Posted in Reviews

“Great Books” article in School Library Journal

 

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to highlight some recent Young Adult (YA) titles for School Library Journal (SLJ)

The criteria for the SLJ list were YA titles published within the last year or two that had Muslim protagonists and/or authors. Typically, these types of SLJ articles highlight 10-12 titles. 

We looked at two dozen possible titles, narrowing the list down to 14, to include different genres/formats, publishers, and a range of authors of different racial and ethnic identities. 

In the article, we mentioned the lack of African American protagonists in the works of fiction. 

Another observation was that most titles feature female protagonists. 

Two of the titles on the list include male protagonists, one who is perceived as being Muslim because of his family background but does not identify as a Muslim.

We know that Islam has been racialized; even if someone doesn’t identify as a Muslim, or practice the religion, because of their ancestry, nationality, or ethnicity, islamophobia and bigotry can still affect them. 

While we hope that this piece is helpful in identifying titles of interest, it’s not comprehensive, nor is it meant to be.

You can find it here.

Thoughts? Questions? Leave us a comment.

 

Posted in Reviews

Hats of Faith by Medeia Cohan

Cohan, Medeia. Hats of Faith. Walsh, Sarah, Illus. Picture Book. Chronicle Books, 08/2018. 12 pp. $9.99. 978-1-4521-7320-7. Ages 2-5

Review by Mahasin Abuwi Aleem

Not too long ago, I received a wonderful gift of a book that I’d been eagerly waiting to get my hands on: Hats of Faith, written by Medeia Cohen and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.

(Thanks to Chronicle Books for sending copies our way!)

In the past year or so, images of Muslim women wearing headscarves in popular media have increased exponentially; I assumed a Muslim woman would be included and couldn’t wait to see how it would be done.

Would the headscarf be called a hijab, khimar, or something else?

What style of covering will be?

Would the diversity of the Muslim community be represented in illustrations?

 

I was immediately struck by the cover: there are people of various hues wearing a variety of head coverings (ot none at all), including a dark-skinned woman wearing a scarf wrapped upward and a pair of gold-colored hoop earrings, an image that resonates with me, but isn’t often represented when Muslim women are depicted.

Hats of Faith begins with a simple introduction, “Many religious people share the custom of covering their heads to show their love for God.”

The work includes brightly colored illustrations of nine distinct individuals wearing headcoverings that reflect their faith traditions. Simple text at the top of each page, above each individual’s head, explains the name of each “hat” and who wears it.

I admit that it took me some time to figure out how I felt about the term “hat” being used for the variety of religious head coverings that exist. Ultimately, I came to feel the same way about the term as the author does, that the word makes a lot of sense for teaching about diversity in head coverings to young children.

Men and women from the Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish faiths are depicted, as well as a Rastafarian man. Interspersed throughout the work are the illustrations of three individuals wearing head coverings attributed to Muslims.

The first illustration in the book and of a Muslims is of a young woman with light beige colored skin and dark colored eyebrows and long lashes. Her “hat” is a soft pink scarf which is draped around her ears, neck, and falls softly over one shoulder. A white under scarf peeks out from beneath the pink scarf, above her forehead. “This is a Hijab (he-jaab), which many Muslim women wear,” the text states.

The second illustration of a Muslim is of a medium brown-skinned male with a thick grey beard, who appears to be at least middle-aged. His “hat” is white with grey stripes and sits snugly upon his head. The accompanying text reads: “And this is a Topi (Tou-pi), which many South Asian Muslim men wear.”

 

The last illustration in the book is of a dark-brown skinned woman who wears a multi-colored scarf which is wrapped up and tucked into a neat bun, except for a few small barely noticeable pieces of hair which frame her face. She also wears a necklace and matching hoop earrings. The text above her states, “And this is a Head Wrap, which many African Christian and Muslim women wear.” This illustration, the last in the book, is the only one to use a head covering to represent more than one religious tradition.

Both the dedication page included at the end of Hats of Faith and the book’s accompanying website acknowledge the help of people and experts of various faiths who helped make the book possible. Their help is clearly manifested in the authentic details included in each illustration: the white under scarf on the woman wearing the “hijab” and the manner in which her scarf is draped over her shoulder; the well-kempt beard and warm eyes of the Topi wearer, remind me of many a South Asian “Uncle” I’ve known, as do the color and jewelry worn by the woman in the African head wrap. I particularly liked that the authors noted that head wraps are worn by both Christian and Muslim women.

Overall, Hats of Faith does an excellent job representing the diversity of Muslims in such a short work. Still, I would have preferred that the authors be a bit more precise with their language. For example, it would have been better to write, “And this is a Head Wrap, which Christian and Muslim women of African descent wear” instead of “And this is a Head Wrap, which many African Christian and Muslim women wear”. It’s a very particular distinction, but one that is infinitely more accurate: women of the African diaspora can be found wearing this style all over the world.

I would have also liked for a wider diversity of words for the first Muslim woman’s head covering to have been included; “hijab” just isn’t the only word used for a Muslim woman’s headscarf and it isn’t used for only one style of scarf. It’s time that literature reflects that. If the first image in the book is supposed to represent a woman of a particular ethnicity or region who might call her headscarf a “hijab”, it would have been better to state that. Furthermore, some Muslim women who wear their scarves wrapped in an up-do such as the woman illustrated in this book, would certainly call their own “head wraps”, hijabs.

In the FAQs on their website, the team behind the book notes that they hope to issue a future edition that includes other head coverings; perhaps that edition can also include the diversity of names used for the head covering worn by Muslim women.

Hats of Faith is recommended as a good introduction some commonalities between faith traditions. Children and adults alike will enjoy finding and discussing the similarities between the various “hats”. The “hijab” depicted in the book is strikingly similar to the “Chunni” worn by a Sikh woman in the book and the “Head Wrap” is very similar to the “Tichel” worn by the Orthodox Jewish woman in the book, which is part of the beauty of the book.

The book concludes: “Learning about each other makes it easy to be more understanding. Being understanding helps us spread love and peace.” Agreed!

 

Posted in Reviews

Guest Review: Jamal’s Journey by Michael Foreman

Foreman, Michael, Jamal’s Journey, illustrated by the author. Anderson Press, 2016, preschool-grade 2 (Bedouin)

A small Bedouin camel train, consisting of only three camels and their small loads, their drivers, and the drivers’ hooded falcons, crosses the desert to what appears to be an international market in Dubai. Each falcon sits on a saddle horn, a boy rides behind one of the drivers, and trotting behind the caravan is a young camel calf. Together, the number of camels and their small load seems hardly worth a trip across the desert.

On the CIP page, a short note from Foreman that tells how this story came to be appears to be the sum total of his research:

And when I discovered the word for “beauty” in Arabic is jamaal, the root of which means “camel,” a story began to form in my mind.

The camel calf’s name is “Jamal,” and he is the focus of the story. “Jamal” or “Jamaal” is the Arabic word for “beauty.” It’s a boy’s name, but it’s not usually a camel’s name (1). In Arabic culture, according to an article in Gulf News General (2), camels are named for their ages and are assigned different names each year. A one-year-old, for instance, is called “Hewar,” a two-year-old is “Fateem,” a three-year-old is “Haj,” and a four-year-old is “Liggi.”

It also doesn’t make sense that Jamal, the baby camel, would be calling to his parents in Arabic and English—“Mama! Baba! Where are you?”—rather than in the language of camels. (Baby camels call their mothers with a “baaa,” like a lamb. And they don’t call their fathers.) And because Jamal the baby camel is the only character who talks, rather than seeing things through a camel’s eyes, he seems to have adopted a European child tourist’s breathless ideation:

“Oh!” cries the camel. “I can see a great city, far away, and beyond that, the shining sea!”

As Jamal trails further and further behind, he gets tired. He compares himself to the “lucky” falcons:

Jamal looks at the Falcons. They are lucky, too—the birds get carried everywhere, except when they soar through the sky, hunting the small creatures of the desert. But Jamal is a little camel, and camels have to walk, walk, walk.

More about the falcons soon, but one wonders why one species of animal would envy another species of animal. And no: camel calves do not have to “walk, walk, walk.” And they do not follow caravans. Camels are considered members of the family and are treated like children: they are loved, fed, and talked to. Pregnant camels are taken to the desert, where it is safe and quiet, to have their babies; and they come back after about a month. Camel calves begin training at three years, and then they are taught to follow with a rope (3).

Back to the story: Suddenly, there is a sandstorm. Sand is “whooshing and whirling in the wild wind!” Jamal has “sand in his eyes. Sand in his nose. Sand in his ears….sand in his mouth.”

No, again: The author’s alliterative literary devices notwithstanding, camels are built to withstand sandstorms. They have bushy eyebrows, three sets of eyelids and two sets of eyelashes to keep sand out of their eyes. They also shut their nostrils to prevent inhalation of sand, they shut their lips to prevent sand from getting into their mouths, and they have thick fur that lines their ears as well.

“He turns his back to the howling wind, making himself as small as possible.” Jamal is lost. Fortunately, he meets a kindly falcon, who guides him towards “a great city,” and beyond that, “the shining sea!” As the falcon “is whirling and looping in the air with the other falcons,” Jamal reunites with his camel parents (and the human boy, sort
of).

OK, here’s the thing about falcons: They’re beloved by the Bedouin people and are a symbol of the Bedouin culture. And, as with Bedouin people’s camels, their falcons are a source of survival. Falcons have an amazing ability to see great distances, and because they can catch wild birds and small animals such as rabbits, they are traditionally trained for hunting. When they are traveling with their owners, their eyes are hooded to keep them calm and not focused on potential prey.

According to the Dubai Tourism & Travel Services,

In the old days, the falcon was caught, trained, used for the season and set free again as they are migratory birds. It would come back to its owner in the next season. Today falcons are kept year-round by their owners (4).

Bedouins do not set their falcons loose to look for lost baby camels and navigate them home. What is it about the author’s idea of Bedouin life, culture or history that might have led him to crate a trio of specially trained Bedouin “search-and-rescue” falcons?

Together they all set off toward the faraway city. Jamal stays close to his “Mama” and “Baba,” and the boy walks beside him: he doesn’t want his camel to get lost ever again. When they arrive at the market, Jamal, the baby camel, has learned an important lesson in geography:

Now Jamal knows the world is more than just sand. When his legs are long and strong, he wants to see it all.

No, no, no, and no: Camels do not see their homes as “just sand” and “the world” as “more than just sand.” The desert, with all of its flora and fauna, clear skies, and sand beneath his hooves, is Jamal’s world. While wanting “to see it all” might be on a European tourist’s bucket list, it’s unlikely that camels have such yearnings—even exuberant camels with “long and strong” legs.

And on that page, the unnamed boy runs to his baby camel with a brand-new halter he has purchased at the market, ostensibly to ensure that Jamal doesn’t wander off again. But. Camels are not trained for their tasks until they are three years old, which is not the case here. And they’re trained with a rope, not with a halter.

On the final page is an illustration of the future. Jamal (now a grown camel, dressed in traveling camel gear) and his rider, the nameless boy (wearing a Bedouin vest but who still looks about the same age as he was when Jamal was a calf), are traversing the desert. And one of those falcons is flying above them:

One day, the boy will ride on him. And Jamal will walk, walk, walk, far and wide, from gleaming cities to shining seas. and he will always take his friendly falcon along, just in case they get lost.

(I read this passage several times, and still don’t get it. Is the author saying that Jamal, the camel, now owns “his friendly falcon”? Has the camel trained the falcon who had led him back to the convoy? Have they become friends? Is there a sequel—Jamal’s Falcon—in the works?)

The cultural and economic reality is that camel calves are far too valuable to lose. For people who live in the desert, camels are a major source of survival—without these animals, they would die. Camels are financially valuable as well (5). They may be given to a bride as her dowry, they may be part of an inheritance, they may be given as Zakaat (a gift to charity as a religious requirement during Ramadan), and they are sometimes used in lieu of money. Some of the hadiths—the set of teaching stories and sayings of the Prophet that remain a source of Islamic religious law and practice—feature camels. (In a particularly well-known hadith, for instance, the Prophet cautions, “Trust in God—and tie your camel.”)

Jamal’s Journey is all about a camel calf. This camel calf has a name, while none of the humans is named. The animals have wide eyes and expressive faces, while the humans have virtually no faces. They look the same. They dress the same. And there is only one woman—a tiny figure in the background of one illustration.

Jamal, the camel calf, gets left behind. Jamal, the camel calf, gets lonely. Jamal, the camel calf, gets tired. Jamal, the camel calf, gets caught in a storm. Jamal, the camel calf, gets rescued by a falcon from the convoy, who swoops down to guide him back. Jamal, the camel calf, gets reunited with his “Mama” and “Baba”—and the unnamed boy.

A reviewer from Publishers Weekly wrote: “Children should find it easy to identify with Jamal’s frustrations at his limitations, fears upon getting lost, and relief and excited curiosity once his journey is back on track.”

No. Jamal’s Journey is oversimplified, confusing and culturally ridiculous. Would this lost-and-found baby animal story have gotten positive reviews had it featured instead a colt who jumps the fence on a horse ranch in Montana, gets lost in a rainstorm and is saved by a friendly hawk who leads him home?

One might think—and one would probably be right—that Jamal’s Journey was produced to garner “diversity” points.

That a young camel calf would be portrayed as trotting behind a Bedouin camel train, getting swept up in a dust storm, and finding his way back (guided by a “friendly” falcon)—or that Bedouin drivers would abandon, lose, or forget about a camel calf—is one giant hackneyed cliché about the peoples whose lives depend on camels. (And the fake “Arabic-style calligraphy” on the cover and title page doesn’t work, either.)

Non-Arab or non-Muslim children reading Jamal’s Journey will learn nothing real, and Arab or Muslim children will once again be disparaged in the classroom or library.

—Beverly Slapin

  1. Although the Prophet named his own camel, this is not a common practice today.
  2. https://gulfnews.com/news/uae/general/camels-a-key-part-of-uae-s-rich-heritage-1.603548
  3. https://www.thebedouinway.com/bedouin-blog
  4. https://dubai-travel.ae/story-about-the-arabian-falcon/
  5. In fact, a new camel hospital, first of its kind in the world—with “pristine operating theaters and state-of-the-art medical equipment”—has just opened in Dubai. For this fascinating story, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?y=UoUjz3BKdPQ.

About our guest reviewer: Beverly Slapin is a long-time education activist and lifelong learner. As co-founder and former executive director of Oyate, Beverly co-edited Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. She is currently the editor of De Colores, a blog modeled after Broken Flute, and reviews and critiques children’s and young adult books about Raza peoples throughout the Diaspora. 

* Muslims usually follow the name of a prophet with a salawat – a salutation or greeting. This often takes the form of “ʿalayhi s-salām (عليه السلام),” meaning “peace be upon him,” (often abbreviated to “PBUH”) or the fuller “ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa- ala ālihi wa-sallam (صلى الله عليه وعلى آله وسلم‎),” meaning, “may the blessings of God be upon him and his family and peace” (often times abbreviated to “SAW” or “SAWS”).  

Posted in Reviews

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

aisha-saeed-amal-unbound-collage

Saeed, Aisha. Amal Unbound. Middle Grade Fiction. Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin , 05/2018. 240 pp. $17.99. 978-0399544682. (RECOMMENDED). Ages 10-12.

I acquired this book during a library conference. When I sat down to read the book, I had no idea what was in store for me. Unlike most people, I rarely read the back/inside cover of a book before starting it. All I knew about the book was that 1) the author was Muslim, 2) the character was a Pakistani Muslim, 3) it was a kid’s book and 4) the cover was GORGEOUS.

Amal Unbound is a middle grade novel which focuses on Amal, the oldest of four girls. She loves school and wants to become a teacher when she grows up. However, with her mother due any day now, Amal is told to stay home to help out. One day, while running errands for her family, she ticks off the village’s wealthiest landlord and finds herself a new servant in his household.

Aisha Saeed, author of ‘Written in the Stars’, weaves a realistic story through the voice of Amal of what could happen to a young girl from a small village in modern day Pakistan. She meets different servants in the household, those she enjoys being around and those looking to make trouble for her. She even teaches one of the younger girls her alphabets. Trouble begins to stir in the household both for Amal and the wealthy landlord. While Amal begins to wonder if her debt will ever be paid off so she can go home she continues to hang on to the hope of one day finding her way out of her situation and finds her escape in studying.

While Saeed does not touch on the Muslim religion at all, she does, however minimally, bring in different aspects of Pakistani culture and how life for girls can be in Pakistan’s smaller villages. The cultural aspect becomes glaringly obvious when Amal’s father tells her that it is her duty as the eldest to stay home from school and help out even though she is only 12 years of age. As the eldest she is often reminded that it is her duty to look after her younger sisters and the needs of the family come before her own. Amal’s village is divided into two classes: high class, which is held by one man who reigns terror over the village and controls the police and lower class, the rest of the village. Saeed also touches on the cultural aspects of traditional clothing and wedding festivities.

I was able to get through the book in a couple of hours. The book itself was a pretty fast-paced read as things pick up the further along you get. This would be would be a great book for realistic readers looking for a hint of mystery and drama while learning some societal and cultural things about the country of Pakistan.

Posted in Reviews

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

Nelson, Colleen. Sadia. Dundurn., 02/2018. 240 pp. $12.99. 978-1459740297. (ADDITIONAL PURCHASE). 10+

Sadia came out in February of this year, just after the formal release of young adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty, following controversyin fall of 2017. Much of the conversation around American Heart had to do with a white savior narrative, white gaze and lens, and reduction of a character of color to a device in order to enlighten and give complexity to a white character. This is all apart from giving an accurate depiction of Islam and of an Iranian woman. I cannot comment on the novel, given that I have not yet read it, but it is in our queue. Public opinion and reviews by other Muslim readers haven’t encouraged me to put it high on our list.

Sadia coverEnter Sadia. I asked a Muslim author if she had read this book yet, and we talked a bit about American Heart, white gaze and who should tell our stories. We talked about own voices; we talked about colonized minds and internalized racism and what happens when an “own voice” becomes a voice that oppresses. Sadia is a book by a white, Canadian author, Colleen Nelson, who is a teacher librarian in an elementary school. She has also worked with refugees.

Nelson reflects a bit in her blog about why she decided to write Sadia and what it meant for her to try to publish a book that was not an own voice. It is disappointing to see that she was worried that her book would not get published because more ownvoice/diverse authors are publishing books. Ultimately she did it for her students to be able to see themselves and to fill a void in her library, and hopes that there are many more published stories by Muslim writers in the future.   

In the novel, fifteen-year-old Sadia has lived in Winnipeg for the last three years. Her family left Syria, shortly before the war. Though she has had time to acclimate to her life in Canada, high school means even more confusing changes.

Particularly jarring for Sadia is the behavior of her best friend Mariam, whose family relocated to Canada after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mariam has been Sadia’s best friend from the first day they met. They even started wearing hijab around the same time.  But this year is different. Mariam “de-jabs,” taking off her hijab during school, and putting it back on at the end of the day before going home. Mariam has also been distant, and her behavior has Sadia questioning the entirety of their friendship, which is made more complicated by her own friendship with Josh, Mariam’s crush.

Josh and Sadia are also trying out for the school’s co-ed basketball team, which Sadia desperately wants to be on. When Sadia makes the team her skill and passion is obvious, but playing basketball with hijab is more difficult than she had thought. Its especially disconcerting when she finds out that she may not be able to play in regulation games with it on.

Sadia is asked to help a new student acclimate to high school, Amira, whose family has recently relocated to Canada from Syria, under entirely different circumstances from her family. Thinking about the circumstances of Amira’s family fleeing Syria make her uncomfortable and the ideas Amira has about growing up Muslim in Canada have Sadia questioning her identity and how much she has already given up.

As someone who wears a headscarf on a daily basis, and has dealt with every day travails of scarf slippage and the like, I can identify with Sadia’s headscarf issues, but mostly I felt irritated with how hijab was given an impish, quirky quality where the Sadia cannot “take a jump shot without the bottom of the scarf flying in my face,” (p. 25).  or where her arm catches her hijab and falls into her eyes (p.23), or where Sadia has no peripheral vision (p. 26).

Mostly, I wondered (with consternation) why athletic Sadia didn’t have an Al-Amira hijab, often considered training scarves for beginner hijabis and ideal for athletic activities. Another reviewer pointed out that access may be an issue, so I give them props for taking that into consideration. Though not always true, it is a significant plot device that will give non-Muslim and non-scarf wearing readers a window into what someone who wears a headscarf may have to deal with. And though we have seen many women compete in sporting events over the years wearing hijab, it was only last year that International Basketball Federation (FIBA) overturned a ban on head coverings. If you want to learn more about a young Muslimah basketball player, watch this video about Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, teaching Muslim girls how to play basketball.

There an omission in the text, where Sadia refers to her grandmother as Teta (p. 38) and then on the following page uses the word Sitta. Both are correct, and sometimes used interchangeably (according to Hadeal and Sara), but without context, readers may be confused. Some of the turn of phrase is awkward as well. On page 78, Sadia says, “I could feel a blush spreading under my hijab.” I’m not sure why Nelson does not say, “I could feel a blush spreading across my face,” instead, as Sadia doesn’t cover her face. I took issue with the idea of Sadia and Amira never having touched snow (p. 48), when it does snow in Syria though infrequently, it is unlikely that both have never touched it. At the end of the book, a student exhibit has a silver collection plate used to collect donations from attendees. This collecting funds is compared to the concept of zakat, a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation, one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be more accurate to compare this to giving to sadaqah, or voluntary charity.

There are many times in the book where the relationship between Sadia, Mariam and Amira on occasion, is reduced to hijab. Some of that is oversimplification and equating Islam with hijab, some of this looks familiar to reactions to “de-jabbing” in the Muslim community, and some general adolescent issues, where one could substitute hijab for any other thing that might drive a wedge in a friendship. The two also have a conversation about being judgemental and hypocritical. A positive is that problems between Sadia and Mariam are also solved by them, there is no intervention by a white character, or a male character. Nelson captures growth and adolescence well, with characters pushing against boundaries, though these boundaries feel much younger than high school.

Headscarves and Hardbacks blogger, Nadia, points out that the framing of hijab and forced modesty is problematic in the book, because ultimately parents are forcing head scarves on their daughters and daughters cannot be modest without one. A conversation about hijab occurs in class where Mariam says, “It’s a hijab, a head covering. A woman’s hair must be covered, according the Qur’an.” Then, when the student questions why she doesn’t wear one she says, “it’s a personal choice” (p. 107-108). Though this is a reality for some Muslim girls and a majority of Muslim scholars, having all characters define hijab this way, as a required heading covering at all times, is oversimplified.

Sadia and Mariam also feel discomfort and guilt in interacting with Amira and realizing that they have had privilege in their relocation, coming to Canada as non-refugees. Sadia’s familial conversations about Syria are inconsistent. They talk about helping relocated Syrians early in the text, but when the family discusses those unable to leave, Sadia’s brother Aazim says, “It’s a war. That’s what happens. Innocent people suffer.” This struck me as rather callous. Similarly Mariam does not seem to reflect much on leaving after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both families are not particularly proactive until the end of the book.  

Nelson does capture some issues well. There are Islamophobic experiences that involve Sadia and her mother, one involving stares on the bus and another with a woman that tells Sadia’s mother, if she “wanted to stay in Canada, I should be Canadian and stop dressing like a terrorist.” Sadia reflects on if students in her class might feel the same way. There is also some self-realization in the book, where Carmina, Sadia’s Filipino-Canadian friend, wants to create a graphic novel featuring a Filipino character because she hates that there aren’t books with characters who look like her. Mariam wants to be both Muslim and Canadian, and while one should be able to be both, this sentiment captures the feelings that many Muslims have over having to choose identities and what that means in terms of cultural loss and normalization of “western values.”  

Overall Sadia’s teammates feel genuine and have depth, even if on occasion they are used as devices. Alan is given depth with the revelation that his brother Cody has cerebral palsy. Nelson also has placed a male Muslim character on Sadia’s basketball team, but there is no interaction between the two of them. His primary function being to be on the basketball team and to tell Josh that there was no hope for him in being allowed to date Sadia.  Despite the sports trope, with the opposing team depicted as unsportsmanlike racists, it is moving to see Sadia’s team and the spectators cheer for her and advocate for her to play, on top of Sadia and her parents separately advocating for her religious rights as a Canadian citizen.

So what is my overall verdict for this book? There is definitely a didactic and educator positive feeling to this book, promoting the idea that a really good teacher can have the power to foster empathy, create nuanced conversations and give students agency. Teachers are also presented as people who make mistakes. Yet, this book has its own mistakes and I still struggle to see, between a Muslim and non-Muslim reader, whose gaze is most important. Sadia gives non-Muslim readers a glimpse into the lives of several Arab Muslim characters with a level of complexity to their personalities. It allows Muslim readers to see a few pieces of themselves, with some amount of accuracy, though I do wonder if any Syrian Muslim readers vetted this book prior to publication.  

I would argue that the tone of the book, and the level of conflict make the book feel younger than a typical YA book, and could have been targeted to younger readers. Still, it is a solid entry point for readers who want a basketball-playing, hijab-wearing protagonist in a coming of age story because, as far as we know, those don’t exist yet. Are there better books about Muslim identity by Muslim authors? Yes. If you do add this book to your collection, don’t let this narrative be the only one your readers will get.

Posted in Reviews

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan

Khan, Hena.Cresent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. Mehrdokht Amin, Illus. Picture Book. Chronicle, 04/2018. 32 pp. $17.99. 978-1452155418. RECOMMENDED. TODDLER – 8.

This review was written and published in June 2018 for The Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California (ACL) 

“Cone is the tip of the minaret so tall. I hear soft echoes of the prayer call,” begins this charming picture book which explores a variety of everyday shapes and angles, as experienced by Muslims of diverse skin tones, who are depicted living, playing, and worshipping together.

Written and illustrated by the author and illustrator duo responsible for Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors (2012), the colorful and multidimensional images feature mixed media illustrations in deep hues and majestic colors. Amini brings her distinctive style to the work, which includes traditional Islamic geometric patterns and sacred calligraphy. While most of the shapes highlighted are easily detected, a few require a keen eye or re-positioning of the page to see them clearly. Some structures represented within the work are clearly identified, while the architectural style of others suggests that the setting could be in any Muslim community across the globe.

Amini takes care to give detail to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of Muslims: a dark-brown complexioned woman, who appears to be of African descent, has neat cornrows with traditional hair accessories, while some light-brown complexioned women have intricate henna markings on their hands and faces. These subtle cues, as well as the different styles of head coverings worn by the men and women in the book, deftly acknowledge the myriad Muslim cultures that exist.

Every other page of the book features a shape, with a short lyrical description of its role in a Muslim’s life that includes Islamic terms which will be familiar to Muslims but may be unknown to non-Muslim readers. A glossary explains those Islamic terms, while an author’s note offers context and a brief history of the Islamic art tradition. Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes is a welcome addition to a variety of collections and may be enjoyed by those familiar with Muslims and Islamic culture, as well as those wanting to learn more about the everyday joys of Muslim life.

 

Posted in Reviews

Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

Thompkins-Bigelow, Jamilah. Mommy’s Khimar. Ebony Glenn, Ilus. Picture Book.
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, 04/2018. 40pp. $17.99. 978-1534400597. RECOMMENDED. Toddler – 8.

“A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears,” explains a young African-American girl in the opening pages of Mommy’s Khimar, a new picture book from Simon and Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint, written by first-time author, educator, and activist Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Ebony Glenn.

The term “khimar” may be new to many who know the headscarf worn by Muslim women as a “hijab” based on public discourse about the garb, but for some, including many African-American Muslims, “khimar” has long been the preferred term for the head-covering.

As an African-American Muslim myself, I have eagerly awaited the publication of Mommy’s Khimar. Finally, a book with characters that look like me and my family, and uses familiar language. Turns out, I’m not alone.

In a mother’s group of African-American Muslims that is on Facebook, information about Mommy’s Khimar has been excitedly shared over and over again, with many planning to purchase a copy to read with their daughters.

The two copies ordered for our branch were checked out immediately; a quick look at my library system’s online catalog shows that half of the system’s copies are currently checked out.

Written in the first-person voice of a young unnamed African-American girl, Mommy’s Khimar explores a little girl’s fascination with her mother’s khimars. In some picture books, the text or illustrations, outshine the other. In this case, both are truly are stellar.

The digitally rendered illustrations are bold, eye-catching, and exude joy. Rich yellows, vibrant blues, and soft pastels jump from every page.

The text includes short, lyrical sentences about her imaginative adventures with her mother’s collection of multicolored mother’s scarves. Eventually, she finds one that’s yellow, her favorite color, and begins to imagine the possibilities:

“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I shine like the sun. I dive and become a shooting star into a pile of clouds.”

“When I put on Mommy’s khimar, I become a queen with a golden train.”

“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I am a superhero in a cape, dashing from room to room at the speed of light.”

These scenes authentically capture the delight that Muslim girls find in playing in their mother’s scarves. My social media feeds are full of proud mamas showcasing their daughters doing the exact same thing. Mommy’s Khimar, however, does more than just demonstrate how Muslim children have fun playing with their mother’s scarves. It captures and gives voice to the beautiful dynamic of a typical African-American Muslim family. It depicts a loving relationship with the girl’s father, who lovingly “snatches her up” and “tickles” and kisses her.

Subtly, Mommy’s Khimar challenges beliefs about Muslims and expands the perception of what it means to be Muslim. For example, In the discourse about Muslim women’s clothing, what is often left out is that many Muslim men often also wear head coverings of religious significance. In Mommy’s Khimar, the father wears a head cap often worn by Muslim men. This detail normalizes wearing a head covering for both men and women.

When the girl’s grandmother comes for a visit, she says: “When I wear Mommy’s khimar and Mom-Mom visits after Sunday service, she sings out, “Sweet Jesus!” and calls me sunshine Mom-Mom doesn’t wear a khimar. She doesn’t go to the mosque like Mommy and Daddy do. We are a family and we love each other just the same.”

These just might be my favorite lines in the book.

The interaction between the girl and her grandmother captures so much of the African-American familial experience: multi-faith, intergenerational families, loving each other and respecting their religious differences and choices. I am reminded of my own family members who edit favorite recipes to make them pork-free and who wear their Sunday church best at mosque functions.

At the mosque, a group of elder Muslim women, themselves dressed in colorful and flowing khimars, make the child feel special:

“When I go to the mosque, the older women coo, “As Salaamu alaikum, Little Sis!”

There, a group of children with differing skin tones also admire her scarf, while her Arabic teacher, herself with dark skin, exclaims, “Beauti-ful! Beautiful hijab!” It’s important that the Arabic teacher in the book is depicted as having dark skin. It is a thoughtful and deliberate choice that challenges that common fallacy that Arabs and/or Arabic is only the domain of light-complexioned peoples.

At the end of the day, the young girl and her mother remove their scarves. Her mother’s hair is illustrated like hers is, black, and curly. That her mother is pictured with a scarf on and without,  is meaningful. A common question for many Muslim women who cover their hair in public is: “Do you have hair under there?”

Perhaps the only thing that would have made this book more perfect for me was to see more variety in the representation of khimar styles, as it’s quite common for Muslim women of African descent to elaborately style their scarves. This absence of variety, however, doesn’t distract from the beauty, grace, and joy within the book.

Ultimately, Mommy’s Khimar succeeds in simultaneously being a “mirror” into African-American Muslim families and communities, as a well as a “window” for readers who are less familiar with families and communities represented in the book. It certainly can serve as a “sliding glass door” for anyone who has played dress-up with a parent’s clothing.

Mommy’s Khimar is a welcome addition to the canon of children’s literature about Muslim children and families because of what it doesn’t do.

It doesn’t apologize for khimars/hijabs.

It doesn’t seek to justify or rationalize why they are not oppressive.

There is no hardship in being Muslim and no space is given to Islamophobes.

Mommy’s Khimar celebrates the unbridled happiness of one Muslim child, her family, and members of her Muslim community.  

Authors and publishers, take note. More books like this one, please.

The book succeeds as both a one-on-one read between child and caregiver, as well with a group, such at a storytime, and would be a wonderful and unique addition to personal collections, as well as those of school and public libraries.