I one hundred percent understand that Muslims are not a monolith, but, I’m truly tempted to reach out to the author/illustrator of this upcoming 272 page middle grade graphic novel and ask her why she chose to have the female instigator in this coming of age story- that focuses on a dance crew, said girl tutoring a boy one-on-one in his bedroom, Halloween and a school dance, wear hijab? Yes there is also parental expectations, friend drama, leaving for high school stresses, and yo-yoing, but Sunna Ahmad being presented as a Muslim definitely gives me pause. There is no romance in the book save a few background characters filling in frames holding hands, and it never articulates that Sunna or her older brother Imran are Muslim, but she doesn’t wear hijab when home with her family, does wear it when she goes out, so it definitely seems to imply it. The cover and inside pages are bright and clear, and I think the book will be very tempting for young Muslim readers with the visible hijabi on the front. Additionally the book is published by Scholastic, so if you are a parent whose kids get book order forms and attends a school where the Scholastic Book Fair is a big deal, you might want to read the entire review to see if it is Islamic representation that you are comfortable with supporting.
The Eight Bitz B Boy band is in their final year of middle school before they all go in separate directions for high school. They want to win this year’s competition, or at least the leader of the crew, Tess, does. Tess doesn’t want them freestyling and messing around, she wants the choreography and dancing in-synch and on-point. Her military dictatorship is tearing the crew a part. When Cory’s grades are not where his parents want them, he is grounded from dancing and forced to work with a tutor, Sunna Ahmad. Sunna is weird, always writing intently in a secret notebook at school, and Cory wants nothing to do with her. When he happens to see her throwing her yo-yo at school, though, he is impressed. Reluctantly she trades teaching him yo-yo tricks if he agrees to do the work needed to get his grades up. Using yo-yo angles to teach geometry, it doesn’t take long before the two are friends. It comes to a culmination when he invites her to the Halloween dance and his crew is both shocked and mad that he is hanging out with her, when he should be practicing with them. As secrets and intentions come out, Cory has to make things right with his parents, his crew, Sunna, and himself.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love graphic novels, they show context and setting and emotion, that often can’t be conveyed as well with words. I absolutely love that Sunna wears different clothes on different days, from the hijab to the outfit, she has personality in her clothes as any middle schooler would, and nothing is mentioned about her hijab or her long sleeves, but the reader see’s it hopefully in a positive light. I do like the detail of her not covering at home when she is alone, or in the flashbacks when she is younger.
The story overall is decent and the added hip hop dancing and yo-yo infused details set the story apart, but some of the character building and plot points are a little rough. When Sunna first starts tutoring Cory she feels like an adult disciplining, and reprimanding him. She comes across as really arrogant and condescending, that he is somehow beneath her, yet they are the same age, in the same school, and are lab partners. It reads off for no reason.
Similarly, I understand that the tension between middle schoolers and parents can be a source of contention, but the forced apology from Cory’s parents is incredible demeaning and cringe. Sure flesh out that he shouldn’t yell at his parents, (Sunna shouldn’t either for that matter), but while the delivery was poor, the message was heartfelt and I think a book like this encouraging young kids to talk to their parents would be a great message, rather than have it almost glorified to not make the effort at all. Not saying that the effort will always be received, but the forced apology would turn even kids with a good relationship with their parents questioning if it is worth talking to their mom and dad.
Poor communication and the stress it causes is a theme of the book, and I don’t understand why Tess keeps her choreography dreams a secret from the crew. It seems underdeveloped, had she said that, that was the motivation, I think all the other seven members would have stepped up, not walked away.
Music, dancing, girl and boys being alone with each other, girls and boys arms around each other, attending a school dance, girls and boys dancing together, Halloween being celebrated, birthday being celebrated, yelling back at parents, lying, secrets.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
In all honesty, I would probably not have this book on the library shelves, and would not display it during the book fair. It normalizes a lot of gray if not haram actions for a very impressionable demographic because the character is visibly Muslim. If the character was not visibly Muslim, I actually might be ok with shelving it and selling it. The rep may be intended to show inclusion, but the character does not show actions that Islamically are appropriate. If it were one or two actions, I might reconsider, but it is a lot very specific and varied activities.