Growing up, I used to feel invisible. I had an addiction to reading like no other: I read through the entire children’s section of my town library when I was 10 years old, my parents used to stop me for a pat-down every evening because they wanted me to sleep, and I was usually in the midst of smuggling a book into my room. I read any and every book I found, devouring the twists and turns of fantasies like Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, 2001) and tackling each mystery in the “Nancy Drew” and “Hardy Boys” books.
Yet even as a six-and-a-half-year-old consuming the “Boxcar Children” series, I knew I would never find myself in the books I read. That fact failed to deter me from the search to find someone like me, but every book I finished never gave me even a hint of a person who looked or believed like me.
It became a tired reality that I grew to cope with but one I vowed to change when I was 13 and unable to find a single story from Muslim American children in the diverse Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul anthology (Health Communications, 1997). A lack of Muslim American representation in school-level literature today remains a deplorable reality, silencing children identifying as Muslim American and “othering” them in relation to their classmates and friends. Ensuring a greater diversity and Muslim American representation in school library books will result in a deeper acceptance among children, as well as instill pride in identity for Muslim American children.
Why should the Muslim American community be represented? A 2010 study by the marketing firm Ogilvy Noor estimated Muslim Americans numbered at about eight million within the greater American population of 313.9 million, revealing a growing need for representation in mainstream culture and understanding. In addition, no single racial or ethnic identity applies to more than 30 percent of the Muslim American population, which fares comparably in socioeconomic status to the general American public.
As a result, we need a wide variety of literary material, as the niche of Arab literature serves to represent the experiences of only a minor percentage of the diverse community.
The Muslim American demographic is also younger than that of the greater American community, which means that many Muslim Americans are now in the midst of their education. Interestingly, 99 percent of the age group attending school are enrolled in mainstream public or private schools, compared to the one percent attending Islamic schools.
This all points to a real need for literature about Muslim Americans within school libraries, which goes beyond simply attaining a diversity quota. The Muslim American community has woven itself into the framework of the American population.
It’s also important to understand the difference between the uniquely diverse Muslim American community and the Muslim population worldwide. The experiences of the larger population do not represent that of the smaller subset, and vice versa. Given that a growing number of the U.S. Muslim population was born and raised with a unique cultural identity as Muslim Americans, this community has distinct characteristics and lifestyles. However, the stark reality is that there is a lack of diversity and representation of Muslim Americans in mainstream elementary and middle school literature stacks.
I grew up feeling alone, constantly having to explain my values, traditions, and religion. Given that only three in ten Americans surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution say that they speak with Muslims occasionally, the “othering” experience is one that many children growing up Muslim in America face, both within schools and outside them.
Books about Muslim Americans are blocked from library shelves by radical watchdog groups and parents concerned about their children understanding the experiences that other children undergo, perpetuating the problem of representation and comprehension of differences.
In addition, the often one-sided, negative portrayal of Muslims in the media creates a dichotomy in which Muslim Americans cannot consolidate their identity. Many school children grow up exposed only to extreme representations of being Muslim in America and don’t have the chance to humanize the experiences of their Muslim classmates.
On the other side of coin, Muslim American students grow up feeling othered—unable to find characters speaking to them in the media or literature. This leads them to feel as though their identity is incompatible with the greater American framework. Quite simply, if Muslim Americans are not seen in books, their peers in school do not see them for their unique identity, either.
How can we rectify the gaping hole in school libraries? Simply blaming the missing representation on a lack of books and stories is not enough. We must choose the higher road and actively promote the opportunity to be included. Beyond books, there are ample opportunities for educators to stock their libraries with documentaries and Web sources that provide a more multidimensional perspective of Muslim American experiences.
We have a responsibility to regard multi-faith and cultural representation as a natural occurrence in literature. In a world where misinformation and dehumanization of Muslim Americans takes place daily, the chance to build an understanding should not be disregarded. Let’s give libraries—and students—the chance to truly benefit from a rainbow of experiences.
Laila Alawa is a Muslim feminist, writer and cultural critic based in Washington, DC. She is the founder and president of Coming of Faith LLC, a social media associate at Unity Productions Foundation, associate editor for The Islamic Monthly, and columnist for The Huffington Post, MuslimGirl.net, PolicyMic, and The Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @lulainlife.
Finding Muslim American Voices for Today’s Libraries
Books and multimedia featuring Muslim American voices and stories can be found on different resource sites online, such as the Association for Library Service to Children, ProgrammingLibrarian.com’s Bridging Cultures Muslim Journeys, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
More trustworthy online resources can be found in “Muslim”-tagged books on Goodreads.com, a recent State Department publication featuring notable Muslim Americans and their voices, and an Questia compilation of sources discussing being Muslim in America.
The following booklist focuses on storytelling and personal voices, rather than generalized introductions to the faith community.
Amira’s Totally Chocolate World by J. Samia Mair (The Islamic Foundation, 2010).
Amira loves chocolate so much that every night before she goes to sleep, she asks God to make everything chocolate. On Eid ul-Fitr, she wakes up to find a totally chocolate world!
Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Kahn, illustrated by Julie Paschkis (Chronicle, 2008).
Yasmeen has a wonderful time celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with her family and friends.
The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2008).
A Kuwaiti girl tells how her family celebrates Girgian, a part of the Ramadan holiday.
Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story by Bernard Wolf (Lee & Low, 2003).
Through captivating color photographs and engaging text, this thoughtful book helps young readers understand Muslims as individuals and families.
Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan, illustrated by
Everyday colors are given special meaning as young readers learn about clothing, food, and other important elements of Islamic culture, with a young Muslim girl as a guide.
My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin M.D., and Barbara Kiwak (Boyds Mills, 2005).
Bilal worries about being teased by his classmates for being Muslim. He thinks it might be better if people didn’t know.
My Muslim Year by Cath Senker (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004).
Nine-year-old Nayaab’s diary offers insight into the calendar year and looks at the typical customs and celebrations of Muslim children.
Ask Me No Questions by Marina Tamar Budhos (Atheneum 2006).
Fourteen-year-old Nadira, her sister, and their parents leave Bangladesh for New York City. But the expiration of their visas and the events of September 11, 2001, bring frustration, sorrow, and terror for the whole family.
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Orchard/Chronicle, 2007).
Year Eleven at an exclusive prep school in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, gets complicated for Amal when she decides to wear the hijab, the Muslim head scarf, full-time as a badge of her faith—without losing her identity or sense of style.
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar (Other Press, 2008).
Nidali, the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, narrates the story of her childhood in Kuwait, her teenage years in Egypt (to where she and her family fled the 1990 Iraqi invasion), and her family’s last flight to Texas.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (Grove, 2012).
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble.
It’s My Country Too: Muslim Americans directed by Clifford Bestall (BBC and October Films, 2005).
This production follows the Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, as he asks fellow Muslims what their lives are like in post-9/11 America.
Prince Among Slaves directed by Andrea Kalin (Unity Productions Foundation, 2007).
Chronicles Abdul-Rahman’s true journey from being an African Muslim prince to an American slave. Includes historic and academic commentary.
Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think directed by Rob Gardner (Unity Productions Foundation, 2009).
A documentary exploring the opinions of Muslims around the globe as revealed in the world’s first major opinion survey on the subject, conducted by Gallup, the preeminent polling organization.
Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World directed by Rob Gardner (Unity Productions Foundation, 2011).
This ninety-minute film takes audiences on an epic journey across nine countries and over 1,400 years of history.
Koran by Heart directed by Greg Barker (HBO documentary films, 2011).
A look at a global Quran-reading contest among young Muslim children that takes place annually in Cairo during Ramadan. A coming-of-age story about Muslim kids in modern times.
The Muslims Are Coming! directed by Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad (FilmBuff, 2013).
A tour of middle America by Muslim comedians who visit big cities, rural villages, conservative hotbeds, and everywhere in between to explore the issue of Islamophobia.