Can reading go Wrong? Finding age-appropriate, wholesome literature for your child. Aima Nasim couldn’t put her finger on why her son Abdullah’s behavior began to change. When she did eventually figure it out, it wasn’t a friend, television program, or video game that was the culprit. It was a book.
“In grade three, he started reading ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ and I noticed that he was acting different towards his little brother,” says the San Diego mother of three. “So I read some of his book and realized that the kid in the book is rude to his parents and siblings.”The realistic fiction novel, written by Jeff Kinney, is a “New York Times” bestseller about a boy named Greg Heffley and his struggles in middle school. Abdullah’s example speaks to the power of literature in influencing the behavior of young children, including Muslims. It’s something Freda Shamma, director of curriculum for the F.A.D.E.L. Foundation in Cincinnati, says mothers and fathers don’t always realize.“We Muslim parents are not aware of what’s in the literature that our children are exposed to,” Shamma says.
She recalls meeting one mother who was donating a set of books to a local Islamic school. She asked Shamma to review them. When she did, Shamma notes that the themes of “love at first sight” and contemporary romance found in the books were inappropriate. The woman said that was nonsense and it did not affect kids. Upon further discussion, she revealed to Shamma that she had met her own husband in a similar manner. “She said, ‘I knew at first sight that he was the one for me,’” Shamma says. Islamically inappropriate ideas about love and romance are just one issue in literature. Family relations, as reflected in Nasim’s experience with “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” are another.“You can hardly find any good book that features a good relationship between the main character and his or her parents,” Shamma says. “Usually, the father is stupid and easily tricked or the parents are very abusive or absent. And this starts with preschool books and is consistent all the way.”
The growing influence of the occult in young adult literature is also a problem, as reflected by the Harry Potter and Twilight series. A key issue is that magic is no longer considered part of another, faraway world. Rather, it is found in normal, everyday life. For example, Shamma contrasted “The Wizard of Oz” by Frank Baum, written over 100 years ago, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series from the 1990s. In the former, Dorothy, the main character, is transported to another world where magic is practiced. In the latter, magic is part of a world very similar to what most children are familiar with: a school, friends, classmates, teachers, etc., thus making the occult more realistic to readers.
Establishing a standard for what is Islamically acceptable reading material can be tricky. “The criteria that we like to follow for books is that, if we were to watch a movie of that book with our child, would he or she be comfortable with it?” Nasim says, describing the rule she and her family implement. “If the overall answer is yes, then we’re fine with the book.”But even this isn’t as easy as it sounds.“Finding Islamically appropriate literature is very much like finding Islamically appropriate movies,” says children’s book author Fawzia Gilani-Williams, whose titles include “Cinderella: An Islamic Tale” and “A Khimar for Nadia,” among others. “The reasons are self-explanatory when we consider content.” Whether it’s questionable ideas about romance, family relationships, or magic, the essence of the issue, according to Shamma, is that, “Muslims have to recognize we are looking for the moral dimension of a story, not just the good writing or an interesting (plot).”
But finding that dimension through the development of alternatives like Islamic fiction is complicated by a number of factors. Primary among these is the lack of demand, thus leading to a lower quantity of this kind of material. “Muslims have to buy books for their kids with Muslim themes. That is the heart of demand, which leads to supply,” says Yahiya Emerick, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam,” as well as Islamic fiction novels like “Ahmed Deen and the Jinn at Shaolin.” “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had book tables over the years at Muslim functions, and when the kid wants to buy a Muslim-themed storybook, the parent steers them away to some candies or some useless trinket made of plastic. One parent’s statement to her child has stuck in my mind for all these years: ‘Why do you want to buy a book when you only read it once and put it away?’” Mamoon Syed, Nasim’s husband, agrees that not just parents but the entire Muslim community must support the development of Halal literary alternatives for youth. “We compete with popular culture in raising our children,” Syed says. “Creating ‘cultural’ alternatives for our children is critical.” And to see the rise of Islamically appropriate literature, Gilani-Williams calls for the financial support of the community. “To cultivate more and better Islamic fiction, [we have] to have the assistance of people and organizations with deep pockets who fully understand God when He says, ‘Let there arise out of you a group of people inviting to [all that is] good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong’ (Quran 3:104),” Gilani-Williams says.
Syed stresses the importance of not only having these materials available, but for a greater number of children to be exposed to them. “It will not be sufficient for our three children to just read these books and not have a community to engage with regarding the ideas found within,” Syed says. “Also, if we are to develop alternatives to the broader culture, our products have to be competitive with popular culture.”
This competitiveness has become an issue, as Islamic books, particularly fiction, have developed a reputation of being boring and preachy, even as the quantity and quality of the material has improved over time. Shamma recalls how, when she began collecting Islamic books in English for children after her conversion to the faith in 1969, they were unappealing and aimed at children growing up overseas. “Now we’re getting some well-written books, but the kids are already turned off and they are not interested in trying them again,” Shamma says. However, that may only serve to feed the dearth of good literature. “Until masjids and community organizations decide to promote Muslim-themed books in the community, we will have only limited authors and no explosion of quality,” Emerick says. “Go to any bookstore in America—they’re brimming with new and exciting titles on every subject. Demand is there, and supply follows.”Emerick says he hopes masjids will contribute to the development of Islamically appropriate literature by holding book clubs, and dedicating Friday khutbas to the topic. “I would like to see Muslim book stores actually running publicity campaigns and inviting authors to readings and signing events,” Emerick says. “I would like to see parents made aware through Khutbas and such that they need to provide Muslim-themed entertainment for their kids to help form their identities. We need a sense of urgency about that.”In terms of mainstream fiction, parents, educators and librarians stress that it is important to expose Muslim youth to this material, in a proper and limited context. “We need young people to understand the world and culture they live in, know what and how it relates to them, as well as know what content does not fit within our belief system,” says Sameera Ahmed, director of the Family and Youth Institute in Michigan. It is counter-productive for people to read only “Islamic” material, according to Ahmed. “You also want to have young people be part and parcel of this society, and therefore they should be exposed to the classic literature,” Ahmed says.
This is why it is critical that parents become familiar with what kind of books their children are reading. “If at all possible, the adult responsible for the child should read the book themselves first,” says Saida Steele, a teacher, reading specialist, and librarian at Aqsa School, a fulltime Islamic school in Bridgeview, Ill. “This is not always feasible, as children now have access to thousands of books at any one time. The solution I found was to keep involved with what your child is reading as much as you can. If your child is reading a book that contains themes that you feel contradict Islam, ask yourself if there is a way you can use the book to teach something positive.” Good communication between parents and children is also crucial, as it is with the many other issues young Muslims face.“Having a strong, very open relationship with our children is key,” Nasim says. “They will be faced with many challenges in life and they need to know that we are there to talk to them about anything and everything.”Aqsa Mudassir, a mother from Glendale Heights, Ill. suggests consulting existing reviews and booklists for a better idea of what kinds of books to choose. It’s a tactic she’s used in selecting material for her daughter’s BookQuest Bookclub, which she started this past year. “I usually try to recommend books which I have already read and I feel that the children will either find interesting or will learn something new from them,” Mudassir says. “My daughter selects some books, I check their reviews online usually from Amazon.com/commonsensemedia.org, and make it a point to read the one- or two-star reviews. If I agree with the objections of the reviewers, then that book is not read.” But the challenge of finding the halal in today’s and even yesterday’s young adult literature remains. “I find that I manage to find inappropriate stuff in even the books I have always loved now that I’m reading them with my daughter,” Mudassir says, adding that she points out the right and wrong of whatever is being read so her daughter “can think critically for herself, because there is only so much you can avoid when your child is a bookworm who loves to read everything and anything.”
Samana Siddiqui is the content manager of Sound Vision Foundation’s website (www.soundvision.com). This article is previously published in Islamic Horizon Magazine.
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