Tag Archives: fiction

An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands.  They never came.  I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable.  It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America.  It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think.  In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent.  It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life.  Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start.  She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive.  Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.

Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in.  But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible.  It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.

The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made.  Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out.  There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight.  From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong.  Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram).  It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture.  It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.

I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua.  Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome.  I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out.  The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life.  Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.

Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well.  You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched.  The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.

FLAGS:

Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls.  But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book. 

Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed.  Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader.  The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another.  Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested.  And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences.  This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing.  I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.

 

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU

From the Author: https://muslimmatters.org/2017/11/10/an-acquaintance-a-young-adult-novel/

 

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Having Really liked Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud, I convinced myself to spend $15 on a 20 page book by the same author.  I knew it was paperback and 8×8, but I loved the message in Zaid, and the summaries of Nightly News with Safa online all talked about how a little girl creates her own newscast with a positive spin to tell her mom about her day. A lot of positives for me: a creative girl, problem solving, imagination, and journalism.   So I ordered it, and when it came, I thumbed through it, and counted only 10 pages of story, yes that is right, 10 pages.  The rest of the pages tell about the author, the illustrator or are colorful, but blank, before and after the story.

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Price and length aside, the book is really cute and clever.  The target audience is probably first grade to third grade, and the pictures are colorful, detailed and very well done. A girl, Safa, doesn’t like when her mom watches the news as it is sad, serious, and angry, so she builds a tv, puts herself inside and tells her mom about the happy highlights of her day at school in a news format.  Very creative, but that is it, there isn’t a message or really a point, or any story about Safa and her mom.

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With guidance and oversight, however, the book is a great starting point for how kids can be problem solvers, and is a great springboard for encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box to get your way.  The publishing company even has a free “Book Study Package” on their website http://www.myeverydayclassroom.com/2016/02/book-study-freebie-nightly-news-safa/  The package is 13 pages, it is longer than the book.  Which is funny to me, but not surprising, as there is a lot to discuss after reading the book.  My 10 year old enjoyed it and tried to convince my 6 year old who didn’t get any of it, all the lessons it alludes to.  It would work great in a classroom setting where you read the book, divide the class up and have them make their own newscast to talk about their day, or as a social studies or literature activity.

There is no mention of Islam in the book, the characters are not visibly muslim, there are no Islamic words, or references.  The character’s name is Safa, which may or may not signify faith.

Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

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Zachariah’s Perfect Day by Farrah Qazi illustrated by Durre Waseem

IMG_4757I was really excited to learn about this book from the author, as it seemed to be a book that would stand out in a very crowded genre and work for both Muslim and non Muslim kids.  When I tore off the package however, the face on the cover seemed a bit off for my taste, the glossary is on the back cover and while the pages are full size and full color, the book starts on the first page and somehow seemed more “home done” than “professional.”  Which isn’t a bad thing, and I’m happy to support local writers, but alas I do often judge books by their covers and format, and my first impression had to be stuffed away so I could give the book a fair chance.

The book is 20 pages with the 20th page being recipes.   I would guess children 5 and up would be considered the target audience.  It basically is a book telling about Ramadan with the author trying to blend in a story, that for me, sometimes worked and sometimes really didn’t.

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It starts with Zachariah, a 12 year-old-boy waiting for his mom to wake him up to fast, a day he has been waiting his whole life for.  Why he had to wait to fast at age 12 is not clear to me or made clear in the story.  His 10 year-old-sister only does half days, but in the illustrations she seems to only look about 3 years old, so I’m not sure where the arbitrary age requirements for fasting come from.  There is also a third sibling in the pictures that is never mentioned, not sure why, my kids and I speculated a lot more on that than we probably should have.  It isn’t told from Zachariah’s point of view but he is the focus as his day gets started.

The characters are undoubtedly desi as the book is very steeped in subcontinent cultural over tones.  Sehri, the pre dawn meal, is described in abundance of detail, “His mom made omelets, fried potatoes, with curry and tomatoes and his favorite parathas: thin leavened dough that is friend in olive oil or butter”  It’s a bit detailed of how the items are prepared for a kid’s book, and that is just page one of two pages dedicated to detailing the food on the table for breakfast.  Iftar the meal to break the fast is also two pages of description and cooking methods, but about double the amount of text.

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Culture is often food, and Ramadan has its own food traditions, but there is a lot of space dedicated to food in this book,  and it kind of takes away from the message of fasting, and moderation, and not going in excess.  Later in the book the mom does pack up some of the food to take to the less fortunate which is great, but she does it while the rest of the family is breaking their fast.  Not sure why she couldn’t have done it before or after and joined them.

After sehri is presented the family talks about Ramadan and what it means and what they like best about it.  There is a bit of dialogue that is actually sweet and funny, and gives some warmth to the story.  It is clear the author is just trying to flesh out the facts about Ramadan, but for a kid’s book, I think getting the facts in and presenting them in a fictionalized setting is a useful tool.

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The story seems a bit lopsided when it shrinks Zachariah’s day at school to one five line paragraph saying it was wonderful and then moves on saying “Later, he helps his mom.”  After spending 10 pages on the predawn meal, I would have liked to know a bit more how school went for him, it is his perfect day after all.  Also, the lapse in time by the narrator seemed a bit off to me in the sequential flow of the story, as it was following him in real time so to speak, and then fast forwards the bulk of the day only touching on lunch time, and

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Alhumdulillah, the family is sweet and excited for Ramadan. They pray together and are seen with smiling faces.  There isn’t much diversity in the pictures, the family has darker skin, the friends at lunch are more fair.  The mom wears hijab and is in the kitchen, dad doesn’t seem to be, but Zachariah helps his mom.

The book is colorful, and busy.  I’m not sure if the pictures are meant to be a stylized reality or look computer generated, but they seem a little blurry in places.  The font and backgrounds are nice.  There is a verse from the Quran in English and Arabic, as well as the athan and some Islamic calligraphy.

Overall, there is nothing “wrong” with the book, it just isn’t memorable.  There are some really good Ramadan books out there, and this one does it’s job of explaining Ramadan, but lacks the characters to leave an impression.  I definitely don’t regret buying it, but I don’t know that my kids or I will read it again this Ramadan, it doesn’t create that reaction.  It will probably stay on the shelf until next year, when we can’t recall many of the details and give it another go.

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Hamza’s First Fast by Asna Chaudhry

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Hamza’s First Fast by Asna Chaudhry

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Hamza’s First Fast starts out a bit wordy as the author tries to explain what Ramadan is and who is required to fast and why, before getting to the actual story line of the book.  The premise that Hamza’s siblings are fasting and that Hamza doesn’t know why or that it is Ramadan is a little questionable to me, but I doubt most 2-6 year olds are as cynical as I am.  Once the story gets going, however, the amount of text on the page drastically decreases to fit the younger demographic and the point of the book is charmingly exposed.

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Hamza understands that he doesn’t “have” to fast, but decides he “wants” to try. He prays with his dad, his sister helps him to understand how fortunate he is to have food, he goes outside to play, and he even tries to get lost in some video games.  But, it still isn’t time to break his fast and he is hungry! As his frustration mounts he decides to sneak a cookie, but when he gets it, he will have to decide to eat it or not.

I like that it is realistic that fasting for kids is hard, and can be really frustrating. It still encourages them to try, and the family members support him which is nice.  It also stays positive framing it that Allah will be pleased if he fasts, not that Allah will be disappointed if he eats the cookie.  Overall, there isn’t much religious rationale for why we fast and the Islamic traditions celebrated as the book stays on age level in what Hamza does.  This leaves the door open for discussion, lessons, insights, and interpretation, but does not weigh the book down with it.

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Perseverance is the theme of the story and that it feels good to do something hard.

Welcome Ramadan by Lila Assiff-Tarabain illustrated by Gurmeet

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As many of us are setting out our Ramadan decorations and pulling our Ramadan books from the shelves, or realistically browsing Amazon, the quality and presentation of Islamic picture books is impressive.  And with this new expectation, there is also an increase in price, this book however, is the opposite.  Ranging from .97 cents to $3 online this little 6.5 inch by 9.5 inch 24 page book is a lot of bang for your buck.welcome ramadan1

Starting with finding the moon, big sister Maysa tells her younger brother Bilal all about Ramadan, in (mostly) rhyming couplets none the less.  She tells him about walking up before dawn and explains that yes that means no lunch.  She also explains that because they are little they aren’t required to fast. They then explore breaking the fast, going to the mosque to pray, having good manners, and learning that a full moon means that Ramadan is half way over.  Reading the Quran is discussed as well as how we have to be generous with what Allah swt has given us. It concludes with Eid and a Parent/Teacher guide at the end to help Muslim and non Muslims alike learn about Ramadan.

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The pictures are cute and comical, albeit small given the overall size of the book.  It covers Ramadan on a level kids of all ages can understand, and because of its easy reading style even older kids can skim through it and find it enjoyable.  There isn’t really a story, it is just a fun way to share the “facts” but a welcome addition to any book shelf both at home and in a classroom setting.

The Shapes of Eid According to Me by Samia Khan illustrated by Maria Ahmed

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The Shapes of Eid According to Me by Samia Khan illustrated by Maria Ahmed

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A new Eid book that talks about the religious aspects of Eid, such as praying and going to the mosque, as well as the cultural fun of getting henna done and eating samosas, presented through the shapes a little girl finds all around her.  I liked the idea of presenting Eid through a different lens so to speak, and finally gave in and ordered the $17 hardback 28 page book.  I had touched base with the author before I ordered it to see if it would work for little kids at a masjid story time and she thought it would.  The text is one to four lines per page and rhymes, which allows the little ones to stay engaged.  Some of the lines are forced or seem to break the rhyme scheme, but overall a book about shapes with rhyming lines makes sense.

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The part that I was underwhelmed with was the illustrations.  A book with such a visual concept at its core, to me would require breath taking pictures.  But alas, the pictures seem done with crayon and colored pencils, and on many pages finding the shape is almost difficult for little ones.  The detail is lovely, but the presentation seems lacking. They aren’t bright and shiny, they are muted and flat.  The disconnect of the text and binding with the pictures seemed jarring to me. Perhaps it was just the price point made me expect more, I don’t know.  I like the book, but I don’t love it.  I will be reading it to a group of kids and if they love it I will take back my criticism of the pictures, happily.

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I think the book works up to about 2nd grade, as the geometric shapes are both flat and 3-D, plus getting excited for Eid is something everyone enjoys.  There is no reason this book is limited to Muslim children, but non muslims might be left with more questions after reading it about how Eid is celebrated and what aspects are religiously required and which are just fun customs.  There is a small intro at the beginning to what Eid is, but no glossary or further info is included.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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This book really marked a shift in Islamic fiction for me and the genre.  First of all I was waiting for the book to come out.  I didn’t stumble upon it or hear about it from someone else.  I knew when it was going to be released, and I knew I wanted to read it. Additionally it was the first books published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Which according to their website was “founded in 2016, Salaam Reads is an imprint that aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”  This is big, huge in fact.  The bar has been raised, and a platform has been given, no more excuses.

Alhumdulillah, Amina’s Voice is a beautiful 197 page book for children ages 8-12.  The book is not AR, but probably will be in a few weeks.  I think it is spot on for 3rd through 5th grade in terms of content, message, and appeal.  The book caters to females and Muslims, but naturally is not limited to those two demographics exclusively.  There are characters of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds in the novel that play significant roles in saving the day and keeping the book powerfully optimistic and inspiring.

SYNOPSIS:

Amina is starting middle school and everything is changing for Amina. Her friends are acting different, her older brother is skirting with trouble and her religious uncle is coming to visit from Pakistan.  Internally, she doesn’t like the spotlight but desperately wants to get out from behind the piano to sing.  All of this combines in a climax that pivots around the destruction of the mosque she attends and her having to find her voice, and use it to take center stage in her own life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is a lot going on in the book, but it doesn’t get over whelming with Amina’s voice keeping the reader focused on her and her view of the events around her.  The author does a good job of getting inside a 12 year-old girls head without being condescending or heartless.  The reader feels her stress that she is losing her best friend, Soojin to Emily, a girl who used to torment the two “ethnic” girls, without belittling her concerns.  You also feel her love of Islam and struggle to understand if music and singing is permissible within Islamic rules.  The book is realistic fiction with school, friendships, and family guiding the story.  Everything from the ups and downs of group projects, inside jokes between siblings, and trying to pronounce the big HAA in Arabic.  The macro of middle elementary years combined with the micro facets of culture, religion, and current events, and you speak to a section of readers that will connect with Amina and what she goes through in a very authentic, relatable story.

The only points that gave me pause is the premise and music in the book.  It is a point of disagreement amongst nearly every group of Muslims, so to have the Imam sitting and listening to her play the piano, is a bit hard for me to accept as the norm, no matter how cool Imam Malik is.  Additionally, I wish that Amina’s mom had some depth, and the relationship between Amina and her uncle, Thaya Jaan, was fleshed out just a tad more.  In both cases I felt something was lacking, and I wanted more.

FLAGS:

Nothing major, but a few minor issues, that a parent may want to be aware of for younger readers.  Mustafa, Amina’s brother, is seeing skipping Sunday school class and reeking of cigarette smoke.  He denies it, and the issue is definitely not glorified.  There is also crushes discussed amongst Amina’s friends and when Amina spills a secret, she has to own up to it and work it out to maintain her friendships.  The destruction of the mosque could also be upsetting to younger readers.  It isn’t graphic, but her emotional response and the intensity of it, is the climax, and a very real part of our world sadly. For parents, this fictional vandalization could possibly be a great place to start a discussion from if your children are somehow unaware of the current status of Islam in the west.  It also shows that people are good, as the whole larger community, comes together to show unity, love, and respect are values to us all, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a 3rd through 5th book club.  If I was starting a new book club I would start with this book.  It has it all. It has real issues, religious issues, universal issues, and heart.  All while staying on age level and all in a realistic fiction safe space to have an opinion about objectively.  The discussions after the book is read will flow naturally, but just in case:

Reading Group Guide:  http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Aminas-Voice/Hena-Khan/9781481492065/reading_group_guide

Author’s Page: https://www.henakhan.com/