Tag Archives: religion

It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

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It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

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Sometimes you just want a light fun, empty-calorie read, and in that regard I feel like this book really delivered.  The characters are in college, and yet it is published by HarperCollins Children, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, which perhaps added to the lack of expectation and increased forgiveness.  It reads very much like a Bollywood movie, there is dancing, angst, romance, redemption, culture, religion, and a sense that a certain arbitrary line of it all won’t be crossed to earn the book an R rating, and will keep it safe for Muslim high school teens.   I think the book is fine for Muslim’s in 10th/11th grade and will be enjoyed by those in college (and up) as well.  Over 429 pages the highly predictable tropes find their footing in their unique religious and cultural framing.  The plot is perhaps a bit on the nose and overly serendipitous, but individually the characters show range and complexities that will resonate with readers.  They have all made good and bad choices and continue to do so, but the big ones are largely in the past, and what we, the readers, get to see in many ways is them reaching for forgiveness in a contemporary whirlwind culmination of a wedding, overcoming addiction, a past felony, secrets, ex-significant others, familial expectations, loss, change, and school.  The book is not preachy, although there is a like-able imam as a side character and he gets some advice in.  The Muslim characters grapple with their faith as they would their culture; picking and choosing what to practice, but never really escaping it or wanting to completely abandon it either, it is just who they are and part of their identity. I enjoyed the book, reading it in two sittings and not feeling guilty that I lost sleep doing so, but like most rom-coms, the specifics and characters will blur over time.  It has a lot of similarities with Hana Khan Carries On, while not having quite the religious adherance of S.K. Ali’s characters or rawness of Tahira Mafi’s.  One thing that is uniquely it’s own, however, is the author’s beginning dedication, I don’t think I have ever read one quite so perfect, memorable, and possibly guilt causing.  I laughed out loud!

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SYNOPSIS:

Kiran’s mom passed away a year ago from ALS, and with her older sister Amira in law school at the time, she dealt with her mother’s illness and passing, largely alone as she additionally had just been ghosted by her first and only boyfriend, Deen.  Now that her sister is about to graduate, and Kiran is about to start university, they can finally be roommates and reunite the family.  Except, Amira has met someone, Faisal.  Someone who was there for her when her mom died, and they are planning to move across the country to California in a few months.  Devastated Kiran forces herself to be happy for her beloved older sister, until she finds out that Faisal is Deen’s older brother, and there are some gaping holes in his past.  With her sisters future on the line, promises to her deceased mother haunting her, and a serious lack of communication abilities (more on that later), she is determined to uncover the truth about Faisal and maybe even Deen in the process.

Alternating point-of-view chapters give Deen a chance to provide his side to the story: the reason he had to disappear from Kiran’s life, what happened to his brother, and the unreasonableness of his family.  As he struggles with his own conscious and stumbles around unsure of his own potential and worth, Deen comes across as selfish and arrogant, but ultimately only cares about his brother and making things up to him.  He is determined that Deen deserves to be happy and he is committed to keeping Kiran from destroying it.

In typical desi fashion, appearances matter and while all the behind the scenes sleuthing, plotting, and fighting is taking place, on the surface, wedding plans are being made and dances choreographed.

The book includes pages of texts from three years ago between Deen and Kiran as they meet at Sunday school and sneak behind the mosque.  There are also gaming dialogues between two anonymous fantasy characters that it is pretty obvious are Kiran and Deen.  The reveal isn’t a shock to the readers, only the characters, and proves a nice way to see redeeming traits in characters who’s present real actions aren’t exactly endearing.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The OWN voice representation of Desi culture and Islam is not in addition to the story, it is woven in to the characters and the plot.  The characters are largely liberal as the families are chill with dating, mixed gender hand shaking and dancing, and what not, but their Muslim upbringing is almost always close by.  The characters say “astagfirulllah” after kissing, they acknowledge that some of the Muslims drink and some have left that lifestyle, they miss visiting the mosque, they recognize that they aren’t praying, etc., while many flags are present, they really aren’t sensationalized or given more than a single word in print.  It strikes a pretty solid balance of showing where some thoughts or values come from, and where personal individuality takes over.  I don’t think Muslims will be offended, nor non Muslims confused.

The biggest issue I had with the characters is that it really could have been resolved, all of it, with a few decent sit down conversations.  Kiran and Amira, for example, are terrible at communicating and it blows this whole thing into a ginormous mess.  Sure, there is no book if there is no drama, but they never fix this.  So many lessons are acknowledged and the character arcs are shown or hinted at, this one, not so much, if at all.  They didn’t talk when their mom was sick, when she died, about what they were going through, about their dad, about their future plans, about the wedding, about the concerns with Faisal, about Kiran and Deen having a past, about moving to California,…the list really is exhaustive, and it doesn’t seem to show that they acknowledge their role in escalating everything and vowing to be better.  Sigh.

I read a digital ARC and it had a few spelling errors, it broke down the fourth wall in one paragraph, and I’m hoping the final copy will have resolved these issues.  It mentions that typically the bride and/or her family pay for the wedding in Islam, and this is erroneous, culturally possibly: the brides family would cover the nikkah and ruhksuti, with the groom covering the walima, but to put it on religion is just incorrect.

FLAGS:

Deen talks about “knowing women,” but it isn’t explored, and the groom is teased that he will be loosing his virginity card.   The kisses aren’t usually described, it is just conveyed as something that happened.  There is a bit of detail in the chemistry felt in the dances, but in true Bollywood fashion, they stop short of kissing. There is a stripper called to the bachelor party, but the characters are appalled and she is immediately escorted out. A religious character accidentally drinks alcohol and blacks out.  There is profanity, not excessive, but conversationally.  There is talk and repercussions of addiction to prescription drugs, a felony crime committed and punished for, deceit, lying, bullying, and physical altercations briefly recalled.  There are parties attended, alcohol consumed,and  at one point a female forcefully kisses an unconsenting male.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’ve gone back and forth with suggesting to the high school book club advisor to consider this book.  I think the right group of readers could really opine on the characters actions from the shy Faisal with a huge forgiving enduring heart to the nosey obnoxious Mona Khala, but there are some potential flags that might ultimately keep this book from being entirely Islamic School appropriate even for the highest grades.  Ahh, I’ll keep you posted on what I decide.

Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

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.

My First Book About the Qur’an: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children y Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About the Qur’an: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children y Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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I had planned to review the Ramadan book in Sara Khan’s My First Book about series, but needless-to-say all of the board books in the collection look remarkably similar and the one on my shelf, that I thought was the Ramadan one is this one, the one about the Qur’an.  Rather than find another Ramadan book, I figured to just go with it, Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an after all, and the book is both informative and engaging for little Muslims.  The soft detailed pictures and sturdy binding introduce toddlers and up to the belief in Allah, the pillars, care for all creation and being good to one another.

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The book starts out stating the the Qur’an tells us in the beginning there was only Allah, and that He created everything.  His creations are as big as the heavens and the Earth and as small as the creatures we cannot even see.  He created the trees and mountains and the angels and jinn, as well as the people, He made us all special.

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Allah wants us to follow His rules and sent books and Prophets to show us how to act.  He wants us to be good to one another, to be thankful, to look after our world, and everything in it.  Allah wants us to worship Him alone and pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan, give money to the poor, and go for Hajj.

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He also wants us to have families and to get married and raise our children to be good Muslims, so that when we die we will go to Paradise.  The book ends with facts about the Qur’an and questions and answers that can help further the conversation, increase understanding, and encourage love for the holy book.

Zayan Unlocks the Quran by Najia Syed illustrated by Rizky Dewi

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Zayan Unlocks the Quran by Najia Syed illustrated by Rizky Dewi

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There is a lot of good information and relatable lessons in this 45 page didactic book encouraging children to get to know the Quran, and to not just recite and memorize it, but the presentation just doesn’t do it any favors.   I can’t imagine that seven and eight year olds are going to identify with the five year old protagonist learning how to add and getting in fights over crayons at school, nor that five year olds are going to have the patience for the explanations and understand the story.  The word story in and of itself is a stretch, it is a bunch of ayats from the Quran that are explained to teach young Zayan lessons that reflect his daily life and how he can succeed and inshaAllah earn jannah in the akhira.  The intention is really good, I just wish there was a bit more plot and that the book’s appearance made more sense.  Having the book look and feel like a leveled reader on the outside, but be completely tiny text filled, save a few entire page generic full-color pictures and green bannered meaning of the Quran’s translation, the book and its seven chapters are intimidating.  Space it out, make it an early chapter book in look and feel, revise the premise that a child has no idea what the Quran is, and is completely shook by learning from the kind and patient Qari Sahib that the Quran has lessons and rules to make us better.  It is a stretch to get the book going, it has some wonderful points along the way, and leaves a warm feeling when completed, but I can’t figure out the intended readers age, nor can I imagine many kids will willingly picking it up.  Like the character in the book dreading Quran class, I’m afraid getting kids to read this would similarly be met with dread, which is a shame, because the lessons are strong, the story and presentation just need a bit of polishing.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zayan does not want to leave his toys for Quran class which he attends one-on-one on the computer with his teacher, Qari Sahib.  Reading the Arabic is hard and confusing, he doesn’t understand what he is reading and he would rather be playing.  He has just built a fort and is afraid if he leaves it for class, his sister will destroy it, (over the first few pages I was convinced his sister was younger than him, and a little confused to learn that both are older).  When he begrudgingly logs on, Qari Sahib can tell he is upset and tells him that being kind to his siblings is a good deed and that many good deeds are in the Quran.  Zayan is shocked.  Qari Sahib offers to read some ayats to him and he can just listen before they resume reading Surah Fatiha.  Zayan is blown away at how pretty the Quran sounds when recited and his eyes sparkle when he learns that the Quran contains directions to get to jannah.

Chapter two explores how the ayats in the Quran about kindness can relate to Zayan’s life.  Being kind to your parents, speaking in a low voice, and not making fun of each other.  Ayats are pulled and connections made so that Zayan can inshaAllah implement his new knowledge in his life.  Zayan returns to playing after class and tests out what he has learned.

This pattern continues with chapter three discussing respect, then anger and forgiveness, cleanliness, and honesty.  The parables come when he doesn’t listen to his mother about finishing his grapes, a fight at school involving crayons, playing in the mud and lying about feeding his pet cat. At one point he remarks that much of what his teacher explains to him from the Quran are things that his mother also tells him, almost like she has read the Quran.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The first few lines are so relatable.  The dread of the child putting the entire family on edge, it is real.  I love that Qari Sahib is kind and gentle and patient.  When the mom mentions things to him about Zayan he finds ways to talk to him about it, without lecturing or reprimanding.  I think the Qari Sahim is the real hero in the book.  I particularly like when he went in to detail about our responsibility to care for animals.  I’m glad Zayan has him to guide him because clearly his parents have failed.  Yes, I’m being judgey.  The kid doesn’t know what the Quran sounds like, doesn’t know why he is being forced to read it in Arabic, doesn’t know what it even is about? I’m not so much judging the fictitious parents, more the inconsistent writing.  If Zayan doesn’t know that his mom has read the Quran how does he know what jannah is and who shaytaan is?

FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Obviously not for a book club selection, but I’ve been trying to figure out if maybe my five year old and I could discuss some of the chapters together.  I wouldn’t want to read the whole book because my child loves the Quran and doesn’t dread reciting, I have five children, I know tomorrow it can change, I’m not naive, I’m just saying for him particularly right now, it isn’t a chore and I think if I presented it as a boring thing, he will start to mimic that frame of mind (my older kids know not to ever bash certain teachers, concepts, spiciness of food etc. in front of their younger siblings for this very reason).  But, while some of the lessons are really well thought out, they are just too much for a five year old.  The pictures don’t engage and the text overbearing.  I asked my 10 year old to read it and he found it really childish and didn’t finish.  If the book works for you, alhumudillah, I’m glad, it is a benefit, I wish it worked for me too.

Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

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Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

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I have to be honest that this book really held my attention and was hard to put down for about two-thirds of the 416 pages.  I was genuinely invested in the characters and wanted to see how it all resolved.  Sadly, by the end, I was disappointed with the conclusion, the predictability, the stereotypes, and the cliche’ of it all.  The author mentions in the forward that she is representing her story, not a representation of all Bangladeshi- Muslim American girls, but for an OWN voice book with such a clever premise, I really wanted to be shown more than I was told, I wanted to feel the protagonists strength, and cheer her on as she found her happiness on her terms.  But alas I felt that she let other’s fight her battles and she really only threw her religion and culture around as weighted plot oppressors, not as strands of her life that she had to decide to embrace or understand in the process of growing into herself.  There was a lot of potential to discuss mental health and family expectation, but the end unraveled all that the book could have been.  Undoubtedly the author is a good writer, and brown Muslims are not a monolith, but I feel like sometimes we need to square away who we are before we just clamor for what we want.  This book has relationships, it is a romance novel afterall, but whether the characters are straight or LGBTQ+, there isn’t more than kissing and hand holding and would probably be fine for 9th grade and up if you are ok with a Muslim lead lying to her parents and having a boyfriend.

SYNOPSIS:

Karina Ahmed is 16 and expected to be a doctor when she grows up.  Her conservative Muslim parents are immigrants from Bangladesh and very over protective of their oldest child.  Samir her younger brother, a freshman, is a robotics nerd and the pride of their family.  Karina loves English and wants nothing more to major in English in college, but her parents are insistent and despite her struggles with math and science she is determined she has no choice in the matter and must make them proud by being a doctor.  This inability to be what her parents want has caused tremendous anxiety within Karina and when her parents leave for a vacation to Bangladesh for a month, she is hoping to be able to relax and enjoy life for 28 days with her Dadu, paternal grandma, and her friends, Cora and Nandini.

The only extracurricular activities Karina is allowed are Pre-Med Society and tutoring, where she helps others with English.  Her teacher asks her to tutor a classmate one on one to prepare for the end of the year exams, and reluctantly she agrees.  Very reluctantly.  The classmate is brooding resident bad boy Ace Clyde, a beautiful slacker that seems to not care about much.  In Karina’s efforts to get Ace to study and taking advantage of limited parental supervision, Karina goes with Ace to a sweetshop and even ends up at his house where she meets his family.  Ace is not ready to admit to his incredibly wealthy family that he is seeking help from a tutor and instead introduces Karina as his girlfriend.  Ace’s older brother Xander, the Student Body Class President, isn’t buying it, so Ace announces it on social media and shows up the next day with coffee for Karina as he walks her to class determined to convince everyone that they are indeed a couple. Karina is not ok with this, but he does promise her a dozen books a week and he is aware that the “relationship” can only last 28 days, so she is in.   Karina’s friends predict that they will fall hopelessly in love and they are pretty correct.  Over the course of the next three and half weeks the two grow closer, he even comes over and spends time with Dadu and Samir.  She encourages him to fix his relationship with his family, and he encourages her to fix hers.  And somewhere in the midst of pretending they decide to make it real and then Karina’s parents return.  She at this point has been cheered on to stand her ground on confronting them about not wanting to be a doctor by Ace, Cora, Nandini, Dadu and Samir.  The conversation does not go well and Karina goes into a two week slump pushing everyone out before she *spoiler alert* resolves to date Ace in secret as long as he respects her lines, and Dadu stands up to her parents for her.  The story concludes with her going to Jr. Prom and her resolved to just stay strong for a little while longer until she is “free.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that I really didn’t know if the book would turn cliche until it ultimately did.  I really liked the realness and rawness of Karina coping with her anxiety and her friends supporting her in Googling coping mechanisms and helping her test them out.  I feel like it was a missed opportunity for Karina’s parents to not reach out to her, or for Karina to even mention that they were missing it.  I think readers that see themselves in Karina would have hoped to see that story thread play out and give them hope of getting help and support or at least getting it out in the open to normalize it.  I love the growth of Samir once Karina make him aware of the double standard, but I feel like he doesn’t read with a consistent persona.  He has a job, he has friends, he likes a girl, but he reads like he is clueless and maybe 10 years old at best, not in high school.  A bit off for me.  And of course you have to love Dadu, a wise old woman who supports her grandchildren and sticks up for them.  I wish Karina would have taken her cues from her beloved grandmother and stood up to her parents with Dadu in the room rather than let Dadu fight the fight and just stand there.  I thought the big climax would be Karina standing up to her parents, so I felt let down when she let someone else fight her fight.  Yes Karina tried and failed, but I think her grandmother should have backed her up in round two, not taken over.

Karina throughout says she is Bangladeshi-Muslim and uses it as a reason to fear her parents and feel obligated to not date or study English.  She does say she isn’t against religion, and actually likes being a Muslim and praying and knows Allah loves her, but that it is the tradition that blindly is followed that gives her trouble.  Her maternal grandfather is an Imam and her mom is much stricter than her father, but he follows her lead in raising the kids.  My critique isn’t so much to argue with the author’s perspective about religious standards, but more a literary one, when the character says she is Muslim and uses that to reason why she has lines, but yet is never seen praying or wresting with what she wants and what she believes.  Never asking Allah for help with her anxiety or confronting her parents or anything for that matter.  As soon as her parents leave she is in a crop top, so where is the religious line and where is the cultural one?  Where is her understanding of her culture and where it fits in her life and where she wants it to fit in her future? Is she Muslim because her parents are or because she believes it? She won’t eat ham, and eats halal, but later eats meat at Ace’s house? Everyone, even fictional characters, get agency, but in a book where the premise is a fake relationship turned real turned rebellious because of religion and culture, a little introspection seems warranted.

The conclusion after hundreds of pages of being called lionhearted and brave and strong seemed diminished when going to prom and lying to parents and having grandma fight your battle is the happy ending.

FLAGS:

Relationships: The main couple hold hands and kiss. There is a supporting character that is bisexual as is a cousin, one is gay, they hold hands and kiss as well. Nothing more than that or detailed. There is lying and deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this as an Islamic School book club selection because it would imply agreement with lying and going behind your parents backs.  Granted her parents are difficult and her grandma is aware and ok with the situation, but I still think it would send the wrong message to endorse such behavior from a religious school perspective.

My First Book About Allah: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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My First Book About Allah: Teachings for Toddlers and Young Children by Sara Khan illustrated by Ali Lodge

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This 26 page non fiction sturdy board book packs in a lot of information in a really simple way that will keep little one’s attention and hopefully encourage them to ask deeper questions as they grow.  The illustrations are soft and alternate between detailed familiar scenes and simple background style scenes that draw attention to the text on the page. It covers the Shahadah, who Allah (swt) is, it mentions that He has 99 names,  that He sent us the Quran and the final messenger is Prophet Muhammad (saw).  The book at times is wordy, and perhaps the vocabulary a bit above a toddlers level, but the flow is smooth and the tone is warm, inviting, and is requested often by my little ones. (It is reasonably priced by at small bookstores, and double the price on Amazon).

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The book starts off by stating that Muslims believe that there is only one God and His name is Allah.  It shows it in Arabic as well on a very muted background.  The next page is much more lively with illustrations showing someone pray, a picture of the ka’aba, a family eating, and a mother reading Quran and making dua.

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The family is then depicted gathered together with the little children asking “WHO is Allah?” and the book dedicating the next few pages to explaining that Allah swt, is the One who made everything and has power over all. He makes the sun rise and set and everything in the heavens and the earth belong to Him.

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The book explains that Allah even loves us more than our own parents before explaining that Allah has 99 names and Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim are the ones we hear the most.  The background has many of the names of Allah written in Arabic.

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The family prays knowing Allah is All Hearing and All Seeing.  An illustration of a cave with a bird and spiderweb accompany the page that tells us that He sent us the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad (saw) to show us how to live. InshaAllah if we do as we are supposed to, we are promised paradise and Allah never breaks His promise.

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The book concludes with Facts about Allah and Questions about Allah (swt). The pages are glossy and 6 x 8 in size.

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

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

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

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

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img_6859This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be.  I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection.  I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved.  There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim.  I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent.  The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family.  Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family.  Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat.  While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse.  The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either.  The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano.  On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another.  On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street.  She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.

When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future.  The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off.  Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality.  Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface.  One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result.  With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.

To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk.  When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village.  With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control.  I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him.  I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away.  There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line.  I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner.  Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced.  The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on.  I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character.  Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.

FLAGS:

When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question.  There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.

I am Brown by Ashok Banker illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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I am Brown by Ashok Banker illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

This 40 page celebration of diversity within the label “brown” is a sweet and powerful book that shows how the color of our skin is beautiful and perfect while at the same time making it clear that who we are and what we can be is not defined by our appearance.  The book shows adorably illustrated brown children finding strength in different cultures, clothing, religions, languages and dreams, which will hopefully empower children everywhere (and of all colors) to take labels that may have negative connotations and turn them in to positive affirmations of identity and strength.  There isn’t a story with a plot, but with the regular inclusion of a girl with a scarf on, and the mention of a mosque, I thought to highlight it.  The book is perfect for preschool and up.  

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The book starts with a little girl identifying herself as brown, beautiful and being perfect.  It then stretches to her being love, friendship and happiness.

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From there it branches out to a whole cast of kids identifying the variety of things they can be, from a writer to an electrician to a prime minister. the same kids then do and make and work on things before identifying where they come from and what languages they speak.  

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The kids all have different hair on their heads and faces and even no hair at all. They live in different dwellings, they like to do different things. 

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Brown people are not a monolith, the kids show that they eat different foods in different ways, that they wear different clothes.

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People with brown skin are roommates and teachers and friends and classmates.  Some go to temple or church, others a mosque or shrine, some not at all. 

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The book ends with a close up of three smiling faces proclaiming, “I am brown.  I am amazing.  I am You.”

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I’m sure people will argue that if you switch out white for brown the book would be deemed racist, and you are correct it would be.  But as a group that is marginalized as “other” and often the darker brown you are with in the brown subset moves you “value” and “worth” down, makes a book celebrating the strength and beauty of “brown” so necessary and heart warming.  I personally am the lightest “brown” imaginable being only half Pakistani.  So, believe me I have privilege in the desi community, but I don’t find this book offensive at all.  I’ve read this book at least a dozen times and my impressions alternate between beaming with pride and tears that so many beautiful people feel less than because of skin color and yes, anger too,  that people are MADE to feel less than.   May we all be more inclusive, more loving, and more open to the diversity of the human being. Ameen.