Category Archives: High School

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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Watched by Marina Budhos

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Watched by Marina Budhos

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This book is so incredibly timely that it feels like it could be real, granted its been timely since 911 and homeland security took to watching people more aggressively and openly.  But, New York police have been in the news about their methods regarding watching muslims and mosques, and this fiction book does a great job of getting inside a boy’s mind as he explores both being watched and being the watcher.  The book is 265 pages and is written on an AR level of fourth grade, but content wise I would not recommend it for anyone younger than high school.  The concepts and themes need to be put in perspective to appreciate the book.  And at the same time, being able to understand how terrorist recruit and how police aren’t always ethical, creates some gray area that require a certain level of maturity to make it resonate.  It isn’t a black and white story with good pitted against bad or legal verse illegal, the nuances in between are where the action takes place.

SYNOPSIS:

Immigrant. Muslim. Teenager. Screw-up. Lots of labels for high school senior Naeem Rahman.  Born in Bangladesh, he moves to Queens in New York, after his mother dies and his father has remarried in America and sends for him.  While there is a gap in his relationship with his father, the story doesn’t focus on issues at home.  He has a very strong relationship with his step mom, and his younger brother, making him very likable and endearing.  He has problems elsewhere, however, that stress his family and get him in to trouble.  His grades are poor and he learns he will not be able to graduate, which further distances Naeem from his small shop owning father.  And his friends have dwindled to a single friend, Ibrahim,  that enjoys weaving tales mixed with truth and fantasy and dreams, that gives Naeem a taste for living on the edge and running fluidly around the city.  When an adventure with Ibrahim goes bad, and Naeem gets stuck holding stolen goods, it is a deal with some cops that comprises the bulk of the story, and forces Naeem to decide if he can go from being watched, to being a watcher, an informant for the police.

With a prior run in with the law, some marijuana in his backpack, a working class family, and not wanting jail time, the police officers know that they can pretty much ask anything from Naeem and he will comply.  Naeem starts spying on his community online and by going to the masjid for prayers, volunteering with MSA’s, helping out with summer schools for Muslim kids, all things he and his family had stopped doing after 9/11 when cameras started going up on poles outside of mosques, and fellow worshippers started eavesdropping on each other to report back to the police.  But, now that Naeem is on the inside, he finds power and strength in what he is doing, a confidence he has never had before.  He starts helping neighbors, helping the family income, fasting in Ramadan, but all with a guilty conscience.  His foundation is deceptive.  When the story comes full circle and Naeem realizes the path he is on, he has to find a way to get out and own up to the choices he has made both to his community and to the police.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story has moments of action and intensity, but it is also poetic and introspective.  Budhos really gets inside Naeem’s head and shares that with the readers.  Obviously, the book is for Muslims and non Muslims, it is a companion story to her book Ask Me No Questions, but I think the reason it resonated so much with me is because it is something I am familiar with.  So the poetic musings made Naeem more likeable to me, I didn’t see them as speed bumps in a book billed as a thriller.  I was glad that Naeem was charming and fleshed out.  His relationship with his little brother and with his step mom, really show that he has layers and isn’t just one label or another.  There is a lot of diversity in the Muslims presented and their backgrounds that make them who they are.  There are also a lot of cultures presented in this immigrant neighborhood that make the details solid.  There is no doubt that the author knows what she is talking about, that she is perhaps lived it in some capacity, the authenticity is definitely present.

FLAGS:

Aside from the arcing themes that raise flags for the younger, more sheltered readers. There are a lot of things mentioned, although not explicit or celebrated, they are presented in passing to create understanding of an environment.  There is drug use, kissing, violence and some profanity.  In a story like this there is obviously a lot of lying, stealing, talk of homegrown terrorism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The author’s website: http://www.marinabudhos.com/books/watched

Author interview with NBC news: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/immigrant-teen-gets-swept-nypd-surveillance-marina-budhos-watched-n661171

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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The Complete Persepolis is both Satrapi’s volume one and two of her memoir about growing up in Iran during the revolution.  At 341 pages of black and white graphic novel intense story telling I was fascinated by its 3.3 AR level for volume 1 and 3.9 for volume 2. Clearly this is once again a loophole in the AR system rating a book for word and sentence difficulty and not content.  The book is for high school and above, despite the simplistic style it is presented in.  The content of multiple wars and coming of age,  provides detailed political commentary not tempting to many elementary and middle school children, and her coming of age narrative is no way appropriate for third or fourth graders.

SYNOPSIS:

Marjane is an only child in Iran growing up with a loving liberal family in a time of change.  She comes across as being very entitled, very financially well off, and very deeply engaged even as a child.  As her society changes and becomes more religious with the revolution, she shows the contradiction in people and their attitudes as they use religion as a power and political tool.  Her retelling of the torture and horrors family and friends go through, is kept light by her universal coming of age musings and struggles.  She is encouraged to be vocal and outspoken about social issues, with her parents boundless support for whatever consequences her actions bring on.  In the second volume Marjane has gone to Austria for school to get away from the confinements of Iran.  Here she finds different struggles as she finds it hard to fit in, hard to conform, and hard to be away from home.  She experiments with drugs, and boys, and ideologies, but alas returns home after she finds herself homeless, friendless, and in poor health.  Back in Iran she finds she has now joined the contradictory world she left behind, and being back in school and married to a man she doesn’t love forces her once again to leave her homeland, and take all her life lessons to rebuild herself as someone she wants to be.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is a graphic novel. In many ways it makes the political influence of her country on her life easier to understand.  Iran’s political history is complex and to take a reader unfamiliar with it and use it as a narrative in shaping her and her thought process, it works surprisingly well.

I primarily wanted to read the book to see how Islam is presented.  Obviously it would be a major factor in the book, and obviously the author is not a practicing Muslim in favor of the revolution.  So, I was equal parts nervous and curious to see how such a popular book would show such a religious society.  And to be honest, I feel like she handled it in a very secular way.  She never seemed to attack the doctrine of the faith, but more its presentation as a tool to oppress or control Iranians.  Her rebellion in clothing and alcohol and drugs and promiscuity is presented as a rebellion against a society that is using Islam and the contradictions people have with it in public as opposed as to behind closed doors. For example she doesn’t support the veil or hijab, but it didn’t seem that she was opposed to someone wanting to wear it, she was opposed to it being forced upon women, and she pointed out the hypocrisy of people not wearing it one day then wearing it and policing other woman’s manner of wearing it the next.  I felt this was made a bit clear when she meets a religious man, who passes her on her ideology test.  She refers to him as a “true religious man” who respects her honesty.  In my mind I saw this as her not being a religious person and not being surrounded by people who were religious for the sake of belief, but rather for their own personal gain and agenda.  When she critiques her country’s laws about boys and girls being together, or consumption of alcohol she doesn’t go into the verses in the Quran or hadith, but rather how she is able to skirt the law with a fine or deceit.  She doesn’t pray, but also makes clear she doesn’t know how to pray, she doesn’t know how to read Arabic, etc.. Thus the idea of being Muslim is foreign to her, she simply lives in a country that claims to enforce Islamic rules.  By her then going to Austria and having “freedom” but not finding happiness I also found it made the nuances of what is religion and what is culture and what is politics a little bit easier to see.  Ultimately it is a girl finding her self and defining her self irregardless of what country she is in and what religion that culture follows.  Whether people learning of Iran of Islam for the first time would see the shades of gray within the novel I don’t know, but I truly don’t believe Satrapi based on this book hates Islam or is trying to get others to view the faith as a whole negatively.  And even despite her feeling confined in Iran I think she has a deep love of her country and her people.

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FLAGS:

Violence, language (lots), sex, drugs, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would never use this book as a book club book at an Islamic school.  The themes are just too mature to justify the coming of age story aspect of it, or even as a historical supplement to Iranian culture.  That being said, I personally as an adult would love to be in a book club with this book.  I know a lot of Iranian and Iranian Americans who are religious, but I have never inquired as to their personal political views, and vice versa. I know even more secular Persians, many with disdain for Islam, but again not for practicing Muslims, and never have dared ask how their political and socio-economic status may have influenced them and their views.  I think it would be fascinating, both to hear their stories and to solidify my own views on such a contentious issue.

Ten Things I hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

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Ten Things I Hate About Me

I’ve read and reviewed a few Randa Abdel-Fattah books and read and reviewed even more cheesy West-meets-East-and-my-parents-are-so-strict-so-I-will-rebel books, that with such a flimsy title referencing a movie which references Shakespeare, I didn’t expect much.  With such minimal standards, the book didn’t disappoint and the surprising warmth of many of the characters actually left a pleasant smile on my face.  I’ve had this book on my to-read list since it came out in 2006, and for some reason it is a bit hard to find now a days.  There seems to be a few covers out there, and I don’t know if they differ, but the one pictured above is the one I read, and it is 297 pages and written on an AR 4.8 level, but probably would appeal and be more content appropriate as a light read to 9th through 12 graders.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamilah Towfeek leads a double life.  At home she is a proud Lebanese Australian that goes to Madrassa, plays the darbuka drums in an Arab band, and identifies as Muslim.  She has recently dyed her hair blond and wears contacts to hide her Arab heritage and doesn’t allow her sister who wears hijab to pick her up from school where she is known as an all Australian girl, Jamie.  Her mother has passed away and her father is pretty strict about who she goes out with and her curfew.  They even have a contract posted on the fridge. Despite this, Jamilah and her dad seem to have an ok relationship and it is definitely something they both are fighting to improve.  Jamilah’s older brother is a bit of a rebel and goes out with girls to bars and the book definitely discusses the double standard.  He however, isn’t painted as “bad” or as presented as an outcast, he just does things differently, and must wage his own path to build a relationship with their father.  At school Jamilah has acquaintances more than friends, as she is constantly pushing people away.  The stage is set that she has to keep lying to her friends, but it is more in her head than in reality.  She doesn’t open up to her friends, nor they to her.  As a result the Jamie at school amongst her peers are presented as incredibly shallow, which is partially intentional I think, and partially, under developed.  She makes up excuses to not attend parties and it isn’t a big deal until the most popular guy at school starts to take an interest in her.  In frustration she starts opening up to someone who has started e-mailing her.  Her user name is Ten_Things_I_Hate_About_Me and the dialogues between her and Rage_Against_The_Machine reveal a lot about how she sees the world.  There is some tension with immigrants in Australian and Jamilah starts to realize that her silence is consent to the bigotry and bullying around her, and that there is no way to stay neutral.  There really aren’t any major plot twists, you can see a mile away who the mystery email boy is, and that he likes her, you can see that her friend Amy will come through, and that she will have to reconcile her two identities.  There are a few minor ones with her dad getting remarried and thankfully with her opting to not “hookup” with anyone in the end despite a climatic kiss in order to stay honest with her father.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m obviously older than the target audience and the characters, as is the author, but compared to a lot of the other books of similar content, I feel like this book stays the most grounded.  There are some pop cultural references, and obviously the kids are naive, but there are some universal truths and experiences brushed upon that I think a lot of high schoolers can relate to, not just immigrant Muslim ones.  The idea of having to be two different people at home and at school, family relationships, cultural identity, being true to yourself, dealing with the loss of a parent, taking a stand when you see something wrong, etc.. All that being said there is a huge gaping plot hole.  How her friends that have known her from elementary school when her mom brought Arab food suddenly don’t know she is Arab, or don’t pick up on her ethnic last name is beyond even a 5th grader to over look.  If you can tune out your internal sense of logic for the premise, the book is much more enjoyable, but it really is a stumbling point.

I wish that Jamilah was a bit religious.  She identifies as Muslim and clearly her sister is, but pretty much all of her actions and gripes come more from her culture than from her faith.  Many of her father’s friends drink, as they are either not religious, or Christian, which is fine, but part of me really wanted her to live up to the picture on the cover of the book and discover her religious stance alongside her owning up to her cultural one.  I love that at it’s core it is a book about a girl’s relationship with her dad and being true to her self, but somewhere her religion fizzled out of the narrative and I wish it hadn’t.  I Would have loved that she turned down the prospect of a boyfriend because it wasn’t Islamically permissible, in addition to her wanting to be honest with her father.  But, alas the author didn’t pursue that.  She did however, do a good job of not making it a judgement of culture or faith, just as attributes of her characters.

FLAGS:

There are racial slurs, drinking, dating, and kissing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Surprisingly I wouldn’t completely disregard this book for a Book Club selection.  It would be for older kids, ideally upper High School.  But I think especially in an Islamic School setting the discussion would be so much better than the book.  Many send their children to Islamic Schools to reduce the need for dual identities and I would love to see how the kids view the effectiveness of it.  I would also enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on going to formal dances with siblings or a group of girls, the double standards of boys in girls, and dealing with Uncle’s and Aunty’s constant opinions.

Author’s Website 

 

 

 

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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It has definitely been done before in books dealing with the crossing of desi and the west with a female lead, that there must be: forbidden love, physical and or sexual abuse, a a sympathetic side kick, and evil parents or in-laws.  So, perhaps this book just assembles the ingredients in a new way, or my deliberate hiatus from said genre softened my heart with time.  But, either way Written in the Stars was an enjoyable read that didn’t get caught up in the dichotomous rhetoric of good vs. bad, us vs. them, right vs. wrong, and I found that refreshing.  It is in the AR database as a level 4.1 book, but there are sexual references and rape, so while it is written very simply and linearly, I would not let an elementary student read the book.  The protagonist is 17, so really the story line is more high school relevant.

SYNOPIS:

Naila is a senior at a Florida high school with scholarships and dreams to be a doctor. She has friends and stability at home. However, she also has a boyfriend, a big no-no to her conservative Pakistani immigrant parents.  When she sneaks out to prom and gets caught her parents drag her to Pakistan and secretly work to marry her off.  The premise isn’t very original, but the author keeps it interesting by having the boyfriend also of subcontinent descent, and Naila being naively clueless about what her parents and extended family are doing to her.  As she begins to realize what her parents’ end goal is, she gets desperate to return home, putting her against her family.  The story is quick and Naila is definitely a girl of action as she tries to escape, as she gets drugged, gets married and pregnant.  And remarkably she doesn’t spend too much time bemoaning her situation, which is nice as the book is only 284 pages with the Author’s Note, Glossary, Resources, and Acknowledgements.  A long the way you meet some kind characters and minor villains, you see a bit of the culture and Naila’s determination.  The parents are underdeveloped and I wish they were fleshed out so that the reader could see their perspective.  They are presented as pretty vile and cold and nothing more than that unfortunately.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I found it odd that religion was not in the book, like at all.  Her rules regarding boyfriends and male friends are presented as being cultural.  While in Pakistan and being shown around a cousin points out a mosque, tells Naila her father is in there, and if she wants to see inside they can come back when it isn’t pray time. That is it. So, the characters are Muslim, but Islam is not mentioned.  The author on the jacket flap states that she is Muslim and had a good arranged marriage.  So as I’ve reflected back on the book, I think I kind of like how she left religion out of it.  Albeit leaving a gap in the narrative, it allows the book to be seen in a character driven way more than a “that’s how they do it” sort of way and thus opening it up to a wider audience.  Also, seeing both good and bad in the same cultural population removes the idea that different is bad, which is often lacking in these “cultural” novels.  I really want to meet the author and see what her reasoning is, but I think it was deliberate and thus I’m growing to appreciate her restraint on bringing the religious tinge into the book.  I wish it was written a little more complexly.  In addition to more about the parents, I wanted to know more about Saif, the boyfriend, I wanted to know about the future of her cousin Selma, who was her confidant, and about the aunt that never married, just to name a few.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, and while not detailed, Naila is raped by her husband and it is implied and reflected on. There is some additional physical violence as well.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a selection if I did a high school book club. Definitely not middle or elementary.  I would possibly suggest the book to older middle school if they could handle it.  There are lots of talking points, and some girls are so drawn to the romance genre that at least this one isn’t too over the top.

Curriculum Discussion Guide

Author’s Blog