Ibtihaj Muhammed and S K Ali, The Proudest Blue, illustrated by Hatem Aly

Andersen, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78344-971-2

Faizah is delighted with her new light-up shoes for the start of school. And she is immensely proud of her big sister Asiya. It is a very special day, because Asiya is wearing hijab to school for the first time. It's a beautiful blue. Asiya takes Faizah to her class and hugs her goodbye. Faizah gives a little curtsey to the princess. She finds it hard to understand why the little children round her are puzzled by Asiya's hijab. Later, as she cartwheels across the playground during break time, she sees a group of older children. One of them points at Asiya and laughs at her. Again, Faizah struggles to comprehend. 'Asiya's hijab isn't a laugh. Asiyah's hijab is like the ocean waving to the sky. It's always there, strong and friendly.' Her Mama's words come back to her: 'Some people won't understand your hijab. But if you understand who you are, one day they will too.' The mockery continues. A boy yells 'I'm going to pull that tablecloth off your head.' Asiya and her friends turn away and play tag. Faizah once more recalls what her Mama has told them: 'Don't carry around the hurtful words that others say. Drop them. They are not yours to keep.' She walks away from the yelling boy. At the end of the day, Asiya is waiting for her. 'She's smiling. Strong.' They walk home together, hand in hand. Faizah can't wait to show her Mama the picture she drew of two princesses in hijab - her and her sister - having a picnic on an island. 'Asiya's hijab is like the ocean and the sky, no line between them, saying hello with a loud wave. Saying I'll always be here, like sisters. Like me and Asiya.'

This is a lovely picture book. And an important one. Ibtihaj Muhammed is an Olympic medallist and a social activist. She was the first Muslim American to wear hijab in competition. She and co-writer S K Ali have captured a little girl's conflicting emotions on an important day in her life extremely well. We feel Faizah's pride and excitement, and her pain and confusion. We feel her gain understanding, strength and confidence from her mother's wise counsel and from her sister's courage and resilience in the face of intolerance and bullying. We see these things too, thanks to the beautiful, atmospheric illustrations by Hatem Aly, which convey the girls' emotional journey and their bond perfectly. We also see Asiya's staunch, diverse group of friends standing with her against the bullies. As for those bullies, they are depicted as dark, faceless shadows, whilst all the other children are bright and colourful. There are so many messages in this book, messages for example about identity, tolerance, self-esteem, empowerment, friendship. A wonderful celebration of the hijab and of family love and support, and a powerful renunciation of hatred.