Author Interview: Hiba Noor Khan

We were super excited to feature the wonderful Safiyyah's War by Hiba Noor Khan in our subscription box for confident readers this month, especially as this beautiful book has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal for Writing! With a background in physics and engineering, Hiba has worked as a Refugee Advocacy Worker for The Children’s Society, a Physics teacher and TV presenter, and has contributed to policy research carried out by the Government's Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life... as well as writing several fantastic children's books!  We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to ask her some questions; here's what she shared with us:

Have you always dreamed of being a writer?
I've loved words ever since I knew what they were, and stories are the way by which I understand and process our world, with all of its chaos and wonder, light and darkness. As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on (including the back of the cereal box every day at breakfast!), and wrote my first ever story (about a hungry fox) aged five, but somehow, never imagined that being a writer was something I could actually ever do as a job! Through the other jobs that I've done, I always longed to be able to write all day long, but it was only a few years ago that I was brave enough to give it a go. It was the best decision and I'm delighted that I get to call this my job! I wanted to be so many different things when I was younger, a farmer, a pirate, a painter, a footballer (and more!), and am grateful that I get to do all of those things and a thousand more, through the pages of books. 
What is the most challenging things about writing for children? 
I often write about heavy, emotional topics, and it's not always easy striking the right balance for a reader. I have to make sure that the reader experiences and appreciates things like the reality of war, or the dangers of climate change, without it being too overwhelming and heartbreaking. I make sure I focus first and foremost on hope, which is something that every human needs, every day of their life. I've learnt through my stories and research, that even in the darkest times, hope is always, always there.
What is the most rewarding thing about writing for children?
My favourite part of it is definitely getting to connect with the children who read my stories! I love going out to schools and youth groups and meeting readers, and also reading the reviews and letters they send me sometimes. I feel very lucky to write for children, who will shape the world of tomorrow. Their soft hearts and wild imaginations give me hope that the world can become a kinder, brighter place. Being able to educate, inspire, and enchant children is such a privilege!
What key messages in Safiyyah's War do you hope will most resonate with readers?
The key message I took from Benghabrit (Ammo Kader in the book) and the others from the mosque who resisted the Nazis, is that the most precious and sacred thing in existence is life. It doesn't matter whether that life looks like you, speaks the same language, or follows the same religion, they have the right to be safe and happy. Working and fighting to honour that is the most important and beautiful thing that anyone could ever do. Benghabrit is a hero of mine, and I hope that readers are inspired by the incredible ways he risked his own life to protect others. Being brave and courageous is an important message, and though our opportunities for bravery might not be as dramatic as Safiyyah's, each of us has this choice every single day. It might involve being kind to someone who is being bullied, or speaking the truth even when it feels difficult. Another message I'd love readers to take away with them is the importance of being gentle with your heart, and with the hearts of others. Monsieur Cassin and Setti remind me of this!
Was it difficult to blend the real-life elements of this story with fiction?
I'd say it happened rather naturally. It was so helpful having some of the historical framework of the story already in place, and then the fun part was bringing it to vivid life through imagination! I like taking small details from archives and historical accounts and then weaving them into the story, and of course, there are numerous characters based on real life people; Abdel Qader Benghabrit, Adolfo Kaminsky, Noor Inayat-Khan, aka Madeline, Hiram Bingham, to name a few. I explain which bits are true and which bits I have made up in the Author's Note at the back of the book.
How did you conduct the research for this book?
I read as many newspaper archives and reports about Paris and the Grand Mosque as I could find, and sifted through books and films that related to a similar period or place. My favourite part of researching was definitely getting to spend four days in Paris though! I stayed just around the corner from the mosque and spent lots of time wandering through the colourful courtyards and lush gardens, imagining the story unfold. I photographed the twists and turns and layout of the mosque, and also cycled around the neighbourhoods so that I could make the setting as true to life as possible. I also spoke to as many people as I could, trying to unearth snippets and secrets about the Resistance efforts. My time there really helped me soak up the Parisian atmosphere and character of Safiyyah's home. 
What is your own favourite genre to read?
I love historical fiction, particularly about periods of the past that I don't know much about already. I also love escaping with a good fantasy story! I've never been much good with horror, I tried a few times but ended up having nightmares...
Why do you think historical fiction is an important genre for young readers?
We can't truly understand who we are and why the world is the way that it is, without histories. It's like a key to knowing ourselves, and it's vital that we learn the lessons from the past so that we don't repeat the same mistakes again and again. History connects us all to each other inextricably, and fiction is a wonderfully immersive way to be able to experience that. Reading a gripping story set in the past allows us to connect much more deeply with it than just learning facts and dates. Stepping into the shoes of someone who lived a hundred years ago and seeing the world through their eyes is a marvellous thing! History is also absolutely fascinating and intriguing!
Do you also write books in other genres?
I do indeed, I've written a picture book, a biography, and some non-fiction books too. How to Spaghettify your Dog is a journey around the universe discovering some of science's coolest secrets, Inspiring Inventors looks at how science and technology can make our world a fairer place, and One Home is an adventure across different ecosystems and lands, exploring the wildlife, plants, and wonders, examining the effects of climate change and what we can do about it.
Which book or author did you find particularly inspiring when you were growing up?
I grew up feasting on C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, J.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings series, and exploring Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood. I also loved books by Micheal Morpurgo and some classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I reckon some of the most precious life lessons I have learnt came from the pages of stories like these!
If you could offer aspiring young writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Alongside reading as much as you can, and always keeping a notebook handy, I'd probably say, know that inspiration is everywhere. Each moment contains countless stories within it, no matter how ordinary or dull it might seem at first glance. Once you get curious and start paying attention to them, the stories will start to reveal themselves to you. It might be something as simple as a person's sideways glance across a room, a bird call that sounds oddly urgent, or a boarded up door in a building, that gets your imagination running wild. Keep an open mind and heart, and I promise, the stories will come!
Author Interview: Hiba Noor Khan
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