It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.
Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.
Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.
On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?
The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.
I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.
The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.
I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.
It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.