Take Jumanji, turn it into a chapter book, flavor it with steam punk, set it in a Middle Eastern inspired marketplace, and have the protagonist be a Bengali-American, hijab wearing Muslim on a quest to save her little brother with her two BFFs from New York. Bam, you now have a 298 page AR 5.4 reading level booked called The Gauntlet.
Published by Salaam Reads (Amina’s Voice) this book is written for all kids, the main character’s religion and culture just add depth and a connection to the game they have fallen in to. I found this book on Scholastic, and when I got it, I handed it to my daughter to screen for me. I asked her once she finished if it had any Muslims in it and how were they presented, to which she gaped at me and said, “umm mom the whole thing is about a Muslim girl and it is awesome!” So naturally I moved it higher up in the “to be read pile” and while I agree with her assessment, the book is more plot than character driven, and there isn’t a lot of theology in it, just a race against time to get out of the game alive.
It is Farah Mirza’s 12th birthday and while she should be downstairs visiting with her guests from her new school, she is holed up in her bedroom with her little brother Ahmad and her best friends from the old neighborhood, Essie and Alex, playing board games, the Mirza family’s favorite pastime . When Aunt Zohra tries to coax them from the room she mentions a gift for the birthday girl is in her room, and the kids sneak off to get it. Only it isn’t the book she brought to give Farah that they find, it is a bewitched game called the Gauntlet of Blood and Sand that lures kids in, and keeps them if they cannot out play the Architect. When Ahmed falls in, the trio has no choice but to follow him in to try and rescue him and escape, before time runs out.
Once inside the game, they are in a city called Paheli. It resembles an old Middle Eastern city with large souks, market places, even a small masjid, surrounded by sand and levels absolutely breathtaking in both their beauty and in their threat to the children. The inhabitants are those that played the game and lost. The challenges the kids must face range from a life size game of mancala to a taste test of Bengali/Indian sweets. As they rush from challenge to challenge they meet a kind tea shop owner, giant lizards, spies and police of the architect and see fairly detailed descriptions of different parts of Paheli. The gamemaker/designer known only as the Architect senses that the kids will win, so he starts to cheat, and then feels bad and arranges to meet the players. When the children meet him, and hear his story, they feel some sympathy for him, but not for the Jinn that holds the ultimate power over the game. Obviously they do escape, but I won’t spoil the fun the process is, nor the sweet surprise of the reunion.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that at the core, the story is driven by love for a sibling and requires the teamwork and cooperation of friends. The rest is just frills from this central and clear message that is woven throughout the book. While it is idealistic, there are hints that it isn’t overly so. Yes Ahmad with his ADHD is a lot to handle at times, and the friends do have their squabbles, but ultimately both friends and family are worth risking it all. I love that Farah is Bengali, many of the foods are Indian, and they are set in the Middle East, but yet somehow it seems interchangeable, this made me laugh, and while in other instances might have annoyed me, I liked how connected it made everyone seem, more alike than different. Essie and Alex know some of the foods and cultural lexicon from growing up in New York. They don’t find things different, they had lots of kids in school that wore hijab. Readers unfamiliar with some of the words and names found in the subcontinent and Islamic history might be put off a bit by the regular use of these words and the lacking glossary, but if you identify with any of it, you will celebrate seeing yourself in this book, just as Farah relished in seeing something of familiarity in Paheli.
The book is fast paced and the detail given to the setting and cultural aspects are fun, but I really don’t feel like I connected much with the characters as a result. There is very little character development and I actually had to look back in the book for some of the names to write this review. There also isn’t much religion in terms of belief or practice. The buildings and the food and the tone all hint at Islam, but I would have loved to hear an athan, or even her pausing to pray. Not even that is there. She wears hijab and that is about it in terms of religion.
Ultimately I love that it is a mainstream book, with a strong storyline that is action packed and fun for older elementary and early middle schoolers that is clean and familiarizes and thus normalizes a culture not often seen in young adult fiction.
None, it is clean, at times possibly a bit scary with human bones, but not anything overly haunting.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would be an amazing book for a book club, and I would play the games that they play in the gauntlet at the meeting. There isn’t a ton to discuss in terms of introspection and growth, but there is enough, and it is fun. Plus, there aren’t a lot of books like this for Muslim kids to see themselves in, that I think it would be a blast for them to read, and enjoyable for the adults to watch them get swept away.
Interview with the Author: http://ew.com/books/2017/03/27/karuna-riazi-gauntlet-jumanji/