We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after. And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read. The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless. The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book. This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.
Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather. They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home. Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four. He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.
The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated. Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them. Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow. There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well. The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out. I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are. They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.
I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story. There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.
Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering. This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for. Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.
The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.
Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing. There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th. Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book. It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.
It can be preordered here on Amazon