While writing my most recent manuscript, called Mama Wears a Hijab, I became particularly interested in the images of Muslims in picture books. How are they depicted? Do they exist at all? And who are the gatekeepers who decide what groups are seen in picture books and what groups remain invisible?
I found images of Muslims in books that are intended to comfort non-Muslims about Muslims moving into their neighborhoods. I also found images of Muslims in books about Muslim holidays which also seem targeted at non-Muslims in an informational manner, educating readers about the customs of Muslims. The third category consists of books from religious publishers marketed toward Muslims only. These books would be unlikely to end up in a public school or public library and not be distributed in mainstream bookstores for mass consumption.
So what this means is that Muslims exist in "window" books for non-Muslims to look at to learn about another culture, but Muslims do not generally exist in mainstream "mirror" books for Muslim children to see themselves reflected. The We Need Diverse Books http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ movement calls for the representation of more types of people in children's literature and more types of people creating the books. The goal is inclusivity and a chance to hear the stories of a broader group of people. What I am seeking is a depiction of Muslims not as "other," but as real people, with multidimensional lives. To not exist only to educate non-Muslims, but to appear in picture books in their own right. Many books that have Muslim characters are very serious, almost humorless, didactic and heavy. Can a Muslim character be cute? Can they be silly? Can they exist in a plot line that is not about being Muslim?
Two recent examples of appealing and cute Muslim characters are Who We Are! All About Being the Same and Being Different written by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott (2016, Candlewick Press) and the 40th anniversary edition of All Kinds of Families, written by Norma Simon and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen (2016, Albert Whitman & Company).
While both of these books are focusing exclusively on different types of people and families, they do not depict Muslims as "other." The illustrations in both books are sweet and appealing, and there is no conflict. Nobody needs to be schooled on the fact that Muslims are people like anyone else, the illustrations depict this in a very natural and satisfying manner. In All Kinds of Families there are women wearing hijabs at the ice skating rink, no explanation or apology needed. The scene is about ice skating and nothing else, and the subtext is that all types of families enjoy lacing up their skates and hitting the ice.
Similarly, in Who We Are! Muslim families are depicted in seven spreads. The characters are just as sweet and charming as all of the other families that Ms. Westcott has included in these scenes, with no explanation required about who these people are and why they are there. They belong, just like everybody else.
But I want more. I want a cute, funny, feisty girl like Fancy Nancy or Eloise who will appear on retail swag like other wildly successful picture book characters. A little girl whose mother is wearing a hijab or a dupatta or a chador. A little girl who will be a mirror for Muslim girls and a mirror for non-Muslim girls. Not a window, because a window indicates otherness. A mirror because despite all of the painful and chaotic things that are happening on this planet right now, we are all part of the same family.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
Abecedarium is a word that has it’s origins in medieval latin, meaning a primer for teaching the alphabet.
When I came across the word a few years ago, I thought I would give it a try creating one full of inspiring thoughts. It was a game that was easier than I thought. Alphabet books are always of interest to me because it is always intriguing to see what writers or artists do with such letters as Q, X, Y and Z.
Probably the most inspiring of all abecedariums that I ever encountered was Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies. I remember first seeing it at an exhibition in Boston. I walked the show with my little sister and she and I giggled the whole time. Being fans of Monty Python we completely got the joke. What Mr. Gorey did was invent 26 ways to kill of children from A to Z. After we saw the show, the book was for sale in the gift shop. I asked my parents if I could get a copy. They took a look at it and told me to put it back. They did not get the irony and wit. My sister and I left the museum trying to remember our favorites. We never forgot that hilariously macabre abecedarium.
Here is the cover:
When the time came for me to create one, I went in an entirely different direction: Inspiration from A to Z. Using my elf characters, I put them to work bringing some hope and encouragement. I printed this out as a poster and sent it to friends. To this day, I receive messages from some of the recipients that particular letters have come in handy.
Here is a page from my sketch book of various elfs before they were elphs.
Meanwhile, the word "Elphabet" does not have origins in Latin and I doubt that anyone in the medieval word ever used it. I made it up myself. It is something that I love to do: make up words and inspire others.
Whether you are writing about a character we will fall in love with, or whether you’re showing us a character we’ll all love to hate, the most effective character is the one that is changed by the story he has to tell.
Begin with a resistance to change. This allows for something interesting to happen, what we often call the inciting incident. We’re familiar with the ‘disaster befalls him,’ beginning, but sometimes the inciting incident is actually a good thing.
In Terms of Endearment, Emma announces she’s pregnant. Aurora will be a grandmother in six months. Aurora reacts as if her lifeline has been cut. Sweet candies are required to bring her around, and even then, this is not good news. Her boyfriends will see her differently—as a woman past her prime. She’s resistant to this view of herself, and she’s pretty sure they will be too.
Immediately, conflict is established.
What is required of your character is a change—in perspective, in attitude, in behavior. It doesn’t happen all at once—most of us take time to adjust to a change in circumstances, to accept a new status quo. It’s not until an even greater causative event comes barreling along some pages later, that your character stops backpedaling and looks for a way out of this mess.
That’s when you, the writer, are deep in plot. You need a series of events to show how all these changes-- perspective, attitude, and behavior, can realistically occur. You write us a good story.
Over the course of the story, your character becomes more receptive, more flexible, more tolerant. In the second half of the story, more and more frequently toward the end, even as he faces larger, more daunting obstacles, he receives validation for his new approach to problems.
And in the final pages, he gets the girl, makes the grade, wins the race, whatever it takes to complete the emotional arc that is begun when your character tackles a problem at the start of the story. He comes to a first conclusion about what he wants, and adjusts it when it doesn’t quite fit his needs, and probably continuously adjusts it throughout the story.
It’s a funny thing how change in a fictional character parallels change in an actual person. Just as Aurora, who digs in her heels and fights it the whole distance, finally embraces her role in her daughter’s life, and her new reality, out of love for her daughter.
Her story continues in The Evening Star.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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