Tag Archives: British

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

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Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Missing Diamonds by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Daniela Sosa

img_7104This engaging and fun early middle grades detective story set in England, features a female protagonist of Pakistani origin who stumbles on a crime at her cousins mehndi party.  Over 231 pages with illustrations and flourishes, Agent Zaiba along with her younger half brother Ali and best friend Poppy will have to solve a case, avoid a nosy cousin, try not to ruin their clothes and so much more while stuffing their pockets with samosas and pakoras, and making sure they make it back for all the traditional events as well.  There is nothing Islamic in this culture rich book, but with names like Fouzia, Samirah, Tanvir, Mariam, Maysoon, and Hassan, Muslim children or readers with sub continent familiarity, will feel an immediate reflection of themselves in the story.  I have no idea what religion the author identifies as either, but from what I can Google, it seems to be an OWN story book and the richness and integrity of the minor details would suggest first hand knowledge.  Anyone looking to see a strong minority female lead with good friends, an open mind, and impressive sleuthing skills, should hold on tight as the agents assemble to get to the bottom of a theft and save the day for a beloved cousin.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zaiba idolizes her Aunt Fouzia who is a real detective and owner of the Snow Leopard Detective Agency in Karachi, Pakistan.  Aunt Fozia’s daughter Samirah is getting married and with the Eden Lockett mystery books Zaiba inherited from her mom when she passed away, this party at The Royal Star Hotel is the perfect venue to test out her observation skills and other lessons she has learned from devouring the famous books.

When Zaiba, Ali, and Poppy learn that there is a VIP guest staying in the same hotel, the team gets a chance to explore the hotel and find out who the guest is.  What starts out innocently enough quickly elevates when a secret staircase is discovered, the VIP’s dog is set off his leash, and a jewel encrusted dog tag goes missing.   The three kids work together and set off to find the dog that has terrified Sam and ruined her mehndi, once that is done, the stakes get higher as Maysoon explains that the good luck charm is not just expensive, but a lucky token she needs to move her career from singing and hosting, to acting.  As the children work to find the diamonds and work their way through the list of suspects at the hotel, they have to make sure not get in too much trouble for missing key events of their cousins big day and getting in trouble with the tattling cousin Mariam.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is really for younger readers, second through early fourth grade, and shows the fun bits of a culture to a larger audience without being daunting.  I love the idea of a mehndi as a back drop for a whodunit, seriously, it has the perfect energy and vibe.  The family is amazingly supportive, Zaiba has a step mom, Jessica, that she adores, and a half brother that she loves.  Aunt Fouzia and Sam encourage Zaiba to go solve the crime and give her respect when she does her big reveal to the police.  It really is empowering to see the grown ups support.  I love that Zaiba grows even in such a limited time as she learns about her mom and we even see  Zaiba’s heart soften for Mariam.

Maysoon is a celebrity that is really flat and weak and whiney, at the end she shines a bit, but I really felt she was lame and under developed.  I’m not sure what a champagne reception is, but the fact that Maysoon is  having one would suggest she isn’t Muslim, not sure, I guess I’ll have to keep searching for clues.

The end of the book has a whole section to test the reader if they have what it takes to join the Snow Leopard Detective Agency:  an excerpt from Eden Lockett’s book, her detective tips, things to practice, code writing, and info about the Agency, including Aunt Fozia’s record amounts of chai consumed.

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FLAGS:

There is lying and stealing, it is a mystery after all, and the presence of champagne, both as part of the mystery solving and at the celebrity’s celebration.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d do it as a book club book, because there wouldn’t be a lot to discuss.  I do, however, plan to suggest and gift the two book series to some young mixed ethnic Pakistani girls I know that would love to see a strong desi girl in the lead.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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This fabulously fresh and honest book told in alternating OWN voices shows how two seemingly different 6th grade girls discover how much they have in common as they learn about themselves and their families along the way.  Sarah is a Muslim Pakistani-American, and Elizabeth is Jewish and has an English immigrant mom, the two come together over food, family stress, discrimination, and middle school social drama to form a solid friendship.  But fear not, it isn’t easy and the book will keep upper elementary/ early middle school girls hooked.  Not sure if boys will be as drawn to it, but if they can get over the brief mention of having a period, they too will enjoy the story.  The 336 page book shows how much we have in common, and how hard fitting in can be for everyone.

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah is starting a new school, a public one, having been at a small Islamic school prior to 6th grade.  She is not happy about it and to top it off, her mother is teaching an after-school cooking class at the school that she is required to attend.  Hoping to sit in the back drawing and go unnoticed, she finds she can’t sit quiet when her classmates start giving her mom a hard time.  Unaware of why she had to leave her previous school, and tired of her mom needing her help with her catering business, Sara also has to help her mom study for her citizenship test, handle two little brothers, deal with no friends at school and not being able to celebrate Halloween.

Elizabeth loves cooking. Her mother does not.   She is excited to learn Pakistani food at the cooking club even if her best friend thinks they shouldn’t be learning things from “them.” Elizabeth is admittedly nerdy, and struggling with a life-long friend finding others to spend time with, her life at home is difficult too.  Her dad is always traveling for work, and her mom is depressed with the recent passing of her mother in England, to the point of not really functioning.  With Elizabeth doing the cooking at home, and trying to get her mom to study for her citizenship test, Jewish holidays and obligations get neglected, and Elizabeth not knowing how to help her new Muslim friend handle racism,  is spiraling herself.

When the two girls decide to give each other a chance they find they might be able to be more than just cooking partners, but it seems like one of them always does something to mess it up.  Either saying something hurtful, getting defensive, or not sticking up for each other.   The girls get their mom’s together to study for their test, but it isn’t so easy for the girls, who are hesitant to trust one another.

An upcoming cooking competition, offers the girls a chance to make a cross cultural fusion dish that can wow the judges, help Sarah’s family’s financial situation, prove to the school that diversity is a good thing, and hopefully give the two girls a solid friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic it sounds and feels and how it doesn’t focus on boys or crushes, but on friendship between two girls at an awkward point in their lives and the family stresses they are experiencing.  The book is for all readers and does a great job of not going overboard with what the girls face.  I love how tolerant they have to learn to be with one another and that they have to learn to drop their defensive guards.

I read the book in two settings and didn’t want to put it down, it has enough pull that you really want to see where the book is going and are happy to overlook the slight repetitiveness of them stressing about the competition, but doing nothing but talking about the stress. Really the competition doesn’t even seem that important at the end, but considering everything going on, that to me is exactly as it should be.

I love the rich culture of Pakistan, England, Islam, and Judaism that seep in and never get preachy or dogmatic, but get celebrated and experienced.  This is why OWN voice books are so beautiful and powerful.  Admittedly, Elizabeth’s family is not super religious, but a few more similarities would have been nice.  Yes her brothers are eating pepperoni Hot Pockets, but a shout out about halal/kosher marshmallows would have really rung true for so many of us that stock up at Passover.

I also love how the side characters have substance and aren’t just used as a foil to show something about the main characters.  They get a little flesh on their own, and that enhances the richness of the story.  Seeing that they have their own struggles to overcome as well shows how none of us have it all together, and that we are all capable of improving ourselves.

FLAGS:

The girls meet during school hours when Elizabeth lies about her period starting to get out of class.  Sarah mentions that hers has already started.  Elizabeth mentions that her Jewish grandmother is visiting her son and his husband, nothing more is said, just that.  There are some derogatory things said about Sarah and being Muslim and Pakistani, but really mild.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to find a way to do this book for a middle school book club.  I’ve already told my 13 year- old daughter it is required summer reading.  The Muslims have diversity within themselves, some wear hijab, Sarah does not.   The book is so relatable and the personas sound the age for their views and struggles and perspective.  The financial stress, the mental illness, the immigrant experience, the racism, the politics, are all wonderfully woven together, and the food, well, there is a reason I didn’t recommend this book at the beginning of Ramadan, you are welcome.  Happy Reading.

 

Allies by Alan Gratz

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Allies by Alan Gratz
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This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad & Henry White illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

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It’s been a while since I’ve read such an over the top silly book that has a lot of heart.  It is 352 pages that remind me of the the My Teacher is an Alien book series of my youth smashed up with the Weirder School/Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of today.  Meant for upper elementary with some bad words (hell and damn), the story is Pakistani-British representation with many Muslim named characters, a Muslim author, and a shout out to a KFC in another town that is halal.  Don’t read it if if you want to learn anything, but definitely pick it up if you want to roll your eyes, giggle, and ponder a world where Desi aunties are the perfect disguise for force feeding an entire community delicious food as part of their evil plan to take over the world.

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SYNOPSIS:

Humza Mohammed Khan is an 11 year old Pakistani kid in Britain who thinks of himself as the next big rapper, Little Badman.  He dreams big and talks even bigger as he struts around primary school getting in trouble and trying to film his music video on his friend Umer’s extremely old Nokia flip phone.  With a normal enough mom, a hyper exaggerating father, and a handful of their friends known as Aunties and Uncles, Humza gets in trouble regularly enough, but overall seems to have a good heart.

Things at school slowly start to change after their teacher gets stung by a bee named Mustafa, that Umer brought to school to be his pet.  Weird as that might be, it is even more odd, when their teacher is replaced by a volunteer auntie.  Every day it seems like a teacher goes missing, and is replaced by some asian kids’ aunt.  When the supper ladies are replaced and the food improves, no one is complaining.  When every volunteer starts bringing snacks to school, no problem.  Who doesn’t love gulab jams, and samosas, and butter chicken all day long every day?  Well, as the school puts on the pounds and all the teachers and staff are officially missing, Humza, Umer and their former nemesis Wendy, start to get worried.  Humza’s Uncle who he calls Grandpa, claims his wife Auntie Uzma is not really his wife, and helps Humza investigate.

Secret meetings in supermarkets, teachers and grandpa vanishing, and Humza seeing a giant slug coming out of the substitute librarian, means that Little Badman is going to have to run away from cricket practice, not get sent in a crate to Pakistan, face his stage fright, and save the day from the aliens taking over the aunties.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is cultural rep and own voice in its telling.  Humza is Pakistani and his cultural baggage is hilarious and part of him, and no explanations are needed.  In his world people are from lots of places and they all live and play and learn together and they eat caramel apples and toffee and jilabies.  The diversity is great and not articulated, it just is what it is, and they all have to work together to save the day. I think my favorite character is Grandpa, who Humza has to learn to appreciate and not just see as an old almost dead guy and Humza’s dad who exaggerates everything and takes his cricket very seriously.  At the end Humza has to have a heart to heart with his dad and his uncle, Grandpa and it makes this over the top nutty story really kind of sweet too.

There is no “Islam” in it aside from Muslim names and mention in a rap of a halal KFC.  I kind of like that they are Muslim kids and it appeals to a larger audience, sure something praying or something at some point might have been nice, but it isn’t a book that you’d be expecting spiritual nuggets from, so it is ok.

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FLAGS:

The words damn and hell are used.  There is disrespect of authority, parents, and teachers as well as lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had my ten year old read it and he thought it was ok, but was uncomfortable with the language, which I was glad, but I told him I thought he could handle it, and know what is appropriate to use.  That being said, school libraries should have the book, maybe not classroom libraries though, and I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club.  I will have my other kids read it though, cause like I said, it is silly and fun.

Interview with comedian author Humza Arshad: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2019/march/meet-little-badman/

 

 

More to the Story by Hena Khan

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More to the Story by Hena Khan

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For a book written by an accomplished author for 3rd to 7th graders focusing on a Muslim family, I was surprised at how despite wanting to absolutely love this book, I only kind of liked it.  For the first 100 of 271 pages, I really kept hoping there was going to be more to the story.  Luckily the story did pick up, but I couldn’t get passed how much crushing all the sisters were doing on the one boy in the story, and how much stronger I wanted the main character to become.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from Jameela, “Jam’s” perspective, the second of four daughters living with their parents in Georgia, the story focuses on the interpersonal relationships of the members of the family and their parents’ close friends who’s nephew has moved in with them from England, Ali.  All the kids are close in age and of Pakistani ethnicity, and are Muslim.  As the reader gets to know Maryam, Jam, Bisma, and Aleeza, you see the characters develop pretty well and their quirks and personalities emerge.  Jam is more tomboyish than the gorgeous Maryam who likes to bake.  Jam and Bisma share a room and are closer than Jam and Aleeza, the baby of the family who Jam finds is becoming a brat.  Jam also enjoys watching football and eating spicy food with her dad and desperately wants to be an award winning journalist like her grandfather.  She puts out a family newsletter and is ecstatic to be named the feature’s editor as she starts 7th grade.  Ali is a year older and has moved to stay with his aunt and uncle until his mom and sister can join them.  He spends a lot of time with the sisters and in Little Women inspired fashion the little ones want his attention, Jam is a little jealous to learn he finds himself tongue tied when talking to the beautiful Maryam and Maryam in 9th grade is drawn to Ali, but doesn’t vocalize it too much.  And then as the story picks up speed, Jam says, “In a matter of weeks, Baba got a new job and moved across the world, Bisma got sick and has to be in the hospital, and I messed up everything with Ali and the paper. How did my whole life get turned upside down so quickly?”  

The rest of the book is dealing with Baba working in the Middle East, Bisma being diagnosed with lymphoma, Jameela learning some journalistic basics, and Ali and Jameela becoming a bit more than just friends. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslims desi family is being represented in an own voice novel that mentions religion as a natural part of their life, and doesn’t apologize or overly explain it.  That being said, I feel like the book is trying to present “us” to the outside so to speak, rather than empower our own.  And I point this out, because I feel like it could have done both.  Dialogue between Ali and Jameela about how they might date as they get older, how Ali can’t see any of the sisters having an arranged marriage.  How when Maryam gets asked to a dance her mom doesn’t mention any religious reason her daughter should say no.  None of the girls wear hijab, and they mention that they don’t wear hijab, at one point Jam knows she should get up and pray, but doesn’t.  I don’t expect a fictional story to teach our upper elementary age kids how to behave that is a parent’s job, but to have some basic Islamic tenants brushed aside after being mentioned is worth noting.  Had the book just been more cultural, maybe I wouldn’t be so critical, but Muslim girls are going to be excited to see themselves in this book and some of the messages might tilt a little more liberal than some parents would expect.  It is one thing when our girls read a book with a romantic twist and we say that, that is not for us, but when a book celebrates us not just crushing, but vocalizing those crushes and moving in to a gray area (they hug but it could be an innocent friend hug) and they make a point to be next to each other, Muslim parents should be aware.  In the larger society it wouldn’t even register on the radar, hence I point it out.

Another thing that kind of bothered me and was again related to Jameela and Ali’s relationship was that when Jameela cut her hair in support of Bisma losing hers with chemo treatments, she seems to need Ali’s approval.  I get that she wanted him to see her and all that, but I really wanted her to be strong enough in and of her self that even if she looked awful she would own it and not let it define her and not let a boy’s opinion about her physical appearance weigh that heavily on her.  Again I know 4th grade girls start noticing boys and having crushes and middle school is only worse, but I just was hoping that her strength and confidence would come from her own growth arc, not from someone else, let alone someone she likes. Side-note here too about the hair, it is donated to make a wig, which I know might also be a sensitive subject regarding if that is allowed in Islam or not.

In terms of the cancer and the sister’s rallying together all that I thoroughly enjoyed and found the most interesting passages in the book.  I think the understanding of a real subject and finding a way to help and deal with this was executed expertly and powerfully without sensationalizing the concern or simplifying the experience either.

FLAGS:

The book is clean, but there is a lot of mention of how Ali affects the girls.  And potentially depending your own opinions on the hair being donated.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, I’m actually hesitant in even recommending it to my 12 year old daughter.  I know she has read worse, but again me handing her a book about Muslim girls might make her understanding of what we expect regarding boy/girl interactions to be a bit muddled.

 

 

Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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I read this book a few years ago and was blown away that Islamic fiction could explore these topics compellingly in a YA package.  I remember loaning out the book to a mom with middle school kids to see if she could tell me how accurate the storylines were.  Yeah, I never got the book back, and never got the feedback, and the book slipped my mind and thus I never wrote a review on it.  Fast forward to last month and I’m trying to find a middle school book club selection and I can’t believe that I don’t have a blog entry of this book to look back on.  Clearly, this shows why 1- I don’t loan out books anymore and 2-Why I have a blog, cause I remember nothing about the flags, relevance or appropriateness of the book, thus I bought another copy, read it, and am now documenting my thoughts.

The book is 260 pages and an AR 5.3, but the drug use and violence I’d say would warrant an older reader, 9th grade and up perhaps.  And while by the end, the book leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and you would place it back on the shelf in a contented manner, I would be misleading if I didn’t confess that it took much self motivation to pick the book up and keep reading more than once, that it honestly took me a month to read.  The last third was hard to put down, but you have to get through a fair amount of frustration, stereotypes, and extremes to get there.

SYNOPSIS:

Sixteen year old twins Farhana and her brother Faraz live in London and are incredibly different from one another.  Farhana goes to a school where she excels both academically and socially.  She is queen bee, beautiful, and articulate.  Faraz on the other hand, goes to a different school and doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but in the art studio.  One thing that unites them, however, is their determination to grow and learn about Islam this Ramadan, and their home environment of a large extended Pakistani family that places culture above religion.

Both twins are close with the “black sheep” of the family, their Aunty Najma, a niqabi rebel set on marrying a white convert.  But, both twins have their own stresses as well.  Farhana has recently called it off with a boy named Malik, but isn’t really over him and Faraz has gotten himself involved in a street gang to find a place to belong, but the stakes are getting higher.  Both twins on the eve of Ramadan and with the coaching of their Aunt are determined to get their lives straightened out, fast properly, reconnect with their faith, and with each other.  They do, alhumdulillah, however, the spiritual high only lasts so long, as earlier decisions come back to haunt them.

Farhana makes the bold decision to start wearing hijab, but once the novelty wears off, she starts to question her choice.  It isn’t helped by her mom who is very, very against the need to veil and makes it difficult for her daughter.  Faraz meets some street artists at the masjid and while it looks like he could find a place to excel, his alliance with a gang, also comes with enemies from rival crews.  Physical fights and drug runs have him out at all hours of the night and the priority of fasting and praying fade as the the pressures of not getting killed or caught prevail.

As each kid has their ups and downs, and the parents prove to be out of touch with the lives of those in their homes, tidbits of Islam come through, but unfortunately so does a lot of cultural dogma that isn’t always clarified or pushed back on, making there a lot going on in this book, and making me wish it was a just a bit longer and more fine tuned.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book, I could argue set the foundation for the amazing pieces of literature currently available.  Published in 2010, the book really was a first of its kind.  Written by a Muslim, unapologetically written for Muslim and non-Muslims, and available in the mainstream.  The book tackles real issues, but seems to fall into stereotypes too.  That Farhana covers and is so beautiful, she looks like Aishwariya Rai, the Bollywood actress, why would she cover.  Malik decides to figure things out and wait for her, ahhh, so sweet.  There’s the rebel Asian girl who gets a lot of page space early on for her incredibly minor role, going on about Asian Girl Bachelor Parties and hooking up with everyone and anyone. There is the best friend who is religious and the Imam’s daughter and is also chubby.  The nice brother at the masjid who saves the protagonist.  I don’t know, they all seem predictable.  What I like about fiction is it allows Muslims to be seen in shades of gray not just black and white, and while this book tries to do it, I feel like only the main characters are allowed to grow and change, the minor characters hold on to their positions so resolutely that, they kind of seem dry.

I like that the tables on hijab are switched up, it isn’t the parents that want the girl to cover, but rather the girl her self, and some of the conversations about hijab and Farhana’s choice to do it compared to her friend who is forced allow for some powerful moments.  I also like, that she has doubts soon after opting to wear it.  I wish some religious reasonings were brought in to her understanding of hijab, but the aspects of choice and how to wear it, are present.  I’m grateful that Faraz’s storyline takes most of the action, so that it isn’t a romance novel, with Farhana pining relentlessly for Malik.  I had hoped for a little growth from the gang head, Skrooz, especially after Aunty Naj sheds some light on him, but his criminal act at the end after showing Faraz his cousin or maybe it was his brother seemed a bit off.  Again, it was only to benefit the protagonist, not to show that we all have our own battles.

The parents and extended family are irritating to say the least. To the extent of delaying iftar to get the food to the grandmas house and then serving the men first, like really? I don’t think so.  There is nothing that says the women have to eat after serving everyone else in religion and that is never challenged.  Yes, Farhana challenges her mom’s notion of women not going to the mosque, but the food bugged me.  I am Pakistani American, and the culture has its flaws, but the presentation in the book, is one big wide stripe of female oppression, which isn’t fair either.  Absolutely, their are families that the women cook all day and then eat in a corner, but I feel like the staging of this book as “authentic” either needs to show variation, or account that this is how one family views it, not that it is universal.

FLAGS:

There is talk of casual sex, physical violence with knives and fists, details about drugs: cocaine and heroin.  None of it is celebrated, but it is present and very much the norm in how it is presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I still sway back and forth on if this could be done as a book club selection, and in the end I would opt that no it can’t.  Not for the drug use, or boy girl relationships, but ultimately for how the backwards and closed minded the Pakistani culture is presented as being.  If the group was high school Pakistani heritage kids maybe, but I think Arabs and non Muslims in general will not think very highly of the culture after reading this book, and I think that is a disservice to be promoting in a book club selection.  

 

 

The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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I’m not sure why Amazon states the book is for pre-school and up, when the publisher, Kube, posts this book for ages 7 and up.  I think 3rd or 4th grade soccer/football fans will enjoy the book.  There are some slightly mature ideas presented and worked through, and the soccer lingo assumes the reader knows the sport.  Plus the quality of the illustrations and the small font isn’t going to entice someone not already excited to read the book based on the content within.  My boys, ages 8 and 9, enjoyed the book, as did I, once the story got going.  It doesn’t really grip you from the first sentence, but as the story progresses and the way Islam is woven in makes for some learning experiences in the midst of a few intense football matches.

SYNOPSIS:

The boys at the Sunday Madrasa do not enjoy their time there.  They find the Imam boring and thus are not inspired to learn. When they sneak a football into break time however, they suddenly feel more engaged and present in their lessons.  A change the Imam notices and appreciates, but doesn’t know the reasoning for as he strictly forbids football and finds it a waste of time.  Outside of Madrasa, Junayd is having a hard time at home.  He has to help out a lot at his father’s restaurant and his older brother Saleem has gotten in trouble with the police.  His mom prays for the kids, but is also at a loss as to how to help with the stresses at home.

During a secret game of football in the masjid courtyard, an arrant ball breaks the neighbor’s greenhouse window, and the boys are forced to come clean about their covert game.  The Imam demands the kids stop playing and that they tell their parents what they have done, so that they may earn some money to replace the window.  As the kids come through with the money and the Imam sees the kids resort back to their lackluster attitudes to learning.  He gets an idea to start a football club after madrasa classes.  The only problem is that he knows nothing about the sport and no parents are willing to help.

Saleem by chance comes to collect his brother one day, and as he hollers advice from the sidelines, the Imam recruits him to coach the team.  In response the Imam ever so gently uses football to teach not only the madrasa kids, but Saleem as well.  When the boys learn of an upcoming tournament, the Madrasa enters an A and B squad and the Shabab Al-Nasr, Victory Boys, will be tested not only in their play, but also in their manners, and understanding of what it means to be a team and Muslim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Imam grows and changes.  I mean it is a kids book about soccer, but really it is the adult in the story that shows the most heart.  He goes out of his comfort zone, reevaluates his opinions, and admits when he is wrong.  High five Imam!  I also like that he didn’t give up on Saleem, and the way he leads him is with such kindness and compassion, that even youngsters, will be impressed.  

The book does not talk down to the reader, which is nice, but at the same time I think it pushes the age appropriateness a bit with the detail devoted to alcohol being sold at the restaurant, Junayd’s father’s flaws, and even Adam’s dad’s tantrum of sorts.  There really aren’t any nice parents in the book.  We don’t learn much about the moms, but none of the dads seem too supportive.  Really the only nice adults are the Imam and the neighbor who’s window they broke.

The timeline isn’t entirely smooth, the kids come together and play well as a team remarkably fast for how intense the tournament is, and how well they perform. And some of the characters could have used some fleshing out, I couldn’t really tell you much about them.  The font is really small and the spacing often forgotten.  The book is about 95 pages with a glossary and an acknowledgement at the end, fortunately the 2nd book in the series seems to space the words and lines out more and is 155 pages.

The story is solid and for the most part well written.  I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons learned and then put into practice.  The book isn’t preachy, but you are glad to see the Imams words given life in the other characters’ actions.  Saleem changes quickly, but the author and story account for it in a way that is believable for the audience and the message of not giving up on one another comes through loud and clear.  There is a lot of technical detail about the sport, but it doesn’t drag on, it adds to the excitement even if you just know the basics.

FLAGS:

The talk of alcohol, of Saleem being with a group of kids and a stolen car, there is some yelling and aggressiveness from the adults.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The story is a bit short for a book club selection, but I would definitely consider it for Lunch Bunch (where I read to 4th and 5th graders while they eat lunch).  And I think most Islamic School libraries and classrooms should stock the series.  

https://thevictoryboys.com/

You’re Not Proper by Tariq Mehmood

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your not proper

This highly praised British young adult novel is intense.  If I was trying to sell you the book I would say that it is relevant, gritty, raw, and real, but as a reviewer, it is definitely more rough, all over the place, and random.  There is so much going on in the book that it should be well over 400 pages to resolve it all, but almost as if the publisher required that the book be less than 200 to fit the demographic, it all gets tied up way too simplistically and leaves dozens of tangents unresolved, unexplored, and hanging.  The main characters are 14 years old, but I think it is a bit too harsh for that age group and should probably not be read by them.

SYONPSIS:

Karen’s mom doesn’t believe in God but takes her to church.  Karen’s dad is a Pakistani Muslim who loves bacon and beer.  The book opens with Karen’s gang marking her forehead with a cross against her will, and her soon after deciding that she doesn’t fit in with her friends and will now be Muslim.  Part of this transformation involves her wanting her name pronounced properly, as Kiran and her wearing a hijab.  Her parents are pretty ok with the decision, but the author foreshadows that this will be the undoing of her family.  

The book gets crazy, like all over the place crazy, but because of the little hints that all this craziness is leading up to something, I kept reading thinking that the author had it under control.  But no, I don’t think he does or did. 

The most craziness comes from Kiran’s rival Shamshad who leads another gang and pretends to be really religious, but is a bit of a rebel and bully herself.  The author is told from both Kiran and Shamshad’s perspectives, and while at times the reader sympathizes with Shamshad, as her influential father is abusive, many of her actions are so jarring and awkward, that no, she isn’t really like-able at all.  She wants a computer, her parents are that strict, yet she goes out with a guy, gets drunk, hangs all over him, goes to a Halloween party/dance without seeming to have to sneak about doing it.  She is regularly beating people up, threatening to kill and maim people with scissors, not a nice 14-year-old, nor a believable one either.  

As Kiran tries to learn about Islam and figure out what is tearing her family apart, and Shamshad is trying to find her place, the two storylines come closer together before the big climax of learning what tied the two girls’ families together in Pakistan and then here in the same English neighborhood.  The climax/ point of the story is actually a good one, but the resolution of it, is so simplistic that it cheats the reader of any potential investment they may have skimmed from the crazy build up.  It seems like the author had an idea and just worked backward for his big reveal, which is probably how most books are written, but in good books, you connect with the character and join them in their journey, here there is no character connection.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the idea of the book.  That there are good and bad Muslims and Christians, that things are diverse and complicated and that we all have our own baggage either at home, or in our heritage, or in our environment. But the book is not cohesive, the characters are really, really harsh.  And it doesn’t seem the author gets their voices right.  Plenty of males write beautiful complex female characters and vice versa, and plenty of adults get teens right, but I don’t think this author got either.  The girls are not believable and the minor characters are just as bizarre.

I think if you you live in a highly diverse area and you are acquainted with lots of minorities you can handle the way Islam is portrayed, but if you aren’t I think both Muslim and non Muslim readers alike will be shocked and offended by the portrayal of such crude characters.  This isn’t a book of accepting differences and finding a way to get along, it is more of a book showing how awful everyone is in varying degrees.  If it was an adult book perhaps you could argue it is realistic, but as a teen book, I think the lifestyle choices of all the characters will be eye-opening and not necessarily in a good way.  I do like that the book isn’t offering a moral statement or opinion on Islam, but the way Islam is presented isn’t inspiring either.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books that are meticulous, not boring, but deliberate.  Authors like John Irving who seem to map their stories with crime solving precision.  Where every sentence serves a purpose and every idea has a reason for being shared.  Most books leave something hanging, but this book, left everything hanging.

For two girls in gangs, the gang members by and large fade away before we even get to know them.  There is a rally being planned but resolved half heartedly.  Kiran has to fight with her parents to learn about herself in a really unrealistic way.  Kiran harasses her dad to learn about Islam, but then all of a sudden her paternal grandpa lives nearby and brings over a marriage proposal, why couldn’t she ask him about Islam, and why would a 14 year old be considering marriage?  The whole scene of Kiran getting a hijab is weird and pointless, why stress underwear and having another customer make a random comment for no reason.  What was the obsession with swimming for Shamshad and her mother, like there is a lot of space dedicated to this topic, and I don’t really get it.  Shamshad’s dad is also creepy, he seems to have a decent relationship with her, but is physically abusive to her mom, and he does a weird inappropriate thing with a pointer stick to Kiran at the masjid, that should be discussed more in my opinion.

Once the big reveal happens really there are more questions than answers.  Like I still don’t get why the families hate each other, if they had to make promises of secrecy in Pakistan, couldn’t they just ignore and be ambivalent to one another in England? Why so much hate and hostility? And what is up Jake? He seems like a good friend that makes some mistakes and Kiran is awful toward him, then all of a sudden she claims him as a brother.  And whats up with him going on and on about his brother in the military, I need closure! And last but not least why when Kiran’s mom is in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, why does the Curry Club, that no one in the book ever liked, suddenly in the hospital room with them, when it should be a tender mother-daughter moment? Seriously, I was beyond annoyed.  There should have been a message, or a cathartic release, not annoying super side characters coming back for no reason.

FLAGS:

Lots of violence, alcohol, language. There are also romantic relationships and the celebration of Halloween.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to anyone.  I am willing to concede that some of it was lost in translation for me, but there is so much going on in the book that there is no way that it can excuse it all.  I would love to discuss some of my concerns with someone who has already read it though. So feel free to reach out, I’m all ears.

The Muslims by Zanib Mian

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The Muslims by Zanib Mian

the muslims.png

After reading this book, I really, really want to meet (and be friends with) the author, she writes from the point of view of Omar, a nine year old boy, and his perspective and voice are so authentic and relevant that while the book targets 3rd through 5th grade, I am certain kids and adults, Muslims and non-muslims, boys and girls, and everyone else, will all thoroughly enjoy this laugh-out-loud 164 page book.  

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SYNOPSIS:

Omar is starting at a new school, we don’t know why, and while he is nervous, he has a good attitude about it.  His parents are supportive scientists and he has an older sister, Maryam who can be a bit mean in a big sister way, and a little brother Esa, who he secretly loves.  All are practicing muslims who remind me a lot of the people I know.  We say our duaas, we pray, we laugh at the funny stereotypes and just try and be good neighbors and people.  Omar’s neighbor is hilarious, Mrs. Rogers, doesn’t like Omar’s family, or “the Muslims” as she calls them, but they just keep being themselves and when she falls and gets hurt, she starts to realize they are good people who care about her.  She even starts showing up for iftar every night in Ramadan and counts down like a space ship launch until it is time to eat. 

Using his Islamic upbringing, and seeing how is family handles problems, gives Omar a lot of tools for starting at a new school.  But Omar is the protagonist, the hero, so he also has a super imagination that involves H2O, his dragon, that shows up to help him out when things get rough.  And unfortunately, a bully by the name of Daniel makes things rough for Omar.  He tells Omar that all Muslims and all Asians are going to be kicked out of the country, and this really sticks with Omar.  He verifies it with a cousin, and learns it could be a possibility.  So, the underlying anxiety is there, but most of the book that focuses on the bullying aspects involve the day-to-day comments, physical pushing, and efforts of Omar to avoid Daniel.  When they do meet up, however, the result is often comical, as Omar and H20 confidently navigate the situation at hand.  Between visiting a different mosque in London each week, learning to read the Quran, celebrating Ramadan, and just being a kid with new friends and a fun family, Omar eventually does win Daniel over after the two of them get lost in the London Underground.  And all of us that came along for the ride are better for it, alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

There is so much to love about this book.  Seriously.  The accuracy of family life depicted is spot on and the Islamic elements are so interwoven that non Muslims would truly learn about Islam through learning about Omar, but not in a preachy way, and Muslims will see themselves on every. single. page.  I love that Omar doesn’t ever seem embarrassed to be who he is.  He is a cool kid for his confidence alone, and being able to laugh at a bully and not have it shake your core belief and self image is so powerful.  The characters are well developed, from little Esa to Omar’s teacher, by viewing them through his eyes, you see enough of their personality to remember them, and appreciate them.  The only exception to this was Maryam, I really didn’t feel like I got much on her, but I have a feeling there will be more books, and she will develop too.  The book reads like a diary, until a tinge of foreshadowing of the changing relationship between Omar and Daniel pops up to setup the climax.  The chapters are short, the fonts and doodles endearing and engaging, and the size of the book, really makes it fun for elementary aged children.  The only possible gripe for American children, is that it is a British book, and you might have to google or ask what a few things are, yeah we are selfish like that, but its good for us to learn what pains au chocolate are, or crumpets, or nappies.  

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FLAGS:

The book is clean. 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh this should be required reading for every kid.  I know I will be trying to implement this every where I go.  This would be awesome for a elementary book club, and especially great in Islamic schools for struggling readers.  In much the same way that teachers use humor to engage students, this book has heart and humor and a surprising amount of information, that I can see it being connected to a lot character building supplements in various curriculums, at least I hope it is, we need voices like this, both within our community and to serve as a representative of us to the larger society.

Book Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIKtoxt3InM

Author’s website: http://www.muslimchildrensbooks.co.uk/