Thompkins-Bigelow, Jamilah. Mommy’s Khimar. Ebony Glenn, Ilus. Picture Book.
Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, 04/2018. 40pp. $17.99. 978-1534400597. RECOMMENDED. Toddler – 8.
“A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears,” explains a young African-American girl in the opening pages of Mommy’s Khimar, a new picture book from Simon and Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint, written by first-time author, educator, and activist Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and illustrated by Ebony Glenn.
The term “khimar” may be new to many who know the headscarf worn by Muslim women as a “hijab” based on public discourse about the garb, but for some, including many African-American Muslims, “khimar” has long been the preferred term for the head-covering.
As an African-American Muslim myself, I have eagerly awaited the publication of Mommy’s Khimar. Finally, a book with characters that look like me and my family, and uses familiar language. Turns out, I’m not alone.
In a mother’s group of African-American Muslims that is on Facebook, information about Mommy’s Khimar has been excitedly shared over and over again, with many planning to purchase a copy to read with their daughters.
The two copies ordered for our branch were checked out immediately; a quick look at my library system’s online catalog shows that half of the system’s copies are currently checked out.
Written in the first-person voice of a young unnamed African-American girl, Mommy’s Khimar explores a little girl’s fascination with her mother’s khimars. In some picture books, the text or illustrations, outshine the other. In this case, both are truly are stellar.
The digitally rendered illustrations are bold, eye-catching, and exude joy. Rich yellows, vibrant blues, and soft pastels jump from every page.
The text includes short, lyrical sentences about her imaginative adventures with her mother’s collection of multicolored mother’s scarves. Eventually, she finds one that’s yellow, her favorite color, and begins to imagine the possibilities:
“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I shine like the sun. I dive and become a shooting star into a pile of clouds.”
“When I put on Mommy’s khimar, I become a queen with a golden train.”
“When I wear Mommy’s khimar, I am a superhero in a cape, dashing from room to room at the speed of light.”
These scenes authentically capture the delight that Muslim girls find in playing in their mother’s scarves. My social media feeds are full of proud mamas showcasing their daughters doing the exact same thing. Mommy’s Khimar, however, does more than just demonstrate how Muslim children have fun playing with their mother’s scarves. It captures and gives voice to the beautiful dynamic of a typical African-American Muslim family. It depicts a loving relationship with the girl’s father, who lovingly “snatches her up” and “tickles” and kisses her.
Subtly, Mommy’s Khimar challenges beliefs about Muslims and expands the perception of what it means to be Muslim. For example, In the discourse about Muslim women’s clothing, what is often left out is that many Muslim men often also wear head coverings of religious significance. In Mommy’s Khimar, the father wears a head cap often worn by Muslim men. This detail normalizes wearing a head covering for both men and women.
When the girl’s grandmother comes for a visit, she says: “When I wear Mommy’s khimar and Mom-Mom visits after Sunday service, she sings out, “Sweet Jesus!” and calls me sunshine Mom-Mom doesn’t wear a khimar. She doesn’t go to the mosque like Mommy and Daddy do. We are a family and we love each other just the same.”
These just might be my favorite lines in the book.
The interaction between the girl and her grandmother captures so much of the African-American familial experience: multi-faith, intergenerational families, loving each other and respecting their religious differences and choices. I am reminded of my own family members who edit favorite recipes to make them pork-free and who wear their Sunday church best at mosque functions.
At the mosque, a group of elder Muslim women, themselves dressed in colorful and flowing khimars, make the child feel special:
“When I go to the mosque, the older women coo, “As Salaamu alaikum, Little Sis!”
There, a group of children with differing skin tones also admire her scarf, while her Arabic teacher, herself with dark skin, exclaims, “Beauti-ful! Beautiful hijab!” It’s important that the Arabic teacher in the book is depicted as having dark skin. It is a thoughtful and deliberate choice that challenges that common fallacy that Arabs and/or Arabic is only the domain of light-complexioned peoples.
At the end of the day, the young girl and her mother remove their scarves. Her mother’s hair is illustrated like hers is, black, and curly. That her mother is pictured with a scarf on and without, is meaningful. A common question for many Muslim women who cover their hair in public is: “Do you have hair under there?”
Perhaps the only thing that would have made this book more perfect for me was to see more variety in the representation of khimar styles, as it’s quite common for Muslim women of African descent to elaborately style their scarves. This absence of variety, however, doesn’t distract from the beauty, grace, and joy within the book.
Ultimately, Mommy’s Khimar succeeds in simultaneously being a “mirror” into African-American Muslim families and communities, as a well as a “window” for readers who are less familiar with families and communities represented in the book. It certainly can serve as a “sliding glass door” for anyone who has played dress-up with a parent’s clothing.
Mommy’s Khimar is a welcome addition to the canon of children’s literature about Muslim children and families because of what it doesn’t do.
It doesn’t apologize for khimars/hijabs.
It doesn’t seek to justify or rationalize why they are not oppressive.
There is no hardship in being Muslim and no space is given to Islamophobes.
Mommy’s Khimar celebrates the unbridled happiness of one Muslim child, her family, and members of her Muslim community.
Authors and publishers, take note. More books like this one, please.
The book succeeds as both a one-on-one read between child and caregiver, as well with a group, such at a storytime, and would be a wonderful and unique addition to personal collections, as well as those of school and public libraries.