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How My Immigrant Experiences Inspires My Book Ideas

Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of The Arabic Quilt and a 15-minute Zoom meet-and-greet with Aya Khalil.

I’ve been writing people’s stories for over ten years. As a freelance journalist, I’ve been interviewing people and documenting their stories ever since I was a student in college. I have been particularly interested in telling stories of people from marginalized communities, as an Arab myself.

But, one day I realized there were not enough positive stories about “us.” About Muslims. About Arabs. About Egyptians. As my kids get older, which stories read about in school? Will it be negative stories about Muslims? Stereotypical stories about Arabs?

As a storyteller, I realized I had been telling other people’s stories for years but never really got to tell my own. So I wrote down my stories. And eventually it became a book: The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, published by Tilbury House and illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan. The picture book is about an Egyptian girl who immigrates to the U.S. and is trying so hard to fit in. There are many parts in the picture book I can talk about, but I will focus on three parts and how I came up with those story ideas:

In two parts of the book, Kanzi doesn’t want her school lunch to stick out. Her deliciously spiced kofta sandwich that her baba makes on the first day of school. And later on when mama packs her shurbet ads, a hearty lentil soup, for lunch. But Kanzi asks mama to pack her something else. Something more “American” like a turkey sandwich. Plain. Boring. Not even fulfilling like lentil soup. Lentil soup is filled with vegetables, beans, and is a labor of love. Although the soup is one of Kanzi’s favorite meals ever, she asks for something she doesn’t even love that much — simply to fit in. This is so relatable to immigrant children or children of immigrants. So many of us have memories eating something that looks different during lunch and having a white kid comment about how weird or “stinky” it is. Not only kids making comments about the food, but as an adult and former educator, I’ve overheard teachers make comments about a “weird” food a kid has. Although most likely that “weird” food has meaning to us. Perhaps a recipe that was passed down from a grandmother, or a recipe that took hours for our parents to make and luckily there was leftovers for us to enjoy.

Another part in the story is when Molly says that her mom says we should speak English in America and who cares about other languages. I can’t even remember how many times someone was rude to my parents because of their accents. Their condescending comments “I don’t understand” or looking at me and asking me translate what they said.   There have been numerous incidents where people didn’t feel comfortable with someone who spoke a different language and even being kicked off airplanes for texting or speaking in Arabic. Immigrants or children of immigrants know what it’s like to have someone laugh at your accent or at a family member’s accent. But what many people don’t realize is having an accent is a sign of bravery. Having an accent means leaving your homeland, your friends and your families and starting at the beginning. Having an accent means you are brave. Molly eventually realized that Arabic is a cool language and thankfully her teacher didn’t tolerate the xenophobia. Which brings me to the third part in the story.

Kanzi’s teacher comes up with a lesson where she asks Kanzi and her mom to write the students’ names in Arabic. The kids are excited about the project (except for Kanzi at the beginning) and it’s hung up at the end of the day outside of the classroom for everyone in the school to see. Kanzi realizes that knowing two languages is actually a great thing and she gets some attention for it, which makes her “cool.” I can probably sit down and write down all of the teachers I had growing up and whether or not that teacher made me (an immigrant, Muslim, Arab child) feel welcome. But this specific incident is based on a true teacher who did the same exact project when I was in elementary school! So really, this whole book idea was inspired by one teacher. This is why it’s so important for teachers to create an inclusive and safe environment for their children of color. These kids will remember what the teacher did or did not do, or what the teacher said or did not say when they were at school. And maybe one day, just maybe, they’ll write a book about it!

Aya Khalil

Aya Khalil holds a master’s degree in Education with a focus on ESL. Her debut picture book THE ARABIC QUILT, has won numerous awards. She has a book titled THE NIGHT BEFORE EID coming out in 2023 by Little, Brown. You may check out her website at ayakhalil.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


  • GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:
    • This giveaway is for a copy of The Arabic Quilt and a 15-minute Zoom meet-and-greet with Aya Khalil. Many thanks to Tilbury House/Publishers Spotlight for donating a copy of the book for one commenter of this post.
    • For a chance to win this copy of The Arabic Quilt, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
      • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
    • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KHALIL. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

COMMENTS ARE NOW CLOSED.

Congratulations to thewriteapple whose commenter number was selected for this giveaway.

17 thoughts on “How My Immigrant Experiences Inspires My Book Ideas Leave a comment

  1. This is a book I’ve been hoping to add to my classroom library. I would love to win a copy and share the book and this post with my students! Thank you for the chance!

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  2. What a gift this book will be for students, teachers and school communities! I love the details about the name project. What an inspiration and another way to highlight the unique ways that language can connect us. Thank you for this beautiful spotlight!

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  3. This book sounds amazing! My school is a Spanish/English dual language school, but our students come from many different cultures and backgrounds. I’m always looking for books that represent all of my students. This looks like a must-have for me.

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  4. I can’t wait to read this book! As an EL teacher, I’ve always felt a little heartbroken watching my students accept becoming more Americanized. I notice this mostly in how native English speakers are so quick to change the beautiful names students were given at birth to something easier for them to say. Many of these students come from cultures where you don’t challenge adults, and so they come to accept the Americanized version of their name.

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  5. I loved this so much. I asked one of my students at the beginning of the year if they would mind writing my name in Arabic because I thought it was so beautiful and I’d love to see what my name looked like. Just this past week, we were researching our cultures and the same little girl said,” Remember how you asked me to write your name in Arabic, well could I have a class list, I want to do the whole class. 💕”. I must get this book!

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  6. I teach in a multi-cultural independent school in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Your book, knowledge, life experiences, and sharing how and you became an author, would be an incredible gift to myself and my students.❣️

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  7. This is an inspriring post. I can’t help but think of all the possibilities of positive discussions with students during an interactive read aloud like this. Thank you for sharing – I can’t wait to read this book!

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  8. This post was so inspiring! I can imagine all sorts of students, K-12, connecting to this book and the experiences the Aya Khalil shares. Her courage, vulnerability and honesty are models for children (and adults) everywhere who need that little extra push to share their own story. I know so many teachers who will be grateful for the chance to use the book as a springboard to their own culturally responsive teaching practices. Aya’s story is an excellent reminder to everyone that the lasting impression on any individual is how we make them feel.

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  9. Thank you for sharing your story and insights for families and teachers. It is so good to hear how authors generate their story and the life lessons from your books is something we all need to hear.

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  10. Loved loved loved hearing of the experiences that shaped your writing, Aya. Big adoration for your honesty and perspective, and for bringing these important, textured, gorgeous truths into the world. Also adding to my culturally nourishing roundup because I didn’t realize there are parts of the story directly connected to food! TY TY TY ❤

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