The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

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This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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The Library  Bus by Bahram Rahman illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

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It seems this polarizing 32 page picture book has instagram reviewers torn, perhaps along racial/cultural lines, as to whether the book is wonderful or simply victim to perpetuating the same old tropes and stereotypes.  Maybe being half brown, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself in the middle.  I think if you are tired of feeling like the only strong Muslim female from the subcontinent acknowledged by the West is Malala Yousafzai, and seeing her single narrative and experience being repackaged in a new book every other week, then yes, this book is going to grate on a similar nerve and OWN voice or not, you will write it off as Afghanistan being close enough to Pakistan and the story of a girl and education being unoriginal.  I think the flip side is that if you find a female lead taking education in the form of a library bus to the places where formal education is not available and you love the empowerment that women educating women can have in changing a society, then you are going to probably love a female driving a bus, a female teaching, a girl planning to go to school, a grandfather making sure in a previous generation when women couldn’t be educated, that he taught his daughter, and being thankful that it is a person from the society and not a “white savior” coming to help the people in Afghanistan.  Both as far as I can tell have merit.  I think that you see in the book what your paradigm and perspective is before you even start.  I have read it and re read it and then read it again over the span of many weeks. I was alerted to it by @muslimkidsbooknook who sensed that we might disagree before she even posted her review (haha it’s like she knows me!), so my review is going to try really hard to focus on the text, and what it says, not on the 30 books before it that had a similar message or on my views on publishers only accepting manuscripts with reassuring easily palatable narratives, there is enough of that already about this book out there.  I’m going to try and offer my perspective on what the book contains and while it has problems for me, I definitely liked it more than I disliked it. Oh and one more thing: the illustrations, swoon, are gorgeous, like really, really beautiful. Bismillah…

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Pari and her mother are getting ready to set off in their library on wheels.  It is Pari’s first day as her mother’s helper and she is a little nervous. It is dark when Pari’s mom drives the bus to their first stop- a small village tucked in a valley between two gray mountains.  There are a group of girls waiting for the bus and call it over to return books and pick new ones.  This reminds me of my time in New England and hearing about the Book Mobiles and Mobile Book Fairs that would visit the small seaside towns that didn’t have proper libraries.  Even my mom used to tell me stories about waiting for the Book Mobile to stop on her street in Davis County, Utah to get books once a month.  The concept is universal and that it takes place in Afghanistan and is driven by a woman who is educated and independent, is intentional with the hopes of being inspiring.

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The girls then gather for a lesson, it is hard to know how impromptu it is or if it is a regular organized class.  It is also not made clear if they always practice English or it is something unique to the day, but they sing the alphabet song and count to ten.  After class a girl tries to chat with Pari and see how much she knows.  Pari lies and says she can print, but in reality can’t even read or write in Farsi yet. This shows a gap in the story as earlier Pari said she could barely count all the books in the library, and in the pictures there are a lot of books, but she is trying to keep up as the girls count to ten.  As the mom and daughter team pack up to head to their next location they discuss how Pari’s mama learned.

Pari’s grandpa taught her mom a long time ago, at a time when girls were not allowed to go to school and she had to hide in the basement to learn.  Pari wonders if her mom was afraid of the basement.  It is always dark down there.  It is really one paragraph on one page that mentions that girls could not learn.  It is presented in the past tense, and as the story progresses we learn that next year when Pari is older she will be going to school.

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There is a two page spread about the mom seemingly going off on her mantra that learning makes you free.  And I’m ok with it.  It says when you go to school study hard, period, then the next line says, “Never stop learning. Then you will be free.” Yes! I agree, how many of us pursued a skill or a hobby during this pandemic to feel free from the confines of staying at home.  Learning in any capacity is liberating.  It may not keep you safe in a war, but the freedom of the mind to find peace and pursue passions is critical to mental health and survival.  Am I reading too much in to these basic lines? Absolutely, well probably anyway.

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When the bus gets to a refugee camp with tents everywhere, Pari and her mom start handing out pencils and notebooks before settling in to what seems an organized English lesson of ABC.  I am torn on my thoughts about them stressing English over their own language.  A sense of pride in who they are by learning Farsi or Dari or Pashtu would show readers that Afghan culture is rich and worth learning and valuing.  I worry that by stressing the English, it presents the culture and language erroneously as the opposite.  At the same time, as a child and teen, I went to Pakistan over a dozen times and would beg my (middle class) cousins to teach me Urdu.  I’d make them take me to Urdu Bazaar for dictionaries and text books, and preschool grammar books so that I could learn my father’s language.  And it never happened.  I’d beg in letters before I got there, and they would agree, but when I arrived they all wanted to work on their English.  They wanted to practice it in conversation, they wanted me to read over their assignments, they would introduce me to their coaching center teachers, their principals, the tutors, and I’d find myself teaching them colloquialisms and explaining idioms, and I’d watch my “textbooks” gather dust.  This was before social media, and YouTube and Netflix and I was their link from their studies to the larger world that rewarded knowledge of the English language.  Is it correct or even logical? No.  But it was my experience that they desperately wanted to learn English over Urdu or the required provincial language Sindhi.  Would readers of this book know that? No.  Do critics of them learning English wish that it wasn’t the case more than wishing that the book simply didn’t highlight it? I don’t know.

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As they leave the camp, Pari reads the letters of the refugee organizations off the tents.  I find it off that earlier she called it ACDs instead of ABCs and yet now she knows the alphabet.  Again I’ve read the critiques questioning why the refugee camps are named and have over thought it.  In some ways I think it is a reminder that the country has been at war and that individual organizations are helping care for those displaced by countries that tore the country apart.  The text says that, “there are no schools for the girls in the village or the camps.” If anything I took this to show that while we stereotype Afghan society as not making education of females important, that international relief groups don’t either.  The great saviors aren’t teaching the girls in the camps, a mom and her daughter come once a week.  There is a subtle yet powerful critique of foreign policy there, if you want to really be honest, I think this should be made more clear.  At the end of the day the strong Afghan people are putting their country back together after a never ending illegal conflict has ravaged them further.

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The author says in his note at the end that this book is based on real people he met in refugee camps when he returned to his homeland and that this book is a tribute to the strong Afghan people, particularly the women.  Imagine where any war torn nation would be without the bravery and determination of mothers and teachers, and women who will risk it all for their children and ultimately an entire generation, when politics and power have found other things to value.

The book on its own I think is fine, allbeit written plainly for western readers.  Do I wish stories about life in this part of the world didn’t feature war and refugees and education, absolutely.  We can argue my experience compared to your experience, to the author’s purpose and intent, to the publisher’s vision. That is the beauty of books, we don’t have to agree and we can discuss and we can all be better for it.  There is nothing Islamic in the book other than some of the characters wearing a scarf or chador or hijab.

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Sadiq Wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Niloufer Wadia

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Sadiq Wants to Stitch by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Niloufer Wadia

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This 40 page AR 4.5 book touches on gender norms and breaking cultural expectations, as well as a mother’s love and a child’s determination.  The beautifully illustrated pages show Kashmir’s landscapes and culture.  The message is for third graders and up with its longer passages and understanding of gender roles, but younger children will enjoy the story just as well.  My only concern is the timeline of the story, the mother has a week to make two embroidered rugs and worries when she awakens with a fever on the day the rugs are expected, exclaiming that she hasn’t even started the second rug.  How was she going to meet the deadline even if she wasn’t ill? Even with the extension, she asks for a few days, not a few hours.  That aside, the book is a lovely glimpse into a nomadic culture and people.  There is no glossary at the end explaining namaz or Chacha or Bhai, but there is a bit of information about the Bakarwals of Kashmir at the end that provides context and enhances appreciation.

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Sadiq wakes up to the sounds of the river Lidder, he prays and drinks his cha and heads to the meadow to milk the sheep and take them out to pasture.  His father died two years ago, and now the responsibility of the flock is his. After his chores are done he sits and watches his mother embroider.  He sometimes stitches his own patterns on the edges, but his mother does not like him sewing.

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When an order from the city comes in for two rugs by the end of the week, Sadiq offers to help.  His mother refuses his assistances claiming that the women stitch and the men tend to the sheep in their community. Sadiq dreams of the designs and colors he would like to sew and decides he will do so in secret.

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On the day when the rugs are to be picked up, Sadiq’s mother has a fever and cannot stitch.  When the man comes, Sadiq’s mother starts to explain that they are not ready, but Sadiq surprises them both with his completed rug.  The man likes it, but notes it is not what was ordered. Ammi wants to keep Sadiq’s rug and asks for a few more days to complete the second one, now that she has her son to help her.

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Abdul agrees to a few more days, and the next morning Sadiq’s mom has hung Sadiq’s rug for everyone to see, and is proudly crediting her son’s work.  She hugs him, just like she did in his dream, and chides him that she still expects him to do all his other chores before he sews.

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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As a partially brown person who enjoys camping and does it frequently, I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on this beautiful 40 page, kindergarten to fourth grade picture book. So, trust me, I’ve read it multiple times to myself, to my children, and even to a Muslim storytime group to try and figure out why I like it, but, unfortunately, really don’t love it. Ultimately, I think it is because there is just too much going on.

Everything about this book is wonderful: the idea to encourage brown people to go camping, to highlight that time in the wilderness is for everyone and doesn’t have to look a certain way, that bullying and micro aggressions are oppressive, that immigrants have diverse and full lives in their home countries and work hard when they come to America, that culture and language and food and music is diverse, yet universal, that learning new skills and trying hard things makes you a super hero, that dad’s can cook and mom’s can be great fire starters and critter catchers, truly it is all so powerful and affirming, it is just a lot for one book.

It could easily be a three book series with just the information and layered themes presented, and I really wish it was spread out. If you are a 4th grade desi kid who has been camping or desperately wants to go camping this book is a great glimpse to mirror your place in the hobby without compromising your unique spin on it, but I think for anyone not in that demographic, many of the little celebrations, messages, themes, and cultural nuggets will simply be lost.

I wanted to hear the campfire stories and jokes, and laugh at the lyrics being belted out, not just told about them. I wanted to feel Fatima’s accomplishment at helping set up the tent and maybe see her struggle and rebound, not just be told she suggested reading the directions. The book has a ton of industry praise and personally came with a lot of expectation for me, so perhaps I’m overly critical, but kids in my storytime were struggling to stay focused when they couldn’t relate to the cultural touchstones being tossed out, they didn’t get the “not being good at math stereotype,” they needed the non text pictures to be explained to grasp their impact on the story, and they wanted to know why of all the Islamic things a Muslim family could do while camping, halal bacon was the only Islamic reference and came with precious little contextual defining.

The story starts with a Fatima and aapa waiting to be picked up after a terrible week of school to go camping for the first time. The Khazi family has immigrated from India and their father has told them that camping is an American pastime. During the week Fatima has been teased for her pronunciation and lunch, had her hair pulled and done poorly on a math test. But when her parent’s pull up with a packed car and the girls jump in to enjoy samosa and Bollywood songs, the weekend holds promise.

When they get to the campsite, Fatima and her dad tackle the setting up of the tent. Dad cannot seem to figure it out, and after the week she has had, Fatima is scared to help, but after a while she suggests looking at the directions and it seems that does the trick. The family enjoys shami kabab and rotis from home for dinner, before the girls climb in the tent.

A spider on the outside of the tent is magnified inside, and has the girls terrified it is a monster. Mom, the ever brave lizard and scorpion disposer in India reassures them that it is nothing and sends them off to brush their teeth before settling in for the night.

The next morning mom shows the girl the small spider keeping the mosquitos out and they all share a laugh while dad is cooking anda and roti on a gas grill. He calls the girls to come out in urdu to attempt a campfire to cook the halal beef bacon on like other American’s do. Dad and Fatima can’t get it to light, so mom, who is from a smaller town in India has to show them how it is done. Along the way Fatima looks at the other campers and is annoyed that they aren’t having trouble and that her family always is so different. The other families it is worth noting are white.

The Khazi family then starts to pack up and then they go for a hike, play in water and when the time to leave comes Fatima is sad. She doesn’t want to go back to the life they live where they are different and teased and her parents have to work two jobs each. But aapa suggests she share her fun at show and tell, and the family reassures her that they will be back.

The book ends with Fatima telling her class she is a superhero because she can build fires and tents and isn’t afraid of spider monsters. There is no glossary to define the urdu words used and spoken, but there is a reference at the end about the author’s @brownpeoplecamping initiative.

I think the book is rather remarkable and ground breaking because of its subject matter. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book a great reminder that camping and being outdoors is for all. I just wish it focused on a theme or two and highlighted them for this Indian American Muslim Family with relate-ability for other types of minority groups. The book set its own standard in what it wanted to achieve and convey, and sadly I think it missed the mark.

This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

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This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi

 

img_8116I wanted to give the author another chance to win me over after really disliking her first book’s writing style and characters and while this book is an easier read, I was shocked when the Empire Records inspired story really crossed over to me to being almost plagiarism.  I was a huge fan of Empire Records as a teen in the 90s, and can quote the movie, recall with little effort when Rex Manning Day is (it was yesterday), and know what is going to  happen at 1:37 exactly, so I was really excited to see what this Muslim author did with her spin of turning a music store in to an idie bookstore and focusing the story on three high school females. I wasn’t expecting the spin to be so minor though, and to still find an AJ and a Warren in the character list, a girl shaving her head, an employee dance party on the roof, a scummy celebrity, a celebrity assistant hinted at romance, a character deciding that today is the day to tell her crush how she feels, you get the point, it is remarkably similar.  If you haven’t seen the PG 13 movie, the book isn’t terrible, but it is very scattered with three voices, a lot of side characters- often random, and unresolved story threads, the book takes place in one day after all, I don’t know that it is really worth the time to read it.  There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, a kiss, alcohol, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language and one character has Arab parents and mentions Middle Eastern poets as well as likens the book store connecting people to the concept of an Ummah in Islam.  I can’t think of a demographic that I’d really recommend the book to, nor do I think that I’d ever read it again, the author’s writing style for me improved slightly but the characters are forgettable and the story un original. In terms of appropriateness probably high school readers, 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Eli is closing up Wild Nights Bookstore and Emporium and accidentally opens the manager’s computer and accidentally logs in to her accounts and accidentally learns from her emails that the book store is closing in less than two weeks.  He then sees that the bank account is still logged in and finds a petty-cash account that has $9,000 and decides that he for once in his life is going to try and help out the store and invest in something to grow the money and hopefully delay the closing.  Unfortunately he buys nine grand worth of Air Jordan knock-off shoes, and is unable to return them.  The next day when the entire staff rolls in to work, bits of the story come out, some know the store is closing, others are sensing something is amiss when boxes are being unloaded that don’t contain books, and to top it all off a famous author is doing a book signing later in the day.  

Each of the characters has something going on as well on this particular day, Rinn is going to tell AJ she loves him and use her influencer status to try and rally support for Wild Night,  Daniella is going to lift the veil on her secret poetry writing and share it, and Imogen is going to break up with her girlfriend of nine months and shave her head.  None of the girls like each other, and go out of their way to be down right nasty to one another, but eventually they come around, they support one another in the face of them losing their beloved store, and helping each other when one is sexually assaulted by the famous author.  Along the way the reader meets the quirky characters that come to the bookstore regularly, some that never leave, a manager who never seems to be there, and an owner with weird rules about technology in the store.  

The climax is the girls stepping in to their own and becoming vulnerable to who they are to one another, the world, and ultimately themselves.  The book store isn’t saved in it’s entirety, but it isn’t lost either and the direction forward looks infinitely more unified than the crazy day the they all just had.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the wave of nostalgia that hit me as I recalled the regular watching and quoting of Empire Records from my younger days, but that really was about all the book gave me.  I wanted to love the girls coming together to save the day, but they were really crass and rough and while I’m glad they did get to a place of tolerance, the transition wasn’t cathartic because their original irritations with one another didn’t seem justified.  The lack of character connection made it hard to cheer for them when they broke free from what they perceived was holding them back as well.  For example, I wanted to be giddy with nerves when Daniella stepped on that stage, but the emotion just wasn’t there.  There was a lot of telling, not showing, and with three perspectives, it was just stretched too thin.

I kind of like that Islam and the concept of Ummah was referenced at the end, but really only someone like me looking for it and piecing together the poets she mentioned, her one parent being from Lebanon and the other coming to America after the six day war would even take that conversation as being in sync with the character.  She might not be Muslim, she is a lesbian has/had a girlfriend, and it is a non issue.  Religion is otherwise not mentioned in relation to her or any other character.  A French Tunisian customer calls her habibti and says ‘Handulullah.”  I probably am reading to much in to it, old habits die hard and even after writing over 500 reviews, I still get so excited to see someone in literature possibly identifying as Muslim.

One thing that really stood out to me as a hole in the story was that it never said what Danny’s plan was,  just kept hearing that it was a terrible, awful plan.  That bothered me. The pacing is also off, to have all this happen in one day you would think it was all happening so quick, but then there are really long winded tangents about cell phone cases and grape soda.  At times it is such a time crunch and at other times everyone is chilling on the roof or in the alleyway it is no surprise there is not enough business.

FLAGS:

Copied from above: There is straight and LGBTQ+ romance and break ups mentioned, kissing, alcohol consumption, a massive hangover, vape pens, marijuana, sexual assault, some violence (slapping), a theft, language. Nothing is really sensationalized though, the 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Not even tempted to use this as a book club, or recommend others to do so.  There is no real literary or representation value, in my opinion.

 

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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This nonfiction book has given me pause.  The information, the approach, the presentation, the importance, is all really well done, I just can’t really grasp how to use the book.  It is broken up in to four sections:  Islamophobia 101, The Believer, The Intolerant, and The Bystander. In each sections it has scenarios, comic strips, quizzes, infographics, advice columns and so much more spread out over 32 pages.  After it explains what Islamophobia is, it offers believers (Muslims) ways to see if what they are facing is classified as Islamophobia.  It has quizzes and questions and advice for people that are intolerant, and then if you are just around Muslims and intolerant folk what you can and should be aware of and do.  I think in a classroom all sections could be gone over, but I’m not sure in which grade and in what context.  In an Islamic youth group I think it could be really thought provoking to look at different sides and encourage the members to share their personal experiences, but I don’t know.  If you are a bully, would some quizzes and graphics be enough for you to recognize your own bias, could it make you change your attitude? I’d love to hear from others that have read this book, I checked mine out from the library.  It says it is for ages nine and up and other books in the series cover topics such as: consent, homophobia, transphobia, anxiey, racism, and freedom of expression.

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The first section: Islamophobia 101 starts off with a scenario of a girls first day of school after the summer and her first day wearing hijab.  No one really says anything, but there are whispers, her best friend asks if everything is ok at home.  It defines Islamophobia as “a kind of intolerance, or a refusal to accept and respect ideas and views that are different from your own.  It is the belief that Muslims, or people who follow the religion of Islam, are a group to be fearful of.”  It goes on to explain in examples what Islamophobia is while giving facts about Islam and things to think about. There are graphic comic type scenarios showing what Islamophobia can look like based on ignorance, stereotypes, then assumptions, and finally fear.  The section then offers a 10 question quiz, followed by questions and answers to a fictitious counselor in an advice column format. Finally there are myths and a Did You Know Section.

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The next section: The Believer, starts with a scenario of a Muslim holding their breath while watching the news.  Of being proud of your family and faith, but being tired of convincing people you are a Muslim and a good person.  An advice column about handling halal food, terrorism, hijab and sports is next followed by tips to not feel alone and an infographic on dos and don’ts to not be overwhelmed by your experiences.

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The third section is The Intolerant which asks if other people’s religions bother you, or if you question why religion has to be part of daily life and not kept personal.  There is a a 30 question true and false quiz, then a challenge to be part of the problem or part of the solution, with information on what you can do.  There is a sidebar about the role of social media as well as some highlights of current Muslim sports figures.

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The Bystander section asks if you’ve seen someone bullied or harassed for being Muslim, if it bothers you to hear people talk about immigrants and refugees as a threat, and what you can do to speak up. There are dos and don’ts a 10 question quiz, some more Islam facts and some direction to get more information.

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Overall the book is well done, and I had my kids look through it to see a way to facilitate anything they experience and how to articulate how they are treated and might treat others.  

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In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

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In My Mosque by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Hatem Aly

I know I am a little late to the review party of this highly anticipated beautiful book, but for good cause: I wanted to test it out in a virtual storytime for preschool to third graders before I chimed in with my opinion of this 40 page picture book ideally for four to eight year olds, but wonderful for all ages. The hardback binding, the glossy pages, the AMAZING illustrations and the factual information at the end, make this one of my favorite books ever for Muslim and non Muslim readers alike. If you can, gift this book to your child, your child’s teacher, their friends, your friends, and ask your library to shelf it. It is unapologetically Muslim, and has the power to mirror our own love of our masajids as well as encourage others to stop in and visit if they are curious about what a mosque is like. After reading it aloud, my only critiques are the very thing pages that make it hard to turn when reading to a group, and the small font which is appreciated so that the illustrations can be enjoyed, but hard to read when the gloss causes a glare and the thin pages bow. The only words in the text that gave me pause is when the “imam tells us stories…” to explain the khutba and speech, and when it says after salat “I whisper heartfelt wishes.” I understand the intent, but feel like the word “stories,” isn’t the correct word for ayats and hadith, nor is “wishes” the right framing of duaa or longings. I also wanted there to be a page number in the references section referring back to the pages in the book that link the inspired illustration of mosques to the real ones detailed at the end. Undoubtedly minor stuff for a book that came with a lot of expectation and yet still managed to blow me away, alhumdulillah.

The book shows diversity of tones, body shapes, and mobility as it welcomes and invites you in to a mosque. The shoes are lined up like beads as you enter and you let your toes sink in to the carpet. We wear our best clothes and get hugs from aunties because we are loved. Grandfathers do thikr on tasbihs and its ok to snuggle up with your dad while he is praying. Grandmas are reading Quran and little kids help put out prayer rugs. The imam gives speeches about unity and that we are all from the same creator. The muezzin calls us all to prayer and we stand in lines linked together with friends like a long chain. Hijabs flow and sometimes we get distracted. We say greetings to the angels on our shoulders and whisper our wishes. We learn to help others, we play in the courtyard and gaze up at the domes. We feel safe and joyful like our friends of other faiths in their places of worship and all are welcome in the mosque.

The book does not shy away from Islamic words in Arabic, nor from faith references such as the “most High,” and “subhanAllah.” The glossary at the end covers their meaning and the text flows in a way that you can stop or review afterward with relative ease. The imagery in the text of the shoes like beads, and standing in salat like a chain, are warm and relatable, and the illustrations, they are magical. The expressions on the children’s faces as they try and pray and stay still, but alas are children and they are silly and sweet and not chided, but loved, is so refreshing in both the text and pictures. The different masajids that are referenced, and the detail make repeated visits to the book heartwarming and joyous.

I love the lists and details about mosques around the world at the end, and the successful portrayal of genuine love and connection Muslims feel to the mosque as a place of coming together, or worship, or friendship, of play, of charity, of community, and of openness.

Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!

Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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This 40 page nonfiction biography is beautifully illustrated and informative.  I had never heard of Maryam Mirzakhani the Iranian born, first female winner of the Fields Medal.  Her life from loving stories and not liking math, to becoming a student and later a professor in the United States is remarkable and inspiring.  Second through fourth grade readers that both love and struggle with math will be drawn in to her unique way of looking at the world, and the math she found to serve as her magic wand in explaining it.  I don’t know if she identified as Muslim, while in Iran she was forced to cover, but when she left, she no longer did.  The illustrator is Muslim and religion aside, I am thrilled that a book like this exists, and that such a brilliant woman and her accomplishments can be presented to young readers.

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Maryam loves stories.  She reads them to her sister, her best friend Roya and her browse bookstores and dream themselves into plots of their favorite stories.  On the weekends she spreads long rolls of paper on the floor to draw and color her imaginary worlds.  She wanted to be an author when she grew up and knew how lucky her generation was to attend school after the war that tore her country apart.

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Math made her head spin, she would rather be doodling, but when she was 12 her teacher introduced her class to geometry.  It was different, the numbers held stories and the shapes were pictures. She made stories about the problems and wondered about them as if they were characters.

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In high school, Maryam and Roya entered the International Mathematical Olympiad.  The first year they received participation medals, but the next year, Maryam won the grand prize with a perfect score. She finished her schooling in Iran devoting her life to the stories that numbers told and left Iran to start graduate school at Harvard in the United States.

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When she had a hard time solving problems she would spread large rolls of paper on the floor and solve them.  Her daughter would tell people she was a painter.  She wanted to stretch the mind and how people went about solving equations.  She became a professor and a lecturer and one of her discoveries became known as “the magic wand theorem.”

In 2017 she passed away from breast cancer and the world lost a remarkable storyteller, mathematician and human.  The book concludes with an author’s note, important dates, and books to reference to learn more about Maryam Mirzakhani.

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