Zibby interviews award-winning children’s author Hena Khan about Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun, the first book in a humor-filled middle-grade series about neighborhood antics starring Zara, a young Muslim girl and the queen bee of it all! Hena talks about the childhood memories that inspired the story (it involves dreams of breaking a Guinness World Record and a tragic hula hoop incident) and her ultimate goal of adding diversity to children’s literature (she is Pakistani American and Muslim, and never saw herself in books growing up!). She also discusses her writing, publishing, and touring experiences (and the impacts of the pandemic and imposter syndrome on it all).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hena. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking.

Hena Khan: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: I have to tell you that you spoke at my kids’ school. I have a second grader and a third grader. I think you went last year in New York, or you did virtually or something. They were very, very excited. They were like, “You have to interview this author.” Then of course, today, I’m like, “Guess who I’m interviewing?” They’re like, “Who?” No, I’m kidding. They were very excited. That’s really where this came from, is the kids.

Hena: That’s so great. Tell them thank you. Doing school visits and talking to kids is the most fun part of all of this.

Zibby: First of all, talk about your latest book. I would love to hear how you got started and built this whole career.

Hena: Sure, thank you. Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun is the first book in a series featuring Zara, who is actually the sister of my character Zayd in Chasing the Dream series. I just loved this girl so much. In that series, she’s the sometimes snarky, little bit know-it-all older sister, but in a sweet way. Zayd just idolizes her. I loved the idea of exploring her character in more detail. I was already so invested in that family and that universe I had created that it was really fun to go back and examine them from a different time period. I actually set this series three years before the Zayd series. Zara is about ten and three quarters, as she says in the beginning of the first book. Zayd is even younger. It’s just a different vantage point. The books are very neighborhood centric. I wrote them, actually, during the pandemic when everyone was stuck at home. One of the bright lights was hearing all the kids outside playing and being imaginative. I would hear roving gangs of kids on bikes. It just made me think of my childhood. It was something that I hadn’t seen before in recent years.

Zara was born. It’s very much a series about neighborhood friendships and antics. In the first book, she is very threatened because a new girl named Naomi has moved into the neighborhood. Her whole family’s moved in across the street. Zara’s so used to being the one who is sort of in charge of all the kids and makes the rules and makes sure the teams are even. All of a sudden, this new family comes with kids that are going to threaten that balance. She feels very unsure of what’s going to happen and a little threatened by this new girl’s ideas being so welcomed by the other kids. She sets out to establish herself as the queen of the neighborhood and decides she’s going to break a Guinness World Record in order to show how important she is. It doesn’t go the way she plans. A lot of it is actually based on my neighborhood and my childhood and my attempts to break a Guinness World Record, like so many of us have.

Zibby: Which one did you attempt to break?

Hena: Hula hooping was our big one. That’s why there’s hula hooping on the cover here. My neighbor was a little better than me. My friend Naomi in real life was hula hooping on her driveway for fifty-seven minutes without stopping. We were like, if she gets to an hour, that’s going to be the world record, right? We didn’t know what it was. We just thought we knew. At minute fifty-seven, my brother rammed into her with his tricycle.

Zibby: No!

Hena: The hula hoop came crashing down. It was this moment seared in our memories as this tragedy. I stole that and put it in the book. Zara’s the one trying to break the record and the one hula hooping in the story, along with other failed events.

Zibby: What was the record?

Hena: We don’t even know. We didn’t have the internet when I was growing up.

Zibby: Is there a record?

Hena: I’m sure there must be.

Zibby: You didn’t google it after this whole book? Oh, my gosh.

Hena: Yes, after the book, I googled a lot of them. Zara knows based on this old book that she has of her uncle about the longest tap dancing and all of that. Zara didn’t know. We certainly didn’t know as kids.

Zibby: I’m talking real life here.

Hena: I don’t remember what it is at the moment.

Zibby: What age is Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking perfect for, if people are listening and they want to get gifts for the holidays or something like that? Which age kid?

Hena: The way the publisher breaks it down is, this is what we call the middle grade. You’re not little-little. You’re not an adolescent yet. Seven to ten is what they recommend, roughly. I’ve had kids throughout elementary, really, even fourth and fifth graders, enjoy the series and the Zayd series, and adults too. I read a lot of middle-grade fiction. What I love about it is it’s just good storytelling without all the fuss. The second book of the series just launched last week, Zara’s Rules for Finding Hidden Treasure. That’s one I think moms in particular might really connect with because a lot of it is stuff that I’m wrestling with now, the idea of what we keep and treasure and what we get rid of. I’m wrestling with my mom — it’s been many years — with getting her to part with things that she needs to part with, which is a challenge. Kids, too, absorb the things that we do or what we keep and why. One of my sons is very tidy and organized. The other one’s a little bit of a hoarder. I don’t know why. It’s just fun to talk about all that stuff. Marie Kondo has a mention, which I thought was funny. That was for my own sake.

Zibby: Tell me how you got started writing in general.

Hena: I think I was always a writer at heart. As a kid, I was one of those kids writing stories and a family newspaper. Being a book author was something I never thought was possible for someone like me. I considered journalism. I worked on my school newspaper. I ended up in public health communications after a while, so I did writing and editing, but for technical documents and things about diseases and not at all fun. I actually fell into writing for kids by accident when a friend of mine from elementary school who was working at Scholastic Book Clubs reached out to me and asked me for help on a series she was working on. It was called Spy University. She knew I loved to write. I decided to give it a try. I found out it was way harder than I realized. I had to completely learn how to write for children. It made me think about how much I loved books as a kid and how exciting it was. When you get that first letter from a child saying that they loved your book, you’re like, this is amazing. There’s an actual reader on the other side of this who’s a kid. It made me realize I wanted to keep doing it. I also really wanted to write books that did include characters like me and my children and characters that I never had the chance to see when I was growing up. I never picked up a book and saw a character who looked like me, ever, or had a family like mine.

Zibby: Because this is an audio podcast, mostly, tell everyone your background and what you mean by that.

Hena: I’m a Pakistani American child of immigrants and a Muslim. That was just a representation I did not see growing up. I was an avid reader who spent a lot of time at my local public library. I devoured books like Beverly Cleary. Ramona Quimby was my favorite. I like to think that those books were the inspiration behind this series. I was very curious to learn about how other people’s lives worked and how other families worked. Of course, I found ways to connect with all of those characters and love those characters, but I never saw myself, not did I really question where I was. I just accepted the mainstream narrative did not include me. Now looking back, I realize what an impact that had. As a kid, I was just like, I guess my story doesn’t matter. The things that make me different or my family different than the ones I read about aren’t worthy of being in print. Now it’s amazing to be able to actually add those details and the little cultural references and have them greet each other the way my family would greet each other and for it to not be a big deal. That’s what’s important to me too.

We make a big deal about diversity. It is important and a very important conversation to be having. At the same time, when it comes to children’s literature, sometimes it’s nice to have stories where kids just are who they are and living life as kids having very relatable problems, day-to-day challenges, not things related to their identity, necessarily, or challenges related to that, but just ordinary things, like a kid moving into a neighborhood or having your bike be stolen and needing to make money to get a new one or things like that. Then this family is Pakistani American. She’s a third-generation Pakistani American, like my children. They’re Muslim. That’s just there at the same time that they’re interacting with their very close Jewish neighbors who live across the street, which is what it was like for me. As important as it is for kids who are of a particular background to feel represented and pick up a book and feel included, I think it’s equally important, if not more important, for other kids to read about those characters and find things in common, just like I did with Ramona Quimby, and see, oh, okay, this family is a little different than mine but actually has so much in common with me and mine too.

Zibby: I reread Ramona recently to one of my younger kids. I hadn’t dived back in in so many years. She did so many things independently. She was out and about walking to school, doing all these things unattended. I’m looking at my seven — I do way too much for my kids, I have to say. I’m the most enabling mom ever. I’m like, wow, look what they were doing, just scampering off to school and doing all these adventures.

Hena: I was very sheltered and protected. I had what you would call an overprotective mom back then. Even then, I used to walk to school. It was almost a mile away, back and forth every day. Those were some of the most fun times of my life, were just that walk back and forth with things we would discover and do. I do think I have that spirit a little bit in these books too. Zara’s a little free to be on her street and with her friends. To me, that was important. Technology plays a very small, if almost no, role in the stories. I didn’t really think about it because I was looking back to the past as I was modernizing my experiences for the present day. I didn’t feel like it needed to be there. In the books, even, I write for older kids, there is mention of phone use or texting or whatever it is. I just didn’t feel like that was necessary in these books. It was refreshing not to have it there.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you for that break. That’s wonderful. Kids need to know that life goes on. I’m like, this is not real life. This is your screen. When you started writing for kids and realized it was harder than you thought, what did you have to change about your writing style to accommodate that?

Hena: In the beginning, it was even something as basic as using exclamation points, which I was taught never to do as a kid. I remember teachers saying, no, no, and cutting those out. I was like, oh, I guess a well-placed exclamation point works, and being punny. Especially those initial books I was writing that were nonfiction, it was ways to make topics like space and espionage very accessible and exciting. That snappy, punny language was what I was trying to pick up on and had to learn. Then when it came to just storytelling and becoming a novelist, that was a whole new beast to tackle, and thinking about what makes a great character, what makes a compelling story, that balance of — my characters, some of them tend to be not your typical spunky girl. I feel like there’s a lot of spunky girls in narratives. Maybe you could define her that way, but I didn’t want her to have this overwhelming personality or this overwhelming passion for one thing. I feel like we see a lot of girls like that. Even some of my characters are more passion driven. What I like about Zara is that she is someone interested in all sorts of things and tries lots of things. That was what I had established as her character in the first series. She tried a bunch of things. She was maybe a chronic quitter, which I thought was hilarious. In these books, it doesn’t come out as much. She’s just open to trying new things, which I really liked. That idea of building a character who everyone can relate to and who feels really authentic, that was, to me, the part of writing that I just really adore now but took a bit to learn. Things like mastering dialogue, which takes practice, it’s been a journey.

Zibby: What is your process like? How fast do you write these books? How many books a year? What’s your schedule? How do you balance all that with all the school visits and your own parenting?

Hena: I was just talking to another author friend who is very regimented in his schedule. He has carved out precious writing time every day. My schedule is just all over the place. I don’t have any rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes I’m more focused on writing. Other times, I may be more focused on editing. Other times, when I’m traveling, it’s very hard for me to focus on either of those things for any extended period of time. As far as the time it takes, I usually try to give myself about three months to work on a book of Zara’s length. Maybe six months to work on a longer novel for older kids. Then picture books take an absurdly long amount of time. I write those as well. A first draft may come to you. You may write it in a few days. Then the tweaking and making sure every word fits and makes sense and then the whole process of getting it to art, it can take years. I usually juggle more than one project at once, not one of the same type. I’ll be maybe copyediting one while I’m revising another, while drafting a third. That tends to keep things moving. Then in terms of how many books a year, it just depends. The Zara series, I wrote all three in one year. At other times, I might be working on a longer piece that takes longer or a couple of picture books. Everything comes out much later. Sometimes all of a sudden, it looks like I have four books coming out within six months. Everyone’s like, you’ve been busy. I’m like, well, I wrote those three years ago. They’re just coming out now. It is a lot of juggling, but fun to try to make it all fit and not have publishing deadlines that conflict with each other and things like that.

Zibby: Do you feel like you’re just perpetually on tour?

Hena: It all came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. Before that, it was a lot of travel and a lot of school visits. I really felt like I couldn’t say no to things. It was that fear that, okay, I’m getting invited to all of these things, these conferences and school visits and workshops or whatever it is, and I want to go to everything, and this notion that if I didn’t, that people would forget about me. The well would dry up. It was exhausting, really, to look back and think about how much I was doing. Initially when everything stopped, I was actually at a school in Florida when everything went on lockdown. I was there for a three-day visit at this lovely school in Tampa. I remember the second day, thinking, should I go home? What’s happening? The NBA shut down. The next day, I flew home with all the spring breakers. I was like, we’re all really packed in this tiny plane together. What’s going to happen? Initially when I looked at my calendar and there was nothing, everything was cancelled, I felt this enormous sense of relief because I realized how much I had just been running and how much it had taken a toll. Then slowly, we introduced the idea of virtual visits. That started up. Now the in-person travel and visits are picking up again. It just feels so wonderful after this much longer break than we had ever thought was going to happen. To see schoolkids and talk with them face to face, it’s a blast. I am trying to be more mindful of what I say yes to. I’m like, maybe I don’t need to go to Missouri for an afternoon if it’s going to take me eight hours to get there, or something like that.

Zibby: What are some of the things that you say to your school visit audiences that resonate the most with them?

Hena: I think kids really love to hear that writing isn’t always easy, even for writers. I talk about that and how when I was a kid, I thought to be a writer you needed some sort of seal of approval or a certificate. You are now a writer. Even, honestly, as an adult, I felt like I suffered imposter syndrome for so many years. I struggled to call myself an author, even though I had several books published. I talk to kids about their voices mattering, their stories mattering, and that stuff that’s happening to them in their lives today are all great ingredients for stories. You don’t have to necessarily think of things in fantastic terms, like space and spies and pirate and robots. You can write about your experiences. Those things matter. Once you actually start writing, you are a writer. It’s not always easy and smooth, but that’s okay. It isn’t even for people like me who are publishing but yet still have the little voice. I still have the little voice in the back of my head telling me, this is terrible. Nobody wants to read this. You have to push through. They’re surprised to hear that. I love seeing their reaction when I say, I really don’t love writing first drafts. It can be really, really hard.

Zibby: The self-doubt never ends.

Hena: It does not. It’s alive and well in my brain, for sure.

Zibby: What do you have coming up now?

Hena: A few different projects. I’m excited. I just sent off copyedits to the third book in the Zara series, which is called Zara’s Rules for Living Your Best Life. That one’s really fun. It takes place when she has spring break. She’s all excited to plan all these things with the kids in the neighborhood. She finds out that her friend Naomi is signed up for a week of camp at her synagogue and that she is being taken to her grandparents for the week because her parents have work. She and her brother are stuck at the grandparents’, which is usually fun for a few hours, but the whole week seems daunting. Her grandfather is newly retired. She thinks he might end up being more like her former neighbor who was retired who was very active and gardening and painting and doing all these things. Instead, she’s finding Grandad slumbering in his armchair after breakfast in his pajamas. She decides that he needs a hobby and takes it upon herself to find him the hobby that he needs. Again, something that my kids have dealt with. It’s just so fun to go back and reexamine ideas through that lens of a kid. That comes out in the spring. I’m working on a graphic novel. My first graphic novel comes out next fall.

Zibby: That’s fun.

Hena: Yeah, that’s exciting. Very different format, but very fun to write. I have a new middle grade coming out and a few picture books, so lots of different projects.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness.

Hena: It’s been busy, but super fun.

Zibby: What’s one thing you wish you had more time for?

Hena: Exercise. No, just kidding. That’s the thing that always conveniently gets cut out of my day. Seriously, I wish I had more time to read. I wish I gave myself the space to read. I always feel guilty, that I should be doing something else. As a kid, reading was such a huge part of my day-to-day. I never felt that guilt that I should be doing something else. Now I feel like I have to remind myself, I’m a writer, and it’s good for me to read. This is work too. Then I’ll allow it. I wish I had uninterrupted hours to just luxuriate with a book. I’m sure many of your listeners also don’t have the chance to.

Zibby: It’s a very relatable problem. People are always so ashamed. I have all these books on my bedside. I wish. I’m sorry, but I can’t get to them. It’s part of why you have to trick yourself by doing things like starting a podcast all about books so that you encourage yourself to read books.

Hena: I haven’t gotten into audiobooks yet. I did start listening to a podcast recently. I realize I do love listening to podcasts. It was a podcast about books, a new one. I feel like there’s something about sitting with a book, though, and holding the pages. I am going to try audiobooks since I do love just hearing voices, and especially really good narration.

Zibby: That’s great too. There’s some debate. Is that actually reading? I think we need a different word for it. It’s not exactly reading, but you’re still inhaling and consuming the book. I don’t know.

Hena: I’ll try it. I haven’t it done yet. We’ll see if that helps.

Zibby: I think it’s particularly great for memoirs. I love hearing the books by the author who writes a memoir.

Hena: In their own voice, yeah.

Zibby: In their own voice. Then you feel like you know them. Hena, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for talking to my kids’ school and getting them really excited and inspired and all of that. It was nice to meet you.

Hena: Nice to meet you too. Thank you for having me. Say hi to your kids for me.

Zibby: Okay, thanks. Buh-bye.

Hena: Take care. Bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop.

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts