I had high expectations for a memoir about such an inspiring figure, so I treaded timidly into the book waiting to be disappointed, but after finishing the book in two days (high praise considering I have four kids), I realized I was holding my breath for nothing, the book and Ibtihaj are amazing! Now three days after I started, my daughter too has read it and I have ordered a handful of copies to offer as my next Middle School Book Club selection. Inspirational, real, Islamic, hopeful, empowering, check, check, check, check, and well written too. A great story and a great role model, alhumdulillah. The Young Reader’s Edition is an AR 6.7 and 304 pages including Acknowledgements, Glossary of Fencing Terms, Ibtihaj’s Advice, and Q and A with Ibithaj.
Ibtihaj begins her life story establishing her background of who her parents are, how they met, how they came to Islam and how they are raising their children. She also details how she is different and realizes it from a young age, whether it is substitutes not being able, or willing, to pronounce her first name, or not being able to sleep over at her friends’ houses. She also sets the stage for the environment of Newark that she was born into and how it differs racially and economically from Maplewood where she spent most of her childhood. The story then is pretty linear walking through some of the challenges of being highly driven and motivated and determined to succeed and get in college. How she is first introduced to fencing and why she gives it a second chance after initially not liking it. Along the way the reader gets to know how Islam influences her point of view as Allah is very central to her decisions and expectations of herself. The quick pace is not depressing, while others at times do treat her differently she definitely doesn’t paint herself or seem to see herself as a victim or as privileged, she is just herself and this is her story. It isn’t all rosy and it isn’t harsh, she is putting one foot in front of the other and there is amazing support from her family, and some of her coaches and some of her teammates, but not everyone and that is a very important part of her story too, which I think provides even more for young readers to relate and learn from. Anyone not familiar with fencing and how the sport and its rankings work will learn so much reading this book, but thankfully not be overwhelmed with it all either. The book ends shortly after the Olympics and her historic bronze medal win. The title may reflect her being proud of what she accomplished and continues to pursue and her pride in being a Black American Muslim Woman, but I think anyone who reads the book will just be proud that someone like her exists, and that maybe some small part of ourselves can be great too.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the book leaves in some of the naysayers and difficult coaches and teammates. I really think it is easy to assume that people are great and things should all work out when you are competing on an international level, but alas no, completely not the case, yet differences aside, they still had to win an individual sport as a team.
I also love that she is truly what she claims, the way she practices Islam is who she is and she loves her family and her faith. There are no contradictions she excels and perseveres and finds herself while acknowledging all parts of herself and it is so inspiring. She portrays Islam as a way of life, she prays and fasts and has days when her iman is low and days her faith is rewarding. She focuses on what she can control and has to learn to accept what Allah swt has decreed for her. She has Muslim friends, and non Muslim friends and through it all she is finding her place and is surrounded by love and support from her family. It really is a feel good story and we should all pray that it continues to be. She doesn’t portray Islam as limiting, nor as her family an exception to what a Muslim home is, and this level of dawah can really change perceptions. The book is not preachy or arrogant, it is simply her story and Islam is a part of it.
I like that she went to a prestigious university and it didn’t make all her dreams come true, she still had to work hard and find herself and humble herself to work at a dollar store to scrape by, it shows tenacity and a glimpse of the real world that privileged middle schoolers might not have had to consider before.
The book is clean. It talks about how uncomfortable she was at her first fencing lesson with her coach having to reposition her stances and thus touch her, and it discusses how she felt listening to music was ok in Islam even though her parents disagreed. A few sentences at most, collectively, but kids will have thoughts on it.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
My 12 year old daughter read the book in a few hours and discussed it with me for even longer. It was as if some tidbit from the book would blossom inside her and she would consider it, and want to discuss it, from why she would not talk to the kids she was substituting about fencing, to why her coach made her switch to saber, I don’t think there is a shortage of things to discuss, or more importantly listen to from the young readers.
There is a ton about her online as she became the first American Muslim to medal and the first to compete in hijab. I highly recommend this book for book club, and will hopefully add how our meeting went in a few weeks.