Scrabble and a murder mystery collide in Hanna Alkaf’s new page-turner
After the race riots of his first book, The weight of our sky, and the supernatural element of his second book, The girl and the ghost, Hanna Alkaf is back with another story, set in the world of competitive Scrabble.
In queen of tiles, this is the character Najwa’s first competition since the death of her best friend. As she struggles to come to terms with Trina’s untimely passing, the other teens jostle for control of the now unoccupied Scrabble throne.
Then, Trina’s once dormant Instagram starts posting again, with cryptic posts hinting that there’s more to her death than meets the eye.
“While queen of tiles is a murder mystery, at its core is also a story of heartbreak and loss, memory and complicated relationships. Najwa’s greatest strengths are her intelligence and loyalty, and these are also her greatest weaknesses. her intelligence means she hates feeling helpless and in the dark about anything, and her loyalty – to Trina in particular – means she can often overlook or forgive her flaws, especially after her death when handing over questioning their friendship almost feels like a betrayal,” Hanna said in a recent interview.
She started writing this book right after she returned The weight of our sky in 2017, a long journey that saw six different drafts and countless half-written versions.
“I could never get it right. Looking back, I think I still didn’t have the skills to make history what I wanted and needed. The hardest part of writing this book was really, well, writing the book. It’s a mystery, which is complicated on its own, but it was also an excavating process to unearth the actual form of the narrative itself, which took a long time to figure out.
“I hope readers get out of it exactly what they need, whether it’s just a story that entertains you for a few hours, or the idea that grief isn’t linear and there’s no good way to cry, or just the idea of seeing a girl in a tudung on the cover What I enjoyed the most was weaving in the pun and gameplay and Scrabble itself throughout throughout the book; Najwa thinks through things through the lens of Scrabble, and it was challenging, but incredibly rewarding when I got it right,” she says.
It’s a world Hanna knows, having played a bit of competitive Scrabble as a teenager.
Before becoming part of this, she accompanied her brother who was transported to and from local weekend tournaments with his Scrabble team.
“I lived the reality of studying word lists, counting tiles, and calculating points. And so what inspired this framework was just an indulgent desire to write as many ‘nerdiness’ words as possible in a book, especially since I had never seen competitive Scrabble as the backdrop for a book before,” notes Hanna.
Her books are written for children and teenagers, a choice influenced by her own experience with books when she was younger.
“I write for young readers because when I think of the books that have shaped who I am now, I think of the books I read as a child or teenager. Those of us who grew up reading in English in Malaysia, at least back then – I think we got used to looking for pieces of ourselves in characters who were nothing like us, who had very different names, in distant lands. think there’s power in seeing yourself and your communities reflected in the fiction you read, and I didn’t want my own kids to have to hunt for themselves like I did,” shares she.
find a rhythm
The weight of the sky won the 2019 Freeman Awards in the Young Adult/High School Literature category.
The girl and the ghost was a 2020 Kirkus Prize finalist.
Hanna also has an entry in Once upon a time there was Eid a 2020 collection of short stories edited by Aisha Saeed and SK Ali, which features global Muslim voices writing about this religious holiday.
After the queen of tiles, she has two more books in the works, The grimoire of grave destinies and an upcoming intermediate level book. In The Grimoire of grave destinies, forthcoming from Delacorte Press, a professor at a school of sorcery is murdered and the students join forces to find his killer. Created by Hanna and Margaret Owen (The Merciful Raven), each chapter of this fantasy novel, written by different authors, portrays the perspective of a different character.
Contributing authors are Cam Montgomery, Hafsah Faizal, Jessica Lewis, Julian Winters, Karuna Riazi, Kat Cho, Preeti Chhibber, Victoria Lee and Yamile Saied Mendez.
The other untitled book is a Malaysian folk version of Little Red Riding Hood, where a 13-year-old girl encounters a talking tiger who is trapped in the Langkawi jungle by a curse.
Both titles are slated for release in 2023.
That’s an impressive list in such a short time, something Hanna doesn’t take for granted.
“I’ve been very lucky to have ideas that publishers seem to be interested in, and very privileged to have the time to be able to work on those ideas, as well as a support system that allows me to write. Because that’s the problem it’s very hard to write for a living unless you can afford to write for a living it’s a privilege that a lot of writers more talented than me don’t have “, she says.
These days, when she’s not chasing a deadline, she’s spending time with her kids or working on another art project.
“When I have a moment to myself, I read, paint, or watch BTS. After two books, the most valuable lesson I learned is that once the book is out in the world, it’s not it’s no longer mine, it’s yours – it belongs to the readers, who will bring their experiences and interpretations to it, none of which I can control. All I can do is focus on the next book, and the next, and the next, and trying to make each one better than the last in some way,” she concludes.
queen of tilespublished by Salaam Reads/ Simon and Schuster, is now available in bookstores.