New Voices: Aya Khalil & Anna Crowley Redding on How Journalism Careers Informed Their Work

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today I am happy to welcome debut picture book authors Aya Khalil and Anna Crowley Redding to Cynsations. Both have journalism backgrounds and discuss how that career helped them as a writer for children.

Aya Khalil

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

One of the best moments was reconnecting with my teacher (after 20 years) who inspired The Arabic Quilt (illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan, (Tilbury House, 2020)).

The main character, Kanzi, created an Arabic quilt with the help of her teacher. That teacher was actually my own elementary school teacher, and I sent her a copy of my book recently after a classmate helped me find her!

A classmate of mine who was part of that project was able to connect me with her on Facebook. I messaged her, and I was very nervous to see if she even remembered me. To my surprise, she did!

She said she remembers when my mom and I brought her Egyptian sweets. She was so happy to reconnect and we updated each other on where we are at life.

I sent her a copy of my book and she went to our elementary school and took a photo with the book there. It was an emotional moment for me because when you’re so little and have a teacher who makes a child of color feel welcomed, you will remember it for the rest of your life.

For me, I was blessed to write a whole picture book about it and track the teacher down and talk about those moments from twenty years ago. I told her I would love to see her in person someday.

As an author-teacher and journalist, how do your various roles inform one another?

I have degrees in Education, Journalism and English Literature and my jobs over the years really helped me along the journey to become a published author. Teaching helped me to see what kids were interested in and of course exposed me to many picture books, being a freelance journalist helped me with marketing my book and the English Literature degree of course helped in becoming a better writer.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Best is connecting with other incredible authors and having kids and parents tell me they related to the book and they saw themselves in it. Worst was at some points it was just hard to juggle everything and taking a break for a while from writing more manuscripts.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

I would say since it’s an #OwnVoices story, it is an authentic immigrant story and many immigrants can relate to it! I think it is an authentic story because it’s based on real-life experiences. Growing up, my parents had accents and we would often help my mom translate some words.

We watched racist people answer my mom in a condescending tone and yell loudly in her face as if she couldn’t hear.

The main character is embarrassed of her mom’s hijab and accent in the beginning, but she realizes at the end of the story how accents are beautiful because it means that person is bilingual and it’s not easy to learn a second language.

Children of immigrant parents often laugh or joke around about their parents’ accents and although usually the parent laughs it off, it is hurtful.

So to sum it up, I know how it feels to be raised by immigrant, hard-working parents and the emotions that come along with it and I hope that shows up in my writing as authentic.

Anna Crowley Redding

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My initial inspiration for writing Rescuing the Declaration of Independence: How We Almost Lost the Words that Built America, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (HarperCollins, 2020) is that I had absolutely never heard that our Constitution and Declaration of Independence was ever at risk of being turned to ash by British torches. And yet this unknown hero had saved them.

It was just that feeling when you discover a treasure! I knew I had to write this story.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

This is something that I have wanted to do since I was a little girl.

I’ve always been a writer since I was able to string together words, keeping a diary, making cards, relishing writing assignments.

But when I was a little girl, I felt that many children’s books didn’t address the tough times that children go through like divorce and grief. And it seemed to me at that age, that children’s book only showed one kind of family and that family type didn’t look anything like mine— a single parent household struggling with addiction.

It’s interesting for me to reflect back on that because eventually I became a journalist and I feel that my upbringing allowed me to bring a lot of empathy to the stories I covered and the way I covered them.

So, today as I publish nonfiction books, I am always taking a look at the emotion, the greater context. In Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World (Feiwel and Friends, 2019), a YA biography, I wanted to make a point of highlighting the enormous challenges he had as a kid. I want other kids to see themselves in that story and that they, too, can overcome.

As for my writing career, later in life as I had mine own kids, I realized I was ready to take on my dream of becoming a children’s author!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

With this book in particular, I wrote it during a very difficult part of my personal life. I had already done so much research on Stephen Pleasonton and his heroics.

When I actually sat down to write the book, it was just a couple weeks after a death in my family. There was something powerful about looking at that blank page and looking at Stephen Pleasonton’s bravery. His story really inspired me to be strong and keep chasing my dream.

Anna Redding examining Lighthouse Log kept by Kate Moore at Bridgeport Library, CT in history center

Stephen Pleasonton made a huge difference by saving the documents our country was founded on. And he had to confront one of the most powerful men in the country, and then there as the business of physically moving these documents to safety. It was just a regular guy who did an extraordinary thing.

Even though it was difficult to process the grief I was experiencing and move forward, Stephen Pleasonton’s example really helped me. I hope that by writing about him, not only will his place in history be reclaimed but his ability to inspire others will be amplified.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I did my homework and then some! I knew I wanted an agent. But this relationship is so important. And as much as you are dying to get an agent, you really need to get an agent that is an absolute perfect fit for you, for them, and for your career.

I had researched Ammi-Joan Paquette. She is so smart and so ethical, and a published author as well. She was closed to submissions. But I attended an SCBWI retreat that afforded me the chance to send her a manuscript.

When Joan read this story, she e-mailed me by the next morning! She wanted to know what other stories I had. And so a few weeks later she called me and offered representation. I don’t even remember what she said during that call because I was so excited and emotional.

I do remember that she asked me if I had any questions for her. And I thought to myself, I already know everything about you because I have researched you to an extent that would make you hang up right now… if you only knew! But luckily, I just said “No, I don’t have any questions.”

I guess once you become an investigative reporter, that part of you never dies! (And five years later from that call, I worship her even more!)

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Don’t give up and try to learn as much as you can about the craft and the business!

Cynsational Notes 

Freelance Journalist and Blogger Aya Khalil, holds a master’s in Education with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Yahoo! Book Riot and other publications.

Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others. She’s done sensitivity readings for DK Publishing/Penguin.

Aya is a picture book author and is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US Agency.  Her first book The Arabic Quilt was published in February 2020 by Tilbury House. She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Toledo. Besides writing and teaching, she enjoys spending time with her family, traveling and exercising.

Before diving into the deep end of writing for children, Anna Crowley Redding‘s first career was as an Emmy-award winning investigative television reporter, anchor, and journalist.

The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow awards and recognized by the Associated Press for her reporting, Redding now focuses her stealthy detective skills on digging up great stories for kids–which as it turns out, is her true passion. Her books include Google It! and Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.