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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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In 2017, Simon & Schuster will launch the first set of children’s and young adult literature from its new imprint, Salaam Reads. Salaam means “peace” in Arabic, and the goal of the imprint is to highlight literature with a focus on Muslim experiences in the U.S. and around the world. In this interview, Salaam Reads Executive Editor Zareen Jaffery shares her vision for the imprint as a way of combating the virulent Islamophobia the world is witnessing currently, with stories from Muslim perspectives that push back against essentializing stereotypes. Salaam Reads will publish books that include well-developed, complex characters; themes of identity negotiation and ordinary kid issues; and narratives that are poignant as well as funny—all of which are intended to affirm a wide range of experiences that are specifically Muslim as well as universally appealing.
How did Salaam Reads come about?
JAFFERY: I’ve been reaching out to Muslim writers for a couple years, and had been working with a few on their manuscripts in order to get them in the best shape before I took them into acquisitions meetings. So the road toward creating an imprint started a while ago. The imprint itself grew out of conversations I’d been having with Justin Chanda, publisher of S&S Books for Young Readers, where I am an acquiring editor. We talked about the kinds of books I was working on, and how there is such a richness of diversity within the Muslim community that is rarely seen in pop culture, despite nearly a quarter of the world being Muslim! He suggested we create an imprint in order to highlight these stories even further, and also to serve as a call for submissions.
What’s your vision for the imprint?
JAFFERY: My hope is that Salaam Reads publishes books that showcase the diversity of the Muslim community, both in the U.S. and throughout the world, and also that the launch inspires artists from all kinds of marginalized communities to create stories for children.
How do you see children’s books about Muslim experiences contributing to the larger realm of multicultural literature?
JAFFERY: One of the many wonderful things about the Muslim community is that it is incredibly diverse. Muslims in the U.S. come from more than 70 countries, and some Muslim families have been here since this country’s inception. Worldwide, Muslims make up over 20 percent of the global population, and their numbers are growing. I should make it clear that Salaam Reads books will not contain Islamic education as they’re not a vehicle for teaching Islam; the only requirement for the books on this list is that they have a Muslim main character. If a book features multiple protagonists, as long as one of the main characters is a Muslim, it would fit in with what we’re looking for.
Literature about identity can so easily essentialize and tokenize. What are some things the Salaam Reads team discusses when making choices about books depicting Muslim experiences?
JAFFERY: This is where point of view is so important. I’m sensitive to stories that depict Muslims—or kids from any marginalized community—as different in relation to the cultural norm. Stories where the book’s conflict or emotional arc depends on how different these characters feel from the world around them. Experiencing marginalization can be a part of their life experience without being the whole of it. I’d like children’s publishing to move beyond publishing what I refer to as “sad brown kid stories.” These are the stories about kids in foreign countries who are suffering some kind of tragedy, and are ostensibly being told to help “humanize” them to a privileged audience. I find that these stories largely do nothing to create empathy; in fact, they make readers feel grateful for their own lives, and sad for all those other kids in those other places. It reinforces Western exceptionalism and creates a deeper form of “othering.” In the books that I’m looking to acquire, my focus is on stories where characters are depicted in the fullness of their humanity, where their feelings and fears are centered and not depicted or described as in contrast to traditional Western values.
Do you think books for young Muslim readers are different from ones for non-Muslim readers?
JAFFERY: The books that we publish are for children of all ages and backgrounds. Salaam Reads titles happen to have Muslim protagonists, but as with any book, the appeal is in the emotional arc of the characters. These are universal human experiences, told through the specific lens of a Muslim child or family.
Please talk a little about the books to be launched in 2017. How did you arrive at the decision to publish nine titles per year?
JAFFERY: Our decision to publish nine books a year stems from our desire to publish books for all ages of children—picture book, middle grade, and young adult. The Simon & Schuster publishing calendar is three seasons per year: spring, summer, and fall. We wanted to have three books from each category represented throughout the year. That’s the ideal, at least. Some years we will have more, and some we will have less. It all depends on what projects come in! The projects we’ve acquired already highlight the diversity of Muslim experiences. A middle-grade adventure story where a hijabi girl gets to be the heroine is completely groundbreaking, as is a picture book intended for Latinx Muslims. Each of these projects is seminal in its own way. And we’ve got many more in the pipeline that haven’t been announced just yet!
Although not from Salaam Reads, the books listed here include Muslim characters. In some, Muslim identity is central to the story; in others, it is incidental. Some books are set in the U.S. and others in Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and Paris. There are currently 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and 50 countries that are Muslim-majority, spanning northern Africa, central and eastern Europe, and south and southeast Asia. Cultural, linguistic, religious, and social practices vary widely, even while they share one faith. Presently, literature for children tends to be informative, teaching about Ramadan and Eid, or post-9/11 bullying. These are important components of contemporary Muslim lives, but by no means the only ones. The books below provide a mere glimpse into stories told by and about Muslims and are representative only of themselves. For an extended list of related titles, see the September 2016 Book Links article “Classroom Connections: Exploring India and Pakistan.”
Contemporary Picture Books
Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story. By Hena Khan. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. 2008. Chronicle, $16.99 (9780811860628). K–Gr. 2.
The Muslim holiday of Ramadan gets a vibrant, visually exciting treatment here. Yasmeen, a seven-year-old Pakistani American girl, watches the moon’s first crescent as her mother explains how, in the Islamic calendar, the months follow the lunar cycle. Khan focuses on the celebratory aspects of the holiday rather than the religious underpinnings. The upbeat tone of the writing is matched by Paschkis’ lively, jewel-like art, which uses Islamic decorative stylings and has the look of enameled design work.
Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education. By Elizabeth Suneby. Illus. by Suana Verelst. 2013. Kids Can, $19.95 (9781554538164). Gr. 3–5.
This picture book is inspired by the true story of Razia Jan, an Afghani American woman whose life’s work has been to advance educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan. Fictional Razia’s deep desire to learn to read and write is thwarted by the men in her family, and readers will feel her pain as she begs against all hope to be allowed to attend the new school for girls that is being built in her village.
Sitti’s Secrets. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Illus. by Nancy Carpenter. 1994. Simon & Schuster, $15.95 (9780689817069). PreS–Gr. 3.
Sitti means “grandmother” in Arabic, and in this lyrical picture book, an American child misses her grandmother who lives in Palestine. The child remembers when she visited Sitti: the language they invented, the countryside and culture, and a painful leave-taking.
Amina: Through My Eyes. By J. L. Powers. 2015. IPG/Allen & Unwin, $12.99 (9781743312490). Gr. 6–8.
Amina is the compelling fictional but true-to-life story of a courageous girl’s life in war-torn Somalia. The country has been ravaged by the civil war, and Mogadishu is under the control of al-Shabaab, a violent fundamentalist militia group with oppressive laws. Talented artist Amina draws on the walls of abandoned buildings, in public spaces, sharing bold messages of resistance and courage in the face of terrible danger.
The Garden of My Imaan. By Farhana Zia. 2013. Peachtree, $15.95 (9781561456987). Gr. 4–8.
As a Muslim preteen living in post-9/11 America, Aliya’s life is fraught with tension as she balances her American public-school life with her Islamic Sunday-school life. When Marwa, who adheres more stringently to Muslim practices, moves to town, the attention makes Aliya afraid people will assume they are alike. Typical preteen issues are balanced with information about Muslim traditions and Patriot Act–inspired Islamophobia.
Shooting Kabul. By N. H. Senzai. 2010. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.99 (9781442401945). Gr. 4–7.
Beginning in the months before 9/11, this sensitive, timely debut follows an Afghan family’s emigration to San Francisco. After receiving a PhD in the U.S. and returning to Kabul to help rebuild the country, Fadi’s disillusioned father tries to return his family to the U.S. During the terrifying flight, Fadi’s six-year-old sister, Mariam, is lost. The grief-stricken family tries to begin anew in California, while overseas efforts to find Mariam continue. Senzai educates readers about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Afghan cultural diversity, and the Qur’an’s fundamental messages of peace. Also available is the companion mystery tale, Saving Kabul Corner (2014).
Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq. By Mark Alan Stamaty. Illus. by the author. 2004. Knopf, $12.95 (9780375857638). Gr. 4–7.
Fearing looting and bombs, Iraqi librarian Alia Muhammed Baker hid more than 30,000 books prior to the invasion of Iraq. In this graphic novel, Stamaty uses sequential panels to concisely depict complex sequences of actions and emotion. Readers will come away powerfully moved by the expression of civilian life in the midst of wartime chaos. The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq (2005), by Jeanette Winter, brings the same story to younger readers.
Every Day Is Malala Day. By Rosemary McCarney. 2014. Second Story, o.p. Gr. 3–6.
Written as a letter, this affirms Malala’s bravery in resisting the Taliban’s efforts to keep girls from going to school in northern Pakistan. Photographs of beautiful, strong, vulnerable girls from all over the world reiterate that, in many countries, poverty, discrimination, and violence systematically keep women powerless. Librarians and teachers will find this book to be a powerful springboard for conversations about difficult topics.
The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews during the Holocaust. By Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix. Illus. by the authors. 2009. Holiday, $17.95 (9780823421596). Gr. 3–6.
During the Nazi occupation of France, one avenue of refuge was the Grand Mosque in Paris, where Jewish adults and children hid, some briefly until they could be spirited away, others for longer stays. Thanks to the mosque’s rector, and particularly Berbers from Algeria, many lives were saved. The authors effectively capture the desperation felt by the victims and the enormous effort made by the Resistance; evocative paintings in somber colors heighten the tension, but some capture the hope.
Below, Jaffery briefly discusses titles to be released by Salaam Reads in the coming year.
Amina’s Voice. By Hena Khan. March 2017.
A middle-grade novel about a young American Muslim girl of Pakistani descent who is navigating middle school, and grappling with what it means to be “American.”
The Gauntlet. By Karuna Riazi. March 2017.
A middle-grade adventure about 12-year-old Bangladeshi American Farah Mirza from Queens, New York, and her quest to save her brother from a supernatural board game.
Saints, Misfits, Monster and Mayhem. By S. K. Ali. June 2017.
The novel introduces 15-year-old Janna Yusuf, a Flannery O’Connor–obsessed high achiever. When her best friend’s cousin—a holy star in the Muslim community—attempts to assault her at the end of sophomore year, the only way she can make sense of the events that follow is to see life through Flannery’s eyes: rife with saints, misfits, and a monster.
Yo Soy Muslim. By Mark Gonzales. Illus. by Mehrdokht Amini. August 2017.
This picture book celebrates multicultural (Latino Muslim) identities and is written as a letter from a father to his daughter.
Salam Alaikum. By Harris J. Illus. by Ward Jenkins. August 2017.
A lyric picture book that celebrates peace, community, and love, and is based on the popular song of the same name by global social-media sensation and Awakening Worldwide recording artist Harris J. He’s been referred to by media as the Muslim Justin Bieber, and is wildly popular with young Muslims.
Mommy’s Khimar. By Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Illustrator to be announced. Winter 2018.
A picture book about a young black Muslim girl playing dress up in her mother’s headscarf, and the loving reactions she receives from her Muslim and non-Muslim friends and family members. As the hijab has been particularly politicized, it felt important that this book depoliticize it, and showcase it as one part of a girl’s self-chosen identity, not the whole of it.
Amina Chaudhri is an assistant professor of teacher education at Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago.
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