Telling stories that all can enjoy

Children’s books with Muslim characters can help open minds, and provide kids with role models that have stories like theirs.

Eslah Attar/Round Earth Media/International Women’s Media Foundation
Author Hena Khan chats with a young fan at the public library in Takoma Park, Maryland, this spring.

Zara is a curious young Muslim girl with curly brown hair whose grandmother bakes delicious treats in the kitchen. Her mother is a doctor. Her aunt is an artist who rocks pink and purple hair. Her cousin in high school does karate. 

Each of the women in Hena Khan’s children’s book lives a full life, and each wears a hijab. Zara’s mother wears a bright pink headscarf that contrasts with her white doctor coat; her aunt’s is turban-style. Her cousin’s is the fitted, athletic type. 

Ms. Khan, a Pakistani American author born and raised in Maryland, started writing children’s books more than a decade ago at a time when depictions of authentic Muslim characters were few. She wanted to be sure that children like her sons, now both teenagers, could find books that represented them. Now she finds herself part of a growing community of Muslim writers.

Experts say the number of mainstream children’s books with characters who are clearly Muslim is growing, too, allowing some Muslim children to feel as if they are being “seen for the first time,” and introducing non-Muslim readers to new communities and cultures. Authors are feeling less pressure to explain Muslim culture, instead simply telling stories in which some or all of the characters are Muslim. 

There is no industrywide method of tracking religious diversity in literature, but according to @TheMuslimShelf, a Twitter account focused on Muslim authors, only 13 children’s and young adult books by Muslims were published in 2014. By 2018, there were 34, and at least 32 more will hit the shelves this year. While still small, the numbers reflect a push for change by authors, publishers, and activists. 

“It was that scarcity in mainstream literature that made me want to write ‘Night of the Moon,’” Ms. Khan says, referring to her first children’s story – an acclaimed picture book about a Pakistani American girl celebrating Ramadan. Her latest, “Under My Hijab,” was published this spring. Ms. Khan doesn’t wear the hijab, but says the idea for the book grew out of current events. She was also inspired by the questions people asked her sister-in-law, including whether she had hair under her hijab and whether she showered with it on. 

The call for more diversity in children’s literature led to efforts like Salaam Reads, a Muslim-centered imprint of Simon & Schuster launched in 2016. “There are Muslim children who share their experience of feeling seen for the first time in these books, and non-Muslim children who read them and identify with the characters’ experiences for reasons other than their religion,” says Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of Salaam Reads. “These books provide a lovely bridge between people and cultures.” 

A mix of Muslim and non-Muslim families attended Ms. Khan’s appearances at a bookstore here and at the Takoma Park Public Library in Maryland. Mothers wearing colorful hijabs listened to her talk with their young children bouncing in their seats.

Mariyah Zaidi, 10, of McLean, Virginia, has read all of Ms. Khan’s books and brought them along for an autograph. 

Karen MacPherson, manager for children’s and young adult services at the Takoma Park library, says it can be difficult to find books reflecting the city’s diverse population. 

Besann Alkhalilee of Fairfax, Virginia, brought her three children ranging in age from 3 to 9 to Ms. Khan’s reading in Alexandria. Ms. Alkhalilee says she felt a special connection to “Under My Hijab,” because she started wearing one four years ago. “I wanted my daughters to keep in mind that their mom isn’t the only one who wears it,” she says, smiling and holding up the book. “I wanted them to see that we have people who are like us – more than we know.”

This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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