Simon & Schuster launched a new imprint this month: Salaam Reads, an imprint focusing on Muslim kidlit that will be headed by publisher Justin Chanda and editor Zareen Jaffery.
The imprint, named after the Arabic word for peace, will publish books across the kidlit spectrum. While the only books announced so far have been picture books and middle grade – including the middle grade fantasy The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand from friend-of-the-site Karuna Riazi – the imprint fully plans on jumping into the YA world.
Jaffery, an editor for 14 years, never imagined that creating an imprint like Salaam Reads would be something she could do.
“It’s something that I always wished existed, of course. But as one of the few Muslims in book publishing, I never dared dream it would be something I could work on at a major publisher.”
But as Jaffery talked to Chanda about the diversity that exists within the Muslim community and the lack of stories available for her nieces and nephews that reflected their experiences, Chanda suggested an imprint to “broadcast both our interest in seeking out these stories, and our enthusiasm for sharing them with the world.”
“I’m really grateful to work with a publisher, and with colleagues, who don’t shy away from the uncomfortable conversations. We regularly discuss what we could be doing better, and not in a punitive way, but in a way that acknowledges where we’ve got room for growth,” said Jaffery, who looks forward to be able to diversify the publishing industry from within. “For me, it’s also been important to understand my place within the larger publishing framework. Because I work for a publishing house, I don’t publicly participate in the many conversations and debates that happen on social media regarding diversity. My role is to have those conversations among my colleagues, to talk through the issues that have been brought up, and try to understand the arguments being made, and how we can address the issues from within. At [Simon & Schuster], my unique perspective has absolutely been treated as an asset, and we have moved from talk to action. And it’s just one step among many that need to take place as we move forward to create a more just and inclusive publishing industry.”
Conversations around the new imprint include concern over the idea that the Muslim books in Simon & Schuster’s list are being shuffled off into an imprint of their own. Shouldn’t they be on the same imprints as the average book? Is this a case of ‘separate but equal’?
But Jaffery doesn’t think it’s anything to worry about.
“Of course, my view of it is that of someone who has worked inside major publishing houses for over a decade, so that definitely shapes my opinion. The reason we decided to create an imprint as opposed to simply publishing the books as part of the S&S Books for Young Readers list is because we knew it would make more of an impact,” said Jaffery, who doesn’t believe they would have received the same level of international press or excitement for the publication of a book, or even several books, without the new imprint.
“Creating an imprint is a public commitment we’re making to these stories. Also, there are so many books published these days, sometimes having a way to distinguish between them is necessary if we want them to get into the hands of the people who are seeking them out. There was an interesting fact shared in a recent Forbes.com article, that books featured on a specific book club flyer about diversity led to more sales of those books than when those same books were included in the general flyer. What this says to me is that we’re not yet at a place where we can assume people will buy titles by and about under-represented communities when they are presented to them as one among many books. Our default is still to put what we consider ‘mainstream’ narratives first, even in our own choices. Being reminded that diversity is important, and reflects our reality, can lead to more engagement and interest in those ‘diverse’ books. I’d love to one day get to a place where those reminders aren’t needed, but we’re not there yet.”
We are so blown away and grateful for all the enthusiasm for this imprint! Thank you ♥
— Salaam Reads (@SalaamReads) February 25, 2016
Among the ‘diverse’ books that Salaam Reads currently announced includes middle grade and picture book titles, but Jaffery “absolutely” plans on publishing YA books. Though she can’t share details, there’s at least one she’s working on that she’s very excited about.
“It’s set in an American city where an anonymous person uses beautiful works of street art to cover up hate speech that has been spray painted all over town. That’s all I can say for now!”
But Jaffery wants to publish the best of the best, and she plans to make her roster of authors and titles just as diverse as the real Muslim world.
“One question that keeps coming up is how much will the Muslim faith be a part of these stories. And my answer is: the books will be as devout or as secular as the characters in the stories. Our goal is to share stories from across the Muslim community, and introduce characters who are devout and characters who are secular. Their Muslim-ness will be one part of their identity, just as it is in real life. These books will in no way teach Islamic doctrine—we leave that to scholars and parents. We want to publish entertaining stories that show Muslim kids as heroes and helpers, classmates and neighbors. Salaam is a common greeting among Muslims, as well as non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries. These books are a way for Muslim protagonists to say ‘salaam’ to the kidlit world.”
Jaffery can’t wait to see what beautiful stories aspiring Muslim YA writers come up with.
“As I told a writer recently, I’m looking to have my mind blown. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, which means there are more than 1.6 billion stories. And that’s just contemporary! We also have centuries worth of Muslim stories to mine. I’d love to provide a platform to people who come from under-represented communities within the Muslim population. I’d love to be surprised!”