Hello again! Welcome to the July FEATURE INTERVIEW. This month I'm excited to introduce you to a special guest, Children's Author, Aya Khalil. Aya is such an inspiration and I cant' wait for you to get to know her a little better. For those of you who might already know her- I'm sure you already know. For those who don't yet- you're in for a treat! So, enjoy the interview. And don't forget to scroll to the bottom to see this month's giveaway prize and how you can be entered to win! Aya's Bio: Aya Khalil is the award-winning author of The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, which is an NCTE’s Charlotte Huck Award Recommended Book and the winner of the Arab American Book Award, among other honors. She's also the author of Our World: Egypt and forthcoming picture books: The Night Before Eid and The Great Banned Books Bake Sale. Aya holds a master’s degree in education and works as a freelance journalist, whose articles have been featured in The Huffington Post and Brit & Co., among other publications. She immigrated from Egypt to the United States when she was young and currently lives with her partner and three children in Northwest Ohio. Aya invites you to visit her online at: ayakhalil.com
The beginning to publishing:
When did you first know you wanted to pursue writing? Was it something you always loved and envisioned for yourself, or did it begin later? I've always loved writing. I loved writing poetry and writing in journals. In high school, I really wanted to pursue writing more professionally when I graduated. I graduated from college with a BA in communication and English Literature and also went to get my master's degree in education later. When and how did your professional journey toward publishing begin? It wasn't until I had my own kids, and my oldest was about four years old when I knew I wanted to become a children's book author after finding it so hard to find books with Arab and Muslim characters. So, this was about six years ago. I was also working at a diverse school and wished there were more diverse books that represented the diverse student population. So, I got to work. What were some of the first steps you had to take? I joined a local SCBWI critique group and spent hours at my local library reading new picture books. I listened to publishing podcasts, YouTube videos and did a lot of googling. Later I joined 12x12 and took classes at Highlights and InkedVoices, and Writing Barn. For authors/illustrators who may be just starting out, do you have any suggestions on first steps or recommendations on sites/groups they could visit/join? I wish I had taken more craft classes during those earlier years with Highlights or Writing Barn or joined 12x12. But I didn't know about them! Those places are truly gems, and there are affordable options as well! There are also great resources online, like Josh Funk's Free resources and Storystorm.
Road Bumps, Tips, Encouragement:
Throughout the publishing process, are there any challenges you’ve personally had to face and if so, how were you able to overcome them? I faced a ton of challenges. Contrary to some belief, as an Arab American Muslim, it was very hard breaking into the industry. It's also still challenging being on submission, and I still get a lot of rejections. It's still part of the industry and part of the job. It's not personal. You write, you submit, and you get rejected. No matter how many awards your book has gotten or if your previous book was bought at auction. Also, my debut picture book, The Arabic Quilt, illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan was on a banned list in 2021. There's more information about it here. But right after that, my publisher told me that two districts bought a total of 22,000 copies of the book! So, I knew the problem wasn't the book. They also asked me if I would be interested in writing another, and I was thrilled. I wrote The Great Banned Books Bake Sale, which comes out on August 1st. Do you have any people in your life who have been especially helpful in offering support? Yes, so many. I'm not sure where to start and don't want to miss anyone, but I have great support from author friends, and I don't know where I would be without them. We get on calls together at random times, send voice notes to each, and even send WhatsApp messages to each other at odd hours throughout the day. I am extremely grateful for them all, and you know who you are! I am also grateful for my Kidlit in Color team and Highlight Foundation Muslim fellows. We all know that publishing is a very special industry in which a lot of beauty and excitement await us. But there are also many slow moments… and sometimes disappointment. For people who may not have friends/family who are familiar with the inner workings of the publishing industry and who don’t yet have a writing community to lean on for advice/encouragement, do you have any motivational words of wisdom or recommendations on how to handle the discouraging moments of publishing? It's very discouraging and just part of the process, so always remind yourself of that. Sometimes it's okay to take a step back and say okay, I'm getting a ton of rejections with similar feedback; let’s fix this. Then go back to your critique partners, take more craft classes, and work on it. And also, sometimes, it's okay to set books to the side and revisit them later. Maybe a few years from now, you'll find an agent or editor who is looking for a similar concept. So it's okay to be upset about it, but just keep writing.
Books, inspiration, and illustration:
I always love talking with authors about this subject. It’s always such a happy thing to share! So, I know this year had three books scheduled to come out. One is already here and two are on their way. Can you tell us a little bit about them? Yes! The Night Before Eid, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh came out in March of 2023, and it's about three generations bonding of Eid treats. It's such a special picture book for many different reasons, but especially because it's the childhood Eid book of my dreams. The Great Banned Books Bake Sales comes out in August and is a companion to The Arabic Quilt and illustrated by Anait Kanzi and her classmates find out that the new diverse books are not in the library, and so she and her classmates come up with a plan: a protest and bake sale to get the books back on the shelf! My First Book of Arabic Words comes out in October and is illustrated by Chaymaa Sobhy and is an ABC book on Arabic Language and Culture which I am so excited about as well. What was your inspiration behind these stories? The Night Before Eid's inspiration was all of the joy and love that's connected to Eid and the night before Eid in our family. The Great Banned Books Bake Sale's inspiration is loosely based on true stories of when The Arabic Quilt was banned, and I talked about it in the backmatter. For My First Book of Arabic Words, the publisher approached me, and I was thrilled because I would've loved to see something similar to this growing up in a bilingual Arabic-English household, plus my kids are also bilingual English-Arabic speakers, and I think they'll love it, especially Chaymaa's vibrant illustrations. Let’s talk a little about illustration. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about illustration. Many people who aren’t in publishing are surprised to learn that picture book writers don’t always illustrate their own stories and they also don't get to pick them *usually*. Since you are a writer, not an illustrator, I’d love to hear a little about what that is like. Yes! Publishers usually do choose the illustrators. For The Arabic Quilt, Anait did an incredible job, and she's an immigrant herself! With The Night Before Eid also, Rashin's work is stunning. For My First Book of Arabic Words, I actually recommended Chaymaa Sobhy to the editor as I was a huge fan of her work, and I was so excited when she was available! Plus, she's Egyptian, so it's very exciting to work with her. Here's a question for my readers who are still in the query trenches: What is the querying process like when sending queries to an agent as just a text writer? It's challenging, and we see many agents saying they only want author-illustrators. It's been a few years since I queried, but I hear it's even tougher now. I would say just keep working on your craft and connect with other writers who are also querying so you can talk/vent about it! For my readers who are newly agented with a publishing deal but haven’t yet had their manuscripts matched with an illustrator, what is that process like? Sometimes that takes a really long time! I'm talking months and months. So just wait and know that editors and trying their best to match your beautiful words with the best illustrator for it. They're investing a lot of money into everything and pay attention to all of the detail. You need a lot of patience in this industry. Querying, being on submission, waiting for your contract, waiting on being matched with the illustrator, waiting for the illustrations, waiting for it to be printed, and the list goes on. It's a long process, but it's worth the wait. While we’re talking about illustration, I wanted to take a moment to mention your illustrators: What was your experience working with them individually? How involved were you, if at all with the illustration side of things? Did you have an opportunity to offer any input? Examples? I was sent sketches and asked for feedback. I sent some minor suggestions and tweaks here and there for both. I think for the Eid book, I did have in the text that Zain had curly hair, but the sketches weren't too clear if his hair was clear or straight, so I wanted to make sure it was curly. This question goes along with the last question, but I wanted to list it separately because I think this is an area that deserves specific attention. What are your thoughts on art notes? Do you use them? If so, how much and how often do you implement them? I do as needed! I tend to write longer picture books, so I try to use them to make my word count shorter (haha)! I don't think I used them that much for The Night Before Eid, though, or The Great Banned Books Bake Sale. Were there any things that surprised you about the illustration process? Explain. That it's really hard to change things once the colors go in! So really take many looks during the sketches and early illustrations. And this isn't surprising, but illustrators do so much research themselves too and a lot of work goes into it all. Do you have a favorite spread in each book that you’d like to share? If so, what’s your favorite part about them and why? The last spread of The Night Before Eid is so cozy and like a big hug, but I love it all. The Great Banned Books Bake Sale there are many, but I love all the ones where the classmates are together because it shows unity and solidarity, especially at the end! Any final words of encouragement to share with our readers today? Keep reading current books in the genre you write, take craft classes, it's okay to put work to the side for a bit (or for years or forever), and believe in yourself and your work. Such a great interview, Aya. Thank you for sharing your inspiration, wisdom, and encouragement. And congratulations again on your new books! I will make sure we have all your books ordered for my library.
Connect with Aya Khalil
Website: www.ayakhalil.com Twitter: @ayawrites Instagram: @ayakhalilauthor
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Now it’s time to talk prizes… For the month of July, anyone who: 1.Leaves a comment on the July Feature Interview- before or by July 31st… 2.And likes & subscribes to the blog… Will automatically be entered into the GIVEAWAY PRIZE DRAWING! It’s that simple. This month, Aya is offering an exciting prize! A FREE copy of her new book, The Great Banned Books Bake Sale, scheduled to come out in August of 2023. So, what are you waiting for? Get those comments/likes/subscribes in! Please note: IF YOU'RE ALREADY SUBSCRIBED TO THE BLOG, YOU WILL STILL BE ENTERED INTO THE GIVEAWAY DRAWING FOR LEAVING A COMMENT AND LIKE. Thanks for reading! Speaking of readers… Is there anything you’re dying to ask an author? Leave your suggested question in the comments section below for a chance to see it answered in a future Feature Interview!