As a child, Hena Khan loved bringing home a grocery bag filled with books from the library.
“I relished the world of unread pages ahead of me,” she says by phone from her Rockville, Md., home, a mere two miles from where she grew up.
As an aspiring writer and second daughter of four children, Khan especially connected with Jo March in “Little Women.” But few of the books she read reflected her life experience.
This month, Khan’s own book, “Amina’s Voice,” is a step toward changing that.
The novel, about a Pakistani American Muslim sixth-grader who struggles to stay true to her family’s culture while fitting in at school, is the first title in a new imprint, Salaam Reads, from Simon & Schuster. The imprint, whose name means “peace” in Arabic, focuses on stories featuring Muslim characters.
Aimed at readers ages 8 to 12, the novel draws on some of Khan’s experiences. Like Amina, Khan is Pakistani American and Muslim. Growing up, she grappled with issues of identity and assimilation. She recalls her Korean American best friend wanting to change her given name to something that “sounded more American.” Khan also remembers an uncle visiting from Pakistan telling her and her siblings they should be more “traditional.”
“I was incensed,” Khan says, laughing.
Khan’s young character also deals with universal issues facing middle-grade readers: self-doubt, shifting friendships and family expectations.
The details of school and family relationships and the “emotional heart of the novel [are] relatable to kids across cultures,” says Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of the imprint. At the same time, it is grounded in Khan’s Muslim heritage and the diversity of many of today’s middle schools.
The imprint has been in development for several years, but its launch last year was especially timely.
“Muslims are a common point of discussion in the current social and political climate” in the United States, Jaffrey says. “The richness of diversity within the Muslim community is rarely seen in popular culture, despite nearly a quarter of the world being Muslim.”
The four books to be released in the next six months address this deficit. They also dovetail with a growing national awareness of the need for more children’s books about minority characters in general, spearheaded by the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
The forthcoming books focus not on theology but on the varied experiences of young Muslims. There is a realistic novel for teens about an Arab Indian American girl and a middle-grade fantasy with Bangladeshi American characters. There are picture books by the Muslim and Latino poet Mark Gonzales and the British pop star Harris J. The imprint plans at least nine books a year, including board books, picture books and novels.
Khan, too, is working on a lighthearted series for the imprint. Her three chapter books will feature a young Muslim boy who likes to play basketball.
“My husband and two sons are the best consultants,” she says.
After years of working in international public health communications, Khan — also the author of several Muslim-themed picture books, including “Night of the Moon,” “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns ” and “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” — recently decided to devote her time to her writing and presentations for children.
Post-election concerns about the safety and rights of immigrants and Muslim Americans have fueled a sense of urgency. “We need voices and positive narratives that counter the negatives in the media,” she says.
Mary Quattlebaum is a children’s author who reviews middle-grade and teen fiction for The Washington Post. She teaches in the graduate program in writing for children at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
By Hena Khan
Salaam Reads. 197 pp. $16.99.