National Diversity Day and Three New Mirrors in Children’s Books

Today, October 4, 2019, is National Diversity Day, a day established in 2005 “to celebrate and embrace who we are, despite our differences… A day to reflect on and learn about different cultures and ideologies. A day to vow acceptance and tolerance…” (from the National Diversity Day website). Fifteen years before that, almost 30 years ago today, Rudine Sims Bishop wisely challenged diversity and representation in children’s literature, giving us the ideas of books as windows, sliding glass doors, and mirrors. She wrote: 

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” (Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990, quoted from the National Council of Teachers of English)

To honor both National Diversity Day and the emergence of more mirrors for more Americans, I bring you three important recent publications for children: The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S. K. Ali, Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow.

At first read, you may not recognize Ibtihaj Muhammad by name. But you likely know her —  she was the first female Muslim-American athlete to win a medal in the Olympics when she won a bronze medal in fencing in the 2016 Olympics, competing while wearing her hijab. Ibtihaj Muhammad has just written The Proudest Bluereleased September 10, 2019. In The Proudest Blue, Faizah and her older sister Asiya participate in a timeless ritual of back-to-school-shopping. Faizah picks out a new backpack and special light-up shoes, and for the first time ever, Asiya chooses her first day hijab, a hijab in the brightest, most beautiful blue they can imagine. But then, people wonder why Asiya is wearing the hijab, ask what it is, and even point and laugh at her. Asiya and Faizah’s mom has prepared them well, though, reminding them that the hijab is a sign of being strong and of understanding oneself. I especially love how Hatem Aly has illustrated the mean children in the book as faceless shadows, a wonderful reminder to readers that often, those whispers, points, laughs, and taunts don’t mean anything if we don’t give them power. Adults, be sure to take time with the notes from the authors at the back of the book!

Next up is Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel (published January 22, 2019). We received this book last spring from Page 1 Books (back when they had their children’s subscription boxes, which were amazing!), and it continues to be a frequent request in our house! Under My Hijab features a Muslim narrator who makes observations about the women in her life who wear hijabs. Through the narrators eyes, we are privvy to the lives of a diverse group of Muslim women who wear hijabs in public settings but remove them when they return home or are in small groups of women and girls. I love how both through the story and illustrations, as well as in the “About the Hijab” section at the back of the book, we learn of a variety of ways to wear a hijab, see a variety of women choosing to wear hijabs, and gain an appreciation of how hijabs, though worn for modesty, can still be expressions of personality, preference, and culture while representing Islamic faith. I have a feeling this one will stay popular in our house for a long time!

Lastly, I’m sharing Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Ebony Glenn (published April 3, 2018). We snagged this one at our local Scholastic Warehouse book sale last spring, and once again, when this book is in rotation on our shelves, it’s a frequent request from both girls! Mommy’s Khimar shows a narrator who does not yet wear khimars herself, but she loves to dress up in her mother’s many khimars. Though her mom has many beautiful khimars, her favorite is her mother’s yellow khimar. As she wears it, her imagination flies, both in terms of what she could be wearing it as well as how she feels connected to her mom while she wears it. In this book, I appreciate how Thompkins-Bigelow writes the family to be diverse, with a Mom-Mom (grandmother) who goes to Sunday service and praises, “Sweet Jesus!” yet still loves her children and granddaughter deeply. Glenn has also illustrated the secondary characters with diverse skin tones, hair colors, and religious beliefs. The duo provides a great model of acceptance in this book!

Why are these books important? They provide windows for those of us who do not wear hijabs or khimars, to gain comfort and understanding with those who may look or believe differently. But just as essential, they allow a number of Americans, as well as children around the world, to see themselves in the mirrors of the books they’re reading, lifting their self-esteem and valuing their beliefs. If you liked these three books, be sure to check out my mini review of One Green Apple, a book with less factual information about hijabs and khimars, but just as important a mirror as the three books above.

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