Tag Archives: real life

Internment by Samira Ahmed

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Internment by Samira Ahmed

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The premise of this book is amazing, the writing and execution of it, unfortunately, falls flat.  The failure to set the stage, develop characters the reader cares about, and create a world in the near future that is both riveting and horrifying doesn’t come through in the book’s 387 pages written on an AR 4.7, but meant for high school aged readers grade nine and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Indian-American Layla Amin is 17 and since the census that her family honestly filled out and identified themselves as Muslim, their life under the new president has been shattered to say the least.  Her poet father lost his job as a professor, her chiropractic mother has lost numerous patients, Layla has left high school and they all live in fear.  With curfews and people they’ve known their whole lives turning on them openly, the book opens with Layla chooses to sneak off to see her Yemeni Jewish boyfriend, David after curfew.  The next day suits arrive to take the family to an internment camp in the desert, near the old Manzanar detention camp used to house Japanese Americans during WWII.

The new camp, Mobius, is the first one to house Muslims and the first of many slated to be built.  The detainees are divided by ethnic background, Layla’s FEMA trailer is in a block of other Desi families, Arabs a few blocks away, LatinX, converts, etc., all given minders to control them from within their own community.  As Layla whines about her cell phone being taken away and how much she misses David, a guard, Jake, takes pity on her and regularly risks his own position and Layla’s, as he sneaks her access to phones, gets her burner cell phones and even sneaks David in so the two can make out.  Somewhere along the way it seems Jake and Layla develop feelings for each other, but it really isn’t explored.  Layla makes friends and somehow becomes a revolution leader with her writing notes about life on the inside and having Jake and David get them to the media.

Those that speak out against their situation or complain, disappear and never return.  The Director of Mobius, ensures it.  In their refusal to eat dinner one night, and their protest at the front gate in front of protestors and the media, eventually Layla gets taken, but with her friendly guards, she finds she isn’t completely alone and that she just needs to be brave a little longer, stand up at the right time and get incredibly lucky to be successful in the revolt.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The President in the book is undoubtedly Trump, and I love the passages that reflect how the fictitious America didn’t become racist overnight, but that the leadership allowing it, ignited the ugliness that already existed.  It mentions making America great again and really sets the foundation of a simple “what if” that really could happen very easily.

The parts that struggle are the story elements, I really didn’t find myself cheering or even liking Layla, I didn’t find her charismatic or interesting, she was really whiney and flat to me.  I didn’t care one bit about her and David’s relationship, it seemed forced and completely not necessary.  A friend or concerned neighbor might have been more hope inspiring than a high school boyfriend she is brooding over to save her.  Her sneaking out and sneaking him in, all seemed selfish and juvenile for a character who in other arenas seemed pretty mature and level headed.  The disconnect is pretty prominent and I really cringed at all of the passages involving the two of them.

There are flash backs to life before the new President, but it isn’t engaging and doesn’t really highlight how horrific life is now, because the lack of character development and world building, everything seems like it has to be said, not shown.  Random characters at the camp would show up and then disappear, and we knew nothing about them, so there was no emotional connection or attachment to what happens to them, it really had so much potential to have heart and fear and insanity and it just doesn’t.

Layla identifies as Muslim, and lovingly recalls ayats and duas of her grandmother, but the family firmly believes that “there is no compulsion in religion” and thus doesn’t hide who they are, but don’t visibly display it in their clothing, or actions much either.  They don’t have a problem with their daughter having a boyfriend and they support it.  Layla and her mom don’t cover, but Layla does show massive respect for the Muslims that do.  Layla’s parents seem to pray, Layla doesn’t, but she doesn’t seem against it.

FLAGS:

Lots of kissing between Layla and David, a gay couple that disappears in the camp, flirting between various other characters, violence, oppression, language, death, beatings.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I actually feel like this could work as a book club book because the discussion would be so great.  Yes, there are flags, but the relationship stuff is so annoying and awkward, I don’t think any kids will find it titilating or compelling at all. The writing is subpar, but the issues brought forth are important, and the students would have infinitely better plot lines for the characters that I think could make the books premise reach closer to its potential.

A letter from the Author: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/a-letter-from-samira-ahmed-author-of-internment/

Book Club Guide:https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/InternmentNovlBookClubGuide.pdf

Review podcast: https://teachnouvelle.com/internment-by-samira-ahmed/

There is a ton online, just google it and Happy Reading

 

Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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Proud: Living My American Dream (Young Readers Edition) by Ibtihaj Muhammad

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I had high expectations for a memoir about such an inspiring figure, so I treaded timidly into the book waiting to be disappointed, but after finishing the book in two days (high praise considering I have four kids), I realized I was holding my breath for nothing, the book and Ibtihaj are amazing! Now three days after I started, my daughter too has read it and I have ordered a handful of copies to offer as my next Middle School Book Club selection.  Inspirational, real, Islamic, hopeful, empowering, check, check, check, check, and well written too.  A great story and a great role model, alhumdulillah.  The Young Reader’s Edition is an AR 6.7 and 304 pages including Acknowledgements, Glossary of Fencing Terms, Ibtihaj’s Advice, and Q and A with Ibithaj.

SYNOPSIS:

Ibtihaj begins her life story establishing her background of who her parents are, how they met, how they came to Islam and how they are raising their children.  She also details how she is different and realizes it from a young age, whether it is substitutes not being able, or willing, to pronounce her first name, or not being able to sleep over at her friends’ houses.  She also sets the stage for the environment of Newark that she was born into and how it differs racially and economically from Maplewood where she spent most of her childhood.  The story then is pretty linear walking through some of the challenges of being highly driven and motivated and determined to succeed and get in college.  How she is first introduced to fencing and why she gives it a second chance after initially not liking it.   Along the way the reader gets to know how Islam influences her point of view as Allah is very central to her decisions and expectations of herself.  The quick pace is not depressing, while others at times do treat her differently she definitely doesn’t paint herself or seem to see herself as a victim or as privileged, she is just herself and this is her story.  It isn’t all rosy and it isn’t harsh, she is putting one foot in front of the other and there is amazing support from her family, and some of her coaches and some of her teammates, but not everyone and that is a very important part of her story too, which I think provides even more for young readers to relate and learn from.  Anyone not familiar with fencing and how the sport and its rankings work will learn so much reading this book, but thankfully not be overwhelmed with it all either.  The book ends shortly after the Olympics and her historic bronze medal win.  The title may reflect her being proud of what she accomplished and continues to pursue and her pride in being a Black American Muslim Woman, but I think anyone who reads the book will just be proud that someone like her exists, and that maybe some small part of ourselves can be great too.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book leaves in some of the naysayers and difficult coaches and teammates.  I really think it is easy to assume that people are great and things should all work out when you are competing on an international level, but alas no, completely not the case, yet differences aside, they still had to win an individual sport as a team. 

 I also love that she is truly what she claims, the way she practices Islam is who she is and she loves her family and her faith.  There are no contradictions she excels and perseveres and finds herself while acknowledging all parts of herself and it is so inspiring.  She portrays Islam as a way of life, she prays and fasts and has days when her iman is low and days her faith is rewarding.  She focuses on what she can control and has to learn to accept what Allah swt has decreed for her.  She has Muslim friends, and non Muslim friends and through it all she is finding her place and is surrounded by love and support from her family.  It really is a feel good story and we should all pray that it continues to be.  She doesn’t portray Islam as limiting, nor as her family an exception to what a Muslim home is, and this level of dawah can really change perceptions.  The book is not preachy or arrogant, it is simply her story and Islam is a part of it.

I like that she went to a prestigious university and it didn’t make all her dreams come true, she still had to work hard and find herself and humble herself to work at a dollar store to scrape by, it shows tenacity and a glimpse of the real world that privileged middle schoolers might not have had to consider before.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  It talks about how uncomfortable she was at her first fencing lesson with her coach having to reposition her stances and thus touch her, and it discusses how she felt listening to music was ok in Islam even though her parents disagreed.  A few sentences at most, collectively, but kids will have thoughts on it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

My 12 year old daughter read the book in a few hours and discussed it with me for even longer.  It was as if some tidbit from the book would blossom inside her and she would consider it, and want to discuss it, from why she would not talk to the kids she was substituting about fencing, to why her coach made her switch to saber, I don’t think there is a shortage of things to discuss, or more importantly listen to from the young readers.

There is a ton about her online as she became the first American Muslim to medal and the first to compete in hijab.  I highly recommend this book for book club, and will  hopefully add how our meeting went in a few weeks.

 

 

 

 

An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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An Acquaintance by Saba Syed

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A young adult Islamic fiction romance novel, yes its a genre, albeit small one. I braced myself for stereotypes, cheesiness, over simplifications, sweeping condemnation, and preachy reprimands.  They never came.  I think this book is different, because from what I felt while reading it, and from what I’ve read the author say, this book is written for us: Muslim females, raised in the west, devout, strong, involved, and vulnerable.  It isn’t trying to convince anyone of Islam, or prove our place in America.  It isn’t trying to justify relationships or make us hide in our houses, rather it is taking us up to the line, showing us our strengths and weaknesses, and leaving us there to think.  In 282 pages, I saw myself crystal clear in the protagonist, the vilifying community, the determined best friend, and the steady parent.  It is easy to judge, but this book gets the nuances, the temptation, the justification, the internal battles, and it does it all without resorting to extremes that would make it inappropriate for upper middle and high schoolers. Yay!

SYNOPSIS:

Sarah Ali has grown up in small town Wickley, Pennsylvania, her whole life.  Her dad owns the local hangout, she is well known and well liked ,and very involved at school and in the masjid that her father helped start.  She has a best friend who is Muslim and although her mother has passed away, her home life with her dad and older brother is solid and supportive.  Senior year, however, is where the book takes place, and with Islamaphobes protesting and a new boy, Jason, in town coming to her rescue, the stage is set for her to have to decide how much their “friendship” crosses her internal boundaries of right and wrong, and when feelings are on the table, what choices she will make.

Throughout the book, there are numerous supporting characters that have their own roles in shining light on the situation from the outside and adding context to the world that Sarah lives in.  But this is ultimately Sarah’s story, told from her perspective, and the internal conflicts are believable because they are hers, the reader can see a mile a way what is going on and what will happen, but to see it unfold within her is at times a little naive, but considering her age, plausible.  It is her denial and acceptance of the situation at hand and what her role and hopes are that make the story very hard to put down.

The book in many ways is subtle, I don’t want to give to much of the plot away because it is obvious, it is a love story between two teenagers that can’t have a future based on the fact that she is Muslim and not willing to compromise that.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real feelings involved and real consequences to the choices that are made.  Throw in the gossip mongers at the masjid, an older brother who is concerned, an ever patient father, and a handful of others and the book feels incredibly real. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

Things are never black and white in real life, nor does reality prevent emotions and desires from breaking out.  There is no shaming in their tale (other than by the judgemental aunties), but there are consequences that are also given their time and spotlight.  From a parenting perspective it shows how a few questionable decisions can really get you in a heap of trouble and heartache, even if on the outside you can argue you did nothing wrong.  Even in the book Sarah remarks that they didn’t do anything, but yet, they did so much, this understanding is really powerful, and so needed for the teenage demographic. The book does not celebrate Sarah and Jason’s relationship, although I must admit I did kind of cheer for them at some points (I know, haram).  It shows that they are good people, but that there is a bigger picture.  It also shows there is life and hope, and forgiveness after, in the healing.

I love that Sarah’s dad is awesome and that his ultimate weapon is dua.  Not the stereotypical immigrant father trope, he is awesome.  I also love that Sarah’s best friend, Jasmine, is a person of color, so diversity gets a bit of a shout out.  The masjid politics is spot on, and the hypocritical aunties are as annoying in the book as they are in real life.  Yes, there are times where the dialogue is a little syrupy and long-winded, but overall, this book is calm and reflective and so, so important for high school and college girls to read.

Islam is the religion practiced, from praying, to how they talk, to how they dress, the subtlties there are brilliant as well.  You can tell the author is Muslim because it is natural and real, not researched and blotched.  The message is ultimately that Allah knows all, and that we do things for His sake alone.

FLAGS:

Truly the most Jason and Sarah do is hold hands, but the masjid ladies constrew that they do a lot more, and that Sarah ends up pregnant and gets an abortion. All untrue, but this revelation, that this is the gossip going around, is explored at the end of the book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Oh how great would this book be as a book club for high school or even college age girls.  But, alas I’m not involved in anything like that so I will have to just recommend this book to anyone that meets that criteria looking for a good book. 

Having said that, part of me really thinks this book doesn’t need to be discussed.  Saints and Misfits was a book that needs to be read and discussed with our youth, this book, I kind of like it to stir and fester within each reader.  The lessons are there, and are clear, and some days I could see a girl really feeling one way and switching another.  Like the father in the book, our kids, inshaAllah, have been taught right and wrong, we have to see what they do when tested.  And this book can really speak to them, and offer them a bit of conciousness when faced with a seemingly small decision that could have big consequences.  This book will stay with a reader, and that’s a good thing.  I just don’t know if it will manifest the same with everyone, and I think that is a great thing.

 

Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fraVJZI1xNU

From the Author: https://muslimmatters.org/2017/11/10/an-acquaintance-a-young-adult-novel/

 

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.