Rukhsana Khan: A Wonderful Children’s Author

Recently, I was in a bookshop with my daughter. We were in the children’s section, enjoying the vast array of colorful books. Lift-the-flap books, tactile books, storybooks, craft books, there is a great selection available. However, this diversity only goes so far. While books now will make a small effort to have characters that aren’t white, this tends to be one black or generically Asian child. Definitely no Muslims, not one. Sadly, it would appear Muslims are considered too “controversial” to be featured in children’s literature. And the Arab community in the U.K. is fairly small, meaning that of all the characters my daughter meets in literature, she’s not likely to meet anyone like her.
I’ve looked for children’s books in Islamic shops and while it’s good that color is making an appearance there too, the books they stock, understandably, tend to be focused on imparting religious knowledge, rather then telling a story in itself.

So when I heard that the winner of the 2011 Charlotte Zolotow award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book was Rukhsana Khan, a Canadian Muslim woman, I was pleased and intrigued in equal measure.

Khan has written eleven books for a variety of ages. Some of the books deal with the immigrant experience, something Khan is very familiar with, having moved to Canada from Pakistan when she was 3 and suffering racist bullying throughout her childhood. Other settings include Pakistan and also Afghanistan, where she sponsors some children and has also established a libraries-in-orphanages project. The children she has met during this have inspired two of her books, Wanting Mor and The Roses in My Carpet. The latter book, won the Janusz Korczak Award and here you can watch Khan both explain the award and read the book aloud (Trigger Warning: for those who aren’t familiar with the life of Janusz Korczak, it is very a distressing story).

In The Roses in My Carpet, while it is clear that the characters are Muslim, it’s not the main point of the story. This is not unintentional, with Khan stating that she sees Islam as wallpaper rather then a major plot point, with universal themes taking the central role. She describes this as an organic decision, saying that while the adage “write what you know,” means her cultural heritage is often reflected in her work, she feels that ultimately people share more similarities than differences, hence the wide appeal of her work. Certainly, The Roses in My Carpet, while featuring a child with a life very removed from its readers, uses the child’s perspective very effectively, with Kareem’s thoughts being the framework for the story.

However, Khan’s position in the mainstream came after frustrating experiences trying to get a Muslim publisher to print her work. She also makes the point that by using a non-Muslim publisher and competing with the wider market, her and other authors are showing that they are good enough to compete with the “best of the best.” This is a valid point, though it is sad to hear of Muslim businesses being so disorganized.

While, I have not been able to look at many of Khan’s works, from what I have seen, in presentation and quality, they do fit into the mainstream. Hopefully, Khan success will inspire other Muslims and children’s books with some Muslim characters will be commonplace, not controversial.

  • http://muslimmediareview.blogspot.com Ayman Fadel

    Wonderful article! I’ve tried to write about children’s books marketed to Muslims. This article touched on many of the problems authors and publishers face.

  • http://imperfectstepfordchronicles.blogspot.com Salma

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Thanks for the positive feedback.

    Ayman, I love your site, especially your criteria for evaluating media for Muslim children. For anyone else reading, it’s well worth checking out:

    http://muslimmediareview.blogspot.com/2006/08/criteria-for-evaluating-muslim.html

  • Krista

    I’ve only read one of Khan’s books, Wanting Mor, and I was actually not a big fan. I thought the story was cheesy and not particularly realistic, which was really disappointing.

    That said, her representation of Muslims (and of the role of Islam in her character’s lives) was definitely more realistic and detailed than some non-Muslim authors have managed to do in similar stories, so that was nice to see, and I’ve heard that her books for younger children are better…

  • Anne

    I remember when I first started learning about Islam, and after having read many “adult” books on the subject, I was interested to see what children’s books were available about Islam. The library had “Muslim Child”, and Masha’Allah I thought it was adorable and a great introduction for both Muslim and non-Muslim kids. The story “The Black Ghost”, about how a little boy’s mother (a niqabi) rescues one of his classmates after climbing too high up a tree, was my personal favorite. :)

  • http://www.muslimmouse.blogspot.com AnonyMouse

    I interviewed Rukhsana Khan a few years ago for our local Muslim newspaper when she came on a book tour for “The Roses In My Carpet”… she’s a lovely lady masha’Allah. Her writing is great too!

  • Atiyya

    As a double bonus, Khan has also won the Golden Kite Award for 2011 for Big Red Lollipop!
    http://www.scbwi.org/Pages.aspx/2011-Golden-Kite-Awards

    On behalf of all Muslim writers, Muslims minorities, and Muslimahs in general – she is a legend, continuing to break barriers through her humour and confidence!

  • Atiyya

    Anne, my favourite is Fajr! I can so see myself in Jamal! But I loved the Black Ghost too. She so eloquently describes the battles between wanting to be good and wanting to take the easy route. I was just as enthralled by the stories as my kids were.

  • http://muslimkidsbooks.wordpress.com/ Saara

    It’s wonderful to see discussion of Muslim writers who write positively about Islam. Rukhsana Khan has definitely set the bar for Muslim writers in the mainstream publishing world. Another Muslim writer is American Asma Mobin-Uddin who writes for the elemetary/middle grade levels.

    The Muslim publishing industry is slowing evolving so that there are now books on the market that contain Muslim characters or Islamic settings without being preachy. Infact they are well-written, appealing stories. They fall into the category of what can be called Islamic Fiction (read more about this category at http://islamicfictionbooks.com).

    And this applies to books for children’s as well as adults. So you have the novels of Umm Zakiyyah, Jamilah Kolocotronis and Maryam Sullivan for adults. The young adult novels by Naima B. Robert. Middle Graders have books by authors Yahya Emerick and Linda Delgado. I have several reviews of children’s books on my site (by authors such as Fawzia Gilani-Williams and J. Samia Mair).

    It’s true the Muslim publishing industry still has a long way to go. The reality is we need more Muslim writers writing for Muslims and more Muslim reading Islamic Fiction. We also need more Muslim writers writing for the general reading public. We need more writers like Rukhsana Khan.

    Ma’salaama

    Saara
    Editor, Ummah Reads


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