Tag Archives: empowerment

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

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

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.