An important conversation with children’s book author Medeia Cohan

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I’m an imposter author. I’m not really a children’s author. But I wanted to buy a book about head coverings for my son and I couldn’t find one. 

I lived in South London with my young son, and in a very diverse area. He’s a very nosy, curious boy. I just knew I was going to have that moment sooner rather than later, where he was one inch away from someone’s head and saying, “What’s that?” about a hijab or turban. I thought, in this day of heightened racial profiling and violence, I have a job to do. I can’t say that’s about religion and just walk away and use my white privilege to not actually explain it. But I can start having a conversation really early and give him the tools he needs to navigate the world.

I wrote it because I wanted there to be something that was objective, that was interfaith, across all faiths. I wanted people to understand it’s not just Muslim people who cover their heads. It’s something we share, and it’s at the core of every faith, actually.

I kept talking to other mothers and hearing stories like how one friend’s daughter saw a woman in a grey burka in a shop and pointed at her and called her a ghost. That wasn’t because she’s nasty. You use the vocabulary and the limited amount of information you have to connect things.

I thought that if you had the right tools early, if you see these things—because they’re not common. Cinderella is not wearing a hijab or tichel. If you had access to that stuff early, then maybe you’d have this vocabulary, this acceptance and this understanding. 

How did you decide on the illustrator? 

As with everything, there was a lot of research. We started putting out Pinterest boards of the kind of things we were after. I had worked with other illustrators on other projects, but then I saw Sarah’s stuff. I made it my mission to stalk her until she gave in to me. She’s so brilliantly talented. She’s an accomplished illustrator and has done lots of other things. Her initial concern was that a very religious project wasn’t her thing. But once we started talking about it, she was really excited about the project. It was a really lovely partnership, and it created a really lovely friendship.

It was a team of women from all different faith backgrounds and different upbringings and different parts of the world. I’ve never physically shared space with Sarah. And in fact, really strangely  everyone we work with is a woman. Our licensing agent is a woman. At Chronicle we work with a woman, and at Hardie Grant Egmont we work with a woman. It just happened that we’re this crack team of incredible women who want young people to have this information. That was really organic and lucky.

How much did you learn along the way?

Loads. I now know why no one else wrote this book. It’s hugely contentious and challenging, and people are so passionate about their faith. I get lots of hate mail. I get lots of support, but I get lots of angry people as well. 

It’s a delicate subject. Children’s books are incredibly challenging in that you need to say something complicated—in my case, very—without using a lot of words. A solution to not using a lot of words is to use big complicated words, which you also can’t do.

I set out to write a book that was informational, and I had to really pare it back and think about what we were trying to achieve, and where we could start. That was a gut-check moment for me. I feel like we lost a lot of information.

I spent over a year talking to faith experts, heads of churches, heads of mosques, senior people and religious costume traders at museums, and on the phone to people in Nigeria and different parts of Africa and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the States, to get a consensus. It’s very hard to get actual factual information that everyone agrees on, because
it’s not set in stone. It’s a moving thing, and everyone has an interpretation. Within every faith there are different strands.

Did you have any self-doubt along the way? 

I don’t think I thought I wouldn’t do it, but I had low points where I wondered whether we’d completely missed the point. Kate Wilson, who runs Nosy Crow—the largest independent publisher in the UK—mentored me. She said, “You need to get the basic information and see that as a win.” I was like, “I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.”

But by simplifying it, we made a book about a common, shared custom. Everyone of faith wears head coverings for different reasons. You can get very caught up in all those reasons and the minutiae, which would have meant years of my life fact-checking, but it would also take away from the fact that this is something that people do. And we all do it, and we all do it for a reason.

I think it’s easy to isolate Muslims at the moment, and there’s a real thing in Europe about making head and face coverings illegal, in France and other countries. It’s very small-minded and silly. I think the message that it’s something we all have in common more than something that makes us different is what really shone through.

Did you work full-time on the book?

The book happened at night after I put my son to bed.. I wrote the book with a really small publisher who’s a friend of mine, who totally convinced me I could do it. I naively said, “Yeah, totally. There aren’t many words in a children’s book. I can totally do this.”

In the UK, we’ve built a school workshop tour around the book, so we go into schools and run a whole storytelling session about it. We do ‘Rules for Respect’, and we do the difference between a baseball hat and a winter hat and a hat of faith. It’s really in-depth, and those workshops are being really well received. 

What’s your experience with religion?

My mum is a Reform Jew, and I was raised Jewish when I was really young. But I’m not very actively involved. I’m a really bad Jew. I like Jewish food, and I think the holidays are lovely, but I’m not a really religious person. My father’s family is Roman Catholic Italian. My mother’s family is Jewish. 

My publisher wears a hijab, and I think everyone else underestimates what an exposing thing that is to do and what strength it takes. You’re telling people around you a lot about yourself without saying anything. They’re making assumptions about you. The rest of us, well, I am very Jewish, but I could be other things. I’m not making  a statement in the same way. I think it’s a very brave thing to wear your commitment publicly, to be scrutinised.

Anything to add? 

I think it’s super important that we give young people information so they can think critically, make their own decisions, and not be fear-mongered and led astray by the Trumps of the world who are just poisoning the water for everyone.

For more Hats of Faith and to buy the book  https://hatsoffaith.com/