Tag Archives: young adult

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

Standard
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 Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

Standard

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

Standard
No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard

believers

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

 

The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

Standard
The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah

light at the bottom

At the risk of sounding pretentious or like I have written a book before, sadly this really reads like a debut novel.  At 311 pages, there is a lot to love about this Muslim authored, Muslim protagonist sci-fi/dystopian adventure, but I have so many more questions about everything after reading the book, than I did before I started, that unless the next book (assuming there will be one), really steps it up- all the world building will have fallen flat with the lack of character connection I felt. At times I had to force myself to read through the lulls in the story, while at other times, I sacrificed precious sleep to read just a bit more.  The story is pretty clean and would have no problem letting my 5th grader read it, even while knowing it will have more appeal to my 8th grader.

SYNOPSIS:

It is 2099, and Earth has flooded forcing everyone to live underwater.  Set in London, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen, a submersible racer, lives alone with her dog Jojo.  Her mother has passed away and her father has recently been taken away to an unknown place for an unknown reason.  It is Christmas, and Muslim Leyla spends the day with her best friends, twins Theo and Tabby.  With futuristic technology, the wealthy twins show the reader what life under the sea entails and the world the characters now inhabit.  Pausing to recall the day the Earth flooded, New Years brings a huge race, the London Marathon, and Leyla somehow gets one of the 100 spots to enter the dangerous submersible race.  The winner gets whatever they want, and Leyla hopes to win, so that she might ask for her father to be released.

By opting to not harm someone, Leyla’s last minute reactions earn her the championship title of the race, however, her request to have her father freed is denied and instead she is gifted a submarine and the attention of the authorities who have ransacked her apartment, and stolen and destroyed her home.  Feeling like she has no reason to stay in London, she plots to escape the borders and go search for her father alone.  A family friend, she calls Grandpa, knows more than he has ever let on, and forces a friend’s son to keep an eye on Leyla, Ari.

Ari and Leyla explore the ocean, while Leyla whines and makes poor decisions, narrowly getting out of each situation, but not seeming to really learn her lesson.  As people appear and help them along the way, she finds where her father is being held, but not much else, and then poof, a few action scenes later to try and rescue her father, and Ari is captured and the book ends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

You have to respect the author who’s bio on the back flap of a Disney, Hyperion published book starts off with, “a British-born Muslim of Afghan descent,” and who dedicates the book to “my fellow Pathans.  We too are worthy of taking the helm.” I love it! Seriously, way to be so confident in who you are, and your story, that you own it and wear it with pride.  Truly, I felt empowered and can only imagine what Pathan girls everywhere would feel opening the book.

Similarly, Leyla, owns her Islam by praying, reading Quran, saying Bismillah before she races, and inshaAllah when she hopes in for things in the future.  She does get a bit close to Ari and doesn’t find that a problem.  She doesn’t cover, and there are no other Muslim characters in the book, but she is definitely religious, and it is seamlessly woven into her character without mentioning anything about what Islam is or stands for, but giving it authentic attention.

There are a few twists, one particularly large one, but not a whole lot of answers, or details.  There is no understanding as to why Leyla’s father has been taken, what happened to everyone other than those in the UK (especially Afghanistan, where Leyla presumably would have family), why so many people are willing to help Leyla find her dad, why Grandpa tells Leyla nothing at all, about Ari’s friend who died, and so much more.  So often it just feels that Leyla is whining and getting no where in her rash and stubbornness, but everyone seems to love her. Perhaps, everyone but me.  I really never felt connected to her, and her annoyingly ever-present dog.  There is more telling about how great she is or her father is, and very little showing.  I think if there is a second book, it could really elevate this one, but as it stands, so little is resolved, explained, or emotional resonance, that I don’t know that the characters or book will leave a lasting impression.

FLAGS:

Some language and a kiss.  There is death, and disease, and battles and government lies.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m tempted to do this as a middle school book club selection, despite the one-dimensional characters, simply because it is clean and might introduce students to a genre they might not otherwise read.

Author’s website: https://www.londonshah.com/

 

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

Standard
Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Miracle

bunchesA book about 5th grade friendships told from the perspective of four different girls in a variety of styles: instant messages, chatroom conversations, video scripts, and traditional text.  The author seems to have a checklist of diverse characters and afflictions that all must make an appearance in the 335 page story.  It is written on an AR 4.4, but with one of the main characters having two moms, details of a suicide mentioned, talk of pole dancing, male anatomy joked about, thongs, crushes, and mental illness, four girls coming together to form friendships and take down a bully, might raise more questions for young readers than they are ready to handle.  Yasaman the Muslim girl in the group, also borders on perpetuating more stereotypes than she breaks, and while I definitely don’t think this book is a good fit for 4th and 5th graders, I don’t really recommend it for readers of any age, there are just better books out there.

SYNOPSIS:

Asian American Katie-Rose doesn’t have friends, unless you count her neighbor Max, but she doesn’t.  She dreams of having blond haired Camilla as a best friend, but the Camilla she went to Pioneer camp with is not the Milla at school who hangs out with Modessa (aka Medussa) and Quin, and is popular.  Katie-Rose also dreams about being a cinematographer or director, she isn’t sure yet, but she loves to imagine scenes and scripts and how things ideally should play out, even when in reality they never quite seem to do so.

Milla, isn’t sure if she wants to stay friends with Modessa and Quin, they aren’t nice and she has a lot more fun with Katie-Rose, but somehow she always ends up going back to the popular crowd.  She also has a lot of anxiety and needs various totems with her at all time to feel secure.  When her little plastic turtle goes missing, she struggles to stay composed, and her and her turtle will end up changing a lot at Rivendell Elementary.

Violet, is the new girl at school and she is not liking her life at home or at school.  Her mom is in a mental hospital and she misses her desperately, her dad brings home fast food every night for dinner and life just isn’t the same since she moved to California.  Immediately able to tell who the popular kids are at school, she hasn’t decided which group of friends is the best fit for her, but when she stumbles on Tally the turtle, and doesn’t immediately return it to Milla, she has to understand what that says about her, and figure out if she is strong enough to make things right.

Yasaman is the quiet computer wiz, she is also Turkish-American, Muslim, and a hijabi.  She designs a platform where kids who are too young to join Facebook can chat, stream videos and send cupcakes.  The only problem is, she has no friends to get to join.  When Katie-Rose and her strike up a friendship, the first seeds of the four flower named girls are planted, but it will take all four of them to put Modessa in her place, rescue Tally, and deal with stereotypes, emotions, and family along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that a Muslim, muhajaba is included in the quartet, and that her religion, her scarf, her culture, and her belief in Allah, actually are sprinkled in.  I don’t love how in the book’s efforts to include such diversity, that it also seems to fall for a lot of the stereotypes that it on the surface seems to be dispelling.  Katie-Rose asks her if she even knows what YouTube is before being made aware of how computer savvy she is.  All this is to subtly show the assumption that Muslims are not aware of technology and whatnot, and set the record straight, but also regularly thrown in are side comments from Yasaman that her father would never let her wear something, or she wouldn’t be allowed to do that because of her dad, definitely reinforcing a male dominated, authoritarian, out-of-touch patriarchal view.  Even her mother, an artist, is shown to demand a lot of Yasaman and be incredibly strict.  A lot of things aren’t spelled out, they are just dropped in and assumed that the reader get’s it.  But only Yasaman’s parents are portrayed this way.  Milla’s two mom’s are caring, Violet and her dad seem close, and Katie-Rose’s parents are rarely highlighted.  So, I felt like it was noticeable, and not in a positive way.

I’m still completely confused as why pole dancing and male anatomy made appearances in the book.  And the pole dancing reference appeared not once, but twice when Yasaman is talking to an older cousin who is talking about a friend who’s aunt is a pole dancer, and then later when Katie-Rose’s babysitter also mentions the same friend.  They also discuss people as being slutty and boy crazy and skanky.  The male anatomy isn’t spelled out it is hidden with a girl with major orthodontia reading a Wikapedia page on the greek satyrs, discussing their physical pleasures and talents.

There is also a lot of mental health issues that I’m glad are present, but I’m not sure if they are handled seriously enough.  I’m glad they are addressed, because awareness is a good thing, but discussing how someone swallowed pills to commit suicide and even though she changed her mind still died, and not giving any context seems to make the concept come across as a bit trivial to me in its presentation.  Same goes for Camilla’s anxiety and Violet’s mom being in a mental hospital.  These girls have some major stuff going on that their preoccupation with a snotty group of girls, and the obsession of mud being consumed in an ice cream shake, seems a bit off.

Overall, the girls seem incredible perceptive and articulate in their self reflection and understanding of social personas, that I found their banter completely disjointed.  I don’t think the author’s voice is consistent, and the heavy stuff is too much coming from 5th graders in my opinion.

FLAGS:

Stereotypes, and discrimination against Yasaman and her younger sister Nigar.  Possible triggers with talk of suicide.  Milla has two moms, it is never labeled or made an issue, she just refers to them as Mom Abigail and Mom Joyce. Talk of boy private parts and erections, crushes, pole dancing, words such as skanky, and slutty and dingleberry (poop hanging on) used.  There is lying and bullying and retaliation and poetic justice.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book for a book club or even have it in the classroom.  I think it gets a bit crass unnecessarily and the cute flowery cover and inside flap, makes it all the more surprising.  You might expect some potty humor in other books, but knowing it is there allows the reader to make a decision to read it or not, I would imagine most Muslim parents would see four diverse girls on the cover, one wearing hijab, get excited and hand the book to their 3rd or 4th or 5th grade daughter and have no idea what the book also includes in passing, with no relevance to the story lines highlighted on the inside flaps and back of the book.

Allies by Alan Gratz

Standard
Allies by Alan Gratz
allies.jpg

This is the second Alan Gratz multi-perspective historical fiction novel I’m reviewing for its inclusion of a Muslim character.  While in Refugee it seemed a natural choice to include a Muslim family, I was completely shocked that he would feature one in a WWII D-Day novel.  With numerous storylines spread over 322 pages the book is quick, fast paced, intense and emotional.  An enjoyable read for history lovers and curious kids fifth grade and up, it is an AR 5.6 and older kids will benefit from it too.

SYNOPSIS:

The characters and timeline are fictionalized to all take place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as the Allied forces and French resistance come together to storm German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy.  Many of the details do come from history though as detailed in the Author Notes at the end of the book.

The book starts out following Dee, a German national who left for America to escape the Nazi’s and is now returning in a Higgins boat to fight them. Knowing no one will understand, including his friend Sid, a Jew from New York, he keeps this knowledge to himself and focuses on the task ahead.

Samira and her mother are the focus of the next mission and highlight the role of the French Resistance, the Maquis.  What makes their story more meaningful is that they are spies with the French Resistance, but they are French Algerians, not really a part of France at all, and they are Muslim.  In Samira’s back story we learn how she must remove her hijab and how she is treated different at school because Algeria and France are at odds.  When her mother is taken by the Nazis before she can deliver the message to the Resistance, Samira vows to do it and get her mother back as well.

19-year-old James from Winnipeg Canada is a paratrooper who volunteered for combat to feel empowered after years of bullying. His buddy in the story Sam is a Cree Indian from Quebec, who has few rights at home, and hopes to have more success in the military.

Medic Henry is scrambling along on the beach helping anyone and everyone he can.  Having left behind a segregated US, even the military has reservations about African Americans saving and serving. As he performs one heroic act after another being questioned and doubted and insulted all along the way, readers see how ridiculous and infuriating racism is on every level.

We meet Private Bill Richards who drives a Sherman tank and is following in his fathers WWI footsteps.  But who is unfortunately killed before reaching Bayeux.   And finally we meet Monique Marchand, a French 13 year old girl, who gets caught up in the invasion because she left her swim suit in the beach hut the day before and has returned to retrieve it. Determined to do something other than cower in fear, she starts helping fallen soldiers and meets up with American journalist Dorothy, a strong woman determined to not be stopped on the basis of gender.

All the story lines criss and cross as the invasion is a chaotic mess and everyone is dropped, disembarked, or arriving in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Surviving the day is an immediate challenge and not one that everyone will succeed at.  The larger success of the mission will depend on some lucky breaks and a whole lot of teamwork.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story somehow isn’t political at all in the traditional war story, war strategy sense.  But the strength at least for me, wasn’t the horrific battle at hand, which is truly violent and abhorrent, but the relationships between the people.   The realizing what is driving them, what matters and more importantly how hard our prejudices are.  The larger story of the Allies shows British, Americans, and Canadians coming together to defeat he Nazis, but yet, a girl, an African American, and a Cree are treated as “other” irregardless of how beneficial they are even in matters of life and death.

As for the story of Samira, she is a tough girl, both clever and brave.  To have a Muslim in  an American/westerm story of D-Day and a young girl at that, to me was pretty remarkable.  There isn’t mention of faith or anything other than that she is told to take off her scarf and continues to wear a small kerchief on her head anyway, but for Muslim kids all over, this character and how she behaves will spark a sense of extra pride in the Allies success over Hitler, just as the other minority characters will for their representation in such a dramatic event.

FLAGS:

There is a bit of mild profanity.  There is violence and death, and blood, not too bad, but the point is clear, the beach isn’t pretty.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book would be a great supplement to any WWII history lesson.  There are great resources at the end, and maps at the beginning and a high energy, short chaptered book that doesn’t skimp on character building or war intensity.

Author’s website: http://www.alangratz.com

 

 

You’re Not Proper by Tariq Mehmood

Standard

your not proper

This highly praised British young adult novel is intense.  If I was trying to sell you the book I would say that it is relevant, gritty, raw, and real, but as a reviewer, it is definitely more rough, all over the place, and random.  There is so much going on in the book that it should be well over 400 pages to resolve it all, but almost as if the publisher required that the book be less than 200 to fit the demographic, it all gets tied up way too simplistically and leaves dozens of tangents unresolved, unexplored, and hanging.  The main characters are 14 years old, but I think it is a bit too harsh for that age group and should probably not be read by them.

SYONPSIS:

Karen’s mom doesn’t believe in God but takes her to church.  Karen’s dad is a Pakistani Muslim who loves bacon and beer.  The book opens with Karen’s gang marking her forehead with a cross against her will, and her soon after deciding that she doesn’t fit in with her friends and will now be Muslim.  Part of this transformation involves her wanting her name pronounced properly, as Kiran and her wearing a hijab.  Her parents are pretty ok with the decision, but the author foreshadows that this will be the undoing of her family.  

The book gets crazy, like all over the place crazy, but because of the little hints that all this craziness is leading up to something, I kept reading thinking that the author had it under control.  But no, I don’t think he does or did. 

The most craziness comes from Kiran’s rival Shamshad who leads another gang and pretends to be really religious, but is a bit of a rebel and bully herself.  The author is told from both Kiran and Shamshad’s perspectives, and while at times the reader sympathizes with Shamshad, as her influential father is abusive, many of her actions are so jarring and awkward, that no, she isn’t really like-able at all.  She wants a computer, her parents are that strict, yet she goes out with a guy, gets drunk, hangs all over him, goes to a Halloween party/dance without seeming to have to sneak about doing it.  She is regularly beating people up, threatening to kill and maim people with scissors, not a nice 14-year-old, nor a believable one either.  

As Kiran tries to learn about Islam and figure out what is tearing her family apart, and Shamshad is trying to find her place, the two storylines come closer together before the big climax of learning what tied the two girls’ families together in Pakistan and then here in the same English neighborhood.  The climax/ point of the story is actually a good one, but the resolution of it, is so simplistic that it cheats the reader of any potential investment they may have skimmed from the crazy build up.  It seems like the author had an idea and just worked backward for his big reveal, which is probably how most books are written, but in good books, you connect with the character and join them in their journey, here there is no character connection.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the idea of the book.  That there are good and bad Muslims and Christians, that things are diverse and complicated and that we all have our own baggage either at home, or in our heritage, or in our environment. But the book is not cohesive, the characters are really, really harsh.  And it doesn’t seem the author gets their voices right.  Plenty of males write beautiful complex female characters and vice versa, and plenty of adults get teens right, but I don’t think this author got either.  The girls are not believable and the minor characters are just as bizarre.

I think if you you live in a highly diverse area and you are acquainted with lots of minorities you can handle the way Islam is portrayed, but if you aren’t I think both Muslim and non Muslim readers alike will be shocked and offended by the portrayal of such crude characters.  This isn’t a book of accepting differences and finding a way to get along, it is more of a book showing how awful everyone is in varying degrees.  If it was an adult book perhaps you could argue it is realistic, but as a teen book, I think the lifestyle choices of all the characters will be eye-opening and not necessarily in a good way.  I do like that the book isn’t offering a moral statement or opinion on Islam, but the way Islam is presented isn’t inspiring either.

I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books that are meticulous, not boring, but deliberate.  Authors like John Irving who seem to map their stories with crime solving precision.  Where every sentence serves a purpose and every idea has a reason for being shared.  Most books leave something hanging, but this book, left everything hanging.

For two girls in gangs, the gang members by and large fade away before we even get to know them.  There is a rally being planned but resolved half heartedly.  Kiran has to fight with her parents to learn about herself in a really unrealistic way.  Kiran harasses her dad to learn about Islam, but then all of a sudden her paternal grandpa lives nearby and brings over a marriage proposal, why couldn’t she ask him about Islam, and why would a 14 year old be considering marriage?  The whole scene of Kiran getting a hijab is weird and pointless, why stress underwear and having another customer make a random comment for no reason.  What was the obsession with swimming for Shamshad and her mother, like there is a lot of space dedicated to this topic, and I don’t really get it.  Shamshad’s dad is also creepy, he seems to have a decent relationship with her, but is physically abusive to her mom, and he does a weird inappropriate thing with a pointer stick to Kiran at the masjid, that should be discussed more in my opinion.

Once the big reveal happens really there are more questions than answers.  Like I still don’t get why the families hate each other, if they had to make promises of secrecy in Pakistan, couldn’t they just ignore and be ambivalent to one another in England? Why so much hate and hostility? And what is up Jake? He seems like a good friend that makes some mistakes and Kiran is awful toward him, then all of a sudden she claims him as a brother.  And whats up with him going on and on about his brother in the military, I need closure! And last but not least why when Kiran’s mom is in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, why does the Curry Club, that no one in the book ever liked, suddenly in the hospital room with them, when it should be a tender mother-daughter moment? Seriously, I was beyond annoyed.  There should have been a message, or a cathartic release, not annoying super side characters coming back for no reason.

FLAGS:

Lots of violence, alcohol, language. There are also romantic relationships and the celebration of Halloween.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to anyone.  I am willing to concede that some of it was lost in translation for me, but there is so much going on in the book that there is no way that it can excuse it all.  I would love to discuss some of my concerns with someone who has already read it though. So feel free to reach out, I’m all ears.

Khadijah: Mother of History’s Greatest Nation by Fatima Barkatulla

Standard

khadijah.jpg

I depart from the Islamic Fiction that I enthusiastically seek out and read, to share and review a work of non-fiction that swept me off my feet.  Perfect for children eight and up, and particularly ideal for girls, this book is absolutely physically beautiful and the content is as well.  This 176 page book flows like a story not a history book, and at times a love story between Khadijah (RA) and our beloved Prophet (SAW).  The font and spacing invites young readers to absorb each word without feeling rushed or overwhelmed.  

SYNOPSIS:

The book is a biography of our mother, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid.  It starts just before she is made aware of Muhammad and ends with her death, followed by a few reflections of RasulAllah missing her.  For the most part the story keeps her at the focus and for the age group the slips into seerah are no problem.  But I wanted more about her.  I learned that she was married twice before she wed Prophet Muhammed, but I wanted to know more of her children with these other men.  I wanted to know if they ever accepted Islam.  I wanted to know of Khadijah’s childhood and her parents, and her tribe.  I wanted to know more about her sister who sounded like her, and if she had any other siblings.  It scratched the surface, and even my 10-year-old daughter wanted more, in a good way.

It covers their marriage, and it reads like a sweet fairy tale that is absolutely full of noor and love.  It shares how she supported the Prophet at every turn and the hardships of the boycott.  It drops names and places, but not in an over burdening way. In many places I actually wanted more detail as to how they all fit together in time and place. As she has children and grows ill and time passes, the story comes to an end.  Almost too quickly, as her day-to-day life as a mother and wife are missing, and I was hoping there would be more.  Yes the  growth of Islam and the plots of the Quraysh are so important, but I wanted more Khadijah, in a book claiming to teach us about our “legendary mother.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

Obviously the story is great, and really the way it is presented is how our kids need to know our history: with love and compassion and enthusiasm.  You feel the love between Khadijah (RA) and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) you see how patient and devoted she is in a very emotional way.  Truly the author has given life to a story many of us know, and filled us with a connection and relationship that is very personal and inspiring in nature.  When you finish the book, you feel like Khadijah is a friend, an amazing friend, but someone you know intimately and proudly, not just as a historical figure.

innerpages2_1024x1024

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this for like a 4th -6th grade book club.  I think it should be mandatory reading.  I would probably invite someone well versed in the seerah and Khadijah to answer the children’s questions.  How wonderous it would be to hear the kids discussing her life and offering parallels, lessons, and inspiration to one another from their new found knowledge of Khadijah (RA).

 

 

Just a Drop of Water by Kerry O’Malley Cerra

Standard

just-a-drop-of-water-cover

Thankfully the adult in me won out as I resolved to read a book whose cover and title did nothing to tempt me.  I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, but seriously a kid running on the American flag with major Muslim characters, written by a non-Muslim about September 11th? I was hesitant and nervous to know what messages would be spread in the 304 pages to children on an AR 4.0 grade level.  But alas, I was  nervous for nothing.  The book is wonderful, and I want to read it again with my 5th grade daughter so we can discuss it.  It is hard to believe 9/11 is now taught as history, but as someone who lived through the tragedy as a college student, this book hit on so many of the defining moments of that horrific morning and the days that followed.  The book isn’t overly political, or judgemental, or preachy, and in retrospect, most people on September 11th and the days immediately following, weren’t either.  We were confused, scared, and unsure, a tone the book reflects and magically presents on an elementary level without getting  overwhelming with the enormity of it all .   The book was published two years ago, and I’m very tempted to contact the author or editor and urge them to reconsider a cover and title change because truly the story deserves it.

SYNOPSIS:

Jake and Sam have been friends their whole lives.  They bonded in the sandbox with their little green army men and have been planning battles and missions together ever since.  Told from Jake’s perspective the reader sees what life is like for these two 8th grade boys.  They push each other in cross-country, their parent’s come together for Jake’s 13th birthday, neighborhood boys swing by for pizza and front yard football games.  But there are stresses too: siblings, busy parents, not getting named captain of the team, friends that play dirty.  Then September 11th happens and worlds are shattered.  The boys learn that one of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was from their town, and although Sam has only been to the Mosque a few times with his grandparents, and his parents are culturally American not Saudi, the school bully Bobby is determined to get rid of Sam.  Jake makes it his mission to defend his friend with his fists and his words, but when his parents urge him to stay away from Sam, the stakes are raised.  President Bush says, you are either with us or against us.  But what is Jake to do?  Secrets about Sam’s dad come out and the FBI takes him away for questioning.  The town is gripped in fear and 8th grade boys on both side are determined to change the world, to be the drop of water creating ripples of change.  As Sam and Jake pull away from each other, Sam starts going to the mosque to learn about what he is being accused of being and begins to identify as Muslim.  Jake’s frustration with his parents continues to grow as does his impatience with Sam, but when Jake overhears Bobby plotting something serious, Jake will have to decide where he stands and how strong he is.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the author crafts a story that is complex, but not overwhelming.  She sticks to focusing on getting inside Jake’s head and succeeds.  He is frustrated and confused and determined, but alas he is only a kid and can’t foresee his actions or articulate them the way an adult can.  He is likeable and fallible and she doesn’t belittle him, thus making his plight tangible and relatable.  I was a little disheartened when about a quarter of the way in it was made clear that Sam knows nothing of Islam or his culture, but it works so well in the story to show that he was pushed to go learn about his roots, since others were treating him as if he represented Arabs and Muslims.  This is so real, I knew so many non practicing Muslims that suddenly started coming to the mosque or reading books on Islam because they realized they should know where they come from.  Many resumed a secular life over time, but many also became more practicing, a phenomenon, the US media and politicians have seemingly failed to acknowledge as Islamaphobia is rampant and so many people pick up a Quran to see how a religion painted so negatively, can simultaneously be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  The author doesn’t even touch on what Muslim’s believe, but she does include that they abhor violence and disavow the attacks.  The Sheikh is presented as nice enough and there is no negative judgement or tone from the author, aside from the xenophobic characters.

The title of the book comes from a song that Jake’s grandma likes and she often tells Jake, “just a drop of water.” Jake takes it to mean that something is insignificant, but she has him listen to the song and explains that it makes ripples that grow.  The imagery is great, and the line becomes powerful, I guess I just felt it wasn’t devolved or woven in enough to make a strong, clear statement to be the title of the book.  I’m sure many would disagree with me, but as I stated earlier the title along with the cover photo didn’t pull me in.  The book appeals to both girls and boys as both are presented very positively.  There are a handful of side stories that add depth to the characters and narrative that I haven’t touched on, but they are all charming in their own way.  There is a Boo Radley type character, there is a whole tangent about Jake’s grandfather and the details surrounding his grandfather’s death, and the overall messages about friendship, and doing what’s right that make the book relevant to a wide spectrum of readers of all ages.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean considering it is about an act of terror followed by bigotry.  There is some hate speech and violence, and some lying and cheating, and mention of getting pantsed.  But, overall clean and no concerns for 4th grade and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There are a lot of resources online and it doesn’t surprise me.  This book would do great as a novel study, as it is historical fiction.  It would also work well as a book club selection for any elementary or middle schoolers, not just those in an Islamic school.

Core Connections: achievethecore.org/file/1602

 

Broken Moon by Kim Antieau

Standard

Broken Moon.jpg

I didn’t initially think the premise of the book was terribly original: a poor scarred girl in Pakistan working as a servant, cuts her hair to look like a boy and be free to move about and rescue her brother.  But the weaving in of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights stories into the larger story, and the plot of kidnapping children to be camel jockeys in the Middle East, made the story good.  Really good, but not the book.  I really struggled with the format of the book.  It is written as letters by the main character Nadira to her young brother Umar.  The information seems too forced in this style, she is telling him how old he is, or retelling him things he said a few days ago.  Once they are together she has to clarify that now she is writing it to their mother, and then again alter it to be writing to those following her story.  It presents too many characters, that are awkwardly introduced because presumably he knows who they are, the reader does not, and bridging that gap makes the book halt the reader from diving head first into a really compelling story.  I feel like the book’s editors let the characters down, it would have been an easy fix to tell the story as Nadira told it to the Sheikha, and then when the story caught up with the present to continue it from there as written, without the guise of it being shared in letters or a diary format.  But, alas no one asked me.  Luckily the book is only 183 pages and written on a AR 4.2 level so it is a speedy read.  Do not let the fourth grade level, however, trick you into thinking it is content appropriate for a 10 year old. There is a lot of abuse, in every sub category of the word.

SYNOPSIS:

When Nadira was 12 years old she was attacked by a group of men seeking to avenge an alleged crime Nadira’s older brother committed against their daughter.  By this girl’s reputation allegedly being ruined by Nadira’s brother, the village decides that a female in his family should in exchange be ruined.  Nadira manages to fight and ends up with some external scarring, including a moon shaped scar on her face, a lot of internal scarring, but the book points out quite often that she got away from being sexually abused.  In her culture she is assumed to be ruined, and will never be married.  She begins to work as a servant to help the family financially as her older brothers have more or less disappeared and no longer are of any help to her family.  When her father dies, her mother and younger brother, Umar, rely on Uncle Rubel who is a horrible man who covertly sells Umar to the smugglers to become a camel jockey.  The family that Nadira works for seem kind, they stick to the norms and don’t include her in their fun and frivolity, but they don’t abuse or belittle her either.  They offer her, her mother, and Umar a place to live on the property, and assist her in finding someone to locate her brother.  Nadira, however, is strong and determined and takes matters into her own hands by cutting her hair to look like a boy, finding the smugglers, and convincing them to take her.  Once in the camp she wins over all the boys, by becoming Sherazad and telling a story to delay her being beat.  Her wit, tenacity, and perseverance is infectious and you find yourself cheering her on.  As she prepares for the races and to broaden her access to camps to find her brother at, she meets a western vet, a Sheikha who essentially owns her, and discovers that all the boys she lives with know she is a girl and love and respect her.  The climax involves her racing in the Sheikha’s Race where the winner is granted a wish by the Sheikha.  Can Nadira win? Can she find her brother? Can she save all the boys at the camp that she has taken in as her brothers? I won’t spoil it this time.  You’ll have to read it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the author did not cast judgement on a group of people.  Not all Pakistanis are bad, not all women are helpless, not all men are oppressive, not all employers are abusive, etc..  similarly, there is a western character, but she doesn’t swoop in and save the day, in fact I read her to be complacent in what she knew were obvious human rights violations.  I loved the relationship that Nadira had with her father.  The love of learning and love of his daughter is so sincere and beautiful that I think readers can see that the stereotype of daughters not being prized jewels in a family as being false.  I wish the mother would have been further developed.  She seems defiant, but not fleshed out, which is unfortunate. I also like the subplot of the gardener boy, Saliq.  A boy who completed some of his education in England, only to be made crippled by a horse, and sent back to be a servant.  He’s role and respect of Nadira furthers the notion that her scar does not define her, as he proposes marriage and pledges to support her in her efforts to continue rehabilitating kidnapped children and stopping the cycle.  I also like that the author doesn’t share her response, as if to emphasize that she is liberated and with or without a husband she is a complete person.

The characters are Muslim by culture, but there is no real mention of Islam or Islamic practices.  Before Nadira cuts her hair she wears a scarf, but that is neither her nor there.

FLAGS:

The premise of the book is an accusation of a sexual crime.  One of the stories she tells at the  camel camp to delay the beatings,  is the story of the lady who traps a merchant, a king, a carpenter, and a Kazi to free her lover.  She offers her body to the men and traps them in a cabinet naked after obtaining their signatures.  There is some kissing and some innuendos and references to sexual acts.  There are also references to the sexual abuse at the camps as well as descriptions of the physical ones that take place.  Not for the faint of heart or young and innocent. The boys at camp also discover that Nadira bleeds like their sisters, as a clue to them figuring out she is a girl, but compared to the sexual crimes, menstruation seems hardly like a flag, and I only mention it because the AR level is so low, not because there is any reason for shame or shyness in discussing an act all women endure.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think high school students could handle the book, and would allow a plethora of discussion options from child labor, civic responsibility, abuse, justice and the power of literature as a coping mechanism.  I wish the author would have included some information on camel racing and how they are regulated and jockeys are obtained, and maybe thrown in a recipe for masala chai as well.

There are no online websites or guides that I could find to accompany the book.