In honor of Ramadan, I wanted to offer a book list to help bridge an understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths. It’s actually taken me more than a year to assemble this book list as I am not familiar with this topic. I hope that you will share your favorite books and I will add them to this list.
I wish you love and peace during this Ramadan celebration!
Al Hub aAs-salam
الحب و والسلام
Best Multicultural Books for Kids set in the Middle East
10. Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford
A gorgeously illustrated picture book about Ali who lives in war-torn Baghdad. He loves soccer and music, dancing, and calligraphy which reminds him of soccer. Calligraphy is soothing to him and helps him block out the bombs and noise of war. He reminds his mother of Yakut, the most famous calligrapher in the world who lived in Baghdad 800 years ago during turbulent times. It’s a beautifully human story of the cost of war and the need for peace. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
9. Time to Pray by Maha Addasi Translation by Nuha Albitar, illustrated by Ned Gannon Yasmin.
A young girl is visiting her grandmother in the Middle East and hears the muezzin, the call to prayer. To be able to pray at the mosque, her grandmother takes her shopping to buy her fabric for a special prayer outfit and rug. Through her grandmother’s gentle tutelage, she learns about spirituality and what it means to be Muslim. When she returns home where there are no mosques, her grandmother has surprised her with a special prayer clock. This would be a great book to read particularly if your child has questions about the Muslim faith. [advanced picture book, ages 4 and up]
8. Clever Ali by Nancy Farmer
Clever Ali is actually a folk tale that is as long as a short chapter book in the guise of a picture book. It would be great for reluctant readers who need illustrations to both tell the story and break up the text. Ali’s father takes care of the pigeons for a wicked Sultan. When Ali helps his father, he ends up spoiling a pigeon. This is a costly mistake for the pigeon eats Sultan’s rare cherries. The punishment is being thrown into an oubliette (a kind of bottomless pit). Can Ali use his cleverness to save the day? [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
7. Muhammed by Demi
Demi always creates beautiful illustrations that accompany the story of the prophet Muhammed and gives an excellent and accessible introduction to Islam. [advanced picture book, ages 7 and up]
6. My Father’s Shop by Satomi Ichikawa
This is a delightful book that brings cross-cultural references regarding the sound that a rooster makes to good use! A little Morrocan boy, Mustafa, gets to keep a damaged rug from his father’s shop and he wears it over his head as he walks about the marketplace. The bright colors attract a rooster and the commotion that follows leads customers from all over the world back to his father’s shop after sharing how each person from a different country describes the rooster’s crow. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
5. Fatima and The Dream Thief by Oliver Streich
In the rich culture of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Fatima and The Dream Thief (as well as with Clever Ali) is a folk tale in which a young girl, Fatima, has to outwit her cruel master to save both herself and her brother. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
4. I See the Sun in Afghanistan by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese
My son is 6 years old and I really love this series that shows a typical day in the life of a child in different countries including Nepal, Russia, and China. Afghanistan is their latest book. Set in Bamiyan, Afghanistan which is located on the famous Silk Road, the book is bilingual and also has Dari (a.k.a. Afghan Farsi) on each page. Collage illustrations include realistic photos with softly rendered pencil faces to stunning effect. Habiba is a little girl who tells us about a typical day in her life: fetching water, taking the sheep to the pasture, and going to school. References to the war are gently made. Habiba’s cousins, aunt, and uncle are coming to live with her because their home has been destroyed. Another subtle reference is the illustration of her uncle, a soldier who lost his legs and is in a wheelchair. The strong patriarchal family that is typical of Afghan culture is portrayed in a way that makes the story feel safe. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
3. One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
This was the book that made me want to create this list. It’s a book that every child should read either in their classroom or at home. A Muslim girl from an unnamed country is a recent immigrant. She’s on a school field trip to an apple farm and notices that some children are kind to her but others are not. With her dupatta on her head and perhaps shy from English as a second language, she’s notably separate from the rest of the kids. When they put apples into the cider press, her offering is a green apple because she doesn’t realize it’s not ripe. While some children protest her apple, the end result is a delicious cider. The message is an important one: our differences create something wonderful. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
2. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
I just bought this book after noticing that it’s a Newbery Honor book and am just starting it. It’s about a young girl named Shabanu and her life as part of camel-dealing nomads in modern Pakistan. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
1. The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Ted Lewin
This is one of my favorite books and an important book to expose children to so that they can understand how other children live around the world. Ahmed is a young boy living in Cairo whose job is to deliver canisters of butane gas using his donkey cart. He has a special secret: today he has learned to write his name in Arabic. This is a good book for discussing that other children around the world don’t have the ability to go to school because they have to earn money for their families and how important an education is. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
More Great Middle Eastern American Children’s Books
Mystery Bottle by Kristen Balouch
A mysterious bottle arrives in the mail and connects a young boy to his grandfather in Iran. They share tea and wonderful adventures together. This bottle is a gateway that connects them whenever the grandson wants another cup of tea with his beloved grandfather. Whimsical collage illustrations create the feeling of joyously flying through space and time and into the warm embrace of a grandfather reunited with his grandson. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
The Storyteller of Damascus by Rafik Schami, illustrated by Peter Knorr
The storyteller of Damascus comes to visit the children about once a month and he has wondrous stories to accompany his wonder chest. The story he tells is about Sami, a shepherd boy, who falls in love with the daughter of a rich and greedy farmer. This love story feels like a folktale but it gets modernized as the storyteller updates his wonder chest with images from magazines to replace his original ones. His stories change with these new images to match the times, taking on new storylines that don’t always make sense. The old ways collide with the modern world in this glimpse into old Damascus. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers: A Story Inspired by Loujain Halhathloul by Lina Al Hathloul and Uma Mishra-Newbery, illustrated by Rebecca Green
Loujain Halhathlous is an activist in Saudi Arabia who is fighting for the right for women to drive cars, something that is easy to take for granted in other countries like the United States. Her youngest sister, Lina, reimagines Loujain’s situation as a dream of flying, with wings like Icarus, to see a field of a million sunflowers. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska, illustrated by Vali Mintzi
This picture book is based on a true story of young people living near Damascus near Syria. As bombs ravaged their city, they collected books to create a secret library in the basement of an abandoned building. The Syrian war which began on March 15, 2011, continues as of the printing of this book. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“In a note at the end of the book, the author explains that she wanted to show a Syrian student who had a much better life in Syria than he has in the UK, and who would rather have stayed in that country, but was unable to. This is such an important point and one that tween readers really need to be pointed out to them! Sami’s love of video games, his obsession with his Nikes, and his unhappiness at being in England are all painfully and realistically explained, and it’s very clear that the family did not want to leave the comfortable life they had, but felt they had no choice. There are helpful people along the way, such as David, a guard at the prison, but also people like Hassan who have no sympathy at all. This was a hard book to read, but such an important one. Very well researched and written.” [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy
I’m obsessed with the Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking, so this was a natural fit for me and Huday Fahmy does not disappoint! I didn’t realize that women are expected to get married by the age of 21 in Islam culture or they are considered past their prime. In Japan, girls past the age of 25 are considered “Christmas Cake” (and I thought that was young to be considered past their prime for marriage). This is a charming graphic novel of Huda’s love-at-first-sight story. Arranged marriages, like in Asian cultures, are not forced marriages. They are more like personal dating apps. I hope Huda continues her graphic novel about being a newlywed because now I am fully invested in her relationship.
I think this is a perfect read to learn more about the Muslim religion. It has the perfect balance of humor and tension. The large font and limited text on the page also make this appealing to reluctant readers. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H.Senzai
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“There is so much upheaval in the world right now, and we hear so much about children being upset. I think it is very helpful to have books that model positive behaviors, but we don’t see as many of them because positive behavior is less interesting than mean behavior. (Just look at what trends are on Twitter!) This book never downplays the seriousness of the situations that the characters face, but they all get help from supportive adults, have positive attitudes, and demonstrate ways to deal with their problems. The characters are all diverse, well-developed, and interesting, and the story moves along at a good pace. It’s especially nice to see books from two perspectives written by two authors.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
The Storyteller by Evan Turk
A story can be a powerful thing, strong enough to vanquish the power of the desert. This feels like a folk tale from Morocco but it is, in fact, a new story with a timeless feel. The art of storytelling is practically a lost art but for a young boy who happens into a village in the desert and searches for a drink of water. An old storyteller fills his cup with the power of his stories, and, it also gives life-giving water. When the desert threatens the city and drought is imminent, the boy is able to use the stories he learned of the Glorious Water Bird, The Miraculous Yarn, and the Endless Drought to banish the djinn and spare the city.
The Arabian Nights by Wafa Tarnowska Carole Henaff
Lebanese author Wafa Tarnowska opens a window onto the Arab world with her magnificent translation of eight stories from A Thousand and One Nights. This edition is notable for combining favorites such as Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp with less familiar tales such as The Diamond Anklet and The Speaking Bird and the Singing Tree. The collection also features frame stories about Shahriyar and Shahrazade.
Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples
This young adult book tells of another 9/11 Taliban story. A young girl’s plight after her mother and baby brother are killed in bombing raids and her father and brother kidnapped by the Taliban. Najmah must make a perilous journey to a refugee camp in Pakistan on her own dressed as a boy. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi
This graphic novel is exceptionally illustrated but the storyline doesn’t strike a chord with all readers. Perhaps in our world, celebrated musicians don’t take to their deathbeds if they lose their ability to make music. This is actually a true story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a celebrated Iranian musician who gives up on life after discovering that his beloved and irreplaceable instrument is irreparably damaged. [young graphic novel, ages 14 and up]
Yara’s Spring by Jamal Saeed and Sharon McKay
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“McKay also wrote Thunder over Kandahar (2010) about life in Afghanistan, and it’s great to see her team up with an #ownvoices writer, Jamal Saeed, to write an excellent tale with gripping details about Syria. It’s so important that my students not only know the difficulties that people in war-torn countries face but that they also realize that many of these people have lives so similar to their own before they are thrown into confusion and devastation by war. The inclusion of Nana, who had previously lived through political difficulties in the early 1980s, was especially interesting, and Yara and Shireen’s friendship added another interesting layer. ” [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi
Randomly Reading has a great review of Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi
Lalla wants to wear a malafa, just like all the girls and women in her Mauritania, West African village. She says would like to wear a malafa so she can be beautiful like her mother, but her mother tells her that a malafa is for more than just beauty.
Deep in the Sahara is a lovely story about a young girl (and young readers) learning to understand and appreciate this very important aspect of her Muslim religion. In her Author’s Note, Kelly Cunnane writes that before she went to live in Mauritania, she had viewed wearing the veil as repressive, an idea that I think many non-Muslims have. But she said, once there she realized that it was a positive expression of Islam and she changed her way of thinking about wearing a malafa. This book is an expression of what Cunnane discovered. It certainly reflects the colorful, confident ease with which the women wear their malafas, but shows the importance of understanding just why a girl would chose to do so.
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p.s. Arab American Book Lists for Kids
This is my collection of the best picture books I’ve read so far about the Arab world.
In the wake of the conflicts in the Middle East, I thought it especially important for kids to learn about Islam and the people of the Middle East which might also teach them tolerance in the process. There is so much negative stereotyping during a war that can color a child’s perspective.
Deborah Ellis’s Parvana series shows a realistic view of what life is like in Afghanistan for girls today. It’s heartbreaking but also so important.
Chapter book The Pharoah’s Secret by Marissa Moss discovered in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Did I find Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s love there?!
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.