Tag Archives: divorce

A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

Standard
A Pocketful of Stars by Aisha Bushby

This middle grades magic realism novel draws you in and pulls on your heartstrings pausing only to offer pointed commentary on friendship, self-awareness, and self acceptance.  Oh sure there were parts that seemed a bit repetitive and parts I had to read again because the continuity was just off enough to have me confused, but the book has power, and especially for a debut novel I was blown away.  Well, actually I was in tears, and thats a pretty strong emotion to be felt in 246 pages, so be impressed.  I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim, she was born in Bahrain and has lived in Kuwait amongst other places.  The main character, Safiya,  experiences her mother’s memories in Kuwait where Eid and the Athan are briefly mentioned and a few characters wear scarves.  There are culture rich Arabic names, but no religion is mentioned outright.  Saff has Christmas money, eats pepperoni, a side character has a boyfriend and they kiss, and there is just a touch of magic to tie it all together.

SYNOPSIS:
Safiya’s parents have been divorced for a few years, and when she chose to live with her dad, her Saturdays became one-on-one time with her mom.  Her mom, Aminah, is a lawyer from Kuwait who can chat with anyone and everyone about anything and everything.  The complete opposite of video game loving Saff who struggles to find her voice, and has nothing in common with her articulate, headstrong, independent, theater loving mother.  The two rarely get along and after a particularly intense fight, Safiya decides to not spend Saturday with her mom, but rather head out with her best friend Elle and new year eight friends at the mall.  When her dad tells her to come home asap, she knows something is up, but could never have imagined how life altering the days events are about to become.

Aminah is in a coma, and Safiya is full of regret and fear.  As she sits next to her mother’s hospital bed and drinks in her perfume, she is drifted to a far away land filled with a crumbling house and a magic like quality.  Approaching this oddity like her favorite video game, she explores her mother’s memories, and finds a girl not so different from herself.  As reality and magic merge in young Saff, she begins to sort through her feelings toward her mother and come to peace with what she has to do and endure and overcome.

In the process of handling her life-changing home situation, Saff, also finds the strength to call out cruel acts from classmates, find her voice, and cut out toxic friendships while cultivating supportive ones.  The journey on both fronts will have readers cheering for Saff while wiping away tears.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the quick pace and rawness of the characters.  Grandma, mom, and Safiya all say and do things they regret while hot and angry and have to learn the consequences and humbling that needs to occur to fix what their words have broken.  No character is completely good, nor completely bad, and in a middle grade book that is powerful. Each one has relatable qualities that really make the book memorable.  

Safiya has to really work out what is going on with her best friend, Elle, and what she is willing to accept and what lines she is not willing to cross.  The character’s maturity is inspiring, and I love it.  She doesn’t fancy boys (yet), and doesn’t see liking boys a sign of maturity.  She doesn’t want it forced on her, and she doesn’t want to give up things that she enjoys just to “fit in.” The fact that she can articulate how Elle is a chameleon blending in to her surroundings where she is just a plain old lizard is wonderful.

I enjoy the magical trips to Kuwait.  They don’t show much of the culture, but what is revealed is lovingly conveyed.  I like that it did acknowledge that Aisha knows Arabic, but struggles a bit to read it.  I would have loved more Arabic words sprinkled in, but at least it accounted for the linguistic abilities as it jumped between countries.  The book is set in England, so some of the concepts or phrases might need a bit of explanation for younger American readers.

I wanted more information about the backstories just beneath the main story line.  How did Safiya’s parents meet? Was the divorce amicable? Did her dad have any family around? How did Aminah leave for England at such a young age alone? How come Saff never visited Kuwait? How come Saff didn’t know about Aminah’s friends? How did the friends take Aminah leaving? Why didn’t they just email her the invitation? Why did they still have it? How did the girls meet in the middle of the night? I know that the book is middle grades, but just a bit more would have helped some of the holes feel shallower, and the overall story details more polished.

FLAGS:

Teasing, death, boyfriend, kissing, illness, verbal fighting. Nothing middle graders can’t handle, although the mom is kind of terrible to Aminah at the beginning.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be an awesome fourth or fifth grade book to read and discuss. I don’t do a book club for that age, nor do I have children in that age group at the moment, but I am planning to suggest it to teacher friends I know.  The book would appeal to boys and girls, but I think girls especially those going through friend dramas and girls butting heads with their moms will really benefit from this quick memorable read.

Running Overload by Jake Maddox illustrated by Tina Francisco

Standard
Running Overload by Jake Maddox illustrated by Tina Francisco

5870B613-F406-493B-8203-FAB9869DE555

This 72  page graphic novel features a female Muslim protagonist trying to balance her desire to be a great cross country runner and the rest of her life.  Meant for 3rd graders, the lessons are applicable and relevant for readers in middle school as well.

6B290892-6842-45D4-88FE-7FE4D82BAEC6

SYNOPSIS:

Nimo Mohamed has made the varsity track team, and is determined to keep up with the older girls.  She is training too hard which her coaches and parents warn her against, but she doesn’t listen.  As a result she is lying to her family about what she is doing, her grades are suffering, and her body is exhausted to say the least.  After coming dead last in a meet, getting a D on an English test, and injuring her knee, the truth comes out and her dad has her quit the team.  Can she convince him to give her one more chance? Can she learn to pace herself?

253551C1-18E4-4A86-8BD2-315C79A685DA

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is nothing Islamic in the book except for the main character’s family.  The women wear hijab when out, not at home and they have Islamic sounding names.  I like that she is modestly dressed when she runs and that no one seems to care that she is Muslim.  This story is not about her faith, it is a universal story of balance, and the character highlighting the moral is Muslim.  Her parents are divorced, but are on the same page regarding her running and school balancing act, and they come together to support her.  I also like that the book is a sports book and has a female girl of color as the lead.  There is a lot of very intentional diversity in the book and it is refreshing to see.

There are questions at the end, and running vocabulary and tips for running as well.

B555F927-C2E0-433B-8F6B-ED1E58486CD3

FLAGS:

None

F050C711-00AF-4581-93AB-C0E440C1FDD8

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book wouldn’t lend itself well to a book club, but would definitely provide one-on-one discussion opportunities.  The short linear story is all about imparting teachable moments on the reader, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think the real strength is that the book is one of a larger series that should really be in every classroom and library to show how balance and integrity and strength and diversity are values that we need to hear over and over, not just in one running book, but from a lot of different sources.

 

Tried & Tested by Umm Juwayriyah

Standard
Tried & Tested by Umm Juwayriyah

66C2F327-DA67-4853-AF6A-03998C5C0C30

In 337 pages I fell in love with the Johnson family and all their drama and hardships, while marveling at their resiliency, love of family, and determination to own their mistakes, right them, and move forward.  I don’t know that this Urban Islamic Fiction book is classified as YA (the author didn’t respond when I reached out), but I think high school juniors and up will appreciate either/both seeing themselves in it or/and reading an engaging story about indigenous American Muslims.

SYNOPSIS:

A naïve teen, Iman Johnson, ran away from home and her Islamic life to be with a boy offering her the world.  After twelve years of being away from home, she sees a window to escape the oppression and abuse of her husband and return to her family who she has had no contact with in Pittsburg, PA.  The story is linear as it follows Iman as she deals with the stresses she currently faces while dealing with the consequences of her actions and mistakes of her past. She must reconcile her family, deal with the passing of her father, the failing health of her mother, the tumultuous relationship her younger sister is in, the incarceration of her older brother, and the impending arrival of her little brother’s first child.  Ultimately she must also face her husband to get a divorce, keep safe from his mafia like family of drugs and violence and control, find a job, get her alcohol addiction in check, and forge ahead.  She also must reconnect with Allah swt, her community and find herself.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has been over a week since I finished the book, and I can’t decide if the author failed to be consistent with a certain character, or if she made him fallible intentionally to show that there are no saviors and we all have our own weaknesses and humanity, or if I’m just really irate with a fictional character and his poor choices, ahem Jibril.  That being said the characters really stay with you, and I feel like I could chat about them as if they are real and I am ready to go start a gofund me campaign to help them out.

The characters at every single step are Muslim and the book feels like a labor of love from the author.  I don’t think this is a book that could be researched or written from outside, I’m guessing the author has loved this community and been loved by them in return.  For all the Islam in it, I think a non Muslim could read it and enjoy the story, but if you are Muslim you are in for a treat.  From the Eid morning bathroom schedule, to the annoyance of having a brother in law staying over and thus forcing you to cover when you run to the kitchen for a snack.  Yes, at times, there might be too much information, like how many times does it say she relieved her self and made wudu, but the consistency makes it all so worth it.

I’m being vague about some of the details and not telling too much about the characters, because you really have to immerse yourself in it, and thankfully the author does a great job in keeping it clear who all the characters are, how they are related and what life experiences they bring to the table.  Every single character has issues, no one is perfect, yet somehow the story is never sad or hopeless.  No one is looking to be saved or playing the victim card, they are all fighting the fight, and taking it one day at a time.  It is really impressive.

Sure, most of it is predictable and I wanted more of a showdown between Iman and her ex, Mateo, but yet somehow I was sad when the book ended and I had to leave the characters and their world. I absolutely love how the brothers take turns guarding Iman as if they do this all the time for their sisters.  Sure it may not be realistic that they can find someone free at all times, and whatnot, but I really want this to be true.  That people still look out for one another, and not perfect people who don’t have their own issues, but real people, family, just people who have made it a priority to care.

FLAGS:

There is lying, deceipt, affairs, drugs, drinking, violence, abuse, smoking.  But, nothing is glorified or detailed, it is mentioned to make a point and then the story moves on.   The book is about succeeding despite all the negative and finding your way to hold on to your deen, no matter what.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great book club for like young college girls.  There is a tint of romance, a whole lot of pulling yourself up and moving forward, and conversation about what tempts us, and how to persevere.  I hope if you read it you’ll shoot me a message, I’d love to hear how much of it rings true for you, and what characters you cheer on and are most annoyed with as well.

 

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Standard
Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

towers falling

 

I realize the inherent difficulty of writing books for middle grades about the events of September 11, 2001: the author lived through it, the readers did not.  Yet, it seems like at some point a book regarding it, will just feel right, and I don’t think for this age group, I’ve found it yet.  This AR 3.3, 228 page book is a quick read, and while some of the characters have spunk and personality, a few of the storylines seem incredibly forced and the overall timeline and holes in the story will be ultimately disappointing for most readers.

SYNOPSIS:

Deja is starting a new school now that her family has gotten a room at a homeless shelter.  Immediately her fifth grade classmates are given an assignment about home, with the end goal that eventually this project will transform in to being about the change of New York’s skyline fifteen years ago.  The details regarding the attacks of September 11, are not given forthright and as Deja knows nothing about the attacks, and the fall of the towers, her inability to get answers adds to her frustration at home and school.

Deja is angry as she bares a lot on her young shoulders.  Her dad can’t hold a job, and his moods and ill health put caring for her younger siblings on her.  Her mom works as a waitress and is always tired.  They lost their house, lived in their car for a while, and now occupy one room in a shelter.  Deja refuses to lie about her home life and thus her aggressive attitude is always on guard.  Another new kid, Ben, joins the class and he and Turkish American popular girl, Sabeen, all quickly become really good friends.  Each have something brewing beneath the surface that they are dealing with, but their friendship helps them cope and bonds them together.

As the trio of kids work on their projects together, Ben finally shows Deja online footage of the attacks and clues her in to what everyone else in their Brooklyn class seems to know and has failed to tell her.  Deja links her father’s declining health to that fateful morning and decides she needs to go to Ground Zero and get some answers.

She doesn’t really get answers, but at least it is the catalyst for an overdue conversation with her and her father, and hopefully a start on the road to healing the family rifts.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Much like the book Nine, Ten there seems to be the token Muslim girl in the story to offer her perspective on the Islamaphobia that occurred after the attacks.  In this case Sabeen doesn’t detail anything specific happening to her, other than a clerk at a store telling her to go back to Saudi and her uncle getting screened regularly at the airport.  Of all the characters I feel like Sabeen gets the short end of the stick.  She is incredibly flat, stereotyped and undeveloped.  Her family is Turkish, she is wealthy, her mom wears niqab and they are all overly kind and sweet, which is great, but when Deja goes over for lunch, they ask her if she prays, which seemed so random and off to me.  A lot of the basics about the character the author got right, she says that the terrorists were Muslim, but they weren’t, sharing a sentiment many of us Muslims feel. She wears hijab, and takes it off when she gets home.  I don’t like that the mom speaks English, Arabic and Turkish, but is first introduced having Sabeen translate for her with another parent.  Seems incredibly pretentious and misleading.  Ultimately her storyline is just overly forced.  She has to leave Ben’s house when they talk about September 11, because she is so affected by it.  She wasn’t even alive when it happened, and I get that when it is discussed us Muslims are on guard, but the author makes it seem like it is her whole world and influences everything around her.  If you live in New York, especially, I’d imagine at some point you’ve had to come to terms with it, no?

That’s why I also struggled with Deja’s dad.  He is so debilitated by the events of 9/11 he can’t function, yet they happened 15 years ago, presumably before he met Deja’s mom and they started a family.  So, really she fell in love with him in his current condition and thought having three kids with him was a good idea? He was fine and then wasn’t? For 15 years he hasn’t been able to get some sort of help for his PTSD type symptoms?  Seems like a stretch in the timeline, and one that is hard to excuse even for 3rd and 4th graders.

I really like how Deja’s homelessness is brought out and hopefully readers can learn some empathy from her.  Unfortunately the entire 5th grade class is so idyllic that I don’t know that most if any kids reading the book will relate to such a well behaved, so accepting, forgiving and generous group of kids. I mean yeah that’s the goal, but its way too overdone.  Ben, Sabeen, and Deja are best friends after the first meeting even though Deja is rude, mean, and doesn’t like them.  I’m not even sure what Ben and Sabeen get out of being friends with Deja?  Deja undoubtedly benefits from them, but there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons given why they’d be so drawn to her.

And finally, I struggled with the theme of how being “American” united them all.  It makes sense when discussing it as a class, that it doesn’t matter their color, income, life experience, whether they were immigrants or born in America, but the concept comes up again at a critical point when Ben and Deja are on the subway and seems so misplaced to me.  On the subway there would be plenty of tourists and visitors, that wouldn’t be American, no?

FLAGS:

The book is clean, it does mention some drunk people at the shelter, but nothing specific, just in passing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection because the target age is lower than who I meet with.  But, even despite some of my criticisms I’d recommend this book be in classrooms and school libraries as it does offer up a perspective on historical fiction that hopefully could lead to a slightly deeper understanding of the events at a young age.