I really, really wanted to love this book, I saw it in last month’s Scholastic catalog and without even reading it I ordered a copy for me and two classroom six packs (total of 13 books). I was so excited, a 3.6 AR reading level, 226 pages, a sweet hijabi girl on the cover, a Muslim author, good reviews online, I was waiting to be swept away. Nuts, perhaps it was over anticipation or perhaps the book just fell short. Either way we will not be using this in our current book club, nor will I kick off a 3rd grade book club with this book, sorry parents. As I type this my printer is spewing out the return label to send the classroom copies back.
Aliya is a fifth grader dealing with typical pre-teen issues of friends, family, and school. The book starts with her at religious Sunday school surrounded by diverse friends. Some friends are contemplating wearing hijab full-time, some preoccupied with their new boyfriends, some excited about fasting in Ramadan and others dismissing it completely. On the way to Sunday school, Aliya’s mom is taunted by stereotypes from an angry motorist that has Aliya rattled and confused. Immediately the author establishes that Aliya is unsure how to fit in because she is unsure where she stands on many of these issues. Her home life involves multiple generations of Pakistani immigrants, and US born characters in one home, her great grandmother, grandmother, parents and her brother. Later a great Aunt comes to visit as well. At school Aliya has a best friend, Winnie, who is by far the best character in the book, a bully she has to deal with, a girl that Aliya is intimidated by, a boy she has a crush on, and a new student, Marwa. Marwa is Muslim from Moroccan heritage, wears hijab, and while religiously is the same as Aliya, culturally is worlds apart. Marwa also is confident, strong, and devout; characteristics that Aliya slowly comes to admire and draw strength from as she defines who she is and wants to be in some aspects of her life.
Although there seems to be a lot of characters, there is no problem keeping them straight, the writing is very simplistic and at times weak, but clarity is never a concern. The first 15 pages of the book bring up stereotyping, discrimination, bra sizes, boyfriends, hijab, menses, and fasting. All told from a very naive, innocent character’s voice which makes for an awkward start in my opinion. As the book progresses she begins writing letters to Allah (swt), which, while I don’t imagine is wrong, seems odd, but that is probably my own background projecting. My concerns with the book are that for as open as Aliya is with all the mulit-generations living in her home, there is no moral compass. No one guiding her to be a better Muslim, to help her develop her internal conscious of what is right or wrong. They all read her letters and no one discusses her infatuation with a boy? Seems a bit odd to me. She tries to fast, against her families protest then breaks her fast with pepperoni pizza (she took it off) isn’t that a learning moment? I’m not saying the book should have become preachy, but the lack of basic parent-child interactions make it seem that everything she does is basic common sense, and I cannot with a good conscience encourage my little 3rd and 4th graders to read the book. They will think I’m supporting Aliya’s actions and frame of mind. Had the author opened the door to discussion or even had Aliya’s conscious question her actions, as a teacher/librarian the students and I could discuss the issue, but there is no pause, the story just states it and moves on. Same goes for the fact that her father doesn’t fast regularly because he has important business decisions to make. A concept so contrary to what we teach our kids, we teach them to fast when they have a big decision to make. Once again had the author taken just a few sentences to explain that the dad travels for work and that travelers are not required to fast, readers would get a more accurate view of what Islam teaches, not that fasting in Ramadan is optional.
The one character that is presented as religious is described as being OCD, belligerent, rude, uneducated and a nuisance. The character eats only halal, religiously raised and slaughtered meat, and the family essentially refuses to accommodate her, lies about what they feed her, and bully her. Seemed to me the same treatment they are whining about receiving from society as a whole, they were projecting onto their great aunt within their home. Finally the tipping point was when this same great aunt started praying/asking Bibi Sayeda for help, a saintly person who helps people find lost things…what? Islam is pretty clear we pray to Allah swt and only Allah.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that the book shows diversity within the religion, it isn’t preachy, and it shows the balance that non-Muslim kids often have to balance. I think if my daughter picked this book up at the public library and we read it together we might be able to talk our way through it. I think students in public school who have to face more of Aliya’s struggles or students that have non-Muslim family members will see themselves at some point in the book and find comfort in it. But again, because of the reading level, I can’t justify handing it to a Islamic school student to read without numerous warnings and disclaimers.
I like that the characters do discuss their different view points on hijab, and that Aliya forms her own opinion on it. And while it takes awhile to make the point and does involve Aliya yelling and insulting the bullies, she does find a way to handle them by being kind, which for this age level is a nice, albeit optimistic, message.
Questionable basic Islamic facts, minor characters with boyfriends discussing kissing.