Category Archives: High School

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s most Infamous Prison by Sarah Mirk, introduction by Omar Al Akkad, illustrated by Gerardo Alba, Kasia Babis, Alex Beguez, Tracy Chahwan, Nomi Kane, Omar Khouri, Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Hazel Newlewant, Jeremy Nguyen, Chelsea Saunders, and Abu Zubaydah

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This 208 page graphic novel, is indeed graphic.  The unbelievable horrors detailed in the stories shared are all sourced and referenced in the nonfiction anthology. The intent isn’t shock and awe like the war that created such abysmal breaches of justice to be done in our name (Americans’), but is definitely a painful reminder of how fear and mismanagement allows the US treatment of individuals to grow and continue outside of the rule of law, and all that the US claims to represent.  The careful use of words such as “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” “enemy combatants” instead of “terrorists” or “criminals,” have allowed Muslim men to be held since 2002 without charges, legal representation, habeas corpus, or basic human rights.  When the prison was being filled, you’d hear about it in the news, when the government released heavily redacted reports on torture, you’d catch a headline or two, but there are still people being held, and for the most part, we, the world, have perhaps forgotten.  This book is a reminder, it is insight, it is so important that high school and college aged children are aware of what we are capable of, that adults are not allowed to forget what we are doing.  As it says in the intro, “To indict the people who did this is to indict the country that allowed it to happen.” We are all guilty, and this book is not an easy to read as it will make you angry, and devastated, and exasperated.  Don’t let the graphic novel format and simple text fool you, this is a difficult read, emotionally, and you should force yourself to sit with it- sit with the outrage and frustration, and see if it can spur you to action.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book is broken up to provide an introduction, map, facts, and a timeline, it then starts with the author arriving for a media tour to Cuba.  Some background stories about key individuals in understanding the effects of torture and better and more accurate ways to interrogate, and then the fateful day September, 11, that changed everything.  From here the stories are individual accounts of prisoners, lawyers, politicians, etc., each depicted by a different illustrator, to show a very rounded view of the effects of the prison, and thoughts by different people in a  variety of associations. 

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Some of the prisoners were swept up by neighbors responding to leaflets promising wealth for turning people in.  Some were taken from their homes for no reason, a few were taken from the battle field, but every single one has never had charges against them, nor a day in court, the few that have been able to be represented have been released without being accused of anything, hence, found to be innocent.  The doubling down on the concept of Guantanamo being the worst of the worst, administration after administration has made it so prisoners have to be released to countries they have never been to, with unknown rights or a way forward.  Those that are still detained have been there for nearly 20 years. 

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WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE BOOK:

I like that the book is personal, it is harder to dismiss or forget, or be unaffected when you are looking at images and surrounding yourself with guards and lawyers that are saying over and over, that these prisoners are innocent.  I like that it challenges Americans to demand more of America, it isn’t just putting the USA down nor does it read like the narrative has it out for the USA, it is very much an personal calling out, that we have made errors and continue to make errors out of arrogance.    

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FLAGS:

The images and language are at times graphic and one should be aware of the potential triggers of torture, and abuse. There are curse words spoken, and violence detailed.  High school and up.

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

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.

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

Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

misfit

I reread my review of Saints and Misfits before diving in to this sequel that can also work as a stand alone, and imagine my absolute delight when all the things I wanted more of: Muhammed and Sarah, the mom, Jeremy, etc., were explored in this wonderful high school and up, 320 page, romantic comedy story.  The romance stays halal and the comedy light, but seamlessly interwoven into a weekend wedding are very serious notions of racism and prejudice within the Muslim community.  The writing is flawless as I tried to tell the summary to my daughter I realized just how many characters there are in the book, yet while reading, I never once was confused about who someone was or how they fit in to the family, it really is quite remarkable how real and personal the characters all become.  In many ways the story is uniquely an American-Muslim (arguably) one with characters that are half this culture, a quarter that, wearing cultural clothes to coordinate with friends, mutli lingual, multi ethnic, and yet all coming together as friends and family.  We, nor are the characters perfect, but that our weakness is explored in fiction so that we all might benefit in reality, is truly remarkable.  I honestly couldn’t put it down, and my teen and tween children may or may not have had to figure out their own meals, as I hid in the corner to devour this book in a single day. I regret nothing.

SYNOPSIS:

Janna Yusuf has just graduated high school and has been spending the last few weeks at her father’s sprawling house on a lake to help with wedding preparations for her beloved older brother.  What started out with plans to be a small nikkah between Muhammad and Sara, has quickly snowballed into a “wedding” with a few hundred guests and an ever evolving color scheme.  With extended family and friends pouring in over the three days, Janna is anxious to see Nuah and finally tell him that she is ready to return his feelings, reunite with her mom after being apart for weeks, and see who her best friend Tats is bringing as her plus one.  But, Nuah is acting weird, her mom seems to be considering remarrying, and her father is revealing himself to be racist.  There is a lot going on, and in between wedding preparations, possible crushes, family drama, prejudice overtones, and a curious ice cream man, Janna is having an unforgettable weekend.

Janna and Muhammad are close, they are the children of an Indian American non practicing father and an Egyptian American religious mother.  Their parents have been divorced for a while, and their dad and his Greek wife Linda have two little boys and are hosting everyone and the wedding.  The heart of the story is Janna as she thinks she is ready to pursue something halal with Nuah, but is slightly intrigued by Sara’s cousin Haytham and very perplexed by her mother’s potential future new husband’s nephew Layth. Being it is a wedding, and many people are staying at her father’s house and many more at the hotel in town with their own families.  Jana is trying to figure stuff out about Nuah while hanging out with Nuah’s older pregnant sister.  She is constantly thrown together with Layth as she meets his Uncle Bilal, her mom’s college friend that has proposed to her, and who’s own daughters are friends of Sarahs.  Yeah, there is a lot of overlap, a lot.  It’s like real life. As attractions wax and wane in such a short time, it is the relationship Janna has with her own family and the contentment she must find within herself that ultimately matter most.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic the story and its characters are.  I come from a small family, but a very close friend has a huge family, and this just reminded me of going to her family events and finding how interconnected and small the world really is.  I absolutely love Janna, she is Muslim by choice through-and-through and is genuine in her understanding and actions that, while the book is meant for Muslims and nonMuslims, she really sets the standard of how fictitious characters can positively affect their readers.  The only slightly forced thread for me was Janna suddenly loving animals and being ready to head to Peru.  I get that she was crushing, but it seemed a little too over the top for an otherwise very plausible plot.

The best part of the book, in my opinion is that it isn’t all fluff and fun, there are some very real issues that get spotlighted.  Like in Saints and Misfits where Janna is sexually assaulted by a seemingly devout, religious, well liked male, this story addresses racism and prejudice within the Islamic community.  Janna’s dad always felt treated as less than by Janna’s mom’s family for not being Arab.  He flat out warns Janna about her feelings for Nuah because he is Black.  Sarah’s Aunt is offended that the mendhi is more Desi than Arab.  The issues aren’t just pointed out, they require active acknowledgement and action.  The author’s note at the end, even discusses the significance and weight of such views at the end.

FLAGS:

There are mentions of the sexual assault that happened to Janna in the first book.  There is mention of periods, a possible affair, racism, and a character who drove while drunk and killed his son as a result.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this book would be a great fit for a school book club, but I think a group of high school or college aged girls would thoroughly enjoy reading this and discussing it, and I would totally invite myself to their gathering to do so.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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hana khanTechnically this book is adult fiction because the protagonist is 24 years old, but the halal rom-com is so sweet and considering the YA options that exist in the same genre, I think high school juniors and senior would do better to dive in to this light, enjoyable, albeit predictable, read over so many of the other options out there.  I read the 368 page book in two days, I was hooked and impressed with the strength of all the female characters, the step away from all the stereotypical tropes and the smooth writing style.  The book is for everyone and while packaged as a light read, there are some themes of immigration, family, choice, and OWN voice realizations that are presented and explored in a thoughtful and impactful manner.

SYNOPSIS:

Hana Khan’s mother owns and operates Three Sisters Biriyani Poutine in Toronto, there are not three sisters, biriyani poutine is not on the menu and business is bad, really bad.  The 15 year old restaurant that Hana named when she was nine is struggling even though it is the only halal option in the close-knit, diverse, golden crescent community.  When news hits that a new upscale halal restaurant is opening a few doors down, Hana chooses to ignore that the business was struggling and instead blames the new proprietors.  They are wealthy, corporate and insufferable.  Well, the dad is anyway, the son Aydin, he isn’t so easily defined.

Hana balances shifts at the restaurant, her internship at Radio Toronto and her own anonymous brown girl podcast.  Hana, real name Hanaan, comes from a supportive and close family.  Her dad was injured in a serious car accident, her older sister is pregnant, and her cousin from India along with a cousin-aunt have just arrived under suspicious circumstances.

As the new restaurant gets closer to opening, Hana finds herself stooping to all new lows to sabotage their success.  Encouraged by an anonymous podcast listener who she has been chatting with for quite a while, and inspired by her rebel cousin-aunt, Hana is determined to secure a permanent job in radio, save her family restaurant, and destroy the competition.  But, an attack downtown draws attention to growing Islamophobia and forces Aydin and Hana to work together.

In a fictional story where everyone knows everyone both in India and Toronto, crazy family members are endearing and loyal, it is no surprise that the main characters are more connected than they think.  As Hana finds her strength to carry on amidst change, she also figures out what direction to focus her energy, her talents, and voice.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the writing.  I was invested in many of the characters, not just the protagonist, and absolutely cheered as she gave a nod to so many assumptions so that she could move past them: forced marriage, hijab, acceptable professions, inclusion, etc.. The family is all about choice and not getting hung up on stereotypes show the power that OWN voices have in telling stories that resonate with everyone.  The book is full of religion, from waking up for fajr, to listening to the khutbah at jumah, going to the masjid to find peace, and believing in destiny.  It is not a preachy book by any means, but the characters are Muslim inside and out.  The traditional family does not pressure Hana to get married, her sister’s marriage was a love one.  She is often alone with her male cousin or brother in law, or best friend Yusuf.  She knows who she is and her family trusts her.

I love the food, the insight of immigrants and family.  I was particularly moved by her articulation of being told by outsiders what it means to be Muslim in Canada, or an immigrant and then not being listened to when pushed back upon. Her challenging a teacher on what the fourth pillar of Islam is and not being heard, resonated profoundly.

Within the first 100 pages or so the reader figures out who everyone is and how they are connected, save one surprise, but it is like watching a favorite movie, you keep going because it is fun, and enjoyable and the point isn’t to figure it out, but to enjoy the ride.

FLAGS:

There are relationship threads, but nothing more detailed than a hand touch after a funeral.  Her best friend Yusuf marries their best friend Lily an Agnostic, knowing that both families are against it.  There is music and racist talk and vandalism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The high school book club usually tries to include a halal romance novel for the loyal participants that clamor for it in the group and I plan to suggest this one to them.  For as light and straightforward as the book is, there is a lot to discuss when the surface is peeled back.  There would be lot to explore from her podcast, internship experience, and her hate crime experience, that the romance part will be seen as simply a vessel to more profound issues to explore.

The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

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The Awakening of Malcolm X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson

img_8312This historical fiction piece about Malcolm X follows him through incarceration with flashbacks to his childhood and teenage years.  Written by his daughter it is hard to know where this 336 page book is factual and where it takes artistic freedom with filling in the blanks. A few creative liberties are mentioned in the author’s note at the end, but some sources in the back would help clarify, as she was a toddler when her father was killed. The time frame of Malcolm X’s life and a large portion of the book covers his introduction and conversion to The Nation of Islam, but it never mentions even in the timeline at the end that he left it, or that they were responsible for his assassination.  The book is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, it is also so very humbling and empowering. I just don’t know that younger middle school readers (the stated intended audience is 12-18), will really grasp the content, his condition, and his searching, while trying to keep all the characters, time frame references, and slang straight.  With the mention of his girlfriend who he is/was sleeping with, as well as the drugs, the alcohol, and the abuses occurring in prison, older teens might be able to handle the book better, and be tempted after to dig deeper to learn about him going for Hajj, becoming Sunni, changing some of his views, and ultimately being gunned down in front of his family.

SYNOPSIS:

Malcolm Little is living between Roxbury and Harlem and going by the nickname Detroit Red.  When the story opens, Malcolm and his friend Shorty are about to tried for stealing a watch, a crime that he acknowledges he committed, but undoubtedly doesn’t deserve 8-10  years in prison for at age 20.  Nearly every chapter starts with a flashback to an earlier time and then concludes with the atrocities of prison life at hand.  As the narrative flips back and forth Malcolm’s story and awakening emerges.

Born in Omaha the Little family’s home is burned down by the Ku Klux Klan, they move a few times as the growing family grows closer together and establish themselves as followers of Marcus Garvey in advocating for Blacks.  Malcolm’s preacher father is killed when Malcolm is six years old and his mother institutionalized when he is 13, for refusing to feed her children pork amongst other things, and thus leaving the family grasping as they know she isn’t crazy, yet cannot get her released.  Malcolm is incredibly bright and attends a nearly all white prep school, but even after being class president, a teacher discourages him from pursuing his dreams of being a lawyer, and Malcolm drops out of school and ends up being a hustler.  His white girlfriend, a married woman in Boston and her friends convince him to rob some wealthy white neighborhoods and when he later takes a stolen watch to be fixed he is arrested and found guilty of grand larceny, breaking and entering, possession and more.  He is sentenced to Charlestown State Prison and day-to-day life is rough.

The guards at the overcrowded prison are aggressive, the food un consumable, and being put in the hole as punishment is beyond inhuman.  Malcolm is filled with anger and rage and is still trying to hustle people.  He learns his family has become followers of The Nation of Islam and he doesn’t want to hear it, he doesn’t want to hear about his prison mates preaching the Bible and he doesn’t want to hear about God.  He feels betrayed by God and feels guilty for not being a man his father would be proud of, the refrain: up, up, you mighty race! echoes throughout.

Throughout it all his family’s love is felt in visits, letters, and warm memories of life before his incarceration.  His flashbacks to events in his childhood that defined him, inspired him, molded him, show what a beautiful family he had and how racism in large part destroyed it.  His parents valued education and discipline and his elder siblings carry that torch and pass it on to the younger children, they are a large family and their love is palpable for each other and for the liberation of Blacks in America.

Little’s sisters write letters and eventually get Malcolm transferred to a much nicer prison, Norfolk, where he really channels his rage into reform, determined not to leave the same man he entered as.  He has access to a full library, he joins the debate team, he takes classes, converts to The Nation of Islam and then refuses to get a polio shot and is sent back to Charleston for the remainder of his sentence.

The book concludes with his release, and teases that members of his family are becoming uneasy with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.  At the very very end, he meets Betty, the lady who will be his wife.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this chunk of Malcolm X’s life shows the transformation of his thinking, how outside influences forced him to dig in to himself and reflect in such a profound way.  The book is as timely as ever as the systemic racism that is determined to see people of color fail is still running and growing.  There is a little mention of how veterans are treated better in other countries on the front lines than they are at home when they return that I wish was explored more, but there are so many characters that flit in and out of Malcolm’s prison world, it is hard to tell them apart as it is Malcolm’s story and his development that is being told.

Not surprisingly, I wish there was more about him converting to Sunni and going for Hajj.  The book stops before then and I am sure that most readers, will not understand the difference between The Nation, the Ahmadis mentioned, and Sunni Muslims.  This concerns me as the acceptance of Elijah Muhammad as a Prophet is hard to read.  I think some conversation with readers would be necessary as the book offers little if any to differentiate.

I like that each chapter starts with a direct quote of Malcolm X and the the fact that the relevance of his words in today’s world don’t need any explanations or context is devastatingly powerful.  I also appreciate how engaging and smooth the writing is.  You really feel the layers of Malcolm X the character, being pealed back and him coming into the proud confident leader that he is known to be.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, mention of him sleeping around, memories of kissing his girlfriend, alcohol consumption, cigarettes, drug use, violence, beatings, abuse.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as a book club for middle school.  Possibly if I was a high school teacher I would offer it as outside reading or extra credit when reading about the Civil Rights Era, or if I was teaching the Alex Haley, Auto Biography of Malcolm X.