Salaam Reads, launched in February 2016, is a newly created imprint of Simon & Schuster that plans to publish children’s and YA books featuring Muslim characters and stories. BookMarks recently talked with Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of Salaam Reads, to discuss diversity in publishing, the importance of Muslim children’s books, and the potential challenge of getting those books in the hands of children.
Jaffery, a Pakistani-American Muslim, joined Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2011 and has worked with a number of New York Times best-selling and critically acclaimed authors, including Jenny Han, Becca Fitzpatrick, and Christina Lauren. Jaffery, who is not a stranger to children’s book publishing, worked at HarperCollins Children’s Books as an editor.
EW: The issue of an absence of diverse books in the publishing world has been getting more attention in the past few years. But the winds may be slowly turning, as evidenced by the creation of Salaam Reads. With the spotlight on creating more stories for characters of different backgrounds, is this a sign publishers are noticing the importance of ethnically and racially diverse books from your perspective?
JAFFERY: Diversity in children’s books has been an important conversation for decades, and it’s great to see the enthusiasm and energy with which it’s being tackled lately. It’s not just about characters of different backgrounds; it’s about respectful representation. I hope the conversation and pursuit of stories by and about underrepresented communities is sustained, and that it leads to meaningful change within the industry. I’m proud to be able to champion the books Salaam Reads will publish about Muslim kids and families from all over the world.
EW: In a recent New York Times article, you noted that while growing up in the United States, you didn’t see yourself represented in books by Judy Blume and other YA authors, and you were looking for a way to fit in as an American. Do American-Muslim children today face similar struggles to fit in as you did then?
JAFFERY: You know, the question about fitting in is so complicated. The truth is, I love Judy Blume! And I love Beverly Cleary, Lucy Maud Montgomery, J.K. Rowling, and so many other authors who write amazing novels for young readers. My love of those books is the reason I work in children’s publishing today. When you’re from a community that isn’t reflected in pop culture, you find ways to relate to the characters on an emotional level. But you also internalize the idea that the ways in which you’re different—the food your family eats, your name, the clothes you wear to family functions, and on and on—are not meant to be shared. Muslim kids today don’t get to see themselves in pop culture at all, at least not in a positive representation. My nephew, who is in 2nd grade, is afraid to tell his friends he’s Muslim. That breaks my heart, and I hope that by sharing stories where Muslim kids can be seen as heroes and helpers, we can start to undo some of the fear that kids feel.
EW: There has been recent political backlash against teaching about Islam—or almost anything Muslim-related, for that matter—in U.S. schools. In December, schools in Augusta County, Va., were closed because parents accused a teacher of religious indoctrination after giving a lesson in Islamic calligraphy. Do you anticipate some pushback in getting Salaam Reads publications into public school libraries?
JAFFERY: The possibility of pushback is something I’m very aware of, but it’s important for me to reiterate that Salaam Reads will not be publishing books that in any way put forth Islamic doctrine or proselytize. These books will be about Muslim kids, not about teaching Islam. The character’s faith will be evident in maybe the clothes they wear sometimes, or if they have to work their schedule around prayer times, or the holidays they celebrate with their families. It will be a part of their identity, just as it is in real life.
ban on Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering this country. Whether or not this ban ever comes to pass, it seems that most Americans hold negative views about Islam, according to a 2014 American Trends Panel from Pew Research. With that said, what role can K-12 books featuring Muslims as main characters play in promoting tolerance and acceptance?
JAFFERY: Children’s books are a great way to introduce kids to “everyday” Muslims—the Muslims who are already their neighbors and classmates and coworkers. What I hope to showcase in the variety of books Salaam Reads publishes is that Muslims are not a monolith. We come from many different countries and cultures. Some of us are devout, and some are secular. While I’ve seen the polls that say many Americans hold negative views about Islam, I’ve also seen polls that reveal very few Americans personally know a Muslim person. With Salaam Reads, we get to plant seeds of empathy. In fact, one of the reasons we chose “Salaam” as our imprint name is because it is a standard greeting among Muslims throughout the world. These books are our way of saying “salaam” to readers.
Photos from Simon & Schuster, Inc.
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.