Book Review: AMINA’S SONG, by Hena Khan

Amina’s Song is a companion novel to Hena Khan’s excellent Amina’s Voice (2017). Sometimes companion novels can feel like odd afterthoughts, addendums that might be welcome and enjoyable, but otherwise not really necessary. With Amina’s Song, this is not at all the case. The novel is just as powerful, important, and compelling as its predecessor. Just as she was in her first book, Amina is a wonderfully relatable, gloriously unique protagonist. However, Khan hasn’t just picked up right where she left her character at the end of the last book – Amina has grown since we left her, and continues to grow as Khan masterfully explores her complicated heart and mind.

One last thing to note about both of the Amina books is their length. Amina’s Voice is just under 200 pages – which is on the shorter side for contemporary, realistic Middle Grade novels. However, for many readers, that is something that made it especially attractive, and I believe that made the book accessible for a larger, broader audience. Amina’s Song is somewhat longer than Amina’s Voice – though still under 300 pages – but this works beautifully, as the readers who choose to continue reading Amina’s story will be pushed to complete a book that might be longer than they usually read, thereby building their confidence as readers. And there’s no way those who pick up this book won’t finish it. Khan is too gifted a storyteller. The taut plot and fine-tuned prose will keep kids reading until the end.

Note: While one certainly does not need to read Amina’s Voice in order to enjoy and get a lot out of Amina’s Song, the latter will be richer and more meaningful if readers are familiar with the former.

Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He can be found at and on Twitter and Instragram at @Jarrett_Lerner. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.

Book Reviews: New Novels from Hena Khan, Kate Messner, and Cindy Baldwin

More to the Story by Hena Khan

Jamella is a seventh grader who has a passion for writing. Someday she wants to be an award winning journalist, like her late grandfather, and she’s working toward that goal as the features editor of her school newspaper. 

When she learns that her father has to go overseas for six months for work, she and her three sisters and mom are heartbroken. Jam decides to write an amazing article that will make her dad super proud, but does so at the cost of a new friendship with a boy named Ali. On top of that, her family is shocked to receive news about her younger sister’s health. 

Not only is this an important story about family, friendships and hope, but the journalism piece that focuses on the microaggressions that today’s students face is important and powerful.  Highly recommend this middle grade novel and I’ve bought a copy for my 5th grade students. 

Chirp by Kate Messner

The summer after seventh grade, Mia and her family move from Boston back to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother who suffered a stroke a few months back. Gram is recovering nicely but is concerned that someone is trying to sabotage her cricket farm business, and Mia promises her to help any way she can. 

Mia’s mom has also told her that she must participate in two summer activities (one for her body and one for her brain). Mia chooses a Launch Camp (Maker space for kids) to help promote her Gram’s cricket business. She also picks a Warrior Camp so she can get stronger after last year’s gymnastics season ending injury when she fell off the balance beam and broke her arm. Later, the reader comes to learn that the broken arm was not the sole reason for Mia’s depart from gymnastics. 

This Middle Grade mystery has so much to offer readers. Friendships among strong girls, the science of entomophagy, the strength of family, and the courage of one girl to stand up and find her voice. Highly recommend for middle grade libraries. Preorder now. Publishes 2/4/20.

Beginners Welcome by Cindy Baldwin

Annie Lee misses her daddy. It’s been eighty-three days since he suddenly passed away, but the apartment where she and her mama live is full of his presence. The smell of his aftershave and hairs in the  bathroom sink and the CD player and TV turning on by themselves to play his favorite song & show are all constant reminders of the emptiness she and her mama feel. 

With her mama working full-time. Annie Lee needs something (and someone) to help her with the loneliness that surrounds her. But she’s afraid of letting down her invisibility cloak and letting others get close to her again. 

At her new school she meets Mitch, tough and confident despite being new, too. Annie Lee also meets Ray, an older pianist who plays at the local mall and gives her lessons. 

When something happens to Ray, Annie Lee must make a choice that may cost her her new friendship. 

With themes of hope, healing, and the strength of a community, this novel will be a middle grade reader favorite.  Publishes 2/11/20. Be sure to preorder!

Katie Reilley is a fourth and fifth grade ELA teacher from Elburn, Illinois, and a proud mom to two amazing daughters, ages 14 and 10 who has been married to a wonderful husband for 18 years. She’s a member of #bookexpedition, a group of teachers, librarians and authors who read and review ARCs and newly released middle grade books. She’s also happy to be part of the #classroombookaday community, and loves to learn alongside her students and fellow educators. She has been teaching for twenty-two years, and her passion is getting books into the hands of her students. You can find her on Twitter at @KReilley5.

Interview: Hena Khan

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:

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: 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!