There is such a shortage of male Muslim protagonist middle grades books that I have been waiting quite impatiently to get my hands on this one, and alhumdulillah, it didn’t disappoint. I’m not sure if it qualifies as OWN voice, being it has a female author, but the authenticity in the little religious and cultural details would suggest that it should. The 320 page book is meant for ages 8-12, but the weight of Aziz’s father’s illness, the plot pivoting around three classic books (Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and the clever reflections of Ahmed along with his quick wit and thoughtful choices, might make the book’s sweet spot be 5th to 7th grade readers (as well as us moms who are suckers for elementary literary references, teachers who are heroes, and kids realizing their potential). The book has a bully, but is clean and wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Twelve-year-old Ahmed is leaving the only home he has known in Hawaii to move to Minnesota. His dad has Cirrhosis, a result from a rare genotype of hepatitis C, and Minnesota is one of the top options for treatment. The family is nervous to move in general, but more so to move to Minnesota. It is where Ahmed’s dad Bilal grew up, and where his dad’s younger brother passed away at age 12. Ahmed’s younger sister, Sara, is perhaps the only one excited for the new adventure.
The family arrives and is greeted by Bilal’s old friends, and when school starts he realizes one of his dad’s best friends, is his English teacher, and somewhat of a legend at the school in getting kids to try and beat her at an end of the year quiz show like competition. The school is also where Bilal and his brother Muhammed went to school and a picture of Muhammed hangs right above Ahmed’s locker. The biggest stress at school is Jack. Jack who lives a few houses over, Jack who rides the same bus, Jack who is in Ahmed’s English group, and Jack who has a lot of followers at school. Jack is a bully. One who makes Ahmed’s life miserable at every turn, not just socially, but even the police.
Ahmed is a laid back kid that doesn’t like to read, but loves words, who wants to blend in yet is the only brown kid in a sea of white, who enjoys attending Jummah salat, but ultimately hates going because of the shoe chaos afterwards. Ahmed has no intention to read the books assigned in class, but some how the three classic books assigned do get read, and Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tie together and weave in and out of Ahmed’s epic year.
I don’t want to spoil much, but Ahmed’s dad is in the hospital a lot, there is a lot of plotting to survive being bullied, as well as getting revenge on the bully in Ahmed’s own way without involving parents. Ahmed slowly grows to love Minnesota, his small circle of friends, and his school while learning about his uncle and the kind of person he wants to be as he grows up.
WHY I LIKE IT:
Ahmed is Muslim and while his mom prays five times a day and his dad is an occasional prayer it doesn’t specify how often Ahmed prays or how he feels about religion, other than going for Jummah. At first Ahmed thinks he is being bullied by Jack because he is brown, his mom is an immigrant from India, his father the son of immigrants from India, but learns that Jack picks on anyone new. I like that for as much as Ahmed hates stereotypes and assumptions, he acknowledges that he makes them too. I like that Ahmed doesn’t like to read, but is smart, and eventually comes around to reading. He is tech smart and very mature in how he views the world and himself in it, cares for his sister and parents, handles things on his own, and builds others up. Ahmed is a good kid, not in that he doesn’t make errors or is a teacher’s pet, but in that he has a really good heart and a good head, and I think would make anyone better for knowing him. I love that the book is smart too. If you have read the three books mentioned you will love the discussions and questions about the books, if you haven’t read them, you will be tempted to after you finish this book. I wish there was a tad more religion, there is a sprinkling of culture, primarily the mom’s tragic cooking, but a bit more religion in a book that has illness and death would seem natural to me. The storytelling is superb, I was so curious where the father’s parents were, but alas it did answer that, I would have liked it sooner, but I was glad it made it in none-the-less. I would have liked a bit more from the parents about why they wanted Ahmed at his dad’s old school, or how they were comfortable constantly leaving the two kids home alone at night, but Ahmed like I said is pretty mature. I particularly love the brother sister relationship. Ahmed is a good older brother and it reminded me in some ways of my older brother, which made my heart warm, good siblings are a blessing.
There are multiple climaxes, but while I expected the dad’s health to be a big one and Jack getting what was due to be a close second along with the outcome of the literary contest, I was not prepared for the level of Jack’s torture to climb to, and was pleasantly surprised by the unresolved thread of Jack and Ahmed’s future relationship. Things in life don’t magically resolve and I love when middle grade novels keep that in mind.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would absolutely do this in a heartbeat for a middle school book club selection. Even if the book is more middle grades, I think the students will enjoy it and be surprised by the emotional investment the dad character extracts. I think they will also benefit from the literary references, relatable characters, and the overall great storytelling.