Category Archives: OWN Voice

Hope on the Horizon: A Children’s Handbook on Empathy, Kindness, & Making a Better World by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Isobel Lundie

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Hope on the Horizon: A Children’s Handbook on Empathy, Kindness, & Making a  Better World by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Isobel Lundie

This delightful 288 page handbook pulled me in, inspired me, enlightened me, and allowed me to reminisce about incredible fictional characters from iconic books, tv shows, and movies.  Concepts such as kindness, empathy, friendship, deflecting negativity, seeing beyond labels, and asking for help, are framed around the fictional character’s strengths to introduce famous real life people from the past and present, as well as not so famous people the author personally knows and works with.  Written with the author speaking directly to the reader, there are also calls to actions, questions, prompts, and resources to help mature middle grade readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with an introduction about who the author is and her getting to know the reader, before introducing the concepts the book will cover and how it will go about doing so.  It establishes the super power of kindness and five golden rules.  The 10 chapters of the book then follow a loose format of introducing a fictional character and why the author admires them: Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tintin, She-Ra, Superman, Samwise Gamgee, etc., her connection to them and to a theme: hope, being a ripple starter, never giving up. to name a few.  The book then highlights how the character and theme tie in to a cause that the author is passionate about, refugees, education, feeding the hungry, foster care, etc., then spotlights exceptional people the author has gotten to know personally in her activism that have made an incredible difference in the world, before offering a checklist of how you too can take action.  And finally a famous person is celebrated as being the culmination of all the strengths, characteristics, and super powers mentioned.  People such as Greta Thunberg, Albert Einstein, aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, footballer activist Marcus Rashford and more.  Often there are reflections, and the easy banter and conversation between the author and the young reader never leaves the text.  The reader and the connection to the reader is always prioritized and included in the sharing of information, motivation to action, and celebration of individuals real and pretend that have made a positive difference.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is nothing overtly Islamic in the book, but there are Muslims featured as both famous real life examples and the author’s personal acquaintances.  Most importantly the author is unapologetically Muslim and offers glimpses of her own childhood growing up Muslim in the UK.  And as a hijab wearing Muslim, the illustrations also proudly show her smiling, eating chocolate and being an activist making the world a better place for all.

I love that the tone of the book is optimistic even when discussing difficult themes and heartbreaking realities of society.  The playfulness of the banter keeps the reader engaged and the text light.  Even if you don’t know the characters referenced, the urge to read their stories is a secondary benefit, and one that I think will further young world changers’ critical thinking skills.  Finding the good in people, even if they aren’t real, is such a lens that needs to be used more often, and the book does a tremendous job of stressing this.

FLAGS:

Talk of refugees, homelessness, food insecurities, abuse, poverty. Nothing is overly detailed, but the concepts are touched upon and explained as needed which could possibly be triggering or difficult to fully grasp to younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book can be read straight through or referenced, you can even thumb through and read sections that appeal to you.  I don’t know exactly who the book will resonate strongest with, but I’ve got my own children reading it, so I will happily report back. I think it deserves a place on every book shelf and even if only portions are shared with a class, the discussion and foundation that it could provide would be incredibly powerful.  I could see an English teacher encouraging essays about fictional character traits in the “real” world being assigned after reading, or History teachers spending time on some of the characters highlighted, it really is a great tool, a handbook, for young and old alike.

Lina, the Tree and the Woodcutter by Eman Salem

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Lina, the Tree and the Woodcutter by Eman Salem

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I’ve enjoyed another book in this bilingual series, Little Tree Goes for Hajj,  and was excited to see little tree all grown up and the focus of a book on the environment.  The 22 pages in Arabic and English start out promising, setting the stage, establishing the familiar characters, discussing caring for trees and not harming them for no purpose, but then the book just kind of ends.  It is wordy, the English anyway, I cannot comment on the Arabic, but it is sweet and warm in its own Islamic fiction way.  I didn’t feel like a glossary was needed, it mentions Allah in the text and seems meant for Muslims, so why the definitions of Allah, Hajj, and Mecca are included is a bit odd especially when it uses Christianity and Judaism in the explanation of the oneness of Allah.

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Little tree is now an old tree and was a friend of Lina’s grandfather, they had traveled to hajj together.  As they sit chatting, they hear a horrible noise and discover it is a woodcutter chopping down a tree.  When the young man stumbles upon the talking tree and Lina they question his motives.

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He wasn’t chopping wood for fuel, or to build a home, he was just chopping it because he could.  Lina and the old tree explain what was lost with the destruction of the tree and teach him that Allah swt has made people the earth’s caretakers.  The woodcutter learns from his mistakes and apologizes.

I wish the book maybe would have made a stronger point that trees take a while to grow and that sorry is well and good, but not enough to restore what was lost.  I like that the woodcutter wants to learn more, but a few lines detailing what he learns or that he came every day to sit with them or some sort of ending would have been nice.

Swimming on the Lawn by Yasmin Hamid

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Swimming on the Lawn by Yasmin Hamid

swimming on the lawn

This 176 page book about life in Khartoum, Sudan reads almost like a memoir with short, loosely connected chapters detailing a young protagonists day-to-day life growing up.  There is no real conflict  until the very, very end, and the majority of the chapters just seem like snapshots with little to no continuity.  That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy all the stage setting and the easy voice detailing a time and place that I know too little about, but I don’t know that most kids will feel compelled to keep reading.  The book is slow and wandering, best suited for lower YA/middle school, if they can be persuaded to read it.  I think the book would do well taught, as some good discussions about Sudan, growing up with an English mother in Africa, the role of religion,  the 1960s, the impact of financial comfort, and the threat of violence would make the book very relatable while also being eye opening.  The power and beauty of OWN voice makes this prose filled book thought provoking and memorable in a subtle and light way.

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SYNOPSIS:

The standalone chapters follow Farida and her siblings in Sudan in the 1960s.  Their summer vacations, visiting friends, trips to villages, making tea, lots and lots of tea, reading books sent by their Grandma in England, and the abrupt arrival of soldiers.  Told from a child’s perspective the short chapters focus on the events front and center and don’t carry over or carry morals or lessons.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the chapters titles are written in English and Arabic and that Islamic holidays and customs are mentioned.  Interestingly though, the family doesn’t seem to practice.  There is cultural presentation of Eid and Mawlid and talk of hajj, but not of praying or saying Bismillah or inshaAllah in daily conversations.

I wish there was more information about the mom being English and how the parents met, and what cultural obstacles maybe had to be ironed out.  I also wish there was a bit more at the end, an afterward even something that gave some closure or insight into what the ending means for Farida and for Sudan.  The choppiness grows on you, but some stories even at that were too unresolved.  The whole chapter detailing her traveling with her uncle to his village only to find her back at home the next chapter without any reflection on the journey, how she returned, the cousins she met, etc., just seemed unresolved.

FLAGS:

A birth and burying the placenta is described, alcohol is mentioned, fear of a friends dad is hinted at, soldiers being present, father being taken away by force, shootings.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a middle school classroom setting the book would have a lot of potential.  Read a chapter and have kids journal their impressions or thoughts perhaps, or have them imitate the style and write about themselves.  It probably wouldn’t work as a book club, but it definitely should be shelved in a school or classroom library.

You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

you are the color

Books like this are hard for me to review, and I have gone back and forth on whether I should post anything or not.  On the one hand, we need books that are unapologetically Palestinian written by Palestinians.  They need to be celebrated and elevated and I want to offer my support to the stories, to the voices, to the authors, illustrators, everyone involved.  On the other hand, if I didn’t love it, why should I shy away from saying so, when I have purchased the book (pre-ordered and changed the shipping address even, to have it delivered to me on vacation because I didn’t want to wait to read it).  The book is emotional, but the last six pages unraveled the whole book for me, and in a picture book particularly of this nature, when you finish- if you don’t have a cathartic pull, you start to find holes in the story as you feel deflated.  The book, I would go out on a limb to say, needs to be discussed and given context even if you are Palestinian.  As someone who is not, I recognize my arrogance in such a statement and am happy to be corrected, but from a literary reviewer standpoint the book needs discussion and additional context.  The Nakba is only articulated in one paragraph in the author’s note.  In the story itself there is no indication that what happened to Thaer happened to so many Palestinians in 1948.  The use of color and how it is depicted in the illustrations is tangible and powerful, but as odd as it is to say, the words got in the way of the story.

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The book starts with Thaer trudging to school in dull sepia filled pages to begrudgingly sit at a desk and begin an art lesson.  He is glad the spitballs are just spitballs and not real explosions, but the tone is still melancholy.  When he sees boys playing soccer he recalls the last time he played soccer, and the memory comes alive in color.  He was in Yafa, it was the day before the Zionists came and took his family’s home.

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The teacher, back in muted tones, asks him to draw what has made him smile, and Thaer gives it a try.  Blue for the color of the sea, green for zeit and za’tar, brown for taboon to get fresh bread, etc..  When he takes the drawings home to his mother, she is not impressed.  Drawings are silly and colors aren’t going to bring Baba and Susu back.

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Defeated, the next day in class, Thaer recalls the men pounding down the door and Baba being shoved in a truck and Susu falling.  The next day at school they hang up some of their pictures and Thaer talks about his sister.  (SPOILER) On the way home Thaer paints the alleyway and brings color to his and his mom’s world.  His mama says that he is the color, and when the following day’s prompt is to draw what you want to be when you grow up it shows Thaer (presumably) on the beach as an adult painting.

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The disconnect for me occurred with the painting of the alleyway.  I was incredibly invested in the story, my heartstrings were being tugged, I was breaking for this character and his experiences, and it all came to a screeching halt because I couldn’t understand where the paint and the alleyway and the mama’s change of heart all manifested from.  As for the ending, I think I know what the author was going for, but it didn’t connect with any of my kids aged 2-15 nor my mother, a 40+ year early elementary veteran teacher.  I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces as she read the book to them.  The frozen expressions of huh and confusion at the end, until my 11 year old to broke the awkward silence to ask if the boy wants to be a painter or a father or an adult?  Those facets coupled with the often advanced vocabulary, makes the book an important one, but one that needs a lot of outside commentary to connect with the readers and to further the conversation about Zionism, al-Nakba, the occupation, and the continued oppression of Palestine.

There are flags of loss, kidnapping, sorrow, violence, etc., that parents will have to gauge if their children can handle. I’m not sure what age group is the best fit, the murder of a young girl, the forced displacement from one’s home, the removal of the father are all heavy themes.  I appreciate that it isn’t “watered down” for a western gaze so to speak, but I wish there was more about what happened to the dad, is there hope he is alive? I wish there was something about this not being an isolated reality for the protagonist and his family.  I wish there was some conversation or connection between the mother and son, because the loss of continuity really derailed the story.

As for the idea of the story, and the use of the illustrations to physically show two worlds I think is a great idea, it just sadly fell apart for me at the end: the faltering conclusion and the loss of emotional buildup that the first two thirds of the story worked so hard to create.

Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

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Nura and the Immortal Palace by M.T. Khan

nura and the immortal palace

This 272 page unapologetically Muslim MG tale takes on some heavy concepts: child labor, jinn, education, and gulab jamun- I mean greed.  Through the eyes of feisty, determined, clever, and strong Nura, though, the trials of life and society are never without hope, a sense of adventure, and good intentions.  The characters are likeable, the Islam wonderfully present and often centered, the social commentary remarkable, but the framing for me, made it a bit of a struggle to read at times.  It is set up like Alice in Wonderland or even Silverworld, where the characters living in a real world stumble in to an alternate reality, and thus the world building occurs in real-time so to speak.  The reader has no idea what is going on until it is happening, no clue what the rules and constraints of the fantasy world are until some detail is needed to help or hinder the protagonist, and personally I struggle with this wandering style of narrative.  I have mentioned before that as a child I really never read fantasy, and I think this is why, I  need the context to ground the story so that I might lose myself in the adventure at hand.  If you are fine with this framing and at ease with Islamic jinn fantasy, then this book will be a lot of fun.  If you find fantasy “shirk-y” do know that Ayat ul Kursi is used to save the day, but that there is a lot of imagination regarding the beings made of smokeless fire, a casino is present along with dancing, indentured labor, and the fear of death.

The book releases in July 2022, and as always pre-orders help show support for books, authors, and the OWN voice content that they entail, so if this book seems like a good fit for your 3rd/4th grade reader and up you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3MVvxQo

SYNOPSIS:

Nura lives in the small industrial Pakistani city of Meerabagh.  Her father has passed away and her family is too poor to send her to school, instead she must work so that her siblings might eat.  Her mother works in a sweat factory and Nura in the mica mines.  The illegal child labor and cruel owners provide less than ideal working conditions for the children forced to mine the sparkly mineral.  Nura’s mom wants her to quit, Nura herself doesn’t enjoy the torment, but somehow she takes it on as a challenge to be the best miner in Meerabagh, pushing her self deeper into the fragile tunnels.  With bestfriend Faisal always warning her about going too far, she decides to finally listen to her mother and quit the mines, but not after she makes one final effort to find the rumored “Demon’s Tongue” treasure.  She digs too deep though, and the mines collapse, children are lost, Faisal among them. Determined to find her best friend, she plunges in to the fallen mines and finds herself on the pink waters outside the luxurious jinn hotel, the Sijj Palace.

Nura has always been warned about jinn, qareens and the tricks they play on humans, but when a life of luxury is dangled in front of her, Nura pushes her better judgement aside to enjoy a life she has always dreamed of.  It isn’t just the food and clothes, but it is the respect and honor she is given as she wins a food eating contest, gambles in a casino, and gets decorated for a dance party.  It all comes crashing down however, when in an attempt to impress the painted boy, she cuts off his horn.  Status revoked, Nura is sent to the labor force, where she will remain for eternity, imprisoned and at the disposal of the hotel.  What is more, after the three day festival of Eid al Adha, her memories of her life before coming to the jinn world will disappear. Nura is determined to escape, but nothing in the jinn world is easy, and for a 12 year old girl with fading memories, this might be more than she can endure.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nura is unapologetically Muslim.  Even though she is poor, there is time spent on the pages detailing the feeling of Eid al Adha, the familial togetherness and community festiveness even if it all is meager, it still has value.  I also really like the relationship between Nura and Faisal.  They drive each other crazy and have nothing in common, but they never give up on each other.  They act like siblings, tolerating each other’s annoying quirks, while never wavering on their concern and worry for one another.  It is sweet and well fleshed out.

The threading of education was also done well.  Nura finds the idea of school repulsive, but it grows and changes as the obstacle of being illiterate slows her down, and ultimately she changes her mind.  The growth arc is subtle, but powerful, and Nura’s intellect, cleverness, and ingenuity is never dimmed as a result of her lack of formal schooling.

The characters, even the “bad” ones are given some depth and sympathetic qualities, and Nura has to recognize some of her own flaws and choices as she journeys through the book.  Desi culture is present primarily in food and clothing, but it adds depth to the story and flavor to the experience.

The food eating competition, however, didn’t really impress me.  I get that it was to flesh out the jinn world and show Nura’s smartness, but I thought the jinn in the water were eaten, only to have them reappearing, and the founding premise is that jinn are tricksters, so to have Nura tricking them seems to blur the lines of integrity.  Also the bird was critical, and then never seen again, the scene just didn’t read as tightly edited or as clear as it should have in my opinion.

I didn’t love that a casino either, or that it was so central to the story. If it would have said something about gambling being haram and jinn being free to do what they want, like it did when discussing how Eid is celebrated by non practicing jinn, I might have not been as bothered,  but it seems an odd setting nonetheless, for a middle grade book.

FLAGS:

Gambling, child labor, indentured servitude, magic, fantasy, jinn, destruction, bombing, fire, death, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this could work as a middle school book club read.  It is a little below level and age, but there is a lot to discuss and connect with, that I think it would be a lot of fun.  Our school is ok with fantasy reads, so for us it definitely deserves a place on the bookshelf in a classroom, school library, and possibly (depending on your views of fantasy) a home library.

The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

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The Wonders We Seek: Thirty Incredible Muslims Who Helped Shape the World by Saadia Faruqi and Aneesa Mumtaz illustrated by Saffa Khan

wonders we seek

I’ve noted over the years how much I want to love these type of collections, but ultimately I just don’t.  The reason I gave this one a try was quite simply the reassuring introduction.  The book immediately detailed the checklist required to make it into the book, the criteria required, and acknowledged the limitations that the book overall, and personalities included, would have in the presentation. There are sources at the end for each of the 30 people included as well.  Unlike most books in the genre, this book got out in front of my most common complaints: the lack of transparency for how the people were selected, where the primary source information was obtained from, how the order is organized, and the Eurocentric and pop culture framing that is both pandering and renders the book cumbersome a few years after it is published.  For the most part, this book is the best I’ve seen yet, but that isn’t to say I loved it.  While the requirements to be included were made apparent, there is still a lot of opinionated statements about how “religious” or “conservative” or “devout” or “mainstream” or “strict” a person is or was, that rubbed me the wrong way.  Also knowing that the person had to identify as Muslim to be eligible seems like a black and white issue, but a few of the personalities are very controversial (some noted and some not), and I am not an expert at all.  One of the problems with books like this is they present as non fiction, and no matter the transparency, just the mere fact of who is included and who is not is a judgement call and wrought with bias.  It is nice to thumb through, but I don’t know that it would get repeated use, or that it could really be used as a reference.  It is informative and I recognize that I went in to it very skeptical, but only a few text passages connected faith to the person’s accomplishments, and so while they identify as Muslim, it doesn’t necessarily radiate pride or admiration for Muslims as a whole.  For better or worse, if anything, it made me want to conduct my own research on many that were featured. 

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The 30 included in the book:

 

A few I was concerned by, which made me question the ones that I learned something new about. Clearly there are reasons that I shy away from non-fiction.  I wish the book would have had Muslim beta readers, I am willing to assume that it did not.  Take for example the section on Saladin, I absolutely get why his name is shown as both Saladin and Salah al-Din, the book is in English presumably for western readers and that is how he is known.  But why when it says that his real name is Yusuf, is Joseph in the parenthesis? No one else’s names in the book are given the English equivalents of their Arabic or Persian or other native language. Similarly so few tied back to Islam or an Islamic perspective being credited for having a role in their noteworthy accomplishments.  Even Muhammad Yunus when it discusses how interest was not a part of the micro loan process- it didn’t add even one more sentence explaining that interest is not allowed in Islam, why leave that out?  

I liked that the parameters required that the person was influential more globally than just to their own country, but Rebiya Kadeer seemed to be more localized in her work with Muslims in China even when she moved out of China, blurring the rigid standards of who was to be included and who was to be left out.  

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I do like that it mentions Rumi’s religion is often conveniently ignored as the west has made him a hero and chosen to forget his faith.  Similarly, I like that it tries to correct when Ibn Battuta is called the Marco Polo of Islam, for in reality Marco Polo was the Ibn Battuta of Europe.  And I appreciated that Benazir Bhutto was noted as being controversial and not well liked. 

If this type of book appeals to you, you can purchase it here.

 

Mark My Words: The Truth is There in Black and White by Muhammad Khan

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Mark My Words: The Truth is There in Black and White by Muhammad Khan

This 304 page YA/Teen book was surprisingly well written, gripping, relevant, and engaging.  I say “surprisingly” because the cover and title don’t scream pick-me-up-and-read-me, at all.  If I’m being completely honest, it looks like a self published book from the 90s, not one about to be released on June 1, 2022.  Appearances aside, it reads real and raw and even though it is very British and I didn’t understand a lot of the slang or the framing, I still was very invested.  The main character is Muslim and while part of the plot is focused on her identity, it isn’t her doubting herself, it is her in all her facets taking on stresses in her life, sticking up for what’s right, and going to bat against some very heavy hitters in the community.  The book has drugs, parties, racism, islamophobia, lying, crushes, cross dressers, gay and straight characters and relationships, privilege, assault, theft, robbery, language, hate crimes, talk of condoms, rape, sexual assault- it is raw, but the Muslim characters know who they are and engage in the environment around them as informed practicing Muslims.  The main character wears hijab and when she goes undercover she wears a wig and that conversation with herself if it is ok or not takes place, as she starts to have feelings for a boy and she tries to justify if it is ok for her, that conversation in her mind also is written out, many of her friends are of different sexual orientation and there is no judging or preaching, she accepts and celebrates them and they do the same for her. The drug use is never glorified and racism and misogyny are called out. The author is a teacher and it states in the backmatter the role his classroom and the students have in his writing and I think it shows.  The book says ages 12 and up, but I think for the content, critique on systemic racism, details about drug and drug use, gentrification, and media bias, the book is better suited for 16 year old readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Fifteen year old Dua’s school is under renovations which means her whole grade is being integrated with students at Minerva College, an elite private school on the other side of town.  It is an exam year, and what should be a dream for hard working Dua to get a foot in the door at her ideal school, quickly becomes anything but.  The kids from Bodley are made the scapegoats for a growing drug problem and the journalist in Dua is not standing for it.  When she doesn’t make the Minerva paper, she decides to start her own, and the dirt her and her news crew start uncovering isn’t mere gossip, it is outright illegal.  While journalism starts taking over her school life, Dua’s home life is quickly crumbling.  Her mother is falling apart mentally, failing to get to work, and struggling to keep her own demons at bay.  When Dua’s slightly estranged father tries to step in to help, Dua has to reconcile her past relationship with him and find a way to move forward.  In between all the drama at school and home is Dua’s time on the basketball court, and star Minerva Rugby player, Hugo, has taken an interest in her Kobe sneakers, and her.  The two spend some flirty time on the court leaving Dua with some decisions to make, and her questioning who to trust as everything starts to blow up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how fierce and strong Dua is.  Yes, she over does it at times, but just as fiercely as she pushes for what is right in her mind, she acknowledges her errors and works to correct them.  She is Muslim because she is Muslim it is never a label she wears for attention or for someone else, it is who she is.  I love that there are also Muslim side characters including the principal.  Dua and Huda, another girl at school are always getting mistaken for one another, which is a great OWN voice (even though the author is male) inclusion.  Additionally Huda has a boyfriend, and when in the midst of a conversation she refers to him as her fiancé, Dua freezes, and Huda explains that they are getting married as soon as they turn 16 since dating is Haram and their parents all know.  I love that there is no explaining or judging at 16 year olds getting married, it just is what it is. Most of the book is written in that tone, that there are girls wearing hijab, and yes it gets pulled off at some point, there are guys writing make-up columns, there are gay guys explaining sub groups within the minority, but it all comes across as judgement free.  When racist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic, or misogynistic, or classist comments are made, other characters call them out, not to debate or preach, but to just emphasize the live and let live tone the book seems to advocate.

I was thrilled to see Dua’s best friend Liam wears hearing aids and that is very much a part of him, it isn’t a label stuck on and forgotten.  It is joked about, it is a daily presence and the author notes it in the backmatter as well.

There were some side storylines that felt a little under devolved, I would have liked a stronger emotional arc in Dua’s mom’s mental health deterioration, as well as what drove her parents to divorce.  The book is fast paced, so I wouldn’t want a lot more back story, but a little more to connect with would have been nice.

Honestly it took a few attempts to get in to the story, just because I’m American and the book is British.  I finally just read through the first twenty pages and kept going and then I was fine.  I know that is my own bias, but it is worth noting since the title, and cover aren’t attractive and then once you start it isn’t immediately clear what is going on, that some determination might be required before the book becomes difficult to put down.

FLAGS:

Drugs, drug use, sexual assault, physical assault, corrupt police, racial profiling, gentrification, systemic racism, media bias, partying, deception, bribery, expulsion, mental health, bullying, cross dressing, relationships, attraction, misogyny, hate crimes, threats, corruption, property damage, theft, stealing, cursing, language, alcohol consumption, dealing, to name a few, it is a contemporary high school setting with students taking on racist elitists.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I know the flag list seems long, but I think there is a lot of sleuthing, action, character and story building and investment that give the book a lot of heart.  I think it could be shared in an Islamic high school and would result with some amazing discussions.  If you want to grab a copy, you can go through this link that will benefit me, I think Amazon gives me 2.2% back, lol, but when you pay for your own books, truly every little bit helps! Happy Reading!

Grandpa Ali and Friends Volume 1 By Yasin Osman

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Grandpa Ali and Friends Volume 1 By Yasin Osman

grandpa Ali

This 46 page comic strip compilation follows the intergenerational Somali-Canadian members of a family. With crossword puzzles, word searches, advice, and graphs sprinkled in-the book at times was laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming, ironic, and honestly, there were things that I didn’t quite understand-and those perhaps were my favorite parts.  The book features Muslims and immigrants and life in the west, and those I could relate to, but I am not Somali, and there aren’t a lot of Somali books available, so I loved the opportunity to see the culture and humor and themes that a book written authentically chose to highlight.  The book is not a graphic novel, the characters and their situations are not a cohesive narrative, so if I didn’t understand a particular joke, it didn’t linger or carry over.  By the time the book was done a sense of love, community, and joy left me waiting for the next installment and a desire to read more voices that are not easily found in Muslamic YA literature.

The humor is at times culture and experience specific, and I feel honored almost to witness a book for a particular group by a member of that group and thus don’t feel a need to “review” the book in my typical fashion.  I simply wish to highlight that it exists, share some inside pictures, and hopefully send some support its way. You can purchase it on Amazon.

Happy Reading y’all.

Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

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Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

hollow fires

Every YA Samira Ahmed review I have written I remark at how amazing the premise is, how flat the characters are, and how forced the romance feels.  I am so happy that I did not dismiss this book, and when I return this copy to the library, I will be eagerly awaiting the purchased one to arrive so as to be placed on my book shelf.  There is connection to the protagonist, she is even likeable, the brief flirty romance is natural and not heavy handed, and the only thing better than the premise is the contemporary commentary.  The multiple writing styles, lyrical voices, and thriller/mystery elements make this 404 page teen book hard to put down.  Islam is present in different forms in different characters. There are very gentle elements of faith that really contrast the chaos of the plot and radiate peace: fajr salat, wanting a janazah, identifying as Muslim.  And while the book says 7th grade and up, I think it is more suited for high school readers.  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power, to name a few reasons that I think older readers (and adults) will appreciate and understand more deeply than most middle schoolers, how remarkable this book truly is.

SYNOPSIS:

Safiya is in her senior year at her elite private school, she’s a scholarship kid, and her passion is journalism.  As the editor of the paper she is unafraid to challenge the principal and spur others to action.  When a fellow Muslim kid, Jawad, at a nearby local school gets arrested for bringing a makerspace jetpack to school, it bothers her.  When Jawad goes missing, and events at school and in the community start putting Muslims and other minorities on edge, Safiya finds herself collecting bread crumbs and getting closer to the truth.  Throw in vandalism to her parents Desi store, smoke bombs in the bathrooms, swastikas graffitied at school, and a dead boy whispering to her and you have yourself an action packed thriller that hits close to home.  When the circumstances of how Jawad’s body are found and the clues start to fall in place, Safiya and readers will find themselves rushing against the clock.  Her to safety, and readers to see if their suspensions are correct.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love how each chapter starts with a fact, or a lie, or an alternate fact, or truth, I keep rereading them. They are so clever, and thought provoking as the short lines stare at you in black and white and get under your skin.

I don’t think the book explains if a ghost in Islamic doctrine would be possible, but I do like that the book on more than one occasions tries to explore it.  I think for me acknowledging that it doesn’t fit, but that jinn exist and that maybe it just is what it is allowed me to overlook it and read the story for what it is.  I appreciate that the author gave the characters presence of mind to try and view it through an Islamic perspective and see answers that way, even if it did come up short.

I love the parents in the book, all of them. There is no oppression or force or lack of understanding, from the parents which was a nice break from the normal YA Muslim family dynamic presentation.  As a result perhaps, Safiya has never gone to a school dance, but when asked to Winter Formal she doesn’t have any religious or cultural hesitation in agreeing to go.  Part of me wishes it would have crossed her mind, but I think the other part wins out- that for her it is a non issue and that her view and practice of Islam is just different than mine and that is ok.  I think part of the reason I am ok with it is because there is no overly forced make-out sessions or drawn out angsty scenes.  There is a kiss on the cheek and one on the forehead, a tiny bit of snuggling, and maybe a handhold.  Suffice it to say it isn’t overboard and extreme, it never says that Safiya prays, she notes her parents do, but it seems she goes to the mosque, she identifies as Muslim and she is unapologetic, so by moving the choice to her to go or not go to a dance allows Islam to stay Islam and her actions to stay her actions.  A subtle difference I’m sure for most, but for me a very powerful one in a book that is about more than Islam’s view of premarital relationships.  I think it is also promising in that it shows how far literature has come that these nuances can exist without being overly explained or made into black and white issues.

In a similar vein is how the three Muslim characters are presented.  At one point it says they all go to different mosques because of geography or ethnicity, but to them they are just Muslim.  This includes Usman a kufi wearing Shia Hazara from Afghanistan who is always crushing on his tennis partner, or some other guy.  There is nothing more said about it, and the book carries on.

The style of the writing between the alternating voices of Safiya and Jawad are nice, but I particularly liked the inclusion of the interviews, articles, excerpts, and court transcripts.  The change of pace made it feel like it was more than a fictionalized story about the characters at hand, and a societal trend that is impactful to us all.  Which of course is a theme of the book, and was a nice way to show and convey that sentiment without having to say it over and over again to be heard.

FLAGS:

Copy and pasted from above:  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, attempted murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power. The hand of Fatima symbol is apparent in the marketing of the book, it isn’t a huge part of the story itself.  It is a key chain that was given to a character and then passed on with a message that it will keep you safe.  Clearly it doesn’t keep you safe and the irony and the passing of it from one character to another (I’m really trying not to spoil anything, can you tell) is the only significance it has on the story.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have already told my daughter she needs to read the book this summer after finals (she is 15), and while I would love to do this as a high school book club book, I don’t know that the ease of going to a dance, the normative presentation of a gay Muslim, and the ghost as a main character would be widely accepted at an Islamic school.  I think I will suggest it to high schoolers that I know, and would do so confidently as the writing, overall messaging, and critique on the media and privilege are so well executed in a compelling story, but I think the flags might keep me from “teaching” the book or shelving it in the school library.

Hassan and Aneesa Go To a Nikaah by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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Hassan and Aneesa Go To a Nikaah by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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The latest installment in the Hassan and Aneesa series caught my attention because there just aren’t a lot of books about an Islamic marriage process (it is Desi tinged).  Cultural weddings you often see, but despite the misleading title of them just attending a Nikaah, they actually walk the reader through the steps from wanting to get married, to getting to know someone, praying Salatul-Istikhara,  agreeing on a mahr, signing contracts, and a walima.  The idea and premise is brilliant and greatly needed, the finished product, not so much.  Somehow I had forgotten how tiny in size the books in the series are (6.5×7.5), making it all visually cluttered and the text often hard to see over the illustrations.  And while I love how the concepts and terms are defined, the point of view of having it witnessed and detailed by the brother sister duo is often awkward and wordy.  I wish the author would have ditched the familiar characters, and just written a book about the marriage process for kids.  The vacillating between a fictionalized story, factual requirements, kids witnessing their parents helping their cousin get married, makes for a tangled book that fails to connect to readers seven and up, let alone two and up like the book claims. If you’re kids are asking about how Muslims marry or seem curious about a halal way it can be done, I suppose this book would provide a way to understand some of the key facets in broad strokes, but it needs editing, and more space to show joy and excitement in a book about families and a couple coming together.

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The very first page set the tone for me, the overly dressed girl at a barbecue and the way her name seems to be so formally introduced.  Perhaps it is a difference of culture, but the book never bounced back from the heavy handed tone.  Aisha wants to get married and asks her parents to help her find someone.  They ask her what she is looking for and she tells them.  I like what she includes kindness, love of Allah, funny, etc.  I wish it would have suggested that she had given it a lot of thought before answering though.

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Aneesa and Hassan’s mom and their aunt are discussing Aisha’s want to marry at their painting class and a friend over hears and suggests her son Uthman.  The families agree to have the two meet in a cafe with Aneesa and Hassan’s dad and uncle so that her mahram is nearby.  Uthman and Aisha both enjoy sports and Uthman interacts with a baby at another table impressing Aisha.  They both pray istikhara and decide that the families should all meet.

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It is then time to pick out a dress and hand out invitations, which at least involves Hassan and Aneesa, but the pages are so cringe and awkward from the phrasing, to the structure of the concepts.  The spread is disjointed and you’ll catch yourself shaking your head and making a face every time you read it.

Mehndi is next and I’m not sure why it focuses on Aneesa not sitting still and looking sad when her design is ruined.  It seems like an odd inclusion in what should be a joyous book.  Hassan is entrusted with gift to hold on to by Uthman for Aisha, and the Imam gives a khutbah about marriage.

Contracts are then signed with Aisha her wali, uthman and the imam and each party is asked if they agree.  They have already decided on the mahr and then Hassan hands over the gift.  The walima feast is delicious and the reader is encouraged to go back and find the cat in the illustrations.

As for illustrations I do like that the main females are shown out of hijab at home, and in hijab while out.  At the wedding there are different shades of brown, different loves of covering and not covering, there is a guest in a wheel chair and the couple and their families seem happy.  I found it odd that it says they are in love, since there isn’t a lot of emotion mentioned before the last page and I wish the text on numerous pages wasn’t mixed in with the pictures.

The book concludes with a glossary of terms.