For author Aya Khalil, writing is resistance in today's America
In 2021, just 0.65% of children’s books published by US authors were by or about Arab characters according to the CCBC, despite the fact that 3.7 million Americans can trace their roots to an Arab country.
It’s a statistic author Aya Khalil is working to address with her children’s books The Arabic Quilt, The Night Before Eid and the forthcoming The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale.
Born in Zagazig, Egypt, Aya immigrated to the US when she was one. Growing up, Arab representation was sparse. “When you’re little, you want to see people who look like you, dress like you or have the same name as you in books or on TV. I never had that – everything was so negative. I was a teenager when 9/11 happened,” Aya explains.
"Arabs, immigrants or anybody who’s ever felt like they stood out from the majority. I want them to feel empowered, be unapologetic about who they are and know that their stories matter. Our identity and language are important – we need to own our culture"
“Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d be walking into a Target, Barnes & Noble or library and seeing a book like The Night Before Eid,” Aya said. But alongside books like Reem Faruqi’s Laila’s Lunchbox and In My Mosque by M. O. Yuksel and Hatem Aly, that’s exactly what happened.
Aya initially went into journalism to help shift the narrative around Muslims before doing a Masters in education. During her studies, Aya noticed that books in classrooms rarely featured Arab or Muslim characters.
“The books that were available were self-published and not easy to find in libraries or bookstores,” she says. “When I was looking for books about Eid and Ramadan for my two children, it was hard. I saw Laila’s Lunchbox and it inspired me. I thought ‘I can do that too.’”
Aya thought writing a picture book would be easy, but quickly discovered that children’s books are competitive. “Around the time that Trump announced the Muslim ban, a lot of agents were calling for Muslim voices.
"They wanted our stories and to amplify our voices. Sometimes the push to be more inclusive in the industry can be tokenistic, but for me, my team has been truly supportive. Not everyone has that – I’ve heard some horror stories.”
Aya experienced one of those horror stories herself. After a tough start – The Arabic Quilt was released by an independent publisher just before the pandemic – the book was flying off the shelves. So far, so good, until Aya found out that the book was banned in the Central York school district of Pennsylvania.
“At first I thought it was weird, and then I got really upset. There are not a lot of books available by Arabic authors, now mine was taken away. The ban was reversed shortly after it was announced thanks to student protests, but during that time if Arab or immigrant kids were looking for a book like mine, they couldn’t get it. People said it was like a badge of honour to be banned, but I don’t know about that,” Aya says.
Thankfully after the ban was lifted, two districts in New York and Pennsylvania bought over 22,000 copies.
Enter The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale, Aya’s upcoming release. Using the same characters from her debut, the story follows Kanzi as she goes to the library to find a book to read with her teta — grandmother. But there are no diverse books on the shelves, and Kanzi is upset.
She speaks to their teacher, who explains that some books are so powerful that people are afraid of them. “It’s sad that I had to write about something that was happening, but the story shows the importance of allies. Kids need to know that their voices are powerful and to speak up if they don’t like something,” Aya says.
It’s a message that carries through Aya’s work. “When my parents emigrated, they wanted to assimilate. They were taught to respect authority and told their kids not to talk back to teachers. I tell my kids all the time, ‘If an adult makes you feel uncomfortable or left out, I give you the OK to say something.’ They know it’s OK to call out problematic things. That’s why we’re out here, telling stories to be part of the change.”
"People need to talk to their parents and grandparents about their culture and history. It’s so important to keep those stories preserved and alive"
For Aya, writing against the backdrop of America right now feels like “resistance. People are spewing hatred against Muslims, Arabs, refugees… anybody who looks like a foreigner or speaks Arabic. That’s why it’s so important for me to include Arabic words in my books. After 9/11, we didn’t want to speak Arabic outside the home, we were embarrassed. Now I make a point to speak Arabic with my kids in public. I want to normalise it.”
Aya wants children reading her books to feel proud of who they are. “Arabs, immigrants or anybody who’s ever felt like they stood out from the majority. I want them to feel empowered, be unapologetic about who they are and know that their stories matter. Our identity and language are important – we need to own our culture.”
While Aya’s books are for children, she’s been getting messages from adults to thank her for writing something that they never had when they were little. “It’s nice to know the world is different today. My son gets so excited to see his name in books or cartoons, it means the world to him. It’s something I longed for when I was little,” she says.
“I also hope my books encourage conversation between kids and adults, whether that’s teachers or parents. In The Night Before Eid and The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale, Kanzi’s family talk about Egyptian traditions and food. People need to talk to their parents and grandparents about their culture and history. It’s so important to keep those stories preserved and alive,” she continues.
So where does Aya see the state of literature in America today? “I really want to say it’s getting better, but it’s mostly the same white authors or books about animal characters. There’s still a lot of work to do, and most publishers aren’t ready to take a risk like mine did with The Arabic Quilt. I hope publishers continue to buy inclusive books, especially Arab books – there’s so little out there," she says.
“I don’t want to be too proud to be American. There’s a history of gun violence, police brutality and racism still associated with the culture of America. I’m not going to hang an American flag on my front porch because I don’t support a lot of what the government does, but I identify as Arab American because I grew up here and this is my country,” she explains.
“I hope to be able to contribute to the positive aspects of the country – there’s a lot of stuff we’re behind on, but there’s a lot to like.”
Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages.
Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks