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Giving Voice to Joy, Beauty, and Anxiety: Adventures with Award-Winning Author Hena Khan

In today's society, childhood anxiety is increasingly visible, as more young people and their families find themselves grappling with these silent battles. On this week's episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, award-winning author Hena Khan discusses her latest book, Drawing Deena.  One of the many things I love about Hena is the way she centers Muslim characters in many genres, allowing them to be proud of their cultures and identities while experiencing relatable middle grade pressures and struggles.

Drawing Deena is a beautiful book -- I gobbled it in less than a day -- about a young Pakistani American artist who struggles with anxiety as she navigates social media, the stresses of helping lift her mother's business, and finding her own artistic path. I share a few quotes from our conversation here, but strongly encourage you to download and listen to the entire podcast -- and share it with your students!

Deena, she's sort of a combination of different people in my life, including me and other young people in my family who either have her artistic talent or have struggled with anxiety themselves. But the idea was really the fact that for many children who are experiencing anxiety, like Deena, they don't know what it is and they may not think, or their family may not think, that they have any reason to be anxious, and so it can kind of sneak up in this very subtle way at first until it grows. And that's what I wanted to share, like this journey of her dealing with these sort of uncomfortable symptoms, but it's not overwhelming her to the point where she can't function. She's really just going through her life but not feeling like it's something worth sharing until it gets to a point where she needs to. But I think that a lot of times we do confuse anxiety for other things in children, whether it's gastrointestinal or an allergy or just growing pains, and so that was something I wanted to explore too was the response of the people around her in very different roles in her life. But more than that, a story just about dealing with life and changes and interpersonal dynamics and family dynamics and this love for art and what it means to create art and to put yourself into the world in a vulnerable position. So all of that in one little book.

In Drawing Deena, Hena addresses the subtle onset of anxiety that is often overlooked by adults. We talk about the necessity of proper support systems within schools and how cultural stigmas can prevent access to these vital resources. Her portrayal of Deena is not just about the internal stresses of anxiety, but also about the external factors such as family dynamics, creativity, and the unique challenges faced by children of immigrants. The conversation is rich with insights into how a better comprehension of anxiety can be facilitated among both children and adults, providing a deeper understanding and fostering a more supportive environment. Please scroll to the end of this post for resources about anxiety and depression.

And unfortunately, the stigma is still real. It is lessening, which is encouraging. But I think for many families it's this notion of well, this is our private life, we'll manage it on our own. And I know many people who feel like, well, if you have friends and a supportive, loving family, why do you need to talk to a therapist or why do you need to involve someone else? So, you know, of course those things are not mutually exclusive and you can very much have a supportive community and lovely, lovely friends and family, but still need to learn how to manage something that's very real and manifests in very mysterious ways sometimes and can can very directly be affected by strategies and coping skills that you know friends and family can't always teach us.

One of the topics we explore is the impact of social media on today's youth. We talk about the intricacies of managing an online presence and the emotional toll it can take on us. Hena shares a poignant passage from Drawing Deena, depicting the character's surprise at the positive reception of her artwork online, highlighting the double-edged sword of social media validation. We discuss the pressures of crafting a digital persona and how it can influence self-perception and relationships -- not just for teenagers, but for adults as well.

Honestly, the entire book, I will confess, is really dealing with things that I have been thinking about a lot in my life now as an adult, and it's so fun to be able to go back and reexamine life or examine life through the eyes of a young person. And for me, social media is so tricky. I have such a complicated relationship with it. All the things I think teens are dealing with we're dealing with as adults too, like how it affects the way we feel about ourselves, the reaction to likes, the reaction to comments, all of that and it was fun to explore that through the eyes of someone who's not supposed to be on social media yet

Hena Khan is the author of a wide range of award-winning books, including Amina's Voice, Amina's Song, More to the Story, Zara's Rules for Living Your Best Life, One Sun and Countless Stars, Zain's Super Friday, Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Under My Hijab, Like the Moon Loves the Sky, and Unicorn Rescue Society: Secret of the Himalayas.  Her transition from picture books to middle-grade novels reflects the growth of her own children and the feedback from her readers. We discuss how the inclusion of Muslim characters across her work underscores the importance of representation in storytelling. Hena's approach to reimagining classics like Little Women in her More to the Story and her involvement in collaborative projects like Unicorn Rescue Society: Secret of the Himalayas and Like a Boss illustrate her versatility and her ability to create memorable characters that allow readers to see themselves in the stories they read.

In addition to Drawing Deena, Hena's upcoming projects are showcased, including Like a Boss, The Door is Open, We Are Big Time, and Behind My Doors: The Story of the World's Oldest Library. Hena shares her hopes and the inspiration she draws from young readers, highlighting their innate sense of fairness and potential to shape a better future. Our conversation ends on a hopeful note, reflecting on the joyous adventures in her books, as well as  the sense of belonging and empathy they foster.

I also tell kids about how I didn't feel comfortable sharing a lot of things about my life and what made me different when I was a kid. I kind of hid those things away and just wanted to blend in, like many of us do. And now those things are the things I highlight in all of my stories and it's nice to be able to celebrate the things about my background, my culture, my family and even some of the things that annoyed me when I was a kid. And I get to write now in a funny way and change things I didn't like to work out the way I would have hoped and things like that. So I really hope the kids will look to their own lives too and not shy away from what makes them different and maybe explore those things, because you know it better than anybody else and who else can write it but you?

Note: According to the CDC, anxiety affects approximately 1 in 11 children, aged 3-17. There are many resources available to help if you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety. A good place to start is this resource guide compiled by Youth MOVE Virginia. Some of the resources they list for helping with anxiety include:

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA works to prevent, treat, and cure anxiety disorders and depression. ADAA works to improve the quality of life for those who live with these disorders through evidence-based educational resources, professional practice, and scientific research. They also host support groups.

Your Life Your Voice provides ways for pre-teens, teens, and young adults to get help via call, text and email. Their trained counselors are able to offer advice for real life situations and they can be reached 24/7 via phone at (800) 448-3000 or by texting VOICE to 20121. They also provide tips and tools on their website for a number of issues such as coping skills, transitioning to adulthood, anxiety, abuse, identity, depression and more.

You may download the complete Youth MOVE Virginia Resource Directory. It was compiled by the Youth and Young Adult Programs Coordinator at NAMI Virginia.

YMV Youth & Young Adult Resources 2024
Download PDF • 465KB

You can listen to the podcast here:

You can also watch the podcast on YouTube:

And don't forget to check out all of Hena Khan's books:

Note: I am a affiliate. If you click through and make a purchase, I may make a small commission. I provide these book lists as a way to help you better search and find books. I encourage you to visit your local independent bookseller or library as well.

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