Diversity in YA Literature: Muslim Teens

I have been watching with interest the increasing attention placed on diversity in literature for teens in recent years. The public library in which I work is smack in the middle of the most diverse school district in the entire nation* and at 2:30 every day the library is a riot of languages as students flood in to use the computers and look for materials. The library is heavily used by teens and, while we have been able to provide strong collections in some areas (Bollywood films, Spanish language materials), we simply fall short in others (books for teens in Burmese or Nepali? Dream on). With a significant Muslim population in the community, many of whom are serious readers, I constantly struggle to find relevant titles that will speak to teens wanting to see themselves reflected in what they read.

For a while, it seemed like the only books out there featuring Muslim teens were either about suicide bombers or victims of post-9/11 racial discrimination. With the success of Randa Abdel-Fattah‘s books about everyday Muslim teens who just happen to be struggling with different aspects of their faith, publishers seem to have realized there is a market for them and some have even responded, but it’s happening veeeery slowly. Here are two recent books featuring Muslim main characters:

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever by debut author Medeia Sharif was published in 2011 and is an obvious choice for girls who have already read and loved Abdel-Fattah’s books. This is one of the few books about a Muslim teen that is set in the United States, and Almira is American through and through. Food, parents and boys figure prominently in this title, but it isn’t all fluff and nonsense; Almira (and the book) have more depth than you might suspect at a casual glance.

But what about readers looking for something a little more serious?  You might try Where I Belong by English author Gillian Cross. Also published in 2011, it features two Muslim characters, both immigrants living in London, along with a British teen. This one is an international thriller and touches on some timely themes including the fashion industry (!) and the current lawlessness in Somalia (admittedly, I haven’t read this one yet but that is because it’s always checked out).

While I am happy to see more books featuring Muslim teens being published, the characters in them are almost exclusively female and the few books with significant male Muslim characters seem marketed to a female audience. I have yet to see a male counterpart to  Ten Things I Hate About Me, but I am anxiously awaiting the day it happens.

I know I’m not the only one looking for more books about Muslim teens.  Have one you want to share?   Please add them in the comments field below!

— Summer Hayes, currently reading Habibi by Craig Thompson

*It’s true!  I was surprised, too, but according to this study in the New York Times, our humble little Washington State district actually beat out California and New York for the most diverse student body.

8 thoughts on “Diversity in YA Literature: Muslim Teens”

  1. Not *about* being Muslim at all, but in An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Colin’s best friend is the hilarious Hassan “I’m not a terrorist” Harbish who has a lot to say about being Muslim in America (among other things).

  2. Oooh, I didn’t know about Bestest Ramadan Ever! Thanks! From Somalia With Love, by Na’ima B. Robert, is about a girl who has lived in London all her life, but her father’s return from war-torn Somalia tests her faith and adherence to culture.

  3. Great post! But I did want to point out a little racial bias you made when you said that there was one British teen (read white) when you already said that one of the Muslim teens in the novel is from London, which I assume would make him/her British as well.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment! Both of the Muslim characters in the book are immigrants living in London; I believe one is Dutch and the other Somali. I changed to post to better clarify that. – Summer

  4. This is right up my alley. For years I’ve been keeping a list of recommended books for young people (mostly fiction, picture books and novels) about the Arab world–Middle East and North Africa–including Arab Americans, and some books about Afghanistan. I think it is probably as comprehensive a list as you could find. I would be more than happy to send it as an email attachment to anyone who gets in touch with me, and would welcome other suggestions for making it widely available.

    My own work (see website) is included, and my most recent book–SANTA CLAUS IN BAGHDAD AND OTHER STORIES ABOUT TEENS IN THE ARAB WORLD–is unique in that it provides an introduction to several different Arab societies through realistic (but not horrific “headlines” material) stories about teenagers with whom American young people can identify. I have lived and traveled in the Arab world over many years.

    Re stories about boys: it’s true, the majority of novels have female protagonists, and most books about boys are picture books. But four of the stories in my SANTA CLAUS IN BAGHDAD collection have young male protagonists, set in Tunisia, the West Bank (Palestine), Damascus, and a Palestinian refugee camp. My story “Lines of Scrimmage,” about a Palestinian-American football player, is in a YA collection titled FIRST CROSSING: STORIES ABOUT TEEN IMMIGRANTS (Candlewick 2004); this story has been used in a number of educational publications and projects. Boys like it.

    Here are some other novels that feature male main characters:
    Daniella Carmi, SAMIR AND YONATAN
    James Forman, MY ENEMY, MY BROTHER (long O.P. but worth any amount of trouble to find a copy)
    Adrienne Richard, THE ACCOMPLICE (ditto)
    Elizabeth Laird, A LITTLE PIECE OF GROUND (very good, very obtainable, a “must”)
    Rafik Schami, A HAND FULL OF STARS

    Obviously, there’s a real need for more middle-grades and YA literature about boys!

    I hope this will help. Again, I’d be happy to send the whole list to anyone who contacts me at: elsa.marston@gmail.com. Thanks for bringing this subject to your readers’ attention.

  5. I’m reading MIXING IT (Hayes, Rosemary. 2007. London: Frances Lincoln. ISBN: 9781845074951). The plot centers around Fatimah and Steve, two teenagers whose worlds collide when they both become victims of a terrorist bombing. I’m halfway through it. I find the definitions of the things particular to Fatimah (hijab, salah, etc.) a bit didactic at first, but the plot is interesting and has kept me reading so far.

    I am a librarian at a high school in a Muslim country, and I find that we have to be very careful adding books featuring Muslim teens to our collection as the plots and the conflicts, while they are often honest from a teens point of view, are not what our conservative parents would approve of their children reading.

    1. How do teachers differentiate what is accpetable to read with Muslim students and what is not?

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