Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales and Mehrdokht Amini

On Facebook and in an earlier blog, I wrote about my racist father changing some of his racist behavior when we adopted our Korean son. The catalyst for this change was his everyday visits to a Korean market in Hawaii, down the street from his senior housing complex. I think back to my elementary school days, I cannot think of one single person of color I knew. When our family became friends with a Black family in Kalamazoo many years later, my own privileged behavior became much easier to notice. It also made the racism in our area much easier to see. When our white Church named its softball team the Black Sheep, we saw the faces of this Black family we had grown to love registering yet another so called funny, harmless joke. I refused to accept or wear the shirt and stopped playing because I felt like a traitor to our friends. Our neighborhood even had a cross burning in the front yard of one of Allegan’s few Black families a few years later. While I am not suggesting a link between a softball team name and an overt racist gesture, I do believe that an environment that cannot even consider the possibility of offending young Black children with a nickname makes other, more overt behaviors, much more likely.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that he tells religious people that God is truth and that they are happy with this answer. He said that he tells atheists that truth is God and that they are happy with this answer too. It is an answer that allows Gandhi to be Gandhi and recognize that not everyone sees the world in the same way as he does. Gandhi also said, when asked whether he were Hindu, that he was. He then added that he is also Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jew. We love what we know. If our God commands us to love everyone, we must be atheist, be Hindu, be Christian, be Muslim, be Buddhist, be Jewish, etc. When I was young, most of my neighbors were terrified of and hated Black Panthers. They had never met a Panther, never had been over to visit a Black family, never shared a meal. It is much harder to hate the person you know and perhaps this idea is part of what guided Gandhi’s response to the question of whether or not he was Hindu.

Today we have a government talking about a Muslim ban and attempting to build a wall to keep people from Mexico out. In my area many of the white local government and business leaders speak openly of the single-minded threat posed to Christians by an alleged monolithic Muslim religion, intent on killing all in this country who are not Muslim. Despite the fact that this small group of white Christian folk rarely agree on much of anything, somehow they are convinced that the entire Muslim population thinks they should all die. They write letters to the local paper repeating this nonsense, speak of this at Rotary functions, and are convinced that it is true despite the fact that it defies common sense. They have not visited any local Mosques. They do not have religious Muslim friends. Hate crimes against Mosques and Temples and immigrants, refugees, foreigners, however, have escalated alarmingly and I believe it is ignorance that drives this hate.

My own sense of morality and ethics requires that I do something. What I know are books. I believe that books change lives, that books provide a chance to learn empathy. We try to raise our adopted Korean son and our daughter to care about others. We work hard to raise them with lots of exposure to many ideas and many different cultures. We want them to be kind and to be fair.

So when I pick up Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, my children are on my mind. As a retired first grade teacher, all of the six and seven-year-old students are also rambling through my memories. The cover makes me smile! The father is looking with nothing but love at his daughter. She is looking at the world with wide, beautiful brown eyes. Her carefully braided hair, fine clothing, and healthy appearance let the reader know she is well taken care of and well loved. This book begins with a daughter climbing a tall tree. Her smile touches the sky. She stays in the tree until after dark and learns to count the stars like dreams. This opening with Amini’s gorgeous art is perfection. I love that the daughter is DOING something. Her father supports her, but she is in that tree at night alone and she is learning! The poetic language makes me weep for joy! This father wants his daughter to remember her heritage and to ask questions. And yet the father knows that the world will ask back — but not about your smile and not about your dreams and nothing about the wonders of your cultural heritage that has given so much to our planet. The father has his daughter announce: “Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time. I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams.” The father reminds her that she is an ancestor in training and that her people’s prayers were filling the world long before borders.

I wish that I had written something as beautiful for my children. I respond to this book first as a father. The love on the father’s face is the same love that I want to see on my own. This father probably thinks his daughter is beautiful (because she is), but what we see is that he has his daughter doing things in this world and learning about her heritage. This is more important. She is active and not passive and I just adore that about this book. The fact that this trilingual young woman (I am counting Dreams as its own language) expects and is expected to do great things is a message of hope for all daughters in this world.

Yo Soy Muslim is a book that comes to us during a time when we desperately need a counterbalancing perspective in this country. It is a book that will be a mirror to many that do not often get to hold such an object in the children’s literature world. It will be a window into a world that far too many white children never get to see. The language and the art are so lovely that everyone with a heart will cherish this book. Please buy several copies of this one and give them as gifts. Buy some for your local first grade classrooms and libraries! Most of all, buy one for yourself and begin counting your own dreams. This book deserves stars of its own!

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