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English Language Children's Books that Reflect Arab Experiences

posted on: Mar 25, 2021

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By: Dani Meyer/Arab America Contributing Writer

The children’s book industry is majorly white – only 1% of children’s books having characters that are black or minority ethnic, according to this UK study. This is incredibly harmful for children of color since English language children’s books are severely lacking in representation. It’s important to have stories that are child-friendly that are representative of minorities since it can help children to learn about acceptance. Here is a list of 10 children’s books, written in English, that are proving that representation matters.

1. The Arabic Quilt

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This is a story written by Aya Khalil, an Egyptian-American blogger and journalist. She tells the story of Kanzi, a girl who has just moved from Egypt to America. On her first day at her new school, her hijabi mom shows up with a kofta sandwich and calls her habibti – and the other children in the class start to make fun of her. With her teacher’s support, Kanzi tries to show her classmates that different languages and cultures can coexist.

2. The Little Green Drum

This book was originally written in Arabic by Palestinian-Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar, and was translated into English. It tells the story of Samia, a girl who lives in a small Palestinian village. Her father is the mesaheraty, the man who wakes everyone up for dawn prayer. When he gets a little sick, she learns to take on his role. “Children benefit greatly from reading about other children in different parts of the world. It helps them see that there are similarities as well as differences in the issues they face,” says author Taghreed Najjar. “For a long time, translation was a one way street from English to Arabic. Recently more and more Arabic books are being translated to English and other languages,” she adds, explaining why she chose to translate her books, including this one, into English.

3. My Grandfather’s Masbaha

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This book is set in Lebanon, and tells the story of a young boy named Adam. When he is upset after his friends leave after a play date, his grandfather uses his masbaha (prayer beads) to teach Adam the importance of counting his blessings. “I want to introduce [children] to a different aspect of the Arab world,” Lebanese author Fayad said, explaining why she chose the setting of Lebanon. “Although the book is set in Lebanon and involves using a masbaha, it is meant for children of all backgrounds since it evokes a universal theme of being grateful for what you have.”

4. Big Red Lollipop

This book is written by Pakistani-Canadian author Rukhsana Khan. She tells the story of Rubina, who is forced to bring her younger sister to a birthday party. Big Red Lollipop is an exploration of Arab family dynamics and sisterhood. “Children need to see themselves in the books they read! And it especially helps if the story is universal and makes everyone laugh,” Khan said about her book.

5. Eid Breakfast at Abuela’s

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This is a story that focuses not just on being Arab, but on being multicultural. In the case of this family, Sofia and her parents visit Sofia’s Mexican grandmother for the Eid feast traditional of the holiday. It tells the story of a multifaith family who’s both Muslim and Latinx. Written by Egyptian-American Mariam Saad, it helps children with both Spanish and Arabic, and is a great way to introduce children to these three languages.

6. P is for Palestine

This book generated a lot of controversy when it was first published, because it was the first-ever English ABC book about Palestine. All of the letters in the book refer to a distinctly Palestinian icon or symbol.

7. Counting Up the Olive Tree

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This is the sequel to P is for Palestine. It focuses on a group of Palestinian football players who are confronted with people trying to bulldoze an olive tree – the most common tree in Palestine, and what has become one of the most important symbols of Palestinian culture.

8. The Golden Sandal

The Golden Sandal is an Iraqi version of the Cinderella story in which a kind and beautiful girl who is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsister finds a husband with the help of a magic fish. It is a retelling of a traditional Iraqi story called The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold. There are many traditional Arabic proverbs sprinkled throughout the story.

9. Sitti’s Secrets

This is the story of an Arab-American girl who travels to the Middle East for the first time with her father. They go to visit her grandmother in Palestine, and she learns how to communicate with her grandmother even though they don’t speak the same language. When she gets home, she writes a letter to the President, telling him all of Sitti’s secrets and telling him that the people in Palestine only want peace.

10. Traveling Man

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Traveling Man is a story told mostly through pictures, with very little text. It tells the story of famous Moroccan Ibn Battuta, a scholar and explorer who widely traveled the medieval world. Traveling Man is an extraordinarily illustrated book that captures the wide-reaching adventures of Ibn Battuta.

It is more important now than ever to expose children to a wide variety of cultural experiences, and books are a great way to do that. Are there any other children’s books that you have used to teach your children about Arab culture? Let us know in the comments!

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