Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Refugee experiences

Today President Trump signed an executive order that halts the processing of refugees to the U.S. for four months. He cited national security concerns and said “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”

That statement describes most refugees. Shutting them out is profoundly un-empathetic.

Reading about refugee experiences is the opposite. Reaching out to refugees in your community all the more so.

Here are two children’s books about refugees (one picture book, one middle grade). The characters in these books are Muslim, but not all refugees are Muslim. See here and here for some more lists of children’s books about refugees.

Four Feet, Two SandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important. Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her. With warm colors and sensitive brush strokes, this book portrays the strength, courage, and hope of refugees around the world, whose daily existence is marked by uncertainty and fear.

My review: When a relief truck delivers clothing to a refugee camp in Pakistan, Lina and Feroza each find one yellow sandal. The two girls share the sandals, along with their daily chores, memories of lost family members, and hopes for a new home. After Lina and her mother get word they will be resettled in America, the girls decide what will happen to the sandals, but the future of their friendship (and lives) remains unknown.
This touching story opens a window onto life in a refugee camp in a heartfelt, non-didactic way, as well as speaking to the meaning of friendship. Timely and timeless.

The Red PencilThe Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



RELATED: 2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)


Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

I’m getting this post in just before Friday turns to Saturday. I hope to be more intentional with my posting in February as I fall into a routine with other things in my life.

Have you guessed why I chose Fridays for these posts? In Islam, Friday is significant. It’s the day of prayer, when services are held at the mosque. In Arabic most days of the week have ordinal names, i.e. “first day, second day,” but Friday, “yawm al-jum’ah,” is related to a verb for meeting or gathering. Weekends in predominantly Muslim countries are either Thursday/Friday or Friday/Saturday.

This week’s featured book is a Ramadan-related picture book. Ramadan, a month of fasting to mark the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, follows the lunar calendar. This year it will start in late May and end in late June. The emotional takeaway from “Lailah’s lunchbox” is relevant any time of year.

Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan StoryLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Now that she is ten, Lailah is delighted that she can fast during the month of Ramadan like her family and her friends in Abu Dhabi, but finding a way to explain to her teacher and classmates in Atlanta is a challenge until she gets some good advice from the librarian, Mrs. Scrabble.

My thoughts: A culturally specific and thematically universal story about feeling strange in a new place and learning to share who you are. Lailah is excited to fast for Ramadan for the first time but nervous about explaining it to her non-Muslim teacher and classmates. All of her interactions are positive, so the conflict is an internal one. Reem Faruqi so effectively captures Lailah’s feelings and thoughts that I when I went to re-read it I realized I had mis-remembered it as being written in first person.
This simple and relatable story can serve as a “me too” story for Muslim children or an introduction to Ramadan for others.

View all my reviews

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: “Tell me Again How a Crush Should Feel” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel”

Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.

My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…

Anyway, on to the books!
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
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Introducing Muslims in Kidlit Friday


Charminar mosque and monument in Hyderabad, India. 2010

For those of us who value diversity and social justice, the past year was tough, and the rhetoric of our incoming U.S. president alarming. After the heartache of the election came the question: what do we do? From looking at history, I believe that political change comes from groups of coming together to build power that can’t be ignored. I’m not just talking about showing up at mass mobilizations. Those are one tactic. What I’m referring to  is community organizing, which takes collective strategizing and sustained commitment. That’s the kind of work it will take to prevent the creation of a Muslim registry, for instance.

But what about interpersonal and social progress? What’s often referred to as changing hearts and minds? That’s where cultural work plays a role. How much of impact, for example, have gay characters in shows like “Will & Grace” and “Glee” had on the acceptance of LGBT peers among younger generations? As so many have written in regard to the We Need Diverse Books movement, seeing all kinds of people represented in books and other media decreases isolation and increases empathy.

Over the past few years, I have shined a spotlight on children’s books with diverse characters and also books that highlight struggles for social justice (though the former is easier to find than the latter). In 2017, I am going to be more intentional about this. Specifically, every Friday I will be writing a post related to Muslims in children’s literature.

Why did I choose the topic of Muslims in kidlit?

I grew up in a homogenous, white and Christian setting. I barely knew what Islam was in high school. Then came college. I learned about lots of different people and experiences, mostly unintentionally. By junior year, I found myself studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt and listening to the call to prayer five times a day. I have lived in several other predominantly Muslim countries and cities since then and been welcomed with open arms, tea and too many sweets. I would like to see my home country be equally welcoming to strangers.

Exposure normalizes differences, but I know that many non-Muslims in the U.S. haven’t had the experiences I’ve had. On top of that, books featuring Muslim characters or written by Muslim authors have been noticeably less represented in the books I’ve found in my active pursuit of diverse kidlit in recent years.

Many of these Friday posts will simply be book reviews. I hope some will be author Q&As. And some, like today, will point to other content and conversations related to Muslims in children’s literature. This is important, because I’m not an expert, and I think it’s important to listen to the voices of Muslim writers and readers.

In that spirit, I’m kicking things off by recommending that you listen to this recent episode of the “See Something Say Something” podcast. This show is about being Muslim in America. In this particular episode, the host, Ahmed Ali Akbar, chats with two children’s writers:

  1. Hena Khan, author of the picture books “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” and “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.”
  2. Sara Farizan, author of the queer-themed YA novels “If You Could Be Mine” and “Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel.”

In the podcast, Hena and Sara talk about what they read as kids, how they develop characters, and the responsibilities that come with depicting underrepresented groups in writing.

Listen to the podcast here: