Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.

New Voice: Ruth Freeman on One Good Thing About America

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Although Ruth Freeman has authored several picture books, she made her debut as a novelist earlier this year with One Good Thing About America (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:


Is it ever easy being new?

Anaïs was the best English student in her class in Africa. Now in Crazy America she feels she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense…chicken fingers


In letters, she writes to her grandmother back home about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese and princess sleepovers. She misses her father and brother and hopes the fighting is over soon. 

In the meantime, she writes about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and wonders if she will ever feel at home in this strange new country.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I found that I could read chapter books, it was like falling in love. My seven- or eight-year-old self wouldn’t have known to call it that, but it absolutely was. I couldn’t believe the places I could go and the people I could meet, all between the covers of a book! Words melted away on the page, time stopped, and I would go off with fairies, pioneer girls, knights or rabbits. Being so absorbed and transported at that age was as close to real magic as I will ever get.

I think when you’re young and fall in love with reading, it never leaves you. You’re hooked.

As I got older, the notion of recreating the magic I found in books began to take hold. I wanted to reverse the process. Could I weave words together in such a way that the picture in my head would show up (similar but different) in someone else’s head? How cool would that be?

Of course, it’s one thing to catch the desire to write and another thing to do it, as I found out. But that’s another story (see below).

Students reading at Ruth’s school

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


Two words: my students. I teach English language learners (ELL) at an elementary school in Maine, so everyday I work with young people, some of whom arrived in this country a week ago, some of whom were born here but speak another language at home.

It takes five to seven years to become fluent in English, both the basic conversational language as well as the academic language.

As ELL teachers, we often work with the same students over several years, which means we get to know them, hear their stories, answer their many questions and meet their families.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first was so that my students, and students like them, could see themselves in a book. There aren’t enough children’s books about the experiences of newcomers. At least, not yet.

The second reason was so that all readers could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a girl new to this country.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, I write that there’s no way I can truly understand the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker but my hope, and expectation, is that one day my students, and others like them, will write their own stories…and I can’t wait to read them!

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

Because I was writing from the protagonist Anaïs’ point of view, the biggest challenge was to make her writing, her voice, sound authentic.

I limited the words I could use to the ones used by a typical newcomer.

I added a few expressions she might have picked up such as, “for sure,” “for goodness’ sake,” and “crazy” to describe anything that didn’t make sense (which was a lot of things!). She uses “cool” and “bingo” she hears from her teacher. Because her vocabulary is still growing, she repeats words for emphasis, such as “I am not happy. Not not not happy.” Other vocabulary lessons spill over into her writing, too, such as her use of comparative adjectives: “big, bigger, biggest.”

Anaïs’ grammar and spelling was also a challenge. I wanted her writing to look as realistic as possible, so I decided it shouldn’t be perfect. I tried to include enough misspellings to make it authentic but still keep it legible.

As time goes by, her spelling, verb tenses, grammar and vocabulary improve. I worked long and hard to make the progression plausible (though her improvement is probably faster than it would be in real life). It was tricky remembering what words she had learned and what misspellings she had corrected as the story unfolded!

A fourth grade class decorated their door as the cover.

Using an entirely epistolary format must have been particularly challenging, but it works beautifully. Can you tell us what drew you to this format?

I have to admit I had never thought about writing a story in letters before. The idea for a “school” story was rolling around in my head, but that was as far as I’d gotten with it.

One spark came when I was helping some ELL students in a 2nd grade classroom. The class was writing persuasive letters, first having to state an opinion, then writing a letter to persuade someone to their point of view.

However, it wasn’t until later that the letter writing and the “school” story idea came together.

I had these bits and pieces in mind, but in the end, it was my students’ voices that made everything click. I can often hear their distinctive voices and accents in my mind long after we’re together, and it was these voices that I wanted to preserve on paper.

I felt the best way to do this was writing from my character’s point of view through letters she was writing home to her grandmother.

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


If you have a burning desire to write for young people, try it! Even though I had wanted to write for a long time there came a point when I felt time was passing and it was now or never!

But…there’s always a but…be prepared for a long, slow, hard slog. If you want it badly enough, you will stick with it. If it’s not for you, you’ll find that out and discover some other wonderful creative path to follow. It’s a journey, right?

But, if you get more and more determined to write, here are a few tips from one (and only one) writer:

Ruth in her elementary school library.

Read children’s/YA books! Haunt your local library, make friends with the children’s librarian, ask what everyone is reading, but don’t forget to read the classics as well.

Learn about the publishing business. One excellent way is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of information online, they hold great conferences, and they can hook you up with local chapters and writers groups.

Find what works for you in the way of writing. You can read everyone else’s tried and true methods, but in the end, you have to figure out which way is best for you.

For example, I cannot wake up at 4 a.m. and write! I work full-time at the moment, so I take notes and glean ideas during the week and carve out Sundays for writing. And I work hard on stories in the summer when I’m not teaching. It is not easy. When I had small children, I wrote nonfiction picture books partly because I could do the research whenever I could find the odd moment of free time.

Write about what grabs you and you’re passionate about–not, I repeat not, what you think will sell and make you a million dollars. Your heart won’t be in it. Don’t get hung up on “brands” and “platforms.” Keep it real.

Lastly, when you are ready to plunge into your first draft, learn to banish the critics sitting on your shoulders (they keep coming back, so keep shooing them away), take a deep breath and enjoy making a mess!

You have the freedom to write whatever you want…and it in no way has to be perfect!

Keep an image of a mud puddle in mind.

Later, you can make everything pretty.

In the beginning, it is time for delight, freedom, creativity, humor and the joy of being subversive. Readers come later. In the beginning, you’re writing just for you. Go for it!

Ruth Freeman
(photo by Molly Haley)

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal called One Good Thing About America “highly recommended for libraries seeking timely stories about the immigrant experience.”

An educator’s guide is available from the publisher.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English Language Learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She’s worked with students from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. She has also authored several nonfiction picture books on subjects ranging from hairstyles to the history of chocolate.

New Voice: LaTisha Redding on Calling the Water Drum

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

LaTisha Redding is the debut author of Calling the Water Drum, illustrated by Aaron Boyd (Lee & Low, 2016) From the promotional copy:



Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City. 


Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea, Henri dreams of what life will be like “across the great waters.”

Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea. 


Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions. 


Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents.

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

more from illustrator Aaron Boyd

I keep a notebook with me almost all of the time. But I didn’t write down the idea for this story right away. It stewed in the back of my mind for several months. When I finally stilled myself to write it, I let the story pour out onto the page without editing.

As I wrote, the first challenge was capturing Henri’s voice. Henri narrates the story and it took me a few revision rounds to discover how much dialogue he would have. I’m not a poet or a musician, but Henri’s voice had formed a certain cadence when I read the draft out loud.

Then I immediately tucked the story away. After that, I researched details of the Haitian language, which is Kreyol, and the culture; it was important that I presented it properly. I also researched drumming, the origins, and its ceremonial use within the African diaspora.

When I returned to the story months later, I shaped it with those elements, chose more precise words and tightened the structure. Later, when I worked with my editor Jessica, she helped me revise it further by adding the day-to-day details of life in Haiti, which required more research. That added another layer to Henri’s story.

For the psychological aspects of the story, I knew from the onset that Henri was dealing with great loss, which was balanced with hope. But I never considered the themes in Calling the Water Drum too heavy for a child to understand.

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

The advice that I have, is what’s been given before and it’s advice that I followed, and still practice. Read a lot and write a lot. That’s the bedrock of being a writer. I have yet to personally meet another writer that didn’t begin as a voracious reader. The reading comes easily. The writing can be the hard part. Over the years, I’ve discovered that just because I’m compelled to write and I enjoy telling stories doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

LaTisha at a classroom visit

One piece of advice that I always found interesting was the adage to “write what you know.” I like to modify that: write what you want to know more about. I write what intrigues me or gets under my skin. And centering a child as the protagonist in a story gives me the chance to explore with wonder. Kids are curious about the world and, as a writer, so am I.

When it comes to actually learning how to write, I view it as a skill, like anything else. You read something, a poem, a short-story, a picture book, a novel and then you apprentice the story–you take it apart to see how the author put it together. Of course the “recipe” of read a lot, write a lot has to be seasoned with patience. Life gets so busy sometimes and it gets difficult to make time for writing.

It helps to set realistic reading and writing goals. I read the classics and read what’s on the market. I decide how many stories to write and complete in a month or three-month time frame if a year feels too lengthy. And completing the story is key. It’s better to complete two short-stories or one novel than have a hard-drive worth of half-finished stories.

What would you have done differently? 

I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child. But, I’m not one of those writers who have been writing since I was a kid or wrote for my high school newspaper or took creative writing classes in college. I had graduated from college and worked for several years before I took a writing class.

If I could do it differently, I would’ve taken creative writing classes in college and started to learn the craft earlier. I also would’ve sought out other writers and writing organizations sooner.

The community has been invaluable. It’s important for me to gather with other writers; but it was critical for me in the beginning stage to be around other writers and experience that camaraderie. I’ve learned that writing in isolation doesn’t benefit me at all.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

More from illustrator Aaron Boyd

Being an author is still very new to me. It’s true that having a book published is a delicious feeling. I’m still amazed. But I keep my focus on getting my butt-in-the-chair and writing. I have more stories to tell. And since I want to get more of my stories out into the world then I need to write more.

The pragmatic side of me has approached marketing and promotion with the understanding that it’s part of the book publishing process. It’s a business, after all. So I setup a website and I’m on Twitter joining the conversations about writing or the writing life, which is fun. I’ve been steeped in the writing world for years, but publishing is a whole other beast.

In terms of my self-image, it’s pretty much the same, again, because I’ve been a storyteller since I was little. So for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about story.

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

I’m African-American and the story is from the vantage point of a Haitian boy named Henri. But there’s another child named Karrine in the story, who is African-American.

Now, I didn’t write a Haitian story or the Haitian experience. There are Haitian writers who can express that from a place of vision that I never could. But, I wrote this story entwining two children from different cultures and that was intriguing to me.

Since I grew up in New York City, I’m familiar with being immersed in my culture while living parallel to many other cultures. I definitely wanted to give life to that experience and I did.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Calling the Water Drum a starred review, calling it “a powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope… Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced…”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

LaTisha Redding is a 2010 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and busy working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Florida and when she’s not wilting from the humidity,  she writes!

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on the Creative Life, Teaching Writing & Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to discuss her new MG historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Lee & Low, May 2017). From the promotional copy:

Nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls’ team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League to start a girls’ softball team at their school.


Meanwhile, Maria’s parents—Papi from India and Mamá from Mexico—can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world.


What inspired you to write Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh?

The history itself. I can’t help myself—little-known historical nuggets of information are irresistible to me.

About 15 years ago, I came across a documentary called Roots in the Sand by filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart about this community of families in California in the 20s and beyond, in which the men were from India and the women from Mexico.

They were brought together by a perfect intersection of discriminatory laws that forbade Asians to own land, forbade people of different races to marry, and denied citizenship to people from India. And from all these incredible challenges they made a world of hope and optimism and survival. It’s a peculiarly American story. 

Once immigration from India opened up, the descendants mostly blended back into the Mexican American communities of California, but many retained a nostalgic memory of those fathers and grandfathers from India. I was totally hooked but it took me many, many tries before I could figure out how I should write this history in a way that made sense to kids.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?


I don’t think of myself as an author. That title, after all, depends on whether someone else thinks what I write has potential or marketability or whatever. 

But writing. That’s different. I am a writer. I love having an idea zing into my mind. I love the energy of a first draft, even when I know that at some point I’m going to be beating my head against it, trying to shape it into something that a reader could care about. 
I love how I can become enthralled by a story enough to keep returning to it, sometimes for years. And the thing I love best is when a work falls into place, especially after several revisions when it has felt opaque and I have felt dense and inept. Then suddenly, often overnight—as if dreaming has helped this happen—it’s all there and I can’t wait to do the work that has been revealed to me.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?



I have an office room looking out into my back yard, with a forest beyond the fence, so when I need a visual break I can see green trees. 

I can step out and walk there if I want to. But just so I don’t do that too often, I have a treadmill desk. I set it on slow when I’m writing and it keeps me on track. 
I used to write early in the morning but now I break it up—a couple of hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon. About four hours a day when I’m working on a project. During teaching weeks, I don’t do any of my own writing.

How does teaching inform your own writing?

It keeps me honest. I often find myself pointing out things in students’ work, then returning to my own and seeing those very problems staring me in the face. 

Why is it I couldn’t see them before? I think the way it works is this. Story (for me anyway) can often begin as something static—a snapshot, a little description, a place, a lone character, or a single idea. But the words I use to try and get at that story become prisms. They can reveal unexpected flashes of light and color. They can sparkle and create rainbows. But I can’t see that when I first use them. 
In a draft, I’m still chasing a mirage. Before I began teaching I’d often get stuck at that stage, and I left a lot of half-finished projects scattered behind me. 
Teaching forces me to put my own work away. Then when I return to that draft and hold it up at different angles, the light begins to burst through.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently juggling two nonfiction picture books with science themes and a middle grade historical nonfiction book. 

I think every book teaches you how to write that book and no other, so I feel like I’m learning all over again. 
Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, “A loving look at a slice of American life new to children’s books” and “filled with heart, this tale brings to life outspoken and determined Maria, her love for baseball, and her multicultural community and their challenges and triumphs.”  
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Book Uncle and Me, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (Groundwood Books, 2016) selected as one of the best children’s books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, NPR Book Concierge’s Guide and USBBY Outstanding International Books List.

She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Uma now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 

New Voice: Hena Khan on Amina’s Voice

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Hena Khan, a well-published picture book author makes her novelist debut with Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.


Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. 


Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” 


Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.


Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


I was working as a communications specialist for an international public health organization when I unexpectedly got the opportunity to first write for kids back in 2001. 
I had a very good friend who worked as an editor with Scholastic’s continuity department. She was editing a series called Spy University and, since we had worked together on our high school newspaper, asked if I could help out with the writing. 
It was perfect timing for me because I was looking to transition out of a full-time job that required international travel as a new mother. I thought it could be the perfect stay-at-home alternative and a great way to balance my consulting work.

I soon realized that writing for kids was far harder than I had imagined! 

I’d grown a bit tired of writing and editing jargon- and data-filled technical documents with the aim of making them more accessible to lay audiences. 
And I thought that writing for kids would be a welcome change, which it was, but it took hours of practice for me to finally nail the lighthearted tone and fun style of the series. 
I had to learn to write in an upbeat, pun-filled manner, and to present a serious theme (espionage) in a kid-friendly and appropriate way. 
It was challenging at times but it helped to have an amazing mentor.

In the end, I loved writing those initial children’s books, and went on to write for three other series before my first trade-published picture book, Night of the Moon came out in 2008 with Chronicle Books.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Amina’s Voice?


I first thought about and started writing Amina’s Voice more than four years ago. 

I had published two picture books about Muslims, and wanted to write something for a middle-grade audience. Since books spoke to me the most when I was a middle grader myself, I loved the idea of connecting with that age group.

Also, parents often asked me to recommend mirror books for their tweens and I struggled since so few of them existed.

I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. 

At the time, Islamophobia was growing in our country, and I was alarmed by reports of anti-Muslim campaigns, and an increasing number attacks on Islamic centers, bullying of Muslim kids, and hate-motivated crimes. 
I wanted to offer a Muslim friend to people who didn’t have one through storytelling, and a window into my often misunderstood and misrepresented faith and culture.

Amina is a girl that struggles with common challenges—friendship changes, family conflict, finding confidence. 

Yet the story also allows readers to get to know a Pakistani American family, gain access to an Islamic center and Muslim traditions, and to perhaps see how they’re not as different as they might have imagined. 
At the same time, the story introduces the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, and that there are variations in the way we approach our faith and integrate it into our daily lives, which is an important if subtle idea in the book.

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


The biggest challenge for me was trying to make sense of the various feedback I received from editors who initially passed on the book. 

Some said they loved the writing, connected with Amina and were emotionally moved by her story, but that it wasn’t the right fit for their list. Others said they didn’t connect with Amina’s voice enough or find her story compelling. Others said the book was too “quiet,” which was a term that was new to me, or—perhaps the hardest to hear—that they felt the book didn’t reflect the type of diversity that they were seeking. 
No one actually said what they recommended I do to “fix” the story or make it work better.

I was determined to tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it wasn’t likely going to be an extremely commercial book. 

After sitting with all the opinions for a while, and getting some helpful comments from my writers group, I finally realized what was missing in the story. 
We knew all the things Amina was afraid of or didn’t want, and not enough about what she did want. She was too much of a bystander in her own story. 
When I set about to change that, and give her more of a presence, I felt that she lost her sweet quality and had a personality change. So then I rewrote the book in the first person voice, which allowed me to really get into her head, see things from her perspective and get the voice right. 
I was also able to shed unnecessary details and edit out the 40-year old woman voice that had snuck in from time to time. But the story remained essentially the same.

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

As a child of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in America, and now as a mother to third generation American Muslims, I have a diverse background that also feels very common. 

I grew up witnessing my parents struggle to both assimilate and hold on to their culture, balancing two cultures myself, and reconciling my American identity with my Pakistani heritage and my faith. 
My children, who in many ways are much more grounded and comfortable with their identity that I was at their age, understand that they are as American as anyone else, no matter what they might hear. I like to think that growing up in a fairly diverse community, and having exposure to diverse books from a young age helped in that regard.

In a nutshell, what I essentially bring to my writing is an example of the amazing American immigrant experience, from a Pakistani American Muslim perspective. 

Pakistani Americans make up the largest percentage of immigrant Muslims in America, but the story I tell and the family I describe in Amina’s Voice is very familiar to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and faiths. 
To me it was important to create a character who is unashamed of her culture or faith, who is unapologetically American and Muslim. It means a great deal to me for kids like mine, and all others, to be able to identify with, empathize with, and root for a character like Amina.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews all gave Amina’s Voice starred reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith. Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion.”

School Library Journal called it, “A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection.”

Booklist wrote, “Khan gracefully balances portraying the unique features of Amina’s cultural and religious background with familiar themes of family, belonging, and friendship worries, which should resonate with a wide range of readers. Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries.”