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Author Rukhsana Kahn Visits Vernon

In keeping with an ongoing goal to broaden students’ global knowledge and appreciation of others, students at James H. Vernon School read the books of acclaimed children’s author Rukhsana Khan and participated in a virtual visit to hear from the author first-hand.

During several Zoom sessions in each 3-6 grade classroom, Ms. Kahn enlightened students about her Pakistani heritage, the challenges she faced as a Pakistani growing up in Canada, and how those factors shaped her into the award-winning children’s author she is today.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Ms. Kahn immigrated to Canada when she was three years old. She faced many struggles in school, was bullied every day because of the way she looked, and turned to books for salvation.

“In Canada, I was the only brown person in my class in the 1960s,” she said. “The students in my class didn’t know anyone who was brown, and they told my sisters and me, ‘we are white because we are clean, and you are brown because you are dirty’.”

With that, she and her sisters tried to be like everyone else. They took five baths a day, scrubbing to get the “brown off.” When that didn’t work, they tried to whiten their skin by dousing themselves with baby powder.

“Nothing worked. I had to come to terms that I was a brown Canadian,” she said.

She spoke about how she grew up poor in a rich neighborhood, which made being poor even worse, and how accessing so many free books and resources with a library card changed her life.

“I am an author because of my library card,” she said. “This changed my life and changed my destiny…books became my lifeline. Almost every day after school I had a different bully waiting to beat me up. Books helped me forget about my problems and escape my life—of being poor, of being bullied and of feeling dirty. Books helped me survive.”

Her middle school years were the hardest of her life, she recalled. She went to a new school, had no friends, and could not afford the “cool” clothes students wore. A teacher suggested she keep a creative writing journal. When her teacher read it, he told her that she had talent and should grow up to be an author.

“I thought to myself, I can’t be an author. Authors are white people…Then I thought wouldn’t it be cool to write the kind of books that I wanted to read; the kind of books that gave me hope; that kept me going.”

She graduated college as a scientist at the top of her class but was the last in her class to get a job at very little pay so she decided to stay home to take care of her first child. She started writing. She has been writing and publishing books for 31 years and has earned numerous recognitions and awards.  One of her most popular books, “The Big Red Lollipop,” was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the “100 Greatest Children’s Books in the Last 100 Years.” The  multi-cultural picture book sheds light on greed and temptation when two sisters want to go to a birthday party.

Reacting to Ms. Kahn’s presentation, fifth-grader Leah Putman said,” I thought she was really nice and her story was amazing.”

Fourth-grade Bryan Coutinho added, “I thought she was funny; it was like listening to a documentary of her life.”

According to Vernon librarian Ms. Virginia Kemp, in addition to “The Big Red Lollipop,” students read “Silly Chicken,” a tale about a little girl in Pakistan who is convinced that her mother loves the pet chicken more than her, and “King for a Day,” a story about a boy’s journey to win the kite competition in Pakistan called Basunt and be the “king for the day.”

“We were so honored to have Ms. Kahn speak to our students and share her insights about her Pakistani culture, her struggles during her upbringing, and her courage to rise above those struggles and become a successful author,” said Dr. Ryan O’Hara, Supervisor of English Language Arts, Reading and Library Media. “We hope her presentation provided our students with a better understanding and appreciation of diversity and how our differences enrich and advance our society.”

 students with author

James H. Vernon fifth-graders Shufei (Sophie) Liu, Hannah Vidro and Evan Cruz display books written by acclaimed children's author Rakhsana Kahn during a virtual visit with the author.

 students listen to author during virtual visit

Children’s author Rukhsana Khan shares her story about how she became a writer with James H. Vernon students via Zoom.