When I was growing up as an Asian Muslim in a predominantly white Australia back in the 80s, the concept of reading a book where the hero or heroine of the story was an Asian Australian, let alone Muslim, was a concept almost too foreign for contemplation.
Pretty much every main character, in all of my favourite books as a child, was white. The same was true of movies and television. The heroes and heroines were always white, and the only time we ever saw an Asian portrayed was when the story needed a ‘nerdy’ character (back before when it was cool to be a nerd).
A Muslim protagonist in mainstream children’s literature was unheard of in that time. This was not the most ideal state of affairs for a young girl tentatively developing an identity, and coming into those formative pre-teenage years.
Today, the number of children’s fiction books that feature non-white leading characters, is still depressingly low. Of the 3,200 books received at the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre by U.S publishers in 2015, only 106 related to Asians or Asian Americans, and only 240 published books related to a character of African American heritage. These numbers do not come close to accurately reflecting the diversity currently present in Western societies.
For Muslims living in the West, the effect of having a scant number of Muslim children or teenagers being reflected in the books they read can be critical. It can lead to children feeling that they are marginal, or insignificant in society. At the very least, it can result in Muslim children having very few role models in literature with whom they can relate.
In today’s times, not only Muslims will benefit from increasing diversity in children’s literature. We have recently faced a significant push in the media towards portraying Muslims as negative influences on free societies. In light of this predicament, counteracting stereotypes of Muslims at the children’s level by creating Muslim protagonists who are relatable, and who children and teenagers can empathise with, will go a long way towards building understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds and faiths.
Diverse fiction has the powerful ability to teach children empathy, compassion, and familiarity with people who may not look exactly the same, and who have different ways of doing things. It also encourages the reader to imagine a new reality, a new narrative. One where the heroine of the story is a Muslim who is modern, relatable, confident and stylish. A heroine our children can identify with, root for, and be proud of.
Encouraging Muslim fiction for children that is relevant to today’s times is essential in creating a space in literature for Muslim heroines and heroes. Finding themselves reflected in the books they read will assist in building a sense of social inclusion, and crushing any lingering sense of marginalisation amongst our children. It will also promote an increased awareness and familiarity of Muslims with children of all faiths, which will stimulate intercultural understanding and empathy for future generations.
Look out for my new book, Ayesha Dean: The Istanbul Intrigue, coming soon.
“Ayesha and her friends Sara and Jess jump at the chance of accompanying Ayesha’s uncle on a trip from Australia to Istanbul. But when Ayesha discovers a mysterious note as a result of visiting an old bookshop, their relaxing holiday starts to get a whole lot more complicated! Ayesha finds herself trying to uncover a hundred-year-old Ibn Arabi mystery, while trying to avoid creepy villains, and still making sure that she gets to eat the best doner kebab Istanbul has to offer. It’s all in a day’s sleuthing when you’re Ayesha Dean. Lucky she can count on her best friends to always have her back!”