This 32 page book does not read like a new release, it looks like something you would have found in the early 2000s when the recent war in Afghanistan started and books about refugees from the region were popping up. Admittedly back then, I probably would have been more forgiving that the smiling illustrations showed Islam in action and two characters from different cultures coming together through dialogue, respect, acceptance, and fun, but for reasons I’ll articulate, this book reads very superficial, dismissive and erroneous at times. I am not Canadian or Afghani, I am a neighbor to both as a Pakistani American, and the book is OWN voice, so if I am just being overly picky, or sensitive, and am wrong, I am happy to acknowledge it, but before you push back, please read the entire review.
The description of the book says:
Crescent Moon Friends introduces the reader to two best friends Amelia and Aisha. While the pair is from Canada and Afghanistan, the girls reconcile their differences through exploration of the values they share. This book initiates a family conversation about Islam, explores tradition and language, and brings the girls closer together as a result. It is our hope that the book will be used as a teaching tool to help children understand the cultural backgrounds of others, and to create a warm environment for refugees resettling in Atlantic Canada from the Middle East.
This picture book is for both non- Muslims who are living in the West, and Muslims who are living outside their home countries. The focus of the book is on tradition, not religion, it also captures the significance of Islam. This is a valuable title for library and classroom use.
So first of all, I feel like the foundation of the book is othering Islam in making it seem that this book is an introduction of Islam to non Muslim with the premise being that Islam is what, a foreign religion? Numerous Canadians are both Afghani and Muslim in 2022, before I even began the book I was already fearing the framing. Then it identifies Afghanistan as the Middle East, which just made me really question the accuracy. Somehow after that first paragraph, the book then tries to say that the book is not about religion, but traditions. While part of me appreciates that distinction, the second part of the sentence saying that it wants to capture the significance of Islam really shows the poor focus of the book.
Let me pause here though and answer a question I’m sure many of you are wondering, “why review a book that is not well written, and is not widely promoted or known about.” The answer is simple, a book such as this may not sell in big numbers and be regularly seen online and in stores, but they often do find their way into libraries and classrooms. They are often shelved to fill “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas and thus their messaging does often reach our children. I also highlight books like this, not just to pick on this particular book, but to show that OWN voices doesn’t make something automatically correct. If this is the author’s own experience or is a memoir, there is some leeway, but saying that Afghanistan is in the Middle East or that Salam is Dari, not Arabic, or that it is “naan tandori” instead of “tandoori naan,” just makes the book seem inauthentic. Often publishers, editors, agents perhaps don’t want to push back and appear uncultured or racist, so they don’t question details, is the only thing I can think of as to why this trend continues to perpetuate. Which is also why the importance of having a piece sensitivity read cannot be overlooked, even when the author is writing about their own religion or culture. Yes, I too am only one person saying I have issues, but beta and sensitivity readers such as @muslimbookreviewers are four people and we discuss based on what we know and between the four of us there are a lot of singular specialties and a lot of overlapping expertise that really help books get it right. Sorry for my rant, back to the book at hand…
The book starts with the white Canadian girl camping with her family and wondering what the upcoming school year will bring. The text says. “she loved to look at the crescent moon.” Already the writing is clearly weak, who loves to look at a particular phase of the moon, does she not like the waxing gibbous or whole moon? The next spread introduces Aisha, she is standing in the foreground with a mosque behind her and the text says she loves the moon too. “There was a crescent moon on top of the mosque where her family went to pray.” Aisha has her hair loosely covered, and immediately we are connecting Aisha to her faith and to Amelia through their love of the crescent moon. Interestingly, Aisha who would presumably love the crescent as it symbols holidays and month changes in the lunar calendar is presented as liking the moon because of it decoration aesthetic. It is where her family went to pray, sure it reminds her of home, but chances are she didn’t often go to the masjid as culturally most women don’t, so I’m not sure that this spread really has any accuracy or value, it just sounds good…if that.
The next spread is the first day of 6th grade with the teacher introducing a new friend to the class. If it is the first day of school, aren’t they all new to the class? Aisha recalls that she left Afghanistan because there was a war in her country and school wasn’t safe, if she is twelve or thirteen, I’m not sure what caused the change in real life for the war timeline being referenced. On a more relatable note it mentions that she missed swinging in her grandfather’s garden with cousins as well.
The next page showing the girls being silly with pencils to look like a bunny and walrus is sweet. It shows language isn’t necessary, that silliness is universal and it is cute. The girls then show how they share things unique to their culture with one another. Aisha teaches her how to say Salam, hello in Dari, how to dance the Attan, about Eid, the most important Muslim holiday, and about a game with stones called anjaaq panjaaq. But this is wrong, Salam is Arabic, Eid is Arabic for festival or holiday so what Eid is the book referring to? Also why not tell how to play the game, or how to do the dance or how Eid is celebrated? If the book is to build cultural (or religious) bridges, thus far I’ve only learned how to stick pencils in my mouth to look like a walrus or behind my head to look like a rabbit.
It is then Amelia’s turn to share Canadian culture and the book picks: ghosts, goblins, Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. I find this a bit offensive on Canadians’ behalf, really their holidays are what make them who they are? Later we will learn that Amelia is not religious, yet the symbols for religious holidays of Easter and Christmas are what are being presented. Additionally, the holidays mentioned are not even unique to Canada: Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, are the same in America at the very least.
The next spread shows their moms becoming friends and the girls playing in Aisha’s mom’s scarves, hijabs, shoes and make-up. I find the joy sweet, but I wonder if the book as stated in the details by the author/publisher is to help refugees- is this a bit misleading- that they are settled and have an abundance of clothing accurate? Often refugees need assistance, will a book like this send the wrong message about helping those fleeing war get established, by not just avoiding talking about need, but celebrating surplus?
Aisha is then shown helping Amelia with math and when Aisha needs help with a Halloween costume, Amelia is there. The book really is doubling down on the importance of Halloween to Canadian culture, which again feels off. But also most Muslims don’t celebrate pagan holidays, so I’m not sure I like the positioning that it is cultural to celebrate and that to be Canadian one must engage in the rituals. Whether you see it as pagan or just assimilation, either way it doesn’t sit right for a book aimed at finding common ground between diverse individuals. Math is neutral and universal, why not have Amelia help Aisha with something also less controversial?
The next spread shows Aisha missing Afghanistan, and Amelia being a supportive friend and wanting to visit Afghanistan too. Unfortunately, once again the weak writing has her sounding like an adult missing the laughter in the air and hope and flowers, not a kid talking. When Amelia joins in, naan tandori is mentioned, which is backward, if it is the same as in Urdu it should be tandoori naan. She also wishes they could wear colorful Afghani clothes and dance the Attan, which are two acts not limited to Afghanistan. They can put on traditionally clothing and dance in Canada.
The story then takes a huge pivot and shows Aisha and her mom praying with the very vague text of her mom “described her way of life, Islam as the peace in her heart, and said turning to Allah in prayer would keep Aisha happy.” The text seems misplaced and the messaging completely pointless, why not frame it as what Aisha believes or what her faith teaches her? It almost comes across as her mom forcing the belief on her and this being the first Aisha has heard about it. The next page is set up the same, but shows Amelia’s faith to be kindness and compassion while they sit in nature. I think the intent was to be positive, but when you have two people representing entire populations, all sorts of stereotypes come in to play that either have to be so general as to be accurate or more specific to the two characters at hand. In this case I feel the takeaway is that holidays define Canadians, even religious holidays, but they are fine to participate in because Amelia is not part of organized religion.
Thus the next spread of Aisha’s family celebrating Christmas with Amelia makes sense in the story, but I find alarming because it normalizes abandoning your own religious convictions and adopting another faiths in order to fit in and assimilate. Imagine a teacher reading this book to a first grade class and little Muslim children who demand that Christmas and Easter stay out of public schools are hearing messaging normalizing the holidays for people of all faiths. Imagine a recent immigrant or refugee further feeling pressured to adopt these practices because they want to be seen as “good citizens” or be accepted by the larger community. The contrast of Aisha’s family celebrating Christmas is Amelia helping make star and moon shaped cookies for Eid.
The story comes back to the girls love of the moon, one as a dreamer, the other as a scientist. It tells of other firsts Aisha experiences and Amelia learning about Aisha and her faith. I’m not sure what a genie lamp has to do with Islam, but it is in the illustration with a hamsa hand, a book, a tasbih, and a crescent with a minaret coming out.
Aisha then starts to wear hijab and Amelia learns how to wear one too. No details about what or why hijab is worn or given, and in the illustrations it doesn’t completely cover anyone’s hair. The girls ski together and drink hot chocolate and living in Canada allows Aisha “to be the girl she was meant to be.” I’m not sure what that means, but that seems to be the resolution to the book before it circle backs to the mom and concludes.
I think on the very surface the book is a nice idea, but the conflation of what it means to be Canadian with observance of holidays and the lacking details of what it means to be Muslim Afghani make the book miss so much and ultimately do more harm than good if shared.
Just want to make a brief comment in defence of this picture book, as the illustrator.
It is a book about two girls sampling each other’s culture through friendship, and learning about their similarities and differences. It is meant to be a light and joyful tribute to human diversity.
Someone running it through a ‘sensitivity read’ filter, a rather ominous concept in itself, ought to bear in mind that their own version of Islam and its practices is not the same as everyone else’s, nor should it be. Covering one’s hair, participating in holiday events such as Halloween (Pagan?, 500 years ago maybe), sharing a holiday meal- all these things are personal choices, not alarming evidence of assimilation.
I must say, I find the viewpoint of this reviewer rather narrow.
I did not write the book, and stylistic literary choices are fair game for critique. Beware, however, the slippery slope of imposing one’s own cultural or religious choices on others.