Naaz Khan - A Lion & Dragonfly Interview
"As a former bookseller and teacher, I think about books as vitamins or medicine for the soul – everyone is different and needs something different for where they’re at in their lives at a given moment."
- Naaz Khan
We adore the exuberant Zanzibarian delight Room for Everyone and were thrilled author Naaz Khan took the time to answer our questions! Enjoy the interview...
Can you tell us what inspired the idea for Room for Everyone?
Room for Everyone was inspired by a trip I took to Tanzania while living in neighboring Kenya. A friend and I were visiting Zanzibar and decided to take a local mini bus (called a dala dala) from Stonetown to Nungwi Beach. Just like in the story, the dala dala was crowded, and just like Musa, I felt a little bewildered and confused about how we could possibly make room for more people and all their things. I still have a vivid image of a sink and bucket being hauled up to the top with a rope, and all of us scooching around in our seats as we literally wiggled and giggled around to make room for everyone. It was during that moment I thought to myself – someone should write a picture book about this dala dala ride! If you’re interested in seeing some actual pictures I took while visiting Zanzibar you can visit my website: naazkhan.org
How did you come to collaborate with Merce Lopez on this book?
The team at Simon and Schuster matched me up with Merce Lopez, and I am truly so grateful - her artwork is gorgeous, and she brings the story to life in a way that feels dynamic, authentic, textured and joyfully captures the chaos! The rich palette she used for the illustrations makes me want to just dive into the pages and soak in all the colors! As a debut author, I really lucked out.
What is your favorite page of this book and why?
Visually speaking it’s hard to decide – but I will say, one of my favorite pages to read aloud is the spread with the 10 divers. Whenever I read the line “But was there room for all their stuff? Did the dala dala have room enough?” kids (and adults) get super excited about being able to chime in and guess. There’s a feeling of communal anticipation and sometimes joyful chaos before I turn the page that’s just delightful to witness. The same thing happens with the ping page that has the side view spread and everyone’s jammed in. The moment often turns into a game of eye spy, where even the shyest reader can’t help but get in on the search by helping find all the characters and objects. It’s super fun, and everyone has a great time searching for all the people and items.
What inspired you to become an author?
My first inspiration for writing a book came when I was 9 years old and living with my grandmother in India. She had a huge metal cupboard that my cousins and I called a khazane ki almari, which in Hindi or Urdu means cupboard of treasures. It was locked and always an honor when she gave one of us the key to get something special from it – glow in the dark prayer beads, pretty envelopes for Eid money, or the grandest of prizes – imported kit kats and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Not long after my grandfather passed away, my cousins and I were invited to look through the cupboard and discovered a tin box of old photographs and trinkets that belonged to him, including a picture of him as a child during colonial times sitting with railroad workers and a commemorative handkerchief from when he visited England during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. We were fascinated by our discoveries and decided to write a book so we could capture, memorialize and share his remarkable life story. It was handwritten, and since we didn’t have computers, we took it to a typist to type it up, and then to a copy machine store to get it printed, copied and bound so we could share it with all of our relatives, whose hearts lit up when they read it. I guess that’s what inspires me to write now too – an excitement about inviting people into moments, worlds, places, and lives so we feel lit up or connected and can inspire each other to learn, discover, grow, have fun, dream, and share life’s wondrous experiences together.
What is your favorite place to write?
The left hand side of my couch. It’s cozy, quiet, and close to my book nook. When I look out at the books on those shelves, standing together, a line of spines, it makes me feel like there is an army of words and stories and authors and places and characters all cheering me on as I write.
What was your favorite picture book growing up?
I don’t have one favorite, but there are 3 picture books I still have with me from my childhood – Dean’s Big Book of Fairy Stories, which is full of beautiful illustrations and fabulous magical stories from around the world. A Fish Out of Water - a lesser known P.D. Eastman book - is also one of my favorites – there’s something about the mystery in it that still tickles my heart. I also have and love a very worn, torn and beloved Richard Scarry Counting Book.
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
As a former bookseller and teacher, I think about books as vitamins or medicine for the soul – everyone is different and needs something different for where they’re at in their lives at a given moment. That being said, if comic books count, I’m currently getting excited about recommending Ms. Marvel again. I was thrilled when the first Ms. Marvel came out back in 2014. As a South Asian Muslim American, it was incredible to see the kind of authentic representation reflected in the Kamala Khan story. As a kid, I would never have imagined that there could ever be an American superhero with my last name, let alone from a Muslim family. It was inconceivable. The TV series just started this month, so that’s reignited my excitement about the comic books too!
There are so many books that make my heart sparkle, it’s hard to make a list, but I will often share a few I love on my Instagram account @naazhkhan
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
All My Rage, a contemporary YA fiction novel by storyteller extraordinaire, Sabaa Tahir. It’s deeply moving, emotional, and layered, and I read it all in one sitting. The same thing happened when I read her very first fantasy book – An Ember in the Ashes. I had just moved to Kenya at the time and had been invited to my very first party but ended up politely declining so I could stay home and finish the book! Her character and world building pull you in completely – body, mind, and soul.
If you weren’t an author what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
I’ve always been driven by projects rather than a career path, but if I could try out some alternative gigs I think it would be super fun to explore different forms of storytelling – maybe doing a voice over for an animated movie or film, or creating a puppet show with and for youth – shadow puppet theater is utterly enchanting. I also studied the sociology of religion in college, and I enjoy learning about how spiritual practices and traditions shape our world. I would love to help organize retreats that focus on nature or the arts so that people can deepen, explore, discover, journey, and connect with themselves and others in a way that feels spiritually nourishing and uplifting.
What do you hope your audience takes away from reading Room for Everyone?
I hope they see that sometimes things that are challenging can also be really fun if and when you decide to work together and just try to go with the flow. My dream before publishing the story was that a kid somewhere would read it and be inspired to wiggle and giggle around to make room for someone new at the cafeteria table, in their neighborhood, or the playground. I hope the story also inspires curiosity and openness…about people and places and even situations and circumstances that may be new, unfamiliar or unexpected.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I would love to go back to Zanzibar and visit more of Tanzania. I’d also love to go to Spain so I can meet Merce Lopez, the illustrator of Room for Everyone.
What do you listen to when you write?
I heard somewhere once that sound is touch at a distance, so I like to listen to music that makes me feel like I’m being taken back to the setting of my story. I’m currently trying to work on a Teacher’s Guide for Room for Everyone and get myself pumped up for the task by listening to fun Tanzanian pop music, like Diamond Platinumz. When I’m working on something that’s a bit more atmospheric, I tend to listen to ethereal instrumental music like Ludovico Einaudi or Max Richter. The best, however, is when I’m just in the quiet and then out of nowhere, I suddenly catch the melodious sound of a songbird by my window.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
There are so many children’s literature authors who have inspired me over the years, but Lois Lowry is one of the first authors I remember falling in love with as a child. Lois Lowry deeply shaped my perspectives on the power of words, memories, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves and others. The Giver is still one of my all-time favorite books, and I often revisit it when I am feeling lost and need to feel a sense of recalibration, spark, or rekindling of the spirit. I’ve also been really inspired by author Hena Khan, who paved the way for Muslim children’s literature authors in the United States. She is not just a groundbreaking author who offers stories in a wide variety of genres, but she is also a kind hearted, service oriented, generous person that helps lift people up, and shows us what it means to build and be in community.
What are you currently working on?
There are lots of possibilities swimming around on random pieces of paper all over my apartment, so I am currently working on getting myself organized so I can get those ideas down into a readable draft!
Abby Gallagher with Naaz Khan