Tag Archives: school life

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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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.

 

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

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Three hundred and forty pages written in verse that beautifully consume you and leave you emotionally changed and vulnerable and humbled all at once.  The book claims it is for middle grades, but I think middle school will appreciate it more, and I sincerely hope everyone of all ages will take a couple of hours to fall under the spell that is woven to tell a story of a refugee leaving home and starting anew in America.

SYNOPSIS:

Jude is a 12 year old girl living on the beach in Syria, watching American movies with her friends and hanging out at her dad’s store.  With an older brother and a little sister on the way, life as told from her own perspective is pretty good.  Until it is not.  Until the crimes they only hear about happening in Aleppo and Damascus start to hit closer to home.  Until her brother starts sneaking out to meetings with other youth hoping to change the politics of their country.  Until a raid almost catches Jude and her brother and her parent’s decide it is time for Jude and her mother to journey to America, for a little while, to visit her mom’s brother and deliver the baby.

America is not like it is in the 90’s movies that Jude loves: Pretty Woman, Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality.  Her American aunt and her Uncle that seems to have forgotten his Syrian upbringing, are gracious and welcoming and their daughter, Sarah, who is less than a year older than Jude waxes and wanes in her approach to her cousin.  Adjusting to school, life without baba and her brother, and all the other adaptations that moving to a new country entail are brought to life through Jude’s eyes and understanding of the world around her.  As she comes of age and decides to wear hijab, as Islamaphobia shakes her sense of justice, and her little sister is born, the reader sees her grow and change and mature and find themselves hoping that she will soar.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the style of the story telling somehow gives life to so much.  With verse some things are highlighted in detail and other things skimmed over and yet at the end, not only do you feel like you understand Jude, but a lot of the side characters as well, which caught me off guard.  Truly the writing is strong and deliberate.  A lot of the politics and war crimes occurring in Syria are not detailed, and I have to assume that is because the point of view is a 12 year old girl that is blissfully in her own world.  I imagine this is also why the target audience is listed as 8-12 year olds, because it simplifies a truly horrific situation.  Also because despite moments of raw vulnerability, the book stays pretty optimistic and hopeful.  

I like that the characters are Muslim, and that the mom scolds her brother for not going to the mosque.  The book does talk about Jude’s period starting and thus Jude starting to wear hijab, which is one of the reasons I feel like early middle school might be a bit more appropriate age group.  There isn’t too much talk about faith and Islamic beliefs, but a few tidbits are sprinkled in, prayer, not eating pork, modesty.  The book is not gender exclusive, but I think girls will gravitate much more to Jude’s perspective, experiences and voice.

The only thing I found a bit off is that the book takes place in modern time, present day, yet none of them have cell phones or social media.  Jude Skypes her dad, yet writes letters to her friend back in Syria and is distraught when they don’t have a forwarding address to send them to after her friend also leaves home.  It seems that social media, email, a cell phone number, something would be available for them to all keep in touch.

FLAGS:

There is mention of Jude and her friends having to sneak in to see Pretty Woman because Julia Roberts is a prostitute, and mention of blood between one’s legs and periods starting.  The book otherwise is pretty clean.  It hints at her kind of crushing on a boy that is in the play with her, but nothing more than friendship is explored.  Violence mentioned is minimal and language is clean even when dealing with hate crimes in America.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a good chance that next year the students joining the middle school book club will be all girls, so if that is the case and the school counselor feels all the girls can handle the puberty aspects mentioned I would totally do this book.  The book reads very quick and might be a good way to get new kid to give a book club a try as well.

Author’s website: http://jasminewarga.com/about

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/80127-q-a-with-jasmine-warga.html

Interview with the Author: https://www.hbook.com/2019/04/authors-illustrators/publishers-previews/spring-2019-publishers-preview-five-questions-for-jasmine-warga/

 

 

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali

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Now that there is legitimately a genre of YA Islamic Romance out there told in Own Voice, the expectations are high that a book is compelling, realistic, and unique somehow.  While the author’s first book, Saints and Misfits was pretty ground breaking, this 342 page was a great read, but not nearly as remarkable or memorable.  Granted it is not fair to compare the two books, and each day I do age out of the target demographic, but while the story reads authentic and true, albeit a bit serendipitous, it doesn’t have the teeth or grit I was kind of hoping for, and with a mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis my emotions were pretty invested.

SYNOPSIS:

Told from both Adam and Zayneb’s perspectives by way of their individual “Oddities and Marvels” journals, our two characters are presented by a narrator who keeps their story on track and interjects when their versions of an event differ. 

Zayneb is a high schooler and activist who has recently been expelled for threatening a teacher who consistently lets his Islamaphobic beliefs take over the days lessons.  In an environment filled with micro aggressions against Muslims, Zeynab’s parents are at a loss at how to keep their daughter from making waves, and thus allow her to leave her Indiana home a week before spring break to visit her aunt in Doha, Qatar.

Adam is at University in London where he has recently been diagnosed with MS and as a result has stopped going to classes, and is literally “making” the most of the time he has by making things.  As the term ends and he officially withdraws from school, he heads home to Doha to tell his dad and sister that he has the same disease that took his mother’s life years early.

The two characters meet at the airport briefly and then again on the plane and then at Adam’s house and the needless to say  their accidental meetings allow for friendship to grow, attraction to be built upon and a relationship to develop. Both characters have their own lives and own obstacles and own maturity that needs to occur in order for a happy ending to take place, and thus the book keeps you interested, invested and cheering them on.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the dynamic of how the book and characters are set up.  Both are practicing Muslims, both characters don’t cross a line, both characters have diverse mixed cultural backgrounds, and one is a convert and the other the daughter of a convert.  She is fiery and impulsive and emotional, he is pragmatic and calm and quiet.  While they have some background in common, their life experiences are rather different and it is very much a story about opposites attracting.  

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out, and so I knew my expectations would be too high.  That being said the book warns it is a love story and in some ways, that was what I kind of felt was lacking.  There was the physical attraction that was mentioned fairly often, but the deep connection of ideas or growing seemed a bit lacking.  

I really liked Adam, and his internal stresses and struggles and coming to grips with his disease seemed pretty developed.  Somehow though, and I’m probably in the minority, I didn’t love Zayneb.  She is impulsive and definitely learned and grew from the start of the book to the end, but I didn’t love her nuances with dealing with the Emmas and her friends back home and unraveling her teacher, it felt kind of forced and I can’t articulate why.  I’m glad she matured and she got answers about her grandmother, but maybe I should have felt so much in common with her and when I didn’t, I felt a little irritated.  Clearly I get too invested in fictional characters, I’ll admit that.

I like that Islam is presented in a non defensive way.  The parents aren’t evil, there is no rebelling, even the awful teacher spawns backlash and allies to Zayneb and her cause. There is no apologizing or overly explaining if the characters are pushing boundaries established by Islam or if they are establishing their own boundaries based on their understanding of Islam.  I like this, because it shows that Muslims are not a monolith, we are not one way good or bad.  Zayneb covers and prays and has friends that are boys and her family is kept in the loop of what she does, which alone breaks so many of the predominate stereotypes about Muslims.  Adam himself converted at age nine and plays the guitar and has friends that are girls, and is close to his sister, and likes dogs.  A side character is noted to be incredibly religious, but doesn’t cover.  The story takes place in an Islamic majority country, but attitudes at the swimming pool don’t allow Zayneb to dress modestly while she swims.  

Overall, the book is a delightful read that manages to keep the religious integrity in the characters and show their personalities as they come of age.  It may not be memorable years after reading, but what you do remember will be positive, and while you are reading it, you will have a hard time putting it down.

FLAGS:

There is angsty romance, and talk of sex.  The two main characters keep it pretty clean, but the side characters joke about hooking up, being horny, and sneaking off to hotel rooms.  The non Muslim aunt has a secret alcohol and cigarette stash that she gets called out on, but nothing more is mentioned about it. I think 9th or 10th grade and up will be perfectly ok to read.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is a lot to unpack in this book and I think if one just listens, teens will naturally add their own opinions and perspectives on EVERYTHING the characters experience, feel, question, and cope with.  The book just came out, but I would imagine that over time discussion questions will appear.

Author’s website: https://skalibooks.com/books/

Interview with the author: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/an-interview-with-s-k-ali-author-of-love-from-a-to-z/

 

Yaseen’s Big Dream by Umm Juwariyah illustrated by Azra Momin

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Yaseen’s Big Dream by Umm Juwariyah illustrated by Azra Momin

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Kids love to stretch their imagination and do the impossible, but for Yaseen Muhammad, his dreams at night are his favorite activity to see just how far his abilities can go.  In this 21 page paperback 8.5 x 8.5 square book, Yaseen Muhammad will imagine his best day ever as the President of the United States and share with kids 1st through 3rd grade exactly what he will make happen, inshaAllah, when he wakes up.

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In a very busy day as the first kid president, Yaseen Muhammad dreams of starting the day leading morning prayer in the Oval Office, and then getting his family to help him prepare a special lunch for everyone in every state.  He’ll visit schools all over America and play celebrity basketball with his cousin and vice President Jameelah. He’s Jedda will teach people to start their own gardens, and he’ll give a speech on TV, after all why not, “Nothing is Impossible.”

The pictures are lively and descriptive that the reader and listeners will enjoy looking at them.  The characters are visibly Muslim as the women wear hijab, and in the text it mentions the characters praying, and Yaseen Muhammad dreaming he is the imam.  There is a lot of text on the pages, but the story flows and the information serves a purpose in establishing who Yaseen Muhammad is and connecting him and his dream to the readers.  The text is uniformly on the right with the pictures on the left making the book very convenient if sharing during story time and you are like me and hold the book in your left hand when reading to a group.

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The only thing that struck me as off, was in the illustration of Jameelah and Yaseen playing basketball. Yaseen’s t-shirt has a Y on it and Jameelas an F. Not a J for Jameelah or a Y signaling they are on the same team.  It is minor, but all my kids noticed it too and wondered why.  

A couple of places I stumbled over some of the grammar and wording, but after reading it aloud a hundred times (exaggeration, slightly) to figure out why, I don’t think anything is wrong, it is just a bit awkward, but it is probably me.  For example when Yaseen is speaking to the whole world on TV he says “Every kid can make a difference in your community, in your state, in your country, and even in the world. Dream Big.”  Seems like it should be, Every kid can make a difference in “their” community, in “their” state, no?

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Overall, a good empowering story for all children and one that highlights African American Muslims in text and illustrations.  A great book to have in rotation to encourage kids to dream, make the world better, and believe in themselves.  Alhumdulillah.

 

The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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The Jinni on the Roof: A Ramadan Story by Natasha Rafi illustrated by Abdul Malik Channa

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This 37 page culturally Pakistani Ramadan story is super sweet and fun.  There is so much I feel like my critical self should not like about the story, but by about page 15 each time I read it, I find my self full on smiling and thoroughly enjoying little Raza’s antics and his endearing grandma’s method for dealing with him.

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Raza is too young to fast, but with a house full of relatives gathered for Ramadan, Raza awakens to the sound of his uncle snoring before the siren to signal the start of fasting and the azan calling the worshippers to pray echo through Lahore.  Before he can go back to sleep, however, he hears the cook heading up the stairs to wake up grandma and then the smell of the food hits him and he wants a paratha more than anything.

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Raza embarks on a mission that involves him sneaking up to the roof, pretending to be a jinni and scaring Amina the cook through the chimney to convince her to send up food and a blanket.  

Scared out of her wits, Amina gets the grandma, culturally wards off evil, and delivers the goods to the jinni on the roof.  But the joke is on Raza who is out-witted by his grandma and gets the punishment of washing dishes for the rest of Ramadan, and learning that fasting a whole day will take a lot of will power, if he couldn’t even wait a few hours to get his beloved parathas.

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The book informs the reader that the following year Raza is able to successfully fast, that he is rewarded with gifts and that all is well and forgiven.  There is a glossary, information about Ramadan and a recipe at the end of the story as well.

I love that the plan just happens, it isn’t premeditated or considered, so it takes the reader along for the ride as it is unfolding.  It isn’t a deep story, but there is room for discussion as to whether Raza was naughty, or just caught up in the moment.

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The book is illustrated well and with big 8.5 x 11 pages, the book is engaging for first and second grade readers and listeners, as there is a lot of text on the pages.  The book takes a bit to find its stride as the author tries to use Urdu words, show their Arabic counterparts and then describe them in English. 

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There is a lot of cultural stage setting with everyone in grandmas house, the traditions of the family, of Ramadan, etc.  I think Desi familiar kids will get the most out of the book, but theoretically Muslim kids and non Muslims too could learn and enjoy it too.  I wish jinn and jinni were explained just a bit in the text, not just in the glossary, along with why an 8 year old wouldn’t be fasting or be required to do so. 

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My own kids, aged 8, 9, and 12, struggled on the first two pages, but when I told them to keep reading they zoomed through the rest smiling and ended saying it was good while giggling and shaking their heads.  We are Pakistani American and I think they enjoyed seeing familiar words and phrases in the book and sympathizing with Raza as well, and his sneaky plan that almost nearly worked.

 

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

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Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

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I seriously wish I could get back the few hours I spent reading this 281 page AR 4.8 book.  The blurbs talks about a girl being torn between the world around her and the world her Muslim-Indian-American parents want for her, unfortunately the protagonist is rather unlikeable and her worlds are actual not that different.  Islam is not represented at all, it is just mentioned as a checkpoint almost for the main character to continually justify her identity as “other” and try and illicit sympathy.  It seems to be a part of the story so that the story line of Islamaphobia can be addressed, but the book is cultural at best, and even that is rather lacking.

SYNOPSIS:

Maya Aziz is 17 and missing a dance her senior year to attend a wedding because she is not allowed to go to such events as the daughter of conservative Indian Muslim (dentist) immigrants living in Illinois.  But, immediately the hypocrisy shows itself as at the wedding, a boy, Kareem, deemed suitable by her parents is presented to try and woo Maya and possibly marry her, and the two of them wander off together, and consider meeting up at an after party.  As the reader gets to know Maya and her circle of characters, we meet her “cool” Aunt who lives alone and wants Maya to have a life of boys and partying and going to school in New York.  Her parents are never really defined except to maintain the stereotype of being controlling, focused on food and appearances, and not understanding their only daughter.  At school Maya has a best friend Violet who loves to flirt and remains loyal to Maya throughout, a cute boy Phil, who she has been crushing on for years, and some side figures that stir up some trouble.  

The premise of the book is that Maya loves film and wants to go to NYU to attend film school, her parents, want her to live at home and go to the University of Chicago.  The idea is that because they are immigrants, and culture and religion dictate all, that she get educated and married.  This conflict is intensified by Kareem, her sudden relationship with Phil, and a terrorist act that is first blamed on Muslims occurring hundreds of miles away in Chicago and giving someone at Maya’s school a reason to take out his anger on her and her family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I don’t like it.  The book is presented as an own voice minority representation piece, but it isn’t.  I get that Islam is personal and that people identify with it and choose different paths, but this isn’t a case of her looking at Islam and saying it isn’t for me, this is a book that is billed as Islamic fiction, yet the character does nothing Islamic, seems to know nothing of Islam and has no moral conscious for anything about the faith.  She says she doesn’t pray or go to the mosque, the parents lament after hate crimes materialize against them, that maybe they should have gone to the mosque at some point.  She wears shorts, and tank tops and a bikini and doesn’t feel a tinge or reflection.  Even if she were to remark that this is an act of rebellion the reader would know, oh because she was perhaps raised with modesty, but no, she wears whatever.  She constantly mentions that she can’t have a boyfriend because she is Muslim, but then makes out with Kareem on like their second meeting, kisses him in her parents living room before deciding she doesn’t like him, repeatedly kisses Phil, practically spends a night with him, and then in the epilogue is kissing a Hindu guy she kind of just met.  Yes, there are Muslims that do this, I’m not judging, but how exactly is being Muslim then stopping you from doing that you want to be doing?  At one point when out with Kareem, he is drinking wine, Maya remarks she has had it before, and that at least it isn’t eating pork.  Misguided and off the mark, yes  some Muslims do drink, but with all build up that she can’t do things like that, only to find out she has, and it isn’t a big deal, and she doesn’t even see it as a deal breaker or worth mentioning to her parents who have set her up on this whole path to semi arranged marriage, seems so off.

Anyone hoping to pick up a pice of Islamic fiction to identify with, are going to be so completely let down.  The book seems to be written for non Muslims to feel good about having read a book with a minority character.  It’s like a coming of age story, except there is no self reflection or understanding of the world, no lessons learned, or wisdom gained, unfortunately.

I kept reading hoping that if even the Islam was poorly done that the love story would be sweet, or the presentation of hate and Islamaphobia would be on point, but it also was shallow.  Really only one kid had it out for Muslims, and yes he got violent with Maya and threw a brick through her parent’s dental practice, but it could have been used to show light on misguided hate and it didn’t, I don’t really even know what it was used to show.  Maya’s parents got scared and wanted to keep her close, thus forbidding her from going to NYU, but they were already on the fence about it.  Yes, maybe it added to the catalyst of her running away from home an in to the arms of Phil, but even that ended up seeming lame, as she left for NYU and was in someone else’s arms by the end of the book.  So, not sure really, what religion at all had to do with anything, and why the author and publishing team would want to advertise the book with such a strong religious angle, or even cultural one for that matter.  The parents are both successful dentists, who let their daughter do whatever, yes they have an opinion on her future, but Maya reads like a brat, I wish I could like her, and take her side against her tyrant parents, but they don’t actually seem written that bad, and Maya doesn’t make any effort, so she really comes across as whiney, privileged, and entitled.  

FLAGS:

Alcohol, lying, hate crime, terrorism, physical altercation, kissing, hand holding, talk of condoms, sneaking out.  I would not let a 4th grader read this or even a 7th grader, based on content.  Quality, I’d encourage most kids to skip it altogether.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t consider this as a book club, I considered not even reviewing it, with the fear that people wouldn’t read the whole review and would just assume I was throwing my support behind it.  I am a bit disappointed that the book is available through Scholastic as its back flap reads very different than the text within.  

 

 

The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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At 254 pages this boarding school story beautifully blends Islamic information, mystery, and compelling characters embarking on a new stage of their lives.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and engaging this book for upper elementary aged children reads and would strongly recommend it for grades 3-5.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Yusif is about to begin his first year at the prestigious Dar Al Ilm Academy a few hours away from his family, friends, and home.  Nervous to be on his own, he is excited to be giving his dream of memorizing the Quran the chance to become a reality.  When he arrives at the old mansion turned beautiful campus, he is paired up with Reda, a student to help him get situated and before you know it the two are fast friends.  When they get put in the same house, Ibn Kathir, with Warsoma and Daud, the four friends embark on a year of adventure and bonding as well as growth and learning.  Along the way they learn some Islamic history, they understand important hadith and Quranic Ayats and are challenged to live according to the sunnah even when tempers and frustrations abound.  When items start to go missing the boys and their house will have to keep their cool, not accuse anyone, but figure out what is going on all at the same time.  When the culprits are uncovered, they will be further tested to hold a grudge, offer forgiveness, or even extend an invitation to friendship. 

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WHY I LIKE IT:

This idyllic story and predictable mystery will appeal to impressionable readers that can’t see what is coming and can still be inspired by the beauty of such a protected environment.  The window might be small for such readers, but well worth the attempt as the book is well written and the characters well developed.  The boys are diverse and kind and helpful and all the things we want our children to be, especially when they are away from us.  Each character has their strengths and weaknesses and the friends accept them and celebrate one another rather than try and force them to change. The four houses and the characters vying for year captain and having fun along the way reminds me of a Harry Potter spinoff, but alas I think that is just my ignorance of the British school system.  I love that the four houses and their namesakes are detailed at the end as well as there being a glossary of terms.  There are illustrations every chapter or so that are appealing and offer a nice visual of the boys’ world.  The text, line spacing, chapter breaks and all are perfect for the demographic and while the fictional story is solid, I am happy to report I learned a number of things as well. 

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FLAGS:

None, alhumduillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I can’t find much on the author or even on any future books, which is unfortunate because I think it would be great for an elementary book club selection, and I may read it to my 4th and 5th grade Lunch Bunch group after we finish The Great Race to Sycamore Street.  I think it should be in Islamic School Libraries and classrooms as its cover will hold its own and compel kids to pick it up off the shelf.

Book trailer: http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/trailerfullhd.html

Book website:http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/index.html

 

 

Adam & the Tummy Monsters by Zanib Mian illustrated by Maria M. Goncalves

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Adam & the Tummy Monsters by Zanib Mian illustrated by Maria M. Goncalves

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Book two in the Adam Series was the first Zanib Mian book I ever read, and for the last three years I’ve been looking for the first book.  So, while thrilled to finally find it secondhand in the US, I realize my review of it is a bit selfish.  I’m hoping that if it appeals to you that maybe we can encourage the author to re-release it somehow or write more books in the series, I’m not entirely sure how publishing and copyrights work, but I feel like it is worth a shot.  There aren’t a lot of early readers with Muslim characters out there, let alone ones that are done well.  The book is 32 pages, hard back and is would work for 5 year olds and up that know their site words and are pretty fluent at sounding out new words. Ideally, kids that have had the story read to them a few time will be able to pick it up faster, as the story is compelling, the spacing between lines and the variety of fonts will hold their interest, but some pages do have a lot of text and some words are a bit complex. 

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SYNOPSIS:

Adam has a tummy ache, aka tummy monsters, and while he doesn’t want “yucky medicine” from the doctor, he is happy when his dad, puts on a silly hat and assumes the role of “Detective Doodle” to solve the case.  They determine that he ate porridge for breakfast, but so did Adam’s sister and brother, who are feeling fine, so that can’t be it.  He washed his hands before eating, and said “Bismillah” before he started too.  It seems he followed all the eating rules, but when Adam’s sister Mariam stumbles on a scene in the playroom, the culprit is uncovered.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family has a silly approach to a very common childhood problem.  I also love that while, solving the case, reminders about eating etiquette are sneaked in without being preachy or cumbersome.  Once the reason for the tummy ache is uncovered, Adam’s parents don’t scold him, but it is safe to say he probably learns his lesson.

The pictures are engaging and colorful.  The mom wears hijab, and the characters are warm and happy.  The background color of the pages changes and sets a nice tone for the book.  

In the text, Adam isn’t asked if he said bismillah, but rather if he said, “in the name of God,” but in the illustration, a speaking bubble has him saying bismillah, which makes me wonder if the author was trying to make the book accessible to both Muslims and non Muslims alike.  It definitely could be, I think the story is fun and the consequences for gorging on chocolate pretty universal.

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FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Like the second Adam book, this book will work perfect for story time in small groups  and bedtime on repeat.  I think in a classroom it would be great to have small groups read the story and then discuss.  Not a traditional Book Club, obviously for the length of the book and the target audience, but I do think that even little kids will have a lot to say about Adam and his silly family.  More importantly, I think they all will have stories of their own “tummy monsters” to contribute and discuss.

Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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Boy vs Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

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I read this book a few years ago and was blown away that Islamic fiction could explore these topics compellingly in a YA package.  I remember loaning out the book to a mom with middle school kids to see if she could tell me how accurate the storylines were.  Yeah, I never got the book back, and never got the feedback, and the book slipped my mind and thus I never wrote a review on it.  Fast forward to last month and I’m trying to find a middle school book club selection and I can’t believe that I don’t have a blog entry of this book to look back on.  Clearly, this shows why 1- I don’t loan out books anymore and 2-Why I have a blog, cause I remember nothing about the flags, relevance or appropriateness of the book, thus I bought another copy, read it, and am now documenting my thoughts.

The book is 260 pages and an AR 5.3, but the drug use and violence I’d say would warrant an older reader, 9th grade and up perhaps.  And while by the end, the book leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and you would place it back on the shelf in a contented manner, I would be misleading if I didn’t confess that it took much self motivation to pick the book up and keep reading more than once, that it honestly took me a month to read.  The last third was hard to put down, but you have to get through a fair amount of frustration, stereotypes, and extremes to get there.

SYNOPSIS:

Sixteen year old twins Farhana and her brother Faraz live in London and are incredibly different from one another.  Farhana goes to a school where she excels both academically and socially.  She is queen bee, beautiful, and articulate.  Faraz on the other hand, goes to a different school and doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but in the art studio.  One thing that unites them, however, is their determination to grow and learn about Islam this Ramadan, and their home environment of a large extended Pakistani family that places culture above religion.

Both twins are close with the “black sheep” of the family, their Aunty Najma, a niqabi rebel set on marrying a white convert.  But, both twins have their own stresses as well.  Farhana has recently called it off with a boy named Malik, but isn’t really over him and Faraz has gotten himself involved in a street gang to find a place to belong, but the stakes are getting higher.  Both twins on the eve of Ramadan and with the coaching of their Aunt are determined to get their lives straightened out, fast properly, reconnect with their faith, and with each other.  They do, alhumdulillah, however, the spiritual high only lasts so long, as earlier decisions come back to haunt them.

Farhana makes the bold decision to start wearing hijab, but once the novelty wears off, she starts to question her choice.  It isn’t helped by her mom who is very, very against the need to veil and makes it difficult for her daughter.  Faraz meets some street artists at the masjid and while it looks like he could find a place to excel, his alliance with a gang, also comes with enemies from rival crews.  Physical fights and drug runs have him out at all hours of the night and the priority of fasting and praying fade as the the pressures of not getting killed or caught prevail.

As each kid has their ups and downs, and the parents prove to be out of touch with the lives of those in their homes, tidbits of Islam come through, but unfortunately so does a lot of cultural dogma that isn’t always clarified or pushed back on, making there a lot going on in this book, and making me wish it was a just a bit longer and more fine tuned.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book, I could argue set the foundation for the amazing pieces of literature currently available.  Published in 2010, the book really was a first of its kind.  Written by a Muslim, unapologetically written for Muslim and non-Muslims, and available in the mainstream.  The book tackles real issues, but seems to fall into stereotypes too.  That Farhana covers and is so beautiful, she looks like Aishwariya Rai, the Bollywood actress, why would she cover.  Malik decides to figure things out and wait for her, ahhh, so sweet.  There’s the rebel Asian girl who gets a lot of page space early on for her incredibly minor role, going on about Asian Girl Bachelor Parties and hooking up with everyone and anyone. There is the best friend who is religious and the Imam’s daughter and is also chubby.  The nice brother at the masjid who saves the protagonist.  I don’t know, they all seem predictable.  What I like about fiction is it allows Muslims to be seen in shades of gray not just black and white, and while this book tries to do it, I feel like only the main characters are allowed to grow and change, the minor characters hold on to their positions so resolutely that, they kind of seem dry.

I like that the tables on hijab are switched up, it isn’t the parents that want the girl to cover, but rather the girl her self, and some of the conversations about hijab and Farhana’s choice to do it compared to her friend who is forced allow for some powerful moments.  I also like, that she has doubts soon after opting to wear it.  I wish some religious reasonings were brought in to her understanding of hijab, but the aspects of choice and how to wear it, are present.  I’m grateful that Faraz’s storyline takes most of the action, so that it isn’t a romance novel, with Farhana pining relentlessly for Malik.  I had hoped for a little growth from the gang head, Skrooz, especially after Aunty Naj sheds some light on him, but his criminal act at the end after showing Faraz his cousin or maybe it was his brother seemed a bit off.  Again, it was only to benefit the protagonist, not to show that we all have our own battles.

The parents and extended family are irritating to say the least. To the extent of delaying iftar to get the food to the grandmas house and then serving the men first, like really? I don’t think so.  There is nothing that says the women have to eat after serving everyone else in religion and that is never challenged.  Yes, Farhana challenges her mom’s notion of women not going to the mosque, but the food bugged me.  I am Pakistani American, and the culture has its flaws, but the presentation in the book, is one big wide stripe of female oppression, which isn’t fair either.  Absolutely, their are families that the women cook all day and then eat in a corner, but I feel like the staging of this book as “authentic” either needs to show variation, or account that this is how one family views it, not that it is universal.

FLAGS:

There is talk of casual sex, physical violence with knives and fists, details about drugs: cocaine and heroin.  None of it is celebrated, but it is present and very much the norm in how it is presented.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I still sway back and forth on if this could be done as a book club selection, and in the end I would opt that no it can’t.  Not for the drug use, or boy girl relationships, but ultimately for how the backwards and closed minded the Pakistani culture is presented as being.  If the group was high school Pakistani heritage kids maybe, but I think Arabs and non Muslims in general will not think very highly of the culture after reading this book, and I think that is a disservice to be promoting in a book club selection.  

 

 

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

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A middle school sports book with a female lead who wears hijab written by a non muslim.  The book could really go a lot of ways, I held my breath for all 239 pages waiting for something to go totally awry, and thankfully it never did.  In fact I read the book nearly straight through and while meant for ages 12 to 15, I quite enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Ninth Grader Sadia Ahmadi is an immigrant from Syria, her family left before things got “bad,” and while she has adjusted to life in Canada, High School is testing her in other ways.  Her best friend Mariam, an immigrant from Egypt, has started dejabbing, taking off her hijab to fit in it seems any chance she gets.  This is taken as a betrayal by Sadia and their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book as each girl has to figure out who she is in relationship to hijab, and how to judge and/or accept each other and their choices.  Throw in a new refugee girl Amira from Syria who doesn’t speak English, a co-ed basketball tournament that doesn’t allow any headgear to be worn during games, a cute boy on the team and an awesome teacher with interesting assignments and you have the book in a nutshell.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like Sadia, she is believable and strong.  She is well liked, athletic, she has a good relationship with her parents, brother and teachers, she prays and fasts and owns who she is, but she isn’t perfect.  She is hypocritical at times, and acknowledges it, she is tempted by parties, and boys and taking off her own hijab to play ball, and has to confront it about herself.  She doesn’t do things like pray on time, like she knows she should, but there she is and I am so impressed that the author picked up on so many nuances of Muslim life in her research or in her own observations as a teacher.  Yes, Amira has an awkward observation about Miriam being Muslim and not wearing hijab that seems really one dimensional considering large numbers of Muslims in Egypt and Syria don’t cover, but I don’t know if that was the author’s attempt to draw the issue to the light or if it was just a misstep.  

I like that there is a cute boy that accepts Sadia and who she likes as well, but they don’t do anything.  So often, these books become overrun by the romance story line and this one doesn’t, thankfully.  It seems to find a realistic balance, that she has feelings, but isn’t going to act on them, and based on her mom figuring out when she is lying that she won’t try and sneak behind her mom’s back.

Issues of halal food are mentioned in passing and it fleshes out that the girl is Muslim, not just going through the motions.  At times it is hard to know if her choices are based on belief and faith or expectation, but for an early YA/Middle School book, I think it suffices.  She mentions modesty as a reason for hijab, but also a lot of parental and cultural expectation.  One central theme the reader just has to go with, is that Sadia and the rest of the characters in the book, and there are a fair amount of Muslims, don’t know about any other ways to wear hijab for sports.  I get that Mariam and her sewing ability is a huge arc in the story, but they have smart phones, and its a contemporary piece, they have to know about Ibtihaj Muhammad in the Olympics, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, and Nike making athletic hijabs.  So, to make the story work you do have to turn a blind eye to the fact Muslima’s have taken to sports in the mainstream and that there is no way they can all be that clueless about her fabric, style, and covering options.

I love that the issue of refugees is addressed in the periphery, and the issues are given a human face.   I love that Sadia’s parents are religious, but not left as simple stereotypes, they deal with Islamaphobia, but aren’t looking for sympathy.

There is always the case, that the hijab becomes a stereotyped item as the story involves characters torn to wear it or not, but I loved how judgements were called in to questions and there wasn’t an easy answer.  The side friends in the story are all way too good to be true, but I think the whole book has a bit of a pollyanna feel to it, and in this case it was ok to error on the side of kindness than become overtly sensationalized and whiney.

The biggest hurdle this book faces is, is it the author’s story to tell. And I don’t know, I review a lot of books, and many are by Muslims and they get stuff wrong in my opinion, or they go so extreme to be accepted.  So, I don’t know, I think the book had heart, I didn’t know if the tournament would let Sadia play, I didn’t know if she would sneak off to the party, I didn’t know if she would cross the line with Josh, and I was curious, and invested and sucked in to it all.  Is it a book to teach others about Muslims or a book for Muslims to see themselves? I think all of the above.  Muslim’s should control their own narrative, but I think when author’s get so much right, we have to take some reassurance in the idea that we are being accepted by the larger society, and our stories are being told with love by other’s too.

FLAGS:

There is romance and lying, but no kissing, just hints at emotions or an errant arm flung over a shoulder during a huddle or photo.  There is mention of drinking at the parties, but Sadia doesn’t end up attending.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would do this as a book club selection, but if I met the right group of kids, I would definitely reconsider.  There is a lot of basketball, which I quite enjoyed, but I could see other’s maybe getting bored by the play-by-play.  I’ll make my daughter read it in a few years, and I look forward to discussing hijab and how she feels about it after.  It does raise the subject, and ask you to check your judgements on yourself and on others.

Author’s Website: http://www.colleennelsonauthor.com/