Tag Archives: mental illness

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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This fabulously fresh and honest book told in alternating OWN voices shows how two seemingly different 6th grade girls discover how much they have in common as they learn about themselves and their families along the way.  Sarah is a Muslim Pakistani-American, and Elizabeth is Jewish and has an English immigrant mom, the two come together over food, family stress, discrimination, and middle school social drama to form a solid friendship.  But fear not, it isn’t easy and the book will keep upper elementary/ early middle school girls hooked.  Not sure if boys will be as drawn to it, but if they can get over the brief mention of having a period, they too will enjoy the story.  The 336 page book shows how much we have in common, and how hard fitting in can be for everyone.

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah is starting a new school, a public one, having been at a small Islamic school prior to 6th grade.  She is not happy about it and to top it off, her mother is teaching an after-school cooking class at the school that she is required to attend.  Hoping to sit in the back drawing and go unnoticed, she finds she can’t sit quiet when her classmates start giving her mom a hard time.  Unaware of why she had to leave her previous school, and tired of her mom needing her help with her catering business, Sara also has to help her mom study for her citizenship test, handle two little brothers, deal with no friends at school and not being able to celebrate Halloween.

Elizabeth loves cooking. Her mother does not.   She is excited to learn Pakistani food at the cooking club even if her best friend thinks they shouldn’t be learning things from “them.” Elizabeth is admittedly nerdy, and struggling with a life-long friend finding others to spend time with, her life at home is difficult too.  Her dad is always traveling for work, and her mom is depressed with the recent passing of her mother in England, to the point of not really functioning.  With Elizabeth doing the cooking at home, and trying to get her mom to study for her citizenship test, Jewish holidays and obligations get neglected, and Elizabeth not knowing how to help her new Muslim friend handle racism,  is spiraling herself.

When the two girls decide to give each other a chance they find they might be able to be more than just cooking partners, but it seems like one of them always does something to mess it up.  Either saying something hurtful, getting defensive, or not sticking up for each other.   The girls get their mom’s together to study for their test, but it isn’t so easy for the girls, who are hesitant to trust one another.

An upcoming cooking competition, offers the girls a chance to make a cross cultural fusion dish that can wow the judges, help Sarah’s family’s financial situation, prove to the school that diversity is a good thing, and hopefully give the two girls a solid friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic it sounds and feels and how it doesn’t focus on boys or crushes, but on friendship between two girls at an awkward point in their lives and the family stresses they are experiencing.  The book is for all readers and does a great job of not going overboard with what the girls face.  I love how tolerant they have to learn to be with one another and that they have to learn to drop their defensive guards.

I read the book in two settings and didn’t want to put it down, it has enough pull that you really want to see where the book is going and are happy to overlook the slight repetitiveness of them stressing about the competition, but doing nothing but talking about the stress. Really the competition doesn’t even seem that important at the end, but considering everything going on, that to me is exactly as it should be.

I love the rich culture of Pakistan, England, Islam, and Judaism that seep in and never get preachy or dogmatic, but get celebrated and experienced.  This is why OWN voice books are so beautiful and powerful.  Admittedly, Elizabeth’s family is not super religious, but a few more similarities would have been nice.  Yes her brothers are eating pepperoni Hot Pockets, but a shout out about halal/kosher marshmallows would have really rung true for so many of us that stock up at Passover.

I also love how the side characters have substance and aren’t just used as a foil to show something about the main characters.  They get a little flesh on their own, and that enhances the richness of the story.  Seeing that they have their own struggles to overcome as well shows how none of us have it all together, and that we are all capable of improving ourselves.

FLAGS:

The girls meet during school hours when Elizabeth lies about her period starting to get out of class.  Sarah mentions that hers has already started.  Elizabeth mentions that her Jewish grandmother is visiting her son and his husband, nothing more is said, just that.  There are some derogatory things said about Sarah and being Muslim and Pakistani, but really mild.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to find a way to do this book for a middle school book club.  I’ve already told my 13 year- old daughter it is required summer reading.  The Muslims have diversity within themselves, some wear hijab, Sarah does not.   The book is so relatable and the personas sound the age for their views and struggles and perspective.  The financial stress, the mental illness, the immigrant experience, the racism, the politics, are all wonderfully woven together, and the food, well, there is a reason I didn’t recommend this book at the beginning of Ramadan, you are welcome.  Happy Reading.

 

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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I realize the inherent difficulty of writing books for middle grades about the events of September 11, 2001: the author lived through it, the readers did not.  Yet, it seems like at some point a book regarding it, will just feel right, and I don’t think for this age group, I’ve found it yet.  This AR 3.3, 228 page book is a quick read, and while some of the characters have spunk and personality, a few of the storylines seem incredibly forced and the overall timeline and holes in the story will be ultimately disappointing for most readers.

SYNOPSIS:

Deja is starting a new school now that her family has gotten a room at a homeless shelter.  Immediately her fifth grade classmates are given an assignment about home, with the end goal that eventually this project will transform in to being about the change of New York’s skyline fifteen years ago.  The details regarding the attacks of September 11, are not given forthright and as Deja knows nothing about the attacks, and the fall of the towers, her inability to get answers adds to her frustration at home and school.

Deja is angry as she bares a lot on her young shoulders.  Her dad can’t hold a job, and his moods and ill health put caring for her younger siblings on her.  Her mom works as a waitress and is always tired.  They lost their house, lived in their car for a while, and now occupy one room in a shelter.  Deja refuses to lie about her home life and thus her aggressive attitude is always on guard.  Another new kid, Ben, joins the class and he and Turkish American popular girl, Sabeen, all quickly become really good friends.  Each have something brewing beneath the surface that they are dealing with, but their friendship helps them cope and bonds them together.

As the trio of kids work on their projects together, Ben finally shows Deja online footage of the attacks and clues her in to what everyone else in their Brooklyn class seems to know and has failed to tell her.  Deja links her father’s declining health to that fateful morning and decides she needs to go to Ground Zero and get some answers.

She doesn’t really get answers, but at least it is the catalyst for an overdue conversation with her and her father, and hopefully a start on the road to healing the family rifts.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Much like the book Nine, Ten there seems to be the token Muslim girl in the story to offer her perspective on the Islamaphobia that occurred after the attacks.  In this case Sabeen doesn’t detail anything specific happening to her, other than a clerk at a store telling her to go back to Saudi and her uncle getting screened regularly at the airport.  Of all the characters I feel like Sabeen gets the short end of the stick.  She is incredibly flat, stereotyped and undeveloped.  Her family is Turkish, she is wealthy, her mom wears niqab and they are all overly kind and sweet, which is great, but when Deja goes over for lunch, they ask her if she prays, which seemed so random and off to me.  A lot of the basics about the character the author got right, she says that the terrorists were Muslim, but they weren’t, sharing a sentiment many of us Muslims feel. She wears hijab, and takes it off when she gets home.  I don’t like that the mom speaks English, Arabic and Turkish, but is first introduced having Sabeen translate for her with another parent.  Seems incredibly pretentious and misleading.  Ultimately her storyline is just overly forced.  She has to leave Ben’s house when they talk about September 11, because she is so affected by it.  She wasn’t even alive when it happened, and I get that when it is discussed us Muslims are on guard, but the author makes it seem like it is her whole world and influences everything around her.  If you live in New York, especially, I’d imagine at some point you’ve had to come to terms with it, no?

That’s why I also struggled with Deja’s dad.  He is so debilitated by the events of 9/11 he can’t function, yet they happened 15 years ago, presumably before he met Deja’s mom and they started a family.  So, really she fell in love with him in his current condition and thought having three kids with him was a good idea? He was fine and then wasn’t? For 15 years he hasn’t been able to get some sort of help for his PTSD type symptoms?  Seems like a stretch in the timeline, and one that is hard to excuse even for 3rd and 4th graders.

I really like how Deja’s homelessness is brought out and hopefully readers can learn some empathy from her.  Unfortunately the entire 5th grade class is so idyllic that I don’t know that most if any kids reading the book will relate to such a well behaved, so accepting, forgiving and generous group of kids. I mean yeah that’s the goal, but its way too overdone.  Ben, Sabeen, and Deja are best friends after the first meeting even though Deja is rude, mean, and doesn’t like them.  I’m not even sure what Ben and Sabeen get out of being friends with Deja?  Deja undoubtedly benefits from them, but there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons given why they’d be so drawn to her.

And finally, I struggled with the theme of how being “American” united them all.  It makes sense when discussing it as a class, that it doesn’t matter their color, income, life experience, whether they were immigrants or born in America, but the concept comes up again at a critical point when Ben and Deja are on the subway and seems so misplaced to me.  On the subway there would be plenty of tourists and visitors, that wouldn’t be American, no?

FLAGS:

The book is clean, it does mention some drunk people at the shelter, but nothing specific, just in passing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection because the target age is lower than who I meet with.  But, even despite some of my criticisms I’d recommend this book be in classrooms and school libraries as it does offer up a perspective on historical fiction that hopefully could lead to a slightly deeper understanding of the events at a young age.

 

 

 

Piece by Afshan Malik

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Piece by Afshan Malik

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This 168 page young adult book from Daybreak Press focuses on a small Muslim family in Texas, that has their own stresses and interpersonal relationships, but are thrown in to a whirlwind when the father of the family returns home from a medical mission to Syria and finds himself in the psych ward broken and troubled.  The effects each of the character’s struggles have on them as well as those they care about, makes for a haunting yet relatable read for fourteen year olds and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The Jamal family is made up of Hannah and her older high school aged sister Noreen and their physician parents Dahlia and Adam.  Hannah runs track and is more introverted in handling friends and her father’s life altering condition.  Noreen on the other hand is ultra organized and rational in her approach to life, much more like her OB mother.  To cope with the stress of her father’s return she commits herself to more clubs at school and staring at her phone.

Hannah doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and when the track team understands that Hannah’s dad is dead and Hannah doesn’t correct them until later, her comfortable acquaintances turn on her and she will have to learn to stand up for herself and use her voice in the course of the book.  Noreen’s character arc is a bit more dramatic as her involvement in yearbook club brings new people in to her life, mainly a boy, who might not be as a genuine in his goals as she is, and thus their climax results in a trip to the police station.  Dahlia has a close friend, and Adam has a few as well, but the story really stays pretty streamline in exploring the relationships of the family and how little things and big things affect them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book takes on a serious issue like PTSD and is framed in such reality.  The scene where the dad blurs his past memories with the current real happenings, is done very well.  It conveys how fractured his brain is while showing the stress his situation lends to the mood of the home is powerful. There is also a very real situation of attempted physical and sexual assault that occurs when Noreen finds herself in a position with a male classmate who attempts to take advantage of her.  The book holds back in details, and she is able to defend herself, keeping the book clean, while still implying what his intent was, and how fortunate she is to get away.

More superficially, but also more relatable is the girls bickering and fighting and pushing each other’s buttons, and the mom trying to help, but is alas is frequently at a loss at what to do with them.  The situations the girls face at school are probable and relatable that I think a lot of middle school and high school readers will see themselves trying to balance extra curricular activities, friends, finding a quite place to pray and keeping their hijabs coordinating.  The family is Muslim and they dress the part, talk the talk, and pray together regularly.  Islam is very present, but not preachy, it is just what the characters believe and what they use to shape their view of many of the tests they are facing.

There are a few hiccups that are worth noting, but don’t overly deter for my appreciation of the story.  I struggled with the writing style in the first few chapters.  It took a bit to feel a connection to the characters and get what was going on sorted out.  It is written in 3rd person omniscient (I believe, it’s been a while) with each chapter more or less focusing on one of the four main characters.  As a result a handful of times the narrative gets awkward in explaining what one of the characters is doing or thinking, because the focus is on someone else, or the timeline overlaps a bit.  It doesn’t happen an awful lot, but the book is under 200 pages, so it is annoying that it happens at all, let alone more than once.

Story wise the characters seem oddly isolated.  The book tells us how small the town is, and shows us how everyone knows the parents regularly, the girls seem to be pretty lonely.  There isn’t any warmth from the schools or neighbors in helping them deal with their dad coming home so wounded.  In a town they have lived in for so long, this seems off to me.  Also if the town is so small, and the family so religious, there is an imam who visits once, you’d think there would be more of an Islamic community presence for the mom and girls to find support from.

FLAGS:

There is violence in the remembering of what happened in Syria.  There is some Islamaphobic talk as Hannah endures some verbal bullying and the attempted physical and sexual assault on Noreen.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this as a possible middle school book club choice.   It tackless some big things, and uses Islamic boundaries to talk about mental illness and sexual violence which is a huge plus when addressing our youth.  Noreen isn’t in a relationship or even overtly infatuated with the guy who puts her in a compromising situation.  But even if she was doing something “wrong” what he did is not ok, and the fact that the authorities believe her, and she plans to discuss it with her mom, and she is not further victimized by speaking out, is something our kids need to see and understand.

There are discussion questions at the end and I think males and females will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  Unfortunately, and possibly the only other disappointment in the book is the price.  Nearly twenty bucks for a short YA paperback book makes it hard to buy classroom sets for such activities, and I’m sure will even keep the avid reader debating whether they should purchase it or not.

 

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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This brand new middle school read is like a quick picture of a young girl’s life.  You get to know her as she is, you briefly meet those around her, you see a week or so of her life and then the book ends and you aren’t the same.  You wonder about her, you worry about her, and you find yourself wanting to reach out to those that maybe remind you of her.  Truly a wonderful book of 277 hard-to-put-down-pages that give insight into Malaysia in 1969, OCD, and the beauty of people willing to show their humanity in dire circumstances. My only concern is that I don’t know that there is anything relevant to the typical target audience western reader that would compel them to pick up the book and see it through.  All the reviews online that praise it seem to be from people older than the YA demographic.  Yes, I really enjoyed the book, but I know who the Beatles are, who Paul Newman is, I am a Muslim, I recently went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and saw the diversity of religions and culture, I know people struggling with mental illness to the point of disability and the exhaustion that ensues; yet I don’t know if I could convince my 12 year old daughter to read it.  If I forced her, I don’t know that she would find the book as beautiful and powerful as I do.  I think a lot of it, she simply wouldn’t get, and even less of it she would relate to.  I probably will force her to read it at some point, and I’ll happily revise this review and swallow my assumption about what the youth these days can handle and identify with, but until then, please let me know if you are in the YA demographic and what you thought of the book. Thanks.

SYNOPSIS:

Melati is a 16 year old Malay girl in 1969, living with her mother, a nurse.  Her father, a police officer, has recently died, and with his loss, she has become crippled by OCD and the fear that her mother too, will die.  Counting numbers move from consoling her and keeping the horrific thoughts at bay, to becoming almost like an incantation that must be performed nearly constantly to keep her mother safe.  As race riots between the Chinese and ethnic Malays engulf the city one fateful afternoon when Melati and her best friend Safiyah are at the movie theater after class, watching the latest Paul Newman movie, the reader is shown how even in calm situations, keeping the OCD from consuming her is a full time job.  With no knowledge of treating and even diagnosing mental health, Melati tries to hide her visions and ticks from those around her as it has alienated extended family, and worries her mother.  The conclusion instead is that she is being haunted by a djinn and thus her mother takes her to different imams and healers, to no avail, and knowing that the common treatment at the time is to have those suffering carted off to an asylum and experimented on, something Melati’s mom, Salmah vows never to let happen, Melati suffers alone.

Once the movie ends, gangs enter the theater and Saf and Melati are separated.  Melati is saved by a stranger, a Chinese lady named Auntie Bee, and Saf is left at the hands of a Chinese gang.  Violence erupts, lasting for days, and curfews prevent Melati from searching for her mother.  While Auntie Bee and her family care for her and take in other neighbors, it is made clear that tensions between the two ethnic groups are high and have been for some time, but that good people exist on both sides too.  People who see people as people not just their culture. 

It is a YA book, so there is a little suspension of reality to reunite a number of the characters and give them the happiest ending such a gritty book can muster, but the author does warn the reader before the story begins that this book has violence and anxiety triggers, and death, she actually urges those that will be inversely affect by such things, to not read her book.  And it makes sense, it is graphic at times, and characters also die, and the tone is powerful, and the OCD is intense.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book embraces all its themes wholeheartedly, there is no happy ending, or magic cure for Melati’s illness, within one family there is racial tension and beautiful examples of selflessness, that two people can save each other but not like each other, and that families can be really disappointing.  At times the presence of the djinn is so annoying that the reader feels how crippling it must be to Melati, as it cripples the story as well, the balance is perfect though, it doesn’t drag the book to the point of wanting to put it down, if anything it makes you cheer harder when her little victories take place.  

I like that there isn’t a huge sappy reunion, because the danger is still going on and the characters presence of mind to the tasks still at hand is actually a subtle, yet powerful nod to the hope that Melati and her mom will be ok.  Can you tell I’m trying not to spoil too much, just suffice it to say, the women in this book are strong and determined and inspiring.

I like that Islam is present and that Melati has to grapple at times with her faith to find where it lies and how she accepts some of the events that have taken place, and the djinn fighting to consumer her. In many teens it is a right of passage, but for her it is amplified by the horrors she has lived through and seen and her own mental state.  Clearly the author is Malay and Muslim as she sprinkles words and phrases and traditions seamlessly into  the narrative that makes it flow with authenticity and vibrance.

I wish at times we knew more about the history of what lead up to the violence, or maybe even more about some of the characters, but alas I think this is Melati’s story and those that have turned their back on her and her mom really don’t deserve the ink needed to share their roles.  Some details about the resolution of the riots or how the country came back together might be nice, but a quick Google search can quell any curiosities.  I appreciate that the writing is smooth and intentional and well crafted and not a distraction to the internal turmoil and story being conveyed.

FLAGS:

Violence, racial tension, graphic death, anxiety triggers.  Melati and Vincent hold hands, it is a bit fuzzy if it is out of reassurance or something more.  There isn’t explicit sexual violence, but Melati does see a soldier pressing his body against a school girl who is of a similar age to her.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to do this as a book club, but I don’t know that the students will read it voluntarily.  I may have to bribe them and get permission from the school counselor.  I think they would benefit immensely from the insight in to mental illness and feel comfortable talking about their understanding of it, being it is presented in a fictional format.  I think the violence, because it is rooted in history can be understood and be discussed.  

Interview with the author: http://richincolor.com/2019/02/interview-with-hanna-alkaf-the-weight-of-our-sky/

Author’s website: https://hannaalkaf.com/the-weight-of-our-sky-2/

 

Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

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Anything But Okay by Sarah Darer Littman

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This 345 page contemporary book is brand new from Scholastic and isn’t yet in the AR database, it is billed as appropriate for ages 12 and up and is probably pretty accurate.  The cover, in my opinion, is rather a disservice for the audience.  The book would appeal to girls and boys, and isn’t really about school drama, which is the vibe I got from the cover.  The story is actually pretty deep and thought provoking, on a wide range of issues facing many young adults today.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from Stella Walker’s perspective, the book opens with her and her friends, Ken and Farida, reviewing old movies.  Farida, an Iraqi immigrant, is constantly pointing out the stereotypes, tropes, and bias they engage in regularly and see depicted around them.  She is constantly nagging her friends to recognize their privilege and check it.  Stella tries to get it, but it’s not that easy. Nor are the obstacles that the book explores. 

Stella’s parents are vets, and her brother, Rob, has just returned from his second tour in Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD.  Additionally, Rob’s best friend commits suicide and yet, Stella’s family doesn’t involve her in the conversations and concerns, and as a result she doesn’t talk to her best friend Farida.  This tension is amplified when Farida wants to run for class president, but her parents advise her against it, as Islamaphobia is on the rise with the mayor, up for re-election, spouting hate speech, and his son, already in the race to lead the school. 

Stella, as a result, is convinced to run with the help and support of her friends.  All should be going well, but in a desperate attempt to get Rob out of the house, a trip to the mall to watch a movie results in Rob sticking up for a Sikh kid being bullied, and breaking the instigators nose.  The police are called in, and the real drama of the book takes center stage, as social media, a bigoted mayor, and a family’s member friendship with a Muslim paint Rob as a radicalized terrorist.  The Walker’s house is vandalized and Farida’s family’s restaurant is suffering and the mayoral election and class office election will all require some tough decisions and insights into honesty, framing, perseverance and friendship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t think I was expecting the book to explore so many topics and to do it, in a rather real and raw way.  The arc of concepts covered provides a lot of juice and relevance and the quick pace, makes it a quick read.  Some pages are letters written by Rob, a number of pages are the various police reports taken after the mall assault and the various points of view are great.  It explores how media editing and framing can change a narrative to one side or another. 

I love Farida, bless her, she is annoying and one-dimensional, but yet so relatable.  She is the token minority that ties it all together and is the billboard representation of “other.”  I can so relate to her, being the minority and the one that constantly had to be the gadfly on the masses.  

The school election is a little cheesy and overly elevated in importance, but it is the catalyst, so while I wasn’t really invested in who won, I liked the concepts it brought to the forefront of the characters lives.  The family struggles and retaking the truth and owning it, was the real strength of the book, and introducing kids to the horrors of war, returning from war, mental illness, the blind eye of politicians, the struggles of the VA, the power of the media, friendship, and concepts of patriotism, privilege, pride, suicide, and moving forward.

My biggest complaint is the awkward and forced romance.  It isn’t even romance really.  After the mall incident, Stella confides in a classmate, Adam,  who comes over to see if she is okay and they hold hands and kiss.  It is so out of left field and so awkward I would imagine for most readers, not just me the conservative muslim mama looking for books for my kids and their school book club.  In all they kiss five times I think, and mentions them holding hands twice.  It isn’t lamented or dwelled on, it just kind of boom, jumps in to the story and then yes, they kind of snuggle after the election results, which is a little more fitting (but still irritating).  Rob meets a girl, and again later on when she comes to celebrate the plea deal its nice that she is there, but they talk like once and he completely falls for her, kind of intense and random.  The discussions about letting someone in to your life and all is good, and more natural and they don’t kiss, but they do have “feelings” for each other.  

There isn’t much about Islam other than that Farida is Muslim and that her mom wears hijab.  Even the Islamaphobia is mentioned more for political and prejudicial purposes than as a segway in to understanding Islam.

FLAGS:

Kissing (see above), suicide, war, violence.  Beer is mentioned at the end when a college veteran gets one out of the fridge.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I really want to do this as a Middle School Book Club choice, yes I’m hosting those again.  I need to talk to the school counselor about the kissing stuff.  I think they can handle it, but I don’t know the kids well enough just yet, to verify this.   Being it isn’t the Muslim characters, I can’t imagine it is any different from what they see on TV or in Disney Movies, but still, I can’t confidently say it will happen.  Twelve and up is the non Muslim age point, I’ll have to think it over and update this once I investigate. 

Author’s website: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/anything-but-okay-coming.html

Reading Guide: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/books_2/young-adult/abo-teaching-reading-guide.pdf