Tag Archives: Identity

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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An amazingly empowering simple story that breathes pride and beauty in to names and our identities.  The 40 pages are a celebration of the rhythm of our names and the dreams and hopes that they contain for us.  Perfect for kindergarten to second graders, readers of all ages will find something valuable in this book.  Those with “common” names might reevaluate what their names mean or why they were so named, children with “unique” names will find the music and confidence to ask others to learn their name correctly, older kids might reconsider shortened nick names, and we all inshaAllah will make more of an effort to get people’s names pronounced right.

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A little girl has had an awful first day of school.  As she stomps toward her mom at dismissal.  No one could say her name.  Not even the teacher, it got stuck in her throat.  Her mom gently reminds her stomping is only for dancing, and tells her that her name is a song.

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The little girl is skeptical, but as they say people’s names on their way home, and find the magic and rhythm and beat in each one, they address the horrible things that have happened to the girl that day regarding her name.  At lunch girls pretended to choke on her name, and later one boy said her name was scary, some even tell her, her name sounds made up.

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Her mother explains that some names come from deep in the heart, not the throat and cannot be choked on, that names are fire and strong, and that names are made from the sky when our real names were stolen and so new ones have to be dreamed.

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All the way home they go through names, diverse names, beautiful names.  The next day she doesn’t want to go to school, but she has a song to teach.  When her teacher starts calling  out names, the little girl starts tapping the rhythm, when Ms. Anderson starts to struggle on the little girl’s name, she starts to sing it.  She explains that her name is a song, and that she will teach it to them.  The other children then ask her to sing their names. And with a smile on her face, it is music to Kora-Jalimuso’s ears.

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I love that there are three pages of the names mentioned in the story and their origins and meanings listed.  I also like that the little girl’s name is not revealed until the end.  The pronunciation of the names is in the text, all of them, even Bob.   And when I read the name Trayvon, I felt an added weight of saying people’s names, breathing them into our lives and not forgetting them.

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The family could be Muslim based on the mom’s head wrap.  The author is Muslim and there are Arabic and Islamic names included in the story.

Teach Us Your Name by Huda Essa illustrated by Diana Cojocaru

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Teach Us Your Name by Huda Essa illustrated by Diana Cojocaru

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This book will resonate and empower anyone who has a “different” name, and hopefully provide insight and awareness for us all.  This 32 page picture book for grades 1st and up has a self empowering message, a confidence building approach, and problem solving tips to achieve a desired goal in a respectful way.  Written by a Muslim author, the book’s text is well done, unfortunately the pictures are inconsistent to me, some are beautiful and detailed, others seem rushed and unfinished.

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There are 20 letters in Kareemalayaseenadeen’s name, and the first day of school is such a stress for her.  She fears the teacher stumbling over her name, the other children laughing, and her unable to tell them how to pronounce her name correctly.  Her mom tries to explain that for some people the kids at school have hard names, and that for some people her name is easy.

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She reflects that in fact no one has ever made fun of her for her name, but that in history class she never sees her name, or on TV or in movies or on key chains.  She can hardly fit her name on her worksheets, and fitting it on banners is impossible too.  Eventually the kids kust call her Karma-Deen and even though she dislikes it, she is too shy to speak up.

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Over the summer, Kareemalayaseenadeen goes on vacation to visit family.  She doesn’t even think much about her name where everyone can pronounce it and say it with ease. Her Sittee though, has heard about her anxiety and sits with her to help her work through it.

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Sittee asks Kareemalayaseenadeen if she knows that her name means “excellent guidance” and that her name is a big part of her.  If she doesn’t like her name she isn’t liking an important part of herself.  She then urges her grandaughter to guide others on the proper way to pronounce her name.

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On the flight home, she ponders her grandma’s words and how to guide others to proper pronouncation, without being rude or settling on them shortening her name.  When she gets home she puts her plan in to action. And it works!

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When Kareemalayaseenadeen grows up, she becomes a teacher and each year she reads this book she has written (the one I’m reviewing) and asks her students to teach her how to say their names.

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The importance of how valuing someones name values the person and their family and culture is really one that as a society we have to keep working on.  We can say  names from Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars and Game of Thrones with no problem, so why can’t we try and pronounce someone’s name who is real and next to us and important to us? We have become lazy, and we need to do better, this book is sweet and kind and should really be read regularly as a reminder to us all, that names are beautiful.

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There is nothing religious about the book or even culture specific. There is a hijabi in the illustration of the market place in the unspecified “overseas country” and the name Kareemalayaseenadeen has Arabic bits, but a lot of names do as well, grandma is refereed to as Sitti, but isn’t defined, so the book is definitely meant for eveyone, especially those who will never find their name on a mug at a gift shop!

 

 

Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova

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Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova

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I had really wanted to love this book about a young Pakistani girl living outside of Pakistan learning to love all her different parts.  Unfortunately, the book was so scattered that no point was made, no message conveyed, and sadly, no excitement at being represented in literature really felt, .

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This 32 page book isn’t bad, it just really isn’t memorable.  It starts out with Leila arriving at her Naani’s house for dinner as her parents and her do every Friday.  Her maternal grandmother comments that she likes Leila’s saffron buttons.  Leila beams at this because she doesn’t know that she always likes being herself.

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Tonight, they are joined by lots of extended family and Leila is on the lookout for parts of herself that she likes.  She feels safe with her family, and likes being told she looks like her aunt when she smiles.

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The book then kind of abandons the theme of finding parts of oneself to like, and moves on to cultural trinkets to enjoy.  She identifies camels on shelves and Arabic books too, and can’t wait to go on her first trip to Pakistan someday to get her own “Arabic books” and “special ornaments.”  I’m not sure why they books aren’t in Urdu, but none-the-less without any written connection to Islam, they are in Arabic, thus giving, erroneously, the reader the impression that is the language of Pakistan.

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Leila then helps her Naani cook which almost seems like an additional theme of the book: the passing on of traditions.  The book doesn’t really stay here though either, and has Leila running outside to get cilantro from the neighbor Miguel.  Possibly another theme in addressing multicultural neighbors or just how to be a good neighbor, is now being brought up, but nope, the book bounces back to dinner with the family.

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When it is time to leave, Naani invites Leila upstairs while her parents wait to leave.  Here she goes through fabric and scarves rich in color and textures and likens them to ethnic foods.  She then tries on her favorite one, but acts like she has never tried it on before or seen it before, I’m really not sure, the language is a bit awkward to me.  Anyway she opens her eyes in a surprise and likes what she sees, she likes her self, all her parts.

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I wish this book for preschool and kindergarteners, would have streamlined the message it wanted to convey most.  I like finding pieces of yourself and liking the completed you, but I don’t know what the pieces really are in the book.  Yes I could assume and figure it out, but I’m not 5 years old.  The book should have articulated it clearly.  Or if the book wanted to celebrate culture and family traditions, it should have stuck to that.  It really seems all over the place no matter how many times I read it.

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The illustrations are rich and vibrant.  They definitely give a lot to look at and the expressions on the characters faces will probably make the little ones giggle.  There are a few Urdu and Arabic words used in the story that are defined on the back cover.

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The characters aren’t identified as Muslim, none of them wear hijab, but they say Salam and have Arabic books, so one can assume. I picked up the book at the library and don’t regret it, but I probably wouldn’t buy it or unfortunately, check it out again.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

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Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini

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I feel like I preordered this book years ago, I have been so anxious to see what all the hype was about. When it arrived I tore open the box and read it on the short walk from the mailbox to the house, read it again standing in the kitchen, left it for a few days, and reread it now to write the review. SubhanAllah, it didn’t disappoint.

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It reads, as intended, as a powerful letter to a child.  There aren’t long winded morals or overly fancy words. It is direct in its many ways of telling you, that you matter, where you come from matters, that your foundation matters. That you are strong, and beautiful, always, even when the world may not think so. That you are Muslim, that you are from Allah, that you speak in Arabic and Spanish and dreams.  The verses become poetry that dance on the page with the illustrations telling the story as powerfully as the words.  The words in turn float and lilt around images as old as time and as innocent as dancing in the wind.

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The 32 pages fly by that you can’t help but read it again, slowly, savoring all the harnessed power and hope of a multi culture world, a multi cultural faith, that is truly beautiful.  Recognizing the humanity that we all share, yet feeling pride in your own unique skin is a balancing act that doesn’t need to be apologized for, and should be celebrated.

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I love that this book exists.  That it is available on Amazon.  That it is bold and colorful and hardbound, and so well done.  There is diversity in Islam.  There is diversity of belief in Indigenous populations, that there is so much inspiration in the world around us and in our past.  Are all messages that come through even for the youngest readers.

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Ms. Marvel No Normal & Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson illustrated byAdrian Alphona & Jacob Wyatt

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I have to be completely honest these are the first comic books I’ve ever read from cover to cover.  So, while I’m in no position to review the art work, or historical role of the original Ms. Marvel or even have a valid opinion on the superhero story lines, I do want to cover the Islamic elements because even as someone as outside the comic book world as I am, I knew that Marvel’s new Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American Muslim girl from Jersey and that’s pretty big.

I was intimidated to read No Normal, I ordered it from Scholastic and have had it on my shelf for a while, I was excited, but nervous. But then I ordered the second one, which is also a collection of 5 comic books, and thought, let’s do this.  Both collections are easy reads, and the text and what to read first in each story frame is clear.  As with comics and graphic novels the pictures convey much of the story so there isn’t a lot of “explanation,” but the story is compelling enough, that even a novice like me didn’t get too hung up on what was going on and how it could be possible.   While it may tempt younger children, I would hold off until the reader is a teen, especially if the reader is Muslim.  There is a bit of drug use and alcohol in No Normal and obviously violence, but at it’s core it is a story of a girl trying to discover who she is and there is some angsty teenage stuff that someone who hasn’t gone through the emotions, might take as attacks on Islam, parents, and culture.

Kamala Khan is a high school student in Jersey City, New Jersey.  She has a Muslim friend, Nakia, who wears hijab, and non Muslim friends of both genders that seem to support her faith and culture, almost more than she does.  The story opens with her sniffing bacon and her friends humoring her oddness.  Having grown up with the same group of friends around her, they understand her quirks and nerdiness and she seems to fit in.  As with most teens though, she feels on the “outside” and Kamala right away tries to seem cool with the more popular crowd.  She  is struggling to find herself within her Pakistani culture, her American life, her Islamic beliefs and teenage friends, information all presented in the first few pages while at the local convenience store hangout.  A lot for Kamala to balance and she hasn’t even discovered her “powers” yet.

Kamala’s parents initially seem more “cultural” than religious as her father chastises Kamala’s brother Aamir for being too religious, yet is constantly on Kamala, presumably because she is a girl.  In a fit of defiance against her parents strict curfew, Kamala sneaks out of the house to attend a party, accidentally drinks alcohol (she spits it out) and gets caught in some “fog” that gives her morphing, stretching, embiggening, and quick healing powers.

As Kamala tests how her powers work, and what they mean, there are a few funny asides that appeal to Muslim readers: she attempts to use her Burkini as a base for her super hero disguise, and her mother threatens to send her to the Sheikh if she gets caught sneaking out again.  Her parents start to grow on you though, the mom is a very stereotypical immigrant mother who cares for her daughter in a worrying nagging way, the dad actually tries to communicate with Kamala and comes across a little more genuine toward the end of the first collection.  Her brother seems to be level headed, but a minor influence.  He sticks up for her and tries to help, but it doesn’t seem like they are that close.   The final scene in No Normal left a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth and I was glad that I already had Generation Why to dive right into and not let the conclusion of the first one fester in my head.  Kamala shows up to a wedding late, complete in Shalwar Kameez (Pakistani clothing) and gets in an argument with her mom.  Kamala says, “You and Baba want me to be a perfect little Muslim Girl–straight A’s, med school, no boys, no booze, then some hand picked rich husband from Karachi and a billion babies.”  The mom says, “Your father and I want the best for our only daughter our expectations are high so that your successes will be many.”  It goes back and fourth then the mom says she is grounded and the book ends with Kamala retorting, “wanna bet…?”  While I’m sure most every Muslim American teen has felt this way, I don’t think I’d want my 9 year-old-daughter thinking that is how narrow success is defined, or that being the best you can be is a punishment. It’s probably a realistic gripe, but to have it be the last impression, naturally brought out my defensive instincts.

A lot of the awkwardness and stage setting in No Normal is resolved by Generation Why and I found I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.  I might even be anxiously waiting to see what happens next.  Kamala is sent to the Sheikh and while she is intentionally vague about telling him what is going on with her, she does suffice it to say she is trying to help people and he responds by telling her to do it with as much honor and skill as she can. I love that he wasn’t putting her down, but rather trying to mentor her spiritually to find her self and do so honorably.  Really the only other religious/cultural scene is when Lockjaw a giant dog with transporting abilities shows up to help Kamala and her parents say he can stay, but outside because he isn’t clean.  I don’t know if non-Muslims will fully understand why, but it made me chuckle.  It also made me like her family a bit more.  They are strict, but not unreasonable.  They didn’t say, “no” they found a compromise.

Generation Why contains more action than back story.  I’m not entirely sure why Wolverine shows up, I have no idea who the lady in charge of stuff is with Captain America, and I’m not sure why no one finds it odd that the Inventor is a bird man, but hey it is fun.  And it definitely had me cheering on Ms. Marvel as she empowers her generation and learns that being American Muslim might be the easiest of her identity issues when she learns she is inhuman.  It gets a little cheesy, but the foundation of comic books being good against evil, lends itself to that right?

Overall, I think I would recommend both collections are read together, as it gives a better picture of what Ms. Marvel is and can be.  I think thus far the author has done a good job of showing that she is Muslim and that her faith adds depth to the character.  Her tenacity, persistence, determination, compassion for animals, her humor, her nerdiness, all make her very like-able and admirable.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a Book Club selection, because our school only goes to 8th grade and being an Islamic School I don’t know that most of the students feel the identity crisis until possibly much later if at all.  But I think the books would work well for discussion with older kids.  Topics of what youth can do, their role in preserving the planet, discovering your sense of self and purposes are all there in comic book, super hero, action packed form!

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