Children’s author Fawzia Gilani Williams is enriching the lives of children with her books which help them feel proud of their identities. She is transforming popular children’s fairytales like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White into Islamic tales of moral power, quiet heroism, wisdom, belief in God, hope and resilience. Her books have a central theme of kindness and reflect and celebrate the diverse world we live in.
Williams was born and raised in England. Both her mum and dad worked at a hospital where she would sometimes volunteer. Unexpectedly she became an elementary school teacher and moved to the United States. She has worked in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada as a teacher. Currently, she is working as a cluster librarian which involves managing elementary school libraries and reading to children.
When Williams prepared her classroom activities and was gathering resources she noticed that there were very few books that gave visibility to children from minority groups. “My students were never visible in stories that we read because there were no Muslim characters,” she told British Muslim Magazine. In the hopes to bridge the gap, she began to write stories where the protagonists were Muslims. “I wrote for my students and so I knew exactly what my objectives and learning outcomes were. I knew what I needed. The only struggle I had was time. Trying to create resources in a short time was a challenge,” she continued.
In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop published an essay about the importance of providing young readers with diverse books that reflect the “multicultural nature of the world” in which we live. In the essay, Dr. Bishop coined the phrase “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” to explain how children see themselves in books and how they can also learn about the lives of others through literature. Mirror books include the identities of the children reading them. Window books include identities that differ from the reader’s own which could help to develop respect and understanding for cultures, places, people, faith, and languages from other parts of the world.
According to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA): “When children feel a sense of belonging and sense of pride in their families, their peers, and their communities, they can be emotionally strong, self-assured, and be able to deal with challenges and difficulties. This creates an important foundation for their learning and development.”
Williams aims to promote positive self-development, intercultural literacy, emotional and social flourishing. She believes that children’s literature should encourage a sense of unity and embrace differences. Islam promotes this sense of unity too and this is a key theme in her books.
Chapter (49) sūrat l-ḥujurāt (The Dwellings)
O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.
The author noticed that it was difficult for Muslim authors to have their authenticity preserved in the mainstream publishing industry. Books have recently become more inclusive of Muslim characters. However, she notes that there is a concern amongst Muslim authors that their voice will be lost as well as a true representation of their characters. “Major publishing houses while happy to include Muslim characters remain reluctant to project Islam and so what we have is a cultural depiction of Muslims and not so much a religious description. My books project Muslims along with their daily practices which might be reading the Qur’an, saying ‘inshallah’ or offering salah,” she said.
When Williams was studying her Ph.D. in children’s literature and character development she took a module in Canadian children’s literature. Canadian specialists in child development found that young people seeing themselves in books can help them develop a sense of identity. Williams explained: “They were asking questions like how do Canadian children come to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of Canada and of their Canadian-ness in the books they read? Their question and feeling of the need for self-visibility were transferable to Muslim children. How can Muslim children come to understand and appreciate the beauty and internationalism of Islam and their Muslim-ness in the books they read?”
When teaching in Canada she noticed that schools were saturated with British and American-centric books. The Canadians wanted to develop a sense of belonging and a sense of place for their Canadian children. In response to this, a concerted effort was made to produce Canadian books to give Canadian children a strong Canadian identity. The Canadians are convinced about “the importance of providing children access to Canadian books that tell Canadian stories with Canadian settings and celebrate Canadian values” (Howson & Edwards 2009:2).
The author knows the power books hold and how they can keep the memory of people and cultures alive. William’s version of Rapunzel features a young Uyghur girl and authentic Uyghur art and calligraphy within the illustrations. “I wanted to spotlight the genocide of the Uyghur who live in Xinjiang,” she explained. As the main character, the young Uyghur girl has agency and control over her narrative. By featuring distinct artwork from the culture, Williams hopes that her book can preserve Uyghur culture in some way.
Fairy tales often begin with “in a kingdom far away” and it is difficult to figure out which location the book is set in. Disney’s Aladdin creates a confusing blend of India, China, and the ‘Arab world’ in one setting. William’s books give a clear description of what country her books are set in. For example, Snow White is set in Anatolia. “The locations were selected to show that Muslims are not just restricted to the Arab world. This helps with offsetting stereotypes,” she told British Muslim Magazine.
Her books are available in Waterstones, Blackwell’s, World of Books, and Al Mu’allim books.
By Yasmin Al Najar