Tag Archives: Autobiography

Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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Accused: My Story of Injustice (I, Witness Series Book 1) by Adama Bah

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This is the first book in a new middle grades nonfiction series and is Adama Bah telling her own story about being detained as a 16 year old and falsely accused of being a suicide bomber.  A story that sounds like a movie plot is painfully real and terrifying and hearing it in her own words is powerful and impactful.  The writing is very basic in its linear format and straightforward presentation of the experience through her eyes.  It is not sensationalized or overly explanatory about how this situation came to be, how she got out of it, or what the family had to go to to find lawyers and pay for them, for example.  It is how she felt, what she understood at the time, and how the experience shaped her.  While the writing style is sufficient for middle grades, her story is intense.  A big part of her experience is being strip searched, exposed, and seeking asylum to avoid female circumcision.  The 128 page book is a great way to show the realities of our world.  It took place in the 2000, the recent past, to a New York teenager that enjoyed different colored sneakers, chatting with her friends, and spending time with her family, no different than the readers picking up her story to read.

SYNOPSIS:

Adama was born in Conakry, Guinea in 1988 and moved to America as a child.  She attended public school until high school when she was then sent to an Islamic boarding School in Buffalo, New York.  Her family was not particularly religious, but Adama become more visibly Muslim returning home after the attacks on September 11, wearing niqab and wondering why she was being treated with such hostility at the airport.  As she resumes her education in public school, she slowly makes the choice to take off her niqab, while maintaining her hijab and modest clothing.  In 2005 she and her father are taken in to custody early in the morning from their home and detained.  During the questioning at 16 years old, Adama learns that she is not a legal US citizen.  Her father is separated from her, to be deported, and she is moved to Pennsylvania as the youngest person swept up in a terrorist roundup.  She is being accused of being a potential suicide bomber and is detained for six weeks before a plea deal is brokered.  She will wear an ankle monitor for three years and have a nightly curfew.  During this time she is responsible to care for her family as her father has been returned to Guinea, her mother speaks very little english and she has four younger siblings.  Even after the bracelet is removed she finds herself still on no-fly lists and finally after one more time being denied and detained at the airport, she sues the Attorney General, FBI Director, and the Director of the Terrorist Screening Center. When they learn of this they offer to remove her from the no-fly list if she withdraws her case. She is granted asylum and while she had to drop out of school, she dreams of going back.  She has since married, her dad has been able to return to America, and she continues to study Islam and believe that things could have been worse.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is her story, from her eyes and perspective, but I worry that some of the details are misplaced.  She details enjoying talking bad about the government with a friend after she is released knowing that they are listening in, but maintains that she is constantly in fear of being returned to jail and that she considers America her home.  I’m not saying all of those things can’t be true and co exist, but some additional context would help the choppiness in this example and others.  I appreciated that the genital mutilation was clearly attributed to culture and not religion, I think when others tell stories about cultural and religious practices they often conflate the two.  I wish there was more information about where this mysterious list came from, what happened to the Bengali girl that was taken, how the Islamic community reacted.  The story is powerful and moving, and readers will be drawn in as they see themselves in her.  There are also questions at the end that help connect readers to her situation, and the reality that this is the unjust world we live in and can easily be consumed by as she nearly was.

FLAGS:

Detailing a strip search, detailing taking off her clothes, having orifices checked, and using the bathroom in the open.  There is talk of female circumcision although it doesn’t define it explicitly.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a high school Social Studies class or current events discussion this book would be a great topic to explore and voice to highlight.  The book is short and can be read very quickly.  It is an important story to know, to learn from, to sympathize with, and be acutely aware of for people of all ages.

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat

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This memoir may qualify as non fiction, but the majority of this 176 page book is told from the perspective of the author when she was three years old, so much of it reads to me as somewhere between historical fiction and autobiography.  No matter how you categorize it though, this AR 5.8 book is better suited for middle school and up. I love that this is is a Palestinian perspective of the Six-Day War and the immediate aftermath, but after reading it, I’m not haunted by the atrocities of the Israeli occupation so much as, some of the choices her family made.  I got my copy through Scholastic and in excitement, purchased multiple copies that I sadly think will sit in a box as I doubt I’ll find many students that will enjoy this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is divided into three parts with the first and third being short letters written in 1981, and the second part being the majority of the story taking place between 1967-1971.

The first part is a high school Ibtisam getting detained at a checkpoint after heading out to check a PO Box that she uses to keep in touch with her pen pals from around the world.  She reveals what life is like and shares the joy of learning about the outside world from her correspondence, but that she rarely talks about her childhood and her life during the war.  Part two is her sharing that.

The Barakat family lives removed from neighbors and a city, but Ibtisam loves her two older brothers and younger sister and at three years old is happy.  When war comes, the family decides to run, in the process Ibtisam doesn’t have time to find a shoe, and then she gets separated from her family and swept up with the people running for the caves to escape the bombings.  Once reunited with her family, they along with numerous other Palestinians make their way to Jordan and some safety.  Safety comes at a cost though and the family is separated as her father leaves to find work.  When the war ends, the family moves from the shelter and finds a small room to rent until they can return home.

Once the family returns home, things do not return to normal as the Israeli army begins training near their house causing Ibtisam’s mom to worry constantly in her attempts to keep the children inside and away from the windows.  Eventually, the mom takes the children and herself to an orphanage in Jerusalem saying that their father cannot keep them safe.  Ibtisam is close to her father and this dramatic change does not sit well with her.

In the orphanage, the boys get separated from the girls and eventually their father promises the mother to build a wall and make repairs to the home and purchase a goat if they come home.  They do, and the kids are grateful to be together again.  The boys then start school and the goat has a baby and life carries on.   Ibtisam grows close to the baby goat and their father promises that he will remain the children’s pet and will not be slaughtered.  But, when the boys are 8 and 9 they get circumcised and the feast involves the goat.

The next major event in young Ibtisam’s life is when she finally gets to go to school.  Incredibly smart, her mother essentially equates her love for her daughter with her success in school and with that motivation and predisposition to learn and excel, she does very well.  One day on the way home, she is sexually assaulted by an older boy, and makes arrangements to always have her brothers with her when walking.  Her parents are not made aware of the offense, and don’t seem to investigate Ibtisam’s change in attitude toward school.  When an Israeli soldier attempts to assault her mother, the family moves once again and part three is a teenage Ibtisam quarreling with her parents and once again excelling at school.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that tidbits of memories are woven together to give an overall impression of the author’s childhood.  The book is a quick read and is compelling enough to hold one’s attention.  The family is culturally religious, but the book makes a point that the father prays, not indicating that the rest of them do or even know how.  I love how the freedom and hope that Ibtisam has comes from learning the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alef.  The love of language and the power found in reading and writing, is celebrated in its reverence to the learning of the letters.

I don’t get the mother, and while I get that war is a horrific time, and she is 24 when Ibtisam is 3 and has like four kids, so her life is definitely not easy, I still find it disturbing to me that she would lose a one shoe-ed daughter, take her kids to an orphanage to live while both parents are alive and well, and be so cold to her daughter.  The father seems to be loving to the kids, but he still slaughtered their pet, and I’m guessing culturally circumcisions are done at that age, because that seems incredibly cruel.

FLAGS:

War, loss, sexual assault, details about the circumcisions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I won’t do the book as a book club selection and while I know the book is in many libraries and classrooms I doubt many kids would be compelled to pick it up and read it based on the cover and synopsis on the back.  I have a few Palestinian friends that I will ask to read the book to see if they find it an accurate representative of life during the six-day war and even today as it could definitely be used to teach about the region, the conflict, and writing a biography about life for others to learn from.

 

Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai illustrated by Kerascoet

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I’m going to try my best to review a nonfiction autobiographical book and focus on the story, not on the author because yikes, Pakistanis have strong opinions about Malala, and I have no desire to get pulled in to an argument.  I’m half Pakistani, I know the position of both sides.

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I have read both the Young Readers Edition and original I Am Malala books, so I didn’t jump to review this book in 2017 when this AR 3.6 40 page re-re-telling of her story came out.  After reading numerous other children’s books about girls in the subcontinent striving to go to school and be educated, I thought maybe the controversy had calmed down and I could read this large hardbound book a bit more objectively, and thus focus on the story a bit more.

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The book is listed as a biography, not an autobiography, so I’m not sure Malala even wrote the book, but none the less it is a synopsis of her story for younger elementary children.

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Starting off a bit like Harold and the Purple Crayon, Malala asks if the reader believes in magic, and then tells what she would do if she had a magic pencil to draw things that would make other’s happy like a proper soccer ball for her brothers and a way to stop time so she could sleep in a little longer in the morning.

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Every night she hopes for a magic pencil, and every morning she is sad one hasn’t appeared.  As she starts to notice the world around her she realizes that the kids looking for food and metal scraps in the junk yard, have it much much worse.  She asks her father about it and learns that if the children were in school their family’s might go hungry.

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As she notices “real” problems around her, her ideas for what her magic pencil could fix, evolves and develops into a burgeoning social conscience.  But quickly her naive outlook is changed when dangerous men start to appear on the streets and girls in her class stop coming to school.

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Her magic pencil finds real world power when she uses her words and her voice to make a stand and people start to pay attention.  The rest of the book highlights how she made progress despite the attempt to stop her and how she now uses her “magic pencil” to work to make a more peaceful world.

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The surface story is incredibly hopeful and would motivate young children to notice the world around them and do what they can to improve it. Inquiring children might be alarmed at children going through trash, or want a lot more information about who the scary men are and why they don’t want girls going to school and why she gets to travel around and tell her story. Information that is given at the end of the book in an afterwards of sorts.

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Most pages have sparse text and the ones that have a lot are kept on level and avoid being preachy.  Even the attempt on her life is present, but not detailed, sufficing to say that they tried to silence her, but failed.

The illustrations are beautiful and tell the story as much as the words do.  The book does not mention religion, but in the pictures where she is out of the house her hair is covered, but not when she is at home in bed and whatnot.  Obviously it is how she carries her self in real life.

Overall, I think the book is incredibly well done and inspiring to young readers.  Anytime a modern day figure can show children that they too have a voice and can use it, I think it is a good thing.  The fact that the voice comes from a minority, a female, a person with a name and culture different than the ones in most western children’s text books is also a plus.  I hope if nothing else it opens a window to children that there are a lot of amazingly strong and courageous people in all cultures and to seek out their stories.

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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.