Writing for children: Hiba Noor Khan

The Little War Cat written by Hiba Noor Khan follows the story of a little grey cat who is caught up in the conflict in war-torn Aleppo. Roaming the streets looking for food one day she meets an unlikely friend who shows her that kindness is there when you look for it. Soon the cat knows just what to do to make a difference herself.

The story was inspired by the Cat Man of Aleppo. Hiba herself grew up hearing awful news from her relatives living under the terror of strikes, and hopes her book will help to spread kindness amongst its young readers. For our spotlight on children authors, we spoke to Hiba Noor Khan to find out more…

How long did your book take to write? 

The actual pen to paper writing process itself was fairly short (the fact it’s a picture book helps a bit), as far as I can recall I had the first draft down in about two days. But the story had been brewing inside me for a few years before that, I’d wanted to write about trauma, war and compassion for young children for a long time. So either about six years or a couple of days depending on how you look at it! 

What factors did you take into account when writing for children? 

The Little War Cat is about highly sensitive, complex topics that parents and teachers sometimes shy away from. They are sadly, topics that touch the lives of us all in some way or another and I wanted to introduce these concepts to children gently, while ultimately demonstrating the power of empathy and seemingly small kindnesses. It was important to ensure that the story was framed with hope, and that the hearts of little readers aren’t overwhelmed or left feeling burdened. Including aspects of relatability in what may be an overall alien context for kids felt needed too, so the acts of care are very simple and universal. 

What inspired you to put pen to paper? 

Visiting Syrian refugee camps and working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK were turning points in my life and definite inspirations for the book. Parallel to this, seeing society succumb to scapegoating politics and media demonisation of refugees and migrants felt tragic. I wanted to create something that would appeal to common humanity and inspire the profound capacity for empathy we harbour within us. When I came across the incredible story of Alaa Al Jaleel, I was beyond inspired and my story came together. 

Was this the first time you attempted to write this story?  

I initially wrote the story from a slightly different perspective, but fairly soon after this decided to put it into the same format it was published in; through the eyes of the cat. After that, I edited and polished the text with my agent and editor at MCB to get it to the final version you see in the book. 

What did you enjoy most about the writing process? 

That’s a tricky one, the entire process was a big learning curve and to be totally honest I loved it all! The least exciting element for me is definitely editing, and I think one of the most magical points was seeing the illustrations in full colour for the first time, alongside of course holding a hard copy in my hands. 

What was it like working with an illustrator? 

I had a really lovely experience working with Laura, as soon as I was shown her portfolio early on in the process I knew she was going to be amazing! I absolutely love her style and feel fortunate that she brought my story to life so beautifully. I was periodically shown Laura’s progress with the book and I clearly remember feeling so emotional and just excited at everything from early sketches to the final cover. So much of what Laura produced was really close to what I’d envisaged in my own head for the story and it was surreal seeing that manifest even more stunningly! 

Hiba Noor Khan is a young writer and activist, deeply engaged with issues in development, immigration and intercultural understanding. Since completing her studies at Oxford she has worked as a Refugee Advocacy Worker for The Children’s Society, a Physics teacher and TV presenter. She also contributed to policy research carried out by the Government’s Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life. Hiba has worked on various sustainable development projects in rural Tanzania, and delivered aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey. You’ll find her on twitter @HibaNoorKhan1.

The Little War Cat by Hiba Noor Khan, illustrated by Laura Chamberlain, is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.