The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family. By Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali. Illustrated by Hatem Aly. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (9780316519007)
Publish date: September 10, 2019
Faizah admires older sister Asiya’s new, strikingly blue and beautiful first-day-hijab, finding inner strength and pride when facing bullies at school who make fun of it.
This book discussion was conducted on May 12, 2019 and was based on the fold & gather, received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Ariana: My first appreciation is seeing multiple Muslims involved in the process of this book from the author, Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly. The cover clearly conveys the concepts and themes– beauty of the blue hijab, ocean and sky, the endless possibilities.
Mahasin: For me it is still unusual to see African American Muslim representation in children’s books and seeing people who look like me and my family. To see both faces of the sisters…I think just seeing the cover will just make a lot of little girls in particular really happy.
Ariana: When I went to a presentation for this, there was a reading of the text by Ibtihaj. At that point I had only heard the name Asiya pronounced Aah-si-ya or Aa-si-ya. In the audio recording, her name is pronounced A-see-yuh; it was interesting for me to hear how Asiya’s name is pronounced in her family. I thought about how it would create a different experience for readers listening to the book and reading the text and how it’s another point of identity that would make the experience of the story richer in this case.
Mahasin: That is not an uncommon pronunciation of the name, especially in African-American communities. I find the ritual of going to the store as a family so powerful, because I think that there’s this idea often times that wearing a scarf is forced upon girls and if they had the choice they wouldn’t choose to wear it. Right at the beginning it’s established that this is a moment of pride, a moment of togetherness, a moment of consent, a moment of choice, and a moment of affirmation.
Ariana: I like differentiation in the scarf style preference between Asiya and her mother, her mother in an abaya and a long khimar, a hint of how they might differ in hijab style. I also like that Asiya’s style without hijab is distinctive and cool.
Mahasin: I love the details of Asiya’s hairstyle. She clearly has cornrows or braids and colorful rubber bands, which are common hairstyles for Black girls. I also appreciate the details of her earrings and jacket. I think of the book Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, and that so often the question that women who wear headscarves get is “What’s going on underneath there? Do you have hair underneath there? Are you bald?”
This image is important because it normalizes the idea that the person wearing the scarf and not wearing the scarf are the same person. While the scarf has symbolism, it’s simultaneously a piece of clothing and there’s still that person with all the things that humans have underneath. As obvious as that sounds, it is an important statement.
Hadeal: I really enjoyed seeing things from Faiza’s perspective, and her clear admiration of her sister. But even though we don’t get a lot of written explanation of Asiya’s feelings, we can see that she sure herself, with no hesitation, she knows what she wants, and Faiza knows that too.
Ariana: I appreciate that throughout the book you can still clearly see aspects of Asiya’s personality, like her headphones dangling under her hijab, still there. And as they move through the setting you see more of Faizah, counting her steps with each light up of her shoes, walking with a princess. So she doesn’t think of herself as a princess yet.
Mahasin: In my bio for the blog I referred to my scarf as a crown. I had debated whether that was cheesy, but decide that it is my truth. This crown on top of my head, regardless of terminology, is an accessory or accent to Blackness, and “Black is beautiful,” that utilizes the language of royalty and recalls “kings and queens” in Africa. It is a common phrase connected to the African American community, the African African Muslim community, Islamic liberation theology, and social and political awareness around Blackness. In my lived experience, Faizah thinking of herself as a princess-in-training, in terms of the headscarf, rings true to me.
Ariana: Thank you, Mahasin for that clarity. I love the joy of the color blue in the smile of the hijab as Faizah watches Asiya head to sixth grade. The spread that follows has Faizah claiming her joy back from whispers of doubt about Asiya’s scarf. That self-realization and sense of agency was subtle but something that people of color and communities that have experienced oppression have had to do, carrying the idea back to the title of Proud.
Mahasin: I am thinking about the continuum of Ibtihaj going from Proud to the Proudest Blue. I think the theme of not being embarrassed, ashamed or feeling like you have to hide, it stands out to me in conversations about Islam, assimilation and race. It harkens back to being Black and proud and standing up for who you are not feeling like you need to cower.
Hadeal: In the author’s notes, Ibtihaj Muhammad mentions moments when they would wear a scarf as preparation for wearing hijab full-time. This was true in my community, and I appreciated that this story is about self-identifying as Muslim, knowing that you might be treated differently because of your expression of faith, and possibility of being othered. Children picking up will see this story and know that the author went through this, and be encouraged to still be who they are and know who they are, for whatever reason makes them different, in this case hijab. I appreciate the inclusion of Asiya’s friends, not just in activity but their smiling, supportive faces, not making a big deal out of the change but still reacting when another kid points at Asiya. It’s really important to include, because in my own experience you might not know how to talk about it with your friends and to see that Asiya’s friends are on her side is powerful.
Ariana: The spread with Asiya’s wondering face and friends angry on her behalf held was particularly meaningful in modeling the difference between bystanders, upstanders and allies.
Asiyah’s experience in hijab is still new, but it is a quick-to-learn lesson that there will always be haters. Hijabis learn to be quick with the brush-off and can become desensitized. But people on the outside seeing hateful experiences can get angry, showing acknowledgment when you might be gaslighting yourself just to cope, because you don’t always have the energy or audacity to be angry, even if you know you have the strength and pride to walk away. They remind you of your right to feel angry and that you deserve to be in a space without feeling othered. The children as shadows without names and faces is also powerful, because many naysayers will be anonymous approachers, people who don’t even know you. And between Asiya’s friends, the naysayers, and the wondering child, there is the underlying question of “who are you in that spectrum?” letting that resonate with the reader, and asking “what would you do in this situation?”
Mahasin: While I don’t want to pit books against each other, I can’t help but think of the joy of this book, Faizah’s happiness in the boat looking at the blue of Asiya’s scarf and the ocean, in juxtaposition to Saffron Ice Cream and the expressions of the anger there. I know we struggled with that book, though it was an own voices story and told a truth that is worth being told, but there are just so few stories that everything becomes prominent. I’m just so happy to see another story with an ocean and a Muslim woman in a scarf, and there is another image that doesn’t convey force, but instead joy.
Ariana: The page with the sky and clouds that talks about hijab being special and regular, is so deliberate. I like that normal isn’t used. So that even if it’s something that is a regular occurence, it’s always going to be special. I like the perspective also, of Asiya’s face in the spread you mentioned, that it just keeps going forward. It’s different from the cover image and the expression of being proud, kind of squared off, while this one is more rounded, comforting and content.
Mahasin: She’s just riding the waves.
Ariana: Yes! And coupled with their mother’s quote where it says, “‘some people won’t understand your hijab,’ Mama had said. ‘But if you understand who you are, one day they will too.” It’s so beautiful and powerful – it’s becoming my new daily positive affirmation.
Hadeal: Reading this book I thought about kids going through changes, especially girls wearing hijab, and instructions and affirmations they might receive from family about being strong and being proud, but not about treatment from outsiders. So I’m hoping that this book reaches readers who want to learn more, but also parents, adults, and role models who can touch on different things happening in this book but still help affirm identity and prepare a child.
Mahasin: I struggled a little bit with this and with Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales because they are picture books that deal with the negativity of how people might respond to us as Muslims. I think about when I would read this to my four-year-old: before an experience or after, and read it as a response. No negativity towards either of the books, but as a parent I’m not really sure…do I protect them from that? Inevitably they end up learning that not everyone likes Muslims. This is a book that I can definitely read in a class visit right or storytime, but if children haven’t had an experience like this am I introducing and idea that might be hurtful or am I addressing something that’s already there? I think of the potential for a child or class who might be working through this or is nervous about it, but I wonder about the child who hasn’t had any negative experiences, what does seeing that in a book do? Does it address something necessary or create a conversation that is unnecessary? I really don’t know.
Hadeal: I see it one of two ways. I think about first day of school books and, whatever level, it is preparing a child to go. I see where you are coming from. But in this situation, at least in my experience, women who didn’t talk about it with their families may have wanted to be warned or introduced to examples, and then affirmed by words like Asiya and Faizah’s mothers, “be who you are and be proud.” It’s a loving book and it’s affirming. It says, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and to wear hijab, and I still have all these friends around me.”
And it can be used in different ways. Caregivers and teachers often ask for books about bullying when noticing issues and use books or situations to model behavior. It of course is whatever you are comfortable with as a parent, but there are things that children may need or want to know ahead of time. I think of other concepts of safety that you talk to a child about and, for their safety, it would be something that I would want to talk to my child about. And the mother didn’t mention specific examples, but she did warn them that there were always going to be haters, and she had mentioned that to her daughters, but as long as they knew who they were things would work out and I see power in at least being touched upon in the book.
Ariana: We talk about preparation as necessary–the idea of having to prepare your child or even student something hateful–as BIPOC educators as opposed to white educators, or white parents as opposed to Black parents or other IPOC parents. Our kids have to be prepared for a certain level of something. It’s beyond what white children might see or if it’s anything their parents want them to see. There are still so many parents who believe in the color-blind paradigm, that makes part of the world completely invisible and gaslights people, telling them that it’s not really a big deal, and it is, it is a big deal and it’s something we deal with daily.
I think about hearing things as a young girl and policing of bodies, whether it’s covering or not, unwelcome comments or comments in general that are made about women’s bodies–their size, what they’re wearing–when do we prepare these young women? There is a barrage of negative imagery that women face everyday and that’s just advertisements. This book is a window for readers who are not Muslim or who don’t wear hijab, including Muslim boys and men, to get an understanding of what it’s like to wear hijab and the complexity, because of course there is a lot of policing of women’s bodies in Muslim communities too.
I think about what kids have already seen, aftermath of Islamophobic events, and never knowing when to expect them. Do we go in prepared or try to maintain innocence as long as possible? In the context of race, avoiding these conversations can uphold white privilege and supremacy. So with hijab, I think it’s expecting discrimination even if you live in an excepting community, or a bubble. Do you keep your kids in Islamic school for as long as possible where they have affirmation of their identity, or do you take them out and they may have to constantly think about their identity and protect their identity, and how do you reinforce that strength and keep giving them that strength so they go out into the world? I know it’s a difficult question and I think it’s a question that’s always going to be difficult.
Ariana: Moving on, I enjoy Faizah’s drawing and the poetry of picnic on an island where ocean meets sky, and their crowns and matching hijabs. The change in attitude of the little girl who asked Faizah about Asiya’s hijab in line, from questioning to admiration, creates hope.
Mahasin: I love that spread. It’s so representative–Faizah and her brown skin and afro-puffs, her classmate with red hair and green eyes, and their teacher with her olive-tone skin and brown hair. There is so much diversity in that spread but also throughout the book. Each person has a sense of individuality and personality. There are different skin tones and body types and Asiya is just another person that is part of the diversity in their community.
Ariana: And you can have a very diverse population of students in your school, community or workplace, but if you don’t talk about it, you can still have kids who say, “take that tablecloth off your head” because children won’t be equipped with the language or the understanding to know that it’s wrong, not inclusive, and not acceptable.
Mahasin: I do wish that this book had been around when I was a kid. I am very conflict averse and I don’t like to call a lot of attention to myself, and I grew up in the South in the 80s. So even though my mom wore a scarf, I can remember going to Piggly Wiggly after Sunday school and telling a little white girl that I had it on because my hair wasn’t done. I think I was just worried about being seen as different and not wanting to stand out. I don’t think that my parents really got it, and wondered why I cared about what other people thought, but it’s powerful seeing someone my age feeling proud about it, so I’m glad the book exists.
Hadeal: Touching again on the details, I appreciated that the bullies were shadows without faces that they walk away or cartwheel away from, and ultimately they are just shadows that are not given much power or weight to. There is so much symbolism there.
Ariana: Right. How much do we let the shadows interfere with who we are? It’s kind of like djinn in a way. All these little formless whispers that creep at you that make you question yourself. And again there are those power words of preparation from their mother to not, “carry around the hurtful words other say. Drop them they’re not yours to keep. They belong to those who said them.” It’s giving others accountability, not taking in these messages and internalizing them, not just as Muslims or as women but as human beings– that it’s not that there’s something wrong with you. But it’s about being able to take space and make space. It seems so simple but there is power in asserting yourself and being proud and standing up who you are and making people recognize that you deserve to be in a space and you deserve space.
Hadeal: Isn’t it sad that we have to think that way? You find yourself in a space and have to take inventory and be aware of who you are in that space and what is making you “the other?”
Mahasin: So it’s a good reminder for adults too to be proud, don’t worry about the people in the shadows, live your life out loud and keep it moving.
Ariana: Faizah is so strong and defiant against the boy, and later looks for those whispers and shouts which goes back to your point Hadeal about feeling out spaces and preparing yourself for the possibility of confrontation. And Faizah is protective of her sister, of her community, her family but then she sees Asiya, “waiting for me like it’s a regular day. She’s smiling. She’s strong.” And in that moment she recognizes that Asiya doesn’t really need Faizah to protect her or her feelings, but having her back and having her there, it doesn’t mean it’s not appreciated. And then the whole relationship between the sisters like ocean and sky with no line in between them, it was just a lovely sentiment.
Mahasin: I like the end notes that show there is support from both parents.
Ariana: That’s the only time you see the father, and that’s powerful too. The conversation and wisdom and instruction is in the voice of the mother and it’s so warm.
Hadeal: I just really like this book and I’m glad that it exists. I’m glad that there are more books like this coming out.