When I was ten, I picked up a book in my school’s library called Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind. The girl on the cover was brown-skinned, a dupatta partially covering her head. A glance at the back told me the story was set in Pakistan, which is where my family is originally from. It was the first time I’d ever seen a book that had someone who looked like me on the cover, and I excitedly checked it out and took it home.
The protagonist was a poor desert girl who was forced into marriage to a much older man by her parents, after initially being “allowed freedoms forbidden to most Muslim girls,” according to the back cover. I devoured the book, and yet a discomfort sat under my skin as I read. Certain passages and sentences made my whole body feel hot and shaken, as if it had been struck by an invisible hand, though I was too young to fully understand why. When I finished the book I felt slightly queasy and strangely embarrassed.
As a teenager, I read the sequel, and this time I could easily identify the egregious stereotypes, the racist language, and the linguistic and cultural inaccuracies in the book. I took note for the first time that the author was a white woman. Suzanne Fisher Staples spent years in South Asia as a reporter, but from the Orientalist gaze of her novels (most of which are about young girls in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India) it isn’t clear that she got to know the people she lived and worked with.
As a child, the only people I encountered in media who looked like me were terrorists, misogynists, or the victims of both. I no longer yearn for solely positive representations of Muslims or brown people, and I know that rural women and girls in Pakistan often face great cruelty, but I don’t want to see their stories fictionalized by a white woman making racist generalizations about my people.
As uncomfortable and upset as Shabanu made me, it never occurred to me to either show it to my parents or complain about it to the librarian. Or to ask her why there was only one book in the entire library with a Muslim main character — or an Asian one, for that matter. I had grown accustomed to being on the outside of the media I consumed at school. This time I was placed outside even my own experience, forced to look at my own reflection in a trick mirror that warped it into a grotesque parody.
Marginalized people are used to encountering things in our world that exclude us, contradict our values, or downright reject our existence. We start learning how to navigate hostile spaces from an early age. But some people who have long been accustomed to having their identities and experiences represented almost exclusively feel fear when they see that changing. They cannot envision continuing to live confidently in a world that doesn’t validate their experience and no one else’s.
Most of the people who challenge books claim to be acting on behalf of children. But explicit material has long been available in school and public libraries with little pushback. Have any of these parents complained about their 9th graders being taught Shakespeare or Chaucer? Romeo and Juliet, a play that ends with a romanticized double suicide, has been a staple of freshman English for decades. The Canterbury Tales includes the bawdy “Miller’s Tale,” which chronicles an extramarital affair in graphic detail.
Even if you take this “for the children” argument at face value today, what exactly are we to protect them from? A recent episode of This American Life featured Bonnie Anderson, a parent in Texas who called for the removal of Jerry Craft’s coming-of-age graphic novel, New Kid, from her children’s school district’s libraries. She cited, with genuine outrage, the racism the book’s main character experiences at his predominantly white private school as potentially harmful to her white children.
In the type of scene that’s becoming ubiquitous in this country, she interrupted Craft’s school visit with a false claim that the book represented Critical Race Theory, this era’s racial bogeyman. The possibility that some white kids may have their feelings hurt is prioritized over the reality of physical, material, and psychological harm to entire communities of color, especially Black communities. White children should learn about inequality, because that’s part of growing up to be a person who cares about the world, regardless of race. For children of color, that lesson is forced upon them, often in violent and traumatizing ways.
Challenges to books by and about LGBT people play out similarly, often with the added note that it’s about protecting children from obscenity, which is specious at best given the content of these books and what else is quietly available in libraries — everything from Lolita to genre fiction with explicit sex scenes. What these efforts have in common is an impulse is to erase representations of people whose existence makes historically dominant groups feel uncomfortable. But our public institutions have a mandate to represent all of us.
This was echoed in a recent interview for WUNC’s podcast Tested with Wake County, North Carolina librarian Megan Roberts, who told me that library books are curated, carefully chosen by reputable bodies, and that it’s not a librarian’s job to protect anyone. If there’s something in a library I find offensive — even racist — I should look for a different book, because libraries should contain books that represent everyone.
I have mixed feelings about that, not least because I grew up in a world where nothing I encountered in libraries felt like it was actually for me. I was a voracious reader anyway; I’d take out huge stacks of books from the library, and read through lunch, in my classes, in the hallways at school and under my covers with a flashlight at night. Reading stories from the perspective of others made me a more broad-minded and empathetic person. Still, never seeing myself reflected except as a racist stereotype left me with some scars.
Curation is just a fancy word for people who have the power to make value judgments about which books are considered worth spending public funds on. While I wholeheartedly agree that everyone should be able to see themselves represented in the library, it becomes a thornier issue once you begin to consider things like hate speech and bigoted stereotypes. I’ve seen books prominently displayed in my local library that are basically polemics arguing that all Muslims are suspicious and violent, terrorists waiting for the right moment to strike. The idea of banning any book makes me itch. But, it’s hard to swallow the “marketplace of ideas” argument when I’ve seen the acceleration of mainstream Islamophobia filter into every type of American media in the last 20 years — with often dangerous, sometimes fatal, consequences for Muslims and those perceived as Muslim.
Muslim advocacy groups argued in the early days after 9/11 that such blatant and socially acceptable hatred of one group would lead to the normalization of bigotry against other groups, and that’s exactly what has happened. Hate crimes against Black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish and LGBT people are alarmingly on the rise. A politician who openly derided people with disabilities and called Mexicans rapists — only a tiny sample of his rhetoric targeting marginalized communities — was elected U.S. president. I know this is a broader societal problem, but I can’t help but wonder how schools and libraries fit into all this, because it’s undeniable that public education catechizes us with narratives that reflect the voices of the powerful.
I can’t ignore that the last time book challenges and bans spiked this high was during the culture wars of the 1980s, during a backlash to the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s hard not to draw a similar line between censorship now and the increased public visibility of marginalized people in the last decade or so — especially the confluence of the Black lives matter movement, the publication of The 1619 Project, and the 2020 protests sparked by a deepening of every type of social disparity during the pandemic. This moral panic is part of the long tail of backlash against what progress has been made toward social justice. These challenges and bans attempt to once again make invisible the increasingly clear fault lines that threaten to tear our society to pieces.
Reading Shabanu was by no means an isolated experience; it was a representative one. I had a nomadic childhood, and passed through many majority-white public schools in Canada and the U.S. Always the pattern was the same: in books, people like me were either absent, or we were racist stereotypes. Some of this was demonstrated through the use of outdated colonial language, like L.M. Montgomery casually dropping the word “Mohammedan” to symbolize the unthinkably foreign in her books (all of which were deeply beloved to me as the bookish, awkward new girl). In sixth grade, a white friend gave me her mother’s copy of Not Without My Daughter to read, asking me with wide eyes if Muslim men were really all like that. “You’re not one of those sh-t Muslims, though, right?” She meant Shi’ite, but the pronunciation made me wince. I read the whole thing, angry and physically ill.
And yet, in elementary school, I read and loved The Indian in the Cupboard, a critically acclaimed bestseller about a little white boy who magically brings to life and befriends his plastic figurine of a Native man — a paternalistic narrative rife with stereotypes written by a white British woman. Few paid any mind to Indigenous critics who pointed out the book’s problematic dynamic and the racist narratives it upholds about First Nations people. This novel only stands out clearly in my memory because the premise is so obvious, but I have no memory of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s characters donning blackface and making genocidal statements about Native people, even though I read and reread the Little House series countless times. Part of me has zero problem removing such books from our libraries. For the children. As an adult, my heart hurts for every child who has had that same full-body cringe when a bigoted trope nonchalantly pops up where they were least expecting it.
But I am also conscious of the heavy irony that even questioning the hallowed place of these books in the Western canon has led to widespread calls of “cancel culture” by the same people who are fighting for government censorship of books about marginalized people. The idea of engaging sincerely with such dishonest arguments is not only exhausting, but untenable. And in general, I’m in support of adding context to what has shaped us, rather than erasing it.
What does give me hope is the change I’ve seen in the books available in school and public libraries. As a child, the only positive representations of Muslims I could find were in books I clumsily wrote and illustrated myself. By the time my much younger sister was born, cash-strapped but passionate indie Muslim publishers had started putting out books that were precious, but hard to get our hands on. Today, major imprints are publishing books by Muslim authors in every genre of literature, and it gives me so much joy to see.
So yes, The Terrorist, Carolyn B. Cooney’s breathtakingly Islamophobic 1997 YA novel, can still be checked out at my local library, but so can Ayesha at Last and Ms. Marvel. Young adult fiction is having a veritable revolution of newly published Muslim women authors. I just picked up My First Ramadan for my 2-year-old niece when I took her to the library, and when I look for books about brown Muslim kids for my nieces and nephews, it makes me emotional to see how many are on the shelves. And while I can’t protect them from the ugliness of the hate they will inevitably encounter, only help prepare for it, they’ll never remember a world in which they couldn’t see themselves.