NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, February 29, 2016, 7:30 AM
“It’s Ramadan Curious George” features the famously inquisitive monkey learning about Muslim culture from a friend.
Curious George is fasting — and the Man with the Yellow Hat is trading his signature headgear for a fez!
“It’s Ramadan Curious George,” written by Hena Khan brings back creator H.A. Rey’s inquisitive simian and his human caregiver, the Man with the Yellow Hat, as they learn the Muslim holy month of fasting, prayer and charity through their new friend, Kareem.
“I thought it was an amazing opportunity for inclusion, and to really allow Muslim children to identify with this character they love so much,” said Khan, 41, a Pakistani-American who grew up reading Curious George before sharing the books with her two sons in Maryland.
The mischievous little monkey, who’s become an American icon after appearing in hundreds of children’s books for the past 75 years, teaches kids about Islamic culture in his next adventure.
“The idea of working with a character that is so well known and beloved was a little intimidating at first,” Khan admitted, “but those feelings quickly gave way to the thrill of of introducing George to new concepts and traditions that I hold dear, and to know that he would in turn bring them to other children and their parents.”
Khan decided to have George – and non-Muslim readers – introduced to the holy holiday through a young friend about to fast for the first time.
“We wondered how to approach this; is Curious George himself now a Muslim?” said Khan. “We decided celebrating with his Muslim friend is easier.”
She drew upon her own holiday experiences for the book hitting shelves on May 3, just a month before Ramadan this year. Kareem and Curious George break the daily fast after sunset by eating pizza as well as kabobs and chocolate-covered bananas, and they don new clothes to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr “Break the Fast” feast at the end of the month.
“I wanted to reinforce the message that American Muslims are just as American as anyone else,” Khan said. “Some of us are descended from immigrants and have other cultures and other foods that we embrace. We still love pizza and burgers as much as the next person.”
There are also women in the story who don’t cover their heads with a hijab, because Khan wanted to show that “all Muslims are not homogenous and don’t look a certain way.”
George’s curiosity gets him into trouble at the mosque, of course. He steals the abandoned shoes that visitors removed before entering the sacred space to a charity drive, thinking their owners have thrown them away.
“No, George,” the imam tells him. “Those shoes belong to us here, but you gave me a great idea. We’ll add a clothes drive next year!”
But Khan was careful not to show George actually praying or fasting inside the mosque, so as not to offend members of her own faith.
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asked the children’s author to pen the monkey’s first trip to a mosque after reading her earlier works exploring Muslim culture, including 2008’s “Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story” which also introduces the reader to Ramadan, and 2015’s “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors” that explores aspects of Islam using colors, such as “orange is for the henna on my hands.”
“I thought it was very bold and brave on their part to try it out [with Curious George],” she said. “We all understand how huge this could be.”
Anticipation for the $ 7.99 book available for preorder on Amazon has been positive so far.
“So excited that #CuriousGeorge will be celebrating Ramadan this year!” tweeted Miral Sattar.
“And SO MANY kudos to people behind CURIOUS GEORGE making a Ramadan book and hiring Muslim author @henakhanbooks to write it,” added fellow author Aisha Saeed.
But Khan is bracing herself for the inevitable backlash – as are the social media users tweeting “Look what’s out in May, bigots!” and threatening to mail the book to Donald Trump.
“Sadly, with a lot of the [anti-Muslim] rhetoric thrown around nowadays, I’m mentally preparing for that,” said Khan, who admitted there were a couple of isolated incidents of people slamming her previous books. “I would be very disappointed, but I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a minority of people who did feel that way.”
Khan and her editor also expect some backlash from members of her own faith. The author shared a draft of the story with her friends and family, but she didn’t contact any Islamic scholars or imams for their blessing.
“I didn’t think it was necessary,” she said. “The book is not prescriptive or a statement on how Islam should be practiced in any way. Rather, I see it as a reflection of what the American Muslim community is actually like.
“And that community includes people of all backgrounds and races, women who both cover their hair and don’t, and Muslims who engage with their non-Muslim friends and open up their mosques to interfaith and charitable activities. That’s just reality,” she added.
And her inclusive children’s book feels more timely than ever during an election year when anti-Muslim rhetoric is a central issue.
“That’s why I think it’s important as a Muslim writer now to share our cultural traditions and show that the things we care about as humans – family, community and living a good life – are the same across the board,” she said.