NUTLEY, NJ — For Nutley mom Nadia Khan, it was important for her sons — she has four — to see characters in books who look like them and to whom they can relate. When she didn’t find those books at the library, she decided to write her own. “Zoey Wonders Why” is about a curious and spunky 5-year-old girl who is trying to find her place in the world, which for her is her classroom, and learn about her culture. Throughout the chapter book, Zoey learns to embrace the many cultures that make up her family and to respect the cultures of her classmates.
Khan first decided to write a book after her oldest son, who is now 9 and a half, expressed concern that he and his classmates didn’t look alike.
“My eldest, while he was in kindergarten, came up to me and said he was kind of ashamed of who he was because he didn’t look like his classmates,” Khan told the Nutley Journal in a May 13 phone interview. “Also, when he would go to the library, books at the library weren’t as diverse and he would say, ‘Mommy, I don’t see brown people like myself in these books,’ and so he couldn’t really relate to it. And that’s how the idea came about to write something that my child could relate to.”
In the book, Zoey and her classmates are each tasked with making a presentation, including food, about where their family is from and who they are.
“She’s kind of confused because she doesn’t really know who she is, because everyone else has one culture and her house doesn’t have one culture — it is very multifaceted,” Khan said. “She feels ashamed that she’s different, afraid that she’s going to get made fun of. She’s nervous, and at dinnertime she doesn’t finish her food, she doesn’t want to eat, so she goes to bed and tosses and turns. And that’s typical of something little kids go through, because they don’t know how to express their emotions.”
Zoey begins to feel better when she sees how varied her classmates’ presentations are and as she gets to enjoy food from European and African countries.
“She goes back and she asks her mom, ‘What can we make?’ They decide to make samosas, and they learn more about how (samosas) are made,” Khan said, explaining that Zoey gets really interested in her culture and becomes very excited to return to school for more presentations. Unfortunately, her excitement is seen as disruptive, and the teacher sends a note home.
“That’s something that does happen to kids often, but I did put some gentle parenting into the book, so the mom doesn’t just scold Zoey for the note; she does ask Zoey for her side of the story, to see what actually happened,” Khan said.
While the book is certain to entertain readers, there is a message behind it.
“I’m hoping that kids and adults can start a conversation on learning more about who they are and doing that by, let’s say, exploring food, the clothes, looking at a map to see where they might actually be from and hopefully putting a spark or a passion to travel,” Khan said, adding that traveling is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures. “This whole world is full of such great cultures and great history, and I think kids would learn better (through travel) than through a textbook.”
While writing the book, according to Khan, it was helpful for her to be immersed in a community as diverse as Nutley. The town also has a lot of spots for sitting and writing.
“As a writer, there are so many places you can quietly sit and write away,” Khan said. “I would basically come up with ideas while in the park, or while having a cup of coffee at the Chestnut Cafe, or waiting in my kid’s school’s parking lot. Nutley is a place where we all can learn from each other and grow.”
Even with all these great places to write, Khan still had some challenges while writing the book.
“Juggling motherhood with four busy boys and then making time at the end of the day to write, that was the most challenging part of it,” she said. “I had to give up a lot of my nights to do my writing. I gave up Netflix; going out, I didn’t get the chance to do that much. I knew I had a goal, and I made it a point to go off and do it.”
Through a self-publishing program, Khan was able to work with a mentor, which helped her meet her goals. In the end, though, all the long nights were worth it.
“The most fulfilling part is seeing your own children see a character that they can relate to,” Khan said. “And if my children can relate to a character, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of kids out there that also can relate to Zoey.”
Khan’s advice for other aspiring writers?
“Don’t give up; make time to write,” she said. “It’s OK if you kind of miss your Netflix or your Hulu shows. If you have a goal, get to it. Don’t let anyone say writing a book is easy, because if it were, the whole world would be authors. Writing is a gift.”
“Zoey Wonders Why” is available on Amazon as a hardcover, paperback and e-book. Also, free “Zoey Wonders Why” coloring pages are available on Khan’s website at www.zoeywonderswhy.com.
Photos Courtesy of Nadia Khan