Aya Khalil on Arab Americans in KidLit, Book Bans and the Importance of Honing Your Craft

"I think Muslim and Arab books and authors should be read and celebrated all year round."

Aya Khalil on Arab Americans in KidLit, Book Bans and the Importance of Honing Your Craft

Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.

Aya Khalil’s debut picture book, "The Arabic Quilt," received starred reviews and won several awards, including the 2021 Arab American Children’s Book Award. Since then, Khalil has written a companion to her debut, "The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale," which was published Aug. 1 this year. Khalil is a freelance journalist and has taught at all levels, from elementary school to college. She spoke to Fann about “The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale” and her career as a writer.

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become an author?

Aya Khalil: Growing up, [there were only] two things: either negative representations of Arabs and Muslims, or none at all. Of course, when I had my own kids, I didn't want them to experience that because it's not a great feeling. My background is in education, journalism and English literature, which are kind of interconnected. I just put them all together. I did my research and took craft classes, and that inspired me to become a children's book author.

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Fann Staff: Can you tell me about the writing process for “The Arabic Quilt” and then how it felt seeing the amazing reaction it received?

Aya Khalil: It’s such a unique story, I love it. It really is based on true stories. I literally had a teacher in third grade who created this quilt in my classroom, and I was the only Muslim in the class. My brother and I were the only Muslims in the whole school. She really, really tried to include us. She went out of her way to make me feel proud of my language. She gave me the list of my classmates’ names, and my mom and I wrote them all that night. I was just so excited because I was like, ‘Wow, people actually like my language and my culture.’ We wrote my classmates’ names in Arabic, and the next day, I handed them out to the students, and it was so exciting to see the looks on their faces. Then they decorated it and we hung them up as a quilt. 

I still remember this, and this happened decades ago. It just reiterates how important teachers are — and how important our actions are, especially towards children of color, because they will always remember. I recreated this lesson in one of my classrooms a couple of years ago, when I taught for a little bit, and that was really exciting. I was like, ‘You know what? This would make a pretty good book.’ It was a little bit challenging at first because I was new to the industry. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I did not, so I took the classes and I went and got critique partners. You have to work hard and actually learn the craft. I did that. Long story short, I found a great agent who really advocated for this book, and [the book] found a publishing house. It was published in 2020 right before the world shut down. I was like, ‘Oh, great. Another hurdle. Nobody's going to buy this book.’ All of my events were canceled, but I did a few virtual visits. But surprisingly, it did really, really well. I guess people really wanted it because there were only a few Muslim-authored picture books out [at the time] that were traditionally published.

There were not many picture books that were written by Arab American authors. I'm not saying “The Arabic Quilt” is the first one, but this was one of the few ones [out] at the time. It won a few awards and I'm grateful for that. It also did really well in school districts and libraries. A few districts in New York and Pennsylvania bought thousands of copies for their whole school districts. It's just so incredible that students get to see this book in their classrooms. It actually got banned in Pennsylvania in 2021, which was just ridiculous. They banned a bunch of books [by diverse authors] and this was one of them. But it was sad because again, there are not many Arab authors, and for this book to be one of those banned books was really upsetting.

I don't think [books should be read] just at one time, like, ‘Hey, it’s Arab American Heritage Month. Let's read books by Arab authors.’ I think Muslim and Arab books and authors should be read and celebrated all year round.

Fann Staff: This leads in so well to your newest book, “The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale.” I wanted to ask about the inception of the book and the banning of “The Arabic Quilt,” but also the timeliness of that story. It feels more of an empowering story for kids who are dealing with banned books. Can you tell me a little bit about how you crafted “The Great Banned Books Sale” story and what the goal was?

Aya Khalil: [Empowering kids] was the goal. Picture books are for everyone. I just want everybody to understand that there are really negative effects of book banning. You'll see in “The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale” that the main character is excited to go to the library, and she wants to pick out a book with Arabic words to read with her grandma who's visiting. She’s finally feeling confident and welcome from the story in “The Arabic Quilt,” and then she goes into the library and is really shocked that she can't find any of the books, and then the librarian explains what happened. 

It shows the importance of community and allies. As you can see on the cover, there's the main character Kanzi  [surrounded by] all of her classmates. They're standing together because they all work together on this protest and bake sale, and they all formed the ideas together. It just shows the importance of the community and standing up together. I always tell my own children, too, ‘You’re never too young to make a difference. You're never too young to say something and speak up. If you see something you don't like, say something. It doesn't matter who it is. It doesn't matter who the adult is, or the authority is, you can voice your opinion.’ So I really hope kids feel empowered after reading this and like they feel that they can make a difference in their community.

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Fann Staff: How does that experience of teaching to a wide range of ages, and specifically breaking down concepts for kids, translate to your writing as an author?

Aya Khalil: I think kids are so smart. You can talk to kids about anything as long as it's age appropriate.  You can talk to them about hard topics, like death or racism, but you have to choose your words carefully. Picture books are great for that because the illustrations add an emotional element and also [encourage] an element of discussion. I hope people talk to children about [books being banned] and have those discussions. I think it helps kids to be critical and think outside the box a little bit and encourage them to question things around them. They're really smart and resilient. So I think kids and adults can have discussions about these difficult topics.

Fann Staff: I spoke to the author Ashley Franklin recently, and she mentioned something that I would love to ask you about. She was talking about how she didn’t want to box herself into one of those seasonal Muslim books about just Ramadan or Eid. As a Muslim writer of children's books, do you view that as something that happens typically where some writers get boxed into a particular theme?

Aya Khalil: I think [in regards to people getting boxed into certain themes], there's room for both. “The Arabic Quilt” is popular around the first days of school; I can always see sales go up then. I also wrote a ‘seasonal’ book called "The Night Before Eid," which came out in March. Obviously, the sales do really well around that time, but you can read it anytime. There are so many elements in there that are relevant [to any time] – intergenerational relationships, baking, Muslim and Arab history and culture. I think they should be read all the time. I don't think [books should be read] just at one time like, ‘Hey, it’s Arab American Heritage Month. Let's read books by Arab authors.’ I think Muslim and Arab books and authors should be read and celebrated all year round.

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Fann Staff: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I often see the setup in the bookstores of a bunch of books by Muslim authors that may or may not be related to Ramadan around Ramadan time. 

Aya Khalil: A few years ago, there were not many books about Ramadan. Whatever [bookstores] could find, they probably went, ‘I guess this book is written by a Muslim author, so we'll display it.’ There weren’t many things that they could do. I'm just grateful that now there are no excuses. Now there are a few books about Eid and Ramadan, and in the next two to three years, there are going to be a bunch more coming out. It's obviously really, really, really exciting to see.

Fann Staff: In the past couple of years, there's been a rise in the number of Muslim children's authors and middle grade authors, and even in the Young Adult genre. What's it like being a part of that community?

Aya Khalil: It’s a really great community. There's one community that I'm also part of that's called the Muslim Storyteller Fellowship through the Highlights Foundation. That's a great community because we all understand the same difficulties and also the same joys of being a Muslim author. If we get an offer of representation, if somebody's become agented, we all celebrate with them. But that's a pretty small group. I also created a Muslim author and illustrator private group on Facebook. It's a small community, but it's grown. We started at like 10 to 15 people a few years ago, and now I think we're up to almost 40 or 50. We shared a lot of common things, especially in the [publishing] industry, because there are a lot of difficult things that we face in this industry. We discuss if something comes up, like if we need advice about something a publisher or an editor does or says. People who have been published for years try to help out the younger ones who are new to the industry. I'm so grateful that I have so many great Muslim author friends;I'm always sending them voice notes and WhatsApp messages.

Fann Staff: I saw on your Twitter the other day that you said that you were making a database of Arab American artists and authors. I saw that you linked a list which had a bunch of South Asian American authors, but not Arab Americans. What was the intention in making that database, and what do you think of the community of Arab American authors now?

Aya Khalil: It's just so frustrating because Arab authors in general make up about 0.5 percent of all books published. I guess it started when I was looking for an Arab American illustrator for a project and I had a really difficult time [finding someone]. I needed to send names to some editors. Specifically, they have to be Arab, American and Muslim. I was talking to a Highlights Foundation member who's a mentor and an illustrator, Hatem Aly, about illustrators. He gave me more names. Other groups [of marginalized authors] have lists on websites of names, so it's easy for editors and designers to find. I started [my database] a [few] weeks ago. 

Every single year, especially during Arab American Heritage Month, [there’s a moment when] I’m like ‘Yes, this is our time to shine. This is it. I'm going to be on this list and my other friends are going to be on this list with another 5 to 10 Arab American authors.’ And then the list comes out and there's only one or two Arabs on there, and the rest are Pakistani and Indian authors. It's really frustrating. I know a lot of people will gently educate them, but that is why it is nice to have [my] list. I hope it's useful for librarians and editors. Now, there's no excuse when people say ‘oh, it’s Arab American Heritage Month’ and then there aren’t any Arabs there. There's a lot of education to do in this industry. 

I think it helps kids to be critical and think outside the box a little bit and encourage them to question things around them. They're really smart and resilient. So I think kids and adults can have discussions about these difficult topics.

Fann Staff: What is a trope about Muslims that you hate the most?

Aya Khalil: I don't really have any. I just feel like we're so underrepresented, so I don't mind any of the tropes. Sorry! I know some people are done with Muslims [being depicted as] victims. We still need more of these stories, [even with the tropes]. We're just still really, really underrepresented. So I don't think I have any that I hate.

Fann Staff: Do you have a favorite Muslim character?

Aya Khalil: I have so many. Let me think … Rhonda Roumani is a new Arab American author, and she's Syrian. She has a few books coming out. She has a middle grade book coming out in November called “Tagging Freedom.” I love her characters — there’s Kareem, who’s from Syria and is a graffiti artist, and then his cousin Samira, who lives in the U.S. I really love those two characters together. It's a great book; I would definitely recommend it when it comes out. It's an empowering story. Those are [definitely] my recent new favorite characters.

Fann Staff:  Do you have any advice for up-and-coming authors? 

Aya Khalil: Honestly, look for these opportunities — mentorships and classes — and apply for as many as you can. There are so many mentorships out there, especially for marginalized authors. This is your time to shine. People will think ‘Oh my gosh, picture books are so easy to write. They're only like 700 words.’ But that's why it's so difficult — you have to fit so much into 700 words. So yeah, take those classes. Work on your craft. Be humble. You're going to get a lot of rejections, but you’re also going to find your community. Just keep writing. We need your stories out there, so keep telling them. 

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