In the fall of 2021, I learned that my debut picture book, The Arabic Quilt was on a banned book list at Central York District. It was taken off of shelves and children were not allowed to read them. The book that took years to write and find a publisher. The book I was receiving dozens of emails and messages about how kids’ eyes lit up when they saw an Arab or Muslim character on the cover. The book that I had stayed hours at the library to research. The book I devoted a lot of time to learning about the publishing industry for. The book I met up with critique partners for, and stayed up late to revise and edit, long after I had put my young kids to bed. The book that was published right before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
Some people say I’m lucky that the book is now a banned book because of the attention it would get. But I disagree; there are only a few picture books by Arab Muslim American authors. For a period of time, students weren’t able to check out The Arabic Quilt from their libraries, and this picture book could have been the only book with a positive portrayal of an Arab Muslim. The censorship and ban were upsetting and another hurdle as an author of color. It’s a privilege not to have to worry about whether or not your book will be banned because of who the characters of the book are and the theme of the book. The book ban reminded me why I was so adamant, and so persistent about publishing The Arabic Quilt in the first place. Navigating the world as a Muslim and an Arab is challenging in its own right but these challenges are multiplied further in the world of publishing, something I believe many BIPOC authors can relate to.
Fortunately, the ban against my book was also lifted shortly after thanks to student protests at the district and an outcry from around the country. Around the same time, my editor emailed me telling me two districts, one in New York and one in Pennsylvania purchased a total of 22,000 books as part of their school curriculum. I was reminded that our stories are needed, despite other districts banning them. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing another book for them and of course I was interested.
It took me some time to think what topic I’d write. I brainstormed with my author friends and went to the library, of course. Then something hit me, The Arabic Quilt is loosely based on true events growing up, so why not write another book that’s also loosely based on true events, this time as an adult: when my debut book was banned. Having Kanzi as the main character again would be even more powerful so I kept her and all of her classmates. I also decided to bring her Teita to the U.S. on a visit to encourage her to use her voice, relating protests to the famous Egyptian revolution in 2011. I was really excited that Anait Smeridzhyan was available to illustrate again and she did an incredible job again with illustrations.
This book has a serious tone to it because books continue to be banned across the country, and it’s based on true events, as I write more details about it in the author’s notes. But it’s also a book filled with hope, love, supportive friends and community. I hope children of all ages realize that their voices are truly important and they can make a difference. I hope this book sparks conversations with students and kids with their parents and educators and librarians about the freedom to read, protests, allyship, and the power of their words. Thank you to all librarians everywhere who are fighting for the freedom to read, this one is for you all.
Aya Khalil, M.Ed, is an award-winning author of picture books and board books. Aya and her books have been featured in Oprah Daily, Teen Vogue, Yahoo!, Book Riot and USA Today. Her writing has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others. Her debut picture book The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, has won numerous awards and honors. She is also the author of a board book, Our World: Egypt, and The Night Before Eid: A Muslim Family Story. The Great Banned-Books Bake Sale, tells the tale of a girl and her classmates finding out their school district has banned diverse books and they organize a bake sale and protest. Aya is a Muslim Highlights Foundation Storyteller and a co-founder of Kidlit in Color, a group of traditionally published BIPOC creatives who nurture one another, amplify diverse voices, and advocate for equitable representation in the industry.
You can order The Great Banned Books Bake Sale wherever books are sold. Find her at twitter.com/ayawrites or instagram.com/ayakhalilauthor