Hi there, Hena! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, MORE TO THE STORY.
Thank you for having me. I’m honored!
Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?
Sure! Although I started writing for kids with Scholastic book clubs about space and spies, when I became a mom I couldn’t find any books that represented my son, so I set out to change that! I was an avid reader as a kid, but never saw myself in books, and realized how important it is. I’ve written a few picture books that highlight Muslim traditions and culture, like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Under my Hijab. And I loved delving into middle grade fiction with my debut, Amina’s Voice and my personal favorite, a series called Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream about a kid who is obsessed with basketball modeled after my husband and sons.
You write picture books, chapter books, and – like MORE TO THE STORY – Middle Grade novels. Is your process and/or approach different for each format? Do you usually know the shape a story will take before you begin writing it?
Yes, it’s definitely different for each! I find writing picture books to be like working on an imaginary puzzle. I keep the page flow and turns in mind as I write, and try to make sure there is something to inspire the art on every page. For my chapter books and novels, I always outline first and know where I want the story to go. But once I start writing, I often veer off the path as the story takes shape and my characters become real to me—and sometimes don’t end up behaving the way I initially intended! I’ve also written choose-your-own path style novels and those are a different beast altogether, with elaborate flow charts, word count, page tracking, and more.
Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?
So many things! I love that middle grade readers are so thoughtful, open, and curious about the world. And while they understand a lot and are pretty aware, they still have a lot of innocence and natural empathy. I remember how the books that I read and loved when I was that age managed to live in a corner of my heart somewhere, where they still remain today! And the idea that something I write could have a special place in a reader’s life is incredible to imagine. I still enjoy reading middle grade fiction more than any other genre—I appreciate that it’s usually really great storytelling without getting too complicated.
Okay – let’s get to the new book. What’s MORE TO THE STORY all about?
It’s centered around Jameela, a girl living in Georgia, who is part of a big loving family, and passionate about being an award-winning journalist someday. She’s thrilled to be selected as Feature Editor for her school paper, but disappointed to learn the editor-in-chief is a kid who she butts heads with and who always shoots down her ideas. Jameela’s life gets a welcome addition when Ali, a cute family friend from London, moves to Atlanta, but turns upside down when her dad has to take a job overseas, her sister becomes seriously sick, and she has to learn what matters most to her.
One thing that I loved about the book was your frank exploration of anger, in particular the positive, healthy ways in which that energy can be harnessed and used. Is this something you thought about a lot while crafting Jameela’s story?
Thank you! It’s something I think about in general, because it’s something I grapple with myself. Like Jameela, my default emotion when I’m stressed, frustrated, or scared is anger. And it’s something that I’ve had to recognize and work on over the years, and still haven’t mastered yet! I liked the idea of Jameela confronting her anger and learning to recognize that it isn’t the best way to react to things.
Another thing that MORE TO THE STORY tackles head-on are microaggressions. Why do you believe it’s important to get your young readers learning, thinking, and talking about them?
I thought it would be helpful for readers to understand that microaggressions are often unintentional, but that they can still hurt people or make them feel bad. Many people experience them in day-to-day life, including my own kids, and I think it helps to know that there is actually a name and a category for the little things that people say and do that make us feel icky, or misunderstood, “otherized,” or less in some way.
You’ve said elsewhere that this novel was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Would you care to talk about what that book meant to you as a young reader, what it means to you now, and the role it played in the creation of MORE TO THE STORY?
Yes! I was obsessed with Little Women as a child and teen, and I read it and reread it over and over, and even had parts memorized. Jo was in many ways my idol, and I found aspects of my personality in each of the sisters (as much as I didn’t want to associate with Amy, I’m pretty sure my older sister would say I was a lot like her!). And apart from the characters and losing myself in their daily dramas and relationships, I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms they faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.
I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective, and I initially envisioned writing a story that would be more of a remix. But in the end, the story I wrote, which I aged down to middle grade, is inspired by the classic but very much its own story. Readers who loved Little Women like me will find parallels, but those who haven’t read it will hopefully grow to connect with another multifaceted and strong family. I consider More to the Story a love letter to my favorite book!
What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MORE TO THE STORY?
I hope they are inspired by the love Jameela has for her family, and her sister in particular, along the passion she has for getting people to care about things that matter. I hope readers feel a strong connection to the Mirzas and can relate to them, the way I did to the March family and other characters I grew up with. And I would love for them to recognize and appreciate that while Jameela and her family are connected to a different culture that is a part of their daily lives, and to their Muslim faith, they are as American as anyone else.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MORE TO THE STORY to their classroom libraries?
Most of all, THANK YOU! I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear that middle grade teachers are sharing my books with readers. There’s really no bigger compliment. I’m especially grateful at a time when people seem more divided than ever, for a chance for stories to bring us together and help us to see the positive in everyone. I know many teachers are committed to inclusion and representation, and to providing windows and mirrors, and I love that my stories are among the ones chosen to offer to kids. And I especially appreciate teachers who are mindful of choosing a variety of books and balancing heavier issue books about marginalized groups with regular stories about their daily lives. Also, I want to share that I have wonderful educator guides available for all of my books! You can find them and download off my website: www.henakhan.com.
When can readers get their hands on MORE TO THE STORY, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?
Today is pub day! I am excited to be traveling a bit this fall to celebrate the release with readers around the country. I’ll be doing several book launch events. If you’d like to attend and connect in person, please check out tour details on my website and social media, where I’ll be updating!
Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?
My website has details about my books, school visits, and events: www.henakhan.com. Plus you can find me on instagram, facebook and twitter: @henakhanbooks. I’d love to be connected!
Thank you so much for chatting with me!