We Need Diverse Muslim and Jewish Books: An Update

In their March/April 2020 Horn Book article “We Need Diverse Jewish and Muslim Books: A Conversation,” Heidi Rabinowitz and Sadaf Siddique discussed the state of Jewish and Muslim books and the work being done to share them. They found a number of parallels in their approaches to showcasing Jewish and Muslim stories to a wider audience. Now they look back at the last few years to examine the changes and the road ahead for Muslim and Jewish children’s literature: “In an increasingly multicultural world, it is tempting to think that all diverse communities are now reflected in the pages of a book. However, the pushback on books with stories featuring racial, ethnic, economic, sexual, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity is on the rise.”

HEIDI RABINOWITZ: In the few years since Sadaf and I collaborated on our article, statistics from the American Library Association show a huge rise in ­extremists trying to enforce ­homogeneity through book banning. So, more than ever, we need to read diverse books and understand the reality of our diverse world.

SADAF SIDDIQUE: Over the course of the last few years, there has been a considerable increase of Muslim representation in mainstream publishing. As of this writing, data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s (CCBC) Diversity Statistics from 2018 (when the religion category was added) to 2023 shows 240 titles with Muslims as a subject. Some of these books are by Muslim authors and explore stories of Muslim lived experiences; others are written by non-Muslim authors and include Muslim characters and settings. Though Muslim books have gained greater visibility and recognition, it prompts the question: does that translate into a shift in perceptions of and about Muslims? The rise of book banning in the U.S. and increased Islamophobia around the world underline the greater need for more books that can combat hate with empathy.

In our original article I drew parallels to Heidi’s “Love Your Neighbor” series from the booklists in KitaabWorld’s (­kitaabworld.com) “Counter ­Islamophobia Through Stories” campaign, which were expanded on in the book Muslims in Story. We examined positive representations of Muslims in children’s literature through books connecting across cultures (“Muslim Kids as Heroes”), showcasing current and historical contributions (“Inspiring Muslim Leaders and Thinkers”), explaining religious practices and ­traditions (“Celebrating Islam”), and drawing wisdom from old stories (“Folktales from Islamic Traditions”).

Keeping these categories in mind, current trends within Muslim children’s literature point toward a diversification of genres, more stories from underrepresented Muslim ethnicities, and a celebration of Muslim identities that challenge the stereotypes of Muslims as a monolith. We are seeing a branching out into graphic novels, early chapter books, and novels in verse, as well as romance and fantasy books.

Often books that feature minority communities are relegated to more issue- and identity-based themes. While many newer titles confront Islamophobia head-on, the emergence of entertaining, light reads that focus on joy and humor by leaning into the characters’ Muslim identities is a big plus.

The Muslim ­holidays of Ramadan and Eid continue to be an evergreen theme, but books now also include other celebrations such as Nowruz, the Persian New Year — not exclusive to Muslims, but celebrated by Muslim communities from Iran, Iraq, ­Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and countries in Central Asia. Biographies of notable Muslims continue to grow in number, and Islamic myths and folklore have inspired a growing ­number of fantasy books.

From conservative romances to bolder LGBTQIA+ stories, young Muslim love is blooming, with romance novels coming into their own. Novels in verse also pack a powerful punch, carving out space for free verse and poetry around complex ideas and cultural and religious identities.

Another encouraging trend is the increased diversity of representation within Muslim communities, with emerging Black, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Palestinian, Malaysian, Somalian, and Uzbek authors writing their stories. With more “own voice” stories by Syrian, Bosnian, and Afghan authors, there are firsthand, nuanced perspectives on war and refugee experiences. Working-class protagonists and their families are more visible on the page, and books tackle weighty immigration issues, economic challenges, class disparities, and everyday microaggressions. Especially notable is Pakistani American and Muslim author Sabaa Tahir’s 2022 young adult novel All My Rage, whose accolades include the Printz Award, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry.

While these trends point to a promising future for Muslim kidlit, there is also a flip side. An increasing number of books by non-Muslim authors now include Muslim secondary characters, settings, or visuals from various Islamic cultures. However, more often than not these end up being inaccurate and inauthentic, which unfortunately makes their message of inclusivity ring hollow.

HEIDI RABINOWITZ: I’m pleased to report that children’s literature has been expanding to include even wider representation of the Jewish experience and that there are more avenues than ever before for learning about Jewish kidlit.

An encouraging trend is the explosion of diverse representation within Jewish books. We still have plenty of books being published about Jews of European descent (Ashkenazim), but now we are starting to see more books about Mizrahim and Sephardim (Jews from Arab lands and those whose ancestors fled the Spanish Inquisition, respectively). We are seeing Jews of Color, Jews from interfaith families, neurodiverse Jews, and queer Jews represented in stories both serious and lighthearted. Authors are bravely exploring issues of religious observance and Jewish identity in ways that used to be rare in children’s books, as well as tackling the topic of contemporary antisemitism directly. Authors are also reaching across religious boundaries to collaborate on books that celebrate bridge-building.

In our original article, I referenced the first five booklists in the “Love Your Neighbor” series — which has now grown to eight lists, and counting. These bibliographies (at jewishlibraries.org/love-your-neighbor/) were created by the Association of Jewish Libraries to provide reading recommendations for readers of all backgrounds, in hopes that meeting Jews on the page will inspire friendship when non-Jewish readers meet Jews in real life.

Since that earlier article, we’ve created even more resources to help readers find high-quality Jewish books. In 2020, I helped my colleagues at the Association of Jewish Libraries to establish the ­Sydney Taylor Shmooze mock award blog. Its volunteers review books eligible for the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which recognizes books “that authentically portray the Jewish experience” for children and teens. In 2021, the Holiday Highlights booklist kicked off. It recommends the best Jewish holiday books for young readers, and it comes out during the spring and fall publishing seasons to showcase the newest titles in real time.

In 2020 my colleagues and I also established the Jewish Kidlit Mavens Facebook group to encourage discussion of Jewish children’s literature. The group now includes over 1,300 members from around the world who not only talk amongst themselves but who also make change in the world: they write Jewish books, create promotional materials, advocate for inclusion of Jewish books at their local libraries, and more.

My big hope for the future is to see the establishment of a Jewish children’s imprint at one of the major publishing companies, so that their vast financial, editing, illustrating, and marketing power would be focused on Jewish titles on a regular basis.

See the booklist below for recent books we recommend, including Jewish and Muslim books and books depicting interfaith relationships.

Recent Recommended Interfaith, Muslim, and Jewish Books

The following titles have been published in the past few years and are recommended by the authors. See also the Recommended Interfaith Books list accompanying their article in the March/April 2020 issue and more at hornbookguide.com/Subjects—Religion, Islam; and Religion, Judaism.

Interfaith Books

Yes No Maybe So (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2020) by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (High School)

The Button Box (Kar-Ben, 2022) by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams; illus. by Harshad Marathe (Intermediate)


Muslim Books

Halal Hot Dogs (Little Bee, 2021) by Susannah Aziz; illus. by Parwinder Singh (Primary)

Home Is Not a Country (Make Me a World/Random, 2022) by Safia Elhillo (Middle School, High School)

The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World (Quill Tree/HarperCollins, 2022) by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz; illus. by Saffa Khan (Intermediate, Middle School)

When Stars Are Scattered (Dial, 2020) by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed; illus. by Victoria Jamieson; color by Iman Geddy (Intermediate, Middle School)

Room for Everyone (Dlouhy/Atheneum, 2021) by Naaz Khan; illus. by Mercè López (Preschool, Primary)

Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story (Dial, 2021) by Adib Khorram; illus. by Zainab Faidhi (Preschool, Primary)

Books in the Sadiq series (Capstone, 2019–present) by Siman Nuurali; illus. by Anjan Sarkar and Christos Skaltsas (Primary)

Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story (Barefoot, 2022) by Shirin Shamsi; illus. by Manal Mirza (Primary, Intermediate)

Your Name Is a Song (Innovation, 2020) by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow; illus. by Luisa Uribe (Preschool, Primary)

Punching the Air (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, 2020) by Ibi Zoboi with Yusef Salaam; illus. by Omar T. Pasha (High School)


Jewish Books

Tía Fortuna’s New Home (Knopf, 2022) by Ruth Behar; illus. by Devon Holzwarth (Primary)

The Unfinished Corner (Wonderbound, 2021) by Dani Colman; illus. by Rachel “Tuna” Petrovicz (Intermediate, Middle School)

Honey and Me (Scholastic, 2022) by Meira Drazin (Intermediate, Middle School)

When the Angels Left the Old Country (Levine Querido, 2022) by Sacha Lamb (High School)

Fish Out of Water (Orca, 2020) by Joanne Levy (Intermediate, Middle School)

Some Kind of Hate (Scholastic, 2022) by Sarah Darer Littman (High School)

The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda (Kalaniot/Endless Mountains, 2022) by Shoshana Nambi; illus. by Moran Yogev (Preschool, Primary)

Shoham’s Bangle (Kar-Ben, 2022) by Sarah Sassoon; illus. by Noa Kelner (Primary)

The Way Back (Knopf, 2020) by Gavriel Savit (Middle School, High School)

The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs (Scholastic, 2022) by Chana Stiefel; illus. by Susan Gal (Primary)


From the May/June 2023 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Diverse Books: Past, Present, and Future.

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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