impression of this place. And she's trying to figure out a way to sort of connect the different pieces of her heart and share this love and, you know, work through some of the questions of, you know, where she belongs and where her heart lives and how we see each other and how we process stories that we hear about each other in the news and other places.
NNAMDITell our young listeners what is a book launch, and how can kids who want to be part of the one coming up on March 10th participate?
KHANSo, a book launch is sort of like a book birthday party, (laugh) is the way I like to think of it. So, a big celebration for a book that's being born, because that is the day the book is officially born and put out into the world and available in stores. And you can tune into this book launch at Politics and Prose. I'm actually going to be talking to another children's author, Aisha Saeed, who you might have read. I hope you will read her books.
KHANSo, we're going to be chatting about the book and, you know, celebrating its birthday and answering questions. I'll be reading a little bit from the book, and we'll just be talking about some of the themes and some of the reasons why I wanted to write it in more detail. So, if you want to tune in, you can check...
KHAN...check in. Yeah. Oh, I was going to say, if you want to tune in, it's available to anybody. It's for free. You can register on the Politics and Prose live website.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of reading a little bit from it, can you read a little bit of "Amina's Song" for us and tell us what part of the book you're going to read from?
KHANSure. It would be my pleasure. So, this is a part of the story where she is in Pakistan and she's in a busy market. It's towards the beginning of the book. And she's with her cousin, Zora, and her brother, Mustafa, and they're just about to head out for the market. And her brother wants to get some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, even though their mother has warned them not to have any street food. (laugh)
KHANSo, here I go. The man's cracks open a few pomegranates that are bursting with deep red seeds and feeds them one by one into a gigantic metal juicer that he turns with a crank. I try not to notice when he rinses the jug with tap water, or when he pours the juice into three glasses that are murkier than they should be. Mustafa pays for the juices with the money in his pocket and doesn't need to ask Zora for help translating.
KHANAs we sip the sweet, tart juice through the thinnest straws ever, our cousin says a prayer aloud. Ya Allah, please don't let them get diarrhea. Mustafa and I groan in disgust, and all of us crack up. My insides gurgle a little as we head to where the rickshaws are waiting, but I think it's nerves. We climb into the worn backseat of one of the three-wheel taxis and Zora tells the driver where to take us. And then I brace myself for a wild ride.
KHANI haven't gotten used to everyone driving on the opposite side of the road here yet, or all the activity on the streets. Apart from rickshaws and tons of cars, I've seen motorcycles with five people sitting on them, rumbling trucks painted in bright flower designs and a bus packed with so many passengers that men were actually hanging off the outside. That was a video clip I sent to my friend, and they sent back emojis of shocked faces.
KHANToday, I see the usual bicycles with riders covering their faces with scarves like bandits to keep out dust, a cart piled high with baskets of nuts pulled by a donkey and a skinny goat that looks lost. Whoa, I yell as we speed through a roundabout. And I grab the handle as the driver swerves to miss a cyclist. He doesn't bother to honk. Maybe because everyone else on the road already is. We're also driving on the lines separating lanes on the road instead of between them. When he was here, Bobba joked that in Lahore, traffic rules are more like suggestions.
KHANThe way I feel on the roads is how I felt in general since we arrived in this country. In some ways, it's familiar and works like back home. But in other ways, it's totally wild and different. The result is the mix of fun and frustrating. And no matter how much I want to fit in, sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who's holding on tight for the ride trying not to fall out, get ripped off, or end up with diarrhea.
NNAMDIHena Khan reading from her book "Amina's Song." Here is seven-year-old Alex from Oakridge Elementary School. Alex, your turn.
ALEXWhich one of your books are you most proud of and why?
NNAMDII can add to that. Scout, a first grader at Oakridge Elementary also emailed: What is your favorite book that you wrote? So, please answer.
KHAN(laugh) Wow, Alex and Scout, thank you for those questions. Which book am I most proud of? That's a really tough question. You know, I think, like I mentioned, when a book is born that you've written, it's sort of like a birthday party, which is sort of, you know, like kids have. So, in a way, all of my books feel like kids. You know, they're something that I worked really hard on and I, you know, tried to do my best at.
KHANSo, it's really hard to choose one that I love the most or I'm most proud of, because really, each story that I write has pieces of me woven in. They have characters that I've taken from my life. You know, sometimes people from my family, my friends, they have the names of my friends and family scattered in, my experiences. So, it's very, very hard to choose one. I'll have to say I'm proud of all of them.
KHANAlthough I do really love the "Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream" series, because that's most heavily based on my family. So, I have a little bit of, you know, favoritism towards that. But, of course, I adore Amina and her family, and so much of that is deeply personal, so it's hard to choose just one.
NNAMDISince you mentioned it, the "Chasing the Dream" series, can you tell us about the series and the main character, Zayd?
KHANSure, yeah. Zayd is inspired by my younger son and my husband. He's sort of a blend of the two, because my younger son was very skinny when he was a child. The type of kid who you saw and you're like, eat something. Like, that's what happened to him. (laugh) And he had the skinniest little arms, but he was really excited about sports and loved playing all kinds of sports.
KHANBut he loved basketball. He still does. And it was just fun to see this scrawny kid who had so much heart and passion, but, you know, was such an underdog. And, you know, he got stomach aches when he was anxious. And I wanted to write about this kid who has a big heart and, you know, wants to succeed and make the best team in his league. But he's dealing with these stomach aches and has this big Pakistani-American extended family that he's really close to that adds a lot of humor and culture as he's trying to figure out how to reach his basketball dreams.
NNAMDIHere, now, is eight-year-old Cole at Oakridge Elementary. Cole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Cole. Go ahead.
COLEHow do you get those good ideas?
NNAMDIAnd, Cole, before she answers, allow me to go to six-year-old Alice, also at Oakridge Elementary School. Alice, your turn. Go ahead, please.
ALICEHow do you come up with the book ideas for books that you are going to write?
NNAMDINow, you, Hena Khan.
KHANAll right. So, thank you Cole and Alice. You know, you can find ideas all around you, and that's what I do. Like, sometimes somebody tells me a funny story, like the Zayd Saleem series really started from my husband telling me about something naughty that he did when he was a kid that he got in trouble for. And I thought it was so funny that I wanted to put that in a book, and that sort of grew the series.
KHANYou know, "Amina's Voice" was inspired by my friendship with my best friend in elementary school. She was a Korean-American girl, and I loved thinking about that friendship and what it meant to me, and I wanted to write about that. Sometimes I read an article, people share things with me that I think are really fascinating and I want to write about those things. You know, things from my own, you know, life now. Things that I hear over here, eavesdrop. All sorts of ideas around me all the time. And the things that happen to you, you know, at school, at home, on the playground, like all of these things are places to get ideas, so they're around you all the time.
NNAMDIThank you, Alice and thank you, Cole. On to eight-year-old Lucy, also at Oakridge Elementary School. Lucy, it's your turn. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUCYMy question is: Does Ms. Khan come up with the story or the title of the book first?
KHANOh, that's a good one. I come with the story first, and then think of a title that makes sense for the story. With "Amina's Voice," I actually thought of them both around the same time, because I knew it was going to be about a girl who loved to sing. And so, I named the draft "Amina's Voice," and I thought, this is going to change. Somebody's going to say, let's come up with a better title. And it ended up being the title. So, I thought it was going to be that easy every time. But since then, we've had to think about titles and figure out which one works the best and is the most exciting. So, it usually comes after the book is written.
NNAMDIWell, Amelia, a first grader at Oakridge Elementary School emails us: What is your favorite part of your job?
KHANWoo, Amelia, there's so many great things about it. I would say getting letters from kids that, you know, tell me what they think about my books. Sometimes they, you know, share what the book meant to them. Sometimes they have suggestions or really thoughtful questions. Sometimes they see things in my stories that I didn't even realize were there. Like, they make connections that I didn't notice or realize, which is always amazing to see.
KHANSo, that really is the most exciting part because when you're writing, you know, you're hoping that you're getting your story, you know, right and in a way that readers will feel what you want them to feel and connect in the way you hope they will. And so, when you get that feedback, it feels so good to know that, you know, you're doing what you wanted to. So, that has to be the best part, for me.
NNAMDIHere's nine-year-old Aaron at Oakridge Elementary. Aaron, your turn.
AARONDo you know the story before you start writing?
KHANSo, thank you, Aaron. That's a good question. So, I know what I want the story to be about, and so it starts off with an idea that, you know, this could be a good idea for a story. And then I think about it more. I sort of maybe write a few sentences, like a paragraph of what the whole story might -- like a summary of the story. And then I start to outline.
KHANOnce I think that it could be a good idea for a book, I'll come up with an outline, and I'll actually write out what I think will happen in each chapter, just roughly, to make sure that the story has a beginning and a middle and the end and feel satisfying. And then I'll start writing from that outline. And as I'm writing, sometimes it changes, because I think of something else or want to add something else. But I do have an idea of the story before I start actually writing.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. A fourth grader, Axle, at Oakridge Elementary asks: Who were some of the most inspiring people you have met in your travels around the world?
KHANOh, wow. Well, I'm really lucky to have met a bunch of amazing educators, you know, librarians and other authors who are so inspiring. I hear people who, you know, interact with kids and the way they share ideas and get kids excited about reading. I feel like I've met some librarian rock stars. (laugh) So, those are always really inspiring to me. And then other writers who I learn so much from whose work I'm always excited to read. I read a lot of middle-grade fiction and other picture books that authors put out.
KHANI love people who are pushing, you know, the conversation in new directions and including people who we haven't seen in books for, you know, a long, long time or far too long, and putting those new books out there. So, they inspire me a lot.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Hena Khan is the author of the newly published "Amina's Song" and 13 other books for elementary and middle school students. Hena Khan, thank you so much for joining us.
KHANThank you for having me. It was so much fun.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with Rockville author Hena Khan was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about legalizing marijuana in Virginia was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, John Thompson, Georgetown University's Hall of Fame coach, famously kept a deflated basketball in his office. You never want the sum total of your value to be the eight or nine pounds of air inside a basketball, he would say.
NNAMDICreating opportunities for black athletes was his life's work. When Thompson died in August, he just finished writing his life story. His co-author, ESPN's Jesse Washington, joins us. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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