Today’s ALSC Mini Institute session “Passing the Mic: Muslim Voices in Children’s Literature and Lessons Learned in the Pursuit of Equity and Inclusion” offered highly personal and deeply moving accounts of what it felt like to grow up either invisible in popular media and books or, even worse, seeing your religion and culture reviled or ridiculed when they were mentioned.
Authors Hena Khan and Aisha Saeed, and Zareen Jaffery, Executive Editor of the new Simon & Schuster imprint, Salaam Reads gave suggestions for anyone who wants to make sure that Muslim children feel welcome in our libraries. One important step is visibly indicating that your institution is a caring and safe space, for example through displaying books, programming and posters such as this one:
Aisha Saeed shared a delightful story of her young son’s joy upon discovering Hena Khan’s It’s Ramadan, Curious George. As a huge fan of all things Curious George, he exclaimed in wonder, “Mama, Curious George knows about me?”
Jaffery shed light on the pre-publication selection and editorial process and how it can inadvertently flatten three-dimensional accounts of Muslim life, or simply deter talented Muslim authors from trying to speak up. Do we make room for all stories or only the ones that fit our preconceived ideas of “how things are”?
Hena Khan also spoke about the importance of hearing diverse Muslim voices. Stories about South Asian Muslim are becoming more common in the US, but that still leaves millions of people unrepresented. When she writes as a Pakistani American, she also wonders whether her books will speak to young Muslims from other backgrounds. (You may be surprised to learn that the fastest growing group of Muslim converts in the US come from the Latinx population. Yo Soy Muslim! by Mark Gonzales is a recent publication from Salaam Reads that speaks to these children’s families.)
One lasting and universally helpful takeaway from this session was the speakers’ reminder that all books have messages. Some are more heavy-handed and didactic, but frequently we only notice the message when it’s one we disagree with. Communities and cultures are not monolithic or static, something we must bear in mind as we engage in selections and programming.