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Can Simon & Schuster's new Muslim imprint ease publishing's diversity problem?

The new Salaam imprint, focused on Muslim characters and stories, is expected to launch in 2017 with nine books, from picture books for children to Young Adult titles for tweens and teens.

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    Simon & Schuster's new Salaam imprint focused on Muslim characters and stories takes its name from the Arabic word for 'peace.'
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At a time when some American Muslims feel alienated by the current political climate, Simon & Schuster is creating a home for them in publishing.

The publisher recently announced Salaam Reads, "the first imprint at a major publisher focused on Muslim characters and stories."

The imprint, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “peace,” plans to launch in 2017 with nine books, from picture books for children to Young Adult titles for tweens and teens.

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“Our aim with the Salaam Reads imprint is in part to provide fun and compelling books for Muslim children, but we also intend for these books to be entertaining and enriching for a larger non-Muslim audience,” said executive editor Zareen Jaffery.

“Children’s books are a fantastic way to get to know our local and global Muslim neighbors. Simon & Schuster is thrilled to offer a home to books that share the stories of Muslim children, in all their diversity," said Jon Anderson, president of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.

News of the imprint highlights recent controversy about the issue of diversity in publishing. It also comes at a time when some Muslims in the US feel under siege, thanks to recent comments by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump about banning Muslims from the country, as well as controversy about racial and religious profiling.

Within the publishing world, critics charge that books from major publishing houses largely feature white, male authors writing about white characters. 

And with good reason. Research suggests male writers enjoy disproportionate representation in the literary world, both as reviewers and as authors being reviewed. Men also out-represent women even in children’s literature, traditionally the domain of women. Perhaps most concerning, less than 3 percent of children’s books surveyed in 2013 were about black people – and even fewer by black authors.

That's led some in the publishing world, like UK children's laureate Malorie Blackman to speak out. It's also given rise to movements designed to increase diversity in publishing, including #1000BlackGirlBooks, which aims to connect black girls with books they can connect to, as well as #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which has advocated for children's books to represent a wider range of races, classes, cultures, and ability levels.

But Simon & Schuster's Mr. Anderson says there's room for growth among Muslim American readers.

“There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, 1.6 billion in the world, and they are an underserved literary market,” he said.

In an interview with The New York Times, he added, “We have a chance to provide people with a more nuanced and, in my estimation, a more honest portrayal of the lives of everyday Muslims."

Among the books the imprint plans to release next year is a picture book by pop singer Harris J based on his song "Salam Alaikum," a picture book about diverse holiday traditions, and a middle-school tween adventure about a Bangladeshi-American heroine who saves her brother from a supernatural board game.

Perhaps most representative of Salaam Reads' mission is Mark Gonzales, author of the imprint's forthcoming "Yo Soy Muslim," a lyrical picture book about a parent writing to a child about the value of a multicultural heritage. The title comes from the poem "Yo Soy Joaquin," about the struggles of being a Chicano.

Mr. Gonzales is part Mexican and part French, and spent his childhood in Alaska struggling with his identity. He now has a daughter and told the UK's Guardian he worries about what she, of Mexican, French, and Tunisian descent, will have to read growing up.

“Any person who has been on the receiving end of demonizing narratives or has felt invisible in existing narrative knows the pain that comes from being erased,” Gonzalez, an HBO DEF Jam poet and TEDxRamallah speaker, told the Guardian.

“If the literary publications that are being released in the 21st century do not reflect what the 21st century looks like in terms of global community, they will be irrelevant,” he added. “Any industry that does not reflect the world won’t be embraced.”

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