The correlation between baseball and cricket provides the foundation for detailing the relationship of Bilal’s first year in America after having to leave Pakistan in a hurry: the same, but different. This 248 page book written on an AR 4.6 pivots around sports, but has a lot of heart as themes of family, friendship, and longing, take center stage. Throw in a whole new culture, the English language, Ramadan and prom and you have a whole lot to cover in this well crafted story.
Bilal has a good life in Karachi, Pakistan. He is the oldest of three kids and at 10 years old, his world pretty much involves Cricket, friends, and his dad. When his father disappears things get frantic, and when his father returns, the family decides to move to America. Unfortunately Bilal’s dad can’t come. As Bilal, his mom, his younger sister Hira and younger brother Humza, board a plan to Virginia, everything Bilal knows is left behind.
Virginia is home to Bilal’s maternal Uncle, his wife, and their teenage son, Jalaal. Jalaal plays baseball and arranges to have Bilal join him at baseball camp for the summer. Learning the new sport, and a new language, and the nuances of life in a new land are frustrating and often comical as Bilal points out how confusing navigating American life can be. He also keeps an ongoing list of new things in America to share with his dad over Skype, as they swap memories of an old life in preparation for a new one. The supporting characters on the field are generally kind and accepting of Bilal, because they have a bigger problem then a foreign boy, there is a girl on the team, Jordan. Jordan is new too, and the coaches niece at that, naturally they become friends, but its not easy, Bilal has to learn what being a friend really means.
The majority of the book stems from the tension of waiting to hear from Bilal’s father, and to see if he can come to America. The passing of time with baseball games and school are anecdotal to the larger arc that sets the pace of the book. Will Baba be able to come, and if so, when?
WHY I LIKE IT:
Interestingly religion has a pretty big role in Bilal’s life and the author does explain some tenants in Islam. He wakes up for fajr (although he does miss it occasionally), he only eats halal zabiha, the family fasts in Ramadan, and they celebrate Eid. Bilal wants to fast, but him mom tells him he is too young when they are coming to America, and the following year he doesn’t because of baseball, which is unfortunate, because a lot of kids fast and play sports all over the world. They go to the mosque on Eid only, and it mentions that the women in his family do not wear hijab like some of the women at the mosque. His older cousin Jalaal wants to take the neighbor girl, Olivia, to prom, which the family explains awkwardly as something that Muslims don’t really do until they are older, or at least that is how Bilal understands it. In the end, they let Jalaal go with Olivia and a group of friends, and the whole family Skype’s the family in Pakistan and sees them off. Even more funny is that they don’t join their friends for dinner before the dance, because Jalaal is fasting and can’t eat until later. I don’t know if this will confuse 4th and 5th grade readers, but as an adult I found it hysterical, because these cultural contradictions are more common than not. I did like that nothing was done behind the parent’s backs. Things were discussed and worked out instead of lied about.
Another thing that I found interesting, but since finishing the book, I have come to appreciate, is that there is no Islamaphobia in the story, or even xenophobia. The kids are accepting of Bilal’s faith and culture. He is far more self conscious about being different or not understanding than those around him are. Its idealistic perhaps, but at the same time, I think it would distract from the core of the story.
While the book focuses on sports, I think even non sports fans will be able to enjoy the story. The author doesn’t get too technical and it moves steadily with mini climaxes and triumphs through out. Girls and boys will enjoy the book, Muslims and non Muslims too, the readers might even learn something about baseball or cricket or Pakistan, or even about themselves along the way.
The book is remarkably clean and what you would expect for a good quality, solid 4th grade and up story. There is the “prom” issue, but there is no hugging, kissing, longing etc. They “like” each other, but it isn’t more explicit than that.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know if I would use this for a Book Club. One could, but I think it would require a lot of coaxing to get kids to give a book about baseball/cricket a try. I have no doubt if they started it, they would finish it, but it might be a tough sell. The confusion in American life would make for an awesome discussion after being read, because everyone can relate to some of the oddities of the English language, and challenges of learning a new language and culture. I think how Islam is handled would also make for some good discussion in addressing how each family handles things differently as they arise. Although written on a 4.6 level if I were to do it in a school setting, I would probably do it for middle school kids who could articulate their own life parallels to the story.
An interview with the author:
Overall a solid decent book about an immigrant Muslim boy making his way in America, while not losing or giving up on who he is, alhumdulillah.