Tag Archives: British

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.  

 

 

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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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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

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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/