For a book written by an accomplished author for 3rd to 7th graders focusing on a Muslim family, I was surprised at how despite wanting to absolutely love this book, I only kind of liked it. For the first 100 of 271 pages, I really kept hoping there was going to be more to the story. Luckily the story did pick up, but I couldn’t get passed how much crushing all the sisters were doing on the one boy in the story, and how much stronger I wanted the main character to become.
Told from Jameela, “Jam’s” perspective, the second of four daughters living with their parents in Georgia, the story focuses on the interpersonal relationships of the members of the family and their parents’ close friends who’s nephew has moved in with them from England, Ali. All the kids are close in age and of Pakistani ethnicity, and are Muslim. As the reader gets to know Maryam, Jam, Bisma, and Aleeza, you see the characters develop pretty well and their quirks and personalities emerge. Jam is more tomboyish than the gorgeous Maryam who likes to bake. Jam and Bisma share a room and are closer than Jam and Aleeza, the baby of the family who Jam finds is becoming a brat. Jam also enjoys watching football and eating spicy food with her dad and desperately wants to be an award winning journalist like her grandfather. She puts out a family newsletter and is ecstatic to be named the feature’s editor as she starts 7th grade. Ali is a year older and has moved to stay with his aunt and uncle until his mom and sister can join them. He spends a lot of time with the sisters and in Little Women inspired fashion the little ones want his attention, Jam is a little jealous to learn he finds himself tongue tied when talking to the beautiful Maryam and Maryam in 9th grade is drawn to Ali, but doesn’t vocalize it too much. And then as the story picks up speed, Jam says, “In a matter of weeks, Baba got a new job and moved across the world, Bisma got sick and has to be in the hospital, and I messed up everything with Ali and the paper. How did my whole life get turned upside down so quickly?”
The rest of the book is dealing with Baba working in the Middle East, Bisma being diagnosed with lymphoma, Jameela learning some journalistic basics, and Ali and Jameela becoming a bit more than just friends.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that a Muslims desi family is being represented in an own voice novel that mentions religion as a natural part of their life, and doesn’t apologize or overly explain it. That being said, I feel like the book is trying to present “us” to the outside so to speak, rather than empower our own. And I point this out, because I feel like it could have done both. Dialogue between Ali and Jameela about how they might date as they get older, how Ali can’t see any of the sisters having an arranged marriage. How when Maryam gets asked to a dance her mom doesn’t mention any religious reason her daughter should say no. None of the girls wear hijab, and they mention that they don’t wear hijab, at one point Jam knows she should get up and pray, but doesn’t. I don’t expect a fictional story to teach our upper elementary age kids how to behave that is a parent’s job, but to have some basic Islamic tenants brushed aside after being mentioned is worth noting. Had the book just been more cultural, maybe I wouldn’t be so critical, but Muslim girls are going to be excited to see themselves in this book and some of the messages might tilt a little more liberal than some parents would expect. It is one thing when our girls read a book with a romantic twist and we say that, that is not for us, but when a book celebrates us not just crushing, but vocalizing those crushes and moving in to a gray area (they hug but it could be an innocent friend hug) and they make a point to be next to each other, Muslim parents should be aware. In the larger society it wouldn’t even register on the radar, hence I point it out.
Another thing that kind of bothered me and was again related to Jameela and Ali’s relationship was that when Jameela cut her hair in support of Bisma losing hers with chemo treatments, she seems to need Ali’s approval. I get that she wanted him to see her and all that, but I really wanted her to be strong enough in and of her self that even if she looked awful she would own it and not let it define her and not let a boy’s opinion about her physical appearance weigh that heavily on her. Again I know 4th grade girls start noticing boys and having crushes and middle school is only worse, but I just was hoping that her strength and confidence would come from her own growth arc, not from someone else, let alone someone she likes. Side-note here too about the hair, it is donated to make a wig, which I know might also be a sensitive subject regarding if that is allowed in Islam or not.
In terms of the cancer and the sister’s rallying together all that I thoroughly enjoyed and found the most interesting passages in the book. I think the understanding of a real subject and finding a way to help and deal with this was executed expertly and powerfully without sensationalizing the concern or simplifying the experience either.
The book is clean, but there is a lot of mention of how Ali affects the girls. And potentially depending your own opinions on the hair being donated.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t do this as a book club book, I’m actually hesitant in even recommending it to my 12 year old daughter. I know she has read worse, but again me handing her a book about Muslim girls might make her understanding of what we expect regarding boy/girl interactions to be a bit muddled.