Four years ago I wrote a book about an 11-year-old girl named Amina. The story centers around Amina dealing with the start of middle school, friendship drama, family conflict—familiar challenges for any kid. But Amina is also a Pakistani American Muslim, and the book is a window into her faith, culture, and community.
Amina’s Voice is finally due to come out in less than two weeks. I’m proud that it’s the first release on Salaam Reads new list of Muslim-centered books. It was a long road to publication that I won’t bore you with here. But at a time when Muslims are more misunderstood than ever, it feels extremely timely and relevant. The response to it ahead of publication has been wonderful.
At the same time, it feels unreal that the fictional events I wrote about in Amina’s Voice are becoming a reality in more and more communities across America. In the book (spoiler alert!), Amina’s community faces tragic mosque vandalism. The community center she knows and loves is trashed and filled with hateful graffiti, and their beautiful mosque is burned.
While I was writing the book, Islamophobia was already firmly rooted in America. Headlines shared tragic events, including mosque attacks, Quran burnings, and a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which I chose as the setting for my novel. But these events, thankfully, were far and few between, and my hope was that they would become less and less common as our community matured, and as Islamophobes were exposed as the self-serving hate-mongers they are.
I drew from my personal experience when I imagined the community in Amina’s Voice. To anyone who knows the Muslim Community Center (also known as MCC: The Place To Be) in Silver Spring, Maryland, the physical descriptions in the book will be familiar. Years ago I was happy to discover that MCC was illustrated in my first picture book, Night of the Moon, after I had given the artist examples of mosques in America. When I wrote Amina's emotional reaction to the heartbreaking destruction of her community center, I pictured myself walking through MCC's lobby, the community hall, past the library and the kitchen.
I never in my worst nightmares imagined ever being in her shoes and actually having to grapple with those emotions in real life. But today, in an alarming rash of threats across the country targeting mosques and Jewish centers and schools, MCC was threatened. My heart stopped when I read the news, even though I know it could be much, much worse, and pray it never is. Other mosque communities around America have already been vandalized, burned down, marred with hate speech at an alarming pace over the past year. Perhaps most distressing of all was the unthinkable desecration of Jewish cemeteries that took place over the last week, motivating our communities to unite in solidarity in the effort to rebuild.
How in the world is this happening in 2017? How do we wrap our heads around this outpouring of hatred? And even harder, how do we explain any of it to our kids? It helps to point to the heartwarming reactions of people standing up and choosing love. But it’s been an extremely difficult year for all minorities in America. And it’s a weird feeling to celebrate a book birthday in this climate, when such awful events are unfolding around me.
Despite all this, I’m still hopeful that a book like mine will help to start important conversations when we need them more than ever. I hope reading about Amina, and seeing her as a friend, will help foster compassion and tolerance among children of all backgrounds and faiths. And I hope that stories like hers, will help create a generation of kids that will vaguely remember the events of today in the future and wonder how it was ever possible. Please consider reading Amina's Voice and sharing it with the children in your life. Thank you.