We sat down with Muhammad Khan, author of critically acclaimed ‘I Am Thunder’, to discuss his powerful second novel, ‘Kick the Moon’, exam pressure and the importance of diverse voices in publishing.
For readers who may not have heard of ‘Kick the Moon’ yet, how would you entice them to pick it up?
Fifteen-year-old Ilyas escapes the pressure of being in a gang by losing himself in comic book drawing. Through a chance encounter with a kindred spirit during detention – a posh girl, of all people – he discovers what true friendship is. Then his gang find out and loyalties are tested. With his family’s safety at risk, and a string of crimes in his wake, what exactly is Ilyas willing to sacrifice in order to become the superhero he draws?
Alongside being an author, you’re also a high school maths teacher, do you think this helped you write from the perspective of a teen?
Absolutely! If I didn’t work with teenagers on a regular basis, I don’t think I could write YA. Although my own experiences as a teen definitely influence my characters, my greatest inspiration comes from my students themselves and the issues they face in an ever-evolving world. I borrow their traits, personalities, problems and slang to create whole new characters. Since they’re all based on living, breathing teens, I hope this gives them an additional dimension of realism and relatability.
‘Kick The Moon’ follows fifteen-year-old Ilyas as his GCSE’s are approaching, which can be an incredibly stressful time for teens in the UK. Was it important for you to show the pressure this time period put upon young people?
Yes, exam pressure is a huge deal for students (and teachers!) and it’s not to be underestimated. The GCSE exams have recently been updated to be a lot more challenging and it’s heralded a lot of stress. A common complaint among teenagers is that they are spending so much time studying that they don’t get the opportunity to enjoy life anymore. I really worry about the mental wellbeing of our young people. I hope reflecting this in ‘Kick the Moon’ might offer some comfort.
Much of ‘Kick the Moon’ surrounds the topic of making and breaking friendships, what inspired you to focus on this specific relationship?
I’d already explored a romantic relationship in my first book so I was eager to put the spotlight on something else. Not everyone falls in love as a teen, but everyone experiences friendship of some description – whether it is healthy, damaging or somewhere in between. I was eager to look at peer pressure and how far it can override a person’s own sense of right and wrong. I’ve always believed that it doesn’t matter what a person’s background is, we all fundamentally have the same wants and desires. However, when you reach your teenage years, you suddenly become hyper-aware of things like social status, race, culture and of course popularity. I wanted to examine how these things might impact on a person’s better judgement.
Do you have any advice for young aspiring authors on writing and publishing #ownvoices novels?
Be authentic; write your experience in all its beauty, ugliness, and glory. Get a sensitivity reader from the same demographic to read your work and consider their comments. Finally, prepare yourself for both love and hate. Since own voices writers are a minority, our own communities often expect us to represent everyone but that’s just not possible (unless you’re writing PR). But if you’ve got something important to say, bite the bullet and go ahead! Every perspective deserves to be heard.
Both ‘Kick the Moon’ and your debut novel, ‘I Am Thunder’, follow British Muslim teens, which is, unfortunately, something rarely seen in UKYA. How does it feel knowing your books are giving Muslim teens in the UK and worldwide a voice and representation in YA literature?
It’s an honour to be part of a movement giving voice to characters we were so desperate to see as teens ourselves. In both of my books, I’ve tried to emphasise the plurality of Muslims as we are a very diverse bunch, just like everybody else. I hope it serves as a counterpoint to Islamophobia.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing ‘Kick the Moon’?
To be honest I always write for my students. I work in a South London comprehensive and I’m honoured and privileged to enjoy an open and honest relationship with them. When an issue affects a number of them, it makes me think it could be of benefit for other teenagers to discuss and think about too. I strongly believe books, film and TV have a responsibility to help young people make sense of the world. The alternative is the internet which can be riddled with misinformation and bad intentions.
What is one thing you’d like readers to take away from ‘Kick the Moon’?
That anyone can be a hero. It doesn’t matter what your background, social status, gender, looks or ethnicity – you are special and the world needs you. Whether acts of heroism are quiet and personal or loud and epic, they are all important. In today’s political climate, where world leaders, unfortunately, seem to be lacking in compassion and empathy, we need heroes. Just one brave person taking a stance against injustice can get a movement started. And we’ve seen this a lot recently with things like #own voices, #notinmyname, #black lives matter, #times up and #metoo.
‘Kick The Moon’ is available to buy in the UK now.