Hena Khan on Anxiety, the Ownership of Art and Finding Representation in “Little Women”

The author of the bestselling books "Amina’s Voice" and "More to the Story" sits down with Fann to discuss her upcoming book “Drawing Deena” and her love of writing for children.

Bestselling author Hena Khan sits in front of a collage of her books. Text: Fall Into Reading

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.

Hena Khan is the author of the bestselling books "Amina’s Voice" and "Amina’s Song." She was first published in 2008 and has been writing picture books and middle grade novels ever since. Her books include the popular "Zara’s Rules" series, as well as "More to the Story," an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” featuring a Pakistani American Muslim family. Her upcoming book "Drawing Deena," a story of a young artist’s struggles with anxiety, is set to publish on Feb. 6, 2024. Khan spoke to Fann about “Drawing Deena,” writing for children and her love for “Little Women.”

The following interview contains mild spoilers for the upcoming middle grade novel “Drawing Deena.” 

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

Hena Khan: I was always a writer at heart as a little one. It was something I did for fun in my free time, especially with one childhood friend of mine. But I think, really, it was teachers along the way who [encouraged it]. Especially in elementary school, [writing] was the one thing I felt that I consistently got praise for [from teachers and friends and neighbors]. I remember my next-door neighbor gave me a handmade book, like a binder to keep my writings in, because she knew I liked to write. Those little things made me think, ‘Oh, this is something that people think I'm good at.’ 

But I didn’t believe in myself for a long time. I did pursue writing in various forms, like my school newspaper, for a little bit. I took English classes [because] I loved the world of writing and literature. But I went into communications, actually, working in the field of international public health. It was where my skills just naturally took me. [I didn’t feel like writing was a career until I was working with] a childhood friend, who encouraged me to help her with a series for Scholastic Book Clubs that she was working on. So I would say it was really other people pushing me along the way, and I think it still continues to be that way.

The nice thing about being a young kid is that we don't expect to know the answer, whereas, as adults, we feel like we should. It's nice to have this medium to explore the things that I'm thinking about [as an adult].

Fann Staff:  When you went from working in communications to writing on your own, did you find that there was a prescribed sense of style that you had to break out of?

Hena Khan: Oh, yes. Well, I was writing for adults. I was doing a lot of research-based writing, citing research studies. My job was actually to make them more accessible to the public. I was constantly fighting with researchers who were like, ‘No, I need every statistic in there.’ I was like, ‘No, you can extrapolate. I think that’s enough numbers; let’s talk about the message.’ Getting people to get to the point was really helpful for me when I switched to creative writing, especially [since I am] writing for children. Some of the things we do in writing for kids [are similar to making research accessible] in terms of being super clear. [That clarity comes] even in terms of pitching creative writing word [choice] — ‘how would you tell this to your grandmother?,’ that type of thing. I feel like it's useful in other industries, but people still want to write with so much jargon and academic-sounding language. That’s much more inaccessible, but I think that makes people feel more credible.

Fann Staff: It's so interesting that you mention breaking down complex things into very direct language, because I felt in “Drawing Deena,” you wrote about a lot of complex things that children can go through, especially anxiety and how it manifests. Could you tell me how you went about depicting something that is very big and can be complex to understand and aimed at a middle grade audience?

Hena Khan: Well, I think the joy of writing for this age group is that you can just think about big things — things that many of us are grappling with — through the eyes of a 12-year-old. Many of us are still thinking about the same things that children are grappling with and experiencing the same challenges. The nice thing about being a young kid is that we don't expect to know the answer, whereas, as adults, we feel like we should. It's nice to have this medium to explore the things that I'm thinking about [as an adult].

Someone in my family experienced anxiety. Just like Deena in the book, it took [my family member] a while to realize it was anxiety and not gastrointestinal issues. At first, [we thought], ‘Okay, maybe this is acid reflux, or maybe this is something else.’ I think for children in particular, it does present that way many times. I definitely wanted to explore anxiety the way [my family] had experienced it, for other people who might be going through it to [be able to] recognize it, too. I remember when my family member was dealing with [anxiety], someone recommended Raina Telgemeier’s book "Guts," a short graphic novel that dealt with the same idea, and [the family’s reaction] was similar [as well]. Especially in my community, I feel like there's a reluctance to necessarily recognize mental health issues as much as I think we should.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Hena Khan (@henakhanbooks)

Fann Staff: I think it was really interesting how you showed the way that Deena’s family dealt with anxiety, especially in the relationship with her mom and how they both were struggling in similar ways. Could you tell me how you went about constructing that family story and relationship? 

Hena Khan: So when I was initially thinking of this book, I was expecting to — or intended to — focus a bit more on the tension between Deena and her mom in more of an antagonistic relationship. And I just couldn't do it. Once I started writing, the loyal daughter in me [felt] like it was a betrayal. You get a sense of that when Deena is frustrated with her mom and just wants to mouth off and say things [that she shouldn’t]. That's the way it was for me growing up — that respect for parents, [feeling like] you just couldn't cross certain lines. But as I was writing, it really became more about Deena, the anxiety and her exploration of art, and what it means to produce something and put something out there that belongs to you and is a part of you.

I had that in the back of my mind, even as I wanted the tension to be there with D mom. She thinks of her dad as her champion. She loves her mom too, but her mom is the one that she has some more friction with, and she thinks her mom is the source of stress in the home. She sort of feels bad for her dad because she thinks her mom may be too critical. But you see over time that she reassesses how she thinks of her mom. I think these relationships are really complex. You even see it with her cousin as well — the people we're closest to and think we know the best sometimes aren't who we think they are, or we project onto them who we think they are or what their limitations are. Sometimes they're dealing with something that we don't see, and sometimes they’re capable of growing in ways that we don't expect. I think I felt more comfortable with [Deena’s] discomfort and annoyance with her mom, but that evolves into what I think is a really lovely understanding. 

Fann Staff: Expectation versus the reality of what people are going through is a constant theme throughout the book. I thought that Deena’s connection to Van Gogh and the aspiration that she has throughout the book was interesting to see evolve over time. I was especially intrigued by how you presented the immersive Van Gogh exhibit and the question of ‘Is this something he would have wanted?’ We see Deena get overwhelmed by the feeling that what was happening in the exhibit was not at all what Van Gogh would have wanted. It mirrors what Deena is going through with her art being circulated and being interpreted as something else, something that she doesn't feel like she owns as much. I want to know more about what was going through your mind in creating that parallel and navigating the line between interpretation versus appropriation.

Hena Khan: I actually went to that Van Gogh exhibit. I had the feeling that she did, and I was with people who loved it. I saw Van Gogh's Museum in Amsterdam and fell in love with it, but this [interactive exhibit] was something I didn't expect. But I definitely felt like the minority. Especially as TikTok has taken over everything, the way we consume art — the way we consume everything — is so reduced, and maybe not what [the original artist] intended. [I wanted Deena to] grapple with that, but at the same time, also [grapple] with the idea of what we as North Americans are led to believe is the ‘ultimate.’ Obviously, we see [Van Gogh as] a fantastic artist who had a troubled life, but has been canonized in [a specific] way. Deena remains a fan, but she realizes that there's more out there that she can approach and learn and feel a connection to. She can be authentic to herself.

Once you put your work out there, you don't know how it's going to be received or what people are going to do with that. I wanted [Deena] to understand [the need] to let go, but to believe in [her art] enough first. I’ve talked about how I write about the things that I'm thinking about and struggling with as somebody my age, and I put my poor [middle grade–aged] characters through it. But I think something else that I've been thinking about a lot is what is truly reflective of who you are as a creator versus what you think other people expect or want from you, and then also how they view [your art] through their own lens and put their own interpretation on it. All of that is stuff that [Deena is] wrestling with and doesn't necessarily have the answer to, because I don't have those answers [either]. 

Fann Staff: I thought it was very cool that there was a mentor figure for Deena throughout the novel, who presented her with this idea of the decolonization of art and who we think of as ‘the greats.’ You talked about your neighbor a little bit, but was there another mentor like that for you while you were growing up? 

Hena Khan: I feel like I had more peers who inspired me. My friend got me into children's writing and is now one of my co-authors for a series we did together. I always wanted and wished for that [mentorship]. So now I feel like I’ve found adult mentors, but I felt very lost as a kid. I wish I’d had someone to steer me and tell me that [writing] is an okay thing to pursue. Especially as a South Asian American, I [thought I] was supposed to be something like a lawyer. That was a viable job. And you see, Deena is dealing with that a bit too. Writing can be a hobby, but you have to find a way to support yourself. I think that's why I put [a mentor] in. I get to write the things I wish I’d had, or things I would love to see happen in the future for me.

Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask you about “Amina’s Voice” and “Amina’s Song,” which were incredibly well–reviewed and received books. When you saw how much those books resonated with people, did it make you think about your writing in a different way? Or was there more pressure for you to write in a specific way?

I've been asking people about how they view representation, that big idea of ‘oh, I need to represent my community’ that can sometimes be a hindrance to the actual writing process itself. Do you ever face that, especially after those books came out and had such a big reaction?

Hena Khan: For me personally, I try to write different genres, and I try to push myself in new directions as a writer. “Amina’s Voice” was my first contemporary middle grade book. I really felt like I had no idea what I was doing, so the reaction to it was very surprising. That was a huge blessing, alhamdulillah. It totally took me by surprise. I think I've always suffered from — and still tend to suffer from — impostor syndrome. So part of me was like, ‘Okay, well, that was dumb luck.’ “Amina’s Song” took a while, even though I always thought I would possibly write a second book. I left it open. Initially, it was a two book deal. But the second book I wrote was “More To The Story.” I didn't write “Amina’s Song” until a bit later when people had been giving me feedback and I realized specifically that kids wanted certain answers [to “Amina’s Voice”] — specifically who had vandalized the mosque, they all would ask me that. And I was like, ‘I don't know. They're just unknown vandals.’ But they wanted justice. So I felt like I needed to do that for them. 

I was really happy to go back to that book. It was hard for me to write for the reason you said, in the sense of how I could preserve the feeling of that book and have [Amina] grow and have it not just feel like rinse and repeat of the first thing. But for me as a writer, [regarding] the whole idea of representation, I really just focus on the things that I'm thinking about. “More To the Story” was inspired by “Little Women,” which is one of my favorite books of all time. I took the pieces I loved from it, but also focused on the things that are special to me, like the relationships and [the concept of] being there for someone you love. Then [I also wanted to explore] what microaggressions are, because I had just recently learned [the name for them]; I understood the concept before, but just putting a name to it made me feel better about the idea that they exist [and can be pushed against]. That's the sort of thing I like to explore. For example, my “Zara’s Rules” series, which is for younger kids, is very nostalgic and based on my childhood, so I feel like I write the books I would love to have read. That's really what drives me — the stories that excite me. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Hena Khan (@henakhanbooks)

This book ("Drawing Deena”) was hard for me. It took me longer than I expected. I usually outline and write, and I'm pretty methodical. But for “Drawing Deena,” I had to stop after the first chunk and send it to my editor and say, ‘Is this garbage? Should I continue?’ She was great, really supportive. I did it again when I was 80 percent done; I sent it to her and said, ‘I haven't figured out how to tie this up.’ So this one was hard, but I think it was because it was so personal. I guess when it comes to issues of the dirty laundry of our concern, I am mindful of that. I'm mindful of not reinforcing negative stereotypes that are already out there about the Muslim community. That's very important to me. I will stay away from certain narratives and certain tropes. I just want to put positive work out there, even if they deal with some serious themes.

I definitely do not write issue books, where your identity is the source of your pain and trauma. I'm not interested in that at all. The one thing about “Amina’s Voice,” which was a little unfortunate in my opinion, was that in the marketing material, the mosque vandalism is mentioned as more of a significant component than it actually was [in the story]. I wanted to put that in there — it was important for me, something I knew that our community was facing. For me, it was really the story of [Amina] finding confidence and dealing with friendship. That's why the incident occurs toward the end of the book, because it wasn't the focus of the book. So some reviewers were like, ‘Oh, I thought that was going to be a bigger part.’ They expected that because of the way it was marketed. But I feel like that, unfortunately, is sometimes the way you know they need that hook. They need that drama. That’s really not what the book is about,  so I do think about all that a lot.

What was it about it that made me love "Little Women" so much? I think it was because I had no representation when I was growing up. Those books spoke to me in a way that other, more contemporary books didn't.

Fann Staff: I wanted to also ask about “More to the Story.” You just mentioned that “Little Women” was one of your favorite books growing up. What was it like not adapting that story that you grew up with? Did it make you think about “Little Women” differently in any way?

Hena Khan: I decided to write “More to the Story” because I was thinking about which books mattered to me as a child, which I was thinking about because of these letters and literature contests that I was invited to speak at. All these students had written to authors they admired, living or dead. I thought about who I would write to and what I would say. That's what made me think about “Little Women.” What was it about it that made me love it so much? I think it was because I had no representation when I was growing up. Those books spoke to me in a way that other, more contemporary books didn't, because I recognized a lot of the social norms of that era and the way those girls felt different than my peers, and even different from me. That difference felt very comfortable to me as a child of immigrants growing up in the 80s. There’s even things like rishtas [editor's note: set up relationships].

Initially, I did think I was going to do more of a true one-to-one retelling. I thought it was going to have to be shorter, because “Little Woman” is so massive, but I did think it would be a lot more similar. My Jamila character was going to be 16. But when I started writing it, I couldn't get excited about it. I didn't like the voice. And then I realized that as a “Little Women” enthusiast, I was afraid of the fans, to be honest. Up to the recent one (“Little Women” 2019, directed by Greta Gerwig), I hated all the movies. I didn’t want to be under that scrutiny. That's why I decided to age it down and make it much more [inspired by] “Little Women” [instead of a retelling]. I didn't pick up “Little Women” during the time that I was writing “More to the Story.” I just focused on the themes, the moments and the characters in the way that I remembered them. I was happy that some people who knew “Little Women” didn't necessarily pick up on [the inspiration] until the end of “More to the Story.” That's sort of what I wanted — for those who love and know “Little Women” well, there were these little easter eggs. But it could be a totally fresh book for someone who is looking for something that gives them the same feeling that I had reading it.

Fann Staff: Do you have a favorite March sister?

Hena Khan: Jo. I never considered the fact that it wasn't Jo's story. Every March sister had her own chapter, but for me, it was always Jo's story and those were little side stories. So for me, I was like ‘I'm writing it from her point of view. My job is to find Jo.’

Fann Staff: I never actually put my finger on it, but the way you talked about the rishtas and everything makes so much sense. I've noticed in speaking with some Muslim authors, there’s a common connection to Jane Austen — there are several South Asian Jane Austen adaptations — and I think it is the social norms that they relate to.

Hena Khan: I wasn't obsessed like many people are. But I definitely felt that same recognition. Like what I was saying earlier, the [required] respect for parents [from children] feels so significant and comforting because it's familiar. For those of us who didn't have anything that really depicted us, this was the closest we could get, which is kind of funny. I think “Little Women” was published around 150 years ago. I guess another thing I didn't really pick up on as a kid, but I see much more now, is how Christian “Little Women” is. 

Actually, a fun fact: “Drawing Deena” was initially pitched as a companion to “More to the Story,” and I thought it would be about the Amy character, Aleeza. That's where the art idea came from. But when I spoke to my editor, she was like, ‘I don't know about a sequel. Would you consider it as a standalone?’ I created a different family and a different story, but I wanted to keep the art component because that was already something that I had been pondering. 

Fann Staff: I really like that there are these incubators for Muslim writers like Salaam Reads, places where they can be platformed. Can you tell me a little bit about what it feels like to be a part of the growing community of Muslim authors?

Hena Khan: It's amazing. It's something that I've been watching with great enthusiasm because it was so different when I started. I started as a writer for hire for Scholastic back in 2001. It's been a long time. Then my first picture book sold in 2006 and came out in 2008. So it's been a while, and back then, it was so hard to get anyone to consider a book. My first picture book, “Night of the Moon,” was about Ramadan, but I was like, ‘look, it's about the lunar cycle. It's not just about Ramadan.’ The whole “We Need Diverse Books” movement and everything is opening the door in such a significant way. When the invitation went out to apply for the Highlights Foundation Muslim Storytellers Fellowship, my editor from Chronicle sent it to me and I applied [to be a fellow]. They got back to me and they asked ‘Would you be a mentor?’ It's been wonderful to be a part of that. I went to one of the retreats, and just to see all these people from different backgrounds receiving institutional support is great to me.

Of course, you know Salaam Reads. When I sold “Amina’s Voice,” I didn't know Salaam Reads was going to be publishing it. [The imprint] had just been announced. It's been this tide that has been rising and it's amazing to see. It’s so much less lonely to have this community of people who you feel like are cheering each other on. I think I worried a little bit that there will be more territoriality, but we’re all writers and storytellers who love books. We need so many more stories in a way that publishers don't even recognize yet.

 As a young community of writers, sometimes we are so influenced by what we are consuming about ourselves that we don't even realize that those those tropes or stereotypes enter into our own thinking, even if we're trying to push back and say, ‘Oh, we're not that. We’re this.’ I feel like we can lose the ‘oh, we’re not that’ part.

Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about “Once Upon an Eid” because that is a book that I would never have imagined would exist growing up, but I'm so glad it exists for my sisters and kids their age. Can you tell me about the conception of the story that you wrote for it and being part of that anthology?

Hena Khan: Yeah, similarly, I was just so proud of [Aisha Saeed and S.K. Ali] for curating this amazing group of people and for also including everything from debut childrens’ writers to seasoned writers — just this lovely, diverse group of writers. It was very open in terms of how we wanted to interpret [the theme], and for me, I knew that I had been writing about Ramadan for a while and I wanted to write about Eid al-Adha. I had friends who had recently gone for Hajj, and I remember some of the things that their kids had been saying and checking in on the kids when their parents were away. That's what gave me the idea of writing a story from the perspective of a child whose parents have gone for Hajj — understanding what sacrifice is. It's such a treat to see the stories that everyone came up with and everyone's different takes on Eid. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by ABRAMS Kids (@abramskids)

Fann Staff: What is your least favorite trope about Muslims in the media? 

Hena Khan: Muslim as terrorist. We can't get away from it. I feel like it's almost like it’s more subtle now. I was really grateful when Zareen Ali Jaffrey founded Salaam Reads, [and this topic] was something we had a conversation about, how she refused to approach that subject. She didn't want to go near it even when it's about someone being falsely accused and then vindicated,, and I really appreciated that. Even if you're trying to dispel something, maybe the way to do it is to be a little more subtle. I feel like as a young community of writers, sometimes we are so influenced by what we are consuming about ourselves that we don't even realize that those those tropes or stereotypes enter into our own thinking about ourselves in one way or another, even if we're trying to push back and say, ‘Oh, we're not that. We’re this.’ I feel like we can lose the ‘oh, we’re not that’ part.

That's what I'm trying to do a lot now. That's why I think writing Deena is not at all identity focused. She is a Pakistani American Muslim, but it's not, ‘oh my mental health struggle is tied to being a Muslim,’ nor is her whole pushback [to authority] or the reluctance of her parents. For me, [Deena and her family’s struggles] are more a fear of the unknown and maybe an immigrant mindset more so than anything related to being Muslim. To me, it was important that you know that they are a Pakistani American Muslim family. That’s important to them. That's who they are. But that's not her issue.

I definitely do not write issue books, where your identity is the source of your pain and trauma. I'm not interested in that at all.

Fann Staff: Do you have a current favorite Muslim writer or creator or someone who you're very inspired by right now?

Hena Khan: I am really excited about one of my mentees from the fellowship, Rhonda Roumani, who has this beautiful book coming out called "Tagging Freedom," which is about a boy who is a graffiti artist during the Syrian revolution. It's just really great to see that progress and evolution, and the book is coming out this fall.

It was recently announced, but I'm actually editing “The Door Is Open,” an anthology of South Asian writers who are both Muslim and non-Muslim. It was really fun to lean into being Desi because I feel like so much of my work is focused on Islam. I wish I could have included so many more people, but it had to be a limited and diverse group of people. It would be impossible to choose one [person I’m inspired by]; there are so many really talented writers out there.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Hena Khan (@henakhanbooks)

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

Hena Khan: I talk to kids a lot about this. The hardest thing for me is silencing the inner critic and just pushing through. I think that's what holds so many people back — that fear of failure, and that imposter syndrome. I would say ‘just do it.’ We wait and we wait, and I meet so many people who tell me they have a story that they've been thinking about forever or a book they’ve wanted to write forever, but they don’t actually do it. I know it's hard to start, but I would say [you should] actually write and find a writing group or critique partner that you are accountable to. For me, it was N.H. Senzai, the author of "Shooting Kabul." She's the one who I was sharing chapters with when I wrote “Amina’s Voice.” If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have finished. I really feel like having someone waiting for what you have is very motivating. Hopefully it can keep you going, especially when you hit the middle and you're losing where you’re going. They can help you get through that.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Fann.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.