ST. CLOUD – A few years ago, Hudda Ibrahim's niece asked her why characters in books don't look like her.
The question from Fatima spurred an idea for a children's book featuring Muslim women of all ages and professions wearing different colored hijabs — a teacher in a brown headscarf, a doctor in yellow and an athlete in black.
"I like writing essays and chapter books," said Ibrahim, a teacher and author of a book detailing how central Minnesota became home to many Somali refugees, including herself. "I never thought I'd go into children's books."
But Fatima was right. Children's books are overwhelmingly written by white authors and much more frequently feature white characters.
Ibrahim published the book, "What Color Is My Hijab?" with the help of a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $7,000.
Even as a published author, navigating the traditional publishing process was confusing, Ibrahim said.
"I was having a hard time publishing books as a young, emerging author working full-time," she said.
That frustration propelled Abdi Mahad, Ibrahim's husband and business partner, to create a new independent publishing company — one that focuses on diverse authors telling authentic stories about underrepresented communities.
"It's very difficult for people of color to get selected," Mahad said of the traditional publishing process. "You face rejection after rejection after rejection. The reason why they reject it is they are thinking nobody is going to read these stories."
But Mahad knows there's an audience hungry for diverse novels, memoirs, children's books and more. He saw the need while teaching in the St. Cloud school district, where nearly 60% of students are people of color and about one in five students speak Somali as their primary language.
"When I was teaching at Tech High School, I taught a lot of students of color who don't have books that represent them or have characters who look like them," Mahad said. "We need to bridge the gap with literature."
Mahad launched Diverse Voices Press this month with the release of the Somali version of "What Color Is My Hijab?"
Diverse Voices Press will provide self-published authors with customized services in content editing, illustrating, printing, marketing, distribution and website design. The company will publish books in English, Somali, Spanish and Arabic, Mahad said.
The publishing endeavor isn't the first time the St. Cloud couple have waded into a new enterprise to help their immigrant neighbors and the St. Cloud community as a whole.
In 2017, Ibrahim and Mahad started hosting bimonthly "Dine & Dialogue" events featuring sambusas, Somali tea and conversation as a way to counter misunderstandings about refugees and immigrants in the community.
The couple's consulting company, Filsan Talent Partners, provides diversity and inclusion training to area businesses and organizations. Last year, the school district hired the company to design a curriculum for native Somali speakers. The new courses are slated to begin in secondary schools this fall.
"Those are the kids who really need to comprehend their first language, which is then going to help them learn a second language," Mahad said. "This is a holistic approach to addressing inequities and the opportunity gap."
Mahad said Diverse Voices Press will help publish a handful of books this year, including a new children's book by Ibrahim highlighting diverse characters who work in law enforcement.
"Our main mission is to give marginalized and minority voices a platform for expression," Mahad said. "We strive to produce or promote literature that conveys the value of all cultures, languages and identities."