Tag Archives: OWN Voice

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

 

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

Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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This AR 3.6, 89 page early chapter book features three stories set in Lagos, Nigeria.  The main character and her family are Christian, but many of the neighbors are Muslim, and the third story is set in Ramadan with Easter and Eid falling at the same time.  The sense of community throughout the book, the OWN voice detail and charm make this book silly, warm, and delightful for first through third grade readers.

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SYNOPSIS:

In the first story Tola heads to the market with her Grandmommy.  Not the fancy mall, but the muddy market further away.  Her older brother Dapo is too busy playing soccer to help, her older sister Moji is busy with homework, that leaves little Tola to carry the items on her head with her tough as nails little grandmother.  Everyone says she is too small, but Grandmommy knows she can do it.  As they purchase the items, and neighbors call to have them pick up items for them too, the duo have to take lots of breaks on their way home, but Too Small Tola does it and proves to herself and others that she might be small, but she is strong.

The second story once again focuses on life in Lagos and the one bedroom apartment the family shares.  One morning both the power and the water are out and the jerry bottles need to be filled at the pump.  When some bullies trip Tola and the water spills, an elderly neighbor lady patiently waits for the right time to get her revenge on Tola’s behalf, and when the bully challenges the woman, the entire line stands together.  Tola may be small, but she stood for something and made a difference.

The final story involves the neighbor, Mr. Abdul, the tailor who lives downstairs, coming to measure Tola and her family for their new Easter clothes.  He let Tola measure everyone last year and praises her as the best measurer in Lagos, and Tola is eager to take the measurements this year.  When the tailor breaks his leg, he is worried he will not be able to ride his bicycle to his clients and will not be able to prepare the Eid feast and pay rent.  Tola knows they have been fasting all Ramadan and between her, Grandmommy, and Dapo they come up with a plan to help.  Dapo will peddle the bike and take Tola to measure everyone for their orders.  Tola may be small, but she can save the day for the Abdul family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love little Tola and her sassy grandma.  The book would lend itself so wonderfully to be read aloud as it bursts with personality and dialogue.  I love the sense of community in such a day-to-day life that would seem to stark and hard to most western readers.  Tola’s draws on those around her to find her strength, from her Grandmommy, to her neighbors, they may tease her that she is too little, but they also build her back up and stand with her.  I love the diversity in Tola’s world.  She seems so excited that Eid and Easter will be aligned and that after her services they will be joining the Abdul’s feast, such a great lesson of tolerance and respect without being preachy about tolerance and respect.  Young readers will enjoy Tola and the insight into Nigeria.

FLAGS:

Grandmommy lies when a neighbor calls her in the market to ask her to pick up his TV, she pretends the battery dies as she and Tola laugh at how ridiculous them carrying a TV would be in addition to everything else they are carrying.  There is bullying when Tola is tripped and then when Mrs. Shaky-Shaky trips the bully.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for a book club, but would be ideal in small groups, or to be read aloud.  There would be a lot to discuss as children would relate to Tola and find themselves cheering her on.

Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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Misfits in Love by S.K. Ali

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I reread my review of Saints and Misfits before diving in to this sequel that can also work as a stand alone, and imagine my absolute delight when all the things I wanted more of: Muhammed and Sarah, the mom, Jeremy, etc., were explored in this wonderful high school and up, 320 page, romantic comedy story.  The romance stays halal and the comedy light, but seamlessly interwoven into a weekend wedding are very serious notions of racism and prejudice within the Muslim community.  The writing is flawless as I tried to tell the summary to my daughter I realized just how many characters there are in the book, yet while reading, I never once was confused about who someone was or how they fit in to the family, it really is quite remarkable how real and personal the characters all become.  In many ways the story is uniquely an American-Muslim (arguably) one with characters that are half this culture, a quarter that, wearing cultural clothes to coordinate with friends, mutli lingual, multi ethnic, and yet all coming together as friends and family.  We, nor are the characters perfect, but that our weakness is explored in fiction so that we all might benefit in reality, is truly remarkable.  I honestly couldn’t put it down, and my teen and tween children may or may not have had to figure out their own meals, as I hid in the corner to devour this book in a single day. I regret nothing.

SYNOPSIS:

Janna Yusuf has just graduated high school and has been spending the last few weeks at her father’s sprawling house on a lake to help with wedding preparations for her beloved older brother.  What started out with plans to be a small nikkah between Muhammad and Sara, has quickly snowballed into a “wedding” with a few hundred guests and an ever evolving color scheme.  With extended family and friends pouring in over the three days, Janna is anxious to see Nuah and finally tell him that she is ready to return his feelings, reunite with her mom after being apart for weeks, and see who her best friend Tats is bringing as her plus one.  But, Nuah is acting weird, her mom seems to be considering remarrying, and her father is revealing himself to be racist.  There is a lot going on, and in between wedding preparations, possible crushes, family drama, prejudice overtones, and a curious ice cream man, Janna is having an unforgettable weekend.

Janna and Muhammad are close, they are the children of an Indian American non practicing father and an Egyptian American religious mother.  Their parents have been divorced for a while, and their dad and his Greek wife Linda have two little boys and are hosting everyone and the wedding.  The heart of the story is Janna as she thinks she is ready to pursue something halal with Nuah, but is slightly intrigued by Sara’s cousin Haytham and very perplexed by her mother’s potential future new husband’s nephew Layth. Being it is a wedding, and many people are staying at her father’s house and many more at the hotel in town with their own families.  Jana is trying to figure stuff out about Nuah while hanging out with Nuah’s older pregnant sister.  She is constantly thrown together with Layth as she meets his Uncle Bilal, her mom’s college friend that has proposed to her, and who’s own daughters are friends of Sarahs.  Yeah, there is a lot of overlap, a lot.  It’s like real life. As attractions wax and wane in such a short time, it is the relationship Janna has with her own family and the contentment she must find within herself that ultimately matter most.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how authentic the story and its characters are.  I come from a small family, but a very close friend has a huge family, and this just reminded me of going to her family events and finding how interconnected and small the world really is.  I absolutely love Janna, she is Muslim by choice through-and-through and is genuine in her understanding and actions that, while the book is meant for Muslims and nonMuslims, she really sets the standard of how fictitious characters can positively affect their readers.  The only slightly forced thread for me was Janna suddenly loving animals and being ready to head to Peru.  I get that she was crushing, but it seemed a little too over the top for an otherwise very plausible plot.

The best part of the book, in my opinion is that it isn’t all fluff and fun, there are some very real issues that get spotlighted.  Like in Saints and Misfits where Janna is sexually assaulted by a seemingly devout, religious, well liked male, this story addresses racism and prejudice within the Islamic community.  Janna’s dad always felt treated as less than by Janna’s mom’s family for not being Arab.  He flat out warns Janna about her feelings for Nuah because he is Black.  Sarah’s Aunt is offended that the mendhi is more Desi than Arab.  The issues aren’t just pointed out, they require active acknowledgement and action.  The author’s note at the end, even discusses the significance and weight of such views at the end.

FLAGS:

There are mentions of the sexual assault that happened to Janna in the first book.  There is mention of periods, a possible affair, racism, and a character who drove while drunk and killed his son as a result.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this book would be a great fit for a school book club, but I think a group of high school or college aged girls would thoroughly enjoy reading this and discussing it, and I would totally invite myself to their gathering to do so.

Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqi illustrated by Fahmida Azim

amira's picture day

This book is the mirror so many kids are desperate to find in literature. A young Muslim girl is excited to celebrate Eid, while at the same time is sad knowing she is missing school picture day with her class. Not knowing what day Eid will be, not having it a scheduled day off in most school districts, and always feeling like you have your foot in two different doors starts early for children in non Muslim majority countries. This early picture book touches on those emotions, and even if you can’t always get a test rescheduled or a project due date moved, at least readers that face these dilemmas at any age and stage in life, will feel seen in this 32 page book perfect for ages 5 and up.

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Amira and her brother Ziyad start the book looking out the window for the moon. They see it, which means Eid is tomorrow and Amira is going to have her mom put decorative Mehndi on her hands. She has her mom include a dolphin in the green swirls and hopes that by morning the color will be dark and beautiful. Ziyad is excited that they get to skip school.

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Mom recruits the two kids to make goody bags and count out lollipops for the kids at the masjid, when the flyer for picture day catches Amira’s attention. Devastated that she will miss the class picture having already picked out a pink-striped dress for the occasion, mom reassures her that she will get to wear her new shalwar kameez, and they will take lots of pictures at the masjid.

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Amira loves going for prayers and the party after, but she is kept awake at night worrying how her classmates will remember her if she isn’t in the picture. The next morning she is excited, it is Eid, but seeing her pink dress hanging next to her blue Eid outfit makes getting dressed a heavy process.

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When they get to the masjid, Amira hardly recognizes it, it is all decorated and everyone looks beautiful. The smell of baked goods makes focusing on her prayers difficult, and after when everyone is taking pictures she remembers what she is missing and feels deflated.

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On the way home Amira works to hold back the tears, when she suddenly has an idea to take the remaining goody bags to her classmates, and maybe catch her class pictures. Her parents agree and they stop at the school.

I won’t spoil if she made it in time, but the kids in her class love her clothes, and her mehndi designs. The book concludes with an Author’s Note, More about Eid and a Glossary.

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I absolutely love the illustrations, little Amira is infectious and endearing. I wish the mom would have been a little more in tune with Amira’s feelings though, she definitely is upset and while I’m glad the family stopped after the Eid party, I feel like more could have been done beforehand to acknowledge Amira’s feelings, and see what could be done to accommodate both activities.

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I love the diversity and brightness of the book to convey the absolute joy and happiness of Eid outside of presents. I think the book works for all children of all backgrounds and is a much needed addition to the repetitive Eid books available.

The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

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The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga

shape of thunder

Usually when a book leaves me with a lot of questions, it is because the author’s writing was incomplete or flawed, this book however, left me with a lot of questions and I’m certain the author did this deliberately. Hence, I don’t know to be irritated or impressed that I care enough about the characters to want to know more. Considering I’m still emotionally attached to the two alternating voices in the book, I’m going to claim the latter, and just be grateful that I was privy to follow the two girls for 288 pages and let the impression the book left me with overpower the curiosity I have to know everything about their past and their futures. This middle grades read is absolutely wonderful and emotionally gripping. I think all kids will have a hard time forgetting the story and characters, and more importantly I think over time they will recall and re evaluate their own thoughts regarding the personal weight of school shootings, gun ownership, sibling loss, responsibility, and maybe even the possibility of time travel. I know this book will stay with me for a long time. This amazing, half-Middle-Eastern half-American author in her OWN voice book somehow manages to discuss a school shooting without being political or preachy and the result is memorable, heartbreaking, and powerful.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating 12 year old voices: Quinn and Cora are neighbor girls that used to be best friends until Quinn’s brother stole his father’s guns and shot and killed students at his school before committing suicide. One of the classmates he killed was Cora’s older sister Mabel. It has been nearly a year since the incident, and since the girls last spoke, but on Cora’s 12 birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her door.

Cora is whip smart and grieving. She lives with her dad, a professor and immigrant from Lebanon who speaks little about his culture or religion to his kids, even though the kids want to know about their heritage and do identify as Arab American Muslims. She also lives with her grandma, her mom’s mom, despite the fact that her mom has left them. It never tells where she went or what happened, which I desperately wanted to know, but Cora doesn’t miss her, because Cora doesn’t remember her, and the family dynamic seemed to be working until Mabel is gunned down. The loss of Mabel is palpable as Cora recalls that she will one day be older than her older sister, and refuses to pack up or touch anything on her side of the room. Cora is in counseling and seems to have a supportive network of friends in her Junior Quiz bowl team, but she misses Quinn even though she can’t forgive her.

Quinn’s chapters begin with a small letter to her brother Parker: what she wants to say, what she feels, questions, memories, anger, disappointment, despair. They are short, but haunting and heartbreaking. Quinn’s home life is fraught with guilt and blame. Her mother has quit work and her father is always working. Her parents fight, a lot. Her mom blames her dad for owning the guns, her dad wants to move to give them all a fresh start, it isn’t pretty. Quinn often has a hard time getting her words out at the speed she wants, she calls it freezing. As a kid, Cora would help, but without Cora and with no one in the house willing or ready to listen to Quinn, Quinn is often left alone. At school Quinn is largely ignored as no one wants to be around the sister of the mass shooter, so she doesn’t try out for soccer, she has no friends, and no one to talk to get the help she so desperately needs.

Quinn has an idea about how to fix everything, and that is what is in the box. She is convinced that if she can go back in time, she can make everything right. The only problem is, she doesn’t understand all the science and needs Cora’s help. Together the two girls work to figure out a way to find a wormhole and fix the damage that occurred. Along the way the girls realize how much they need each other to heal, and the role forgiving yourself has in the process as well.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am shocked at how deftly the book talks about a school shooting without talking about a school shooting. It is how the families feel in the day to day acts that follow a year later and how the girls are trying to carry on with the limited tools that exist for individuals dealing with the aftermath of such an act of terror. It doesn’t go in to the 2nd Amendment rights or detail the lack of legislation to curb such acts, it really stays on the two girls. The hope of finding a wormhole is really farfetched and perhaps unrealistic, but they are so desperate to believe, to find a way to make things right, that you hope for their sake that they are successful.

It is amazing to see from the sister of a shooter the isolation and pain she endures. I don’t know that I’ve really ever considered the larger families of the shooter when your heart is so devastated for the families of the victims. Occasionally you hear about the parents, but what about the siblings, cousins, distant relatives?

I desperately wanted to know where Cora and Mabel’s mom went. I was tempted to contact the author since it really was gnawing at me. I also wanted some answers as to why Parker did what he did, what hate he was spewing online, what were the signs, did he single out Mabel for being Muslim, while also appreciating that there is no satisfactory answers for any violence of this magnitude in fiction or real life.

Cora knows nothing of Islam and kind of wants to, I felt like this could have been explored a tiny bit more. Not in that she has to be religious, but I feel like after such a life altering event such as death, religion and what happens when one dies usually comes up and a person decides they are satisfied with an answer or not. The story isn’t in the immediate aftermath of dealing with the shock, but rather is a little after the event to presumably not have to deal with the raw emotion, and can focus on the pain and strength that comes with finding a new normal. I’d like to imagine at some point perhaps Cora and her dad talked about what happens after death, but the text doesn’t suggest that it was an issue of concern. She does wonder if Mabel was killed for being Muslim and asks Quinn about it. Quinn never defends or justifies what her brother does, nor does she pretend to know, she is grieving too. She is irritated that people try and define her religiosity to make themselves feel better and she does say the family occasionally fasts, makes duas, and they always celebrate Eid.

She talks a bit more about wanting to know more Arabic, saying that if you are 50% Arab you should at least know 50 words, and she only knows five. She wants to hear about her father’s life growing up, and know that side of her. It mentions that he wanted her to feel like she belonged in America, but I’d love to know more. Maybe what happened to his family, what brought him to America, why they opted not to give them more cultural names, etc..

I also enjoyed the slight science thread. It seems the author used to teach science and I love that the scientific method and various random facts find their way into the story.

POSSIBLE FLAGS:

The book talks about death, killing, suicide, and gun violence, but doesn’t relive the chain of events or detail what happened exactly. Quinn and another friend have crushes on boys in their class. There is a Fall Festival that the kids dress up for, but it isn’t called Halloween, and there is no mention of it. The book opens with Quinn’s birthday.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely read this as a middle school book club selection. It is engaging and gripping and a great book to have as an introduction to hard conversations with children. The author has a note at the beginning about her own children doing active shooter drills and having to face this real fear, and I think kids talking about it through fiction is a powerful tool to get them thinking and talking.

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

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A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

This 320 page middle grade novel with alternating point of view chapters engulfs you like a warm genuine hug. It does not have a clear climax, it is predictable, and some characters and cultural touch points could have used more detail, but honestly, I couldn’t put it down. As a half American kid who spent my summers in Karachi, so much of the author’s love of her homeland flows so effortlessly from the pages and took me back to my childhood and how the transformation of comparing the two countries moves to seeing the best in both causes growth within your heart and makes leaving so devastatingly hard. Readers of all backgrounds will seamlessly fall in to the story and enjoy the growth of the main characters, while learning a bit about a culture and the similarities of people.

SYNOPSIS:

The back drop is the sweltering heat of a Karachi summer in the middle of elections. Mimi, Maryam, is visiting Pakistan for the first time in her life. It is her mother’s home land, but her grandparents, and her mom aren’t close. They didn’t approve of Mimi’s dad and mom getting married, and even though they have been divorced for years and he has left, Mimi’s mom hasn’t been home in 12 years.

Sakina narrates the other chapters. She is the daughter of Mimi’s grandparent’s cook. She dreams of going to school, but needs help with her English to pass the admissions test. And even if she passes her family needs her income to survive, and her father’s failing health means that she has to take over his job too.

When Mimi arrives at her grandparents home, it is awkward at best. She doesn’t really know her grandparents, she has never had servants before, and her mother is rarely around. That leaves her to get to know Sakina. Sakina finds this odd as the owners of the home rarely “chat” with her and here this American girl wants to get to know her and is fine with helping in the kitchen. The two strike a tentative friendship as Mimi agrees to help Sakina with her english, and Sakina with the permission of Mimi’s grandmother and with the use of the driver, agrees to show her some of the city.

As Mimi takes in the traditional tourists sites she gives Sakina her first taste of ice cream and soda and other “luxuries” she has never experienced. Sakina introduces her to bun kabobs and other local foods. The budding friendship isn’t smooth, mostly because Mimi constantly compares Pakistan to America and Sakina doesn’t understand why Mimi doesn’t have a father. When the girls find out that Mimi’s dad, a journalist, is in Karachi covering the elections, the girls work together to try and find him.

Throughout all of this, Mimi keeps a journal and the entries are letters to her father.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the girls have to navigate their friendship without and often despite interference from adults. I also like that while societal wise one girl is seen as economically privileged and one is not, the book gives enough for even elementary aged children to see that in America Mimi and her mom are financial struggling, but in Pakistan they are not and how that disparity is arbitrary. They also see that family and safety and security are also a part of life’s quality and not country specific. Things that one girl takes for granted are envied by the other, and it goes both ways.

Even for a middle grades book, there were some plot holes. If Mimi had been late night googling and plotting on a secret map all the places her dad had been writing articles from, she should have had a heads up about Pakistan. She knows so little about Islam and has like one shelwar kamees, so it seems a bit of a stretch that she speaks urdu pretty proficiently. I feel like some stumbling with the language or some back story on that would have been great.

Religion is handled as a cultural touch point, neither girl prays, but both find solace in visiting a masjid. Various characters are in sleeveless tops, the athan is heard in the back ground. I wish there would have been a bit more finding of Islam as Mimi found her culture too, but alas it isn’t there.

The majority of the book takes place within the grandparent’s home with the elections being a big part of why they can’t go out, yet the mom goes out a lot, which really rubbed me the wrong way. She took her daughter shopping once to meet an old friend and that is it. Who travels across the world to spend zero time with her kid. I didn’t like the mom at all, and wish there was some background or even some growth on her part. A lot of the minor characters seemed to fizzle as well in terms of having some depth.

There are some cultural and country facts at the end of the book, but within the text I was surprised that more wasn’t shared. I like that it mentioned Karachi was the original capital, but it should have also in the same sentence mentioned that Islamabad is the current, I think readers would assume that Karachi is still the capital of Pakistan.

The book is an OWN voice through and through and the value of that is felt in every sentence. It isn’t all positive and rosy, but it is genuine. The author loves what she is writing about and it shines through leaving the reader with a favorable sense of Pakistan: the country, the culture and the people.

FLAGS:

The book is clean, possibly some tense moments when Sakina’s family is robbed. There is also discussion of marrying someone your parents don’t approve of, divorce, and Mimi’s mom possibly having a boyfriend. Mimi’s mom is an artist and paints pictures of people. There is lying and scheming.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be a fine choice for an elementary book club, I think any one older will find the book a tad bit predictable. I plan to have my children read it so we can discuss points of view, experiences, universal traits and social economic classes. There are a lot of wonderful lessons wrapped up in a heartfelt story that I can see 4th and 5th grade children benefiting from over and over again.

More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood

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more than just a pretty face

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

 

Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin illustrated by Ebony Glenn

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Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin illustrated by Ebony Glenn

 

not quite snow whiteThis 32 page picture book meant for preschool to 3rd grade really should be required reading for EVERYONE.  So many lessons, so beautifully conveyed in the simple text and beautiful illustrations that I made each of my kids read or listen to it and then discuss: self confidence, nay sayers, self esteem, race, passion, body image, kindness, and perseverance to name a few. Accelerated Reader Level is 3.2 as older kids will understand a bit more than the younger ones, but I truly believe all will benefit.  Written by a Muslim woman of color, featuring a girl of color and illustrated by a woman of color, this OWN voice book has it all for girls and boys alike.

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Tameika loves to sing and dance and be on stage in front of an audience (stuffed and unstuffed).  She feels like she can be anything she wants and when her school puts on a production of Snow White she can’t wait to audition to be a princess.

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She arrives early the first day of auditions and helps her friends with their lines and nerves.  But then she hears them whispering that she can’t be Snow White.  “She’s too tall, too chubby, too brown.”

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Their words deflate her as she internalizes their thoughts about her.  She doesn’t feel like singing or dancing and she questions her appearance.  Her mom tries to build her back up.  Her father reinforces her qualities, and slowly she starts to think maybe her parents are on to something.

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The next day she has to face her fears and when she steps out on to the audition stage.  She knows what she loves, she knows the joy it brings her and she has to dig deep to push the negative away and shine.

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Yes, I’m going to spoil the ending, she gets the part and she rocks it, ok I’m projecting based on her smile.  But it truly isn’t about getting the part and excelling at it, it is trusting that you are perfect as you are and confidently owning it.

The book is available everywhere, even the library, so please go get it, read it with your kids and get discussing! Fiction is a great start to talk about racism and fat shaming and all the other things that you think are hard, but kids need to hear and see and talk about from a very early age.

 

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

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It takes about 124 pages to be swept away to the city of Noor, but once it happens, it is hard to come back.  The 391 page fantasy story takes a while to get going, but the character driven plot filled with amazingly strong and diverse women is worth the slow start.  Middle school readers and up (AR 5.8) will enjoy the blend of Islamic imagery, sub-continent Asian culture, fire, Ifrits, Djinn, family, relate-ablity and good quality story telling.  The fact that it is a main stream book, with so much religion and culture makes it all the more remarkable in its universal appeal.

SYNOPSIS:

Fatima is a Muslim girl adopted by a Hindu family, only everyone in the entire city was killed eight years ago except for Fatima, her adopted sister, and an elderly lady, when the Shayateen attacked.  The orderly Ifrit were asked to defeat the Shayateen and protect the city, and when they did, the wealthy returned along with people from other cities.  Thus Noor is now a vibrant city of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and languages repopulated and ruled in halves by the Maharaja, Aarush and Ifrit Emir, Zulfikar.

Fatima works as a messenger and her favorite place to deliver packages to is an old book shop owned by Firdaus, an Ifrit she regards as a fatherly figure.  He has taught her languages and provides her a place to learn and grow.  When he dies in front of Fatima, she is forever changed, literally, he transfers his powers to her, and she is now not only part human, part Ifrit, but also the Name Giver, an incredibly powerful and important being in bringing the smokeless Djinn from their wold to her hers.

With rebel forces threatening the Maharaja’s rule, Ghul and Shayateen entering the city, a taint threatening the leader of the Ifrit, a traitor in each palace, and a budding romance between Fatima and Zulfiqar, the characters pull you in and create an enjoyable story that is vivid, fantastic, and hard to put down.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The story doesn’t have a neat and tidy plot culminating in a climax, but the character arcs and vivid world building pull you in and keep you interested.  I love that the characters are different and complex and unique, and that women are so so strong and celebrated for their strength in all spheres, not at the expense of the males, but solidly in their own right.  It is refreshing and glorious to see the matriarchal Ifrit world contrasted with the human world, and the strong females that emerge in both.

I love that there is so much diversity and tolerance and the book doesn’t shy away from presenting faith practices and acceptance in such an honest manner.  There is a four page glossary and it is needed, yet not overwhelming at the same time.  The most read page in the book for me however, was the Dramatis Personae page listing the characters.  Until that 124 page mark, I was constantly flipping back trying to keep everyone straight, not so much because the characters are confusing, but “what” they are took a little while to stick.

I got sucked in by this book truly, I ignored my children during our Corona virus quarantine one day to read the second half, and I don’t regret it one bit.  The romance, was a bit cheesy at the end, but it was clean, and sweet and presented as a way forward, not as a settling or sacrificing choice for either character which was greatly appreciated.

FLAGS:

There are a few kisses once the two main characters are married.  There is stalking and attempted sexual assault by a character, but Fatima more than took care of that with the support of many strong females.  There is mention of a homosexual relationship, but not dwelled on, and I think one could argue that there is  possibly something more going on between two of the females, but it isn’t explored.  There is death and killing and violence, but nothing extreme.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I had hoped to sneak this in for book club next month, but with school closed indefinitely, it might have to wait until next year. I think girls will gravitate more to it than boys, but I think that is ok, because often girls need more of a nudge, in my experience, to give fantasy a try.  I am trying to convince my daughter to read it, but the first 100 pages are pretty slow, so if I can’t force her through it, I don’t know what chance I’ll have, here’s hoping.

NPR Review: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/18/724120066/language-has-magic-in-the-candle-and-the-flame

Interview with Nafiza Azad and Hafsah Faizal (We Hunt the Flame) https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=hafsah-faizal-and-nafiza-azad-interview