Tag Archives: school friends

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

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Sadiq and the Ramadan Gift by Siman Nuurali illustrated by Anjan Sarkar

img_8554This 65 page early chapter book in the Sadiq Series does a great job of introducing Ramadan, giving a glimpse of Somali culture, and conveying a relatable and engaging story about friends with a lesson/reminder about the values of communication.  A group of boys hosting a fundraising iftar to help a school in Somalia have to figure out the logistics, the marketing, the cooking, and the execution, as they become socially aware and active in helping meet the needs of their community, both locally and afar.  This OWN voice tale doesn’t shy away from authentically drawing on religion and culture to make characters and a plot that all readers can enjoy.  The book is not preachy, but the characters know who they are in their manners, dress, speech, and environment.  A great book any time of year for first grade and up.

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SYNOPSIS:

With Ramadan starting in a few days, Sadiq and his friends at the Dugsi are reviewing the importance and values of Ramadan.  This year the masjid is raising money for a school in Somali and the students are encouraged to help, as sadaqah, or charity, is especially important during Ramadan.  The boys decide to host a fundraising iftar at the masjid and with parental help to coordinate with the Imam, the kids have to figure out how to get enough food, get the word out, get set up to take donations and more.  They make flyers, set up a website and shoot a small video.  The once excited Zaza, however, is no longer very enthusiastic in the Money Makers Club and Sadiq can’t figure out why, but with so much to do and little time to get it done, more friends and family are brought in to help, and things continue on.  When Zaza tries to tell Sadiq he wants to do his own fundraiser, Sadiq doesn’t want to listen.  I’m not going to spoil if the two friends work it out and how they handle the two ideas, but it is a good lesson in friendship, communication, and charity, Alhumdulillah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story starts with information about Somalia and words in Somali as well as a picture of the family.  There are activities and questions at the end as well as a glossary of religious, cultural, and English vocabulary words. The book doesn’t assume that the reader knows anything about Islam or Somalia, nor does it assumer that the readers don’t.  It strikes a balance of not talking down to the reader or getting too wordy.  It simply provides the information needed if you are curious, but allows the story and the boys dilemma to take center stage.  The whole series is remarkable in showing diversity and relatability with good quality story telling.  I think this is the only book in the series that has a religious theme, I could be mistaken.  The illustrations show the boys in kufis and the women in hijab.

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FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Every elementary school library and every first through third grade classroom library should have this series.  I know my public library has it, and the copies I get from there seem to be worn and loved.  The age is too young for a book club, but would be great in small groups or for outside reading with the short chapters and engaging illustrations.

The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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The Great Hair Exchange by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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I don’t know if twins plot and plan to trick people, but I think those of us that are not twins, and don’t have any in our immediate family, all assume that switching places with someone who looks exactly like us, would be a regular prank with hilarious outcomes and convenient benefits. Two twin Muslim girls with different hair and vastly different personalities learn to love themselves, appreciate how God made them, and get reminded that sneaking has consequences, all while evoking giggles from the reader throughout their adventurous day in each other’s shoes (hair?). This 32 page full-color, high-gloss, fantastically illustrated book is filled with silliness and lessons that will appeal to children five and up.

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Bushra and Roda, are nearly identical, except Roda has curly hair, and Bushra’s is straight.  They often want to try different hairstyles, but their parents tell them they should appreciate how God made them and they can experiment when they are older.  The girls decide that their parents, with their perfectly wavy hair, just don’t understand and sneak in to their parents’ bathroom before school to straighten and curl their hair accordingly.

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Surprised at the final results, “You look like me!”The girls realize they are going to get in trouble and decide to switch clothes and backpacks and head off to school.  At school the girls are ushered in to each other’s classes by their teachers despite their protests that they aren’t who they look like.

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The girls carry on as each other struggling in classes they normally excel in, get annoyed by their hair, and suffer through lunches that they don’t like.  Roda even fools herself as she bumps into a mirror thinking she is going in to hug her sister, and Bushra is startled by a spider that Roda loves.

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After school their dad drops them off at their after school activities and still doesn’t suspect a thing. Roda goes to Bushra’s soccer game and Bushra to Roda’s girl scout hike.  When it starts to rain, the girls’ hair returns to its natural state and when they get picked up, they have a lot of explaining to do.

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The girls are reminded that hair gadgets require supervision, that God made us all unique and being dishonest is not ok.  From here on out the girls still prank their friends and teachers, but do so with their parent’s knowledge.

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The book is fun and silly and for both Muslim and non Muslim’s alike.  It uses the word God, not Allah, and while the mom wears hijab, and the girls do on the last page, there is nothing Islamic or even Islamic specific in the book.  I feel like the grammar on the last page is off, but nothing too major.  The book ends with five discussion questions.

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often.  Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability,  the book is not dreary.  In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration.  The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya.  Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected.  An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older.  When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.

Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends.  Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him.  As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died.  With Suraya however, he feels things.  He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have.  Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her.  Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen.  Bad things.  Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink.  She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever.  He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all.  Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.

On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous.  He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master.  As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable.  As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya.  Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.  Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends.  Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd.  I love Suraya’s strength.  None of the relationships in her life are good.  Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better.  Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is.  Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better.  I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too.  Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing.  I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.

FLAGS:

Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named.  There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.

Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/

 

 

 

Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

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Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

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A great book about inclusion for back to school, except well with Corona, we aren’t doing things how we always have.  None-the-less this book about the first day of kindergarten for Musa and the friendships and celebrations of diversity (Eid al-Fitr, Rosh Hashanah, Las Posadas, Pi Day) that will take place over the school year, connect the kids and their cultures in a beautiful and heartwarming way.  The book is 40 pages with engaging illustrations and text perfect for 5-7 year olds.

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It is the first day of school and Ms. Gupta tells the class it is her favorite day of the year.  She also tells the children that the people around them will become their best friends.  Musa doubts this as he looks around at the strangers at his table.

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He also wonders how the first day of school can be any ones favorite day, clearly Eid al-Fitr is the best holiday.  Luckily, every show-and-tell will be about someone’s favorite day, so that the class can join together in celebrating it.  Moises can’t believe that Christmas isn’t the most fun until he learns that not everyone celebrates it.

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When it is Musa’s turn to teach about Eid, his mom and he bring in food and decorations and teach the kids to say Eid Mubarak.  They learn what Eid is like and can see why it is his favorite.

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Up next is Mo’s turn.  He tells everyone about Jewish New Year and how to say Shanah Tovah.  On Rosh Hashanah they light candles and share food with friends and family.

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Moises explains how Las Posadas is how his family celebrates Christmas.  It lasts nine days and there are songs and pinatas and presents.

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In the spring it was Kevin’s turn and he shared his love of Pi Day as his family celebrates science.  On March 14 (3.14) they make different pies and learn about scientists and their discoveries.

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On the last day of school, the children are sad, but their teacher hopes they will remember each other always throughout the year as she hands out calendars for them to keep.

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The book concludes with information about each of the four holidays mentioned. It is possible that on the Rosh Hashanah page the family is two gay men with two children, but it could be just two men as well, and doesn’t say anything in the text that suggests who and how the family is comprised.

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

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This YA Fiction book by a Muslim author filled with many Muslim characters has a lot going for it, and while I didn’t love it, and felt that it was trying to do too much in 304 pages, I think most early high school readers will enjoy the cyber hacking plot, the islamaphobia and white supremacy themes that keep the book fast paced, relatable and timely.  The main character is a Muslim and has a Muslim boyfriend and all family members are fine with it, she also gets a tattoo with her mother’s permission and breaks the law, but usually with worthy motives.

SYNOPSIS:

Salma Bakkioui is the high school aged daughter of a North African father and convert mother.  They go to the mosque a few times a year, but don’t really practice, it is more heritage than actual intentional praying five times a day, yet somehow ayats from the Quran and hadith do float in and out of the story.  It is Ramadan, and the Muslims in the book are fasting except for Salma, who suffers from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) a connective tissue disorder, her best friend Mariam, who lived next door has just moved away because her father’s chiropractic business was failing due to racism and Islamaphobia.  Salma tried to use her hacker skills to send him more business, but ultimately they moved to the UAE.  Amir, the supportive boyfriend, oud player, and fellow Edward Norton fan is steady and good and constant.  As are her partying friend Vanessa, her physical therapist and her daughter, unfortunately, things are about to get really crazy, really fast.

When Salma and Amir go over to meet the new neighbors that have moved in to Mariam’s old house the blaring TV broadcasts a terrorist bombing nearby in DC.  The neighbors seem nice, but something is off about them, and Salma can’t quite figure it out.  From the dad and son’s matching number tattoos, the mom’s nervous behavior, and snippets of overheard conversations, it becomes apparent that something infact fishy is going on.  Salma and her younger siblings start getting bullied by classmates, and teachers and administrators turn a blind eye, cops interrogate Salma at school, and illegal snooping on the dark web reveal that the neighbors aren’t as innocent as they claim. As more and more is uncovered about the neighbors, Salma learns that she better have a plan to get out, as she is about to be framed for a lot of destruction as the new face of Islamic extremism.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Salma is relevant and relatable, and while I know a lot about her family and friends, and illness, for some reason I don’t feel invested in her, and I am totally willing to conceded that that is on me, and others would really identify with her, but for some reason as much as I wanted to connect with her, I didn’t.  The supporting cast is fairly fleshed out, I’m not entirely sure why Dora and Boots are highlighted so much and I didn’t feel a tug on the emotional heartstrings of Mariam leaving, of Amir leaving, of Salma possibly saying good-bye.  I felt like even Salma and Amir being a couple and being connected through Edward Norton and Fight Club was a bit forced.  I didn’t feel it was organic or natural, it was almost like the author was trying to make a point of Muslim youth having relationships, and finding imams that were ok with tattoos. Rather than it being a plot point it seemed like it was trying to voice the author’s perspective whether it fit smoothly into the storyline or not.

I do like the tech and and the parallels between extremism whether Islamic or Christian, foreign or domestic, that drove the action of the book.  The unraveling of pieces and connections seemed a bit rushed, with unnecessary tangents affecting the pacing overall of the book, but at least there were answers to help it all make sense at the end, and make the story feel complete.

Having never written a book, I don’t know if some of the hiccups are first novel related, but I really hope the author keeps writing and keeps changing up what the mainstream Muslim protagonist lead consists of.  I love that Salma is smart and level headed and aware of her world, while still growing and owning up to her faults.  It isn’t a coming of age story, but she sets a great precedence for continued growth, loving your family and trusting yourself too. I particularly like the nuances in racism.  Some of the kids at school are jerks and bullies, some staff and teachers are bigoted and prejudice, but the right wing conspiracy groups are actively working, and their level of hatred and intelligence to mask it is great to see in a YA book.

FLAGS:

Relationships, kissing, references to marijuana brownies being consumed, violence, cursing, lying, illegal activity.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I can’t use this book as a book club selection since the two main characters are making out in the first chapter, but the book really is more than a relationship story and I would be ok with my young teen reading it.  The illegal hacking is more problematic then helpful in the end, and the language, and other deviant behaviors exhibited aren’t done for shock value alone, I think a discussion after the book would be great: privacy, hate, conspiracy, faith, religion, friendships, etc.

 

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.

 

You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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This OWN story, upper middle grades book, is heavy on the pop culture, relatable on the Islamic family presentation and honest in its portrayal of Islamaphobia, yet somehow the tidiness in which everything wrapped up seemed too forced and a bit flat.  At 293 pages, including a three page glossary, the book is a quick read meant mainly for girls.  It involves robotics, academic achievement, and invention, while also discussing crushes, a character coming out to his family and friends, and mention of girls not praying at certain times of the month.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla lives in Australia and goes to the Islamic School of Brisbane. Her Sudanese family: older brother, younger twin brothers, and parents, her Doctor mom and medical machine tech dad, are active Muslims and proud of their culture.  They assimilate to Australian norms in varying degrees, but with all the kids at ISB, Layla doesn’t feel all that different in her school and social life.  Unfortunately she wants more, she wants to be an adventurer, and when she meets Adam over the break and learns about the various opportunities he has it his school, Layla decides she wants to prove herself on a larger stage.  Going in to “shut down” mode Layla has tunnel vision to ace the scholarship and entrance exam and go to a new school.

She gets in to Mary Maxmillion Grammar School and when she goes to meet the board they let her know that the decision to accept a girl like her was not unanimous.  Layla is an immigrant, she is black, she wears hijab, she is loud and proud, and apparently very smart, but as one trustee asks, is she brave?  On the first day of school she arrives late to first period, insults the teacher repeatedly and also makes friends with a group of slightly diverse boys.  At the end of the day however, Peter, a boy who had insulted her earlier, reinforces his disapproval of her being allowed at their school and pushes her.  Standing her ground, she verbal attacks and then head butts the boy in front of a large portion of the school at dismissal.  No one offers any help, nor speaks up when she is suspended for a week, her scholarship and admission put on probation, no one even asks for her side of the story, Peter, is let off completely free, as he is also the son of the Board Chairman.

Layla decides to prove she belongs at the school she is going to win a prestigious robotics competition and since everyone already is on a team, she decides to go for it solo.  The only problem, is she doesn’t know what to invent.  When she returns to school, her friend that she is crushing hard on is acting weird, and she gets caught up in a lie of sorts that serves as both the idea and silliness turned cleverness of the book.  While choking on gummy worms, she says she is working on an edible actuator for her robot, and somehow has to make that come to fruition.

The rest of the book is Layla making a lot of silly errors of judgement: missing classes being in SD mode in the workshop, forgetting to file the paperwork and registration to actually compete in the competition, and leads up to the resolution between her and Peter, learning her crush is gay, and deciding to be herself and proud of it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually like the majority of the book, I really like how Islam is presented and lived.  They pray and say salam and cover, and recite tasbeeha to reflect, and quote hadith very naturally, even how others attack them, and the anger that Layla’s brother Ozzie feels at his inability to get a part time job reads and feels very authentic.  I also like how one of the teacher’s own experience as being a descendant of the forgotten generation and being a first nations ethnicity is woven in.  I felt the side character being gay was added and forced in as an after thought and I don’t know why, as it didn’t show Layla to be a particularly good friend.  She handled his coming out well, but when he was miserable she was wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t reach out very well, even though he ended up being the spark for her invention.  Her friend at ISB is also an under developed character, that while I get is used to show another side of Layla, in many ways also showed her to be a rather poor friend.

I found the pop culture references annoying, not in and of themselves, but in knowing that they will date and make the book irrelevant in a few short years.  There is a lot of repetition of phrases and ideas that a few times when I put the book down I struggled to re-find my place (I know bookmarks, right?) but certain refrains and paragraphs seem so very similar.  I

There is a lot of good information about Sudan and their food and culture and traditions.  There is also a decent amount about Muslims in Australia.  I like that even within her family there are different views on how much to assimilate, and how much to fight back against perceptions, the fact that there is a lot of gray makes non Muslims and non immigrants reading the book hopefully realize how diverse all people are and to not assume anyone is only one way.  I would have liked more about Layla’s mom and being recruited to come to Australia, and how she was perceived at work, by patients and colleagues.  I also would have liked some sort of resolution about Ozzie and his job search.  Really though my biggest complaint is Layla, herself.  What does it even mean to want to be an adventurer? I like that she is fallible and human and in some ways she does grow, but I felt like her being smart and a go-getter is the foundation of the story, but that she didn’t seem to have much common sense seems a bit off.  Yes she is loud and funny and puts in hard work, but the way she talks to teachers, and misses classes and deadlines, and behaves seems like a disconnect from the pages constantly telling me how smart she is.  To me, part of being smart is knowing when to lash out and when to listen, I don’t feel like her growth arc was all that great, in a nut shell, she changed schools and confronted a bully, that is the story, while not a bad story, it could have been so much more.

FLAGS:

There is crushing, violence, a gay character, mention of alcohol at a party Layla didn’t attend, talk of hooking up in passing and some language.  There is lying but it is acknowledged guiltily, and not familiar with Australian slang, regular use of the phrase, Janey Mack, which according to google is a replacement for Jesus Christ.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know why I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection.  It just didn’t strike me as something they would benefit from.  I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking it up and reading it in my house, but I doubt I’ll recommend it to my daughter and she is the ideal reader: she wears hijab, is in 8th grade at an Islamic school, and loves to read.  The book is really not memorable as good or bad, it just fell flat and I doubt I’ll read it again, luckily it only took two sittings to read, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time, but seeing as I had to pay cover price and international shipping, I kind of regret rushing to buy it.

Teacher guide: https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_YouMustBeLayla.pdf

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

neither this nor that

This 251 page novel reads like a biography that has no climax or real conflict in its linear retelling of the protagonist from 3rd grade to a junior in college.  If you are part or all Desi, raised in America in the ’80s and ’90s and have fond memories of NBC’s Must See TV, rolling your pants up, your family packing Corning Ware sets to take to the homeland, and the joys of TJ Maxx, you might enjoy the nostalgic similarities you too experienced, but even at that, with no plot or character arcs, the book is easily forgettable and you might forget to finish it.  For all my critiques of Muslim stories that don’t read authentic, this one definitely does, she doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t ever go against Islam, but because she is similarly not ever tempted to, I think most readers won’t relate to this fictional girl, who’s biggest worry is smelling like her mother’s cooking.  The book seems to just want to tell her life story, and getting through it is the point of the book, not making emotional connections, giving the reader something to think about or even inspiring others, which is ultimately a missed opportunity that this book could and should have capitalized on.

SYNOPSIS:

It is the first day of school for Fatima Husein the eldest of many daughters in her Indian American suburban home.  With a mother who doesn’t speak much English and parents that don’t seem to understand Fatima’s desire to fit in, the stage is set that will carry through the entire book of Fatima loving to study and separating herself as the girl at school pretending to be more American than she really is, and the girl at home pretending to be more Indian than she feels.  As the book follows the character through college, along the way Fatima and her family have extended maternal family move to America from India and then move back, they take a trip to India which is not enjoyed at all, her dad’s family then moves from India and settles near them, they move to be closer to the masjid, and they go for Hajj.  Characters bounce in and out: school friends, community friends, cousins, etc.. The only real constant is Fatima’s love of school and her paternal grandmother grumbling about her getting married. There are the ups and downs of life that are shared, most very specific to a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) living in the ’90s.  Fatima is religious and Islam is important to her and she never waivers in her black and white view of things.  It does take her a little while to wear hijab, but there is no real self reflection and catharsis, it is just states she wants to fit in and isn’t ready.  The conclusion is she finally accepts a proposal from the son of an old family friend who lives in Chicago.  Not so much because she likes him, but more because she has no reason not to say yes and her parents are in favor it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

If this were a biography and it was someone famous, the minutia of day to day living might be compelling, but as it is fiction and you have no idea where the story is going, it just seems to tell a story about a typical girl doing typical things.  It has value in that it shows how normal and boring even, a normal Muslim family is, but it gets really preachy at times and really dry.  None of the side characters are memorable.  I have no idea how many sisters Fatima has, when her grandfather passed away I felt nothing, when two who families died in a car accident Eid morning on their way to prayers, I had to flip back to see if the characters had ever been mentioned before.  It seems like the whole point is to get to the end, and more heart and less tedium would have made this book an amazing example of American Muslims in America.  The first page mentions friends and there is no follow up to where they are or what happened to them, and this happens all through out the book, there are no emotional connections, nor attachments among the characters to include the reader into their plight as well.  The protagonist one must assume gains her voice from the author’s experiences herself, but it just lacks internal dialogue and conviction.

Fatima lives through the Gulf War and makes big changes and has to find her place, yet the book just tells us all this, it doesn’t show us how she internalizes and processes and emerges from the experiences shared, it just gives an example and then comments on it.  The font and layout visually looks like a text book, and at times, the internal structure reads like an essay, sharing an anecdote, backing it up, and moving on to the next event on the time line.

I feel like I know the character, it definitely comes from a place of shared experience and credibility, but you have no idea where it is going, and just like I doubt anyone would want to read my life story, the book needs a little direction and editing.  In the author interview posted below in the “Tools to Lead the Discussion” she mentions that mainstream publishers wanted more rebelling and she wouldn’t compromise.  I agree with her, we need books that don’t follow that assumed track, I think that the presentation of the story, however, as it is, is lacking.  The integrity is there, but the character is really flat, and there are plenty of literary tools that could enhance the story without compromising Fatima’s character to drugs and alcohol and boys.  The book was self published in 2010 and I really hope at some point the author will re-edit it, to make it relevant to preteens and teens today and more personable.  Ultimately making it so that the successes Fatima has are cheered on by the reader, who are also inspired by her accomplishments while staying true to her beliefs.

FLAGS:

Considering how many pages are dedicated to how she and her sister are to behave in India as to not seem naughty or as arrogant Americans, the curse words flow pretty regularly in the book, and the way she speaks to her elders and in front of her elders is not always kind.  There are side comments about hooking up, STDs, and drinking, nothing any of the characters engage in, but judgments regarding these topics for those that do is present. She also talks about her mom’s failure to discuss menstruation before hand, to exemplify how things are only discussed once they need to be dealt with.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that as a book club selection today’s youth would voluntarily pick up and read this book.  There might be some ability for a teacher to assign it and then turn around and make the students write something similar about their experiences in a fictionalized form.  I think students would struggle to relate to Fatima with the outdated references and the lack of conflicts and climaxes in the narrative.