We Need Diverse Jewish and Muslim Books: A Conversation

In recent years, we have seen a welcome increase in books that center diversity in race, class, ability, sexuality, and more. As members of religious minority groups (Sadaf is Muslim, Heidi is Jewish) — and at a time when both Islamophobia and antisemitism are on the rise (deeply troubling and alarming statistics are available from the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations) — we believe it is vital to include religion in conversations around diverse books. 

When a group of people is vilified, one way of fighting back is to take ownership of the narrative, and that’s what we have done through our work separately — with, respectively, ­KitaabWorld’s “Counter Islamophobia Through Stories” effort and the “Love Your Neighbor” recommendations from the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) — and, now, the two of us in discussion with each other. 

SADAF SIDDIQUE: KitaabWorld began as an online platform in May 2016 with a focus on building bridges by showcasing multicultural children’s literature, primarily centered on South Asia. Through our online bookstore, curated content, and community outreach, we worked toward increasing representation and stories of marginalized communities, including Muslims. 

Muslims are a diverse set of people and have been part of the fabric of American society since even before the formation of the republic. Muslims were part of the crew that came with Columbus, and forced migration through slavery also brought them to the United States. Following the U.S. government’s “­Muslim ban” in January 2017, ­KitaabWorld launched an online campaign, Counter Islamophobia Through Stories, as a ­proactive approach to engender empathy and friendship and to change negative stereotypes of Muslims.  

The campaign provided a framework for educators to introduce positive stories about Muslims into their classrooms and communities. Using curated booklists on four different themes, from exploring the everyday to looking at inspirational role models, we wanted to provide multiple points of access and engagement. We also included author interviews; personal stories; and articles, reports, and other resources on Islamophobia. This campaign later grew into a book titled Muslims in Story: Expanding Multicultural Understanding Through Children’s and Young Adult Literature. There is a growing awareness by publishers about the need to reach out to Muslim authors and illustrators and tell their stories. 

HEIDI RABINOWITZ: Like Muslims, Jews are not a monolith. There are white Jews, brown Jews, Black Jews. There are Jews who are visually identifiable and others who are not. But there is a general incorrect impression that nearly all Jews are light-skinned and of European descent, and that because of the privilege that comes with whiteness, Jews need not worry about prejudice. Old antisemitic tropes tell a false story of Jewish power that may have been absorbed subconsciously by many people, making it hard for them to see that Jews are just as much in need of support as any other minority group. Perhaps because of these misapprehensions, Jews tend to be left out of the diversity conversation. 

Following the October 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the Association of Jewish Libraries did what librarians do: we turned to literature. AJL members compiled four lists of “window” books (to borrow a term from Rudine Sims Bishop) for young people, hoping to build empathy and understanding in the hearts of non-­Jewish readers — the “Love Your Neighbor” series. The spate of antisemitic acts during Hanukkah 2019 inspired an official response, and a fifth booklist, “Orthodox Jews,” is now available. While recommending these books may not prevent future tragedy, the Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) tell us that we are not obligated to complete a task (in this case the task of foiling antisemitism), but neither are we free to desist from it. We must all do what we can — and as librarians, we know that the right book can make a difference. 

BOTH: The more the two of us spoke, the clearer it became that our two groups’ missions were aligned. Heidi invited Sadaf to be a guest on her Jewish kidlit podcast, The Book of Life, where we discussed our backgrounds and our intentions. 

SS: I loved learning about the Love Your Neighbor series. It was interesting that our work had so much in common — we were both inspired to reach across differences to tell stories to all readers. We created four booklists with similar themes. KitaabWorld’s first booklist was “Muslim Kids as Heroes,” highlighting stories of Muslim children going about their day-to-day lives — arguing with siblings, trying out for the baseball team, and figuring out adolescent hierarchies. Though the titles on this list are set within a uniquely Muslim context, they are universal stories that speak to the commonality of all our experiences. An entertaining fantasy title, for example, is the middle-grade novel A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic by Lisa Papademetriou, which tells the story of two girls on opposite sides of the world — one visiting family in Pakistan, the other spending the summer in Texas — who connect through the pages of a magical book. The book is a lively exploration of belonging, identity, and finding oneself. 

HR: Our first Love Your Neighbor list was called “Standing Up for Each Other.” It was about allyship, about Jews and non-Jews defending one another, working out differences, and confronting prejudice. The tragedy in Pittsburgh and the Hanukkah violence were both followed by beautiful responses from other local and national faith communities, who showed their support with demonstrations, fundraising, and just plain neighborliness. The books on this list encourage that way of thinking, even without an instigating tragedy. A favorite of mine is Jacqueline Jules and Durga Yael Bernhard’s picture book Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain. It’s about Jewish and Muslim boys who begin as enemies but, after spending some enjoyable time together, end up as friends. 

Because the Tree of Life synagogue was in the news, AJL thought it might be a good idea to help non-Jewish readers learn more about what a synagogue is. The unknown can seem ominous, so we wanted to dispel any fears readers might have by helping them become familiar with Jewish clergy and houses of worship. Therefore, our next Love Your Neighbor list was “Synagogues, Clergy & Jewish Ritual.” A notable book for older kids and teens is Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life by Rabbi Edward Feinstein. Without pretending to have all the answers, the author combines humor and sensitivity in tackling questions such as “Why Does God Let Terrible Things Happen?” and “What’s the Meaning of Life? Is That a Dumb Question?” Rabbi Feinstein addresses these universal questions from a Jewish perspective, at once showing Jewish uniqueness and our commonality with the rest of humanity. 

SS: When children are exposed to other religions early on, it allows for greater understanding of common ideas and moral beliefs across faiths. Similar to AJL’s “Synagogues, Clergy & Jewish Ritual” booklist, we have one titled “Celebrating Islam,” which explores the traditions and teachings within Islam. The list includes books that focus on the main festivals — Ramadan and Eid — as they are celebrated around the world. This list also helps shine a light on the diversity within Islam and the global Muslim community, along with touching on interfaith friendships and relationships. Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam by Sumbul Ali-Karamali recounts the author’s own experiences along with explaining Muslim practices; it pairs well with Heidi’s recommendation of Rabbi Feinstein’s book. Turning to fiction, Sharon E. McKay’s Enemy Territory is a YA story that brings together two teenagers, a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew, who overcome their prejudices and embark on an exciting adventure together. 

Oftentimes, there is a “clash of civilizations” historical narrative that makes it seem that the East and the West never had anything in common. The reality, however, is more complex and nuanced, and we try to bring out some of that intertwined history through the booklist “Inspiring Muslim Leaders and Thinkers.” We go as far back as the sixth century and to the Islamic Golden Age to trace how communities worked together and how inventions, institutions, and ideas as varied as coffee, hospitals, and algebra were first introduced. The vibrantly illustrated nonfiction book 1001 Inventions & Awesome Facts from Muslim Civilization brings this era to life. We also include a number of biographies that highlight the achievements of American Muslim role models, such as boxer Muhammad Ali and Olympic fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad. 

HR: Jews and Muslims are both sometimes “othered” by being treated as outsiders, as if we weren’t real Americans. The AJL consciously set about to counter that idea of religious minorities as less-than-American with its third Love Your Neighbor list, “The American Jewish Experience,” which includes books about Jewish life in the United States from colonial times to the present day. This was fun because we got to include a lot of biographies. One standout (and 2016 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor Book) is Andrea Davis Pinkney’s A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson, about Jewish author-illustrator Keats and his iconic picture book that depicts African American child Peter playing in the snow. The biography is told in Pinkney’s gorgeous verse, and the illustrations echo The Snowy Day’s. It’s beautiful, and it highlights the bridges that minorities can — and should and do — build to support one another. 

The AJL circled back around to this idea of connection with its fourth Love Your Neighbor list, “Let’s Be Friends.” These are stories of Jews and non-Jews enjoying one another’s company, sharing food, skills, support, and friendship. Two favorites include the sweet picture book A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by  
G. Brian Karas, about a Jewish woman and her young Latinx non-Jewish neighbor who knits her a hat to keep her “keppie” (“head” in Yiddish) warm; and the middle-grade novel Armstrong & Charlie by Steven B. Frank, a powerful story about a white Jewish boy and a Black Christian boy who are brought together by school desegregation in the 1970s. Both of these books make a strong case for the importance of just getting to know each other. 

SS: KitaabWorld’s last booklist, “Folktales from Islamic Traditions,” looks at how oral storytelling evolved in Muslim communities. These traditional stories expand readers’ perspectives on different ways of problem solving, of using humor to challenge authority, and of exploring newly created fantasy realms inspired by ancient tales. The Daevabad series by S. A. Chakraborty (beginning with The City of Brass) is a recent YA trilogy inspired by a story in One Thousand and One Nights. For a younger audience, the picture book Neem the Half-Boy by Idries Shah, illustrated by Midori Mori and Robert Revels, is a retelling of a Sufi tale about how a young boy must confront a dragon to get a potion to make himself whole again. Except (spoiler alert!) there is no confrontation, but peaceful negotiation. These new stories reference the histories of where the tales come from. Combined with all the other booklists, they offer a diverse range of Muslim experiences encompassing traditional, contemporary, fantasy, history, nonfiction, and fiction. 

                     *    *    * 

SS: Sometimes people can be hesitant or overwhelmed about addressing themes and topics with which they are not familiar. Our hope is that the books on our lists can serve as a resource for teachers, librarians, and parents to introduce multicultural stories about Muslims and Jews. Our booklists are structured in ways that encourage cross-pollination of themes and ideas as well as intersectionality of experiences. By combining biographies from “The American Jewish Experience” with those from “Inspiring Muslim Leaders and Thinkers,” for example, you get a more nuanced picture of the diversity and contributions of Jewish and Muslim Americans. By mixing and matching these titles, educators could incorporate them into modules on social justice, interfaith conversations, STEM curricula, and even perspectives on solutions for global issues such as poverty. 

HR: We want to make clear that the books we are recommending here feature Jewish and Muslim characters, or explain the history or traditions of these two groups — but they are not religious books per se. They aren’t sacred texts, and we are not sharing them for the purpose of proselytizing. These are books that will serve as windows into the Jewish and Muslim worlds to help readers see both the uniqueness and the universality of those experiences. We hope readers will use these books in classrooms, library programming, pleasure reading, gift-giving…and all the other ways people enjoy children’s literature. And we hope that the next time they participate in a conversation about the need for diverse books, they will advocate for the inclusion of Jewish and Muslim titles.  

Recommended Interfaith Books 

The following titles present interfaith Muslim-Jewish friendships. For the additional booklists discussed in this article, visit kitaabworld.wordpress.com/recommendations/ and jewishlibraries.org/love_your_neighbor

Picture Books 

Shalom, Salaam, Peace (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1999) by Howard I. Bogot; illus. by Norman Gorbaty 

Snow in Jerusalem (Whitman, 2001) by Deborah da Costa; illus. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu 

Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam (Kar-Ben, 2017) adapted by Fawzia Gilani-Williams; illus. by Chiara Fedele 

Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain (Wisdom Tales, 2014) by Jacqueline Jules; illus. by Durga Yael Bernhard 

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents (Doubleday, 2005) by Mark Podwal 

A Moon for Moe and Mo (Charlesbridge, 2018) by Jane Breskin Zalben; illus. by Mehrdokht Amini 

Middle Grade 

If You Could Be My Friend: Letters of Mervet Akram Sha’ban and Galit Fink (Orchard, 1998) edited by Litsa Boudalika; trans. by Ariane Elbaz and Beatrice Khadige 

Samir and Yonatan (Levine/Scholastic, 2000) by Daniella Carmi; trans. by Yael Lotan 

A Place at the Table (Clarion, 2020) by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan 

Running on Eggs (Front Street/Cricket, 1999) by Anna Levine 

A Ceiling Made of Eggshells (Harper/HarperCollins, 2020) by Gail Carson Levine 

Watch Out for Flying Kids!: How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree, 2015) by Cynthia Levinson 

Sharing Our Homeland: Palestinian and Jewish Children at Summer Peace Camp (Lee & Low, 2010) by Trish Marx; photos by Cindy Karp 

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust (Holiday, 2009) by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix 

Young Adult 

Ronit & Jamil (Tegen/HarperCollins, 2017) by Pamela L. Laskin  

Enemy Territory (Annick, 2012) by Sharon E. McKay 

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (Bloomsbury, 2008) by Valérie Zenatti; trans. by Adriana Hunter 

From the March/April 2020 Horn Book Magazine.

Sadaf Siddique and Heidi Rabinowitz

Sadaf Siddique is co-author of Muslims in Story. She writes about South Asian children's literature at lanternreads.org. Heidi Rabinowitz hosts the Book of Life podcast. She is past president of the Association of Jewish Libraries and library director at Congregation B'nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.

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