Rukhsana Khan (1962–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
First name is pronounced "ruk-SA-na"; born 1962, in Lahore, Pakistan; immigrated to Canada, 1965; Education: Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, earned degree as a biological-chemical technician; currently attends University of Toronto. Religion: Islam.
Agent—Charlotte Sheedy, Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012.
Writer and storyteller.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Writer's Union of Canada, Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers, Storytellers of Canada, Storytelling School of Toronto.
Honorary Januscz Korczak International Literature Award, Polish Section of International Board on Books for Young People, 1998, for The Roses in My Carpets; Writers' Reserve grant, Ontario Arts Council, 1998; Artists in Education grant, 1998–99; Ruth Schwartz Award shortlist, Canadian Booksellers Association/Ontario Arts Council, and Red Maple Award shortlist, Ontario Library Association, both 2000, and Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Honour Award, Manitoba Library Association, 2001, all for Dahling If You Luv Me Would You Please, Please Smile; Hackmatack Award shortlist, and Canadian Children's Book Centre Choice designation, both 2001, both for Muslim Child; Toastmaster District 60 Communication and Leadership Award, 2004.
Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk (picture book), illustrated by Kristi Frost, Stoddart Kids (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
The Roses in My Carpets (picture book), illustrated by Ronald Himler, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1998.
Dahling If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile (novel), Stoddart Kids (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Muslim Child: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems, illustrations by Patty Gallinger, Napoleon (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999, published as Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Stories and Poems, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2002.
King of the Skies, illustrations by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, North Winds Press (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Ruler of the Courtyard, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Silly Chicken, illustrated by Yunmee Kyong, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of short stories to magazines, including Message International and Kahani; contributor of songs to Adam's World children's videos, produced by Sound Vision.
Work in Progress
The Big Red Lollipop, for Viking Children's.
Pakistan-born Canadian writer and storyteller Rukhsana Khan draws on her experiences living within two very different cultures in her picture books for children. In Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, King of the Skies, Ruler of the Courtyard, and Silly Chicken she introduces young children that cope with the universal problems of growing up while also living within a Muslim culture that is very different from that experienced by Khan's Canadian and American readers. While her picture books promote tolerance of such differences through gentle stories, her anthology Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Stories and Poems takes a more direct route, collecting eight stories featuring young Muslims living in North America as well as Nigeria, and Pakistan. A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the "earnest tone" Khan brings to her stories and poems, adding that readers' understanding of Islam will increase through the author's inclusion of passages from the Qu'ran, quotations by Muhammad, and sidebars that contains information about many aspects of the Muslim faith. While noting that Khan's motive is to educate Western readers, School Library Journal contributor Coop Renner wrote of Muslim Child that the book's "most avid audience … may be American Muslim children excited finally to find stories with characters to whom they can relate."
In her first picture book, Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, Khan provides a twist on the usual scenario of a reluctant child counting sheep in order to be lulled to sleep. Here, a little girl conjures up a flock of imaginary sheep to aid in her efforts to go to sleep, but meets resistance from the wooly creatures on every front. First they require her to imagine more light on the far side of the fence so they can see what they are jumping into, then they get bored by the activity they have performed so many times before and demand entertainment instead. When the girl conjures up an imaginary carnival, however, the sheep become so entranced that they forget to jump at all. Quill & Quire reviewer Patty Lawlor praised Khan's soothing text, writing that Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk "opens almost poetically with lyrical language, phrasing and pacing, immediately creating an effective sleepytime mood." A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews praised the book's illustrations and text for their "light touch": "A little bit of dream manipulation goes a long way in this lullaby tale," the reviewer stated.
Striking a decidedly different tone, The Roses in My Carpets recounts a day in the life of a young boy living in an Afghan refugee camp along with his mother and younger sister. Khan follows the boy as he rises early in the morning after a recurrent nightmare, prays at the mosque, eats, goes to school, prays again, then practices the craft of weaving. Learning to weave is the highlight of the boy's day; his work is the only beauti-ful thing he sees in the grim world of the camp and becoming proficient at a skill offers him hope that he will one day be able to support his family on his earnings from work. While at his weaving lesson, the boy learns his sister has been hit by a truck, though she will recover. That night he has a nightmare similar to the earlier ones, but this time he and his mother and sister take refuge on a bed of roses the size of the carpet he is learning to weave.
In The Roses in My Carpets "Khan hints at the boy's powerful emotions in spare prose, and handles her difficult subject matter sensitively," commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Booklist critic Linda Perkins noted that while young children will likely need supplemental information on the Islamic religion and the war in Afghanistan, Khan's story nonetheless presents "a rare and welcome glimpse into a culture children usually don't see."
The disabled young boy who serves as the protagonist in Khan's King of the Skies is a native of Pakistan, and he shares his excitement at the approaching kite festival celebrated in the city of Lahore each spring. Showing the results of much practice, skill, and concentration, he navigates his own kite, the yellow Guddi Chore, among others in the festival as his siblings help clear fallen kites from the path of the boy's wheelchair. In Canadian Review of Materials a reviewer praised the book as "beautiful and satisfying," adding that Khan's "eloquence is matched by … luminous oil paintings" by illustrators Rick Jacobson and Laura Fernandez. King of the Skies "is an excellent example of a story which carries the reader to another place," maintained Resource Links writer Kathryn McNaughton, the critic concluding that Khan's "fascinating" story, in addition to its multicultural elements, "may also spark conversations about children with diverse abilities."
Khan's first foray into teen fiction, Dahling if You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile is a contemporary novel about Zainab, a young Muslim teen who is trying to fit in. The novel deals with mature themes of conformity, bullying, racism, and suicide. However, Khan feels that ultimately the novel is a look at the way people are manipulated: from the obvious sexual manipulation that Zainab's best friend Jenny faces, to the more subtle religious manipulation being perpetrated on Zainab. Reviewing the novel in the Toronto Star, Deirdre Baker wrote that the novel contains "wonderful warmth, humour and complexity."
Set in Pakistan, both Ruler of the Courtyard and Silly Chicken focus on chickens, although these birds of a feather do not share the same temperament. In Ruler of the Courtyard a young Pakistan girl named Saba lives in fear of a flock of sharp-beaked chickens that run unchecked through the courtyard of her rural home. The hold the dumb birds have over her is broken, however, when the girl gains self-confidence by bravely confronting a far more deadly threat. Sibling rivalry is the focus of the poignant Silly Chicken, in which a girl named Rani feels competition from a pet chicken named Bibi when the bird seems to take most of Rani's mother's attention. When Bibi meets an unfortunate end, however, the girl realizes her mistake and determines to be a loving guardian of the creature that will hatch from the egg Bibi leaves behind. Praising Ruler of the Courtyard as "perfectly paced," a Kirkus Reviews contributor added that the tale's exciting storyline and "positive message" combine to make Khan's book "a winner for reading aloud." In Publishers Weekly a critic cited the book's "message about self-reliance and courage," while in Horn Book Susan P. Bloom commented favorably about the tale's "wonderful energy and use of language." Noting the happy ending that concludes Silly Chicken, a Kirkus Reviews writer wrote that Khan's "language is conversational and spare and the [story's] pacing just right," while in Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan explained that the story "clearly depicts a child's jealousy" while sidestepping "the usual schmaltz."
"Growing up Muslim in North America was very difficult," Khan once recalled to SATA, explaining that "the release of each mega-blockbuster depicting Muslims as merciless bumbling terrorists or ignorant taxi drivers" as well as the fatwa—or death sentence—called by Muslim leaders against writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 made Muslims "look … like a bunch of barbaric idiots." Moving with her family to eastern Canada in the mid-1960s, Khan also carried childhood memories of the racial prejudice that was leveled at her family. "My father worked at a tool and die company, and his co-workers used to call him 'black bastard' right to his face," she explained to Canadian Review of Materials interviewer Dave Jenkinson. "They hardly ever called him by his name, and he put up with it because he had four kids to feed. My father had chosen to live in Canada because he wanted to get away from those cultural influences which said girls are expendable. He also wanted to raise us as Muslims, and he wanted a good neighborhood."
Because Khan's family was one of only two Indian families living in their Ontario town, their differences were apparent to everyone. "Because we stuck out so much, we were persecuted from day one," the author continued to Jenkinson. "If it hadn't been for that negative treatment, I don't think I would have become a writer because my growing up was so horrible that I went to books to escape. Having no friends, I spent my recesses among the trees. I used to think a lot, and that's when I really came to terms with what my beliefs are, who I am, and what my place is in the universe."
Even before Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses was published, Khan was striving to become an author. She wrote stories, began attending writing conferences and seminars, and did extensive reading. With the publication and ensuing uproar over Rushdie's book, she was all the more determined to provide a counter to Western misunderstandings of Islam. Khan's primary focus is to tell good stories, often set in Muslim culture, with the hope that these stories will help 'humanize' Muslims to unfamiliar readers.
At one particular conference held in Boston, Khan recalled, one of the speakers was a Western woman who had penned a novel about a Muslim child. "This was a case where this white lady had gotten the culture all wrong," Khan explained to SATA. "It was clear, almost from the beginning of the book, that a 'white feminist' had imposed her sensibilities on a girl who wouldn't have been exposed to them within the scope of the novel. There was some merit in the book, but unfortunately the book did perpetuate a lot of the prevalent Muslim stereotypes that so upset me." According to Khan, the author also wrote a sequel, which made matters even worse."
"At that moment," Khan continued, "what I really was up against fully hit me. Here I was, a Pakistani immigrant with quaint old-fashioned principles, trying to show this big amorphous blob of Western society that they'd pegged us 'Moslems' all wrong. How could I even aspire to such a lofty goal? Who did I think I was?
"What I eventually realized is that people, including Salman Rushdie, will write all kinds of garbage about Islam. In order to fight them, I'll have to be better.
"I'm working on it."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 15, 1998, Linda Perkins, review of The Roses in My Carpets, p. 596; February 15, 2002, John Green, review of Muslim Child, p. 1011; January 1, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Silly Chicken, p. 879.
Horn Book, March-April, 2003, Susan P. Bloom, review of Ruler of the Courtyard, p. 204; March-April, 2005, Kitty Flynn, review of Silly Chicken, p. 190.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1998, review of Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, p. 896; February 1, 2002, review of Muslim Child, p. 182; December 15, 2002, review of Ruler of the Courtyard, p. 1851; February 15, 2005, review of Silly Chicken, p. 230.
Publishers Weekly, October 5, 1998, review of The Roses in My Carpets, p. 90; February 11, 2002, review of Muslim Child, p. 189; January 6, 2003, review of Ruler of the Courtyard, p. 59; April 4, 2005, review of Silly Chicken, p. 59.
Quill & Quire, March, 1998, Patty Lawlor, review of Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, pp. 71-72.
Resource Links, December, 2001, Kathryn McNaughton, review of King of the Skies, p. 6.
School Library Journal, November, 1998, pp. 87-88; February, 2002, Coop Renner, review of Muslim Child, p. 122; February, 2003, Dona Ratterree, review of Ruler of the Courtyard, p. 114; January, 2005, Ann W. Moore, review of Muslim Child, p. 55; April, 2005, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Silly Chicken, p. 105.
Toronto Star, April 18, 1999, Deirdre Baker, review of Dahling if You Luv, Me Would You Please, Please Smile, p. D31.
Canadian Review of Materials Online, http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/ (September 24, 1999), David Jenkinson, interview with Khan; (February 4, 2000) David Jenkinson, review of Muslim Child; (November 2, 2001) review of King of the Skies; (April 29, 2005) Valerie Nielsen, review of Silly Chicken.
Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers Web site, http://www.canscaip.org/ (May 28, 2005), "Rukhsana Khan."
Rukhsana Khan Home Page, http://www.rukhsanakhan.com (June 10, 2005).