Trendy Tuesdays: Ibtihaj Muhammad’s “The Proudest Blue”

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So, what makes this book Trendy? For one, The Proudest Blue is brand new- the hard cover published just a week ago. More generally, this book follows in the recent trend in children’s literature of including more diverse characters as the central subjects of the story. Ibtihaj Muhammad, one of the authors, is a medalist for the USA with the 2016 Olympics fencing team who also happens to wear a hijab. With almost a week now passed since the annual commemoration of 9/11, many of the discussions I have heard as an educator have been about how we can inform children about what happened that is sensitive to the trauma of the tragedy. An aspect of the repercussions of that day that was not discussed was how it affected American Muslims and invited waves of hate and discrimination that they had to endure. I believe it is important to highlight this, especially with the current political climate of othering.

The book has full wrap around jacket art

Now, to the book. The story follows two sisters, Faizah and Asiya, on their first day of school. But it isn’t just any first day. It is Asiya’s first hijab day, with her wearing it to school for the first time. Faizah is in awe of how beautiful the hijab is and looks forward to her own first hijab day. She gets questions about her sister’s new hijab in class and must find the courage to proudly explain what it is. It isn’t long before a boy at the school makes fun of Asiya’s hijab, calling it a “tablecloth” on her head. Interestingly, this is the same word Ibtihaj remembers a bully using when making fun of her hijab.

Spread showing silhouettes of boys making fun of Asiya’s hijab in the verso page

The text, cowritten with S. K. Ali, captures the pride Faizah has in her sister’s hijab and her own identity. She calls her sister a “princess” wearing the hijab. There are several double page spreads where Faizah describes Asiya’s blue hijab using similes that compare it with the sky and the ocean. The illustrations accompanying these spreads is beautifully done by Hatem Aly, as the hijab flows across the gutter into the other page, taking center stage. In fact, many of the illustrations are full bleed spreads that show the connection between the two sisters and the connection the hijab has to their identity. Even the jacket features full wraparound art that shows Asiya’s hijab bleed into the ocean and sky. The endpapers show the sisters with their parents and offer a bookend to the story for those observant enough to notice.

A spread in the book showing the blue hijab flow from page to page

There are several good chapter books for children that touch on the topic of islamophobia. Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Towers Falling displays its effects on Sabeen and what 9/11 has changed for her life. Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree shows the unwelcoming nature of Samar’s neighbors. But there are not any picture books that I have encountered that address this issue. The Proudest Blue addresses the issue of islamophobia subtly, displaying it as a form of bullying. However, it is a book about more. It is a book about sisters who stick by each other; about children who are proud of who they are, even in the face of ridicule. Importantly, Ibtihaj makes the point in her author’s note that children of color who are not Muslims or hijabis can also relate to the experience of being “othered.”

-Elias Ukule

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