The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Aya Khalil
Aya Khalil is a freelance journalist and educator.
She holds a master's degree in Education with a focus in Teaching English as a Second Language. Her articles have been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Post & Courier, Toledo Area Parent, and more. Aya and her books have been featured in Yahoo!, Teen Vogue, Oprah Daily and more. She was named one of Arab America's Foundation's 40 under 40 in 2021.
Aya is the author of Our World: Egypt, illustrated by Magda Azab (2022) and The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan (2020), which is based on true events growing up, when she moved to the US from EGYPT at the age of one.
Her newest fiction picture book, The Night Before Eid: A Muslim Family Story, releases tomorrow!
Welcome Aya, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
Thank you so much for having me and I am excited and honored to be here.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I have loved writing ever since I was young, especially when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to go into something writing-related when I started college and majored in English Literature and communication. I worked as a journalist for a while and then got my master’s in Education and after that I switched gears for a bit and started writing picture books. So it’s been about six years or so. I have three children and one of them is three years old so I just try to write when I get the chance. I don’t get up early to write like some people do, which is something I admire, but at this point and time in my life, I write when I have a few hours to myself during the week.
Juggling small kids and writing is a major accomplishment. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I have this weird thing of smelling my cups and plates before pouring a drink or putting food in them.
I can think of many good reasons for doing that. Especially if you had siblings. 😉 What was your inspiration for The Night Before Eid: A Muslim Family Story?
My inspiration for The Night Before Eid was cookies! We make these really yummy Eid cookies called Ka’ak and they’re buttery and messy and so delicious. I knew I wanted it to be in a story, especially an Eid story, since there are hardly any Eid books out there. I wanted my kids to see Eid books on the shelves and at bookstores, so I wrote one! I also love intergenerational stories, and so I added a grandma too because it reminded me of baking with my grandma when she used to visit from Egypt.
Culture, cookies, and Grandmas are the best inspirations! What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?
I wrote The Night Before Eid during the start of the covid pandemic, so all three kids were at home and my little one was about five or six months at the time. So I wrote a lot of it while she was literally napping in my arms. It was a bit hard writing with one hand, but I am a pro at this point :)
I imagine! How long did it take from the first draft to publication for The Night Before Eid? Was this similar to The Arabic Quilt? Easier than Our World: Egypt?
Not many people know this, but originally this manuscript was supposed to be a funny one about unicorns and Eid cookies. Ha!
But after having a conversation with my agent, Brent Taylor, I decided to take a different route. So I started a new one around February - March 2020. It was actually surprisingly smooth writing this version - I think because of the time I wrote it, at shut down, and everyone was confused, scared and things were so uncertain. I just knew I wanted to write something that felt good; something that felt like a hug we were missing at the time. After I had a few critique partners take a look and give me feedback, I sent it to Brent and he went on submission right away with it! We were getting interest 5-6 days after it went on submission and it went to auction. This was back in May 2020, and it’s finally coming out March 7th, 2023.
It was very different from The Arabic Quilt which took months to get picked up. For Our World: Egypt, I was contacted by the editor, Kate DePalma on Twitter and it was very fast - from my first draft to publication it was only nine months!
Thank you for sharing that tidbit. It is interesting how each book's journey is so different. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for The Night Before Eid?
So far it’s been feedback from people saying they’re so excited to see more Eid books on the shelves, and I can’t believe it still, but it will be sold inside Target stores!! I can’t wait for kids to read it and hopefully see themselves in it!
That's exciting! Congratulations. What was the hardest, or most challenging part of writing The Night Before Eid? Why?
The hardest part was writing it with my three children at home since it was during shutdown in 2020. There was a lot of chaos around me trying to figure out online schooling for my older kids, or I was holding my little one while she napped while writing it, but I felt like I needed to write it at the time, so I did! It was something I was just looking forward to going back to and editing during the uncertain times.
Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Rashin Kheiriyeh’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Aya Khalil, 2023. Image © Rashin Kheiriyeh, 2023.
I loved it all! The little boy, Zain is so cute and I love his curls and his love for his grandma is so heartwarming. I absolutely loved that she added a cat who takes part of all the baking and chaos. It was a genius idea! One of my favorite spreads is the last page, where Zain is just enjoying the evening with his grandma and everything is so peaceful and calm.
I won't show the last spread, but I think everyone will agree; the cat is a fun addition. Is there something you want your readers to know or hope they discover about The Night Before Eid?
Creating traditions with children during holidays is something they will remember for a long time, and maybe even write about! Eid traditions are different throughout the world and it’s been really neat to see how Muslim immigrants or children of immigrants are creating new traditions and keeping some old ones too!
This is a special gift you've given to Muslim kids and families. And a wonderful insight into the holiday for others. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am working on a middle grade novel currently and hoping to announce a few other picture books soon. I have two other pictures books coming out this year!
The Great Banned Books Bake Sale, illustrated by Anait Smeridzhyan, (Aug. 1st) about an Egyptian girl who finds out her district has banned diverse books and with the help of her classmates, teacher and librarian, they organize a protest.
My First Book Arabic Words: An ABC Rhyming Book of Arabic Language and Culture comes out in October and is illustrated by Chaymaa Sobhy.
These sound like great books. I can't wait to see them. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I loved going to the Smokey Mountains last summer with my family. We went on bike rides and we saw bears. It was a blast.
© David Fulmer via Flickr
Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not?
Set aside your work for days, or even weeks before revisiting it again.
Thanks so much, Aya for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions!!
Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on The Night Before Eid: A Muslim Family Story.
To find out more about Aya Khalil, or contact her: