Category Archives: YA FICTION

Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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Miss Never Pleased by Ayesha Marfani illustrated by Aisha Aamir

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I’ve been accused of being brutal in my reviews.  And while I don’t enjoy being mean, I do take some pride in the attribute, as I am paying for these books myself (unless I get them at the library) and it takes time out of my day to write these reviews.  I don’t get paid, I do it because I love books, I like supporting Muslim authors and those including Muslim characters in their stories.  I take recommending books to others serious, and can’t remember things if I don’t write them down, so here I am.  With this review I don’t want to be rude, or overly critical nor do I want to sound pompous and arrogant and privileged, but at the same time, I ordered the book off of Amazon for $7.99 so a fair review shouldn’t hold punches to spare what the author is trying to do and appreciating that she is writing for a cultural audience. 

Please believe me it isn’t personal, I am reviewing it based on my same criteria I review all the books through, my own personal bias.  That being said, if the reader is living in Pakistan, or has recently lived in Pakistan and English is a second or fifth language the 70 page story with games and activities at the end is decent.  Meant for ages 7-12 in that situation, that are intrigued by the moral lesson presented, I think the plot holes can be forgiven.  For those without ties to Pakistan, or with loose ties like me (I’m half Pakistani and grew up spending my summers visiting family) the book will be choppy, culturally specific, confusing and lacking.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Habiba being distraught over her world crashing down on her and the pain she has caused her relatives consuming her.  She then opens her diary that she has kept for six years, starting back when she was seven recounting how she as Miss Perfect justified her self in incident after incident.  Thirty-one incidents to be exact, detailing how she would rat out her cousins, or critique elders food, or her tell her friends how to dress and what to study because it was the honest thing to do.   How she would decide who should be friends with who, if her family should go on picnics and how she didn’t want gifts but didn’t want to not get gifts either.  All-in-all Habiba is a self righteous awful, awful girl, I don’t think it is her trying to be perfect, I think she is just awful.  At the beginning she attributes it to praise she received as a child from her mom and grandma, but for this behavior to have gone on for so many years, I don’t think it was their praise, it was their lack of discipline that leads up to her catastrophic moment.  She fails her exams and then learns what her family really thinks about her in a poem, with a way too forced rhyme scheme, left lying around.  The story then returns to her undoing and a faqeer coming to cure her and her parents taking the blame for her poor upbringing.  She crosses out the title on her journal from Miss Perfect to Miss Never Pleased, to presumably denote how nothing could satisfy her.  The story then skips forward to her returning after University as the best international psychologist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the concept of the book, that a girl thinking she was so perfect could realize in fact she is not.  The idea is great.  I think it is a bit sad that her parents and involved extended family took so little interest in correcting her behavior, but at the same time I didn’t think it believable that she was absolved of all responsibility either. 

I feel like this book was a great first draft.  It needs some fleshing out, and some continuity corrections.  Incident #3 makes no sense, it starts with a party, then her ruining the mood of everyone at the party, and then her crushing her cousin’s dream of being in a play for her own twisted reasons.  But the jump from one idea to another seems like something got edited out and the rest of the four-and-a-half-page story didn’t get altered to reflect the missing details.  I have no idea what the party was for, what a wish gift is, and why anyone in their right mind would take a child’s opinion regarding someone else’s life so strongly. 

There are also contradictions, for example on page 14 she makes a big huff about her cousin wanting to study to be a teacher saying she wouldn’t be good at it, then on page 49 saying she would be marvelous, and this is before her climactic change of heart.  There are some awkward passages as well, that I had to read a few times, which could have been do to a different style of English, but sometimes I think it was confusing on its own.  Page 24 was all over the place with her not wanting to thank people for giving her a gift because she deserved the gift, but then telling them she appreciated it, along with her saying the gift, a dress, appealed to her, but that they should not have gotten it because it was an inferior quality.  Inferior to what we don’t know. So she didn’t say thank you, but said she appreciated it, isn’t that the same thing?  She didn’t like the dress, but it had appealed to her? Very confusing and just one example.

I say it is for Pakistani’s because I don’t know that anyone outside the subcontinent would know what a faqeer is, yes there is a glossary at the back, but it seems assumed in the story as a religious practice, which I find some issue with.  When Habiba was trying to dress everyone she says that a fishtail would look nice on her cousins and she gets a blue one.  I have no idea what a fishtail is.  It is not really explained, an illustration would have been helpful, but is not provided. She also once refers to her cousin as “dark” in a negative connotation, and that seemed very out of place and inappropriate to me.  And ultimately, if you don’t know the Pakistani school system I’m not sure you would understand how important the exam she failed is, nor why the scores are in the newspaper,  or that they have to pick their fields of study so early.  That being said, how did she get to University and do so well? If at 13 they had to choose their college and she didn’t pass wouldn’t she not be allowed to continue? I am so confused. And then she comes back after University, but is already being written about in the papers as if she has had a long and successful career.

The book doesn’t tell how she makes things right with all those she wronged either, after so many incidents, I think a little self reflection and humbling should have occurred to those that felt her wrath for so many years.  There isn’t really even a solution, her dad comes and talks to her, she reads what people think about her and then boom, happily ever after.

The illustrations are sporadic, but not consistent in the book.  The style seems to be different in each sketch.

 

FLAGS:

The girl lies and is incredibly mean but there isn’t anything inappropriate in terms of language or violence.  Islam is mentioned at the end when she thanks Allah swt for His help.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club because it is so short, and I don’t know that kids would be compelled to read past the first few pages if it was in a classroom library.  

Book Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWoCiEnvg5U

If this book would have been written 20 years ago or so, I think readers everywhere would have given it a try as there was so little to choose from in Islamic Fiction, but there are options now, and much better ones.  I feel awful that I didn’t love the book, but I can’t suggest it either.  I plan to read one more book of the author’s to see if this one just didn’t work for me, and I’ll let you know what I think.

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids.  The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives.  Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them.  At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.  

SYNOPSIS:

Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl.  I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian.  You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed.  But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.

Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends.  Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England.  Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.

Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria.  When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom.  The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with.  It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.  

Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike.  The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them.  Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated.  What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised.  I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched.  Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day. 

There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head.  But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people.  I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.  

There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong.  The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did.  The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.

Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf

A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf

 

 

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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The book is often marketed as a Muslim coming of age story in a post 9/11 world.  The contemporary work is semi-autobiographical, but really I think the positioning is a bit misleading.  It’s a love story, and the main character is Muslim, and her environment is awful and she is angry. Its an engaging read, I read all 310 pages in one sitting, but I don’t know that the take-away will enlighten anyone about Islam, or really what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11, I think people will remember how sweet the couple is and wonder how much of it mirrors the author and her husband, author Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children), but not suddenly become knowledgable about more than what the main character experiences and endures.   I appreciate that the book challenges the stereotypes of Muslim women, there is authenticity as it comes from a writer who lives it, and I do think it shows evolution of attitudes that teens can benefit from.  The book is not yet in the AR database as it just came out, but I would imagine high school and up.  

SYNOPSIS:

Shirin’s Persian-American family moves a lot.  Her and her older brother are incredibly close as their parents are rather aloof to the day-to-day experiences the kids endure.  That isn’t too say her parents aren’t around, they eat two meals a day together and the parent’s are warm, but Shirin’s brother Navid is a much more present.  The story starts with 16-year-old Shirin starting her 12th new school.  Conditioned to not make eye contact, remember faces, or get affected by the trivialities around her, the reader sees how angry she is as she curses at a teacher that assumes she needs ESL not Honors.  Knowing how fleeting her time in any location can be, as her parents are constantly trying to find better jobs, Shirin doesn’t feel compelled to make friends or get attached to anyone or anything.  This intimidating vibe similarly keeps offers at bay, for the most part.  When she gets paired up with Ocean to dissect a cat, he tries to talk to her, and this throws her off her game.  Most every interaction she experiences at school are people making racist comments and being very one dimensional and bigoted.  Ocean tries to be nice, an attitude so foreign to Shirin that it begins to force her to change.  Simultaneously, Navid, who is charismatic and has no problem finding friends wherever they go, decides to put his and his sister’s dream into action and they start a break dancing club at school.  Three other kids join, and start becoming, not just Navid’s friends, but Shirin’s as well.  

Shirin and Ocean fall in love, despite Shirin fearing what the backlash will be for ocean.  She doesn’t really know anything about him, but feels strongly that all the racial slurs thrown at her on a daily bases will effect him and ultimately make them wish they didn’t pursue a relationship. She draws line after line in the sand, and crosses them all.  Only then does she learn how blind she has been, he is in two of her classes, not just one, he is a year older than her, and he is the golden star of the high school basketball team.  Being that the story is told from Shirin’s perspective, this is surprising to the reader as well.  The town turns on the pair and things get really ugly for Ocean who is willing to risk it all for Shirin.  Threats by the basketball coach, pictures of Shirin without her hijab being taken, accusations of terrorist ties and sympathies all challenge the couple and shape Shirin.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like the twist of having the relationship be difficult for the non Muslim, rather than going with the assumed Muslim girl having to sneak around.  Not saying that I support it, but interestingly she never mentions that what she is doing is going against anything religious.  She mentions twice that her parents wouldn’t like her with any guy, and that they view her as a child still, but she doesn’t explore Islamically any boundaries regarding their relationship.  She hides talking on the phone to Ocean, because her parents are adamant she gets enough sleep at night.  That is about it.  Shirin discusses that she wears hijab like an armor that she gets to pick who she shows her hair too.  I love the strength in that, but wish there was a bit of doctrine to back it up too.  At one point a Muslim, non hijabi, at school calls her out for wearing hijab and having a boyfriend, but she essential tells her it is none of her business, which it isn’t and who is to say that one sin is worse than another, but still it befuddles what exactly Shirin believes and why.  The book just paints her as a Persian Muslim, but never explores what that means other than the superficial outward appearance.  They do fast in Ramadan, no explanation about why is given, just that they not eat or drink during daylight hours, and right near the end, Shirin remarks how her mom asks her and her brother every morning if they have prayed and they lie and say yes, their mother sighs and tells them to make sure they pray the afternoon one, to which they lie and agree, only to have their mother sigh again.  AstagfirAllah, that is awful lying, and lying about Salat, but it is so real, I audibly chuckled.  

I like that the parents aren’t harsh, they just seem disinterested.  I didn’t want to read another book about the parent’s being the gatekeepers and bad guys, so that was really refreshing.  They mention they don’t celebrate Christmas, but they have an open door policy on Thanksgiving for any friends wanting to come.  I did hope for a bit more about them, why they don’t talk to the kids about moving, what makes them tick, because really they seem to have a solid relationship with the kids, they are just clueless to their social experiences and school environment stresses.

I love the growth and self reflection of Shirin, she holds a mirror to herself and she and readers are better for it.  She has to realize that she is doing so much of what she is accusing others of doing.  I love the support and genuine concern of the breakdancers and her brother.  It resonated to me as a girl with an older brother and the relationship feels very genuine. I just wanted to know more about Navid. 

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing. kissing, hand holding, romance, lying, and ditching school.  There is a brief mention of graffiti being sprayed.  There is racial slurs, threats of violence, violent physical outbursts by people of authority.  When a student throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin, Navid and his friends beat the kid up severely, it isn’t detailed, but it is mentioned.  Ocean  also gets suspended for a few games for a fight he engages in, and there is some detail of Shirin getting jumped in a previous city for wearing hijab.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could in good conscience present this to a group of Muslim students.  I wouldn’t want them to think I was endorsing the violence and language and romance.  Like so many books of the genre though, if someone found it and read it on their own, I’d love to chat with them about it, as it is well written.

Youtube video about the book by the author: https://www.hypable.com/tahereh-mafi-a-very-large-expanse-of-sea-tour/

A Race to Prayer: Sulaiman’s Rewarding Day by Aliya Vaughan

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A Race to Prayer: Sulaiman’s Rewarding Day by Aliya Vaughan

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This 56 page (only 38 pages of story) early chapter book is a simple book with a lesson.  For kindergarten to 2nd grade readers the book could be a short story, but the added minuscule details (how he got in the car, slid over, and buckled up) and the illustrations, flesh the book out in to seven chapters with a note for parents/educators at the beginning, and sections of: evidence from the Quran and Sunnah, comprehension questions, inspiration behind the story, glossary and information on the author at the end.  The book isn’t bad, just kind of dry and bare bones.  Satisfactory for young readers that enjoy quad races, and ideal for those that whine whenever it is salat time.

SYNOPSIS:

Sulaiman loves watching quad races and playing football (soccer, the book is British), but feels like, “Every time I want to do something exciting, it either rains or it is time to pray.” one afternoon when he is feeling particularly grumpy, his dad offers to take him to watch the quad races at a nearby stadium.  Grandpa joins them and grandma sends them off with lunches and duas.  First the car won’t start, then they take a bus and wait in line.  Once they are inside the day looks up, the races are fun and then it is Thuhr time.  Sulaiman wants to wait until a break, but it is winter and the days are short meaning Asr will be approaching fast.  They go find a place to pray and when they return their seating section is closed.  Part of the roof fell in due to the rain.  Feeling fortunate that they had left to pray, Sulaiman sees the value of praying on time in this duniya.  They later are given better seats and Sulaiman feels blessed that they had gone to pray.

The story was inspired by a real event, according to the “Inspiration Behind the Story” at the end, where the author says that her husband was at a football match in Algeria when an earthquake struck.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the character is relate-able to most of our young Muslim children.  He is a good kid, but has a hard time stopping what he is doing to pray.  He has to be reminded to make wudu and brush his teeth.  I like that grandpa gets to come along, but I wish he would get to tell some of his stories, rather than just have Sulaiman shush him and be annoyed.  Similarly, I like that the dad is a “fixer” but some character development would have been really great.  I understand the reading age isn’t tempted by back story, but a little investment in the characters would make the climax that much more intense.  I was surprised by the roof falling in, but it snuck up so quick and was resolved equally fast, that I didn’t really feel it.

Also, I am not entirely sure what quad racing is. I mean I get that they are 4 wheelers racing on a stadium track.  But, I didn’t realize it was such a thing to be watching it on tv and then heading to watch it live nearby.  I’m glad I learned that kids dig it in Britain, but I’m thinking that it might be a little foreign .  A soccer match or another race, might have made the story a bit more appealing.

The book is for Muslims by a Muslim despite the glossary at the back. The pictures aren’t great, but they make the page breaks appeal to the younger kids.  The font, binding, and presentation makes for a nice looking and feeling book.

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FLAGS:

None, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be really great in small groups.  I can see it being used in Sunday schools or in Islamic schools, where Language Arts teachers and Islamic Studies teachers crossover to drive the importance of salat home.  I think this would easily inspire this age group to then write their own copy-cat stories of why salat is important.  The questions at the end could even make it like an extra credit novel study or a read aloud story with the questions used to verify comprehension.

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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I am admittedly late to the Tahereh Mafi fan club, and to rectify that I checked out all her books from the library (There’s quite a few).  Yeah, I have four kids and not a ton of time, so I decided to start reading Whichwood thinking then I could review it here due to it’s jacket claiming “Persian Fantasy,” plus noticing characters having names tinged with Islamic culture: Benyamin, Roksana, and Laylee Layla Fenjoon.  So, while I guessed the 368 AR 7.5 wouldn’t have anything Islamic, I figured it would at least give Muslim kids a taste of themselves in some of the words and representation by the hijab wearing author. And I think I was right. 

SYNOPSIS:

Laylee is a mordeshoor, which means she is responsible for caring for the dead and moving them to the next world. Its hard physical work, and since her Maman has passed away and her Baba has gone a bit crazy, the grueling job is left to her.  She is desperately tired and overworked and behind, and the people of the town, Whichwood, abuse and ridicule her relentlessly.  Laylee’s world is a frozen wonderland filled with odd characters and occurrences and magic of all random and gruesome sorts.  Two children, Oliver and Alice, from a different magical land show up unexpectedly to help Laylee with her burden, but Laylee is not well and is on the verge of death, and their help is not initially wanted.  As Laylee starts to die, it will take her living friends, with their variety of magical gifts to bring her back to life, and the dead ghosts that she can speak with, to help her live a life worth enjoying.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Rumi is mentioned and quoted.  I love that words such as hamam and halva are tossed in, it gives flavor to a book that doesn’t need it, but is enhanced by it none-the-less.  The world created is so bizarre, that I was pleasantly surprised how the author kept the descriptions from becoming confusing albeit at times circular and tedious, the book starts out slow, but speeds up as you progress.  The narrator is telling the tale, and speaks often directly to the reader, which is a literary device that one doesn’t see that often in YA books, and I really enjoyed it.  It kept the book inline and avoided plot holes, as the narrator could just tell you how she knew and keep the timeline of the story intact.  

The characters are amazing.  Laylee is 13 and on her own, washing and scrubbing and pulling nails out of corpses before burying them in the frozen earth.  All while being harassed by the ghosts around her.  She has dropped out of school, the community doesn’t even pay her financially or with respect for the work she does, and yet she plugs along.  The reader wants to feel sorry for her, but there isn’t time, there is a lot going on.  Alice’s magic is she can color the world, and Oliver has the gift of persuasion.  Benyamin, Laylee’s closest neighbor on the peninsula, has insects and spiders that live in him and that he can communicate with.  His ailing mother can speak with whales, and rides inside them as a form of transport.  Yeah, it’s a bit nuts.  And because it is so fantastic, at times the story isn’t predictable or even really seeming to move to a clear climax, there is just so much to take in.  

I don’t really even know what to critique in terms of what I wish I would have seen or felt was lacking because there was no expectation.  The book is a companion book to Furthermore, which I think I will do as later as an audio book with my kids.  Perhaps once I read that one I’ll know more about Oliver and Alice’s gifts as the book is about them, as I do have some lingering questions about their whimsical abilities and backstories.  I would have also like a bit more on the mordeshoors, how they are trained, when they marry what enchantments that entails etc.  Seems like the concept in its most basic form could have benefitted from a little more detail.

The book is dark, and there is some darkness in Laylee, and I think that is what makes me like her as a character.  There are some emotions that she really has to work through, and I like that it is fuzzy and messy, I think the target audience of the book will really identify with some of Laylee’s internal struggles. The heart of the book is solid and is very grounded in reality even with all the fantasy on the surface.  I love that Laylee isn’t affected by what other’s expect her to be, there is amazing strength in this being brought to the forefront.  Also, the crystallization of giving someone what they need, not what you think they need is a lesson that will hopefully linger in the readers. 

FLAGS:

The book could be seen as grotesque, but I didn’t find it overly icky, I think middle school and up will  be perfectly ok with all the death.  Oliver is completely star struck and in love with Laylee and her beauty.  But, the book hints only at a future romance.  Similarily, Benyamin and Alice might have a future, but it isn’t mentioned more than a crush and isn’t dwelled on or annoying to the action of dead bodies coming out of their graves or anything like that.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Author’s Website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/

A youtube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgwtFqiFIi0

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

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Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

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This 345 page contemporary book is brand new from Scholastic and isn’t yet in the AR database, it is billed as appropriate for ages 12 and up and is probably pretty accurate.  The cover, in my opinion, is rather a disservice for the audience.  The book would appeal to girls and boys, and isn’t really about school drama, which is the vibe I got from the cover.  The story is actually pretty deep and thought provoking, on a wide range of issues facing many young adults today.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from Stella Walker’s perspective, the book opens with her and her friends, Ken and Farida, reviewing old movies.  Farida, an Iraqi immigrant, is constantly pointing out the stereotypes, tropes, and bias they engage in regularly and see depicted around them.  She is constantly nagging her friends to recognize their privilege and check it.  Stella tries to get it, but it’s not that easy. Nor are the obstacles that the book explores. 

Stella’s parents are vets, and her brother, Rob, has just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD.  Additionally, Rob’s best friend commits suicide and yet, Stella’s family doesn’t involve her in the conversations and concerns, and as a result she doesn’t talk to her best friend Farida.  This tension is amplified when Farida wants to run for class president, but her parents advise her against it, as Islamaphobia is on the rise with the mayor, up for re-election, spouting hate speech, and his son, already in the race to lead the school. 

Stella, as a result, is convinced to run with the help and support of her friends.  All should be going well, but in a desperate attempt to get Rob out of the house, a trip to the mall to watch a movie results in Rob sticking up for a Sikh kid being bullied, and breaking the instigators nose.  The police are called in, and the real drama of the book takes center stage, as social media, a bigoted mayor, and a family’s member friendship with a Muslim paint Rob as a radicalized terrorist.  The Walker’s house is vandalized and Farida’s family’s restaurant is suffering and the mayoral election and class office election will all require some tough decisions and insights into honesty, framing, perseverance and friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I was expecting the book to explore so many topics and to do it, in a rather real and raw way.  The arc of concepts covered provides a lot of juice and relevance and the quick pace, makes it a quick read.  Some pages are letters written by Rob, a number of pages are the various police reports taken after the mall assault and the various points of view are great.  It explores how media editing and framing can change a narrative to one side or another. 

I love Farida, bless her, she is annoying and one-dimensional, but yet so relatable.  She is the token minority that ties it all together and is the billboard representation of “other.”  I can so relate to her, being the minority and the one that constantly had to be the gadfly on the masses.  

The school election is a little cheesy and overly elevated in importance, but it is the catalyst, so while I wasn’t really invested in who won, I liked the concepts it brought to the forefront of the characters lives.  The family struggles and retaking the truth and owning it, was the real strength of the book, and introducing kids to the horrors of war, returning from war, mental illness, the blind eye of politicians, the struggles of the VA, the power of the media, friendship, and concepts of patriotism, privilege, pride, suicide, and moving forward.

My biggest complaint is the awkward and forced romance.  It isn’t even romance really.  After the mall incident, Stella confides in a classmate, Adam,  who comes over to see if she is okay and they hold hands and kiss.  It is so out of left field and so awkward I would imagine for most readers, not just me the conservative muslim mama looking for books for my kids and their school book club.  In all they kiss five times I think, and mentions them holding hands twice.  It isn’t lamented or dwelled on, it just kind of boom, jumps in to the story and then yes, they kind of snuggle after the election results, which is a little more fitting (but still irritating).  Rob meets a girl, and again later on when she comes to celebrate the plea deal its nice that she is there, but they talk like once and he completely falls for her, kind of intense and random.  The discussions about letting someone in to your life and all is good, and more natural and they don’t kiss, but they do have “feelings” for each other.  

There isn’t much about Islam other than that Farida is Muslim and that her mom wears hijab.  Even the Islamaphobia is mentioned more for political and prejudicial purposes than as a segway in to understanding Islam.

FLAGS:

Kissing (see above), suicide, war, violence.  Beer is mentioned at the end when a college veteran gets one out of the fridge.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I really want to do this as a Middle School Book Club choice, yes I’m hosting those again.  I need to talk to the school counselor about the kissing stuff.  I think they can handle it, but I don’t know the kids well enough just yet, to verify this.   Being it isn’t the Muslim characters, I can’t imagine it is any different from what they see on TV or in Disney Movies, but still, I can’t confidently say it will happen.  Twelve and up is the non Muslim age point, I’ll have to think it over and update this once I investigate. 

Author’s website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/anything-but-okay-coming.html

Reading Guide: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/abo-teaching-reading-guide.pdf

 

Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea: How a Science Project Helps One Family and the Planet by Elizabeth Suneby and Rebecca Green

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It is a bit odd that this story is fiction, when it reads so much like a piece of nonfiction.  It is a picture book, but has an AR level of 4th grade 4th month.  So, while the story is great and highlights a country and culture, Bangladesh, not often seen, I don’t know that this book would appeal to many kids.  The kids that it does appeal to though and that can find it in a library or bookstore (not sure where it would be shelved), I think will not just like it, but possibly find it both inspiring and worth reading again and again.

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It is monsoon season in Bangladesh and the rains make Iqbal’s mom have to cook indoors.  As a result, she and the baby, Rupa are constantly coughing from breathing all the smoke from the woodburning stove.  Iqbal’s father mentions a propane stove he saw in the market, but the family cannot afford it, despite wishing that they could. 

Iqbal’s school has just announced the School Science Fair and the winners get cash prizes, if Iqbal can win, maybe he can buy his family the new stove.  His little sister Sadia offers her services to help him win and be his assistant.

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After a lot of thinking, pondering, and dreaming, Iqbal decides on the perfect project: a stove that didn’t produce smoke.

With the help of his teacher at school to find ideas and articles and plans on the internet, Iqbal and his sister build a solar cooker with foil and an old umbrella. 

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The science fair is a success, Iqbal wins, the family buys the stove and propane with the winnings, and when it isn’t raining, the family is able to use the solar stove Iqbal and Sadia built.

The book draws on ideas of sustainability, pollution, economic viability, problem solving, and education.  The culture provides the backdrop making all of these issues relevant and real, and mentioning Ramadan, Eid, and prayer provides some depth to the characters and adds to their culture.

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A lot of reviews online criticize that the mom is cooking and that the kids test an egg on the solar cooker and call her to eat it if it is supposed to be Ramadan, but I personally promise you, during Ramadan, we are always cooking.  And if she is nursing the baby, the mom wouldn’t be required to fast, there’s a lot of other reason she couldn’t/wouldn’t be fasting, but really, it is such a small portion mentioned in passing, no detail needs to be given, and it didn’t bother me at all.

Another complaint about the book is that if money is so tight the kids wouldn’t be at a school where they can just make copies, and buy eggs on their own.  I think there is some truth to this, but maybe a wealthy doner funds the school.  I think you could argue it either way.  I don’t know that the family is poor, it is the overall society, so kids could have pocket money, a propane stove is probably imported at least from a larger city so the expense would be more, similarily the infustruction of electricity and gas lines could hint more at why they cook the way they do.  Needless to say the family is smiling in the pictures, they have food, and they seem to be doing ok.  So the fact that the school printed a few articles and the kids bought some eggs without asking permission, didn’t bother me greatly.

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The illustrations are expressive and show the family connections and emotions.  I like that they bring to life a country many wouldn’t know, even if I wish it weren’t a work of fiction, but based on some child actually there.  

The end of the book has information about clean cookstoves, how to build one yourself, and a glossary.  The large 9×12 hardbound book would hold up well to multiple readings, and the amount of text on the pages would work well as a read-a-loud to younger kids who would find the subject matter interesting.  

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