As I wrapped up a school presentation earlier this week, sharing my books, my journey as an author, and writing tips, a fifth-grader raised his hand.
“What does a day in the life of a Muslim family look like?” he asked.
I was a little caught off guard by the question. I’d already mentioned that while I’m a second-generation Pakistani-American Muslim, Muslims have come to our country from all corners of the globe. I’d also emphasized that many Muslim families have been here since Colonial times. And I’d even joked that even though several reporters asked me why I’d included pizza in the dinner spread of It’s Ramadan, Curious George, Muslims really do eat pizza and burgers along with our kebabs and hummus.
But my message obviously wasn’t clear enough.
So I took a couple of minutes to further explain that a Muslim family’s day would depend on a million different things. Did the family move from a different country and bring a culture reflected in their language, food, clothing, and customs—or have they lived in America for generations? Do they live in the city, the suburbs, or rural America?
Are they observant Muslims who punctuate their days with prayers, or are they secular? Are they financially well-off or struggling to make ends meet?
As I continued to rattle off these options, the boy started to nod. I think it finally made sense to him that I couldn’t answer his question. But it made me pause to consider the books I write that feature Muslim characters, how we are represented and how we represent ourselves. Whenever possible, I try to emphasize the wide diversity that exists among American Muslims. I request that illustrations of my picture books include a mix of races and ethnicities and women who both wear the hijab and who don’t. In my writing I try to highlight that Muslims vary significantly, even among family members, in how we choose to approach our faith.
I’m extremely grateful that books like mine, and an increasing number of others featuring Muslim characters, exist for all readers. After many years of very little representation, it’s encouraging to see a boost in the selection that’s now available. But we need more stories about Muslims from more backgrounds to underscore the idea that Muslims do not fit neatly into a single category. That means more books representing different ethnic backgrounds—including Indonesian-American, Somali-American, and other underrepresented groups, books featuring Muslims of all races, and books about converts and all levels of religious practice. Only then will it become clear to kids, like that astute fifth-grader, that there’s no “typical day” for Muslims any more than there is for any other American.