Tag Archives: High School

Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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Here to Stay by Sara Farizan

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I really thought this book was a middle school book when I picked it up: the cover illustration, the length (265 pages), the larger font and generous spacing, but then I started reading it and the first two chapters alone have cursing, underage drinking, mention of sex and making out, straight and lesbian couples, and bullying.  The main character’s voice was enjoyable enough and the writing smooth, so I kept reading, but ultimately, I don’t know that high schoolers will find the climax that griping, and it definitely isn’t for middle schoolers, so I’m not sure who the target audience is.  The character never identifies as Muslim, nor does he correct or clarify to the many people around him that assume he is Muslim.  His deceased father was Arab Christian and his mother, Iranian Muslim that doesn’t “speak to God much since (his) dad died,” yet he is the victim of Islamaphobia and bullied as being a terrorist.  Pork is put in his locker, a doctored image of him dressed as an extremist is emailed out to the entire school, but he never says I am Muslim or I am not Muslim.  Perhaps when dealing with ridiculous bullies it doesn’t matter, but even commenting on that would, for me, have given the book more purpose.  The book was a quick easy read, and I enjoyed the basketball aspects and a few of the characters, but the constant drinking, predictability, and lack of intensity renders the book rather forgettable.  I’m only reviewing it so that if other’s see it and assume it is a middle school sports book that they will be aware that it is for older readers, has a decent amount of gay and straight non graphic romance, a lot of alcohol use, and crude talk.

SYNOPSIS:

Bijan is on loan to the Varsity basketball team from JV and when the star player gets in foul trouble, he is put in.  Bijan is a decent player, and when his intensity brings the team within range of a win and his winning shot seals the victory, Bijan is no longer just another face in the crowd at his private school, he is getting a lot of attention.  Most of the attention is initially appreciated, parties, a chance to talk to his crush Elle, leniency in turning in assignments, but things quickly change when a manipulated image is sent out to the entire school community- students, teachers, faculty, alumni, board- showing Bijan as a terrorist.  Was he targeted because of his brown skin, his instant popularity, his volunteering with a committee to change the school mascot from the Gunners to something less violent? The school says they will try and find the culprit, but it doesn’t look hopeful and Bijan just wants it to all go away. 

Bijan’s new stardom has him hanging out with the Varsity team after games and suddenly interfering with their social life. Bijan gets in a fight with a teammate, breaks up a fight between a teammate and his girlfriend, and finds himself being teased for being Muslim and brown.  The school is predominately white and Bijan stands out.  He notes who says his name, and who conveniently avoids it.  Physical altercations elevate whenever alcohol is present, which is often, but no clear motive is established.   The students’ parents are involved in trying to force the school to be more proactive against bullying and the board, staff and students squabble over the mascot. When Drew’s girlfriend breaks up for him in favor of a girl, another email is sent out shaming the girls’ relationship. Bijan and friends figure out who is responsible and everyone concludes that the two emails were sent by the same person, but Bijan has his doubts. 

The school basketball team makes it into the New England tournament and with the team on the road, the alcohol and physical assaults on and off the court escalate. When the opposing team’s fans dress up in turbans and beards and chant USA, Bijan has had enough and refuses to play.  He confronts his coach about never saying his name, and when they return to school the culprit of the email and of the pork in the locker is identified.  Bijan gives a speech about not being a terrorist while internally thinking of parts of the Quran and stats that he could be sharing, but isn’t.  Spoiler: he also gets the girl.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it isn’t a nerd to hero story that it so easily could have been.  Bijan is smart and clever and grounded.  He is a solid basketball player and has his flaws as well as his strengths.  It doesn’t seem that popularity has changed him, people are just now noticing him.  I enjoyed his wit and humor and friendship with Sean.  The commentary in Bijan’s head, voiced by NBA commentators, reflects what he feels and what he thinks, it is critical and entertaining and gives a great vehicle into conveying his thoughts.  

I felt a fair amount of the plot was predictable and obvious.  It was clear pretty quickly that Erin and Stephanie were in to each other, that Noah was jealous and capable of sabotage.  Drew had his own financial concerns, but seemed to obviously be the red herring to Jessica’s privilege.  Even the email and the taunting seemed fairly tame, Bijan himself didn’t seem that bothered by the email. Not saying it is ok, but in a book where the characters are drinking and filling lockers with meat, the severity wasn’t that gravitating.  And about the meat, I think it warranted more discussion.  Whether the pork offended him on a religious level or not, meat or food or anything of that magnitude stuffed into a gym locker is worthy of freaking out over.  

Bijan never says he is Muslim, he does remark that he doesn’t read Arabic or Farsi.  He doesn’t drink at the first few parties because he is terrified his mom will freak out.  He drinks at a later party.  At one party someone remarks that “Allah won’t mind,” and he doesn’t really respond.  His mom, it is hinted at, has been hung over before and may have drunk in high school and consumes wine at her book club.  When Bijan and Elle are figuring things out between them, she wonders if it is ok because of…and it kind of trails off to imply perhaps his religion, to which there really isn’t a response.

FLAGS:

Drinking alcohol, language, relationships (straight and lesbian), crude jokes and references.  There is kissing between a boy and a girl and two girls that is overheard by the main character.  Sex and making out are referenced but not detailed.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this for a middle school book club or suggest it for the high schoolers.

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This series is adult fantasy written by a Muslim author for her ummah and contains Muslim characters. I think the series as a whole is definitely not YA, as the main characters would age out of the target demographic, but I think that book one could qualify. I’ve contacted the author to get her perspective on the matter, and will update this if I hear back. So why am I reviewing it? Because it is so good, and I’ve heard of a lot of people letting/encouraging their teens to read it, and honestly, I did as well. There is complex world building, implied physical interactions, one hinted at gay romance, alcohol, concubines, violence, djinn, ifrits, killing and one kiss/slight make out session. There is also Middle Eastern culture, Islam, and a fiery protagonist that make the 530 pages in the first book fly by. I’m only reviewing the first book, and I think 14 years and up can handle it, I know my 14 year old and I haven’t stopped talking about it, and it has been quite fun to fan girl with her over it.

SYNOPSIS:

Nahri is living in 18th Century Cairo. She is completely alone and always has been. To survive she relies on her healing abilities and her ability to steal, cheat, and con her way to food and shelter. She knows nothing of her past, but is able to pick up any language after hearing a few words. At a performance to con a family needing help healing their daughter, she accidentally summons a djinn, Dara, which in turn awakens a graveyard full of ifrit, and sends Nahri on the run. Not trusting Dara they are travel companions none-the-less as they make their way to Daaevabad, a protected home of the fire beings, and the only place Dara thinks she will be safe. Along the way on the month long journey, Nahri tries to learn about the djinn, called Daeva, and the creatures they are running from. She also learns that she is the last surviving Nahid, healer, and while she may be a shafit, a half blood, she has powers and lineage the kingdom desires. Dara isn’t forthcoming with information, as a result his dark past and incredible powers keep Nahri on edge. She is constantly plotting her escape from the magic carpet carrying them and the future that she doesn’t understand let alone know if she wants.

The book is told from Nahri’s perspective and from Ali’s as well. Ali is the second born son to the king of Daevabad and has been raised away from the palace at the citadel. With a soft spot for the shafit, second class citizens of Daevabad, he gets tangled up in a plot to free child slaves and gets called back to the palace to be watched and tested as his brother’s future Qaid, the top military official that he has been preparing for his entire life. Ali is already an outcast to his family, as a devout Muslim in practice, belief, and actions, unlike his family who identify as Muslim for political unity.

Once Nahri and Dara cross in to Daevabad and the two narratives come together, the politicking, deception, deceit, and historical complexities get intense. The king demands that Ali get to know Nahri so that she can be persuaded to marry the emir, Muntadhir, but Nahri is in love with Dara and struggling to learn how to be a healer in the mythical world. To say that the story gets messy with the djinn tribes, and the manipulation of power and historical atrocities would be a simplification. But the writing is superb, and the world building encompassing. The book doesn’t drag and even after reading all three volumes, you’ll find yourself thrilled to know that the author has some additional points of view online.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author takes a lot of liberties with Prophet Suleiman’s story, but it is fiction and I don’t think that anyone would be mislead by the information given about him and his control over the djinn. The “Islamic” elements in the book are really just that, elements, they aren’t plot lines, or more than just a layer to the setting and the characters. The history and the cultural richness is made more complete by the foods, clothes, and salat times mentioned, but there is nothing Islamic fiction about the text.

I love the writing. Period. It is engaging and doesn’t lag or feel repetitive. The characters are very fleshed out: no one is good or bad, the entire cast is shades of gray, and their motives and intentions are often debatable. My daughter and I have argued and I don’t think we have tried this hard to convince each other about characters since Harry Potter, and it is so great!

FLAGS:

SPOILERS: Dara and Nahri have chemistry and they kiss and long for each other, but it isn’t the bulk of the story line. Ali starts to fall for Nahri, but he has poor judgement so it is by and large dismissed. Muntadhir is always drinking wine and courting courtesans and is never in his own bed, nothing is detailed, it is said in passing, or implied. It is also hinted that Muntadhir is in love with his best friend, a male, and pretty much everyone knows, and they just look the other way. It does not state anything explicitly about them, but it is hinted at, implied, and mentioned by the other man’s father that the prince has broken his son’s heart numerous times.

Wine is always present, as is stealing, and lying. There is a lot of violence, not overt gore, but occasionally graphic as Nahri is a healer and there is a war simmering in the current time line, and a historical one that wiped about a whole tribe that is discussed throughout.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t be able to do this for middle school, but perhaps closer to the end of the school year, I would suggest that the high school book club consider it. There is a ton online for this award winning debut novel, so I’ll just include the author’s website: http://sachakraborty.com

Happy Reading!

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

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Four hundred pages of painfully powerful verse that you will have to force yourself to slow down and not rush through.  Yes, you want to know what happens to the young, black, muslim teen writing his truth, but to read it too quickly will deprive you of feeling and contemplating and absorbing the message that if, you, like me are a white (ish) person of privilege, need to surround yourself regularly with to understand.  The OWN voice narrative is co-written by one of the Central Park Exonerated Five and should be required reading for everyone 14 and up.

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SYNOPSIS:

Amal Shahid is 16 years old, and maintains he is being wrongfully accused of a crime that has left a white boy unconscious.  He acknowledges he threw the first punch, but is adamant that he didn’t throw the last.   From his trial to his incarceration in a juvenile detention facility, the narrative pushes forward as he adapts to confinement with flash backs to pivotal moments in his life.  He is a gifted artist and writer and his creativity and ability to express himself is what will hopefully provide him a way to survive.

I know I’m leaving this vague, because truly I cannot do it justice.  I started taking pictures of powerful sections, and when I found myself taking pictures of nearly every page, I realized that the book is something to be experienced in its entirety and will include just a few internal pages to tempt you.

 

 

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is impactful in that it claims only to share the protagonist’s truth, it doesn’t get off tangent from that, but allows for the reader to add to the narrative their own understanding to make it personal and resonate most profoundly.  His situation involves so many injustices plagued upon him only because of his skin color, and a system that is designed to keep racism alive and powerful.  He was at the wrong place at the wrong time perhaps, but while the book is heavy, hope is ever present.  I’d like to believe it is because of those that refuse to give up on Amal. I was swept away by the power of a mother’s love.  Truly, what strength for a young man in Amal’s situation to have the world betray him so often in his young life, to find unflinching love, support, belief, and determination in his mother.  

I love that his mother is a practicing Muslim, his grandmother attends church, and he loves them both and values their spirituality.  Allah, the Quran, and Islam are mentioned regularly.  It never is preachy, or gives much doctrine, but it is present, and is a tangible part of how Amal sees the world.

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FLAGS:

There is language and violence.  He has a crush on a girl and she writes him letters, nothing obscene.  There is racism, bullying, racial slurs.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is so much to discuss in this book, and so many resources online.  I think the book might be too mature for my middle school book club, but I am suggesting it to the high school book club.  This book needs to be read, discussed, breathed in, and experienced.  Plus the author’s real life experiences should be incorporated into the discussion as well as the student’s understanding of how present racism is and how they can use their voices and influence to create real, lasting, change, inshaAllah.

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

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Breathe, deep breaths, exhale, phew.  This book is good, like really good, but it ends on a cliff hanger and I was not prepared for it because I read a digital copy and didn’t think 528 pages had gone by.  Needless to say I was not emotionally prepared for there not to be a resolution.  Then the afterward said it was a duology, and I may have freaked out and contacted the wonderfully patient author and had her talk me down, because such words could imply that Thorn was book one.  Also, when I’m frantic I don’t read clearly, but now all is well, she assured me there will be a conclusion, inshaAllah, to Rae’s story.  Picking up chronologically where Thorn left off, this book is a companion in the Dauntelss Path series, but follows a different protagonist and while I highly suggest reading Thorn first, it is not necessary to understand this original tale.  So, phew, I am breathing again, and happy to venture back to Menaiya to share my review of a lovely story, written by an amazing Muslim who once again weaves such an engulfing tale that doesn’t drag or have holes in the narrative, is filled with strong female characters, and text that reads so effortlessly it just sweeps you away.  Truly it is fun for middle school and up (13+), and clearly I’m not passionate about books and fictional characters and don’t need to get a reality check.  

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens in a small village where Rae is in the market with her littlest sister Bean and their friends, Ani and Seri, when the unspeakable happens: Seri goes missing.  This isn’t a tale of a child who has wandered off, it is about a child taken by the snatchers and the materialization that the rumors and horrors they have been hearing of children being taken, becoming very real.  Niya, Rae’s middle sister is a secret mage who tries to track Seri, but can’t break through the mark that keeps her hidden.  As the townsfolk exhaust all resources and resolve she is just another child lost, Rae gets an opportunity to find answers.  Her pregnant cousin has invited her to spend the summer at the royal court and attend the wedding of Prince Kestrin and Princess Alyrra.  Convinced that the palace must have more information about the snatchers, Rae reluctantly agrees to go and investigate what is being done to stop the country’s loss of children.  Rae is nervous to leave her horse ranch, afraid of the teasing she will receive because of her twisted clubbed foot, but above all desperate to help her friend’s family.  

Everything about Tarinon baffles Rae: the extreme poverty on the outer skirts of the palace, the vacant stares of the children, the ignorance of the courtiers, the politicking and secrets.  She doesn’t get much time to ease into this new role though, because she is thrust head first in to it when asked to be one of Princess Alyrra’s attendants. She once again reluctantly agrees, with the hope of getting answers to help recover Seri and other lost children.  After tests to gage if the princess can trust Rae, the two join together to secretly unravel what is going on.  This work in and of itself is incredibly dangerous as those that ask questions often go missing.  Her work is compounded when the princess sends her to get information from the head of a thief ring, Red Hawk, and his informants.  The closer Rae gets to answers, the more perilous situations she gets in and out of, often having to count on her bravery, determination, and wit to stay alive.  She finds an unlikely ally in Red Hawk’s right hand man Bren, help and friendship in an employee in the tax office, Kirrana, and the need for favors from a Fae mage and his Cormorant.  As the investigation progresses, it leads to battles with neighboring thief rings, Rae held hostage at one point, getting her finger chopped off at another, the Circle of Mages seeming guilty, and royalty within the palace duplicitously involved.  All this while a week long royal wedding is underway and the princess’s brother is attempting to kill the princess.  No wonder 500 plus pages still ends with a cliffhanger, eh?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the world building and detail and speed of the story, but I’ve really delayed writing this review as I try and pinpoint and articulate what it is about the characters that I truly am invested in.  And the answer is, I really don’t know, it probably it isn’t just one thing.  They are believable, and flawed, yet so very strong.  Rae in particular has her own self doubt and questioning, but she is a force and she makes mistakes, yet is still gracious and humble, she really is well rounded. There might be some romantic twinges between Rae and Bren, but she isn’t going to compromise one bit of who she is for him or anyone for that matter, which doesn’t mean though that she isn’t still growing and learning.  The book absorbs you right away, there aren’t dull parts that you skim over, or character’s that you mess up and have to go back and clarify.  Unequivocally, the writing is superb.    

The snatchers are inspired by the slave trade and child trafficking that unfortunately is not fiction and is all too real.  I think the edginess and intensity is heightened when that realization occurs for the reader to see that it isn’t just a fictitious conflict within a fantasy plot.

There is nothing Islamic in the book, the characters have their own religion that pops up as Speakers are involved in healing the recovered children and Alyrra goes to pray at one point, but it doesn’t detail what that looks like.  The author is Muslim.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean, especially for the genre.  It does mention that some of the girls snatched end up in brothels, and the guards sent to investigate take advantage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I would absolutely do this for a middle school book club book.  To open the students eyes to quality writing, taking a real problem and nesting it in fiction to be sorted out, and just to see their response to the journey that Rae under takes would make for a great lunchtime discussion.  The book has not been released yet, so there aren’t a lot of reader’s guides or author interviews about it, but I suspect there will be soon.

Not the Girls You’re Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi

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Not the Girls You’re Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi

This book did not work for me. Despite the fact that the main character is Muslim and it is Ramadan, no matter how much I wanted to connect with this multicultural lead and her friends, and see myself in her as she navigates high school, I just could not. The writing was choppy 3rd person which distanced the main character for me, the crude language on every page, the drugs and alcohol in every scene, the detailed sexual encounters throughout, the lacking growth of the characters and the muddled point of the book in general made the book difficult to read. The book is an AR 4.9 but content wise is more suited for mature 18 year olds. Even this review might be a little too much, I’ll do my best to keep it clean. Ultimately this book missed the mark for me in showing females defining themselves, celebrating friendships and diversity, or even just creating characters to cheer for as they navigate life.

SYNOPSIS:

Leila is half Iraqi Muslim from her dad’s side and half American Catholic from her mother. She doesn’t know how to pray as her father isn’t religious, but celebrates Ramadan and Christmas and defines the world on her own terms. She is fearless and owns herself, hence she hates her name and goes by Lulu instead. The book opens with her making out with a boy in a closet which she kind of regrets and then goes to join up with her friends at the party to drink and get high and attack one another for their poor choices resulting in drama. In this instance Lulu’s anger pushes a boy in the pool, and then the four friends devise a way to get home and work out the lies they will need to tell to the parents involved. This scenario with only slight variations repeats five or six times in the book.

Lulu is the fearless one, Lo, short for Delores, is the leader, Audrey is an alcoholic math whiz and Emma, not to be underestimated and often is forgotten (literally) is coming out in her first lesbian relationship. Yes these labels are limiting and stereotypical, especially in a book calling for girl power or what not, but sadly that is really the only space they flesh out, not a whole lot more is known about them. The girls defend each other fiercely to outsiders, but are truly awful and angry to one another all the time. They break apart and Lulu doesn’t really know why, so the path back to one another isn’t really cathartic. They pull a prank to get back at a boy that crossed the line with Lulu, but it fizzles when the threat of what the prank could do is enough to keep him away and they don’t have to complete it completely.

Between the parties there are some sub plots that weave in and out. Lulu has to spend time with Iraqi family friends who don’t accept her and are critical, in Arabic, of her mother. This gives some cultural layer to the story, but the characters are pretty flat and petty and hypocritical. The bombings in Paris a few years earlier, and the resulting bullying by classmates hardened Lulu, but there isn’t much info on how awful they treated her or how it defined her, so not much sympathy is garnered by the event nor does it help the reader get inside Lulu’s head. There is also a sweeter love story brewing than the one night stands that define Lulu, but then she goes with her mother to get birth control so she can sleep with him all while making it clear that he isn’t her boyfriend, she just wants to have sex with him- which she does on her seventeenth birthday.

Eventually the girls are back together and gushing with tales of sorrow and personal growth and vows that they will always be like sisters.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t mind the premise so much as the execution of it. I get that people practice Islam differently, but I really don’t get the need to even bring her religion in to such a story. Culture maybe, but even that is a stretch. I don’t know if the story would be better if it was first person, I would like to think so, as not connecting with the main character was such an obstacle for me. I wanted to see her grow and change or at least have clarity in her decisions even if I didn’t agree with them or couldn’t relate to them. I wanted to feel her remorse or the weight of her decisions, but was often just told in passing that something scared her or was hard for her, not shown it. The theme of not belonging anywhere is a legit one, but I don’t know that this book explored it, it just sort of brushed by it almost as a trial to see if the emotions would stick. Which for a character built up to be unapologetic and unafraid to suddenly want a victim label without any real emotional ties, didn’t work for me. There are such holes in the story, that at times things didn’t seem believable or details were so specific with no context that I didn’t get their purpose. I would have loved to know more about her brothers and the tests they went through, or why her family was so loyal to the Arabs around them. I desperately wanted something that showed a different side of Lulu not just the anger and “F everyone who wants to change me” mantra. People are scared of her and she enjoys that power, but I don’t get why they are scared and why she enjoys it. It seems like a big part of her story and of the book in general to miss. Yes she is independent, and I get that can be misread, but she almost seems one dimensional and flat which defies the concept of defining yourself on your own terms and carving out where you want to belong among groups that see you as other, right?

The character is pretty open that she knows little about Islam, she also claims she isn’t interested. She fasts not so much because it is a commandment but more to appreciate poor people. She says this, but actions don’t seem to back it up. She tries not to drink during Ramadan but she still smokes, gets high, makes out, and lies once the sun goes down. At one point she calls a bride and her mother whores, and refuses to apologize, so her dad gets a fatwa issued. Lulu’s mom mentions that something went all Shiite on the situation, so I’m not sure if the fatwa issuing for such a specific thing is a shiite thing or something I’m just not aware of or familiar with as a tool for handling family dramas.

FLAGS:

The whole book really. Sex, drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, lying, cheating, blackout drunk, vaping, talk of orgasms and going down, lesbian relationship, hetero relationships, sexual encounters, language etc etc etc.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Would never cross my mind to share or suggest this book. Even religion representation issues aside, I don’t know that there is really a single “healthy” relationship highlighted among the main characters, some of the side characters maybe, but not enough information is given to really make that case. The characters just all seem so angry, not saying teenage years aren’t angry and messy, but this one doesn’t seem to add much perspective to that singular thought unfortunately.

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood

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more than just a pretty face

This book is a Muslim YA romcom OWN voice written by a Muslim male.  Woah, right? And the actual story, sigh (blush) I enjoyed it, and part of me is disappointed in myself for how much I enjoyed it.  Most of the characters are Muslim and all over the spectrum in their religiosity so to speak, there are a lot of jokes at the expense of tenants in Islam and trivializing of certain concepts which really isn’t something to celebrate, but it reads real and there is a lot of Islam that is front and center and deep and though provoking. For most non Muslim readers, I’m sure 15 or 16 and up would be fine with the content and 353 page length, but as a former Islamic School Librarian, I’d have to reserve recommendations to college age.  The protagonist is 19, there is talk of sex, but not crass, the main female character has a past that includes a sex tape, and there is a lot of language, but its also really funny and really relatable and really sweet and takes place in high school.

SYNOPSIS:

Danyal is a pretty face, but he isn’t very bright.  He goes to an elite private school though somehow, and while he is admittedly dingy, he is also very kind, innocent and generous.  He was held back at some point in school and is 19 as a senior in high school.  He works in a French restaurant and dreams of being a chef.  He has no desire to go to college and as the only son of Pakistani immigrants, they are not thrilled with their son’t future plans.  Danyal is pretty chill about it though and his mom wants to arrange his marriage, and he is willing, although he is crazy in love with his friend’s twin sister.  He is religious and hasn’t really broken any of the Islamic relationship rules, he prays fajr, and just kinda floats through life doing the best he can and forgiving himself and others when they mess up.

When his mom arranges a meeting with Bisma he is willing to get to know if they are a match.  She however, fully discloses her past to him when they head out for coffee, which involves her rebelling, once a few years earlier, against her father and going to a party, further rebelling and getting drunk and then making the poor and regrettable choice to sleep with someone.  To make matters worse, the event was video taped and spread around the community forcing the family to move.  Bisma is pretty religious and really studious and really sorry, but her father and most community people don’t let it go.  Danyal thinks that is stupid, one mistake shouldn’t haunt her forever, unfortunately he doesn’t think chivalry and pity are enough of a reason to marry her as he doesn’t think they are meant for each other.  Basically, he is still really crushing on Kaval.  So he and Bisma decide to be friends.

When Danyal’s history teacher in a fit of spite nominates Danyal for a prestigious Renaissance Man competition, Danyal calls on Bisma for help.  The topic is Winston Churchill, the beloved British leader, but Danyal quickly learns he is not beloved by most Indian subcontinent people.  Kaval offers to help so that Danyal can win the competition, impress her parents and then maybe give them a chance.  But, suddenly Danyal doesn’t know if that is what he wants.  He wants to be himself, he wants to be accepted, he wants Bisma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You know how it is going to end, you don’t know entirely how it is going to get there, but you know where it is headed, yet the book is still compelling and fun.  Between the banter of the religious friend, and the no longer religious friend, the advice the French Chef bestows on Danyal and Danyal’s complete and utter cluelessness to everything, the book is really warm and the characters really like-able.  I dislike the stereotype of the “religious” character, but the other side characters are better developed.

On occasion I think Danyal’s stupidity is over done, he isn’t an idiot, he just isn’t book smart. So when he doesn’t know what “break a leg” implies for example, it seems a tiny bit off.  I know his friends say he isn’t funny, but I think he is hilarious, especially with his commentary on the Desi community.  “It is the curse of brown boys everywhere.  We either die young or we live long enough to see ourselves become uncles.”

The role of Islam is incredibly prominent, and the characters understand what it means to be Muslim differently.  Sometime I agreed with them, sometimes I didn’t, sometimes the characters didn’t agree with each other, sometimes they did.  There is a lot to think about: destiny, Allah’s mercy, Qalb-e-saleem (a pure heart), caring for the less fortunate.  Even politically there is a strong thread of colonialism, which the characters wrestle with and with being immigrant’s children.   There is a lot packed in, but it flows so smooth and the writing rich with authenticity, that quite often I would laugh out loud and read various lines to my young children.

FLAGS:

Talk of sex and losing virginity, but not detailed, just stated.  The chef is a lesbian.  There is lots of language including the F word, not thrown in effortlessly, usually for a reason, and often reprimanded.  There are a few kisses on the cheek and lips between Danyal and Bisma, but in a Disney princess movie sort of way.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Not for middle or even high school book club. I don’t think that it is a completely “halal” romance story, but I think I wouldn’t be concerned if juniors and seniors were reading it, I think they would love it, and I might just have a few that I want to suggest it to…

 

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

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Yes No Maybe So by Becky Ablertalli and Aisha Saeed

yes no

This new rom com in book form with a Muslim female character written by a Muslim author, sets itself apart by being co-written by a Jewish author and the other half of the love story being told by a Jewish boy’s point of view.  This YA book is very relevant as a special election in Georgia served as the catalyst of the two authors coming together and fictionalizing the effects of white supremacy, Islamaphobia, and antisemitism for the book, while real headlines were urging the two to canvas, get involved, and make a change against the increased showing of hate with the election of Trump.  The presentation of Islam is probably realistic, but definitely not ideal, and with the kissing, multiple LGBTQ+ supporting characters, the profanities, and 436 page length, the book is probably best for 15 year old readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Jamie Goldberg is 17 and is spending his summer helping his cousin work on a special election campaign for a Democratic candidate in an incredibly red district in Georgia.  A very nervous kid, who hates public speaking and talking to girls in general, he would rather be behind the scenes or hanging out at Target.  His little sister, Sophie’s bat mitzvah is coming and things at home are crazy with pre party planning.  His grandma, an Instagram sensation uses him for tech support and video filming, and his easy going demeanor means he spends a lot of time, being bossed around.

Maya is the 17 year old only child of a lawyer mom and physician dad and has just found out that they are separating.  With her one friend too busy with work and starting at the University of Georgia, US born, Pakistani-American Muslim Maya, is not having a very good Ramadan.  When an interfaith event reunites her with a childhood play-date friend, Jamie, her mom convinces her to help him canvas to keep busy and sweetens the deal by bribing her with a car.

Naturally the two spend a lot of time together vounteering for Jordan Rossum, stuffing envelopes, canvassing, and putting up signs.  Along their way they become good friends, and invested in the election as a House Bill banning head coverings, and antisemitic bumper stickers start getting plastered around town.  The end of Ramadan, the election, the hate the two encounter, and families changing, bring Jamie and Maya together.

Maya’s parents are pretty chill about boys, and only caution her about unnecessary complications by dating in high school, when Maya throws it back on them, that their relationship is pretty complicated, she seems to not find an Islamic reason not to make-out with Jamie.  The whole book is angsty and the two feign cluelessness, but based on the cover of the book alone you know where it is going.  The true climax is how much the relationship can be used for political gain, and if they can get their candidate elected.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the political setting, it is a different and very relevant slant.  It might be a little alienating to readers outside the United States, because the political process isn’t really detailed, but the characters involvement in their small slice is a major aspect of the book.  The book is definitely pro Democrat, but addresses the gas lighting, hate speech, and views of those on both sides.

I also like that two minority authors came together to share an OWN voice perspective of life today.  For the most part the story telling is smooth with the two characters getting alternating chapters to tell their story from their point of view.  A few times, I felt details were missing, for example what Maya wore for Eid, when space was given to detail that she didn’t wear ethnic clothes to an iftar, and her picking a dress for Sophie’s bat mitzvah.  Similarly, Maya’s parents seemed flat for their trial separation being a major part of Maya’s stress.  Jamie’s grandma was probably my favorite side character, and one of the most fleshed out.

I am fully aware that some Muslims pick and chose what to follow and that not everyone is strict about boy/girl relations, but I felt like for a book that is set in Ramadan, uses religion as a catalyst for civic action, Maya’s mom wearing hijab, and an opening scene being set at the masjid, there is really nothing Islam in the defining aspects of the characters or story.  It is so watered down and almost catering to non Muslims to feel comfortable, that it left me annoyed.  And I think non Muslims too will wonder why Maya’s mom covers and Maya doesn’t and how that works, or why Maya switches to having one reason for not dating and then a religious one.

The book sets out to do a lot in terms of humanizing the effects of laws and policy on average people, but I don’t know that most Muslims hoping to see a mirror to their experience will find that in Maya.  I can’t speak about Jamie, and the Jewish experience, but Maya is rather forgettable in my opinion.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing, and the F word at that.  In the dialogue set in Ramadan, it becomes a joke to substitute it for something else, but once the month is over, the language resumes.  There is kissing, and making-out with the main characters.  There is talk of hooking up, but nothing explicit.  There are is a side character friend that is gay and he and his boyfriend are affectionate.  After the bat mitzvah Sophie comes out to Jamie.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think that I could do this as a middle school selection, the rationale for Jamie and Maya dating, isn’t ok for an Islamic School message.  I really wish just once, a book like this would have the main character, being like, “nope, sorry.”  It is getting predictable and while I know it is countering the oppressed woman view, it is becoming equally one dimensional in its presentation of Muslim women.

 

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

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All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

Book-Cover-All-American-Muslim-Girl

The power of own voice books is that while you may not agree with everything presented, you appreciate that it is being presented.  This 417 page high school young adult book is authentic and relatable and regardless of if you agree with the characters’ approaches, decisions, and understanding, you see and learn something about fictional characters that feels so real that you hopefully will find yourself in “real” life being a bit more understanding, kind, and accepting.

SYNOPSIS:

Allie is 16 and with her red hair and fair skin, she can pass for an all-American teen.  The only child of a college history professor and child development psychologist her family moves around a lot, but her dad’s extended family congregates in Dallas, and that is the anchor of family and love that warms the book.  Allie’s father Muhammad aka Mo is Circassian and his family speaks Arabic, including Allie’s grandma, Teta, who doesn’t speak any English.  Allie’s mom is a convert, but neither practice religion, and while Allie’s mom appreciates it, it is an incredibly hands off topic for Mo.  And Allie, well, she doesn’t speak Circassian or Arabic and knows nothing of Islam, and reinvents herself in each new school and city she finds her self in.

With Islamaphobia on the rise and Allie using her white privilege to neutralize a situation on an airplane, the reader sees as soon as they start the book, that Allie has a lot of skills to read people and understand how to handle complex situations, but that she hasn’t yet found her self.  As someone who can blend in and transform, the book is her journey to understand her heritage, her beliefs, what she wants in life and move toward finding her voice.  Much like Randa Abdel Fattah’s books which often turn the narrative from a Muslim girl rebelling against her faith and parents, this book has a young protagonist rebelling and turning to her faith.  The book seems to stem from a auto biographical place and the journey of learning about yourself, accepting yourself, and growing is universal.

Desperate to learn about Islam, Allie starts reading the Quran and hanging out with Muslims. While she knows Islam is not a monolith as she has family who cover, some that don’t, some that pray, some that don’t, some that fast, parents who drink, she still feels on the outside when she begins meeting with some Muslim girls at their weekly Quran study group.  As she gets to know the girls, she realizes how truly different Islam is for all of them, and how their experiences shape their views as well.  There is a convert, a black Muslim, a lesbian, some girls that cover, some that can’t read Arabic, some that find praying behind men misogynistic, some that feel unmosqued, they listen to music and read horoscopes, and Allie has a boyfriend.

Allie’s boyfriend, Wells, isn’t just incredibly cute and sweet, and accepting as he learns about Allie’s faith and her journey to understand it, but he is also the son of a cable shock jock toting that refugees should be stopped, and Muslims banned, yeah it is complicated.  As Allie learns more about who she is, she finds her self lying to everyone, and as she finds the courage to speak her truth, she must accept the consequences it has on those around her that she cares about.  Interwoven is a beautiful story line about her and her Teta’s relationship that is heartfelt and genuine and emotionally taxing when tragedy strikes.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that this book exists, and that it is written for Muslims and non Muslims alike. I think non Muslims will see that there are all types of Muslims, and we should be reminded that everyone has their own tests and is on their own path.  Paradoxically I love that it isn’t preachy, but desperately wish there was more emotional connection to Allah swt and RasulAllah, because honestly its a gaping void that makes some of the story fall flat for me.  I get that Islam is different for everyone, but while the book pushes so much that Allie wants to know about it to connect and fit in with her family, I feel like there isn’t much “spirituality” to her approach which kind of makes someone accepting religion seem lacking.  Her approach to prayer and fasting is almost robotic, and yes she says she likes it, but there isn’t any emotional resonance in her perhaps having an internal dialogue with God, or crying out to Him when her grandmother is in the hospital, instead it is read this passage from the Quran, or say this prescribed supplication, which makes her conundrum about her boyfriend, seem arbitrary.  Allie’s non believing, non practicing parents seem to have a softer spot for God, as Allie’s mom says something to the effect of it is hard to stop believing once you start, and Allie’s mom asserting multiple times that while she doesn’t practice she converted for herself, no one else.

I also kind of struggle with the attempt of getting every type of Muslim in the book to show that there isn’t a good Muslim bad Muslim dichotomy to the larger audience, but as a result seems to make the point that Islam can be changed to fit today’s world and that line makes me a bit nervous.  It is fiction, it is quite possibly the author’s own experience,  but I felt like the part of continued growth and working to follow the tenants of Islam got left out.  We all have our tests, and we all sin, but to just say ok, this is me and this is my Islam and stop there, halts the journey and character’s arc rather abruptly.

I love that the book really does a good job of laying out that there are problems, misogyny, racism, stereotypes, everywhere, not just Islam or religion, but in societal structures too, it is really shown across platforms and very seamlessly.  I like that a fair amount of side characters are fleshed out, and compassion extended even when opinions differ.  There is a lot of acceptance consistently shown from the characters and those that don’t show it are called out on it as well.

I wanted more on Allie’s dad though, to know what exactly his religious complexity entailed, I felt like I missed something, maybe I did, but just to say his relationship with religion is complicated or complex, left me wondering and wanting for details.

As it seems with so many of these YA books with female Muslim protagonists, the non Muslim boyfriends are absolutely amazing with their understanding, and patience (think A Very Large Expanse of Sea, The Lines We Cross, The Acquaintance), truly fictionalized high school boys, high five.

FLAGS:

There is Islamaphobia, kissing, drinking, death, racism, sexism, LGBTQ characters and discussions.  There is lying and talk of sex.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is a bit advanced for middle school, the concepts and the acceptance of those concepts might not be conducive to Islamic School book clubs of high school level either.  That isn’t too say that kids can’t handle it or shouldn’t read it, but I think when presented from a school, it is assumed that you are endorsing an interpretation or practice of Islam, and this book might push that for some.

There aren’t a lot of author interviews or teaching guides, online, but if you do choice to read and discuss, you will be fine, there are a lot of layers, a lot to celebrate, and a lot to relate to in Allie’s story.

 

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

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We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

we hunt the flame.jpg

A mature upper middle school/high school aged fantasy romance, written by a nikabi and filled with ancient Arab imagery and Arabic words.  Story-wise it read to me like a mashup of Hunger Games and Ember in the Ashes, and while the overall story is good, the first 60 pages of world building were utterly confusing to me.  I told myself I would read at least 100 pages and then decide if I wanted to continue, luckily before I hit 100 pages I found a glossary of terms, characters, and places online, and the story moved from world building to character development and I enjoyed the rest of the ride.

SYNOPSIS:

In a world that is slowly being taken over by the dark magic that is the Arz, a deadly forest that surrounds the country of Arawiya, one girl in one of the five Caliphates, Zafira, dares to venture into the darkness to hunt game and prevent her people from starving.  Unfortunately the Caliph of her state looks down upon women and this regular heroic act must be done with her impersonating a man and keeping her efforts as covert as possible.  Life for Zafira is hard as she not only juggles this masquerade, but her father has recently been killed, her mother is mentally absent, her best friend is getting married, the Arz is growing, and the people around her are starving.

In more or less alternating chapters we also learn of Nasir, the ‘Prince of Death’ who is an assassin for the Sultan who has also now taken over as Caliph of Sarasin.  Forced to kill innocent people by his heartless father, Nasir also is mourning the loss of his mother,  as he tries to earn his father’s approval and find some validation for his current life.

The two characters come together when an immortal witch summons Zafira to retrieve a magic book from a cursed island beyond the Arz and Naisr’s father sends him to intercept her.  The majority of the book takes place on the island of Sharr, an island that is not only a location, but a living consuming character, and involves a variety of other enchanted beings from the various states.  An immortal Safin, Benyamin, one of nine elites, Kafirah, and Altair, a general from Sarasin that weaves them altogether and complicates everything.   This group, the zumra, must work together to save Arawiya, while constantly evaluating how much they can trust one another, as well as themselves.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the detail and was pleasantly surprised with the pacing.  The chapters are short and kept the plot from dragging for 471 pages.  Having read it and enjoyed it, I don’t know that I can properly discuss it though.  There are things that I just accepted and moved on with without pondering over, because I don’t know if I understood it well enough to even ask the question aloud.  That being said, I feel like I got the story and I understood where the characters were coming from and I closed the book feeling satisfied and willing to read the next one in the series.  The characters grow and develop and they have a satisfying arc without being overly cliche or predictable.  I think Nasir grows much more than Zafira and knowing that the next book is more focused on him, intrigues me.  Altair is by far the most fascinating character and I hope to see more of him as well.

There is a map at the beginning of the book that I referenced A LOT, and truly I have no idea why the glossary and character list was not included in the book, as it is desperately needed. There are a lot of Arabic words and I would like to get an Arabic speaker’s perspective on how knowing what the terms meant affected the story comprehension. 

I like that Zafira has to find confidence in shedding her cloak and stepping in to herself, but I felt it told it more than it showed.  Some of the states are governed by women, the founders are women, that I didn’t feel her fear in hiding her gender.  Similarly, I wanted more information on who/what exactly the Lion of the Night was/is and where the affinities come from.  Perhaps minor points, but details that kept me from immersing myself in this fantastical land and kept me feeling like an outsider peering in and trying to connect with events just out of reach.

FLAGS:

There is a lot of killing, and some of it gruesome.  There is abuse and details of branding and a tongue being cut out.  There is alluding of sexual acts but nothing defined, random comments between characters and implications of girls in a room in the morning.  There is kissing and an intense makeout session that is used to achieve a battle goal, but it is detailed and the characters reflect on how it made them feel in terms of desire, longing, wanting, etc.  So, while it is there, it is there for a purpose other than titillation, that is why I think mature middle school could handle it.  There is a scene in a bar, but none of the main characters drink.  There is some language, albeit not in English.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could do this with 6th graders in my middle school book club, but I will definitely suggest it for the high school one.  I think there are a lot of ways things can be interpreted and because it is a fantasy there is no right or wrong which would make the discussion fascinating.  The romance I think makes the book lean to being more female oriented, but I think there is enough action that boys will also enjoy it overall as well.

Book Website: https://www.wehunttheflame.com/

The book just came out, so I’m sure in the next few weeks and months there will be more tools, more interviews, and more details of what is to come in the series.