This Week’s Word Is “Islam.”
Books that are a blend of words, pictures, and crazy fonts are big business in the world of children’s books; especially for those aged around 7 upwards. Our family favorites are the Storey Treehouse books, but there are many others including Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates. This summer, thanks to a random tweet I saw a few months ago, we’ve found a fabulous new member of the genre, Planet Omar.
What is Planet Omar?
Like many children’s books, the story is about the trials and tribulations of school life; Teachers, fitting in, and scrapes with the school bully. It’s also about life at home too. Dinner table conversations, battling with your siblings, and grumpy next-door neighbors. What sets this book apart from many of the others that sit in this crowded field, is that Omar and his family are Muslims.
Alongside Omar’s day at school we read about Ramadan and Eid, going to mosque, and, very gently, we hear about other people’s preconceptions about Muslims and Islam.
For that’s what the book is really about; preconceptions. From the fearful neighbor who “doesn’t like spicy food” or the bully at school, who tells Omar that, one day, he’ll have to move out of the country. Better than that, though, Omar himself has preconceptions about events in the novel too. These lead him to jump to the wrong conclusions. What we have here is a funny and gentle novel, in an engaging format with excellent pictures. It’s a book that shows the reader the benefits of looking a little harder to help demystify what they don’t understand.
Why Read Planet Omar?
Any book that is dedicated to “all the children who ever felt that being different was a negative thing,” is almost always going to be worth a read. Planet Omar is no exception. The book is great for young Muslim readers. They’re currently underrepresented in British children’s fiction, and this is a very positive reinforcement of their way of life. Moreover, for families like my own, it’s an invaluable resource for showing the similarities between British families no matter their religion and ethnicity. It engenders empathy and understanding.
My son has been fascinated by the descriptions of festivals and trips to the Mosque depicted in the books (In Book 2, there is a storyline about saving a Mosque and he was very invested in making sure they came through.) The books have opened our eyes to aspects of Islam that (in my case) we knew happened, but would have been hard pushed to explain it to anybody, had they asked.
Planet Omar is a celebration of inclusivity. It explains how a lack of understanding can lead to fear. Omar’s neighbor doesn’t really want anything to do with Omar and his family until events force her too. Her discovery that her neighbors are much like any other human beings brings about a friendship that is heartwarming. Again, it’s a gentle way to explain how damaging and futile prejudice can be.
One curious note; I noticed on the book’s title page that it had originally been titled “The Muslims.” Whilst I don’t know anything about the promotion of the original version of the book, it is probably not a coincidence that the vibrant rebrand as Planet Omar has been more successful. Whilst the phrase “The Muslims” has significant context within the story, it’s an indictment of modern Britain that a book with that title, and of this quality couldn’t succeed. “Planet Omar,” especially with the subtitle “Accidental Trouble Magnet.” sits within an entirely different demographic. One where it’s been able to get the traction it deserves.
Planet Omar is exactly the sort of book Britain needs if it is going to break down the barriers that exist within it today. It knocks down misconceptions and is the embodiment of the idea that we are “far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” (This quote is from the late Jo Cox, and never seems far away from my mind when I read books like this.) I loved Planet Omar from start to finish, book 2 Unexpected Super Spy is just as good. Book 3, Incredible Rescue Mission has just come out in the US and will definitely be part of our next book shop trip!
If you enjoyed this post you can check out my other Word Wednesday reviews, here.