Reading into religion with Alexis York Lumbard’s Islamic children’s books

Alexis York Lumbard talks to Priti Salian about Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World, her colourful, Islamic-themed new book for children, which is published on Saturday.

The US-based Islamic children’s author Alexis York Lumbard. Courtesy Alexis York Lumbard
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Six years ago, when Alexis York Lumbard wanted to read an Islamic-themed book to her toddler, she couldn’t find an appropriate one. But she did discover a strong desire for her children to see their traditions valued in the books that they read. So she set out to write such stories herself.

Lumbard, 33, published her first book, The Conference of the Birds, in September 2012, and has since then published The Story of Muhammad, a mobile book app and e-book about the life of the Prophet, and a picture book based on a hadith, titled Angels, for preschoolers.

Her latest, Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World, commemorates diversity in faith and will be published on Saturday.

Lumbard, who has also lived in Cairo and Amman, converted to Islam 15 years ago and is currently settled in Boston, the United States. Passionate about adapting classic stories for children from Islamic literature and history, Lumbard says: “I narrow the stories down to their essential message and retell them using my own imagination.” Mother to three girls of 3, 6 and 8, she strongly believes that “children live in the theatre of their imagination and it is there that we must reach them”.

Lumbard says that she likes telling her children animal fables and classic tales, whether from the Islamic faith or others, because she sees this genre as awakening the moral imagination.

“Such stories understand the importance of presenting a compelling vision of goodness,” she says.

The Story of Muhammad book app is available across iOS, Nook Color, Kindle Fire, Android and ePub, and is the only one for children as young as 4. A combination of modern technology and classic Islamic miniature art, the app features voice narration, special effects and simple animation. Rhyming verses make the story easy to memorise and clicking on certain images produces sound effects. A lullaby and ballad are added to reaffirm the central theme. Lumbard says that the animation and the special effects were deliberately kept simple in an effort to sustain a child’s interest.

Talking about a friend whose 5-year-old likes the app version of the book, Lumbard says: “While on Umrah [pilgrimage] recently, when the family entered the holy precinct and approached the Kaaba, the little one ran up as close as he could and shouted excitedly: ‘Momma, this is where the Prophet placed the stone’, referring to a scene in the book. The Kaaba wasn’t abstract for him. It was real and ­precious.”

But publishing books with Islamic themes has been a challenge for Lumbard. “Census data here in the US shows that 37 per cent of the population consists of non-whites, but only 10 per cent of children’s books published here include content on diversity,” she says.

One good way to remedy a poor understanding of Islam in the West, Lumbard feels, is to reach out to young children. “Prejudice and hate are foreign to them. But they do love a good story. So, for me, the best way to help children assimilate multicultural values is to read to them a good story that also offers access to other cultures.”