I was about 14 years old the first time I saw a Muslim girl on the cover of a novel. The book was called Does My Head Look Big In This?, and on the cover was a young woman, about my age, wearing a scarf. I bought it without reading the blurb. I had just started wearing a hijab, the Islamic head veil, and I was at that age where I was uncomfortable with my body. This was a common feeling for many 14-year-old girls but, for me, wearing the hijab magnified it. At an age when all you want to do is fit in, not having anyone who looks like you in any of the shows you watch, the books you read, or the classes you take has an emotional toll.
Salaam Reads, the new imprint from Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, is hoping to change that dynamic for today’s teens by focusing on works featuring Muslim characters and stories. The books are intended for people of all backgrounds and nationalities, but the main characters are Muslims.
Zareen Jaffery, the New York–based executive editor of Salaam Reads, says she wants the imprint to build bridges between communities, and highlight the fact that there is not just one way to be Muslim. “Salaam Reads aims to share the stories about Muslims in the fullness of their humanity,” says Jaffery, “offering Muslim children an opportunity to see themselves represented positively in children’s media, and also giving non-Muslims an opportunity to meet Muslim characters that aren’t violent or victimized stereotypes.”
The imprint has already released two middle-grade novels, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan and The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi. “Both have been lauded by consumers and critics alike – many of whom are non-Muslim,” Jaffery says. “We have gotten incredible feedback from the parents of Muslim children who have read and loved both books.”
Saints and Misfits, by Toronto teacher and debut author S.K. Ali, is the first young-adult novel to be published under Salaam Reads. The story explores the coming of age of Janna Yusuf, a mixed Arab-Indian-American Muslim girl. The book, which will be released in June, also sheds light on taboo topics for many cultural communities, including divorce and sexual assault. Jaffery says she knew the book was special as soon as she came across the manuscript. “I fell immediately in love with Janna. From page one, her voice leaps off the page and I felt like I knew her,” she says. “At the same time, Janna was a character I had never seen before in children’s fiction. I felt a kinship to her, and I knew that so many teenagers, including those from religious backgrounds other than Islam, would be able to see themselves in her as well.”
While writing Janna, Ali says she aspired to create a young protagonist that would reflect the Muslim voices that are rarely heard. “I wanted to show the diversity within our Muslim community,” she says. “My main character is a child of divorced parents, is mixed [race], and she straddles many identities and communities just in her neighborhood.”
In North America, Muslim identity is often associated with heterosexuality, the Middle East, and conservatism. Ali’s decision to give her main character intersecting identities gave her an opportunity to show that Muslim stories are layered. It also allowed her to shed light on the oversimplification of Islam in today’s current political climate.
“Over the last few years, it’s really shown how we don’t know Muslims very well,” Ali says. “Although Muslims have a global community, 1.7 billion people … in our part of the world we seem to only know Muslims through these little sound bites or media headlines, or policies like the travel ban.”
Ali believes there is a large narrative gap of Muslims sharing their stories – and their humanity – in comparison to the political stories that are on the news. She’s hoping Saints and Misfits gives young Muslims the chance to see their stories reflected in a different light, and counters the dehumanization and intolerance: “Some of the things that we saw happening last year with the U.S election, and the Quebec shooting, it just showed how fast you could actually demonize a whole community of people.”