Banned Books and Bake Sales: An Interview with Aya Khalil and a Look at Picture Books Tackling Censorship
Banned books aren’t new. I can think of three distinct periods of book banning within my own lifetime where they’ve surged and receded, surged and receded.
Children and teen books about banned books aren’t new. Recall that as far back as 1982, Delacorte released Nat Hentoff’s The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.
But picture books about banned books? Now THAT is new! I’ll confess that I don’t remember seeing many until this year. Now in 2023 we’ve Raj Haldar’s This Book Is Banned on the one hand, and from Aya Khalil we’ve The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale. Aya Khalil, as you may recall, is the author of The Arabic Quilt, amongst other titles. I turned to her publisher for a description of the book itself:
“Kanzi, the immigrant girl of Aya Khalil and Anait Semirdzhyan’s bestselling picture book The Arabic Quilt, has come to feel welcome in her American school—that is, until an entire shelf of books about immigrant kids and kids of color suddenly disappears from the school library. Upon learning that books with kids who look like her have been banned by her school district, Kanzi is overcome by confusion and fear. But her classmates support her, and together— with their teacher’s help—they hatch a plan to hold a bake sale and use the proceeds to buy diverse books for libraries. The event is a big success; the entire school participates, and the local TV station covers it in the evening news. Prodded by her classmates to read the poem she has written, Kanzi starts softly but finds her voice. “You have banned important books, but you can’t ban my words,” she reads. “Books are for everyone.”
And Aya was kind enough to talk to me today about this book:
Betsy Bird: Aya, thank you so much for joining me here today. For those folks unfamiliar with THE ARABIC QUILT, the first book in your Kanzi stories, could you tell us a little bit about her and why you wrote that first book about her at the start?
Aya Khalil: Thank you so much for having me here! I wrote The Arabic Quilt back in 2017. I was frustrated with the lack of picture books with Muslims or Arab characters and I was working at a school at that time. I started writing it at the beginning of the school year. I was still new to picture book-writing, so throughout the year I started joining critique groups and craft classes. I spent hours at the library when my kids were at school researching new picture books. I was getting form rejections from agents and small/mid-sized presses. But I received two very nice rejections with feedback; one from an agent and one from an editor. At the beginning of 2018, I got an an offer of representation from Brent Taylor of Triada and I was super excited. But we were still getting rejections.
I remember I resigned that year from the school I was working at and I actually cried in my boss’s office when I was told him I needed to focus on writing children’s literature, because my kids and kids like them need to see themselves in books and it’s just not fair. Anyway, a few months later we were thrilled to get an offer from a small independent publisher, Tilbury House, illustrated so beautifully by Anait Semirdzhyan.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined being where I am today. That book really took off, despite the challenges it faced, including the struggle of finding an agent and publisher: debuting a month before the pandemic started in 2020 and getting banned (more on that later). Kanzi’s story is based on true stories I faced growing up as an Egyptian immigrant. I immigrated at the age of one with my family and we lived in a tiny freezing town called Minot, North Dakota. One day a teacher in third grade asked me write my classmates’ names in Arabic so we could make it into a classroom quilt. I still remember to this day, 25 years ago, how excited and happy I felt. I asked my mom to help me write their names and the next day I saw my classmates’ faces light up when I gave them their names. I worked in education for a few years, and I recreated that lesson one year. For some reason I thought it would also make a great picture book, and so here we are! I was also able to connect with that teacher when the book came out and she went to the school and took a photo in front with the picture book.
BB: With that book finished, you’re now following it up with a very different Kanzi story. Could you tell us a little about how the story of THE GREAT BANNED-BOOKS BAKE SALE came to be?
AK: Yes! So in the fall of 2021 my author friend sent me this list of banned books from Central York District in Pennsylvania and she said The Arabic Quilt was on there. I was a little surprised and after I read through the list, I was pretty upset. There are only a few picture books out there written by Arab authors, and so this book wasn’t allowed to be checked out for some time. I thought about the Arab or immigrant or Muslim children who wanted to read a book with characters like them, but they wouldn’t be allowed to. I had co-founded a group called Kidit in Color in 2019, and a few of the members’ books were on the list. So we wrote a statement and our illustrators made graphics denouncing this ban with some action items, including asking people to donate any of the banned books to Little Free Libraries.
Shortly after, my editor Jon Eaton emailed me telling me that two districts, one in NY and one in Pennsylvania, ironically, bought a few thousand books for their curriculum. It was a large number, totaling around 20,000 books! He also asked if I would be willing to write another picture book for them. He didn’t tell me what to write about, but he said something food-related would be nice! I brainstormed with some friends and also by myself. I started writing a Ramadan, food-related story but I didn’t like it (like most things I write ha!). I scratched it off and started thinking about my personal experiences as a child. But then I started thinking about my experiences as an adult. Book-bans were still fresh in my mind as I was doing interviews with media outlets so I put the two together and got my idea right there! I would write a picture book about book bans. I would also tie in food some how. I brainstormed some more and thought what if the kids raised money to buy banned books and do a bake sale. So that’s what it’s about!
I wrote it all out and used the same characters in the book. Kanzi’s teita is visiting her and she wants to pick out a book with Arabic words in it so they can read it together. But she is surprised when she and her classmates learn that many new diverse books are banned. She’s sad, and turns to writing poetry (like in The Arabic Quilt) to express her emotions. Her classmates and teacher all come up with the idea together – a protest and bake sale. This picture book was so empowering, sad, and exciting to write. I had a few critique partners read it and give me some great feedback. I was nervous to send it to my editor, but was ecstatic when he wanted to acquire it and got Anait on board to illustrate it.
BB: You had a number of different choices before you when writing this book. How did you decide upon this particular version? Was the bake sale always going to be a part of it, or did you come to that aspect of the story later?
AK: I talked a little about this in the other question, but yes, my editor suggested something “food-related.” At first I wrote something that was Ramadan-related, but after thinking I needed it to be a book on book bans and protests, I included some food aspect – a bake sale to raise money to buy banned books.
BB: For some people, the news about the rise in book bans across the country may strike them as relatively new news. But as you yourself make clear in your Author’s Note, this current rise has been going on for some time. The ban of THE ARABIC QUILT happened in September of 2021, after all. Yours is the first picture book on this topic I’ve seen that addresses this issue with this particularly contemporary feel (the empty shelves in the library evoke memories of those videos of the empty shelves in Florida we’ve all been seeing). Do you feel that we’ll see more picture books covering the topic of books for children being banned?
AK: I think unfortunately there will be more books about this. When I was doing research for this book, I couldn’t find any comps or mentor texts about book bans in particular. I did find a few protests/using your voice picture books which were helpful and important books. Unfortunately book bans have been around for a very long time and will continue for years to come. But I also think this young generation of children is absolutely incredible and will continue to use their voices to stand up to these unfair book bans.
BB: What eventually happened with the ban in Pennsylvania? Did your book ever make it back to the shelf, do you know?
AK: A couple of weeks later the book ban was reversed thanks to the students protesting there, CY.PARU . I also plan on donating a portion of book sales to them and to other organizations that support diverse books.
BB: You mention in your Author’s Note that many of the books that were banned in Pennsylvania involved food in some way. You mention Ramadan Around the World, Bilal Cooks Daal, Fry Bread, and the Meet Yasmin series. What would you say is it about food that serves as such an effective conduit for teaching children about cultures beyond their own?
AK: Yes, I love all of those books, and food is an absolutely incredible thing to broaden children’s view of different cultures and countries. Growing up, kids would think hummus and ful (Egyptian fava beans), were the grosses things ever, but here we are today with cultural appropriation of food with things like Chocolate Hummus; sorry if readers like this, it does taste good though, in my opinion, but I will say a hard no on pumpkin spiced hummus. But normalizing our “cultural” food in books is so important to me, because kids will be familiar with that dish. So instead of kids making a disgusted face at my kids’ kofta sandwich during lunch, they’ll remember they read it in a book before, and maybe they even tried making it or buying it! Not to mention, there’s so much to learn about different food’s history. Food is a great conversation starter.
BB: Finally, do you think we’ll be seeing Kanzi in any other stories in the future?
AK: I really hope so! I never thought I would write a second book with Kanzi, but I would love to write more. Maybe Kanzi visits teita in Egypt in the next book? Or more Kanzi and Molly? Who knows! I just love that The Arabic Quilt did so well and Kanzi is well-known amongst parents, librarians educators and families. A highlight in my author career was meeting a sweet Arab girl here named Kanzi!
Many thanks to Aya today for taking the time to share her thoughts about her latest book. You can find The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale on shelves everywhere (I hope!) August 1st. Thanks to Aya for answering my questions today!
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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