Hena Khan's More to the Story is a Love Letter to Little Women

Writer Hena Khan shares insights on identity, and the creative process behind her newest middle grade book inspired by Louisa May Alcott's classic.

 

Photo by Havar Espedal

With a bevy of classic tales being updated for a contemporary audience, why did you choose Little Women to work from and what were you excited to do with it? 

I thought of the idea several years ago. It stemmed from my intense love for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and the strong connection I felt to the story and its characters. When I was growing up, I reread my sister’s copy of the book until it was coming apart; I found something about the sisters and the whole March family intensely comforting and familiar. I recognized many of the norms in the book as part of my own Pakistani American culture—things like family expectations, societal rules, and even traditions around dating and marriage. I was excited about the idea of writing a modern Pakistani American version of the book I adored, one that kept the essence of the story but left out my least favorite things.

 

How did you decide More to the Story was meant for middle grade readers? 

I initially intended to write the story as a young adult novel, when I thought the book would be more of a modern retelling than it actually turned out to be. Once I started to write, I actually didn’t connect with the voice of Jameela, my main character, as a high schooler. I also realized that I was a tween myself when I first read Little Women and decided to age the characters down a bit. Most importantly, I discovered that I didn’t want to write a retelling after all. I preferred to write a book that is inspired by the classic with some overlapping themes and moments, but also much that is unique. Ultimately, I created what I consider a love letter to my favorite book!

 

You have authored a wide range of children's books including Night of the MoonUnder My Hijab, the "Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream" series, and Amina's Voice. How did the process of crafting this modern retelling differ from writing original fiction?

The main difference was deciding what elements of the classic to introduce into my story. Little Women is a massive book that takes place over several years in the characters’ lives. There’s no way I could have fit all the storylines into a contemporary middle grade novel! It’s also told from the third-person perspective while I decided to focus my story on Jameela, who is based on “Jo” from Little Women, and to write from her point of view. I thought of characters and plot points I wanted to draw inspiration from, and parallels I wanted to keep, and then wrote an outline around those elements. But I didn’t pick up my copy of Little Women the entire time I was writing my story, because I didn’t want to draw too heavily from it. This resulted in my drawing from the parts of it that spoke to me the most and weaving in entirely new themes and characters to make it fresh and contemporary.

 

We see Jameela occupy many different roles in her life: she's a fiercely supportive middle sister, best friend, daughter, and an ambitious young journalist, among other things. How significant was it for you to portray characters with multifaceted identities in this novel?

I think it’s essential to give characters layered identities in order for them to feel authentic and relatable. Readers look for that as they bring themselves, and their own multifaceted identities, to stories. I appreciate that you highlight the universal aspects of Jameela’s identity, rather than focusing on the fact that she is a Pakistani American or a Muslim. Because although her ethnic and religious identities are an important part of who she is, I think if you asked her, she would probably describe herself as a sister, friend, daughter, and writer first.

 

Your novel also explores the nuanced microcosms within families and provides glimpses into the unique sibling and parent dynamics of the Mirza family. Were these informed at all by your own experiences?

I’m certain they were. For example, I was raised to have a deep respect for my parents, something I found mirrored in Little Women, and that I also portrayed in More to the Story. I felt a lot of responsibility for my younger siblings, even if I was grumpy and impatient with them! And like Jameela, I struggle with a quick temper, so that was an aspect  I wanted to explore. Boys being off-limits and an uncomfortable subject was something I experienced with my parents even more than the Mirza girls. I drew heavily from my life and those of other families around me while creating an imperfect but loving family that I hope many will relate to.

 

Ensemble stories can be uniquely challenging in the sense that there are multiple main characters to develop while keeping the narrative moving. If you had the chance, what elements of the plot and/or characters would you have loved to expand on?

I would have enjoyed expanding on the youngest sister Aleeza’s journey and struggles a bit. I can personally identify with her sulkiness and desire for attention, and being the baby who wants to get to do all the things her older sisters do. Originally, I thought I’d have her do something really horrible and then have to work to redeem herself, but it didn’t fit into the story the way I wrote it. So that might have to be saved for another book! 

 

I think the depiction of microaggressions is handled really well in your book. Various characters talk about experiencing microaggressions, and their harmful effects seem clear and accessible for kids who might be new to the concept. How did you plan to address this tough yet pervasive topic for young readers? 

I didn’t want the theme to take over the plot, but I included it because I think it can be useful for kids to learn the term microaggressions and understand how they manifest. I only learned the word myself a couple of years ago, and found it helpful to finally have a term for the things people say or do that leave me feeling insulted, misunderstood, or somehow hurt because of who I am. And of course, that includes what wasn’t intended to cause harm. I hope the more we can recognize microaggressions and talk about their impact, the more people can work to prevent them.

 

At one point Jameela says something really powerful: "And it showed me that our words can make as much of a difference as adults' do." What power does storytelling hold for you, and how do you feel children can tap into that power?

I didn’t think my voice mattered when I was a kid, or that I had anything important to say. I thought I needed to be an adult or maybe even a different type of person, or have more life experience, in order to have a story worth telling. But I realize now that I didn’t need to wait for a certain point in time or for permission to share my voice or be heard. I tell kids all the time that our stories are power, can inspire others, and that what we choose to share can elevate us all. Storytelling and having a voice can give kids a sense of purpose, and offer validation and motivation no matter who they are.

 

In the past, you've talked about being a voracious young reader who loved library trips and reread books until they wore out. In your opinion, what makes a book deliciously re-readable, something you want to come back to over and over again?

I love books that invite me into characters’ hearts, that evoke a strong emotional response, and give me something to ponder long after I’ve finished reading them. I return most often to books that highlight our shared humanity and include moments that feel so palpably real as I’m living in the story that I don’t want it to end. My favorite part of returning to a book I love is knowing ahead of time what feelings I can expect, like choosing to hang out with a trusted old friend.

 

What projects do you have coming up next?

I’m excited to be finishing up a sequel to Amina’s Voice now, and I have a couple of new picture book projects in the works. I’m thinking through an idea for a new middle grade novel and have a fun series that hasn’t been announced yet! Please stay tuned for more details.

 


More to the Story was published by Salaam Reads on September 3, 2019.

 

Click here to read our review.

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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