Tag Archives: Identity

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.

Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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After reading a few chapters of this book, I really had no intention of finishing it, knowing that my review highlighting the main character’s bisexual identity and romance would draw critiques from both people that don’t want to see Muslim character’s identifying as any of the LGBTQ+ labels and those angered by my mentioning of them as potential flags.  Alas, I did finish the book, and I am reviewing it because as a (former) Islamic School Librarian, I would want to know how much romance is in any book that I would shelve or recommend, and this book particularly gives no insight about any romance in the blurb on the inside flap.  The author’s first book was very clearly about being a queer Muslim, but this YA short 244 page book focuses a lot on Zara’s relationships, her parents support and acceptance of her being bisexual, and her new romance with a girl.  The book is not graphic or even overly steamy, but the blurb suggests the book is only about immigration, hate crimes, and bullying.   So, I write this review to give a heads up to parents, like me, that might see this book on the library shelf or if like the author’s first book, which was picked up by Scholastic, in a school book fair, and not realize that there is a fair amount of discussion about her sexuality and how it is perceived in the Pakistani and Islamic culture, as well as how she doesn’t see the need to fast in Ramadan or pray five times a day, but still identifies as Muslim.  All that aside, I also didn’t love how the book was written, it is a lot of telling and not showing, I feel like the mom is painfully underdeveloped and flat, and the story threads don’t weave together consistently;  it reads scattered.  The book is pretty short for YA and with so many heavy themes, it ultimately can’t spend much time exploring any of them particularly well, a shame since the author in real life seems to have endured much of what she writes for her characters in regards to immigration status and citizenship.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara Hossain is a senior at a Private Catholic school, in Texas, she has friends that have over the years become family as the parents too regularly get together.  Zara came to American when she was three.  Her family left Pakistan for more educational opportunities and after her father’s pediatric residency, he stayed on with a work permit and green card waiting for citizenship.  The process continues to drag on, and it isn’t finalized.

A boy at school, Tyler, is harassing Zara for being Muslim, an immigrant, and brown.  Her father wants to discuss it with the principal, her best friend Nick wants to beat him up, and her mother just worries.  When finally a meeting with the principal is set, Tyler’s father doesn’t show, and things escalate.  Zara’s locker is defaced with profanity, Tyler is suspended, and the Hossain’s house is vandalized.  When Zara’s dad, Iqbal, goes to talk to Tyler’s father, he is shot, by Tyler’s dad.  He ends up in a coma in the hospital.  During all this Zara is crushing and pursuing a relationship with Chloe, who has just come out to her parents.  Zara’s family is very accepting of Zara being bisexual, and take Chloe in when she needs a break from her conservative Christian family.

Tyler’s dad is well connected in Corpus Christi, and while Iqbal recovers, he is faced with trespassing charges.  Although trespassing is a misdemeanor, by pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine, a criminal record will further complicate their citizenship status, and where they call home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows how messed up legal immigration often is. Dr. Hossain is the victim, he is shot,  he is a vibrant member of his community, but is being forced to leave and uproot his family.  The issue however about trespassing isn’t ever completely clear, the reader is never given a play-by-play account of what happened that night.  I wish we were.  It would be nice to not leave that area gray.  Also a lot of what lead up to Tyler causing Zara so much trouble is rather glossed over.  I wanted to hate him and be angry with him, and then be forced to examine how much was his doing and how much was his father’s, but I never really felt that emotion until the book told me to be mad.

I vaguely recall from the book that she is in a religious high school, the inside flap when I took the picture (see above) seems to stress it more than the story does.  She does mention that they couldn’t start a Pride Club, but I wish she would have talked a bit about being Muslim in a Catholic school, or better yet, shown the reader.  She doesn’t come right out and say that all Muslims are different and this is her.  I wish she would have, instead she talks a lot about being annoyed at having to explain why she doesn’t pray and fast.  Yet she never tells the readers why she doesn’t.  She goes to mosques to counter Islamophobic protests, and talks of going to Sunday school to learn Arabic as a child, but she is very clear that she was encouraged to question religion and God, but not what she found or why she still identifies as Muslim if she doesn’t believe it.  I was curious if she doesn’t believe it actually, why fast at all? If she is still questioning, why not say that.  I really felt that Islam and being Muslim was just a box to be checked to justify the hate crime, but really, she could have just focused on the culture.  There are Urdu phrases, and lots of foods mentioned, she clearly loves Pakistan and talks highly of it and often points out the good and bad in both Pakistan and America.  Food is in the book a lot, and not just Desi food, frozen yogurt is a crutch for the story, and it gets a bit annoying.  I wish there was as much character development as there was food detail and banter.

I liked that her parents defend and stick up for their daughter.  Whether you accept the lifestyle of Zara and her family or not, it is wonderful to see families stick together.  The nosey aunty got put in her place and if you have ever had to deal with the stereotypical aunties or the threat of what everyone will say, you had to cheer for Zara’s parents.  I don’t care what your thoughts are about LGBTQ+, that scene was awesome.  Great job Iqbal and Nilufer.  It was one time that Nilufer got to shine, I really don’t get why Zara’s mom is relegated to the cooking, feeding, worrying stereotype for much of the book.  I lost track of the number of times the book says, “no need to worry your mother,” or something to that effect.  The lady clearly is loving and strong, but doesn’t get developed, and it is frustrating.

The ending is a bit abrupt, yes time is ticking, and whether to move to Pakistan or stay and fight the system is definitely not an easy decision, but how is Canada suddenly the magical answer? I assume for most it is enough, and being the OWN voice tale seems to be very close to reality in this regard, I have no room to roll my eyes, but Canada has civil rights issues with Muslims too, and this 2021 published book kind of made it seem like it is just the perfect answer to all their problems.

FLAGS:

Violence, bullying, Islamophobia, profanity, vandalism, crime, shooting, stereotypes, hate, lying, straight and lesbian romance, crushes, kissing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would not work for an Islamic School middle school book club selection.

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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