It's no secret—especially to booksellers—that children's books for and about Muslims are few and far between. In fact, many retailers can easily name the handful of titles available from mainstream publishers. But given the events of September 11, 2001, and the increased attention to Islam that followed, it's surprising that the number of children's books is still so limited.
The shortage of children's books about Muslims or Islam seems even more striking when considering the number of Muslims living in the U.S. The figure given for the U.S. Muslim population is frequently debated: various Islamic organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have estimated a population between six and seven million. However, two recent—and controversial—studies cite figures much lower. In late 2001, a study for the American Jewish Committee estimated 1.7 million to 2.8 million Muslims in the U.S.; a second study conducted by researchers at City University of New York came up with 1.8 million. One reason that more precise figures are hard to come by is that the U.S. Census Bureau does not inquire about religious affiliation on its surveys.
"The exact number doesn't matter," said Sayyid Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "What matters is that our community has been evolving. In the past, Muslims came to this country as individuals. We did not have Islamic centers—that's a phenomenon of the past 20 years. Now we have 400-500 Islamic schools across the country. Our ISNA convention (held annually over Labor Day weekend) last year drew 40,000 people in Chicago. This is the first generation of children we are raising here. They need in English what we had in other languages in our countries. There are a few good books out there, but we need so many."
Placing his support squarely in the children's book arena, Syeed wrote the foreword to What You Will See Inside a Mosque by Aisha Karen Khan, which was published by SkyLight Paths in May. The book is the second title in the What You Will See Inside series of religion-inspired books. "We created the series to show kids from different faith traditions about the traditions of their friends," said Jon Sweeney, associate publisher at Skylight Paths. "Our primary market for this book is not Muslims, but those who want to understand something about the mosque down the street and their friends who may go there."
Response to the book has been positive—it garnered good reviews in Knight Ridder and Gannett newspapers and the syndicated Religion News Service, as well as earning a number three slot on the Catholic Bestsellers list in America magazine.
That kind of solid performance is gratifying for the author. "There are not very many books out there on Islam that are kid-friendly," Khan said. "Many of the children's books from Islamic publishers are not done very well, and the illustrations are often black and white. I would love to see more stories that you can read to young children, books on everyday life, explaining the holidays and some cultural things—why we pray the way we do, why we dress differently, why we take our shoes off."
Why So Few?
Khan believes there are several factors perpetuating the lack of children's books. "When you walk into a large bookstore you'll find whole shelves of Christian and Jewish books, but maybe a couple of books on Islam," she noted. "Up until two years ago, there wasn't much interest in Islam; now people want to know. But if publishers don't see a great demand they aren't going to publish these books. If those titles were available in bookstores, Muslims would be browsing there and buying."
In addition, Khan admits that American Muslims have been relatively slow to embrace an active publishing stance. "Though we are a large population, many Muslims are new to this country," she said. (Khan is a U.S. native who converted to Islam.) "A foundation has not been built up; we have not invested our knowledge and resources into publishing."
With so few books to choose from, children's bookstores tend to stock a few of the mainstream "staples" in this genre and not much else. A seeming lack of demand or interest at some stores has also been part of the problem. At Imagine That in Riverside, Calif., co-owner Jen Christensen said that despite being near a large Muslim community (Christensen cited UC Riverside as a hub), "we have very few people who ask for books on those topics. There's a very small demand. Teachers sometimes buy them and we have filled a couple of special orders, but we just don't sell a lot of them."
Children's bookseller Sheila Egan, manager of A Likely Story in Alexandria, Va., said her store receives "a few requests" for Islamic titles and that "there are a few [from mainstream publishers] that have been well received." She includes Traveling Man by James Rumford, which she describes as "indispensable and packed with information," on that short list. But as for stocking more titles, she doesn't see the tide changing at present. "Directly across the street we have an Islamic center that sells books and we let them do what they do best. For us it's mostly teachers, who are very aware of representing a diversity of cultures, who are buying the books. But we all need to be aware of the books that are out there."
Inch by Inch
Though children's trade publishers have been publishing books on Muslim topics over the past several years, the number of titles remains relatively small. Noted children's author Diane Stanley, author of Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam (HarperCollins, 2002), a picture-book biography of the 12th-century Muslim warrior and leader, said that she is surprised by "how much misunderstanding there is" about Islam and Muslim culture. "I've done a number of historical books for kids and I have stayed away from American topics on purpose," Stanley said. "American children, generally speaking, seem to think that America is the center of the world. In a way, it has become my mission to open up their understanding of other cultures. I had concentrated on Europe in my other books, but I felt this [Islam, the Crusades] was something children needed to know about. It's important to learn about other people's faiths in order to get the big picture. It allows us to approach other people's cultures with respect."
Stanley's selection of Saladin as a subject "enabled me to introduce Islam through a sympathetic character," she said. The subject also gave her freedom to debunk stereotypes for those who had read only Christian-biased accounts of the Crusades. "The Crusades were not a shining moment in history. Children need to understand the clash of cultures and the results of what happened way back then to understand where many of the problems today came from."
Stanley had already been working feverishly toward her book deadline by September 11, 2001, and after the horrific events of that day she thought, "Why am I doing this? Nobody will read this book." But Saladin has inspired mostly positive reactions, especially in the Muslim community. "Muslims have told me how grateful they are and have asked me to come and speak to their groups. Some have said to me, 'I was shocked that someone did a book on a Muslim; we can't get them published.' " Stanley noted. However, she has heard other types of responses, too. "At a signing a woman came up and said she had wanted to buy Saladin but her father wouldn't let her. There is a perception that if you buy a book about a Muslim hero it is somehow unpatriotic or un-Christian."
Another recent entry on the Muslim biography shelf is Muhammad by Demi (see Children's Books, June 23), a picture-book introduction to the Islamic prophet published by Margaret K. McElderry Books. For this title, McElderry editor Emma Dryden approached Afeefa Syeed, codirector of the Muslim Education Resource Council, to serve as a consultant. In Syeed's view, her participation in this project is a prime example of how things are improving with regard to publishing children's books for and about Muslims. "There are many more books than there used to be when I was growing up," Syeed noted. "We're being approached by more and more mainstream publishers who want people on board who are culturally sensitive and knowledgeable," she said. "The trend is moving toward incorporating Muslim culture into books, offering not just books about Islam, but good stories that children and parents can relate to. We are thrilled when we see someone in a book named Aisha, whether she's doing something related to Islam or not. We're very excited about this trend and the partnerships we're cultivating."
Far to Go
Jawaad Abdul Rahman, v-p of business development for Astrolabe, a marketing and distribution company specializing in Islamic media (www.islamicmedia.com), agrees that the situation is improving, but has not yet reached its potential. "Children's books for and about Muslims are very much in their infancy," he said. "Traditionally, Muslims have not been encouraged as much growing up to go into the arts or media fields. But that's changing. There are very few good books out there and it's going to take the involvement of Muslims in mainstream publishing to really bring about a lasting change."
Rahman believes that mainstream publishers may also have too rigid an idea about what Islamic children's books should be. "We realize that some publishers may not have a sense of the richness of the Islamic civilization and that they want to be sensitive about writing about religion. We need books on the cultural sensitivity angle, but we also need literature. Muslim families would love to see an interesting story with a background that features the rich beauty and history of Islamic civilization."
He pointed to books on Ramadan and other holidays as being potential "evergreen titles" and "real profit centers" for mainstream publishers. And a good sense of humor wouldn't hurt either. "Not all books for and about Muslims need to be serious," Rahman added. "You can make it fun without being disrespectful."
Laleh Bakhtiar, production director for Chicago-based Islamic publisher and distributor Kazi Publications (www.kazi.org), has a somewhat different view of the market. "There are lots of books to choose from—everything that Muslims could want," she said. "The distribution is just not that good. I think the books being done by Western publishers are excellent and very fair to the Muslim beliefs." (In fact, Bakhtiar, who is also president of the Institute of Traditional Psychology, contributed the foreword to Demi's Muhammad.) She continued, "The books by Muslims are true to the religion but the language is not comprehensible to Muslims who grew up in the United States." Bakhtiar's company publishes and imports books that seek to fill any perceived gaps. Two Kazi-produced top sellers are Quran for Children and Quran Made Easy.
Syeed believes that "Muslims are having a good reaction to what's been missing. Our writers are becoming more active and getting organized in writers' groups. We're publishing things with our own houses as well as with mainstream houses. It's part of the cultural evolution of Muslims in America." She points out that Muslim-American children are certainly reading lots of other materials as well. "Reading things like Paul Bunyan is also important to the Muslim-American identity; kids need to see who they are and to learn the importance of diversity. We want to see books that are cross-cultural—stories that speak to being children, speak to growing up in America."
Moving beyond the rather small roster of Muslim children's books by mainstream publishers, booksellers and consumers wishing to explore materials currently available from some of the major Islamic publishers—Iqra, Amana Publications, The Islamic Foundation (UK) and Goodword—will find a sampling of offerings at Astrolabe as well as the Islamic Bookstore (www.islamicbookstore.com) and the Islamic Media Store (www.isna.com). At the Islamic Bookstore, which has a warehouse/retail outlet in Baltimore, sales manager Adnan Khattak observed that the demand for children's books is currently growing at "about 25% per year." He noted that the majority of his customers for children's books are Muslim families, often looking for "stories from the Qur'an, illustrated stories about the prophets and how they lived. We do have teachers and librarians who are teaching or taking interfaith courses and they order from us, too." Though he said the Islamic market is dominated by four or five Muslim-owned publishers, Khattak added, "New smaller organizations are starting to put resources into the market."
This growth within the U.S. Muslim community, as well as a greater participation by mainstream publishers, may well mean more Islamic books for children in the years to come.