Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.

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The Magic Horse by Idries Shah illustrated by Julie Freeman

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I didn’t get it.  I read it to my kids they did’t get it. I know it is written on an AR 5.8, but even with that, we didn’t get it.  I had to google it to see what the deeper meaning of the story was and all I found is that it is a teaching tale of two princes and how one found his heart’s desire in a fish and the other in a horse.  Which, I did get, but didn’t really get more than that.  The details in the story seem to wander and meander around to no point and not in an entertaining way. I never felt a connection to the characters, so their side stories didn’t appeal to me.  It is possible that I would have viewed it more favorably as a short story rather than as a really long picture book, but its hard to say.  I guess I feel like if forced, I could write an essay explaining all the small lessons, and moral guidance, but as a children’s book, I don’t want to dig so deep or spend hours at bed time trying to convince my children that the story made sense.  Ideally the book should have been shorter and more streamlined, or longer and fleshed out.

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It starts out with an enlightened king encouraging his subjects to make new discoveries to promote quality of life, wealth and knowledge. He has two sons, one is an expert in strange devises and one is a dreamer.  The king puts out a call to have something new made, and an ironsmith makes a fish out of metal than can fly and swim and carry things.  A woodworker makes a magic horse that interprets the desire of the rider and carries the rider toward it.  The king suddenly becomes cruel and finding this a waste of time has the woodworker tied up.

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The dreaming Prince Tambal rides the horse on many adventures, which kind of disjoints the story and makes it like a fairy tale about Tambal falling in love and trying to persuade a king to let him marry his daughter, and in turn having to trick the intended suitor instead. Along the way there are poisonous fruits, turning into a beast, and eventually returning home to prove that, “Those who want fish can achieve much through fish, and those who do not know their heart’s desire may first have to hear the story of the wooden horse.” Huh? Exactly.

The One: A Children’s Storybook about Allah by Manaal Jafrey-Razaque illustrated by Tanya Emelyanova

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The One: A Children’s Storybook about Allah by Manaal Jafrey-Razaque illustrated by Tanya Emelyanova

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This book is beautifully done, with its hard back binding and happy little illustrations.  Everything has a happy face drawn on.  The topic is Allah, and one can predict what the content is, there is nothing surprising in the rhyming pages that stress how Allah created everything and Allah is the one, singular.

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What I found nice, and in many ways expanded the audience from just being for small toddlers, but to elementary age Muslim children as well, is the reassuring tone in the second half of the book that Allah is always there for you, no matter what.

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The names of Allah in English are used and highlighted in a different colored text with a list of the Arabic and English meaning in the back.

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The book is 32 pages and meanders around in a light lilting manner.  Its simple illustrations and warmth make it fun at both story time and bedtime, and offer plenty of places to organically pause and get your child’s feedback, thoughts, and understanding.

The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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The Boy Without A Name by Idries Shah illustrated by Mona Caron

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It is hard to know what a child would get out of this 32 page 3.2 AR level, but even if they just get lost in the pictures, and swept away by the idea of a boy searching for his name and a dream, I suppose there is value.  Some, ok most of Idries Shah’s, Sufi teaching stories are beyond my comprehension, but they are lyrical and often silly just the same. He has written over 30 and the libraries have quite a few, and people online seem to love so many of them, so perhaps I’m just not clever enough or philosophical enough to grasp them.  Which is neither here nor there, but maybe don’t buy one until you read one and see what you get out of them.  I keep checking them out and hoping I too will fall in love with one, I’ll keep you posted.

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Before they can name their son an old man comes and tells the parents to not name him and to wait.  The boy grows up searching for a name, hoping someone has one he can have.  At one point he is made aware that he has nothing, even to trade for a name.  He responds that he has an old dream he no longer wants.  He and his friend Anwar then go to the wise man and he receives his name and a new dream.

The synopsis claims that patience and determination is learned, but I couldn’t get over the fact that the parents just didn’t name their child, and I never felt like I learned why he was such an important boy.

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The pictures are wonderful with the scenic village’s tall minarets and colorful hijab clad women in the market place.  I particularly like the magic spilling out of the boxes in the old man’s house when the boys are finding names and dreams.  There is nothing overtly Islamic in the text, I’m not aware of how strong the Sufi origin is, not being Sufi, or having studied it.  But the illustrations definitely place the book in an Islamic cultural environment and the names reinforce this.

 

I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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I Will Not Clean My Room by Saharish Arshad illustrated by Elsa Estrada

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What a great premise for a children’s book, a little boy, Musa,  does not want to clean his room, and imagines all the better things he will get to do in Jannah (heaven) instead. Luckily for his room, his sister comes to help him tidy it up, as well as his mom and dad.  FullSizeRender (25)

The rhyme scheme and the kids’ imaginations at how wonderful Jannah will be, go hand in hand and make the book silly and fun.  The cartoonish illustrations also help sneak in messages of listening to your parents, cleaning your room, being kind to your siblings, helping each other, and ultimately doing things even if they are hard or boring to please Allah swt.  

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The book is a 28 page, 8×8, paperback.  The price is a little steep, $12, for its structure, in my opinion and is meant for Muslim readers.  The only real issue I had is when the mom threatens to flounce Musa. “Stop jumping and bouncing, or you’ll get a flouncing,”  seems excessive to me, and not consistent with how loving the family is throughout the rest of the book. It was probably included to maintain the rhyme scheme, but I took it to be a threat of violence, which I’m not ok with.

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The pictures show the mom in hijab, the word Jannah instead of heaven is used, the characters’ names are Islamic and Allah is mentioned throughout.  Musa’s thoughts on the last page are particularly sweet (see picture below).  I plan to read this to a group of kids at story time and will just omit the flouncing line, as it does well in appealing to ages 4 and up.  Three year olds may not understand it, but because of the rhyming, I think they will be equally entertained.

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Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

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Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

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I feel like I preordered this book years ago, I have been so anxious to see what all the hype was about. When it arrived I tore open the box and read it on the short walk from the mailbox to the house, read it again standing in the kitchen, left it for a few days, and reread it now to write the review. SubhanAllah, it didn’t disappoint.

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It reads, as intended, as a powerful letter to a child.  There aren’t long winded morals or overly fancy words. It is direct in its many ways of telling you, that you matter, where you come from matters, that your foundation matters. That you are strong, and beautiful, always, even when the world may not think so. That you are Muslim, that you are from Allah, that you speak in Arabic and Spanish and dreams.  The verses become poetry that dance on the page with the illustrations telling the story as powerfully as the words.  The words in turn float and lilt around images as old as time and as innocent as dancing in the wind.

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The 32 pages fly by that you can’t help but read it again, slowly, savoring all the harnessed power and hope of a multi culture world, a multi cultural faith, that is truly beautiful.  Recognizing the humanity that we all share, yet feeling pride in your own unique skin is a balancing act that doesn’t need to be apologized for, and should be celebrated.

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I love that this book exists.  That it is available on Amazon.  That it is bold and colorful and hardbound, and so well done.  There is diversity in Islam.  There is diversity of belief in Indigenous populations, that there is so much inspiration in the world around us and in our past.  Are all messages that come through even for the youngest readers.

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The Farmer’s Wife by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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The Farmer’s Wife by Idries Shah illustrated by Rose Mary Santiago

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The book reads very much like the western children’s story/song, “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly,” but in this Sufi inspired repetitive story, An old Farmer’s wife can’t get an apple out of a hole.  

The silliness starts right away when she wants to get a bird to fly down the hole to get it for her.  When the bird says, “tweet,” which means no, she deems him naughty and then moves on to asking a cat to jump on the bird, to get the bird to get the apple.  The funny thing is the chain of events is funny and illogical at points. She wants water in a puddle, to put out a fire to burn a rope, the rope to tie up a bee keeper, and so on.  Luckily the wind finally blows the apple out of the hole and they all live happily ever after.

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The book supposedly is to teach patience, I am hoping to use it when I do a lesson on thinking outside the box and how sometimes that is great, but the trick is knowing when it might also be easier to reach down and pick up the apple.  

The book is AR 3.4 and 32 pages.  Many versions are dual languages.  The pictures are great with the abiya wearing woman and the chunky cartoonish side characters making the silly story fun to read a loud.  There is nothing “islamic” other than the illustrations showing the woman in hijab, and the author being a well known sufi writer who uses lessons from the Sufi tradition to teach lessons to children.

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