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Put Muslim characters who don’t need to be ‘saved’ on school reading lists

The cover of “Yo Soy Muslim,” one of the new books for young readers out this August. From the imprint, Salaam Reads. (Simon & Schuster)

Put Muslim characters who don’t need to be ‘saved’ on school reading lists

As the film industry begins to heed criticisms from places like the “Oscars So White” movement, the advocacy of groups like We Need Diverse Books, with its mission to offer children more books that reflect them and their lives, is making waves in publishing too.

Over the past year, books written by people of colour and featuring multicultural characters made the New York Times young adult best-sellers list.

My research into diversity and literature — specifically representations of Muslims therein — indicates that this isn’t a passing trend. Racialized writers are being charged with writing their own narratives and consumers are indicating their desire to read them.

In fact, education researchers have long touted the benefits of using culturally relevant materials and lesson plans in North American classrooms to reflect a real student body. Students are diverse: they come from different races and religions; their orientations and genders vary. Their reading materials should reflect such diversity.

Teachers hoping to foster inclusivity and equitable practices in their classrooms realize that when schooling speaks to all, it can lead to more democratic spaces and, by extension, a more just society.

But culturally relevant materials are hard to find — not only because culture itself is a complex and nuanced entity but also because the materials themselves don’t typically exist in white mainstream platforms.

Muslim characters often portrayed as victims

Children’s stories either written by Muslim writers or featuring Muslim main characters are typically nonexistent or problematic in their representations of Muslim experiences.

This becomes a problem when it comes to creating a school curriculum that truly reflects our society. Materials available to upper/middle grade and high school English teachers generally reinforce negative stereotypes.

Take, for instance, The Breadwinner (Ellis, 2000), about an Afghan girl under the Taliban who has to dress up as a boy to support her family. It is frequently found on book lists in Canadian classrooms in an attempt to be inclusive. Yet putting the book on such lists misses the mark.

An analysis of the novel reveals its focus as primarily on the real or imagined plight of “othered” females. That is, this novel, along with others like it, divides the world into a typical “us” and “them” model, as defined in 1978 by cultural critic Edward Said. The novel ends up reinforcing the stereotype of Muslim girls as needing to be saved. Therefore, this is not an empowering narrative for young girls.

Plight narratives, such as the one in The Breadwinner, are problematic because they enact a “care ethic” that has been central to the project and history of schooling in the West. It reinforces colonial relations between colonizer and the “inferior,” colonized “other.” In other words, novels written about a “far away victim” that Western readers need to “save” isn’t a very authentic character representation of the everyday experiences for most young North Americans.

In my research interviews, some students report enjoying such literature but feeling confused abut the terrible representations of themselves as Muslim women. These are high level and confusing problems for middle-school children who are still forming their identities. Research shows that young people need to see themselves positively reflected in the books they read.

As well, my research into the responses of young Muslim women to 1000 Splendid Suns (Hosseini, 2007) — another novel about Afghan women treated badly — reveals a troubling trend: Muslim girls reading this novel in Grade 8 classrooms were disturbed by the book.

For example, a student in a Toronto-area school told me that, as someone who wears the hijab, references to the burqa in the novel and the inhumane oppression of Muslim women had her non-Muslim classmates feeling either pity for her or ridiculing her culture. The sad part, she said, was that the book was not at all true to her own experiences as a young Muslim woman in Canada. Instead of enhancing her classmates’ understanding of her, she felt the book contributed to her feelings of alienation.

An exciting solution: Salaam Reads and Saints and Misfits

So, what’s a well-intentioned teacher looking to incorporate culturally relevant and sustaining materials in her classrooms to do? In a time when Islamophobic and racist sentiments abound, how might teachers help to counter the negative and harmful rhetoric and real-life harm that’s being done?

Simon and Shuster’s “Salaam Reads” imprint is an exciting solution. Founded in 2016, it “aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”

Saints and Misfits is its first contemporary offering. Published this spring, and written by Toronto-based author S.K. Ali, it is a good fit for educators looking for recommendations on what would be a good book to put on their syllabuses.

The book features the nuanced life, struggles, and joys of a Muslim main character. The main character, Janna, is a 15 year-old who loves Flannery O’Connor, photography and her black pashmina hijabs because it’s her “feel-good colour.”

On a personal level, this book took me back to many of my own experiences as a young woman growing up in Winnipeg’s Muslim community. More importantly, my 13-year-old daughter told me she would love to share it with non-Muslim peers in her literature circles at school.

I don’t mean to imply that Saints and Misfits is the one representative work for the experiences of all young Muslim women. But the book is an excellent choice. And the “Salaam Reads” imprint plans to publish eight other books for young readers featuring Muslim characters. It is a hopeful solution for teachers who endeavour to bring culturally relevant books into their classrooms.

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