“The only representation when I was younger were the things I saw on the news, and it was never anything positive,” says children’s author Farah Yaghmour Elsaket.
Elsaket is a Lebanese Australian and she is one of many Muslim creatives who are making content aimed at educating Muslim youth on their religion and their place in society.
She began her career as an author in 2021 with the publication of her first book, Douha and The Mystery of the Oak Tree. It tells a heartwarming story about an Arab Muslim child learning to adapt to a new neighbourhood and explore the magic of her world with friends.
As a mother of four, Elsaket felt inspired to write her first book for her children. She highlights their influence in her author’s dedication: “Because of them and for them I summoned the courage and started to do what I love, to write. Siham, Aisha, Douha and Safiya Elsaket, I love you girls,” it reads.
“Looking at my girls growing up, I wanted them to have books that they can connect to and for them to see themselves in the pages,” Elsaket says.
Elsaket was always interested in writing, but it wasn’t until she became a parent that she felt compelled to create representation for her children. “When I had my third child Douha is when I thought to myself that I want to write, and I want to represent them.”
Meeting a rising population
The 2021 Australian Census found religious diversity is growing in Australia with 209,150 people selecting Islam as their faith. The report also found that in some areas, such as Tasmania, the Muslim population had almost doubled from 2016 to 2021.
Helen Adam, Caroline Barrett-Pugh and Yvonne Haigh from the School of Education at Edith Cowan University looked at the importance of children’s literature to support diversity in a 2019 study.
“Children need active involvement in learning … exploring their ideas through books that reflect their own cultures and reflect not only diversity within their early childhood setting but also the wider world,” they wrote.
In the formative years of childhood, meaningful media can make a huge impact on a child. This is something Soumaya Arbes Issa, an Arabic teacher based in Sydney, said she realised in 2020 when she founded her company Junior Guidance.
I write for young Muslims to mirror themselves in my stories and to teach them about Islamic values.
Issa’s journey into children’s publishing began as an extension of her teaching. “It started with a picture of a bus with the Arabic alphabet in it. I drew it on a piece of paper to teach my students the Arabic alphabet in a fun way,” Issa says.
“The idea grew bit by bit with the student’s curiosity and questions about where the bus was taking the letters … soon after, I end up writing an educational story that helped students learn the Arabic vowels,” Issa says.
This innocent story grew and eventually, Issa created her company, Junior Guidance, where she created more Islamic content, such as her picture book, A Perfect Ramadan Welcoming.
Importance of media in education
Issa sees media as taking a big role in our modern world and thinks it can further help spread and educate others on Islam.
The idea of the importance of diverse television for children was explored by Tufts University child development and drama researchers Julie Dobrow, Calvin Gidney and Jennifer Burton, who looked at how certain imaging can develop bias and stereotypes early in childhood.
“There’s a relationship between low self-esteem and negative media portrayals of racial groups” and this can can cause self-doubt, their article says.
Issa says representation has been improving in recent years. “We have more cartoons, educational programs, magazines and books for young Muslims. However, we’re still so behind compared to others.”
The Muslim creative community in Australia is steadily growing, but before these authors began their journey, one of the earliest pieces of Muslim Australian media was created by the animation studio One4kids.
Connection through cartoons
“It was around 2006 when we decided we needed to create a Muslim character for our children, so we sat around with a sketch artist and came up with Zaky the purple-blue bear,” says Subhi Alshaik, founder of One4kids.
The Zaky cartoons are a familiar name in most Muslim households and the loveable mascot is the subject of a lot of the animation studio’s early work.
The success of Zaky was almost immediate and through community support and interest, this character grew.
“We never officially launched Zaky but instead we would attend festivals, visit schools, hospitals and other Islamic events,” Alshaik says.
“We found there was a huge need for such a character and continued to grow each year.”
One4kids started as a small team of ambitious animators and storytellers, who despite their limited resources were supported by the wider community.
“The reception was very good although our animated films were not as good as they are today. I think due to the lack of Islamic cartoon characters, Zaky really took off,” Alshaik says.
“We did the animation ourselves which was not great, however the Muslim audience loved it. We then start working with animators from Disney and the quality of our animations was much better.”
During the important period of childhood, media can play a big role in shaping kids and One4kids aims to teach children about Islam and instil in them good manners.
In her book Douha and the Mystery of the Oak Tree, Elsaket also tries to weave in lessons for her own children and other readers. One of the themes she tries to demonstrate in her book is the importance of prayer.
Elsaket says prayer “is a part of our life. It’s part of who we are. For little kids, I wanted to add it in because there will be a lot of Muslim kids reading the book. So, I wanted them to understand that it is important.”
The community support for this type of content and messaging is overwhelming.
“We get messages every day from parents and children who love our work and have greatly benefited from it,” Alshaik says.
School teachers from all over the world use our content in their classes so we are very happy to see the impact of our work and reach.
Issa says, “It’s been amazing, I received lots of compliments from parents, teachers and even young readers. They liked the books and learned from it and that was my intention behind writing it.”
These Muslim creatives continue to strive to represent their community and to ensure that children can have the resources to feel seen and understood.
Elsaket wants those who read her book to learn to be thoughtful and understanding.
She wants to teach readers that “if you’re a Muslim, not to shy away from your faith – don’t be disrespectful – but don’t compromise when it comes to your faith.”