‘Elevate and empower’: How St. Cloud’s Diverse Voices Press is filling a gap in children’s literature

Three book covers lined up to each other
Books published by Diverse Voices Press in St. Cloud, Minn., which publishes books written by and for underrepresented communities.
Courtesy of Diverse Voices Press

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Alfonzo Galvan | Sahan Journal

A St. Cloud–based publishing company is releasing books with an emphasis on diversity in an effort to encourage more people to read and learn about their cultures.

Diverse Voices Press is an independent publishing company whose mission is to publish books by underrepresented voices.

Abdi Mahad and his wife Hudda Ibrahim founded the company during the pandemic after seeing a lack of representation for Somali children in the books children read.

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“There was a gap in literature, especially children’s books,” Abdi said. “We need just to close that kind of gap.”

Abdi said the idea came from his time teaching English to a group of Somalis who asked if he could provide books in Somali or with Somali characters. Many of the students left Somalia at an early age and had no real connection to their native language and culture in America, according to Abdi.

Hudda said the need isn’t specific to the Somali community but can be seen in other immigrant communities.

“We created Diverse Voices to basically elevate and empower multicultural and multilingual identities,” Hudda said.

Hudda and Abdi have a background in education. Hudda is pursuing a doctorate in Education and Leadership, and is a faculty member at St. Cloud Technical and Community College, where she teaches diversity and social justice. Abdi has a master’s degree from St. Cloud State, where he studied applied linguistics and curriculum design. He was born in Somalia and moved to the United States when he was 14.

The majority of the books published by the couple’s company have been children’s books. Along with representing their cultures in the texts, Hudda said the other goal is to grow children’s aspirations.

Books like “Lula Wants to Wear a Badge,” written by Hudda about a Black Muslim girl wanting to be a police officer, help introduce children to nontypical career fields given their backgrounds.

“I have to tell you a story so that other children will be able to hopefully get an inspiration and say that, ‘Actually you know what? I want to become XYZ. I want to become a doctor,’” Hudda said.

Inspiration for the books comes from the authors’ own life experiences. It may also come from deep research. In one case, it was a little boy at school wanting a book about himself, according to Hudda.

“He wants to be a marine biologist. I said, ‘Man, you give me a hard time.’ Now I have to research. I don’t know anything about that,’” Hudda said.

Other than the books written by Hudda, the company also publishes books written by Abdi and has a schedule of upcoming books that feature two new authors set to be released in June. A spokesperson for the company said other authors have reached out to have their books published by Diverse Voices Press.

The company publishes books in Somali and English but has expressed interest in expanding to other languages like Spanish. Some books are produced and made available through a contract with the Independent School District 742 in St. Cloud while other books are available for purchase at the Diverse Voices Press website or Amazon.

One of Abdi and Hudda’s other goals is to help immigrants maintain their language. Because of this they’ve also written many books to help readers learn the Somali language.

Abdi has created a Somali-language curriculum based on Minnesota school district standards and past English and foreign language curriculum.

“Each lesson has different activities that can help students to have interactive, engaging conversations and worksheets,” Abdi said.

Other than children’s books, Diverse Voices Press also publishes educational books that teach words and colors in both Somali and English. A list of future books is available on their website that includes more books to learn numbers and shapes.

Abdi said the goal for the company is to keep expanding into school districts outside of St. Cloud.

“Currently we are working with St. Cloud, but we are having conversations with so many other school districts, countrywide,” Abdi said.

The Somali Language Curriculum is easily applicable to any school district with Somali students, according to Hudda.

“We’re not only helping the kids retain and maintain their language,” Hudda said, “but also their culture and their heritage and what makes them unique.”