Tag Archives: friendship

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

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It is hard to believe that this book is middle grade- the world building, the social and political commentary, the authenticity, the history, the humor, the writing quality, the richness, really makes me embarrassed that as a child I never gravitated towards books like this.  Everything I love about contemporary fiction seems to be done so well in the handful of fantasy books I’ve read of late, add in layers of adventure, imagination, and nuance, and I don’t know why I took so long to embrace this genre.  Not to say every MG fantasy is written this well, but why settle for only friendship, family, and identity issues when you can have all of it and dragons?  This 352 page book about a Chinese American Hui Muslim kid is action packed, culture rich, unapologetically Muslim, and a gripping good time.  While I think lower MG could handle and enjoy the book, there is nothing explicit, it does in passing mention eunuchs, concubines, and adult entertainment, along with the main character stating that he is not attracted to girls a few times and that he acts like a girl, but presents as a boy, thus making me think middle school aged might be a better fit.  If younger kids read it, they may or may not even pause or notice the aforementioned possible flags, I only highlight them, so that my readers are aware and can be prepared to explain and discuss if needed.  As an adult reading it, I can see clearly that Zach is gay, but I don’t know that most kids will catch it.  The author skillfully hints at it, but doesn’t make it the focus of the story, ultimately making me feel like if you want to see it you will, if you don’t, you probably won’t. Oh and the chapter titles, they are awesome!

SYNOPSIS:

Zachary Ying is twelve and while he isn’t comfortable in his Maine school, he manages.  He dumps the delicious Chinese food his mom makes every day so that no one teases him for the smell it carries.  He tries to impress the other members of the Mythrealm club, a vr video game, without rocking the boat, and he loves his single mom who works hard since his father was killed in China advocating for the rights of Uyghurs.  He knows little about Chinese history, the language, or myths, but that all starts to change when his VR gaming headset becomes the host for the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. 

His mom becomes the target of demons and when her soul is taken, Zachary is off to China to secure the barrier that divides the worlds and keeps the spirits at bay.  To do that though he is going to need to learn Chinese history, the power of artifacts, and the role of myths in keeping stories alive.  With two friends, also possessed by past emperors, joining him, the adventure is non stop.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ramadan is mentioned on the very first page, that Zach’s mom wears hijab, that he only eats halal, and that details about life in China for Muslims is shared.  It isn’t the main part of the story, but it adds such a powerful layer, that I found myself looking up Hui Muslims and trying to rectify how little I know about Islam in China.  

The social commentary about which individuals from history are remembered and why some are celebrated and others vilified was so impressive to see in a MG fantasy book.  It doesn’t ask you to agree with the narrative, nor does it preach anything, it just presents it in all its beautiful shades of gray glory albeit often shrouded in humor.  I truly feel that most MG authors talk down to their readers, if these themes can be so strongly presented and consumed, what superficial fluff did I waste my time reading as a preteen?  Thankfully I’m an adult that loves juvenile fiction, so there is still hope for me yet.

FLAGS:

Magic, mythical gods, fighting, violence, lying, deceit, killing, crushes, same sex attraction, concubines are mentioned as are eunuchs, but nothing more is said about them.  Affairs and mistresses in context to myths and past emperors are mentioned.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could teach this.  Once you sense that he is gay it is hard to unsee, and in an Islamic school, that would be problematic.  I will have my own kids read the book, I don’t think there would be any concerns for me there.  A few weeks ago concubines were mentioned in a khutbah, so I’ve already had to explain that to one of my kids. 

PRE-ORDER BEFORE MAY 10, 2022 or PURCHASE AFTER HERE

A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

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A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

This 40 page picture book for preschool and up does a decent job of highlighting how many of us have immigrants in our family history who have relocated much like the immigrants today. The story focuses on Evie and her family welcoming a Muslim family to the neighborhood.  Some are excited to help, including a Muslim neighbor, others are not so welcoming.  The book shows some of the obstacles an immigrant might face, ways someone already established can help, and just how to be a good neighbor- all on a simple pre-schoolr to first grade level.  For little kids it is a good story to start a discussion, and for slightly older kids it is nice to see Islamic names in the text, smiling hijabis in the illustrations, and different characters to identify with.

Evie’s parents tell her that a family from far away is moving in next door, she asks if they are coming like her grandparents did, and indeed they are.  When they arrive Evie runs out to introduce herself to Bimi. Evie’s parents help the Said family move in.  But one neighbor, Mrs. Monroe just glares out the window.

Bimi asks his parents about Mrs. Monroe and Evie asks hers.  Bimi’s parents tell him that some people are scared of people that seem different, and Evie’s parents wish Mrs. Monroe would remember what it was like when she first came to America.

That night Evie has an idea to help furnish Bimi’s house.  The whole neighborhood helps out, including Fatima who lives around the corner.   After getting the apartment set up, they all share a meal, everyone that is, except Mrs. Monroe.

When the kids go out to play, Mrs. Monroe’s shopping bag spills, and Bimi helps her and Mrs. Said invites her in.  Later Evie gifts Bimi her teddy bear and Bimi gives Evie a stone from his grandma’s garden.  Evie asks him what he will name the bear, and when he says Evie, the reader knows the two are friends, and Bimi is “home.”

The book isn’t exciting, emotional, or particularly memorable, but there is value in it and I appreciate the Islamic representation.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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This early chapter book packs a lot of personality, growth, and fun into 127 pages.  The writing quality is engaging and the characters relatable.  If you have read the Zayd Saleem books you will recognize the family in this new stand alone series.  Either way though, from the surprising Naano to the fun Mamoo, the neighborhood children and the desire to maintain her reign as Queen of the neighborhood, the book may be meant for 7-10 year olds, but based on the kids in my house, anyone that picked it up, read the entire book before putting it back down.  The grandma covers her head, it mentions she reads Quran, there is a Salaam or two, an InshaAllah, and desi cultural foods mentioned.  The focus is not on religion or culture, but the layer adds depth to the characters, and normalizes names and practices in a universal plot.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara’s neighborhood has a lot of kids in it, and Zara has the reputation of being the leader who rules with grace and fairness.  It is a position she takes very seriously.  When Mr. Chapman moves out and a new family moves in, Zara fears losing her place.  The new girl Naomi has a lot of ideas and everyone seems to like them.  Zara has a grand idea to set a Guinness World Record, but with her little brother Zayd messing her up, nothing is going as planned for the summer.

As she finds her self alone a lot and not having much fun, she decides to change things up.  She works to be less bossy, less controlling, more willing to to share her crown.  With a lot of heart, internal growth, recognizing her strengths and weaknesses, the neighborhood kids just might have a record-breaking summer.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story wasn’t just surface level, it acknowledged some emotions and stresses and introspection, that I was pleasantly surprised to see played out in an early chapter book.  I really just enjoy the family, they read relatable and fun. The Nanoo’s surprise ability to hula hoop and her pettiness over a cooking competition genuinely made me smile.  The neighborhood kids and the politics of the different aged children having to find ways to compromise reminds me a lot of my summers as a kid, and the nostalgia was sweet.  I like the Islamic touchstones, I would have loved if they had to go in at sunset to pray or something of the like, but I was glad that at least that Nanoo reads Quran and an inshaAllah in the text made me feel seen.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, frustration, jealousy

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book should definitely be on every library and class shelf.  It releases tomorrow on Amazon, but Crescent Moon Store already has it.

Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

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Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie & Dave Walker illustrated by Justin Greenwood 

compasscoverDo you ever find yourself in the middle of an amazing historical fiction fantasy adventure graphic novel, reading as fast as you can to find out what happens next, while simultaneously having absolutely no clue what is going on? Yeah, I am was confused often in this upper YA/Teen (16+) 136 page book set in Europe during the Islamic Golden Age and starring a female from the renown House of Wisdom.  I’m fairly positive it is my own limitations that made the book confusing, but for those wiser and more versed in graphic novels, I would recommend this book.  It has action, adventure, science, history, philosophy, a strong Muslim character, friendship, wisdom, ingenuity, a bibliography, Mongols, Druids, and a dragon.

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SYNOPSIS:
Shahidah El-Amin is a Compass from the House of Wisdom, she is not a thief, she seeks knowledge which means that she is incredibly educated, fierce, and scrappy: part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider perhaps.  She is a hijab wearing, dua invoking, Qur’an quoting, don’t give me alcohol even as you are about to kill me, strong confident Muslim. 

The book opens with her finding an artifact and being betrayed by a fellow scholar and friend, Ling Hua, a Chinese scholar.  The two race to Wales to get to the possibly rumored Calderon of Eternal Life for different reasons and using different methods.  Along the way Shahidah shows her skills in surviving, understanding what her priorities are, and learning about friendship.  She will battle Master Hua, the Khan, a dragon, a bear, the Druids, a leper just to name a few as the fantasy world is developed and built up with historical accuracies thrown in.

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WHY I LIKED IT:

I love that the lead is a fierce female Abbasid Muslim from Baghdad and that there are a variety of religions and cultures mentioned and depicted.  It refers to Shahidah as an Arab witch by the enemy and calls Muslims “Mohammedans” which takes a bit of getting used to and I never got comfortable with.  I love the inclusion of ayats in transliterated text of the Arabic, and the concept is wonderful.  I got lost though in some of the world building and plot.  I think the action and illustrations are clear, but the text needed a little clarity in my opinion.  Again, I acknowledge my lack of familiarity with the concepts and format of the book.

I loved the bibliography and the notes included at the beginning and end.  I actually would have liked more information on the House of Wisdom and as always, a map.

FLAGS:

The concept and references make it for more mature readers.  There is also violence, a mention to love making, and depicted death, gore, killing, etc..

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Even though it is for older readers, I think it would be great on a library shelf for middle grades and up.  It probably isn’t for everyone, and many wouldn’t be tempted by it even, but the few kids that like this kind of content, will absolutely love the book.

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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I saw this book at the library and was shocked: a Palestinian pov story written by an Israeli.  I checked it out, braced myself, and got ready to rage.  Except it isn’t blatant, and I can’t just chop it up to obvious hate, but that isn’t to say that the 183 page middle school book should be shared and deemed harmless: it subtly minimizes the occupation of an entire people, it in many ways glosses over the apartheid taking place.  It gives the inequity lip service, and I’m sure many western non Muslim, non Palestinian readers will find the book balanced, but I never could quite shake the looming shadow throughout, of trivializing the oppressive regime that is Israel.  I don’t know if the undermining is intentional, and I couldn’t find anything with a Google search to see how the book was received by Israelis in 1994 when it was published (it was translated in 2000), but either way it provides a great example as to why OWN voice books are so much more powerful.  This is not the oppressors’ story to tell.  I’m not saying the author isn’t sympathetic to the Palestinian struggles or that she actively supports encroachment of Palestinian homes, I honestly don’t know her stance.  I do know that the lived experiences of Palestinians though, is best left to be told by people that live it, have lived it, and those that feel loss because of it.  It is not a narrative to be told by the force that is causing the pain.  My biggest worry is that readers will take away from the story that the situation isn’t that bad, that Israelis are taking care of this poor injured Palestinian boy out of the goodness of their hearts so they must be nice, and at the end of the day the two sides are just two opposing forces, but the people once they get to know each other, bond over the fact that they pee the same and can be friends.  It waters down that it is, and was, major international powers backing the Israelis and that it is not, nor has it ever been, a simple disagreement between two equal sides. No I don’t expect every book about the region to detail the specifics, but don’t tell me that killing of children, a life of checkpoints, curfews, and fear can all disappear over a few months when the “enemy” provides medical care, regular meals, and arts and craft times. I’m not Palestinian and I can see the short-sided reality of that real quick.  It leaves young impressionable readers with a very skewed view, no matter how diplomatic the author attempts to be on the surface.  And I cannot support it.

SYNOPSIS:

Palestinian boy Samir injures his leg in a bicycle accident, quite seriously, and his mother who cleans for an Israeli lawyer is able to get him a special permit to be taken to the Jew’s hospital to be cared for by a visiting American surgeon.  He speaks broken Hebrew, but understands quite a bit as he has worked in a Jewish grocery store in the past.  When he gets to the hospital, he is placed in a room with other children to wait.  He stays there for weeks until the doctor can arrive and then even after the procedure he stays for physical therapy for weeks before he can return home.

While he is there, he gets to observe and know, in some ways, the other patients.  Yonatan is always buried in a book, but at night, when the other kids go to sleep he talks to Samir and plots with him a trip to Mars.  Yonatan’s mom lives in American, he lives with his dad who is an astronomy professor.  He also ethically is a vegetarian and saves his kabobs and chicken from his meals to give to Samir.  There is a girl that was hit by her father and refuses to see him, and one that is like a princess that doesn’t like to eat.  Tzahi wears a colostomy bag and is always jumping around and causing trouble.  His brother is a paratrooper in the Israeli army and he hates Palestinians.  It is hard for Samir when the brother comes to visit, the fear is real.

Samir’s younger brother Fadi was recently killed by Israeli soldiers and the memory, horror, and anguish is still very fresh for Samir and his entire family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I really couldn’t articulate the saccharin taste the book was causing to form in my mouth as I read.  The curfews, and check points and loss of Fadi was being discussed and contrasted to the luxury of the Israeli hospital, and then it began to occur to me that, it was almost worse than just being blatantly hateful.  The placating and sugar coating slowly diminishes the horrors of reality.  At the beginning Samir doesn’t want to go to the hospital, he would rather have a limp, but the narrative slowly becomes about the kids in the hospital also have stressing and hard lives, and that seems sweet, except, their issues while specific, are universal.  Samir’s leg is as well, but the oppression of his people is systemic and helping him doesn’t erase that the same people running the hospital killed his brother, dictate his reality, and his future opportunities.  It is not enough for the “anti Palestinian child” to have a surgery that corrects his ability to urinate and at the very end, they pee in to the planters.  It might work on the surface, but it trivializes too much. If Samir would have gotten to tell them about his life and his pains, and his experiences, and they would have accepted them as valid, maybe I could see bridges being built, but bonding over basic human functions, and celebrating that an Israeli boy finally talks to a Palestinian, isn’t compassion, it is arrogance.

The only real positive takeaway I had of the book was that even in the tiniest human kindnesses Yonatan showed Samir it was something for Samir to contrast with his life long friendship with Adnan.  That growth of realizing what makes a good friend was more humanizing and affectionate than any other storyline in the book.

FLAGS:

Murder, fear, harassment, oppression, bullying, teasing, violence, gun violence, abuse, talk of urinating, showering in front of others.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way, I will never have Palestinian children read about their life experiences from an Israeli person speaking through a Palestinian character.

What if Dinosaurs Were Muslims? by Rabia Bashir illustrated by Laila Ramadhani

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What if Dinosaurs Were Muslims? by Rabia Bashir illustrated by Laila Ramadhani

This rhyming Islamic tale wonders what dinosaurs would do if they were Muslim and alive today.  For littlest Muslim readers this repetitive tale ponders how they would eat, pray, love their mothers, respect their neighbors, dream, and feel, by tying all those things back to how Muslims behave.  The adorable illustrations kept my 6 year old glued to the story and the simple text held my 2 year old’s attention.  A fun book with wonderful supplements at the end to engage children in activities that everyone does compared to those that just Muslims do, a Fun Fact about (Muslim) dinosaurs and mums in Islam.  As well as extra activities, valuable information, and details about donations made with the purchase of this book.

The book takes place in London and imagines if dinosaurs were alive and if they were Muslim what day-to-day life would be like.  The refrain starts out “If dinosaurs were alive today and if they were Muslims too,” before stating what they would do and having it conclude with “just like me and you.”

In a similar vein as the ever popular How do Dinosaurs series by Jane Yolen, the book teaches kids how to behave by teaching the dinosaurs.  The book is short, and the humor comes from the illustrations, primarily the facial expressions of the parents, more than from the text, but I think the wildness of Dinosaurs living today will get most little kids smiling.

The only real concern I have with the book is the text when they are in the masjid praying and it reads, “they would try their best to pray five times a day.”  I know we don’t demand our littlest ones to pray all five salat, but I don’t know if it would imply that trying to pray is sufficient even when you are older.

From start to finish I found myself smiling while reading this book aloud to my kids, even after the fourth time in a row, alhumdulillah.

Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

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This 336 page YA graphic novel set in a fictitious world draws on the authors’ Arab culture and creates relatability for universal readers everywhere.  Themes of coming of age, war, family honor, discrimination, classism, deceit, and friendship, all interweaves with rich illustrations and warmth.  With a few unnamed #muslimsintheillustrations the story shows a lot of heart and with some language, violence, death, and oppression would be best suited for 9th grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Aiza and her family belong to the Ornu tribe and are treated as second class citizens in the Bayt-Sajji Empire.  With their traditional arm tattoos and seemingly more plentiful food, they are greatly disliked by the larger community and oppressed at every opportunity.  Aiza dreams of joining the army, rising in ranks, earning citizenship for her family and changing their future.  She also dreams of being a hero.  When she finally convinces her family to allow her to enlist, they also encourage her to hide her identity, and just like that, she is off.

Once in training she is pushed to excel or risk being sent to the front lines.  As she navigates new friendships, harsh instructors, and the shadowy General Hende, Aiza learns there is so much more to war and politicking than meets the eye.  Her life, her loyalties, her understanding of the world will all be tested, as Aiza must decide which path is for her.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The text and illustrations are seamless in conveying a united story, I was a little nervous with two authors, and I like that the story has twists and multitudes.  I loved seeing strong women in the military, as the authors’ say tough girls with swords.  While reading it I was completely submerged in the story and the characters, but writing this review a few days later, I’ve largely forgotten the characters names and quirks.  I’m not sure if it is because I read a digital version, or because the character building is a little lacking.  I don’t know that I was emotionally invested in some of the major plot points because I was not seeing the struggles it was requiring of the character to endure.  Admittedly I have not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels, so I don’t know that I have a lot to compare it to, but I do plan to read a physical copy when I can, and read follow up books in the series, to see if my impression changes.

FLAGS:

Some language, bullying, oppression, violence, death, killing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is nothing religious in the text, so I wouldn’t use it as a book club selection, but I would definitely shelve it in a school library, classroom, and keep it in mind for readers that love these kind of books.

Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

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Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

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This middle grades 224 page read is quick and memorable.  The story is set in Pakistan and the characters are probably Muslim, but there is no religion mentioned until nearly the end, and even then only in passing.  The only culture specific references are the characters’ names, social etiquettes, and the foods mentioned.  By and large, the story is universal and could take place anywhere, and probably does take place everywhere.  While I wish it would have had more cultural and religious references, it is an OWN voice story after all, the book is enjoyable, the characters endearing, and I think young readers will benefit from spending the school year with Omar, seeing classism up close, and cheering for an unjust school system to be challenged.

SYNOPSIS:

Omar is the son of a servant and when he earns a scholarship to a prestiges boy’s school for seventh grade, the entire village is bursting with pride.  When he gets there though, it is hard, really hard.  The scholarship kids aren’t allowed to participate in any extra curriculars, they have to do service hours, and they have to maintain the ridiculously high A plus grade average or be expelled.  It seems that that headmaster is out to get the scholarship kids, and Omar in particular.  As the scholarship students struggle to stay afloat, Omar has to determine if it is all worth it. He spends all his time studying, even when he goes home to visit his mother, and while he doesn’t want to let the village down, he is struggling to find the optimism to keep fighting for his place.  When Omar learns that the system is designed to make the scholarship kids fail, and that those that are kicked out are called “ghost boys,” he has to decide to how hard to push himself and ultimately how hard to push to break down the system that treats him and those like him like second class citizens.  Luckily, Omar has some supportive teachers, some loyal friends, and a whole lot of determination.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is universal, it is at times a much tamer version of the YA book Ace of Spades which also explores second class citizens in posh private schools as a theme, and at times I even felt some Dead Poet’s Society vibes.  The cultural setting and names however, to me is a mixed bag.  I’m glad that it didn’t become another story about problems in another country with judgmental overtones, but at the same time, to be so void of cultural references seemed too far of an extreme in the other direction to make the story feel real richness and authenticity.  I love that the story isn’t about bullying and that a number of characters have depth.  I was genuinely confused for a large portion of the book about what the orientation in the summer entailed.  It was clarified much too late that it was a weekend, but I was at a loss trying to figure out how he knew some of the campus, some of the other scholarship kids, had a roommate, yet knew so little of the school and what it would be like.  I am not sure why that information was delayed, but seeing as I read an arc, I hope it is clarified in the final copy.

FLAGS:

Omar and a girl are friends, they hug at the end, but it seems rather innocent, and more sibling like as they were raised together.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a good book on a shelf, and would possibly work as a read aloud to grades four or five.

 

Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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At 98 pages the book claims to be two YA mental health novellas that bring attention to mental health in a relatable and contemporary audience through Muslim characters.  As someone with some experience in loving individuals going through some of the issues addressed in the book, I was thrilled that voices were making it on to the page and in a capacity to increase discussion about self-harm.  Unfortunately, the presentation of the two short stories baffled me and I don’t think the book will find its way in to many YA reader’s hands.  I don’t know why it is two novellas when the characters are the same and it very easily could, and should, have been fleshed out into a single longer novel.  I think it would have shown a better well-rounded understanding on the importance of knowing and recognizing signs of someone struggling with their mental health, how coping skills aren’t often enough and outside help is needed, how assumptions and stereotypes further alienate those suffering, and just overall made the characters deeper and more relatable.  Instead we get two isolated snapshots that subtly try to discuss mental health, but use a very immature cover story that misses the target audience.  The book as is, is better suited for middle school readers, but I think even they would get a limited view of how to help those close to them, or reach out themselves if they are hurting.  It needs to be five short stories with different characters and a unifying theme, or one complete novel.  Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to share this book with my teen daughter so we could discuss, I couldn’t convince her to read it, which is unfortunate, because the author can write, it just isn’t tempting presented as it is.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is two novellas, the first focuses on three female Muslim friends and one’s little sister.  The girls all go to school together, but are of different economic statuses, have different interests but support one an other, and have different family dynamics, that all come in to play.  The close knit community means the parents are social with each other as well, and one parent or another is always picking or dropping them off at each other’s homes.  When Hana gets a new phone, Aliya is clearly jealous, Lena tries to brush it off and keep the peace, but, when Hana’s phone goes missing, even she has to admit that “rebel” Aliya is looking guilty. As the girls search for the phone, Lena spends time with her family, goes to her brother’s robotics tournament and finally confronts Aliya.  Aliya’s mom has disappeared earlier, and with her purple dipped hair, sudden influx of funds for Ubers and new accessories, the girls fight and Aliya pulls away.  When Aliya and her dad don’t attend Hana’s younger sister, Sara’s ice skating performance, it seems the friendships are irreconcilable.  Aliya, however, shows up to the after party things are revealed and amends are made.

The second novella is the story of what happened with Aliya’s parents, particularly her mother.  Similar to Sara, Aliya’s mother was harming herself and eventually abandoned her family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows Muslims suffering, coping, and dealing with mental health issues.  The topic is way too taboo and it effects all swaths of the human population, we need to normalize discussions about it.  I wish the novellas would have stressed getting professional help more, sure it is great that Hana is going to try and put her phone down and pay attention to her younger sister, but that is not always enough.  Aliya mentions that after her mom left her and her dad went to therapy, but the mom claimed to leave to get help and then never came back.  I think there needs to be A LOT more emphasis on what “good” help looks like and what it can do to change lives.

The book is self published it seems through a publisher, so hopefully the author could ramp up the story telling, character building, and messaging, to really make the book shine.  I don’t understand the title, I don’t know why it is under a hundred pages.  I don’t know who the forward is written by.  If you want to write a book about mental health you really need to have done a lot of research, not just necessarily your own experience, and you probably should have a bunch of letters after your name.  Otherwise just write a work of fiction and touch on some of the issues that you want to support discussions about.  The book seems to straddle committing to one or the other, and ultimately it falters because of it.

I do like that the characters are Muslim, the book is not preachy, some seem to be more religious then others, but it isn’t really part of the story.  The characters’ culture and nationalities seem to be left intentionally vague.  It mentions gossip from the ladies at the masjid, which I think should have been drawn out more.  Really if you ask me, this is a great rough draft, it needs fleshing out is all, build it up to 250 pages and set out to reach middle school readers instead, and it will resonate and have the effect I think the author is hoping for.

FLAGS:

Self harm, abandonment, assumptions about a man Aliya seems to be sharing a meal with in a photograph, gossip, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Because it doesn’t seem to stress how to help and what help is out there, I don’t know that the book would be a great read for all.  I think if you are looking to open a discussion with a small group of readers or individually, you may be able to assign the book and discuss in a safe environment.

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

barakah

I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.