Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fighting Anger with Understanding: Some (American) Muslim KidLit Reads

Guest Post from Alya Hameed

If the events last week can remind us of anything, it is that we are beholden to learn and understand, engage and interact with the variety of cultures that define our multitudinous nation. I was plunged into a state of painful fury last week with the hateful murders of three young people in North Carolina—brilliant, unwaveringly kind, and yes, Muslim, students at the University of North Carolina. My first reaction—shock—was immediately replaced with sorrow, anger, and a distasteful lack of astonishment. Sure enough, subsequent news of attacks on mosques, families, an elderly Indian man (who, as a non-Muslim "mistaken" for a "black guy," reinforces the judicial hypocrisy asserted against being black along with the stigma of being brown) and others bolstered that sense of tired expectation, wrought from a growing normalization of Islamophobia in daily discourse.

But I won't live in resignation. Just as Meg recently wrote about one important method of enacting social change (through real successes of children in education), so do I seek out another method.  Thus, I would prefer to dismantle my unsurprised response through literature (in this case, young people's).

That's partly why the massive push for diversity in children's and young adult literature has been particularly poignant for me. While first it spawned out of a desire to find my childhood rationalized in art, now I see my childhood as elusive, not as Susan Honeyman would describe it, but socially out of reach; it simply is not the childhood of Muslim American children now. Instead, my interest has turned toward normalizing—nay, humanizing—a minority defined by current events and increased separation. Breaching a youthful (and older) reader's vision and understanding of the Muslim American experience (or, Western Muslim experience) may give space for compassion and patience by annihilating fear, hate, and the constant reinforcement of otherness in the wake of global events and crises. Empathy is a big deal, folks!

I think the following list of youth literature—from YA novel to picture book, from words to graphics—holds immense potential for propagating societal growth. Especially in this time of social tensions—where misunderstandings can breed hurt and violence—it seems extremely useful to gather a list of stories that speak about and normalize American Muslim kids (or Muslim kids internationally) for the general eye, and bring a lightness and depth that reveals how complex and how relatable these kids are.
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson: I open with this young adult novel despite it being set in an anonymous Arab country because Wilson brings us into the passionate fervor and determination of the Arab youth movement. She deftly captures the zeal that all young generations have in common, and does it by blending technology and mythology with ease. Computer Hacking and genies, how cool is that? Oh, it also has a snazzy map that points out, "here be jinn." Wilson is a multi-faceted Muslim author who is currently making waves in the comic field, too...

My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece, Annabel Pitcher: I found there aren't many American Muslim stories out there (yet). Abroad, there has been a steadier growth though, such as in France, Australia, and Britain. This middle-grade novel hails from the UK, and the tensions are immediately transferable. Written from the POV of a young white boy who befriends a female Muslim classmate after the London bombings, the novel seeks not to offer solutions but instead chart out a potential trajectory for families with biases to take if they are keen on discovering peace in their hearts. (I wasn't too thrilled with the inevitable fetishization of the young girl, but Pitcher at least mostly hits her mark.) 

Ms. Marvel: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson: Back to Wilson, because this new direction for the Ms. Marvel character is absolutely exceptional, and should be required reading for everyone, I think. I wrote about this last year, and now having read the first issues, I can vouch for the revolutionary appeal of Pakistani American teenager Kamala's kind, awkward, and well-meaning journey through adolescence. Her issues are distinctly her own, but also unanimously shared with all kids. I don't know much about comics, but I love it.

 Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner, N.H. Senzai: A set of middle-grade novels set in the same Afghan American community in the Bay Area. I am partial to the eloquence and power of the first novel, Shooting Kabul, which highlights the perils not only of being an immigrant child during a time of turmoil (pre- and post-9/11) but also of emigrating in the first place. But I am fond of Saving Kabul Corner because, while it does revolve around a Muslim American community, the focus is on solving a mystery rather than on religion. Yes! Muslim kids are kids too. 

Ask Me No Questions, Marina Budhos: This middle grade novel focuses on immigrant issues directly after September 11, and features a dreamy, excitable young girl who loves maps (I am trying to contain my own excitement! It isn't working!), primarily as a reprieve from the statelessness she feels in America. The writing is sparse and some of the extending plot lines aren't fully developed, but the story does highlight the lack of agency and identity immigrants feel.

Other books worth mentioning include Amelie Sarn's I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister (about two sisters exploring their own brand of feminism in France); Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Jamel Akib (not about children in the West but a powerful biography on a Bangladeshi professor who changed the banking system to support and empower poor); The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden (cousins in Iraq who must find peace even if the country and world cannot); Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (about an Australian teenage girl just wanting to fit in).

And to cap things off, something to look forward to: Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham (coming out in May), about a teenage girl-turned-detective a la Veronica Mars. I do wish more literature was penned by Muslim Americans themselves, and hope to see that in the future, along with more stories that feature non-white ethnicities in general without highlighting that difference. Until then, may this list be just one of many steps to broaden all readers' minds, young and old, and help to diffuse confusion and unbelievable rancor.

Alya is a graduate from the SDSU Graduate Program and former assistant of the NCSCL.


  1. Looks like you had fun reading! A lovely post...

    NH Senzai

    1. I have been! It's been somewhat difficult to ferret out all these works, but the exploration has been illuminating.
      I came across your first book by random happenstance, by the way, before my formal search began. And that helped me realize there are voices out there, just not enough as of yet!