Please welcome my guest poster today, author Elsa Marston who is my resident Middle Eastern Children’s literature go to! She has a list of recommended books for kids and teens at the bottom of the post.
Lately we’ve been reading about terrorist actions by Muslims in Europe and other places, events that have again raised anger and confusion. Are Muslims really committed to hostility toward other religions? Or do most Muslims want to find common ground and live together with non-Muslims, without fear or threats?
The “common ground” answer is what I personally believe in, and what I try to convey in my books and stories. My two most recently published books, both by Wisdom Tales Press, are completely different in genre—one a YA historical biography, the other a picture book for much younger children. Yet they’re both, at heart, about the same thing: bridging the gap, finding ways to walk together.
THE COMPASSIONATE WARRIOR: ABD EL-KADER OF ALGERIA is about a man whom the New York Times, in his day, described as “one of the few great men of the century.” A young scholar, a Muslim mystic from a prominent Arab family known for their piety, he was quiet and studious. But when the French army invaded Algeria in the 1830s, he soon found himself leading the resistance—and proved a remarkable military leader and political strategist.
For 15 years, Abd el-Kader and his tribal warriors fought the French, carrying on dramatic guerilla-type campaigns that earned the admiration of his enemies—and fascinated the public in Britain and even the U.S. Finally, overwhelmed, Abd el-Kader had to give up. The French broke their promises and kept him imprisoned for five years. During this time he became even more of an international celebrity. All sorts of people, high and low, military generals and society ladies, came to meet him, charmed by his intelligence, graciousness, and dignity.
But—wasn’t he a Muslim? He’d been fighting a Christian nation, after all; he’d been defeated, betrayed, and imprisoned by Christians. Didn’t he hate them?
No, Abd el-Kader didn’t put his energy into hatred: that wasn’t the Islamic way, he believed. Instead, he actively sought to learn as much as he could about Christianity—plus modern thought and technology. Several of his closest friends were devout Christians. For the rest of his life, he sought common ground, mutual respect, and understanding among all religions, especially Islam and Christianity.
And Abd el-Kader put his convictions into action. Eventually, he was released from imprisonment and ended up exiled in Damascus. But in 1860, a plot against the Christians of Damascus was contrived by some of the Muslims, aiming to seize Christian property and massacre the population. When trouble broke out, Abd el-Kader, his sons, and others who had followed him into exile managed to save the lives of thousands—possibly as many as 12,000—of the Christians. (Just think of the logistics!) It was, he explained, the humane thing—and the Islamic thing—to do. And it made him even more of an international celebrity. Little wonder that Abd el-Kader’s story—from scholar to resistance fighter, statesman, interfaith bridge-builder and “saint”—is being seriously considered for a major motion picture.
THE OLIVE TREE, in contrast, is a very simple story about very ordinary people—a boy and a girl in a Lebanese village. Their families are neighbors, with a large old olive tree growing between their properties and dropping its olives into both yards. During “the troubles” (the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991, a brutal sectarian struggle), Muna’s family left the village because they did not feel safe. The implication is that they were of a different religion from the majority of the village people—most likely Christian vis-à-vis Muslim, although neither the illustrations nor the text is explicit.
Now the war is over and Muna’s family has come back. But they still seem uneasy. Moreover, Muna insists that the olive tree’s fruit all belongs to her family because the tree actually grows in her yard. Suddenly the tree is destroyed by lightning, and both families grieve. But when Sameer, although still grudgingly, makes a positive gesture, he finds that Muna responds with unexpected generosity. By quietly working together, they start to break down the barriers.
This story, which I wrote soon after the end of the Lebanese civil war, has won two national awards and several reprintings, and now it’s a book, beautifully illustrated by Claire Ewart. I like to think it says something about what may be the best way to overcome barriers. Not talking, dancing, singing, or eating and drinking together (although of course, they can help!), but hard, sweaty work. Work that both sides realize needs to be done, work that both sides can do together and benefit from equally. In short, the “common good.”
My story “The Olive Grove” (I seem to have a thing about olive trees!) involves no hard, sweaty work; but a few words and looks that lead to recognition. During one of the outbreaks of violence between the Palestinians and the military forces occupying their land, Mujahhid and his friends go out to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers and vehicles. This is his jihad, he feels: fighting the good fight against oppression. His parents, who have already lost one son, feel otherwise and pack him off to stay with relatives in a village. Mujahhid is furious.
Soon, however, he finds that a road, exclusively for Israelis to use, is being built on Palestinian land and will destroy an olive grove on which the villagers depend. He confronts an Israeli soldier. Gradually he realizes that this soldier, while forced to obey orders, also deplores the destruction of the trees. Nothing will save the trees, of course, but this revelation of the Israeli’s emotions and values gives Mujahhid a glimpse of “common ground.” Maybe someday—inshallah, God willing!—he can walk there together with his enemy. (This story is in my collection, Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World.)
Some other books for children and teens also effectively reveal interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims on the “human” level. Most of the following titles are about Arabs, particularly Palestinians, since I focus on the Arab world.
17 Great Books for Kids and Teens on the Arab World
Picture Books for Kids on the Arab World
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
Farah, with no English, is suddenly in a strange school environment where she has to feel her way very slowly; but on a trip to an apple orchard with a sympathetic teacher and friendly schoolmates, she begins to feel at ease. A simple story of newness, courage, and kindness; my one criticism is that although the unusual word for her head-covering is used, her home country is not mentioned—as though Farah is a semi-generic Muslim. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin
Two Muslim-American kids, new to a small-town community after living in a city, deal with harassment at school by reflecting on the importance of the brother’s name, Bilal—the black slave who became one of the Prophet Muhammad’s first followers, suffered persecution, and became the first muezzin (person who calls the faithful to prayer). A meaningful connection between religious background and present-day life, and a demonstration that courage and generosity can overcome ridicule. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah DaCosta
Two boys, one Israeli and the other Palestinian Muslim, discover that they have each, independently, been taking care of a beautiful, and opportunistic, white cat—who eventually presents them with enough kittens to share equally. Pretty improbable but so charming, and told and illustrated (by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu) with such scrupulous fairness, that it’s well worth reading and discussion in class. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Leena, a Muslim-American, is proud to be old enough to start fasting for Ramadan; but when she’s invited to a birthday party, she finds it awfully hard to go without a crumb to eat or a drop to drink when all the other girls are enjoying birthday fare. An introduction to the severe challenges—and the spiritual and emotional rewards—that many Muslims find during the Ramadan fast, and also the importance of providing food and fellowship with others, even strangers, as part of the Ramadan feast. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
Chapter Books for Kids on the Arab World
The Secret Grove by Barbara Cohen
By chance two young boys, Israeli and Arab, meet each other in a semi-rural setting and gradually gain enough confidence to admit that each side’s schools try to teach their children to denigrate and despise the other. The only book I know of that faces this question of “teaching children to hate” and admits that Israel is guilty; and does it with sensitivity. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah
On a mission of mercy—to bring back soil from Jerusalem to please her dying grandmother—Hayat defies and evades the Israelis’ strictly enforced regulations that prevent most Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem. A contrast between Palestinians’ usual experience of military occupation and their encounters—in some circumstances—with Israelis who oppose the occupation and seek justice for the Palestinians. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia
Aliya feels she’s doing all right, fitting in at school as a Muslim-American; but when a new girl comes to town, with a much deeper devotion to her faith, Aliya starts to explore her own spiritual life more consciously. A lively, likable picture of a Muslim-American family and a girl at the age when best friends are critical and the community they belong to doesn’t much matter, so long as they’re nice. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Saving Kabul Corner by N. H. Senzai
Ariana finds it hard enough to put up with her cousin, newly arrived from Afghanistan and quite “perfect,” and now the rivalry between her family’s grocery and another Afghan shop has turned violent—which gives the girls a reason to close ranks and solve a mystery. A good picture of Afghan immigrants, still carrying feuds from the old country as they try to fit into a diverse Californian community. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
Liyana, American, visits her Palestinian father’s natal village in the West Bank, is fascinated by customs and behavior, adores her grandmother, falls in love with a Jewish boy, and observes (for the first time in any mainstream American-published book for young people, I believe) the brutal treatment of the Palestinians under military occupation. The book—a “must”—whose success opened the door to further writing and publishing of literature from a point of view favorable to the Palestinians. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
Running on Eggs by Anna Levine
In Israel, a Palestinian girl and an Israeli girl run on the same school track team and train together—but secretly, because their respective families and communities would disapprove. A glimpse of Muslim-Jewish relations within Israel (where at least a fifth of the Israeli population are not Jewish), shown as somewhat tense—but in this story resolved by the communities finding a way to work together (hard, sweaty work). [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter
In a rural Palestinian village, where Amani longs to take over her family’s sheepherding, she soon finds that an Israeli settlement is being built nearby and threatens their very existence. An example of Muslim Palestinians’ interaction with both Israeli soldiers and settlers determined to drive the Palestinians from their land, and with Israelis opposed to the occupation and injustice. [middle grade, ages 11 and up]
The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
When a cruel act of terrorism in London kills Laura’s younger brother, she suspects an Arab student at her international school; but he turns out to be one of her most loyal supporters. A well-plotted thriller in which, despite earlier doubts, a Muslim and a non-Muslim work together as friends. [middle grade ages 11 and up]
The Enemy Has a Face by Gloria Miklowitz
When Netta’s older brother suddenly disappears, while the Israeli girl is living with her family in Los Angeles, she immediately suspects Laith, a Palestinian exchange student: after all, she argues, all Palestinians hate all Israelis, don’t they? A complex and surprising mystery, with a character set-up that seems part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Palestinian young man almost automatically suspected of wrong-doing). But note: although Laith proves trustworthy, the other Palestinian teenagers who appear briefly in the story are thoroughly nasty, and reinforce stereotype. [middle grade, ages 11 and up]
Young Adult Books for Tweens and Teens on the Arab World
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Amal, Palestinian-Australian, dithers about her decision to wear a headscarf (hijab, “cover”) as a mark of her Muslim faith; but she goes ahead in spite of fears of social calamity and not knowing how to act with that heart-throb guy at school. A peppy, funny, but down-to-earth and sensitive story about reaching out to others while finding one’s own values, written in a great “teen” voice. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi
Samir, a Palestinian boy, has been injured and finds himself in an Israeli hospital, where he must adapt to his situation and learn how to overcome differences with the Jewish kids in his ward. An early (originally published in Hebrew, 1994) presentation of a Palestinian Muslim child’s viewpoint, fair and thoughtful. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
They live in Australia, but Jamilah’s Lebanese father has such unfair ideas about what she can do and can’t do, she has to lead a double life to keep up with her high school friends—and especially to play in a band with boys. A lively view of a highly diverse society, with its cultural riches—and vulnerability to bigotry and racist discrimination. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Borderline by Allan Stratton
When the FBI closes in on Sami’s Iranian-American family in upstate New York, and Sami’s own suspicions about his scientist father begin to mount, his problems of fitting in at school seem minor. A first-rate thriller that faces question of discrimination against “the Other” as effectively as it tells a surprising story. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
Sisterland by Linda Newbery
As her own comfortably-British family’s long-guarded secrets start to emerge from the mists of suppressed memory, Hilly finds herself falling in love with a Palestinian medical student, who tells her about life under Israeli military occupation. A realistic coming-of-age story, interwoven with discovery of identity and the pains of violent prejudice. [young adult, ages 13 and up]
Dahling If You Luv Me Would You Please, Please Smile? by Rukhsana Khan
Zainab, a Pakistani-Canadian girl has to deal with a bossy older sister (who uses the Koran to justify her authority), while finding her own way to assert her identity at school, and helping a local girl in a bad home situation. Funny and serious, a rare look at a Muslim family at home, with the tensions and satisfactions to be expected in most families—as well as a creative fitting-in-at-school resolution. [young adult, ages 13 and up]
More books like these are badly needed—along with attention to books about Arab/Muslim societies in any discussion of multicultural literature. Ignoring the enormous part of the world where most of these societies are found, simply because they don’t fit the usual definition of “people of color,” makes no sense at all. The U.S. is intricately bound up in the Middle East, and for our own good, we should get to know the people who live there. Compared, however, to the lack of high-quality books about Arabs and Muslims as recently at ten or fifteen years ago, today we’re on the right track. I hope my comments will help teachers, librarians, and others looking for books that reveal relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in a way that’s accurate and positive, fair and well-balanced.
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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.