Set in Ramadan this graphic novel for middle grades has a coming of age theme brought to life with fantasy, religious practices, and storylines of bullying, acceptance, and folklore. Nayra is fasting, she prays, she says bismillah and Assalamualaikum, her practice of her deen is never in question and by and large I don’t know that anything is “haram” in the Islamic representation. Yes, she says bismillah in julus, the sitting position of salat, there is sihr, magic. done by the djinn, and a lot of liberties about the ghayb (you can’t really disprove them), but honestly my biggest problem with this book is that somehow even though it is a graphic novel, more visual than text, there is way too much telling and not enough showing. The reader is told that there is bullying, but only shown that one girl calls her “baba ghanoush,” we are told over and over that she is friends with Rami and that she needs to fix the relationship, but we never see what the friendship was before, only the forced awkwardness that it is now. The inside flap of the book stereotypes the “strict family,” but we never really see them being overly demanding or difficult, and the conclusion is very naïve with both the two girls and the two djinn resolving everything on Eid. I wanted to care about the characters, but never felt a connection to their stresses, traumas, and relationships, and many mirror my own life. In full transparency though, I must acknowledge to you all, that I do not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels or even comic books, if the choppiness, and lack of depth is what makes the genre work for others, then this book will be fun with its pink and purple pallet and tracking of the Ramadan moon. I really might just be the wrong person to review this OWN voice djinn fantasy authored by a Palestinian Muslim who like her fictitious djinn goes by they/them pronouns.
Nayra is being picked on by Tanya for messing up in volleyball in PE, and gets to calling Nayra “baba ganoush.” When the book opens Nayra fasting for Ramadan is what Tanya chooses to attribute Nayra’s lacking skill too, and Nayra is ready to find a new school. Her family offers no support, her older siblings set the bar high and got through by ignoring the bullies, and expect her to do the same. The one other Muslim at school is Rami, and Nayra needs a break from her, they meet to break fast every evening, but Rami is exhausting. When an online forum somehow gets a visit from a djinn, Nayra offers to be the anchor that Marjan needs to escape the ghayb and exist in the human world. Marjan’s past comes back to haunt them, and when Zirkouniya arrives, there is only so much protection the month of Ramadan can offer as Eid arrives and the djinn are returned to full strength. Djinn and human alike will have to own up to their mistakes, forgive others, and rebuild the relationships that matter.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like the Ramadan centering, and appreciate that the coming of age story line was not an identity crisis about Nayra’s faith. I finished the book feeling like I didn’t understand much. There was a lot of build up for a strict family, and djinn wisdom, that just didn’t exist. The conflict with the friends was superficial and the resolution the same. Maybe I missed the visual resonance as I tend to enjoy lyrical writing and relatable text, but the story seemed really simplistic, and the characters flat.
I honestly don’t know if the liberties of the djinn world and djinn themselves goes too far or if folklore, mythology, and fantasy give it fictional protection. There are details that perhaps come from culture, or are completely made up, I don’t know. Djinn in Islam are real, they are made of smokeless fire, some are good, some are bad, they have genders, and families, and feelings, and communities. Outside of that, I don’t know much, and do not presume to, when I sent @bintyounus some of the pictures from the book, she remarked, “Djinn are part of the Ghayb/unseen, So it’s not like we say oh none of it is true, but we also don’t take it as 100% true.”
The magic is minor just a fixing of a flower and flower pot, so in reality the only fantasy are the details about the djinn and the journey to the djinn world.
Lying, bullying, magic, sneaking out.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
There is not enough in the book to discuss in a book club, and because of the lacking resonance, I don’t know that most kids would read the book or be interested in it. I can see it being thumbed through, but I don’t think it would be finished by Muslim kids at the Islamic school, or by my own children. Those that know the Islamic view of djinns won’t find that enough of a hook when the story inside is about a friendship, and not a particularly deep or fleshed out one. They might see the bullying as relatable, but being called baba ganoush doesn’t really seem that bad compared to what many endure and pining for friends, when you have a very loyal friend, also will probably be met with some confusion.