Tag Archives: United Kingdom

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.  

 

 

The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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The Victory Boys by Jamal Orme illustrated by Eman Salem

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I’m not sure why Amazon states the book is for pre-school and up, when the publisher, Kube, posts this book for ages 7 and up.  I think 3rd or 4th grade soccer/football fans will enjoy the book.  There are some slightly mature ideas presented and worked through, and the soccer lingo assumes the reader knows the sport.  Plus the quality of the illustrations and the small font isn’t going to entice someone not already excited to read the book based on the content within.  My boys, ages 8 and 9, enjoyed the book, as did I, once the story got going.  It doesn’t really grip you from the first sentence, but as the story progresses and the way Islam is woven in makes for some learning experiences in the midst of a few intense football matches.

SYNOPSIS:

The boys at the Sunday Madrasa do not enjoy their time there.  They find the Imam boring and thus are not inspired to learn. When they sneak a football into break time however, they suddenly feel more engaged and present in their lessons.  A change the Imam notices and appreciates, but doesn’t know the reasoning for as he strictly forbids football and finds it a waste of time.  Outside of Madrasa, Junayd is having a hard time at home.  He has to help out a lot at his father’s restaurant and his older brother Saleem has gotten in trouble with the police.  His mom prays for the kids, but is also at a loss as to how to help with the stresses at home.

During a secret game of football in the masjid courtyard, an arrant ball breaks the neighbor’s greenhouse window, and the boys are forced to come clean about their covert game.  The Imam demands the kids stop playing and that they tell their parents what they have done, so that they may earn some money to replace the window.  As the kids come through with the money and the Imam sees the kids resort back to their lackluster attitudes to learning.  He gets an idea to start a football club after madrasa classes.  The only problem is that he knows nothing about the sport and no parents are willing to help.

Saleem by chance comes to collect his brother one day, and as he hollers advice from the sidelines, the Imam recruits him to coach the team.  In response the Imam ever so gently uses football to teach not only the madrasa kids, but Saleem as well.  When the boys learn of an upcoming tournament, the Madrasa enters an A and B squad and the Shabab Al-Nasr, Victory Boys, will be tested not only in their play, but also in their manners, and understanding of what it means to be a team and Muslim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Imam grows and changes.  I mean it is a kids book about soccer, but really it is the adult in the story that shows the most heart.  He goes out of his comfort zone, reevaluates his opinions, and admits when he is wrong.  High five Imam!  I also like that he didn’t give up on Saleem, and the way he leads him is with such kindness and compassion, that even youngsters, will be impressed.  

The book does not talk down to the reader, which is nice, but at the same time I think it pushes the age appropriateness a bit with the detail devoted to alcohol being sold at the restaurant, Junayd’s father’s flaws, and even Adam’s dad’s tantrum of sorts.  There really aren’t any nice parents in the book.  We don’t learn much about the moms, but none of the dads seem too supportive.  Really the only nice adults are the Imam and the neighbor who’s window they broke.

The timeline isn’t entirely smooth, the kids come together and play well as a team remarkably fast for how intense the tournament is, and how well they perform. And some of the characters could have used some fleshing out, I couldn’t really tell you much about them.  The font is really small and the spacing often forgotten.  The book is about 95 pages with a glossary and an acknowledgement at the end, fortunately the 2nd book in the series seems to space the words and lines out more and is 155 pages.

The story is solid and for the most part well written.  I read it in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed the lessons learned and then put into practice.  The book isn’t preachy, but you are glad to see the Imams words given life in the other characters’ actions.  Saleem changes quickly, but the author and story account for it in a way that is believable for the audience and the message of not giving up on one another comes through loud and clear.  There is a lot of technical detail about the sport, but it doesn’t drag on, it adds to the excitement even if you just know the basics.

FLAGS:

The talk of alcohol, of Saleem being with a group of kids and a stolen car, there is some yelling and aggressiveness from the adults.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The story is a bit short for a book club selection, but I would definitely consider it for Lunch Bunch (where I read to 4th and 5th graders while they eat lunch).  And I think most Islamic School libraries and classrooms should stock the series.  

https://thevictoryboys.com/

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pipa Curnick

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A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids.  The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives.  Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them.  At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.  

SYNOPSIS:

Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl.  I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian.  You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed.  But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.

Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends.  Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England.  Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.

Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria.  When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom.  The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with.  It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.  

Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike.  The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them.  Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated.  What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised.  I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched.  Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day. 

There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head.  But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people.  I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.  

There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong.  The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did.  The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.  

FLAGS:

The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.

Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf

A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf

 

 

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/