In Search of Missing Children: Why Representation in Kid Lit Is So Important

In Search of Missing Children: Why Representation in Kid Lit Is So Important

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s debut picture book Mommy’s Khimar explores a young Muslim girl’s adventures wearing her mother’s headscarf. It’s a warm, tender, and big-hearted book that celebrates the bond between mother and child, as well as a child’s expansive imagination. It’s also a book that offers Muslim children the opportunity to see themselves and their stories reflected on bookshelves. Here, Thompkins-Bigelow discusses growing up without characters who looked like her and the transformative power of representation.

The better part of my childhood was spent devouring books. I would read whole novels in a day, unable to sleep without knowing the full story. Inspired by the power of books to hold my attention, I began writing my own stories. These early works of fiction were about white girls who lived in the suburbs. Religion wasn’t brought up in these tales—I never thought about making any of my characters Muslim.

However, I was raised to be Black and proud—Black American and Black African—and Muslim before anything else. My cultural inheritance consisted of the urban protest poetry of the enslaved but unbowed African ancestors on my father’s side of the family and the centuries-old oral traditions of my mother’s Mandingo heritage. My cultural inheritance was also the speeches of Malcolm X, the rhymes of Muhammad Ali, and the melodic recitation of verses of the Quran.

Still, I did not see the stories from my home life as being worthy of being told in works of fiction. After all, girls like me with stories like mine did not appear in the books at my school library. Through not seeing myself in the public sphere, I was learning that my identity was somehow less.

As I entered adolescence, I began to find more books about Black girls and that changed my worldview. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison changed the way I saw myself. The African features I had once thought were ugly deserved to be appreciated and honored. Their books, in prominent places on library shelves, said this and so that made it true for me. Even more fascinating, I found that people of other backgrounds could also read these works and alter their perception of my people. Empathy became possible for them. They had more than just a “single story” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

What stories are being conveyed about Muslims these days? Which stories make it onto the shelves?

Unfortunately, the library shelves hold only a handful of books with Muslim characters. The fiction that is so needed to foster self love for Muslim children and empathy in others is missing. Instead, we have news stories, political speeches of demagogues, and TV dramas that present Muslims in a very specific and limited way. The foreign-born, terrorist Muslim man and the submissive Muslim woman who needs a savior have become the main characters in our “single story” about Muslims. All other stories, all other Muslims, are simply erased.

In a recent interview, author Junot Díaz discusses erasure of identity stating that “if I deny you all images of yourself and I starve you of any healthy representation, that’s abuse.” Abuse seems so strong and yet, it’s apt when considering the real life psychological, emotional, and physical consequences of erasure and negative representation. What happens to a child’s sense of self if erasing that child’s very existence is normalized? What are the outcomes for that child if other children are never taught to empathize with her? And what of the other children? What kinds of adults do they become?

Seeing ourselves in narratives is empowering. Being able to see ourselves in others is transformative. In our current climate in which anti-Muslim bigotry drives hate crimes as well as legislation, we need stories that transform. We need Muslim children to know that they are not less, that their cultural inheritances are valuable, and that theirs are stories worth being told.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is a passionate educator, anti-racism activist, wife, and mother of two. She is a 2016 MuslimARC Muslim Anti-Racism–AMEL Fellow. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Mommy’s Khimar is her first picture book.

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