Tag Archives: Aisha Saeed

Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

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Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed

dianaThis Wonder Woman story of Princess Diana as a young girl is not noteworthy because of its groundbreaking storytelling, but more for the fact that the series and story is by a Pakistani-American Muslim author.  I am not sure how authors are assigned or chosen to  write these reimagined character series, but I think it is a great compliment to her writing and a great mainstream representation of diversity that we should celebrate.  Even more exciting is the subtle addition of Diana’s best friend, Princess Sakina, daughter of Queen Khadijah to the story, and that while they are citizens of fictitious world of Greek gods, they seem to spout Islamic wisdom on occasion, and be equally strong and important to the adventure at hand.  The book is meant for middle grades and at 288 pages is a fun light read for girls and boys of all ages.

SYNOPSIS:

Young Diana is anxiously waiting for the start of the yearly Chara Festival, when strong women from all over the world come to her island home of Themyscira to celebrate their different cultures and strengths.  Most of all Diana is waiting to spend the week with her best friend Sakina.  Frustrated that her mother is not allowing her to train with the other Amazonian women, Sakina listens to her and they hope to persuade Queen Hippolyta that this is the year.

As the women are arriving and gathering in the palace, Diana discovers a boy near the ships, Augustus.  Boys are not allowed on Themyscira.  There is no exception, but when all the women in the palace are drugged to sleep, her and Sakina are forced to trust him to try and save their loved ones.

Augustus confesses that a demon has hypnotized everyone on his island home, and that he was told to break the spell he needed to bring Princess Diana to the demon.  With no options and determined to prove her self, Diana and Sakina and her trusty bird fly off on a chariot to another world.

With tests around every corner, literally, the trio has to work together, to stay alive, gather the ingredients to make a potion to save the people on both islands, and push themselves to be brave.

WHY I LIKE IT:

So the story is ok, it is fun, I’m sure most kids that like superheroes and even many that don’t will enjoy the quick paced plot of the story.  There are definitely little nuggets of inspiration and motivation that make the book a positive influence on the reader.  The trio discuss bravery and how being scared doesn’t make you less brave, they encourage one another to push themselves and they forgive each other when they make mistakes.

Sakina and her people are scholars and on occasion says deep thoughts.  She says at one point, “My mother always says we are supposed to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong.” Which is a general principal, but the word choice sounds a lot like Surah 3 verse 110 “enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong,”

FLAGS:

There is talk of Zeus and the other gods.  There is lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t do this as a book club book, but I would definitely encourage kids to read it.  I think muslim kids will get a kick out of seeing the names Sakina and Khadijah in the book and feel like its a bit of a shoutout, which I think is awesome.  It seems like it is book one in a three part series, so I hope to have my kids read them all and make sure the 3rd-5th grade teachers at their school have them as well.

 

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

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Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

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This new rom com in book form with a Muslim female character written by a Muslim author, sets itself apart by being co-written by a Jewish author and the other half of the love story being told by a Jewish boy’s point of view.  This YA book is very relevant as a special election in Georgia served as the catalyst of the two authors coming together and fictionalizing the effects of white supremacy, Islamaphobia, and antisemitism for the book, while real headlines were urging the two to canvas, get involved, and make a change against the increased showing of hate with the election of Trump.  The presentation of Islam is probably realistic, but definitely not ideal, and with the kissing, multiple LGBTQ+ supporting characters, the profanities, and 436 page length, the book is probably best for 15 year old readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamie Goldberg is 17 and is spending his summer helping his cousin work on a special election campaign for a Democratic candidate in an incredibly red district in Georgia.  A very nervous kid, who hates public speaking and talking to girls in general, he would rather be behind the scenes or hanging out at Target.  His little sister, Sophie’s bat mitzvah is coming and things at home are crazy with pre party planning.  His grandma, an Instagram sensation uses him for tech support and video filming, and his easy going demeanor means he spends a lot of time, being bossed around.

Maya is the 17 year old only child of a lawyer mom and physician dad and has just found out that they are separating.  With her one friend too busy with work and starting at the University of Georgia, US born, Pakistani-American Muslim Maya, is not having a very good Ramadan.  When an interfaith event reunites her with a childhood play-date friend, Jamie, her mom convinces her to help him canvas to keep busy and sweetens the deal by bribing her with a car.

Naturally the two spend a lot of time together vounteering for Jordan Rossum, stuffing envelopes, canvassing, and putting up signs.  Along their way they become good friends, and invested in the election as a House Bill banning head coverings, and antisemitic bumper stickers start getting plastered around town.  The end of Ramadan, the election, the hate the two encounter, and families changing, bring Jamie and Maya together.

Maya’s parents are pretty chill about boys, and only caution her about unnecessary complications by dating in high school, when Maya throws it back on them, that their relationship is pretty complicated, she seems to not find an Islamic reason not to make-out with Jamie.  The whole book is angsty and the two feign cluelessness, but based on the cover of the book alone you know where it is going.  The true climax is how much the relationship can be used for political gain, and if they can get their candidate elected.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the political setting, it is a different and very relevant slant.  It might be a little alienating to readers outside the United States, because the political process isn’t really detailed, but the characters involvement in their small slice is a major aspect of the book.  The book is definitely pro Democrat, but addresses the gas lighting, hate speech, and views of those on both sides.

I also like that two minority authors came together to share an OWN voice perspective of life today.  For the most part the story telling is smooth with the two characters getting alternating chapters to tell their story from their point of view.  A few times, I felt details were missing, for example what Maya wore for Eid, when space was given to detail that she didn’t wear ethnic clothes to an iftar, and her picking a dress for Sophie’s bat mitzvah.  Similarly, Maya’s parents seemed flat for their trial separation being a major part of Maya’s stress.  Jamie’s grandma was probably my favorite side character, and one of the most fleshed out.

I am fully aware that some Muslims pick and chose what to follow and that not everyone is strict about boy/girl relations, but I felt like for a book that is set in Ramadan, uses religion as a catalyst for civic action, Maya’s mom wearing hijab, and an opening scene being set at the masjid, there is really nothing Islam in the defining aspects of the characters or story.  It is so watered down and almost catering to non Muslims to feel comfortable, that it left me annoyed.  And I think non Muslims too will wonder why Maya’s mom covers and Maya doesn’t and how that works, or why Maya switches to having one reason for not dating and then a religious one.

The book sets out to do a lot in terms of humanizing the effects of laws and policy on average people, but I don’t know that most Muslims hoping to see a mirror to their experience will find that in Maya.  I can’t speak about Jamie, and the Jewish experience, but Maya is rather forgettable in my opinion.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing, and the F word at that.  In the dialogue set in Ramadan, it becomes a joke to substitute it for something else, but once the month is over, the language resumes.  There is kissing, and making-out with the main characters.  There is talk of hooking up, but nothing explicit.  There are is a side character friend that is gay and he and his boyfriend are affectionate.  After the bat mitzvah Sophie comes out to Jamie.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think that I could do this as a middle school selection, the rationale for Jamie and Maya dating, isn’t ok for an Islamic School message.  I really wish just once, a book like this would have the main character, being like, “nope, sorry.”  It is getting predictable and while I know it is countering the oppressed woman view, it is becoming equally one dimensional in its presentation of Muslim women.

 

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed illustrated Anoosha Syed

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Aside from me desperately wanting to get Bilal’s family a pressure cooker this 40 page book does a good job, and follows a reliable tradition of using food to introduce a “foreign” culture while simultaneously showing universal themes that show how similar we all are when it comes to family, meals, friends and feeling loved.  

Bilal’s favorite food is daal, lentils, and when he is out riding his bike with his friends, his father calls him in to help him make it.  Confused as to why Bilal’s dad would need to start dinner so early in the day, Bilal’s friends join in, in helping make the slow cooking traditional asian subcontinent dish.

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They line up the spices, they put it in the pot, and then they wait.  They put their shoes back on and play hopscotch, they go swimming, they go for a hike and it still isn’t done. 

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At one point Bilal is worried his friends won’t like it, but after waiting all day and gathering more friends at each activity, when the time finally comes they all dive in and love it.

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I love the diversity of the friends and that the dad is cooking and involving his son.  I also like that everyone is willing to try something new and give it a chance.

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The book would work for all kids ages 4 and up with the expressive colorful illustrations, diction, and amount of text on the page.  The book is 9×8 so it works well in small groups and at bedtime.  

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If you eat daal your kids will love seeing themselves in the pages, if you have never had daal there is a recipe at the end following an Author’s Note. 

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There is nothing religious in the book, and anyone from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could easily take ownership of the dish and story.  The Author’s note mentions that Bilal’s grandparents are from Pakistan and with a name of Bilal chances are he is a Muslim character.

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf