Exploration of Children’s Literature about Middle Eastern Nations and Islamic Culture
The goal of our global literacy community was to support students in developing intercultural understandings and global perspectives by exploring children’s literature about Middle Eastern nations and Islamic culture. Our group consisted of seven educators from Title 1 PreK–5 elementary and middle schools in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). Dr. Yoo Kyung Sung, a professor at the University of New Mexico, joined our study group meetings as a co-leader and co-thinker. Yoo Kyung and I planned the monthly meetings, reflected on the discussions, and supported teachers in incorporating literature into their teaching plans.
TUSD is the largest urban public school district in Southern Arizona, serving about 47,000 PreK through 12th grade students across 89 schools and programs. In the 2020–2021 school year, Latinx students accounted for over 60% of the district’s total enrollment, followed by European American students (20%), African American students (6.0%), Indigenous students (3.6%), Asian American students (2.1%), and multiracial students (3.9%) (TUSD, 2020a). Among them are approximately 800 refugee students, who have been in the U.S. for various lengths of time—speaking 40 different languages and representing over 50 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (TUSD, 2018). Recognizing this growing diversity in cultures and languages, the district has committed itself to developing a series of plans and programs aimed at improving equity, diversity, and inclusiveness for all members of its community (TUSD, 2020b).
Middle Eastern and Islamic Cultural Themes
Lately, the global media and literature about the Middle East for children and young adults has heavily focused on the stories of refugees in a warzone context (Martin, 2021; Pascale, 2020; Shapiro, 2020). Global literature, such as The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham, Karim Shamsi-Basha, and Yuko Shimizu (2020), The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (2018), and Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (2019), have earned national recognition for their literary excellence and advantages as resources. These stories portray the experiences of Syrian refugees through rich narratives and fascinating statistics, informing readers about the reality of Syrian refugees’ sufferings and their adjustments to a new homeland. The many images of surviving violence, war, and atrocities in such stories have raised sympathy about Syrians and other Middle Eastern people.
Yoo Kyung and I were concerned that Tucson students, who have been exposed daily to the global media and to stories emphasizing the Middle East’s hardships, might consider the Middle East only from the perspective of victims of war. Recently, several schools have reported difficulties in building relationships between students with Islamic backgrounds and students from other cultural groups. The schools noted that this issue might be stemming from students’ limited knowledge about the positive sides of Middle Eastern countries, as well as misconceptions about the countries and their cultural practices. We were concerned that our school curriculum has not sufficiently provided them with resources about the rich histories and cultures of Middle Eastern countries and the people’s great contributions to the past and present day in our global society. I have also found that some teachers find it difficult to teach about Middle Eastern themes due to their unfamiliarity with the countries and their lack of knowledge about the available resources.
Yoo Kyung and I, therefore, thought that children’s literature might support students in (re)discovering cultures in the Middle East and help teachers become more confident about covering the Middle East in their lessons. In the first study group meeting, we talked about how we could approach Middle Eastern and Islamic themes. We did not want to overlook the fact that Islamic communities exist worldwide, in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. We discussed, and eventually agreed on, starting with the Middle East, as it contains the highest percentage of Muslims, and comparing the Middle East to other regions. This could also extend to our own Tucson community because of recent growth in the number of families with roots in the Middle East.
We invited the teachers in the TUSD global literacy community to join a monthly study group meeting via Zoom. Besides the virtual meeting, we invited them to share resources and teaching ideas and reflections in a Padlet. Together, we explored children’s literature about the Middle East and Islamic culture, read books, shared responses, tried literacy engagements, and discussed academic articles. We also encouraged the teachers to share their teaching experiences and students’ learning experiences when using literature and to respond to one another.
A Curriculum That is International
During the first several meetings, we spent time reading and discussing academic articles to build our background knowledge of curriculum, children’s literature, and engagements with literature. The first article we read was Kathy Short’s (2003) “Exploring a Curriculum that is International.” We unpacked each layer of the curriculum framework—personal cultural identities, cross-cultural studies, integration of international experiences and materials, and inquiries on global issues and problems (see Figure 1). The teachers were then invited to share questions, thoughts, teaching ideas, and resources that could be used within the framework. To learn more about teaching strategies, practices, and resources, we also read Short (2009), Sung and Sakoi (2018), and Wilson, Chavez, and Anders (2012).
Exploring Global, International, and Multicultural Literature
To reach our project goal, Yoo Kyung and I thought it was important to support teachers with an expanded knowledge of global, international, and multicultural literature, encouraging them to see the value and possibilities of literature as a teaching resource across content areas. Therefore, we encouraged the teachers to explore the literature shared on various organizational websites: Worlds of Words (WOW): Center of Global Literacies and Literatures, The United States Board on Books for Young People’s (USBBY) International Outstanding Books List, and Notable Books for a Global Society. The teachers also attended author webinars offered by the Tucson Festival of Books and the US Department of Education’s National Resource Center Program, to gain more information about authors and their works. We further suggested they explore eBooks and audiobooks available via Epic and Storyline Online. Online resources such as these were a strong need in the virtual classroom settings necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Learning a Strategy for Developing Paired Books and Text Sets
In addition to expanding their knowledge of the literature, Yoo Kyung and I thought the teachers might need strategies for sharing literature with students in a meaningful, engaging way. One strategy we suggested was developing paired books and text sets, which contain interrelated texts and help readers develop a deep understanding of and perspective on a topic or theme (Short, 2011a, 2011b).
We shared a strategy for developing paired books and text sets using books about the Middle East, which are interrelated based on universal themes and children’s cultures, such as family practices and traditions, friendship, and school experiences. Our goal was to create a context in which students would be able to explore the Middle East through multiple perspectives and understand the complexities and diversities within the Middle East region, beyond simplified labels such as “refugee,” “Muslim,” or “Arabic speaker.”
Yoo Kyung and I developed the following paired books as an example and shared them with the teachers. Each pair includes two books: one about the Middle East and the other portraying a story in which the students could find their own cultures and experiences. Some teachers chose to use these paired books in their classes.
- Colors and Shapes: Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors (Khan, 2012) and Green is a Chile Pepper: A Book of Colors (Thong & Parra, 2016).
- Family Gatherings and Traditional Foods: Salma the Syrian Chef (Ramadan & Bron, 2020) and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (Maillard & Martinez-Neal, 2019).
A text set includes five to seven books that are thematically connected, like the paired books. Our initial plan was to create a space in which teachers could develop text sets as a team; however, this would not work in the online space or within the limited time we had due to the difficulties the pandemic brought. Therefore, we developed a list of text sets with an excel spreadsheet for teachers based on their themes and books of interest (see Figure 2), with seven sections: 1) a title of the book, 2) genre, 3) author and illustrator, 4) a main character and a setting(s), 5) story themes and synopsis, 6) text sets, and 7) synopses of the text set books. Then, we guided teachers in searching for books and creating text sets for their classes. During the study group meetings, the teachers shared their text sets and themes with others. The following text sets were developed by two of the teachers.
- Act of Kindness: The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family (Muhammad, Ali, & Aly, 2019), King for a Day (Khan & Kromer, 2019), Thank You, Omu! (Mora, 2018), A Drop of the Sea (Chabbert & Guridi, 2018), and Salma the Syrian Chef (Ramadan & Bron, 2020)
- Taking Actions for Justice: The Librarian of Basra: The True Story from Iraq (Winter, 2005), Hands around the Library (Abouraya, 2012), The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust (Ruelle & Desaix, 2010), and Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan (Winter, 2009)
Engagements with Literature
In the study group meetings, Yoo Kyung and I invited teachers to read aloud picturebooks (Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, and Under My Hijab), share responses, and participate in literacy engagements. We discussed these stories through the lens of identity intersections, exploring characters’ experiences via multiple social and personal domains, including personalities, activities, religious practices, and relationships with family and friends. One of the study group members who was originally from Palestine helped us develop a deeper understanding of Islamic values, beliefs, practices, and perspectives portrayed in the stories. We also invited teachers to write a mini-bio poem about their life experiences and cultural identities. The book discussions and literacy engagements were worthwhile experiences. They were able to learn read-aloud strategies, share teaching ideas for the books, and gain cultural knowledge about the Middle East. These experiences motivated teachers to share Middle Eastern books with their students.
We began this global literacy community project with some tension and hesitation due to our limited knowledge of Middle Eastern countries and our unfamiliarity with their cultures. At the same time, we felt passionate about the goal to support teachers in developing an inclusive school community. Global, international, and multicultural literature gave us opportunities to think, learn, and challenge our stereotypes. This process gave us confidence in teaching students about Middle Eastern and Islamic themes and cultures.
Children’s literature also helped develop critical lenses and gain authentic intercultural understandings of the Middle East—rethinking the social attitudes associated with a warzone context. Organizing and facilitating this global literacy community as a co-leader with Yoo Kyung was also valuable experience for me. The teacher study group was a wonderful, collaborative learning space in which we were all engaged, thinking together and sharing ideas and perspectives. I want to keep working collaboratively with the teachers as a co-thinker, supporting them with their curriculum and lesson development by continuing to share various global, international, and multicultural stories. In this way, we can keep moving forward and growing together as global educators.
Children’s and Young Adult Literature Cited
Abouraya, L. K. (2012). Hands around the library: Protecting Egypt’s treasured books. Illus. S. L. Roth. New York City: Dial.
Brown, D. (2018). The unwanted: Stories of the Syrian refugees. Boston: Clarion.
Chabbert, I. (2018). A drop of the sea. Illus. R. N. Guridi. Toronto: Kids Can Press.
Khan, H. (2012). Golden domes and silver lanterns: A Muslim book of colors. Illus. M. Amini. San Francisco: Chronicle.
Khan, R. (2013). King for a day. Illus. C. Krömer. New York: Lee & Low.
Latham, I., & Shamsi-Basha, K. (2020). The cat man of Aleppo. Illus. Y. Shimizu. New York: Putnam.
Maillard, N. K. (2019). Fry bread: A Native American family story. Illus. J. Martinez-Neal. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Mora, O. (2018). Thank you, Omu!. Boston: Little, Brown.
Muhammad, I. (2019). The proudest blue: A story of hijab and family. Illus. H, Aly. Boston: Little, Brown.
Ramadan, D. (2020). Salma the Syrian chef. Illus. A. Bron. Toronto: Annick Press.
Ruelle, G. K. (2010). The grand mosque of Paris: A story of how Muslims rescued Jews during the holocaust. Illus. D. D., Desaix. New York: Holiday House.
Thong, G. R. (2016). Green is a chile pepper: A book of colors. Illus. J. Parra. San Francisco: Chronicle.
Warga, J. (2019). Other words for home. New York: Balzer + Bray.
Winter, J. (2009). Nasreen’s secret school: A true story from Afghanistan. New York: Beach Lane.
Winter, J. (2019). The librarian of Basra: The true story from Iraq. Boston: Clarion.
Martin, M. (2021, January 3). Migrants flee Lebanon in desperate, doomed journey. https://www.npr.org/2021/01/03/953073963/migrants-flee-lebanon-in-desperate-doomed-journey
Pascale, J. (2020, February 18). Satellite photos show rapid growth of Syrian refugee camps. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/18/807150232/satellite-photos-show-rapid-growth-of-syrian-refugee-camps
Shapiro, A. (2020, March 4). U.N. refugee agency deputy on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/04/812246901/u-n-refugee-agency-deputy-on-the-humanitarian-crisis-in-syria
Short, K. (2003). Exploring a curriculum that is international. https://old.coe.arizona.edu/sites/coe/files/a_curriculum_that_is_international.pdf
Short, K. (2009). Critically reading the word and the world: Building intercultural understanding through literature. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, 47(2), 1-10.
Short, K. (2011a). Text sets as contexts for understanding. WOW Blog. https://wowlit.org/blog/2011/02/21/text-sets-as-contexts-for-understanding/
Short, K. (2011b). Strategies for reading and discussing paired books. WOW Currents. https://wowlit.org/blog/2011/02/28/strategies-for-reading-and-discussing-paired-books/
Sung, Y.K. & Sakoi, J. (2018). Sixth graders’ inquiry into the World War II Japanese internment camp. In V. Yenika-Agbaw, R.M. Lowery, & H.P. Ricks (Eds.), Using nonfiction for civic engagement in classrooms: Critical approaches (pp. 53-68). Rowman & Littlefield.
Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). (2018). Refugee student services. http://www.tusd1.org/Departments/Refugee/Refugee-Services-Resources
TUSD. (2020a). TUSD enrollment by federal ethnicity by school (2020-2021). tusddatareports.tusd1.org/EnrollmentByFederalEthnicity.html
TUSD. (2020b). Commitment to equity, diversity and inclusiveness. http://deseg.tusd1.org/
Wilson, A.A., Chavez, K., & Anders, L.P. (2012). “From the Koran and Family Guy”: Exploration of identity in English learners’ digital podcasts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(5), 368-443.
Junko Sakoi is a Program Coordinator of Multicultural Curriculum Department. (ORCID https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5012-6910)
© 2021 by Junko Sakoi
WOW Stories, Volume IX, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work by Junko Sakoi at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/volume-ix-issue-2/8/.
WOW stories: connections from the classroom