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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Hadara’s Hijab by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika

On 29, Jan 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hadara's Hijab

Hadara’s Hijab written by Dr. Irene Okoronkwo-Obika DNP, ARPN, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC

From GoodReads: Journey with Hadara and her father as they migrate to the United States from South Sudan for a new life. Hadara is ecstatic to embark on her new life and gain meaningful friendships in a new land, but soon discovers the harsh realities of being bullied due to her physical appearance. However, after an encounter with her peer, Chisom The Champ, Hadara is empowered to regain her self-love and self-acceptance.

We’re back in Chisom the Champ‘s world for Hadara’s Hijab, this time following Hadara, a young South Sudanese girl who has come to the United States with her father in hopes of getting a good education. Right off the bat I have to say I appreciate that this is not a refugee story from South Sudan. Certainly it is important for us to realize what is going on in other parts of the world, but the story of South Sudan often runs into what Chimamanda Adiche calls the danger of a single story. Mainstream media almost always depicts refugees from South Sudan fleeing violence. There are other stories of immigrants from South Sudan and other countries, though, and it’s important to see them. Moreover, there is no hint of exceptionalism here with Hadara. She wants to be a mathematician, but the text doesn’t call her out as a genius or make her out to be anything more than a girl who likes school. I assume she’s a bright girl and her father is a perfectly decent man too. But all they’re looking for is a better education for Hadara instead of expecting them to be model immigrants with exceptional qualities that make them “good enough” to be in the United States, a narrative we’re seeing a lot of in this political climate.

Hadara is obviously Muslim and not the kind of Muslim we see in a lot of picture books (although there are definitely a few from African countries, Deep in the Sahara comes to mind). It’s refreshing to see a non-Middle Eastern Muslim represented in a picture book as it gets away from that single story as well. The book does not center around her faith, which is also refreshing in that it can simply be ancillary to the story. It’s nice when faith is woven in, but Christian children get to see vaguely Christian children represented all the time (how many new Christmas books come out every year?) without their faith being specifically called out, so why not Muslim kids?

It should be said that Hadara is called out for being black primarily by the class mean girl (also for being Muslim, but the most hateful attacks are for being black). The language used against her is very specific. It made me uncomfortable reading it and I wonder about reading it to kids of color. I don’t doubt that it’s language they’ve heard before, but it felt very harsh. I think part of my own discomfort is the fact that I am white and felt conflicted about repeating the insults, particularly when reading the book to my white child. White teachers and librarians will need to unpack that feeling when using the book. It’s also probably nothing my daughter hasn’t explicitly or implicitly heard somewhere in media. My point being, your mileage may vary, but don’t discount it for that. I think the book really opens up a good conversation between adults and children about anti-blackness (and xenophobia). On a second read through with my daughter I discussed racism and bullying and how the two often go hand-in-hand. In our house, it’s a conversation we have regularly, but for those parents or teachers who aren’t used to the conversation this can both serve as a starting point and as a resource in a larger conversation.

Ultimately the girl doing the bullying comes around. At first I thought the resolution felt unrealistic. The mean girl really has a change of heart after Chisom and Billy Bob step in on Hadara’s behalf. But after thinking it through I realized we need stories that have those happy endings. Aren’t there enough ambiguities and unhappy endings going around right now? Why can’t we model how a mean girl can recognize her bad behavior, apologize for it, and make a commitment to do better? I think it’s a healthy ending to use with audiences who may need to see how that conflict resolution plays out.

I also think this is where the strength of the book lies. Chisom and Billy Bob intervene on Hadara’s behalf at two different points in the story. They overhear the mean comments and laughter of the students and don’t allow themselves to be bystanders. They speak up. Kids need to be shown how to do this. They need role models that do this. So much of the anti-bullying I see being taught in schools revolves around focusing on reforming the bullies and preventing the behavior. This is necessary, but most kids won’t be the bullies. They’ll be the bystanders overhearing the mean remarks and hateful language and they need to know that they can and should speak up when that happens. They also need to be explicitly taught how to speak up.

All in all, this is another book to have in your pocket (or on your shelf) to help combat bullying. It deals with it very explicitly and I think we really need resources that do that. Even more, it deals with anti-black and anti-Muslim prejudice and bullying which are issues our kids are seeing all around them. They need honest conversations with the adults in their lives and Hadara’s Hijab gives them an opportunity to face the problem head on and see how it can be dealt with.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy by the publisher, Melanin Origins, in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links):

On IndieBound: paperback and hardback

On Amazon as an ebook.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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