The push for more Muslim characters in children's literature

The children's book section at San Jose Library
The children's book section at the San Jose Library in California
San Jose Library via Creative Commons

In February, publishing house Simon & Schuster — one of the "big five" publishers in the industry — made headlines when it announced it would launch an imprint specifically devoted to children's and young adult books featuring Muslim characters.

The imprint, called Salaam Reads, is planning to release its first book in 2017.

Sharmina Zaidi, a mother of four who lives in Plano, Texas, said she hopes it will make her book hunt easier. Right now, finding books with characters that her children can identify with can be a challenge.

"We get so excited for the littlest things," Zaidi said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, a Muslim kid in this math problem!'"

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She's turned to the Internet to find more diverse books, and said that some Muslim parents have even resorted to writing their own, filling a hole in the marketplace — and on their children's bookshelves.

"If I could go to Barnes & Noble or Target's book section and find books that are more diverse, that would be great," Zaidi said. "When they're very little, it's not that big of a deal: A-B-C's and 1-2-3's. But when they get older, though, when they start having identity issues, it would be great to have more tween fiction and teen fiction."

Ahmad Fahmy, the father of three little girls in Minneapolis, said even some of the few books that are available are problematic, stereotypical or even incorrect. He opened one book to find an illustration of a man with several women. "It said: 'Look at that Arab guy with the many wives.' And this is a book for 5 years of age."

Children's books that feature Muslim characters
'It's Ramadan, Curious George' and 'Big Red Lollipop' are two of Sharmina Zaidi's favorite books to read with her children.
Courtesy of publishers

Despite that, he is grateful for the positive books he has been able to find. They may be limited, but it's a huge increase over what was available when he was growing up in Iowa.

"I didn't have anything like that when I was growing up," Fahmy said. "In most cases, I had to be the one to try and educate my friends and my teachers about my beliefs.

"Now, at my daughter's daycare, they actually reached out to me. They said, 'I just realized that you guys are Muslim. If there are books that you have that you want us to share with other students, I want you to tell me,'" Fahmy said.

Educational books were some of the first books with Muslim characters to become widely available, Zaidi said. Books that explain Muslim holidays and tradition, like Eid and Ramadan, to young readers, were some of the first on the market. But there's still a hole for books that have Muslim characters but aren't specifically about being Muslim.

Zaidi said her friends who are parents all agree they'd love to see Muslim characters incorporated into popular series, like the "Arthur" or "Amelia Bedelia" books. And where are the adventure novels or the friendship novels that just happen to have a Muslim character? she asked.

Only four books have been announced as part of Salaam Reads 2017 lineup, but they may well fill that void. They include "The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand" by Karuna Riazi, which follows a 12-year-old girl who must save her brother from a supernatural board game.

Zareen Jaffery, the executive editor of Salaam Reads, said in a statement that the imprint's aim 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."

Zaidi hoped that would be the case, that the books would find an audience outside the Muslim community.

"Living in a country with so much diversity, that should be reflected in everything. Everybody goes out to eat — Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Greek food — but is it reflected in the rest of culture? In reading? In art?" Zaidi said. "The need is there, and it's not just for us. My whole life I've been reading books about everyone else. That's why I'm able to relate and connect — so it's the same the other way."

From "Noor Kids Discover Patience."
From the Noor Kids book, 'Noor Kids Discover Patience.' Each book ends with a lesson from the Quran and a lesson in Arabic.
Courtesy Noor Kids

Muslim children's books: A reading list

Sharmina Zaidi and Ahmad Fahmy shared some diverse books they enjoy with their families.

1) "The Magic Words" by Lisha Azad Age 3 to 8
2) "It's Ramadan, Curious George" by H. A. Rey & Hena Khan Age 3 to 8
3) "Studying Hard," part of a series by Ali Gator Productions Age 3 to 8
4) "Noor Kids: The Power of Prayer," part of a series by Amin and Mohammed Aaser Age 4 to 8
5) "Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah," part of a series by Omar S. Khawaja Age 4 to 8
6) "Big Red Lollipop" by Rukhsana Khan Age 4 to 8
7) "Night of the Moon" by Hena Khan Age 6 to 9
8) "The Best Eid Ever" by Asma Mobin-Uddin Age 7 to 9
9) "A Party in Ramadan" by Asma Mobin-Uddin Age 7 to 9
10) "Goha and His Donkey: An Egyptian Folktale" by Amany Hassanein Age 7 to 9
11) "Stories of the Prophets in the Holy Qur'an" by Ruth Woodhall and Shahada Sharelle Abdul Haqq Age 9 to 12
12) "Does My Head Look Big in This?" by Randa Abdel-Fattah Age 12 to 17