Brothers hope books will help Muslim kids hang onto their identity
Amin Aaser didn't need to look farther than his own Minnesota childhood to inspire his series of children's books. It's set in a town called Maple Grove — which is where he grew up — and follows the story of four cartoon animals — including one who bears his name.
Amin, the fictional character, is a charismatic panda bear. Amin Aaser, the author, is 27, bearded and wide-eyed. His older brother Mohammed Aaser, 30, is a little burlier and wears glasses.
Their series is called "Noor Kids." Noor means "the light," the brothers explain, as if to illuminate the way for young Muslims.
The brothers both have impressive business-school pedigrees. Mohammed graduated from Harvard; Amin, who worked on the corporate side of Target and General Mills, is pursuing his MBA at the University of California Berkeley.
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The idea to create children's books, Amin said, started in a conversation with their older sister, who was pregnant.
"The three of us began reflecting on our own childhood, about what it was like to grow up as a Muslim in North America," he said. "That's when the light bulb went off. We said there's no way we want Aasiya, my sister's daughter, to experience the same challenges as we did."
Those challenges of growing up Muslim and the children of Pakistani parents are not hard to recall. They include a painful backlash following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the time, Mohammed Aaser was a 16-year-old kid working at a computer store.
"I still remember there was a lady who came in," he recalled, "and she said, 'I can't believe you guys have someone named Mohammed working here.' And she went to the manager in front of the store and said that: 'I'm never going to shop here again.'"
Amin was just 13 when the planes struck the World Trade Center.
A friend turned against him and started bullying him online. During Ramadan, he'd head to the library instead of the lunchroom so other kids wouldn't notice he was fasting. During Little League season, he begged his mom to wait to pick him up until the games were long over, so other kids wouldn't see her headscarf.
Looking back, he realizes he was ashamed of his identity.
"It wasn't about how other people thought about Muslims," he said. "It was about how I, as a Muslim, thought about myself."
It's a struggle his brother Mohammed can relate to:
"So this dichotomy forms in your mind," he said. "And that is, 'Can I be a great American? And can I be a great Muslim?'"
That's why the brothers decided to launch "Noor Kids." They wanted to reclaim the story of American Muslims and the values the religion teaches.
But the most basic desire was to offer something they rarely experienced as children. They wanted young Muslims to see themselves in the books they read.
The "Noor Kids" books are simple stories that explore issues like bullying, charity and jealousy. They are intended for 4- to 8-year-olds. Families subscribe for $25 and receive four books over a year.
Now the brothers are expanding the business. After the death of their mother last December, Amin said, he thought of his own legacy. He wanted it to be about more than spreadsheets.
Amin wrote the first eight stories himself and hired artists to illustrate them. But now "Noor Kids" has expanded to include a writer and art director, freeing him to oversee the daily operations of the company.
Since the Aasers published their first book four years ago, they've sold copies to 25,000 households all over the world. In the same period, they've seen Islamic children's literature in the West take off.
The brothers say their vision for reaching little Muslims goes far beyond books. This year they launched an online summer camp, and they have plans to get into animation and mobile apps.
One topic that their series doesn't address is violent extremism in their community. Amin said that when they started the series, the books weren't made to save their young readers from that; they were made to save them from losing their identity.
"Fast forward to where we are today," he said. "Could this also help children understand what their beliefs actually are, so they can stand up against violent extremism? Yeah."
Correction (7:22 a.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the length of a subscription for the Aaser brothers' stories. Subscribers pay $25 a year for four books. The story has been updated.