Empathy and Cultural Literacy Can Come Through Reading Together

Three books for Countering Islamophobia Through Stories
Viking Children’s; HarperCollins; Marvel

My kids and I have been reading The Chronicles of Narnia together, and now we’re about halfway through The Horse and His Boy, which had always been one of my favorites because it’s action-packed and full of good characters. But underneath the good stuff, which still totally justifies reading it, there’s a layer of prejudice that makes me really uncomfortable in our current cultural climate. Why do all the Calormenes have to be nasty? Aravis is the one exception, and a) she’s running away from Calormen and b) it’s not like she hasn’t got a nasty streak herself, which makes her a well-rounded character, but seems to stick out more when she’s the only Calormene hero. And why does this society of nasty people also have to be so Arabian-like on top of it? Anti-Arabian sentiment is the last thing I want to instill in my children at this point in history, with enough outside influences attempting to do it.

It’s a problem that often comes up while reading older stories with children, written when “Others” were so rare in the lives of the white Christian children the stories were marketed to that people could get away with less-than-flattering generalizations and no one would bat an eye. And believe me, a lot of those old books don’t have nearly enough good to balance out the bad (ugh, some of the old books I weeded out of the library’s Thanksgiving section last year make me shudder). But some of them are classics, and for a reason. This is yet another great reason to read out loud together as a family. When you hit the problematic bits, you can talk about it. “Do you think that’s true?” I ask whenever a character makes a generalization about a particular group of people. “Why do you think they said that?”  I’m looking forward to sharing my second-favorite book, The Secret Garden, with my kids this spring,* and I can do it without fear because I know when we encounter Mary’s imperialistic-racist attitudes toward the native servants of her childhood in India (or Martha’s insistence on referring to Indians as “blacks”), we can talk about it.

That’s great for making the “classics” acceptable by modern standards. But you know where the real cultural empathy lessons come from? Reading books that actually portray “Others” as protagonists. And not in a didactic way. I used to cringe at the phrase “multicultural literature” because it brought to mind predictable stories about people learning that, underneath our differences, we’re all the same! To be honest, maybe that’s because for decades that’s all most “multicultural” children’s literature was.** But the selection has expanded greatly since I was a child. And with initiatives like We Need Diverse Books promoting more and more “Own Voices” authors’ work, it keeps growing all the time.

Last fall we read Grace Lin’s Moon Trilogy, based on Chinese legends and mythology. Once while trying to encourage my son to open up and give more detail to someone who asked about what we were reading, I prompted, “What country does it take place in?… Well, imaginary version of a real country?” He frowned at me and asked, “It takes place in a country?” Which, yes, is phrased sort of oddly, but I knew what he meant. Part of me wonders, is it really expanding his mind multiculturally if he doesn’t even notice the story is multicultural? But the rest of me thinks yes. Because the cultural differences of the books’ characters (even the eating of, yuck, rice***) are becoming normalized to him as he gets caught up in their magical stories. So when he does encounter the culture from the book in the real world, it won’t seem quite so “other.”

It got me wanting to seek out more diverse protagonists to ever-so-discreetly slip into our family reading.

In particular, I’d really like to find a fantasy of the sort my kids have been most into lately but starring Muslim kids. Islamophobia is running rampant, even among our trusted family members and friends—I need to instill that empathy as soon as possible! But even with my broad librarian-knowledge of children’s literature, I was coming up short on possibilities.

Luckily others have been seeing the same need and have started compiling lists. Kitaab World, an independent bookseller specializing in South Asian culture, has started a recommendation series outright called “Counter Islamophobia Through Stories.” I was most interested in the “Muslim Kids as Heroes” list: still not a lot that would capture my kids’ interest at this point in time (though we all did love Big Red Lollipop a few years back and I can definitely see my second grader getting way into Ms. Marvel in a few more years),  but I’m definitely going to have to look into A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, as it seems to fit the bill.

The Horn Book has put out their own list as well, and for the future, this long list of literary agents has announced that they’re actively seeking works by Muslim writers.

Time and again the research tells us that stories do increase the capacity for empathy in their readers/listeners/viewers. We ought to take advantage of this and make sure we’re exposed to as many different sorts of people as we’re able to, especially the people we might not get to spend much time with in real life. What is a book for if not to help you experience the multiverse from the safety of home?


*That book ALWAYS has to be read in spring.

**Not ALL. There were a few books out there about, usually, black or Jewish kids that weren’t directly about ethnic persecution. And many books that were about ethnic persecution were actually pretty awesome: I was always a sucker for Holocaust escape/resistance stories. And talk about empathy, if you could have only seen how hard this northern white girl flat-out ugly-cried for an hour after finishing Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for the first time at the age of 13…

***His opinion, not mine. But he already knows most people like way more foods than he does.

Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 10yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 8yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.