Best Multicultural Books for Kids on the Middle East
In honor of Ramadan, I wanted to offer a book list to help bridge an understanding between Muslins 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 to this list.
I wish you love and peace during this Ramadan celebration!
Al Hub aAs-salam
الحب و والسلام
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 his 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 beautiful human story of the cost of war and the need for peace. [picture book, ages 6-10]
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 meuzzin, 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 7-10]
8. Clever Ali by Nancy Farmer
Clever Ali is actually a folk tale which is as lengthy 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 the 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 8-12]
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 9-12]
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 3-8]
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 4-8]
4. I See the Sun in Afghanistan by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese
My son who 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 both 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 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 4-9]
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 be read to 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 4-9]
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-adult]
“Shabanu is an unforgettable heroine set like a fine jewel in a wonderfully wrought book.”—Kirkus Reviews, Starred
“Staples has accomplished a small miracle in her touching and powerful story.”—The New York Times
“Remarkable . . . a riveting tour de force.”—The Boston Globe
1. The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide
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 discussion that other children around the world don’t have the ability to go to school because they have to earn money for their family and how important an education is. [picture book, ages 4-8]
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. A 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 the 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 from 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-adult]
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 death bed 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 with life after discovering that his beloved and irreplaceable instrument is irreparably damaged. [graphic novel]
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 Mauritainia, 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?!
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.