Category Archives: strong women

A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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This Secret Garden retelling mixes the heart of the original with a dash of modernity, the flavor of desi culture, and the lyricism of a good writer.  Over 368 pages the slow plot but rich imagery will draw readers in, hold their attention, and leave them thinking about the characters they have been fortunate to spend time with on Long Island.  Islam is practiced and normalized and naturally woven into the Muslim characters’ daily lives without othering or over explaining.  I did struggle a bit trying to keep the relationships of who was supposed to be caring for the protagonist at various points since her parent’s died clear, but once I abandoned stressing about it I was able to be swept away.  I recently reread The Secret Garden with my own children and the original is not plot heavy, nor action packed, but I watched as my own children were drawn to the slower, more grounded (pun intended) nuanced tale, and I think this book, in the same vein, will find its way in to the hearts of middle grade readers.  The book is clean, there is a possible crush hinted very slightly at the end, periods are also endured, and I do have reservations of the terrible marital relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne, but it establishes that change will occur, so at least it isn’t normalized.  There are sprinkles of magic implied regarding the house, but it is always framed without clarity and in a subtle way to set the tone and the emotions the characters are feeling more than centralizing something rooted (see I did it again) in fantasy.

SYNOPSIS:

The book updates and mirrors the original fairly well with an obstinate orphan arriving at a sprawling house, finding a prickly boy, and setting off to form a tentative toleration of one another with friendly neighbor kids in a garden that is unquestionably off limits.

Maria Latif arrives from Pakistan against her will to be taken in by a distant relative (I’m not sure how she is related), but Asra has been called away and she is forced to stay with Lyndsay, the new wife of Mr. Clayborne.  The first wife was a friend of Maria’s family, but Lyndsay is just as emotionally overwhelmed and lost as the child in her charge.  With Mr. Clayborne away on businesses, his mother Charlotte keeps them all on edge.  When Colin Clayborne is expelled and returns home, more tension erupts and the two children find themselves in an off limits garden trying to make the most of a difficult situation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mix of poetry and standard novel format.  It is beautifully written and clearly the author does a remarkable job of making her very unlikeable characters worm their way in to the reader’s heart.  Both Maria and Colin are thorny and difficult, stubborn and rude, but you seriously cheer for them, and I did shed a few tears at the end.  With the author’s writing ability apparent, I’m still not sure why the foundation of the relationships and getting Maria to the Clayborne home is so cumbersome.  It is too muddled and it drags the book down every time it is revisited.  The Dadi having the aunt’s phone number was too easy, the inconsistency of the neighbors having no relationship to the Clayborne’s for so long and Lyndsay not even pausing to think another Bangladeshi family living a few houses down might be my husband’s first wife’s friends, seems inconsistent.  Honestly Lyndsey in general needed to read like a competent woman struggling, not a teenager in over her head. I disliked her and Mr. Clayborne’s relationship and I would hate to think any reader would find it ok or normal.

I love the Islam and how it presents when the character has to pray, she goes and prays, it is part of the story and it is seamless.  I don’t think the culture is handled quite as well.  Lyndsay is a foot writer who is always cooking, yet knows nothing of desi foods? If Colin’s mom is desi, wouldn’t she at some point tried to cook familiar foods for him.  Half the neighborhood is Bangledeshi, so it seems everyone has a parent or step parent or distant relative that is desi and I loved the normalizing, but it seemed a bit assuming.  I don’t think kids will wish it was more clear, but as an adult reading it, I felt like it needed to be interjected more without explanation, or if left as is, adding some context. I also wanted to know what Maria’s parents did and a little introspection from Maria.  Again as an adult I see how her anger and grief changes how she remembers them, but from them always being away, to such soft poignant memories at the end, I think kids will need a little hand holding to understand the grief process and her understanding of them.  As it is, they just seem terrible and then all of the sudden great, and the pacing gets thrown off in the process.

FLAGS:

It seems to hint at the end that Maria might have a bit of a crush on Colin, I honestly thought up until a single line that they were making a chosen family with the people who cared for them, but that line seemed to suggest it might be more of a romantic feeling than friend or brotherly.  I read an early copy, so this is subject to change.

Maria gets her period and it is detailed what she is feeling.  I think boys and girls can and should read it.  It is presented on age and appropriately: cramps, achy, dry about blood leakage, having it start young like her mother, etc..

Implied magic (possibly), music and musical instruments being played, milaad, lying, sneaking, being kicked out of school for physical assault, close male and female friendships, ADHD stigma.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION

I think this book would work in a classroom and would appeal to readers in an Islamic or public library.  I would consider it for a middle school book club, I think readers will connect and feel empathy for Maria, Colin, and Lyndsay and be better for it.

I preordered my copy HERE and I hope you will do the same

The Kindest Red: A Story of Hijab and Friendship by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Kindest Red: A Story of Hijab and Friendship by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

This heartwarming book centers kindness, family, and friendship in an inclusive way; and while the tagline says “A Story of Hijab and Friendship” I think the hijab angle is a bit of a stretch.  The authors are Muslims that wear hijab, the older sister and older females in the family wear hijab, but there is nothing in the story or text that connect hijab to Islam or to something Muslim women wear as part of religion.  I don’t want to compare the first book in the series, The Proudest Blue, to this book, but hijab really was centered in that book and the Author’s Note mentioned that hijab is an Islamic act.  This book does not make those same connections, which is fine, I just want consumers to be aware.  This book is beautiful and the messaging endearing, and the tone and heart over 40 pages ideal for preschool to early elementary children.  It works as a standalone, but with the same characters and sisterly love, I think most people will enjoy keeping them together.

The book starts with Mama passing on Asiya’s dress to Faizah, that had been Mama’s even before that.  It is picture day, and the girls are helping each other get ready. At school Faizah and her friend Sophie twirl in their pretty dresses before heading in to class to discuss what kind of world they want.

Faizah wants a kind world, where there’s always a friend nearby, where everyone helps. At recess, Sophie and Faizah combine their visions, superheroes and kindness, to help other kids on the playground.  When picture time arrives the class is full of smiles, but when it is time for sibling pictures, Faiza and Asiya realize they don’t match.

Faizah is sad, and Sophie notices, can the kindness be passed along like the dress to help the sisters? To make Faizah happy too? I’m not going to give away the conclusion, but it is sweet and idyllic and shows how lovely the world can be if we all just share some kindness.

I love the illustrations and the hijab wearing super hero that presumably Sophie drew is powerful.  I think the book does wonders to normalize hijab, even if I do wish it articulated why one would wear hijab.  It seems that the industry trend is to keep hijab superficial and I recognize I am in the minority that wants religious centering for religious tenants.  So yes, I’m fully prepared for the backlash when people want to point out that it is joyful and that I’m a naysayer, but I deal with people on a daily basis that do not know that my own hijab is a reflection of me being Muslim.  With as connected as the world is through technology, I  think those in diverse environments take for granted the understanding of basic Islamic principals in the general population.  However, not everyone has those real life connections and rely on books and media to fill the gaps, so when books about hijab, don’t actually connect hijab to faith, I feel obligated to point it out.

I purchased (preordered) my copy here, but I hope you will support small business and order yours here  use code ISL for 10% off.

The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

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The Next New Syrian Girl by Ream Shukairy

next new syrian

This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics.  The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying).  There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read.  I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria.  The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level.  Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be.  It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing.  Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only.  Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached.  When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.

Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past.  The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost. 

The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities.  In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.

Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture.  I must admit I cried at the end as well.  It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.  

What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short.  I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration.  Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother.  Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.

Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes.  The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement.  What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession?  Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with?  And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?

I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.

FLAGS:

Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal.  Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship.  It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.

The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon.  And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.

We’re in this Together (Young Reader’s Edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders) by Linda Sarsour

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We’re in this Together (Young Reader’s Edition of We Are Not Here to be Bystanders) by Linda Sarsour

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I don’t have strong feelings one way or another about Linda Sarsour, so I read the book primarily to see what the messaging would be from a well-known Muslim activist to a mainstream audience, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  This YA adaptation of her adult book weaves together personal experiences with larger pushes for justice reform. It is not all memoir, there are historical blurbs, educational backstories, and centering of Palestinian occupation and Islamic tenants.  I feared that the book would be entirely self-promoting and it wasn’t, it shows her as a person, and her struggles, but the spotlight is bigger than her, as she talks about the efforts and accomplishments of others in promoting police reform, social change, elevating women’s voices, and working with Black Lives Matter.  The 229 page book is sourced and reads easily.  I think ages 13 and up will benefit from seeing the intersectionality of many current social struggles sprinkled in with historical landmarks that they have learned about in school, told through the lens of a personal, relatable Muslim, Palestinian, American voice.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with the Women’s March as the culmination of her status and then takes the reader back to show the pivotal moments that got her to that stage: the immigration of her parents to America, her childhood, her family’s bodega, trips to Palestine and finding her voice.  The book shows her in various stages of her life while showing what is currently happening regarding police brutality, national politics, and relatable historical movements.  It shares close relationships she has had professionally, as well as mentions her getting married, becoming a mother, and the loss of a close family member and mentor.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was happy to see how much Islam and culture shaped her activism and identity, as both are generously sprinkled in, and are unapologetically presented.  The book is a memoir and many characters are introduced and shown to enhance her understanding or presenting her with opportunities,  yet I don’t feel I really got to “know” her or any of them.  The book is centered more on events and how she lent her voice in this arena or that.  I still don’t know that I have much of an opinion on her personally or on her work, or even felt motivated to take action because of her enthusiasm, but the book was an easy read, it was informative and reflective.

FLAGS:

Racism, oppression, murder, police brutality, car accidents, hate crimes, death, assault, systemic racism, slurs, misogyny, occupation, hate.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I probably wouldn’t read this book in a book club setting, but I think it would be a good addition to a school or library shelf.  I think you could require it in a history or civics or current events class and readers would find it compelling and relatable and be able to add their own life experiences to any discussions that would follow. It shows that the struggle in history books for justice and equality is not over, it is still ongoing and still very very real with horrific consequences.

Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar by Mohdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani illustrated by Maya Fidawi

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Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar by Mohdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani illustrated by Maya Fidawi

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At first glance it might seem that this Iranian set book with a chador at it’s core is a political statement.  I do not believe that it is.  The backmatter does state that, “Our wish in writing this book is to add to the growing list of stories for children that demystify this veil (that is too often used as a symbol of hate) and instead present a different view of it as the safe and comforting space we always knew it to be.”  This is an OWN voice authored book, from what I can find online the authors do not cover. It is a warm memory of finding love and humor and safety in the modest coverings worn by a grandmother.   I do wear hijab and I choose to do it based on my understanding of what Allah swt commands, I have never been forced to cover by a person or government, and do not know how that would effect my love of fulfilling a tenant of my faith.  But all that is an aside to make the point that this book to me is not weighing in on Iran’s politics, books are written and slated to be published years before they finally release, and this book is a silly heartfelt picture book about a girl and her chador wearing grandmother heading to the bazaar.

In the bustling city of Tehran, Samira is heading out to buy groceries in the big bazaar for the first time with her grandmother. Samira is nervous that it will be loud, and she might get lost, she asks her grandmother if she can rider under chador on her back. Her grandmother tells her no, she will look like a turtle.

Samira then suggest they walk in a line with grandma in front and her behind.  Grandmother Shamsi says, na, na, na, she doesn’t want to look like a donkey. Various other suggestions involving hiding under the big black chador and staying close to Mama Shamsi are suggested, but all make grandma look like a funny animal, and she declines.

When at last they arrive at the bazaar, Mama Shamsi encourages Samira to not hide but to use her eyes, and ears, and nose to learn about the world around her. Hand in hand, they stick close together, and enter the market.

The love between the two characters is heart warming in the text and truly elevated by the remarkable illustrations.  You love their relationship, you can feel Samira’s nerves, you appreciate Mama Shamsi’s humor to lovingly empower her granddaughter, and at the end you truly long to have your grandma next to you guiding you.

I enjoyed this book and don’t mind one bit reading it over and over again as kids giggle at the pictures and find details they hadn’t noticed before.  The book releases in February, and I hope that presales can reinforce the power of OWN voice authentic tales to be shared.  You can preorder/purchase it here.

 

Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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Rebel of Fire and Flight by Aneesa Marufu

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I struggled with this 384 page young adult fantasy.  It skirts and plays with Islamic doctrine as the characters and plot points dance with fantasy and fiction; and because I never felt that the author was completely in control of the story and where it was going, I could never relax and be swept away.  The author identifies as Muslim and in the backmatter addresses how experiences with Islamophobia influenced her writing, yet I don’t know why jinn and hijab were in the book when fictionalized creatures and cultural dress would have sufficed.  Clearly the character on the cover is in hijab, the names of half the characters are Muslamic, the culture is very desi, the broad concepts of jinn, the ghaib, sihr, Prophet Sulaiman, call to prayer, are all Islamically rooted, but characters go to worship at temples, jinn and jinniya eat corpses and are described so often as looking like smoke.  There is no clear identifier that these characters are in fact Muslim, it is simply hinted at, which makes the fictional parts seem like extensions of religious doctrine and ultimately made me uncomfortable with much of the story.  It also makes me think readers will not know where the lines are, if my brain was muddled, I can’t imagine a  young teen reading it and keeping it clear.  There is a few rushed romantic scenes of kissing, there is a trans character who’s gender identity and born gender is a significant plot line in the story, and there is a lot of oppression, racism, death, abuse, misogyny and fear.  It is a dark read that metaphorically takes real societal concepts and sets them in shades of gray with the added use of fantasy. There are a lot of layers in the story, and while it wasn’t poorly written, there were definitely places it needed to be better.  I really didn’t like any of the characters, I didn’t understand their motives, their relationships, their drives, the commentary on occupiers and rebels was weak as was the push back on misogyny after the first few chapters.  I didn’t feel a love of hot air balloons or feel that the battle scenes accounted for many of the characters that would suddenly be missing from the scenes.  I think the dual perspectives kept the intensity of the climaxes at bay and halted the rising action.  Too many misses for me to recommend this standalone book, but if you’ve read it and can talk me through it, I’m willing to listen.

SYNOPSIS:

In a land where girls are running out of time to be arranged in marriage at 17 and transportation is done in hot air balloons, there are two groups of citizens: the darker Ghadaean’s are the rulers and the lighter skinned hāri are oppressed.  The book establishes this power dynamic early on in a quick synopsis: the hāri came from the Himala mountain range to trade to Ghadaea, but their greed and lust for power drove them to try and seize the land.  They failed, and now 90 years later the hāri are punished for the mistakes of their grandfathers (4%).  Both groups fear sihr and jinn.  Everyone is vegetarian because jinn are attracted to rotting corpses, animal and human, and thus anything dead is quickly burned.  When a radical hāri group, the Hāreef, is formed with a new leader, sihr and jinn are no longer enemies but tools to rebel against the racist oppression, and assist in the war to change the balance of power.  

Khadija is 16 and with her mother and younger brother deceased at the hands of some hāri, her older sister married and off in a balloon, her father is desperate to get her married.  Most females are not allowed to read, nor are they even allowed out of the house alone.  The fear of the jinn is weaponized to keep them in, and misogyny prevents from proving themselves.  While out meeting with a suitor, Khadija in a burst of desperation leaves her father and jumps in to an escaping balloon.  Khadija does not know how to fly a balloon, having never even ridden in one, but when it lands in different town she meets Jacob.

Jacob is hāri and the second of the dual perspectives telling the story, he is orphaned and is unique in that he is an apprentice of a glass blowing Ghadaean.  He meets Khadija and offers her food, and in the span of a few hours she saves him and he saves her and both seem to have a dead glass blower on their hands.  Add this to his growing rift with his best friend William, who has joined the Hāreef, and is now dead, and you have Khadija and Jacob escaping in a balloon, not trusting each other nor knowing who and what they support.

From here on the two’s friendship and motives wax and wane as they are drawn in to battle together, and against each other.  Neither are “good” or “bad” nor are their decisions always clear, but they will be forced none-the-less to figure out what they want and what they stand for as peri’s are tortured, nawab’s are killed, jinnya queens are called upon, wishes are granted and a group of hāri and Ghadeans known as the Wazeem offer a unified collective.  Unfortunately, change and power never come easy and when a dead son is brought back as an ifrit and an ancient princess in the jinn world is ready to battle, all the shades of gray that exist in politics, revolution, rebellions, families, hate, racism, gender identities, and control all come spilling out from balloon baskets and the ghaib. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I honestly kept reading to see how the author was going to bring it to a conclusion and wrap up all the loose threads.  And while the book lagged at times, she definitely got it concluded.  Aside from the religious signaling, but never owning identity problems, I struggled with the writing too.  The hāri Jacob doesn’t read like a little brother, he and Khadija read the same age, and so his importance in the Hāreef seems an ill fit.  Plus he is very duplicitous and I get that that is part of the story, but I never liked him so it just got annoying how many second, third, fourth chances he got, and I mean, why would anyone care? 

Khadija seems like she is going to battle misogyny early on, I hate that marriage and arranged marriage is equated to oppression, but the not being allowed out and not being educated seems to fizzle in the middle and then come out a bit in the final scene.  I hoped it would have been commented on in every new city they arrived at.  The set up was there, but because it wasn’t, it made it seem more of a shortsightedness of her own father, and not a larger problem when strong women existed elsewhere.  This also reinforced a “brown Muslim” man stereotype that is never pushed back on.  

The racism, power struggle oppression is more consistent, but with the foundation that the hāri came and tried to take over nearly  90 years ago makes it hard to feel too bad for them.  They tried to occupy and now are enslaved.  Neither is ideal, but why didn’t they just go back? We aren’t talking more than one generation, it is the “crimes of their grandfathers,” they had a home, they were kicked out, they should leave.  Yes, I know they are human and racism is wrong, my point is a literary one, that the foundation should have been stronger, more detailed.

The love interest I also felt was lacking, Darian comes out of nowhere, they are in love, he gives her his heart so he is saved, I didn’t feel the tension, I didn’t get it, not at all.  It was forced and cheesy and I just know he kept getting hurt, they would kiss, and then he was back to getting hurt or possessed or something, had no personality what so ever.

The seal of Prophet Sulaiman and the hundreds of pieces of it didn’t sit right with me, nor the jinns being smoky and eating corpses.  I truly don’t understand why very real Islamic concepts were brought in and twisted.  Why not just create your own characters and say they were loosely inspired.  I felt like the religious rep and OWN voice kept one foot in the religious inspired world and one in the fantasy is fiction so I can do what I want, and it didn’t work for me.  I think it crossed in to being disrespectful, and had the author not identified herself as Muslim, I would have been furious as the book reads like an outsider who doesn’t get that jinn are real, Prophet Sulaiman was real, sihr is real, the ghaib is real.  It really needed some some clarification on where the story existed and where the religion or religious inspiration started and stopped.

The trans character is worth highlighting because it does touch into Islamic rulings regarding hijab, even though we don’t know if Anam or any of the characters are Muslim. Anam is born a male, but leaves her family of exorcists and is a leader of the Wazeem as a female. She presents as a female, but when she enters a room where numerous Wazeem women are changing many hide, draw their hijabs, make horrified gestures etc., it has to be explained to Khadija why this is.  It does not bother Khadija. Story wise it is a critical point because the Jinniya Queen Mardzma is the queen of female warriors and it is unknown if Anam would be seen as female or male. When Anam went from being an exorcist to the greatest human warrior present is beyond me, but there was a lot of assumptions you had to accept while reading.

FLAGS:

Death, erroneous religious rep, kissing, murder, killing, lying, torturing, threat of sexual assault, murder, coming back from the dead, oppression, racism, trans, misogyny, abuse, hetero relationships, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom, nor would I use it as a book club selection.  Although if my local public library or some adult Muslims read it and were planning to discuss, I would join to hear their thoughts about it.  I would not be able to lead, but I would enjoy picking it apart with others.

The book releases shortly, just because it didn’t work for me, if you think it sounds like something you would like, you can preorder and purchase it HERE.

Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

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I have no idea if the author identifies as Muslim. I saw the 2023 YA book described as a Middle Eastern fantasy, characters with Arabic names,  djinn representation and possibly a hijab wearing protagonist on the cover, so I requested an advanced reader’s copy, squealed with delight when I got approved, and happily fell into the 464 page world of The Sahir and Kingdom of Alqibah.  Their is no Islam in the book, it is not a hijab, but I’m sharing it here, not just to let readers know it isn’t Islamic rep, but to let them know that for the genre it is pretty clean, and the story is an engaging easy read.  At times Imani is whiney and annoying, but she has a developed arc, and the book has a few slow patches, but nothing that lasted long enough to tempt me to give up on it.  I think 14 year olds and up can handle the three brief kisses, the sexual assault that is thwarted, the lusting glances, the killing, the potential addiction, and the commentary on colonizers and oppressors.  It is the first book in a series, so this review is only for this book and not an evaluation of the rest of the books that perhaps are not even written yet.

SYNOPSIS:

In Qalia, the Shields protect their community from monsters with the Spice entrusted to them, misra, that magically empowers affinities in them.  The top Shield, Imani, has an affinity for iron, and with the support of her powerful clan she exists in a world of privilege and opportunity.  When her powerful brother, Atheer, is assumed dead after stealing misra and suffering from magical obsession, the family’s reputation is not as pristine as it once was.  Imani’s younger sister, Amira, is also keeping secrets as she is caught stealing, skipping school, and refusing to follow family orders and country laws.  When the two girls find themselves following Atheer’s horse into the forbidden waste, they learn that their brother might not be dead and that there is more to their world than they ever were allowed to know.  With desperation to learn more about her brother’s location clouding her judgement, the Djinni Slayer, Imani, bonds with Qayn, a djinni who claims to not only know Atheer, but to have been his close friend.  Imani scrambles to know what to do, and seeks out answers and permission from Council, that results in her and three other’s heading off on a rescue mission to the Kingdom of Alqibah.  Everyone’s orders, however, are not the same, and first they must survive the desert, the monsters, and each other if they are to find Atheer.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love  that the world building is not at the expense of character development.  The single linear story line does mean that at times side characters are seemingly forgotten, but the focus of the world through Imani’s eyes allows the gaps to be overlooked as her concerns and priorities take center stage.  I love the emphasis on family, it is sibling love that is motivating the protagonist and closeness to an aunt that allows for privilege and opportunity. The romantic threads and tangents never overshadow the familial importance- it isn’t a forced obligation it is very warm and it is nice to see and feel the truth in the characters approach to family.  I love the Arabic names, foods, and while my electronic version did not have a map, the author has one on her Instagram page that suggests the physical book will have a map.

I love that the book discusses colonizers and oppressors.  It may be fiction and fantasy, but there are some very real themes included in fleshed out way that would allow for a lot of deeper discussion and connections to be made. The book is well polished, I don’t know that it reads like a debut, which is always a good thing I suppose.  At times Imani is really unlikeable, but fortunately it doesn’t last too long, same goes for Amira and her bouts of childishness juxtaposed with her glimpses of maturity. Taha, is noted to be very different depending on the company he keeps, so while frustrating- it seems to be intentional. The only real hiccup I felt in the book was understanding how at times the language differences were such an obstacle and how at other times Imani could read the graffiti and be understood.

FLAGS:

Magic, romance, lust, kisses, flirting, attempted sexual assault, lying, killing, addiction, alcohol, drinking, murder, abuse, physical abuse, bullying, oppression, colonizing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would pick this as a book club read, but I would definitely shelve it in a class, school, or home library.  I think it is a fun read for teens and up and I look forward to the rest of the series.  The book releases in January 2023 and as always presales are the biggest way to show support to authors and titles.  You can find the book here.

 

 

The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

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The Love Match by Priyanka Taslim

This new YA book features Muslim characters, but is not a religious conscious read that fits in the halal category.  There is a lot of Islam: waking up for fajr, celebrating Eid, a hijabi, mention of jummah, but the OWN voice rom com sets boundaries based on Bangladeshi culture and American perspectives.  The book does not other, or have internalized Islamophobia, or fall in to tropes of oppression and rebelling- quite the contrary- it normalizes everything: LGBTQ+ relationships, dating, music, etc.  The book is well written from a literary perspective: easy read, fleshed out characters, resolved plot lines, I wish there would have been more slow burn and heightened emotion, and cathartic release, but it happily held my attention for 388 pages, so I can’t really complain about plot holes or development.  The problem I have as an Islamic School Librarian is the non issue dating and romance is for the characters with their parents knowledge, both lesbian and heterosexual.  The book doesn’t get graphic, in fact there is only a handful of kisses, but there is a lot of hand holding and pdas in front of parents and even a sleepover with a lesbian couple in a Muslim family’s home, again, nothing “racy” occurs, but the normalization is worth noting for those thinking a Salaam Reads book is going to be a more Islamically centered publication.

SYNOPSIS:

Zahra Khan has graduated high school, and while she’d love to be heading to Columbia to study writing with her best friends, she is stuck deferring her admission and scholarships, and hiding her dream to be an author.  Two years earlier her father has passed away and Zahra works in a tea shop to help keep a roof over the heads of her mother, grandmother, and siblings.  In the Bangladeshi community in Patterson, New Jersey Zahra’s mom imagines arranging a marriage to a wealthy family for Zahra to ease their financial stresses.  When a potential match comes a possible reality, Zahra takes control to try and keep the peace and keep her dreams within reach.  In Jane Austin-y feels, a love triangle emerges, friends step up, culture and family touchstones shared and appreciated, and decisions about the future will have to be figured out at 18 years old.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved how easy a read the book is, the cultural framing was warm and rich and never overly explained or apologized for.  It is what it is, it is who the characters are, and while at times they push back on the negatives, it doesn’t disregard the love that exists at the core.  Unfortunately, I really struggled though with the ease in which the characters date with their parents’ knowledge, hold hands, cuddle.  I really couldn’t imagine a practicing Muslim family being so supportive of a lesbian daughter in the way that the Tahir family is and allowing a sleepover, nor could I see a hafiz attending musical concerts and Bollywood movies or an imam passing on “love” notes, even side comments about a loan between mother and daughter being paid back with interest felt off.  I know I know, there are lots of shades of Muslims, but the normalcy of haram I feel in a review of this book should be noted. It isn’t side mentions, they are central to the story and large portions of the book.  The reason I also feel they are worthy of note, is because the book includes a lot of Islam as well.  The characters pray and fast and eat halal.  They are conscious of chaperones in some settings and keeping things appropriate.  There is no doubt that the characters are Muslim, but I think intentionally, to avoid perhaps critiques such as mine, Islam is not used as a reason to do or not do anything, Islam is not used in the thought process or conscience of the characters, culture is.  There is no haram police setting boundaries, it just isn’t what “good Deshi girls do.” To be fair, I don’t think the author has ever claimed that this is a halal love story, or that the characters are exploring their Muslim identities, it is a love story that features Muslims is all.

FLAGS:

Straight and sapphic relationships, secret relationships, kissing, hand holding, hugging, lying, music, loss, bullying, interest.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would not be able to use this book, it would be very damaging to be given to a Muslim child from a Muslim teacher in an Islamic school.  It normalizes a lot of haram in a familiar Islamic framing that I think would really confuse YA readers who see themselves and see no push back or consequences for actions they know to be against Islamic ideology.

House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

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House of Yesterday by Deeba Zargarpur

house of yesterday

While reading this 320 page YA supernatural/contemporary book-I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  When finished- I was bothered that certain threads weren’t resolved, now that I’ve ruminated a bit- I think the vagueness of the author’s prose in sharing her “fever dream” on paper has lingered and the gaps not as troublesome.  The author’s OWN voice Afghan-Uzbek Muslim identity adds layers to a story that is both haunting in the literal sense and familiar in the immigration inter-generational traumas and secrets shared.  Even deeper though, the book pokes at universal themes of regret, holding on to the past, family, friendships, and grief.   The book’s characters identify as Muslim, but the story is not Islamic, nor is there much religion save a few salams and mentions of Eid.  The supernatural elements in the book, whether you understand it to be ghosts, or personified memories, or jinn, are a large part of the book, but are not framed in a belief or spiritual manner, and while some may find it Islamically off-putting, I felt the book explored what the main character was enduring and what the weight of the past was doing to her, didn’t necessarily cross the haram line.  Her father has a girlfriend he is looking to marry, but it isn’t celebrated, and there are close male/female friendships, but the book is relatively clean for the genre and would be a good fit for high school readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Summer on Long Island has Sara retreating into herself.  Surrounded by nearly a dozen aunts and uncles and numerous cousins, it is the separation of her parents and trouble with her best friend that makes getting out of bed every morning a challenge.  As a result, her mother ropes her in to helping with her latest remodeling project.  When she enters an old crumbling house one morning to take “before” pictures, she starts seeing things, and feeling things.  Things about her past.  Things about her beloved grandma, Bibi Jan, who is alive and deteriorating from dementia.  What is the house trying to tell her? Why won’t anyone tell the truth?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mystery and the chills of the story.  As the reader you aren’t entirely sure where the story is headed, what you are to do with the bits of the puzzle you are given, but the intrigue to find out pulls you forward.  That being said, the book does reads debut, a few of the side story lines are not fleshed out enough to feel important, satisfying, or resolved and they come across as being abandoned.  I would have liked to see more of Sara and her father’s relationship, the details don’t seem to fit, and the continuity seems halfhearted.  At times so does the “night” it all changed with Sam.  I like the interpretive vagueness of the supernatural threads and that they are up for interpretation amongst readers not just at the end, but throughout the book.  I also like the family’s closeness even when they are disagreeing. For most of the book Sara and her cousins aren’t portrayed as particularly close and I didn’t invest time to differentiate one from another, but by the end, I felt that they were grounded and different and relatable, and I am not sure when that change occurred.  At times the writing seemed a bit repetitive, but the lyrical style would then catapult the story ahead.  There was one place that the fourth wall was broken though, and I was bothered by that slip.

Overall I loved that the Uzben Afghan culture sprinkles showed immigrant nuances, and that the love between the generations countered the trauma being shared as well.  The messaging is subtle but powerful long after the last page has been read.

FLAGS:

For the most part the book stays clean, the father has moved on and has met someone he would like to marry, the mom and aunts briefly recall sneaking out to attend a prom decades earlier.  There is mention of a child bride, and swimsuits, tank tops, and cocktail dresses being worn with no second thought.  For a YA book, the flags are incredibly minimal, save the “ghosts”(?). There are flags of a death that is detailed, the book is “spooky” at times, there is mental health, divorce, pain, dementia, abandonment, theft, running away, and fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to read this book with some high schoolers.  It is a quick read that would allow for a lot of self reflection, arguments, and entertainment.  The book is available here and releases in a few days, so if planning to purchase, please consider preordering and showing your support.

My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

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My Garden Over Gaza by Sarah Musa illustrated by Saffia Bazlamit

This book is hard to read, it hurts the heart, it doesn’t let you claim ignorance regarding the plight of Palestinians, and it shows cruelty,  a specific inexcusable cruelty, in a children’s book that will haunt you and infuriate you for weeks and months, if not indefinitely.  I’ve read a number of Palestine set books, but this one, in its simplicity, leaves me raw.  A child with a rooftop garden that helps feed her family is deliberately targeted by Israeli drones and destroyed.  This isn’t science fiction or dystopian, this is based on real acts.  The book itself threads in themes of hope, of not giving up, of remembering strength of a lost parent, of vowing to move forwards, but the catalyst for it all is not happenstance, and while the details of the occupation and oppression are not stressed and articulated, they are referenced and skillfully present to be discussed with children on their level with the included backmatter at the end.  This book is powerful and should be required reading. It is a difficult read and it has flags, but it is also a glimpse of the reality of our world, and the manner in which this book is told allows for the discussion to taken place with middle grade readers and up. The book is not text heavy, but the nature of the content makes me suggest it for mature children.

Noura, a young girl, is in her home in Gaza when drones are seen just out the window and she quickly pulls her little brother Esam away to safety.  To distract him she tells him about their father and his farm that he used to have in Umm An-Naser.  She explains how the wall cut them off from their land and when the drone noises fade, she takes him up to her rooftop garden to pick green beans.  Their mama works downstairs as a seamstress, and while they wish they had meat, the garden helps them have fresh vegetables.

The next day after Noura gets her little brother ready for the day they head to the roof, but drones arrive and start spraying chemicals on the growing plants, killing them, and sending Noura gasping to breathe.  She tries to cover the plants and swing a shovel at the drone, but it does little to save any of the food and Noura is devastated.

Noura’s mama reassures her daughter that the food can be regrown, but she is irreplaceable, as Noura goes to scrub the chemicals from her skin.  The frustration is real, but determination prevails as the family cleans the garden and begins again, just as their father did.

The last two page spread of the book is a basic map, general touchstones of the situation in Palestine, and the very real drones that fly in to Gaza to surveil, attack, and spray herbicides on crops. You can purchase a copy on the publisher’s website or HERE at Crescent Moon Store.