/ Identity / Middle Grade Books

Amina's Voice, plus Mirrors and Windows

I was in grade twelve when the September 11 attacks happened and overnight the world changed. For weeks, it was the only thing news outlets could focus on, as pundits talked about Muslims and terrorists. Thankfully, I knew enough to not equate the two, but my knowledge was pretty sparse beyond that. I was a huge reader throughout grade school, but I don't remember ever reading a book featuring a Muslim character. I'm sure some existed, but I don't think they were readily available. This is unfortunate, considering the Islamophobia some of my Muslim classmates faced and the prejudice many current students still experience.

A diverse classroom library can't fix all these problems, but it can help. As Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in her 1990 article "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors", diverse books "help us understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards differences." In her article, she described books as both mirrors and windows. A reader can read a book and have their own experiences reflected back at them, which can be validating. At other times, a reader can read a book that gives them a window into another's experiences. This is also vitally important, as it helps us better understand people who are different from ourselves.

For this reason, Amina's Voice, by Hena Khan, is an excellent choice for an upper elementary or middle grade classroom library or literature circle. In the book, Amina is a Muslim character who is wrestling with her own identity. She loves to sing, but is reluctant to perform in front of others, particularly when faced with criticism from more traditional members of her family. Her best friend Soojin is drifting away from her and even considering changing her name to something more "American". Moreover, Amina's mosque is vandalized and attacked. All of these issues lead Amina to question where she fits in her community and what kind of person she wants to be.

Importantly, students who are Muslim or immigrants will likely see pieces of their life reflected in this book. Reading about a character who practices Islam can confirm the importance of their own cultural traditions. As well, seeing Amina try to find her own place further validates their own struggles. For non-Muslim students, Amina's Voice offers them a window into what it is like to be Muslim. They can see that Amina is not drastically different from themselves, while also learning about her religion. By hearing Amina's story they can learn to empathize with those who are trying to stay true to themselves and their culture. Developing this empathy is essential and I hope Amina's Voice finds its way into your classrooms.