Tag Archives: teen

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

boy

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.

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

 

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

The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

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The Story of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him): Ramadan Classics: 30 Stories for 30 Nights by Humera Malik

the story of prophet muhammad

I debated posting about this book for so long that Ramadan is more than half over.  But as a reference for years to come, I thought I should go ahead and throw my late support toward this Ramadan tradition and a book deserving of space on your shelf for children 4th grade and up.  I’ve seen people praising it for a few years, and finally I ordered it this year, however, I wanted to not only read it, but also test it out first: reading a story a day, discussing and asking the correlating questions with my own children, before reporting back.  I cannot and thus won’t comment on the accuracy of authenticity of the book, nothing stood out as erroneous to me and there is a bibliography at the back, but there is a reason I try and steer clear of non fiction, I’m just not qualified to comment.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the birth of Prophet Muhammad (saw) and ends with the selection of Abu Bakr (ra) as the first Khalifah.  Each chapter is between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pages and the 30 chapters plus one Eid day chapter (so a total of 31), covers 103 pages in all.  There are a few pictures of where the Battle of Badr took place, the Cave of Hira, not many.  There are three questions at the back of the book for each of the chapters, but no answers.  The book is pretty linear, just the second chapter bounces back to Prophet Abraham (as) and Hagar and the story of Zamzam and then the rebuilding of the Ka’bah.  It is a glorified timeline, which in this case is a good thing.  It doesn’t go off on tangents or provide a ton of outside references, it is concise and general, but hits the key parts: marriage to Khadijah, first revelation, migration to Abyssinia, Taif, Hijrah, treatment of slaves, year of sorrow, Battle of Badr, Battle of Uhud, Treaty of Hudaibiyah, it talks of tensions with various tribes, coming to an agreement about the Khalifah, and more.

I think younger children might possibly be able to have the short chapters read to them and then explained, but really, it would be a lot to process.  The words are simplified and the gist of situations are conveyed, but topics aren’t necessarily shied away from.  It discusses that Prophet Muhammad (saw) had more than one wife, and that there were slaves, and there were tensions with the Jews, and Bilal was tortured, all things that picture books might skip over.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that even my young teen could read and involve herself without feeling like the exercise was childish.  Many of the answers are open ended in nature and require more than just a one word answer.  It allows for children to add other facts that they know about RasulAllah to the dialogue and make connections to our history with our current life very easily.  Even children that know the story of Prophet Muhammad (saw) will find the book engaging and smooth enough to read through again (and hopefully again each Ramadan) and learn new tidbits, understand concepts more clearly and be reminded about the beauty of our Prophet.

FLAGS:

Nothing

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If I was a teacher, I would definitely start each morning reading a chapter and doing the Q and A, whether it was Ramadan or not.  I think we need to be more connected to our Prophet and grow our love and appreciation for him, so books like this are such a great tool in accomplishing that goal.

 

She Wore Red Trainers by Nai’ma B. Robert

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She Wore Red Trainers by Nai’ma B. Robert

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After having fairly good luck with the Muslim YA Romance Novel Genre in An Acquaintance and Saints and Misfits, I was willing to give She Wore Red Trainers a try.  Na’ima B. Robert has written a lot of books and this 261 page book was an easy and entertaining read.  There are no plot twists, deep thoughts, or intense drama, its a light read that infuses religion and environment into a story that will be great for 14-16 year olds that have slim pickings of relevant, Islamic, “halal” fiction options.

SYNOPSIS:

The story is told from two 18-year-olds’ perspectives, Ali and Amirah. It goes back and forth and while the perspective is obvious, the bottom of the page identifies the character so there is no chance for confusion.

Ali has begrudgingly moved to London with his brothers and father.  Not very religious before his mother’s death, he and his father and younger brother have made a new start and commitment to Islam since losing her to cancer.  The middle brother, resists this, but isn’t too critical in the story, other than to add a voice to the concept that people have to come to Islam on their own, that the relationship between a person and Allah is not cookie cutter or often simple. 

Amira too has a past and a lot on her plate as she strives to balance her chaotic family life and moving past decisions of her rebellious self.  The two meet and in the brief second before gazes are lowered, they fall in love.  Ok, so it isn’t that cliche’ but it is close.

The two, as the dedication of the book states, “are striving to keep it halal.”  They have a few encounters and the sparks are there, but they both have their own stories and supporting cast of friends as well. It isn’t until the very end, SPOILER, they get married.

Yup. impromptu wedding of 18 year olds.  It isn’t out of left field though, there are passages that contemplate the Islamic merits of a young marriage, and perhaps that is the depth of the book, as far as giving the reader something to think about. That and choosing Islam and actively living it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The stuff that makes the book interesting, isn’t really even the two love birds, it is the context.  The struggle of Amirah’s complex family situation with a mom that has had multiple husbands, and is suffering from depression.  Amirah also has a creepy stepdad (makes her uncomfortable and seems to make sexual advances toward her) and a sketchy past that isn’t really articulated but is hinted at enough to know that she did rebel briefly by running away and experimented with drugs and alcohol before realizing it wasn’t the life she wanted.  She takes tremendous care of her younger siblings, one who is deaf, and respects her older brother tremendously.  Her friends are not overly developed but provide enough diversity that the reader will see themselves in someone even if just fleetingly.

Similarly Ali is fleshed out by the company he keeps.  He has very religiously devout friends, a few rebellious ones and countless opportunities to define who he is.  His home life is a little chaotic, but they’ve gone through the destruction and are in the rebuilding phase. 

I like that the characters are fallible and represent a wide spectrum of religiosity.  The book isn’t political, nor does it discuss culture really, but it is meant for Muslim readers.  The characters throw in Arabic terms and while there is a glossary at the back, the religious rules, the contemplation of hadith and ayats, understanding Islamic divorce and the stress to be well established before marriage make it a book for those that can relate.  I love that part of keeping it halal is that they don’t talk and text.  I know that makes it a bit unbelievable, but I like that the line is drawn and established.

I wish that the past of many of the characters was clearer.  Not overly sensationalized, but a tiny bit more.  I wanted more information on what Ali’s dad’s new job was, and how far away they would be moving.  I wanted to know how Amira’s family would manage without her and the creepy stepdad, would the mom be able to step up and care for her kids.  I wanted more details about Amira’s family in general and why her older brother had to leave his studies permanently in Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t able to just delay graduation.  

I can’t criticize the writing too much because I did read the book in one sitting and it kept my interest.  I didn’t expect it to be deep or thought provoking, so for a light summer read, it was good enough.  I felt like the ending was a bit rushed, and yes there are some far fetched ideas, but I think it’s a romance novel, halal or not, so yeah, there are going to be some places that forgiveness is needed.

FLAGS:

There is mention of hooking up, drug and alcohol use, virginity, and a creepy sexual predator in the stepdad. It isn’t appropriate for middle school, but not so vulgar that one would need to be 18 to read.  I think high schoolers won’t find it too cheesy, and not be shocked by the content either.  Granted it depends on the reader. but I think it is better to be safe than sorry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider the book for a high school book club. Might have to get parental permission, but I think it works well to consider how to have it all so to speak.  How to live within Islam and be smart about your choices.  The book doesn’t offer a lot to think about and mull over, but if you were a teenager, I would imagine that the book presents a lot of what you are feeling.  There is a lot to relate to in the friends, the deen, the emotions, and the temptations.  It also shows that just because families are Muslim, doesn’t mean that they are not complicated and troubled, a scenario that many would find reassuring at least superficially in the book.

Interview with the Author: http://www.kubepublishing.com/an-interview-with-naima-b-robert-about-her-forthcoming-book-she-wore-red-trainers/