Zara’s Rules: An Interview with Hena Khan
Hena Khan! Hena Khan! I’m talking and chatting with Hena Khan!
Okay, if I can confess something here, I kind of like talking to Hena Khan. I did it in 2021 on the topic of her novel, AMINA’S SONG. And I did a cover reveal for her in 2019 when she was publishing MORE TO THE STORY. All told, I sort of always say yes when someone asks me if I’d like to do something with Hena Khan. Can you blame me?
In any case, today we’re talking ZARA’S RULES FOR RECORD-BREAKING FUN. It’s the latest release from the Salaam Reads imprint of Simon & Schuster. The plot? I thought you’d never ask:
“From the beloved author of Amina’s Voice comes the first book in a humor-filled middle grade series starring a young Muslim girl with an endless list of hobbies who searches for ways to maximize fun for her family and neighborhood friends.
Meet Zara Saleem, the queen of the neighborhood.
Zara’s in charge of it all: she organizes the games, picks the teams, and makes sure everyone has a good time…and they always do.
When a new family moves in across the street, suddenly Zara’s reign is threatened by Naomi, who has big ideas of her own about how the neighborhood kids can have fun. To get everyone to notice her again, Zara decides she’s going to break a Guinness World Record—if her little brother Zayd doesn’t mess things up.
But when she finds herself increasingly alone in her record-breaking quest, Zara starts to wonder if sharing the crown and making a new friend might end up being the best rule of all.”
To the questions!!
Betsy Bird: Hena! What a delight to talk to you again. So I was delighted to take a look at ZARA’S RULES FOR RECORD-BREAKING FUN since (amongst many reasons) my daughter’s best friend is named Zara, and yet this is one of the first books I’ve ever seen to include her name in a title! Can you tell us a little bit about where this book came from?
Hena Khan: It’s lovely to chat with you, Betsy! I’m thrilled to talk about Zara, and excited for readers to get to know her soon! The character came from my Zayd Saleem series, where Zara is his older sister. But I love being able to explore her personality in more depth and give her top billing now! She’s a girl with a bunch of interests and hobbies (rather than a specific passion) who’s figuring herself out in unexpected and amusing ways. She’s also part of this loving, funny, extended inter-generational family that I adore. It was important to me to write a story where Zara’s identity as a South Asian and a Muslim is subtly woven into the text, as just another aspect of her experience growing up.
BB: I’ve heard comparisons of this book to the Ramona Quimby stories, and indeed this feels like it reads a little younger than, say, books like AMINA’S VOICE. Was it a conscious choice on your part to skew for a younger crowd or did it just work out that way?
HK: I grew up absolutely adoring Ramona Quimby and her antics, and I wanted Zara’s book to have a similar feel. It’s filled with neighborhood friends and is very play focused. Also, like Ramona, Zara grapples with real-life challenges, such as realizing she might not be the queen of the neighborhood anymore, dealing with feelings of competition and jealousy, and learning what it means to be a leader. I did intend to write for a slighter younger audience—readers who want a satisfying story with depth and strong character development, all packed into a shorter, humorous book!
BB: In your story, Zara and new girl Naomi are vying for neighborhood supremacy. How much of this book is autobiographical? Were you a neighborhood queen bee yourself, or did you identify a bit more with the followers?
HK: I’m so glad you asked me this! Many pieces of the story are autobiographical. The street Zara lives on is modeled after my own, and some of the kids in the neighborhood are based on my childhood friends, especially the Goldstein family. Naomi and Michael are actually two of my closest friends, and several things that happen in the book, like the hula hoop incident, kickball game, and the clubhouse, are taken directly from our lives, decades ago. It was so fun to reminisce and pull details out of my past and fictionalize and modernize them. And, for the record, I was no queen bee! I was more than happy to take orders and follow, which is another reason it’s extra fun for me to get to live vicariously through Zara now!
BB: Your book has plenty of illustrations inside of it thanks in large part to Wastana Haikal. When you write a book do you ever imagine the look of the characters? How did they gel with Wastana’s interpretations?
HK: I have a basic idea in my head as I picture my characters doing the things I describe. For Zara, I often imagined her as my friend’s daughter—an amazing girl who is Zara’s namesake. In general, I tend to go light on physical descriptions of my characters in my writing and leave it up the reader’s imagination. But in a book with rich and detailed illustrations like this, I did offer the artist short character descriptions. And Wastana did such an incredible job with interpreting their personalities and bringing them to life. I hope kids will love looking at the illustrations as much as I do. Not to mention the cover!
BB: Is this the only book where we’ll be seeing Zara do her thing, or will there be more of her in the future?
HK: I’m so happy that there will be more! We just revealed the cover of Book 2, ZARA’S RULES FOR FINDING HIDDEN TREASURE, which is an absolute stunner, thanks again to Wastana and the design team at Simon & Schuster. And I just finished writing Book 3 of the series. It has been such a joy to get to revisit Zara, her friends, and family, and to explore new themes and adventures in each book. My dream is for there to be an entire shelf of them one day!
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
HK: I’m currently juggling a few projects, but mainly focusing on my next middle grade novel. I have a few picture books in the works, my first graphic novel in production, and I’m launching a new pick-your-path series called SUPER YOU in April. I’m extremely grateful to get to reach different readers through a variety of formats and to be able to push myself creatively. And I hope everyone will connect with me through my newsletter or social media to learn more about my current and future books!
Many thanks to Lisa Moraleda and the folks at S&S for setting this up and thanks to Hena for taking the time and attention to answer my questions. ZARA’S RULES FOR RECORD-BREAKING FUN is out April 19th in bookstores and libraries everywhere. Catch it if you can.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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