This month my Q&A is with Maryland author Hena Khan, whose new middle-grade novel, More to the Story, was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. More to the Story is published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, as was her previous novel, the much-lauded Amina’s Voice.
Instead of Jo March and her sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts, More to the Story follows Jameela Mirza and her Muslim family in contemporary Atlanta. In its starred review of the book, Publishers Weekly says, “Khan nimbly incorporates details of modern life and allusions to Alcott’s classic — including financial troubles and a health scare — into a tale that is, fittingly, strongest in the moments when family dynamics are on display.”
I’m giving away a copy of More to the Story to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Hena Khan.
Chris: How did paying homage as a writer to a book that you loved as a reader compare to what you thought the experience would be like? Are there ways that the process was different, or more challenging, or more beneficial to your writing skills than you had anticipated?Hena: When I had originally thought about writing a book inspired by Little Women, I imagined the process would be smoother.
I adored the classic growing up and for years had thought it would adapt well to a retelling that featured a Pakistani American family. After all, I saw many aspects of my culture in the book, like overly worrying about reputation, marriage proposals, and traditional gender roles.
When I spoke to my editor Zareen Jaffery about the idea, I told her “I want to write a Pakistani American version of Little Women, but Beth can’t die and Jo can’t marry the old guy,” and I’m pretty sure she cheered with joy.
But when I sat down to write the book, which I imagined as a young adult novel, I couldn’t capture the voice I wanted. I didn’t like my protagonist, Jameela, as a high schooler, and realized I didn’t want to immerse myself in marriage proposals or romance or struggles against societal rules.
Instead, I wanted to write the book from a middle-grade perspective, and to focus on universal issues and the strong relationships I savored in the original book. But then it wouldn’t quite be the retelling I imagined. In the end, the story I wrote includes nods to my favorite book and aspects of it that I love, like a memorable scene or moment or the basic personalities of the characters.
It ended up being liberating, because I stopped worrying that readers would compare it to the original book, since it’s now so different. I hope it will be fun for fans of the classic to recognize the similarities or tributes to the Louisa May Alcott classic, and for new readers to enjoy an original story with characters they connect with.
Writing the book was a test in expressing new emotions, pushing my dialogue scenes, and trying to write flirting, which I’m really bad at in real life!
Chris: Speaking of flirting, the character doing most of that is Ali — a eighth grade, Pakistani British version of Laurie from Little Women. I loved reading your author’s note and learning that your assumptions about Briticisms paralleled the Mirza sisters’ curiosity and observations about Ali’s cultural background. What’s your response going to be to readers who inevitably want more about Ali and his soccer playing in a follow-up book?
Hena: I hadn’t considered that parallel, but you’re so right! The silly things the girls say to Ali probably reflect a lot of things I assumed myself about British culture. And like Jameela, as a child I was curious the first time I met a South Asian with a full British accent.
I’m so glad that while I was writing More to the Story I had a real British teen, living in London, who I could call and read my Ali dialogue scenes to, and have him very patiently correct my completely made-up or TV-inspired Briticisms. The best was when I said “lumps” (referring to sugar cubes because of my extensive knowledge of proper tea terminology from Looney Tunes) and he cracked up and thought it sounded perverted.
I loved writing Ali as a character, someone who is a little mysterious but also super charming and kind. And I ultimately had fun including the flirting and the slightest hint of romance without hitting anyone over the head with it. My husband read the book and asked, “What romance?” But I promise it’s in there!
I hadn’t thought about readers asking for more about Ali, although now that I think of it, readers wanted more of Mustafa from Amina’s Voice, too! Honestly, I hadn’t considered extending the story before, but if readers clamor for it, I’d be more than happy to give it to them!