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Diversity driving sales in kidlit, says Book Summit keynote Zareen Jaffery

Growing up in an affluent Connecticut neighbourhood, Zareen Jaffery – keynote speaker at the Toronto publishing conference Book Summit on June 14 – didn’t see a South Asian person outside of her family until Grade 2. The U.S.–born daughter of Pakistani immigrants didn’t understand what made her uncomfortable about the girl with brown skin on a UNICEF poster.

“It was jarring,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to call attention to the fact that the little girl in the poster was from the same part of the world where my parents were from.” Jaffery had absorbed the unspoken message that her family’s culture was not something to celebrate in American society.

Today, as the acquiring editor for Simon & Schuster’s Muslim children’s book imprint Salaam Reads, Jaffery is proud to publish stories that reflect the diversity of Muslim life. The New York–based Salaam Reads published its first title last March and will publish eight books this year spanning picture books through young-adult novels.

Jaffery has observed the whitewashed culture in which she grew up shift. “I think there is a confluence of awareness in the world,” she says. “I think that the world is at a place where we can no longer ignore the voices that have been speaking out for centuries. Now there are people in power who have been awakened to that, and want to do better.”

While Jaffery speaks about small-minded communities that don’t see the Salaam Reads titles as “universal,” she credits publishing’s willingness to acquire diverse books as part of the reason the juvenile category has performed as strongly as it has. Juvenile continued to outpace sales of adult fiction and adult non-fiction in Canada in 2017, according to a report from BookNet Canada.

“Kids are able to see themselves in books in a way that they couldn’t 10 or 15 years ago,” Jaffery says. “They are saying, ‘I will pick up this book because that looks interesting to me.’”

Salaam Reads’ initial titles have demonstrated the imprint’s interest in a wide spectrum of Muslim stories. They’ve included Mommy’s Khimar, a picture book about a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s headscarf; Salam Alaikum: A Message of Peace, a picture-book adaptation of YouTube star Harris J’s viral hit; The Gauntlet, a middle-grade novel about three friends pulled into an adventure inside an ancient board game; and Toronto author S.K. Ali’s YA coming-of-age novel, Saints and Misfits.

“There are various viewpoints,” Jaffery says. “We want to showcase the diversity that exists in the Muslim community. Which is, really, a reflection of the diversity in the world.”