Missing character in kids' literature: Muslims

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2010 - 9:39 PM

Minnesota educators struggle to find books, especially fiction, depicting Muslim young people in America.

As the Muslim student population grows in Minnesota, some educators detect a glaring gap: a dearth of books the students can relate to and from which others can learn.

"There wasn't a whole lot in our library that provided a sense of 'this is what's normal,'" said Julie Scullen, a reading intervention specialist at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids, where she took stock of books about Muslims growing up in America.

When colleague Beth Braun, a Northdale media specialist, launched a full-blown national search, she didn't have much luck, either.

"The books are more about what it's like to live in another country and be a Muslim, or what it's like to be from a war-torn nation, not what it's like to be a teenager in America and be a Muslim," Braun said. "Those books are few and far between."

Librarians in some other school districts tell a similar tale.

"I have really not come across anything," said Linda Goering, library media specialist at Robbinsdale Middle School.

Many educators say it's critical for students to have books in which they can see themselves.

"It is extremely important for young people to read stories reflecting their ethnicity and/or religion in order to feel like worthwhile human beings," said Freda Shamma, director of curriculum development for the Foundation for the Advancement and Development of Education and Learning, based in Cincinnati.

"The absence of such stories leads to poor grades in school, feelings of loneliness and alienation, and low self-esteem," said Shamma, who is working on an anthology of Muslim literature directed at middle-school-age students.

Leah Larson, media specialist at Richfield Middle School, sees an appetite for such books. She pointed to a novel in her media center, "Does My Head Look Big in This?", about an 11th-grade Muslim girl growing up in Australia who decides to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, full time.

"I just can't keep it on the shelf," Larson said of the book.

"We have tons of books about Islam. However, the fiction is harder to find. ... If there are any smart American authors, they'll start writing books like this."

Trying to fill the gap

At Northdale Middle School, in the Anoka-Hennepin district, Scullen said the idea of getting more books aimed at Muslim kids "has been brewing in my head for a couple of years."

In September, she read an article citing the need to help students learn about the different cultures represented by their classmates. Using an $800 grant from the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Foundation, Braun and Scullen ordered 30 to 40 books for their library.

A few -- "The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook," for instance -- fit the bill. Most of the others, while valuable enough for Braun and Scullen to order, fell short of their ideal. There was, for example, "From Somalia With Love," about a girl who leaves the violent chaos of Somalia for London.

How big a deal is this to Muslim teenagers? For many who are voracious readers, almost anything will do.

"The Muslim kids are just like any other kids we have here," Larson said. "They read everything."

"Not many of the books have Muslim characters in them," said Sakina Walji, an eighth-grader at North View Junior High in Brooklyn Park. "But it works out pretty OK for me. I like to read any good books."

"I think it is important to have books for Muslim kids," said Sumaya Warsame, a seventh-grader at Northdale. "Then other kids can read about them."

Still, as far as Sumaya's own reading tastes are concerned, "it's not really a big deal." She said she likes the mystery and adventure books she reads now no matter what the characters' religious persuasion.

Some easier to find

Books oriented toward Muslim students are apparently more common at some grade levels than others. "They're easier to find for elementary kids," said Lori Saroya, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Minnesota. "There are a number of books out there focusing on Ramadan [the Muslim holy month], but they're more targeted for younger kids. I've heard of some series of fiction books for junior high kids, but they are difficult to find."

Saroya, who grew up Muslim in southern Iowa and graduated from high school in 2000, said she found little to read that she could identify with.

"It was the blue-eyed, blond-haired girl who was into cheerleading," she said. "There really wasn't much I could relate to in terms of my Muslim identity."

"There are limited books that focus on Muslim students as part of the fabric of schools because perhaps there's been a limited demand and a limited market," said Jean Doolittle, who is in charge of circulating books and other resource materials for Minneapolis schools. "If people will buy them, publishers will produce them."

Even if such books were in circulation, school officials would have to make sure they are getting high-quality reading material that will appeal to te students.

"The kids need to see themselves, but they also need to want to read the books," Doolittle said.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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