Stories are powerful. They transport us to new worlds, put us in the shoes of people in different places and times, and they make us hear voices that broaden our perspectives and bring us closer.
This has struck me particularly acutely over recent months as a parent, author and as someone who lives in a Muslim-minority country. The tropes and stories available in the UK about Muslims are limited and offer inadequate cultural insight. This means that it is easy to revive stereotypes about Muslims that trigger misunderstanding and hostility. I started writing precisely to harness the power of stories to build better societies.
There is a power in being able be able to assert your own narrative. Over recent months, Muslims in Muslim-minority countries have attempted to tackle the negativity, such as what the Muslim community had to deal with in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Similar dark clouds, perhaps even more ominous, seem to loom overhead.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Muslims need to think much more creatively and for the long term about how to make a difference and change perceptions. Cultural power is key to this. Making a difference won’t happen overnight, but it is a longer-term project that might take generations.
One of the biggest gaps, and where a big impact can be made, is ensuring more books are written with diverse Muslim stories and these are available to children. This is where the future lies. Yes, it’s a long-term investment, but getting books to a wide a range of children is an important way to change attitudes within society.
Today, the number of UK authors who are Muslim, or from minority ethnic backgrounds, or that feature positive and nuanced characters from these backgrounds are still sadly rare. And in the UK, for example, many local community libraries are closing, and school libraries too often have budget and time pressures to ensure that there are more diverse stories available.
As a pilot to change that, I have been working with a large group of Muslim parents at my children’s school, and in collaboration with the school, on a “Muslim books gift list” with a gift bundle, and I want to advocate for other parents in other parts of the world to take similar initiatives.
As Muslim parents in the UK, with diverse heritages, sharing the gift of stories with schools, our children, their families and communities feels personal. Many of us grew up longing to read stories like these, and longing that others would be able to read them, too, so that they could know who we really are. It is a gift to find ourselves written into a culture we live in, and on our own terms.
I know the power this can have. When I published my first book in 2009, there were barely a handful of books by contemporary Muslim authors speaking about their experiences and perspectives. Starting to put together a list of Muslim authors by mainstream publishers for children today, 15 years later, is an emotional experience because there has been so much progress. There’s more to be done, but giving books to schools, libraries, festivals, furthers an important goal – of changing culture, narratives, stereotypes and advocating for oneself and others.
But there is something even bigger that Muslims, Muslim parents and educators can achieve – and that is improving the chances of all children, especially those from poorer and deprived backgrounds, to thrive.
When it comes to children’s life successes, there is more research coming to light about the transformative role of reading for pleasure.
Reading for enjoyment has a bigger effect on educational success than a family’s socio-economic status. Reading for pleasure also has positive emotional and social consequences. Children themselves recognise this because they choose to read because of how it makes them feel.
By having access to a wider choice of books and seeing themselves represented in the stories and in the authors, we parents hope that this will build children’s positive feelings about themselves and encourage them to read.
The best ever definition I’ve come across of a book is that it is an idea in a story. The idea of a “Muslim books gift list” is for stories to be a catalyst for change in society and for each child to build their own life story.