RANTOUL — Author Hena Khan frequently had her nose in a book as a child. Her favorite work was “Little Women.”
But she never really thought of an author as a person — just a name on the front cover.
Students in the Project LIT group at Rantoul’s J.W. Eater Junior High now can’t say the same thing as they got to “meet” Khan, author of the popular “Amina’s Voice” book via Skype.
Like Khan, Amina is a Muslim American child of Pakistani immigrants. She talks in the book about her joys and fears, her shyness, her concerns about how to act and find her place in her middle school years. Should she think more like her Pakistani elders or her American friends?
“It was just a way to explore for me what mattered to me as a kid — family and friendship above everything else,” Khan said.
Khan was raised in Maryland. She said she enjoys writing about her culture and religion.
For instance, because many Americans don’t know what goes on in a mosque, she writes what it’s like and about the time the mosque was vandalized.
Members of the Project LIT group said they like to write, mostly for fun.
The group meets every other Wednesday after school. Members are given three books they can choose from to read and discuss for the month.
Eater Literacy Specialist Kellyn Sirach said the members can read any or all of the books.
Khan talked about her writing practices. She likes to do an outline before she starts a book, and just because she’s a successful writer, she doesn’t always feel confident. Sometimes a little voice in her head says, “‘This is no good,’” she said with a laugh.
She doesn’t have one set area of her home where she puts words to laptop. She rotates around the house, and while she has a dedicated office in her home, she “doesn’t like being there that much.”
She rotates to different areas of the house to write. One place she likes to write is the dining room.
And she said she doesn’t write well on demand or on a schedule. She needs to feel the muse.
“I envy those writers who are very disciplined about it, and every morning they get up and have a jog and a cup of coffee and then sit down and write. I’m all over the place. I write late at night or early in the morning or in the afternoon,” Khan said. “It’s hard to force creativity.”
Khan said like the Project Lit students, she liked to write for fun when she was young.
“It’s a great way to get used to it. I wrote plays and had a family newspaper.”
She didn’t study creative writing or plan to be an author.
“I didn’t think anyone like me could be an author. I’d never met one. They were just names on a book cover.”
Khan said it’s good to have an outlet and a voice, “and believing you have a voice when you’re young is awesome. I don’t think enough of us feel like we have a voice when we’re young.”
She is writing a sequel to “Amina’s Voice” and asked the students their opinion of two choices for the new title — either “Amina’s Song” or “Amina’s Promise.” The latter title drew the most votes.
Khan has also written “More to the Story,” which was inspired by her love for “Little Women.”
Some of the storylines, she took from the older book, with changes.
One of her favorite books that she has read recently is “Other Words from Home,” which the group is scheduled to read in February. She called it “very, very moving and beautifully written.”
She also liked “The Best At It,” about an Indian-American boy who is struggling with his identity; “Lucky Broken Girl” and “The Night Diary,” the latter of which talks about the partitioning of India and Pakistan, which is something her father went through.
Sixth-graders Lorelei Hazel and Emmilynne McCallister both appreciated Khan’s talk, and both are enjoying her book.
Hazel said she just started reading it.
“So far it’s light-hearted,” Hazel said. “Not sad, but there’s some stuff like the part where Amina’s best friend ... wants to change her name because she immigrated from Korea to America. It made me sad because I really do like the name. If I was in that situation it would be hard to start calling my best friend a different name.”
Hazel said she loves to read and “likes a whole bunch of books — fantasy and historical fiction.”
She doesn’t care for nonfiction.
McCallister said she has started the book.
“So far I like it a lot,” she said. “I feel like it kind of relates to me.”
She said, like Amina, she is a dancer.
McCallister said she will stop reading a book if it doesn’t interest her, but that is not the case with “Amina’s Voice.”
“This one I feel like I have to keep on reading,” she said. “At night I don’t like to read, but this is one I want to read at night and finish.”
Like Hazel, McCallister likes to read a variety of books.
Sirach said Project LIT is a national grassroots movement started by a teacher in Nashville to eliminate “book desert” — which is a geographic area that doesn’t have high-interest books available.
A number of chapters have sprouted in this country and overseas. This marks the first year for Project LIT at Eater.
Sirach said she would like to get the community involved as well and has invited the board of education and will invite other groups in the district.
“It’s a good way for the students to realize that everybody reads, not just students,” she said.
As literacy specialist Sirach works with sixth- through eighth-graders who might be reading below grade level. Prior to this year, she taught eighth-grade reading for three years at Eater.