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Hena Khan clearly remembers being in school and listening to teachers and her fellow students mangle her name. She knew she wanted to include those moments when it came time for her to write “Amina’s Voice,” her new middle-grade novel about a piano playing Pakistani-American sixth grader who loves "The Voice" and sometimes struggles to fit in.
In the book, Amina is startled when her best friend Soojin suddenly announces she is going to change her name to something more Western when her family officially becomes American citizens.
“[W]e had always been the only kids in elementary school with names that everyone stumbled over,” Amina recalled. “It’s always been one of our ‘things.’”
For Khan, those hurt feelings were quite familiar. “That did come from my own experiences,” Khan told NBC News. “I had a friend making that decision and I drew from that.”
While Khan has written Muslim-themed children’s books before — including the picture book “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” — "Amina’s Voice" is her first geared toward middle schoolers. A mother of two, Khan noted how hard it can be to find books with strong Muslim characters for children.
"We had always been the only kids in elementary school with names that everyone stumbled over."
“I never saw myself portrayed in the the books I read growing up,” she said, adding that part of the reason she was inspired to create Amina’s story was because parents who had purchased her picture books were asking her for book recommendations that would be appropriate for older readers.
Khan also noted that the search for those books may become a bit easier in the months ahead: “Amina’s Voice” is the first book released by Salaam Reads, a new imprint that was created by Simon and Schuster last year.
“I feel tremendously honored [that my book is their first title,” Khan said. “And not only do I feel honored, there’s also the anticipation of waiting to see what the rest of the books will be.”
But “Amina’s Voice” is not just about the ups and downs of middle school life. As Amina tries to concentrate on school and her music, two harmful, real-life events get in her way. The first occurs when a great uncle visiting from Pakistan becomes indignant about her piano playing and declares to Amina’s parents that it is “un-Islamic.”
“A friend of mine said that his nephew who attended Sunday school at a nearby mosque had a question on a quiz about God hating music, which made me imagine my music-loving son hearing that,” said Khan. “Of course there are people who believe that [music is forbidden.] But I wanted to introduce the idea that Muslims are not a monolith.”
The second event that shakes Amina’s world was far more frightening. The mosque her family has always attended is vandalized and severely damaged by a fire that is suspected to be part of a hate crime.
“For children who are experiencing this, they can realize that they aren’t alone. They can see people coming together as a community in an ideal way.”
“It’s so unfortunately timely. In a way, it’s comforting that this important conversation about something that is so scary for children is addressed in a book,” Khan said, noting that the mosque in Maryland she attended growing up had also faced threats in the past month. “For children who are experiencing this, they can realize that they aren’t alone. They can see people coming together as a community in an ideal way.”
Ultimately, Khan says that she hopes both Muslim and non-Muslim readers find a connection to Amina.
“I really hope girls from all backgrounds find a friend in Amina, especially those who may not have met a Muslim before,” she said. “I also hope that little Muslim girls can be inspired by Amina’s journey and find the confidence to use their voices and pride in their identity.”