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.
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