November 20, 2017

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Muslims in Children’s Books | Up for Discussion

An author looks back and at the ongoing publishing challenges

A few years ago I came across a For Better or For Worse cartoon strip in which Elizabeth and a friend are in a cafeteria. In the background, standing in line, was a Muslim girl in hijab. It gave me a ridiculous sense of joy–of validation–to see “myself” reflected in a cartoon strip. Especially since this Muslim wasn’t doing anything bad. No bombs. No threats. No screaming headlines. She was just getting lunch. And she was pretty, too!

The desire to fit in, the intense longing to be part of the community, is hardwired into our psyches. These days this need is particularly critical for Muslim children in North America.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t my religion that set me apart, it was the color of my skin. I grew up in the 1960s in a small town in Canada. We were the only Pakistani Muslim family in the whole town and most of the time I was the only brown kid in the class. The other kids didn’t know much about brown people. They said, “We’re white because we’re clean and you’re brown because you’re dirty. If you go home and take a lot of baths you’ll get white like us.”

The teen years were the worst. I didn’t dress Islamically, I tried to blend in. But I couldn’t afford all the latest fashions the “cool” kids wore so I wore cheap look-alikes, which probably made the situation worse. I was bound to question my faith. I had all that recess time alone to examine precisely what my belief system was, where I belonged, and what I stood for. I used that time to come to peace with myself.

Of course, we live in a different, more culturally diverse environment today. It is far easier for children from different backgrounds to find themselves in books.

Since September 11th, 2001, a number of fiction and nonfiction titles have been published in an attempt to teach children and young adults (and in many cases, their parents) about Islam and to address many of the misconceptions that exist about the faith and the Muslim community at large. The best of these books have made a positive impact (see the recommended titles below), but a great deal more work needs to be done.

It hurts that there are still so many misperceptions about Islam in Western society. Many people think that Islam tramples the rights of women. The truth is that these basic rights have been prescribed for 1400 years, but they need to be reasserted for some Muslims. This is something that I strive to demonstrate in my work.

Some people think that Islam encourages terrorism. Not at all. The targeting and terrorizing of innocent civilians is strictly forbidden in Islam. Muslims who resort to terrorist tactics are violating the prohibitions in the Quran.

If the children of second- and third-generation Muslims are to feel at home in the mosaic of North American culture, they need to see themselves and their values represented positively in literature. Aladdin doesn’t count. We’ve come a long way since then and there are no such things as flying carpets.

The evolution of a minority’s literary expression often tends to begin with people from outside the culture. Only later do writers from within the culture emerge. In the best of times, it is extremely difficult to write about another culture in a truthful and sensitive manner. In today’s political climate, it seems even harder.

Some Western authors have attempted to fill this void of books about Muslims with mixed results. Many of these authors use a simplistic approach and take Western-styled heroes and heroines and plunk them into Muslim-styled settings with plots based on timely political issues from abusive fathers to horrible theocratic regimes.

By dealing in such shallow stereotypes these books do little to create genuine understanding. In fact, their appeal seems to involve indirectly preaching that Western culture is superior.

Even when the authors take pains to get details right (such as the name of the cot the girl would sleep on), they fail to understand the way a Muslim girl would really think under the circumstances. There are a number of books where the only solution the hapless heroine resorts to, in order to escape an intolerable situation, is to dress up as a boy and run away. What message does that send to Muslim girls about their culture?

What these authors need to realize is that in many ways Islam is more than a “religion,” it is a way of life. The way you dress, the way you interact with others, the way you keep yourself clean, etc., can all be forms of worship if done according to Islamic principles and with the intention of pleasing God. Consequently, Islam leaves a residual influence even on those Muslims who are not observant.

Just as Judeo-Christian values influence the moral framework of anyone raised in North America, regardless of how religious the individual may be, Islamic values influence the moral framework of anyone raised in a Muslim society. Many Western authors completely ignore the existence of this Islamic influence and as a result are unable to penetrate the social construct of their Muslim settings.

I had begun to despair that any Western author would be able to get a Muslim point of view “right” until I came across Frances Temple’s The Bedouin’s Gazelle (Scholastic, 1996). What an absolutely amazing, meticulously researched story! It shows that it can be done.

There are five basic categories of children’s books about Islam: contemporary picture books, contemporary novels, short story collections, folktales, and nonfiction.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s entire body of work is commendable. Her Sitti’s Secrets (S & S, 1994) is a charming family story set in Palestine. Two contemporary picture books that deal with war situations are Florence Parry Heide’s Sami and the Time of Troubles (Clarion, 1992) and my own The Roses in My Carpets (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004).

Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple (Clarion, 2006), Mary Hoffman’s The Color of Home (Putnam, 2002), Asma Mobin-Uddin’s My Name Is Bilal (Boyds Mills, 2005), and Karen English’s Nadia’s Hands (Boyds Mills, 2003) all deal with Muslim children who are self-conscious in one way or another.

A community trying to express itself often starts with such didactic and issue-driven stories. These books serve a purpose and make good starting points for discussion, but I’d like to see the trend move away from these “Muslim as victim” scenarios. In these stories, being Muslim is part of the conflict. I’d like to see a character’s Islamic identity be like wallpaper, part of the setting–providing flavor but definitely not part of the problem.

In the evolution of cultural expression, humor seems to arrive later on the scene. My own books Silly Chicken (2005) and Ruler of the Courtyard (2003, both Viking) fall into the humorous category.

In the category of contemporary novels it’s refreshing to see authors tackling difficult subjects. Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi (S & S, 1997) and Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground (Macmillan, 2004) are both excellent novels that deal with the Palestinian situation. Set in America, Marina Budhos’s fine novel Ask Me No Questions (S & S, 2006) deals with the backlash following September 11th and the treatment of illegal immigrants. Elizabeth Laird’s Kiss the Dust (Puffin, 1994) and Deborah Ellis’s Parvana’s Journey and Mud City (both Groundwood, 2003) are politically driven books about Kurdish and Afghan refugees, respectively. They make outstanding resources for introducing Islamic issues into the classroom.

Yahya Emerick’s Ahmad Deen and the Jinn at Shaolin (Amirah, 1996) and J. J. L. Simpson’s The Jinn in the Clock (American Trust, 1990) are examples of Muslim adventure stories. There’s also H. U. Hutchinson’s “Invincible Abdullah” series (American Trust), which is like a Muslim version of the Hardy boys.

My novel Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile (Stoddart, 1999) is set in a Canadian middle school and tackles bullying, manipulation, and suicide. O.R. Melling’s My Blue Country (Viking, 1996) is set against the backdrop of an exchange visit to Indonesia. My book Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Poems and Stories (Albert Whitman, 2002) is a collection of eight short stories each centered on a major aspect of the faith.

As a storyteller I have a soft spot for folktales. What better way to gauge a culture’s character than to read the stories that its people have been telling themselves for generations? Noorah Al-Gailani’s The Islamic Year: Surahs, Stories and Celebrations (Hawthorn, 2003) and Sarah Conover and Freda Crane’s Ayat Jamila: Beautiful Signs (EWU, 2004) are fine collections that mix folktales with facts.

Nonfiction is perhaps the best-represented genre of children’s books about Islam. There are so many terrific resources, from Demi’s exquisite picture-book biography Muhammad (S & S, 2003) to numerous books on Ramadan and Muslim Festivals.

I must admit I felt conflicted when it came to including two picture-book stories about the now well-known efforts of Alia Muhammad Baker, the “Librarian of Basra.”

I found it condescending that Jeanette Winter and Mark Alan Stamaty (the authors of The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq [Harcourt, 2005] and Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq [Knopf, 2004], respectively) would focus on saving books when there were so many human victims. It would be like writing a book about a New York librarian fretting over the damage to her collection on Sept. 11th. But I corresponded with a mother in Syria who changed my mind. She viewed the books quite differently. She liked them because they were about a woman in horrendous circumstances who couldn’t do much about the carnage around her but she could do this one thing. She could save these books for when peace would return. And her efforts showed how very much knowledge was valued in her culture.

I realize that with all the unrest and turmoil in the world, creating such a book list is only a first step toward bridging gaps in understanding. But when it all boils down to it, maybe that’s all any of us can do. Be like Ms. Baker, save our own little corner of the world.

Children’s Books with Muslim and Related Cultural Themes

ENGLISH, Karen. Nadia’s Hands. illus. by Jonathan Weiner. Boyds Mills. 2003.
Set in North America, a South Asian girl feels self-conscious after putting henna on her hands.

HEIDE, Florence Parry & Judith Heide Gilliland. The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. illus. by Ted Lewin. HarperCollins. 1995.
Set in Egypt, a boy learns to spell his name.

HEIDE, Florence Parry & Judith Heide Gilliland. Sami and the Time of Troubles. illus. by Ted Lewin. Clarion. 1992.
Sami deals with the realities of war in Beirut.

KHAN, Rukhsana. The Roses in My Carpets. illus. by Ronald Himler. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004.
An Afghan refugee finds hope amid adversity.

KHAN, Rukhsana. Ruler of the Courtyard. illus. by Gregory R. Christie. Viking. 2003.
A Pakistani girl overcomes her fear of chickens.

KHAN, Rukhsana. King of the Skies. illus. by Laura Fernandez & Rick Jacobsen. Scholastic. 2001.
A crippled boy in Pakistan had one day, ever year, that he rules: the day of Basunt, the kite festival.

KHAN, Rukhsana. Silly Chicken. illus. by Yunmee Kyong. Viking. 2005.
A Pakistani girl is jealous of her mother’s pet hen.

KYUCHUKOV, Hristo. My Name Was Hussein. illus. Allan Eitzen. Boyds Mills. 2004.
A story based on the author’s experience growing up as a Muslim in Bulgaria and being forced to change his name.

MOBIN-UDDIN, Asma. My Name Is Bilal. illus. by Barbara Kiwak. Boyds Mills. 2005.
A young boy learns to appreciate his Muslim culture and name.

MUNSCH, Robert & Saoussan Askar. From Far Away. illus. by Michael Martchenko. Annick. 1995.
This is a collaboration based on the story of Askar, who left Beirut for North America at age five.

NYE, Naomi Shihab. Sitti’s Secrets. illus. by Nancy Carpenter. S & S. 1994.
A young American returns to her roots in Palestine to visit her grandmother.

Contemporary Novels and Short Story Collections

BAIG, Reshma. The Memory of Hands. Amirah. 1998.
A poetic collection of short stories about Muslims in America.

BUDHOS, Marina. Ask Me No Questions. S & S. 2006.
A novel about the trials a Bangladeshi girl’s family faces as illegal immigrants in post-9/11 America.

ELLIS, Deborah. Mud City. Groundwood. 2003.
Sequel to Parvana’s Journey, about Parvana’s friend’s continued adventures.

ELLIS, Deborah. Parvana’s Journey. Groundwood. 2003.
The story of a young Afghan girl separated from her family during a war in Afghanistan

EMERICK, Yahiya. Ahmad Deen and the Jinn at Shaolin. Amirah. 1996.
Ahmad Deen travels to China and finds a mystery.

KHAN, Rukhsana. Muslim Child. illus. by Jonathan Weiner. Boyds Mills. 2003.
A collection of short stories and poems about Islam from a child’s perspective.

KHAN, Rukhsana. Dahling, if You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile. Stoddart. 1999.
A Muslim girl tries to appease the kids in her classroom.

LAIRD, Elizabeth. Kiss the Dust. Puffin. 1994.
A historical novel about a young Kurdish girl’s flight from Iraq under Saddam.

LAIRD, Elizabeth, with Sonia Nimr. A Little Piece of Ground. Macmillan. 2004.
A heartwrenching story set in Israeli occupied Gaza.

MELLING, O. R. My Blue Country. Viking. 1996.
A novel about an exchange visit to Malaysia.

NYE, Naomi Shihab. Habibi. S & S. 1997.
A romantic novel about a young American girl who goes with her family to Palestine.

NYE, Naomi Shihab. The Space between Our Footsteps. S & S. 1998.
A wonderful collection of poems that give voice to Middle Eastern perspectives.

SIMPSON, Juwairiah. J. L. The Jinn in the Clock. American Trust. 1990.
Features a framed story from the storyteller Duwairig.

SIMPSON, Juwairiah. J. L. A Wicked Wazir. American Trust. 1990.
Linked to the previous title, again Duwairig frames a story of court intrigue.

TEMPLE, Frances. The Bedouin’s Gazelle. Scholastic. 1996.
An amazing novel set in a Bedouin society in the year 1302.

Folktales

BURNS, Khephra. Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali. Illus. by Leo Dillion & Diane Dillon. Harcourt. 2001.
A story about the childhood of the famed king of Mali.

CONOVER, Sarah & Freda Crane, adapts. Ayat Jamila: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents. illus. by Valerie Wahl. EWU. 2004.
A collection of folktales and wisdom culled from the Muslim world.

DURKEE, Noura. The Animals of Paradise. illus. by Simon Trethewey. Amideast. 1996.
The animals in paradise tell stories of how they helped various messengers of God.

JOHNSON-DAVIES, Denys. Animal Tales from the Arab World. illus. by Eda S. Ghali. Amideast. 1995.
A collection of fables about animals set in the Arab culture.

LEWIN, Ted. The Storytellers. illus. by author. HarperCollins. 1998.
Set in Morocco, it deals with the craft of storytelling.

TARNOWSKA, Wafa’, retel. The Seven Wise Princesses: A Medieval Persian Epic. Illus. by Nilesh Mistry. Barefoot. 2000.
A collection based on a classic Persian folktale.

WALKER, Barbara. Watermelons, Walnuts and the Wisdom of Allah and Other Tales of the Hoca. illus. by Harold Berson. Texas Tech. 1991.
One of many collections of stories about the folk figure by the name of Mullah Nasruddin or Nasruddin Hoja, Joha or Hoca that are widespread through the Middle East.

ZEMAN, Ludmila, retel. Sindbad: From the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights. illus. by retel. Tundra. 1999.
A lush retelling of the famous story from the Arabian Nights.

Nonfiction

AL-GAILANI, Noorah & Chris Smith. The Islamic Year: Surahs, Stories, and Celebrations. illus. by Helen Williams. Hawthorn. 2003
Part biography of Muhammad and part activity book, this book helps children understand the significance of the holidays.

BEARDWOOD, Mary. The Children’s Encyclopaedia of Arabia. Stacey International. 2002.
A well-illustrated guide to the region.

BORRELLO, Helen. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Chelsea House. 1995.
A biography of the first Muslim African American basketball star.

DEMI. Muhammad. illus. by author. S & S. 2003.
An excellent picture book biography of Islam’s Prophet.

ELLIS, Deborah. Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak. Groundwood. 2004.
A courageous and brutally honest look at the conflict in Israel/Palestine in the words of Israeli and Palestinian children.

GHAZI, Suhaib Hamid. Ramadan. illus. by Omar Rayyan. Holiday House. 1996.
An informative book about the month of fasting.

HOYT-GOLDSMITH, Diane. Celebrating Ramadan. photos. by Lawrence Migdale. Holiday House. 2001.
Set in America it follows a young Muslim through this month.

ISLAM, Yusuf. A Is for Allah. Mountain of Light. 2000.
Contains wonderful songs and text (by the former rock star Cat Stevens).

ISLAM, Yusuf. The Life of the Last Prophet. Mountain of Light. 1996.
A wonderful, brief introduction to the story of Muhammad (peace be upon him) that includes beautifully rendered songs.

KHAN, Saniyasnain. Tell Me about Hajj. Al-Risala. 2001.
Well illustrated, this book takes the reader through the steps of the fifth pillar of Islam.

KHAN, Saniyasnain. Tell Me about Muhammad. Al-Risala. 2001.
A good resource on the life of Muhammad.

KNIGHT, Khadija. Islamic Festivals. Heinemann Library. 1997.
A very good resource that includes information beyond the festivals.

MACDONALD, Fiona. A 16th Century Mosque. Hodder Wayland. 1996.
A beautifully illustrated book that examines Islamic architecture.

MALCOLM X, with Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Penguin. 2004.
An excellent read and good starting point in understanding the Islamic movement in the African American community.

MCMANE, Fred. Hakeem Olajuwon. Chelsea House. 1997.
A biography of the African basketball star.

RUMFORD, James. Traveling Man. illus. by author. Houghton. 2001.
An intriguing look at the famous Muslim traveler.

RUMMEL, Jack. Malcolm X. Chelsea House. 1989.
A children’s biography of the activist.

RUMMEL, Jack. Muhammad Ali. Chelsea House. 1988.
A biography of the famous boxer.

STAMATY, Mark Alan. Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq. illus. by author. Knopf. 2004.
Another story based on Alia Muhammad Baker’s ordeal in Iraq.

WILKINSON, Philip. Islam. DK. 2002.
A detailed guide to Islam.

WINTER, Jeanette. The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. illus. by author. Harcourt. 2005.
Based on the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker’s quest to save the books in her library during the American invasion of Iraq.


Author Information
Rukhsana Khan is the author of seven books for children and young adults. Her complete book list can be found on the Web version of this article or at www.rukhsanakhan.com/muslimbooks.

 

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