The traditional lanterns adorn many Muslim homes during the holy month of Ramadan.
Curious George, the children’s character, has travelled to many places, and celebrated several holidays in his lifetime – Hanukkah, Christmas, even Halloween and St Patrick’s Day.
But this year he is breaking his fast, going to the mosque, and preparing for Eid celebrations. In It’s Ramadan, Curious George, written by Hena Khan, the inquisitive monkey and his caretaker, the Man with the Yellow Hat, learn about the month when Muslims eschew food and drink from dawn until dusk.
Through his friend, Kareem, George learns about Islamic culture, charity and prayer.
The two break their fast together as the sun sets with kabobs, pizza and chocolate-dipped bananas. As Eid, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, approaches, George is given a gift as is customary – a vest – and the Man with the Yellow Hat swaps his headgear for a fez.
Khan, a Maryland-based, Pakistani-American writer, who has already written two Islamic-themed picture books, grew up reading Curious George, and writing the latest in the series was an exciting opportunity to share this classic with her two sons. “Our shared love for such a timeless and iconic character made it extra exciting to have the chance to write a Curious George book,” she said.
But to Khan, the timing of the book is just as important as the content. “I’m grateful for the chance to tell my stories … to help challenge the dangerous and destructive narrative about American Muslims that is being propagated … at a time of unfortunate hate-mongering, finger-pointing and fear.”
For some Muslim American parents, the book is a means to have Curious George share their traditions and culture, without forgoing their American identity at a time when Islamophobia is high and even children are feeling the effects of social stigma. “When my kids saw that a book about their religion was being made, with their superhero as the main character, it was a really deal for them,” said Aseel ElBorno, a teacher and mother of two children living in the Virginia area.
“I think at a time when Muslims are being made to feel like they are not a part of American society, having a book like Curious George makes us become more mainstream, and I think that’s the goal for a lot of Muslim Americans at this day and age,” she said.
The book has also been a hit with non-Muslim families, according to Khan. Crystal Lander, a Christian mother living in the DC area, said the book is a good primer on Ramadan for those who weren’t very familiar with it.
“I think it’s so important for kids to learn about about other cultures and religions,” she said. “I have lots of friends who are fasting this month, and I’m so happy to know a bit more about their religion.”
Al Jazeera spoke with Hena Khan about her book, which, due to demand, is currently in its third printing.
Al Jazeera: How did the idea come about for Curious George to partake in Ramadan? How difficult was it to introduce Islamic culture in a character that’s already established?
Khan: The idea for Curious George to celebrate Ramadan with his Muslim friends came from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The book is a part of a series in which George celebrates other holidays, and I think it was a wonderful step towards inclusion and diversity for the publisher to decide to include a Muslim holiday.
George plays the part of a curious observer in the book. He supports his friend in his fast, joins in the breaking of the fast, visits the mosque to make charity baskets, receives gifts and celebrates the Eid holiday. I tried to weave in major events of the month and to stay true to the idea of George being curious, helpful, and sometimes getting into a little mischief.
Al Jazeera: Curious George breaks fast, spots the Ramadan moon, and takes part in Eid celebrations. Where did you draw his experiences from?
Khan: The experiences in the book primarily come from my own growing up as an American Muslim, as well as those of friends and family around the country.
I wanted to highlight moments during Ramadan that are special to children, like special foods and treats, gathering for parties, and getting gifts. George is such a loveable character and it was a pleasure to have him experience a special time that is so significant to my family.
Al Jazeera: Why focus on the Muslim community? And why through a children’s book?
Khan : It’s important for Muslim children, like all others, to see themselves in the books that they read, and for them to feel represented and included.
To have these “mirrors” helps to foster pride and self-confidence in children. I grew up in America reading a lot, but never seeing characters that reflected my own experiences in the books I read. It’s also important for children outside of the faith to be able to learn about their Muslim friends through books, and they can help to foster tolerance and understanding of different cultures.
Al Jazeera: How has the book been received by Muslims and non-Muslims?
Khan: The reception to the book has been incredible so far. Muslims have expressed so much joy over the book and the fact that it exists. Parents are saying that they wished they had this book while they were growing up, and are thrilled to share it with their children, schools and libraries. And the kids are so excited to have Curious George celebrating their holidays.
Among non-Muslims, I have received a lot of support and enthusiasm for the book, including from teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents who are eager for diversity in children’s literature and see this as an important contribution. The wide media coverage has been a nice surprise, but I think people are generally happy to see something positive about Islam, and book sales have been matching the excitement around it.
Al Jazeera: Several years ago another book of yours almost got banned from a Georgia book fair because some parents deemed it inappropriate. This was before Donald Trump was running for office and before Islamophobia was rampant. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Khan: It was unfortunate that the voice of one bigoted man in Georgia made headlines when he protested about my book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns , but the reactions to his attempts to ban the book were heartwarming as educators, librarians and the publishing industry came out in full support of the book. Today, when anti-Muslim rhetoric is rampant and making life challenging for Muslims, and Muslim children in particular, I’m hopeful that this book will help shape a more positive narrative.
I would love readers of the book to recognise that American Muslims are friends, neighbours and an important part of our nation’s social fabric. We share the same values as our fellow Americans – family, community, charity and a desire for peaceful coexistence. And I try to underscore those themes in the books I write.
Al Jazeera: Are there any more Islamic-themed books you are working on?
Khan: I’m thrilled to have a middle grade novel entitled Amina’s Voice coming out in March 2017 with Simon & Schuster’s new Muslim-focused imprint, Salaam Reads. The book will highlight the experiences of a shy sixth grader trying to navigate her friendships and family, who must face the vandalism of her mosque and find the confidence to bring her community together.
I also have a follow-up book to Golden Domes called Pointed Minarets and Crescent Moons, which will be a shape concept book, due to come out in early 2018. And I’m working on new ideas that I hope to be able to share soon.
|[Hena Khan/Al Jazeera]|