Tag Archives: Identity

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.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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There is a reason that I read juvenile fiction: from board books to YA, but lately the “New Adult” category has really been tempting me.  Muslamic romance novels, often really need the protagonist to be looking to get married to make the plot work with some authenticity,  which means the main character usually needs to be a bit older than in their teens.  I decided to start my tiptoeing into the genre with this book, because I was intrigued at the racial and mental health themes that the blurb teased.  Sadly after reading the 288 page story, I still was waiting for more racial and mental health insight or enlightenment or perspective or deeper appreciation or anything really.  I kept reading hoping for more character growth, and to find out if the relationship worked.  I understand after finishing, that the book was intentionally more subtle and nuanced, and part of me appreciates it, but I still felt the book ultimately provided too little in either regard for me to feel satisfied or content that I had spent time with the characters.  The abruptness and harshness of the first few chapters, seemed disjointed from the dialogue filled introspective remainder of the book that showed so much potential, but left me feeling strung along for no real purpose.  The book covers mature themes of sexuality, drug use, racism, co-habitation, relationships, culture, mental health, and more.  The characters’ identify as Muslim, but aside from Eid prayers, iftar, and mentioning once that they should pray more, there is nothing religious practiced, mentioned, or contained in the story.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in a variety of timelines that all follow the relationship of Nur and Yasmina, the story begins with Nur finally after four years getting up the nerve to tell his desi parents that he has a Black girlfriend, and wants to marry her.  He leaves out that they have been living together for years, and the book then flips back to how they met and bounces around filling in the gaps that bring them back to the big reveal.

While in college, Nur had just broken up with Saara, but still goes to her fairly regular house parties.  At one such party he meets Yasmina, as a small group at the party sneak off to smoke pot, and he is immediately crushing.  His hungover broken-hearted gay friend Imran calls him out on it immediately, and his roommate Rahat chastises him for going to his ex’s parties.  Nearly all the main characters are met early on, and the rest of the book focuses on Nur and Yasmina growing closer through college, after school, through their early years of jobs and grad school, and the overshadowing of the fact that Nur has yet to tell his family about Yasmina, while Yasmina’s family is fully aware and fully supportive that they are living together.

All the characters are Muslim, but practice is pretty minimally detailed.  Yasmina tells Nur at their first meeting that she wishes she prayed more, and later it is mentioned that her parents were raised strict so they have raised their own children less so.  It is possible that Nur’s mom wears a scarf, but not clear either way, and they don’t seem to be bothered that she is living with her boyfriend.  Nur on one of his visits home goes for Eid prayers with his father, his mother and sister do not go, and it mentions that they are fasting.  Rahat does not find dating is for him, and wants to have a traditional arranged marriage, but it does not disclose if this is because of religious or cultural views.  Imran discusses his family praying and that he had to square away his sexuality with Allah swt more or less.

Nur and Yasmina’s younger sister have mental health afflictions.  Nur has anxiety attacks, and Hawa severe depression.  It does not label or identify or diagnose, this is my assumption, it does detail their experiences though, and how they affect those around them.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually enjoyed the writing style and the ease in which it flowed-save the beginning of the book. The beginning was a little crass, almost like the author was trying too hard to get the characters’ environment to read that they were in college.  The crude talking about sex and them talking about their parents’ intimacy and smoking and drinking and being vulgar, was in such contrast to the very subtle nuanced rest of the book that tried to show the layers of Nur and Yasmina’s relationships and lives.  Once I got through it, I genuinely wanted to know if they could make the relationship work.  No I’m not going to spoil it, but that really is why I kept reading.

I was disappointed that the book didn’t draw mental health out in the open.   I also wanted some religious based push back on racism.  It is a big thing in our communities and the book really could have had the characters argue it and make their points, right or wrong, for the disconnect between faith and culture.  It didn’t have to be preachy, or even mean that anyone changed their opinions, but it mentions numerous times, something to the effect of Nur’s parents being racist, but doesn’t detail why that is the suffocating presence in disclosing his relationship.  In four years I would imagine the opportunity to correct his parents way of thinking would have arisen, and he could have challenged it.  I get that might negate Yasmina’s point that Nur is racist, but I think it should have been made more clear then that he didn’t speak up when opportunities presented, otherwise it just seems unexplored and we, the reader, are expected to just accept the characters on face value, when the book really very easily could have nudged us, to self reflect and look inward.

FLAGS:

There is sex, and drugs, and lying, and racism, and all the other flags that adult books often have.  There is one “steamy scene” between Nur and Yasmina, but the rest of the relationship is very mild.  Nothing else is graphic in detailing their day-to-day living, or the day-to-day relationships of the other characters in the book: gay or straight.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No. Would never, could never encourage unmarried Muslims living together, fictionally or otherwise.

10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

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10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

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I try really hard to keep an open mind when reading Islamic YA romance books knowing that certain standards are probably not going to exist to move the story along, and of course I’m fully cognizant that Islam is practiced in a myriad of ways and chances are, I will disagree with a fair amount of any book in this genre.  This particular book though, was hard to read.  Ultimately I just didn’t like the protagonist, she was shallow and flimsy and her grasp on reality seemed lacking at times.  The premise of the book is that you can have a boyfriend, if the boyfriend is Muslim.  So by not agreeing with the very foundation; made the rest of the book hard to wrap my head around.  The book is largely about hijab, and the author starts the book thanking the individuals that “educated her about the hijab,”  yes, the article “the” is often used, and thus so much of the nuanced lived OWN voice experience of wearing hijab, is lacking.  The book features language, lying, kissing, making out, talk of wanking, condoms, groping, and a scene that nearly concludes with sex, but stops short, barely.  Perhaps high school seniors and college age teens could read this 231 page book, but I don’t know that the book is worth their time.  Practicing Muslims will be irritated by the lack of mirroring, cultural readers will be annoyed that the protagonist didn’t push back on toxic assumptions, and non religious readers will be left confused at what the book hopes to accomplish by including religion and culture to no real definitive purpose in a romance novel.

SYNOPSIS:

High school student Aisha wears hijab much to her parents protests, and tries to avoid the Islamophobic aggressions that she endures in her white Kent neighborhood.  She learns more about Islam than cultural superficiality from a family friend, an aunty, and she goes through her daily life largely unnoticed.  She has a close friend, who is popular and likes to party, but Aisha doesn’t go out much, yet Isabelle still finds ways to include her.  Everything starts to change however, when Darren moves in to town, defends Aisha at the bus stop and seems to be interested in being more than just friends.  Aisha doesn’t date, but reasons if Darren were a Muslim, nothing would stop her.  She devises a 10 step plan to make it all work, she just has to convert him.

While she sets her plan in motion, she finds herself lying to Isabelle, who has a crush on Darren, lying to her parents so that she can sneak around with Darren, and lying to Shafqat Aunty about her relationship with Darren.  Along the way, she will lose her friendship with Isabelle, uncover dangers of equating culture and religion, remove and reconsider her hijab, nearly lose her virginity, and have to decide where her boundaries are.  By the end of the book, nothing is clearly articulated for Aisha’s future or what she has decided regarding her relationship with Islam, hijab, and future boyfriends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I struggled with the book.  I like the flipped stereotype of the family not supporting hijab, but Aisha wearing it for her self anyway, unfortunately, I never felt that I understood why she felt strong enough to wear it, what brought her closer to Islam, and learning about Islam, and what the catalyst of it all was.  I think knowing more of Aisha’s backstory might have made her more like-able.  Throughout the book Shafqat Aunty is her whole Islamic touchstone.  She doesn’t seem to have any other way of learning, or studying Islam.  It seems that to come to Islam in high school would mean a level of maturity would exist that the character simply does not exhibit.  I started wearing hijab at 16, I was the first in my family, I did it for me, I was actively trying to be a better Muslim and understand Islam, and hijab was simply a physical, tangible manifestation of that.  So to see a character so passive in the learning, was a bit of a disconnect for me.  I’m not saying that everyone has an experience like mine, but her grasp of basic Islamic tenants seems so weak, and she doesn’t seem to have a way to acquire understanding, or even a desire to obtain it.  Often Darren seems to know more about Islam than she does.

I really struggled with the conceptual thread that her hijab prevents her from feeling comfortable making-out with Darren, so she hides it when clothing starts falling off.  Shouldn’t hijab be the reminder to not have gotten in that situation in the first place? Perhaps if she would have had some depth, or the relationship wasn’t “love at first sight” I would feel a bit more invested in her trying to sort out her beliefs while in the midst of such strong lust, but it wasn’t developed to that level.

I liked the initial idea of sorting through cultural and religious views on divorce especially considering the woman involved is being abused, but I didn’t think the book exerted a strong enough stance that divorce in Islam is absolutely ok, that abuse is not ok, and anything otherwise is backwards culture.  The book set itself up to make a strong statement, but then it abandoned it.  I’m not sure why the author didn’t get up on a soap box and preach, I mean it would have given the book something really powerful to highlight and given Aisha some growth in understanding where culture has undermined the power of women’s rights in Islam.

The book dismisses understanding one’s faith, and falls into predictable troupes despite setting itself up to be “different,” when  Aisha fears being shipped off to Pakistan when her parents find out about her and Darren.  The writing feels forced at times, and a few times He when referencing God is not capitalized.  I appreciate that some surahs, and duas, and Ramadan are included, but they don’t seem to shape Aisha, it seems like she is simply going through the motions.

The book ends on a “cliff hanger” of her either placing her scarf in the hamper or the garbage.

FLAGS:

Language, talk of sex, fairly vivid make-out scene that stops short of sex when they pause to acquire a condom and then Aisha changes her mind.  There is a lot of lying, normalizing relationships if both are Muslim, even if both are not, talk of domestic violence, slut-shaming, hickies, crude jokes.

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I would encourage this book in an Islamic school setting.

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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I think everyone has heard about this book by now and how fabulously fun, real, and relevant Huda’s life  is for so many.  I am happy to jump on the praising bandwagon, as this teen/YA 192 page graphic novel really is a great OWN voice unapologetically Islamic mainstream tale.  It does mention periods, relationships, hate crimes, and finding yourself, so probably 14 or 15 year olds and up.  My middle school boys read it, so it isn’t that it is inappropriate, just the target audience is more teen girl.  I know a lot of people, including Huda’s mom according to the inscription, have issues with the title, but I think it is brilliant.  She takes ownership of her name and it isn’t just for shock value, the book is about figuring out who you are, how you feel about Islam, establishing your friend circle, and growing and learning along the way.  My public library has it, as do major outlets, so what are you waiting for, go read, laugh, and feel seen.

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SYNOPSIS:

Huda has just moved to a new school and she is no longer the only hijabi.  She has moved to Dearborn, Michigan and there are A LOT of Muslims.  She is no longer defined by the cloth on her head, she has to figure out who she is.  Who she really is.  And sometimes the best way to do that, is to figure out who you are not.  

Huda tries different clubs, and different circles of friends, both at school and at the masjid.  Along the way she learns how much she craves approval and who is always in her corner.  When a kid at school is targeted for being Muslim, Huda will have to see how much internal hate she carries as well.  Her clothes change, her outlook changes, she tries new things, and she grows, all while the laughs help the story bounce from one serious topic to the next without coming across as arrogant or stereotypical.  This is Huda’s story and we are just along for the ride.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is nothing to critique, it reads autobiographical even if parts are exaggerated or only based loosely in reality.  By being so real, and so well done, you are excited when you see yourself staring back, but you feel like you’re a friend learning about Huda even when you can’t relate exactly. Her comics online and her previous two books are all amazing, and I love that she is continually creating new material for us all to enjoy and benefit from.

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FLAGS:

She tells a boy she likes him that she doesn’t really like.  Periods are referenced and blood and a pad are shown, not graphic and gross, but the sentiment is there.  Discrimination is present, as is Islamophobia and stereotypes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Just keep the book out and around: it will be picked up, read, and mentioned, no tools needed.

Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

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Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

beautifullyThis 40 page glowing OWN voice book bursts with body size positivity, Bangladeshi culture, Islamic terminology, diversity, and a beautiful message.  The illustrations and theme alone make the book worth your time and reveal how few body positive books are out there for our early elementary aged children.  That being said, the book might require or benefit from some child led discussion.  If your child is aware of various body shapes including their own, then this book is a great mirror to build them up and as a tool in emphasizing the critical importance of understanding and knowing people are beautiful just as they are.  If your child doesn’t seem to be aware that society views individuals with a larger body size as being a negative, this book might take a little navigating as the theme is more focused on pushing back on fat shaming than it is on accepting all body types.  The book also opens its self up to discussions about pronoun identity, what beauty means, why people tease or be mean to themselves and others, and being aware of how our words affect those around us.

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The family is visibly Muslim with Zubi starting with salaam.  The mom wears hijab and a sari, even at home, Dadi also has her head covered.  Eid is mentioned as a time when a gift was given that is too tight to wear, and worth noting from an Islamic perspective- Zubi’s sister is dieting to look pretty at a school dance.  Bangladesh is represented in the foods and some of the phrases the family says, and the clothing mentioned and depicted in the illustrations.  There is a glossary at the back.

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Zubi is excited for her first day of school, she slides on her dress and shirt her mom had made for her in Bangladesh and her bangles on each arm.  She heads to her parents room to show off her outfit where she finds her mom in a gorgeous yellow sari complaining about her big belly.  At breakfast Dadi has made flaky parathas, but Zubi’s older sister Naya is dieting and would rather have oatmeal. Dad calls the girls to take them to school when his mom asks how come he hasn’t worn the new shirt she got him for Eid.  He embarrassedly admits he has put on some pounds and his size is now a large, not good.

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At school she is having fun and even makes a new friend, but at recess some one yells that Alix looks fat.  Alix is wearing a yellow dress that Zubi thinks is beautiful and doesn’t understand why when they are called fat in it, it comes across as negative. After each incident Zubi mulls over what she is hearing and what it means for her, once she is home though she isn’t quite ready to talk to her family about it.  At dinner, it all hits her as she decides she too shouldn’t eat, that she should be on a diet to be pretty.  She heads off to her room, as her family realizes the impact of their own views and words about themselves, have had on Zubi.  The family works to unpack their own mistakes and be better all while making sure the message to Zubi is that you are beautifully you.

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I like that the book has the dad helping the mom put on her sari, and the dad comes and chats with Zubi about what happened at school.  Mom might be in the medical field, she seems to be wearing a white coat over her sari, which is subtle and impressive that she is going to work in a sari for anyone that has ever tried to wear one and simply get in and out of a car (just me maybe).  I do like that the mom remarks that she should be kind to her body since it housed her daughters.  I think reminding us that bodies serve a miraculous function is important.   I love the diversity in the classroom and how full of life Zubi is in all aspects of her day.   She is proud of her culture, and sees those around her as being bright, kind and funny, not just the shape of their bodies.  Some of her self reflections after an incident do highlight that many kids, including Zubi, don’t see body size as good or bad, its just one’s body.  Hopefully the adults reading the book will also be reminded and realize that is a message worth actively working to maintain, at any age.

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I think some of the criticism about the book not showing healthy food choices, or overall health is that we sometimes expect one book to do it all when there aren’t a lot to chose from.  The book celebrates being beautiful AND being big.  It doesn’t need to address all the societal and adult baggage that comes from food choices, lifestyle, health, judgement, stereotypes, etc.. And I think if you feel really strongly and defensive about it, then focus on pushing for more books, not one book to do it all.  Encourage illustrators to show a variety of body types on the pages of books in young children’s hands as well as by toy makers, cartoons, movies, tv shows, etc..  Body positivity and being confident in yourself, no matter your size, shape, appearance, benefits everyone. Celebrate being beautiful.

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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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.

Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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After reading a few chapters of this book, I really had no intention of finishing it, knowing that my review highlighting the main character’s bisexual identity and romance would draw critiques from both people that don’t want to see Muslim character’s identifying as any of the LGBTQ+ labels and those angered by my mentioning of them as potential flags.  Alas, I did finish the book, and I am reviewing it because as a (former) Islamic School Librarian, I would want to know how much romance is in any book that I would shelve or recommend, and this book particularly gives no insight about any romance in the blurb on the inside flap.  The author’s first book was very clearly about being a queer Muslim, but this YA short 244 page book focuses a lot on Zara’s relationships, her parents support and acceptance of her being bisexual, and her new romance with a girl.  The book is not graphic or even overly steamy, but the blurb suggests the book is only about immigration, hate crimes, and bullying.   So, I write this review to give a heads up to parents, like me, that might see this book on the library shelf or if like the author’s first book, which was picked up by Scholastic, in a school book fair, and not realize that there is a fair amount of discussion about her sexuality and how it is perceived in the Pakistani and Islamic culture, as well as how she doesn’t see the need to fast in Ramadan or pray five times a day, but still identifies as Muslim.  All that aside, I also didn’t love how the book was written, it is a lot of telling and not showing, I feel like the mom is painfully underdeveloped and flat, and the story threads don’t weave together consistently;  it reads scattered.  The book is pretty short for YA and with so many heavy themes, it ultimately can’t spend much time exploring any of them particularly well, a shame since the author in real life seems to have endured much of what she writes for her characters in regards to immigration status and citizenship.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara Hossain is a senior at a Private Catholic school, in Texas, she has friends that have over the years become family as the parents too regularly get together.  Zara came to American when she was three.  Her family left Pakistan for more educational opportunities and after her father’s pediatric residency, he stayed on with a work permit and green card waiting for citizenship.  The process continues to drag on, and it isn’t finalized.

A boy at school, Tyler, is harassing Zara for being Muslim, an immigrant, and brown.  Her father wants to discuss it with the principal, her best friend Nick wants to beat him up, and her mother just worries.  When finally a meeting with the principal is set, Tyler’s father doesn’t show, and things escalate.  Zara’s locker is defaced with profanity, Tyler is suspended, and the Hossain’s house is vandalized.  When Zara’s dad, Iqbal, goes to talk to Tyler’s father, he is shot, by Tyler’s dad.  He ends up in a coma in the hospital.  During all this Zara is crushing and pursuing a relationship with Chloe, who has just come out to her parents.  Zara’s family is very accepting of Zara being bisexual, and take Chloe in when she needs a break from her conservative Christian family.

Tyler’s dad is well connected in Corpus Christi, and while Iqbal recovers, he is faced with trespassing charges.  Although trespassing is a misdemeanor, by pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine, a criminal record will further complicate their citizenship status, and where they call home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows how messed up legal immigration often is. Dr. Hossain is the victim, he is shot,  he is a vibrant member of his community, but is being forced to leave and uproot his family.  The issue however about trespassing isn’t ever completely clear, the reader is never given a play-by-play account of what happened that night.  I wish we were.  It would be nice to not leave that area gray.  Also a lot of what lead up to Tyler causing Zara so much trouble is rather glossed over.  I wanted to hate him and be angry with him, and then be forced to examine how much was his doing and how much was his father’s, but I never really felt that emotion until the book told me to be mad.

I vaguely recall from the book that she is in a religious high school, the inside flap when I took the picture (see above) seems to stress it more than the story does.  She does mention that they couldn’t start a Pride Club, but I wish she would have talked a bit about being Muslim in a Catholic school, or better yet, shown the reader.  She doesn’t come right out and say that all Muslims are different and this is her.  I wish she would have, instead she talks a lot about being annoyed at having to explain why she doesn’t pray and fast.  Yet she never tells the readers why she doesn’t.  She goes to mosques to counter Islamophobic protests, and talks of going to Sunday school to learn Arabic as a child, but she is very clear that she was encouraged to question religion and God, but not what she found or why she still identifies as Muslim if she doesn’t believe it.  I was curious if she doesn’t believe it actually, why fast at all? If she is still questioning, why not say that.  I really felt that Islam and being Muslim was just a box to be checked to justify the hate crime, but really, she could have just focused on the culture.  There are Urdu phrases, and lots of foods mentioned, she clearly loves Pakistan and talks highly of it and often points out the good and bad in both Pakistan and America.  Food is in the book a lot, and not just Desi food, frozen yogurt is a crutch for the story, and it gets a bit annoying.  I wish there was as much character development as there was food detail and banter.

I liked that her parents defend and stick up for their daughter.  Whether you accept the lifestyle of Zara and her family or not, it is wonderful to see families stick together.  The nosey aunty got put in her place and if you have ever had to deal with the stereotypical aunties or the threat of what everyone will say, you had to cheer for Zara’s parents.  I don’t care what your thoughts are about LGBTQ+, that scene was awesome.  Great job Iqbal and Nilufer.  It was one time that Nilufer got to shine, I really don’t get why Zara’s mom is relegated to the cooking, feeding, worrying stereotype for much of the book.  I lost track of the number of times the book says, “no need to worry your mother,” or something to that effect.  The lady clearly is loving and strong, but doesn’t get developed, and it is frustrating.

The ending is a bit abrupt, yes time is ticking, and whether to move to Pakistan or stay and fight the system is definitely not an easy decision, but how is Canada suddenly the magical answer? I assume for most it is enough, and being the OWN voice tale seems to be very close to reality in this regard, I have no room to roll my eyes, but Canada has civil rights issues with Muslims too, and this 2021 published book kind of made it seem like it is just the perfect answer to all their problems.

FLAGS:

Violence, bullying, Islamophobia, profanity, vandalism, crime, shooting, stereotypes, hate, lying, straight and lesbian romance, crushes, kissing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would not work for an Islamic School middle school book club selection.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

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I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down.  I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end.  I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times.  Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it.  So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it.  Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees:  extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc.  The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity.  I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.

SYNOPSIS:

Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view.  It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America.  It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother.  Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing.   There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart.  Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own.  In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son.  Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy.  She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate.  When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam.  The family is very cultural, but not religious at all.  Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.

The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past.  It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub.  After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns.  In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl.  There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture.  It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it.  It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check.  But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with.  I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles.  The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down.  The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.  

I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English.  How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off.  I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves.  I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community.  While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her.  She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.  

I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry.  The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong.  The racism and bigotry feels very real as well.  The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.

FLAGS:

So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:

Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.

Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.

Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.

Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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An amazingly empowering simple story that breathes pride and beauty in to names and our identities.  The 40 pages are a celebration of the rhythm of our names and the dreams and hopes that they contain for us.  Perfect for kindergarten to second graders, readers of all ages will find something valuable in this book.  Those with “common” names might reevaluate what their names mean or why they were so named, children with “unique” names will find the music and confidence to ask others to learn their name correctly, older kids might reconsider shortened nick names, and we all inshaAllah will make more of an effort to get people’s names pronounced right.

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A little girl has had an awful first day of school.  As she stomps toward her mom at dismissal.  No one could say her name.  Not even the teacher, it got stuck in her throat.  Her mom gently reminds her stomping is only for dancing, and tells her that her name is a song.

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The little girl is skeptical, but as they say people’s names on their way home, and find the magic and rhythm and beat in each one, they address the horrible things that have happened to the girl that day regarding her name.  At lunch girls pretended to choke on her name, and later one boy said her name was scary, some even tell her, her name sounds made up.

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Her mother explains that some names come from deep in the heart, not the throat and cannot be choked on, that names are fire and strong, and that names are made from the sky when our real names were stolen and so new ones have to be dreamed.

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All the way home they go through names, diverse names, beautiful names.  The next day she doesn’t want to go to school, but she has a song to teach.  When her teacher starts calling  out names, the little girl starts tapping the rhythm, when Ms. Anderson starts to struggle on the little girl’s name, she starts to sing it.  She explains that her name is a song, and that she will teach it to them.  The other children then ask her to sing their names. And with a smile on her face, it is music to Kora-Jalimuso’s ears.

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I love that there are three pages of the names mentioned in the story and their origins and meanings listed.  I also like that the little girl’s name is not revealed until the end.  The pronunciation of the names is in the text, all of them, even Bob.   And when I read the name Trayvon, I felt an added weight of saying people’s names, breathing them into our lives and not forgetting them.

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The family could be Muslim based on the mom’s head wrap.  The author is Muslim and there are Arabic and Islamic names included in the story.

Teach Us Your Name by Huda Essa illustrated by Diana Cojocaru

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Teach Us Your Name by Huda Essa illustrated by Diana Cojocaru

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This book will resonate and empower anyone who has a “different” name, and hopefully provide insight and awareness for us all.  This 32 page picture book for grades 1st and up has a self empowering message, a confidence building approach, and problem solving tips to achieve a desired goal in a respectful way.  Written by a Muslim author, the book’s text is well done, unfortunately the pictures are inconsistent to me, some are beautiful and detailed, others seem rushed and unfinished.

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There are 20 letters in Kareemalayaseenadeen’s name, and the first day of school is such a stress for her.  She fears the teacher stumbling over her name, the other children laughing, and her unable to tell them how to pronounce her name correctly.  Her mom tries to explain that for some people the kids at school have hard names, and that for some people her name is easy.

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She reflects that in fact no one has ever made fun of her for her name, but that in history class she never sees her name, or on TV or in movies or on key chains.  She can hardly fit her name on her worksheets, and fitting it on banners is impossible too.  Eventually the kids kust call her Karma-Deen and even though she dislikes it, she is too shy to speak up.

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Over the summer, Kareemalayaseenadeen goes on vacation to visit family.  She doesn’t even think much about her name where everyone can pronounce it and say it with ease. Her Sittee though, has heard about her anxiety and sits with her to help her work through it.

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Sittee asks Kareemalayaseenadeen if she knows that her name means “excellent guidance” and that her name is a big part of her.  If she doesn’t like her name she isn’t liking an important part of herself.  She then urges her grandaughter to guide others on the proper way to pronounce her name.

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On the flight home, she ponders her grandma’s words and how to guide others to proper pronouncation, without being rude or settling on them shortening her name.  When she gets home she puts her plan in to action. And it works!

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When Kareemalayaseenadeen grows up, she becomes a teacher and each year she reads this book she has written (the one I’m reviewing) and asks her students to teach her how to say their names.

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The importance of how valuing someones name values the person and their family and culture is really one that as a society we have to keep working on.  We can say  names from Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars and Game of Thrones with no problem, so why can’t we try and pronounce someone’s name who is real and next to us and important to us? We have become lazy, and we need to do better, this book is sweet and kind and should really be read regularly as a reminder to us all, that names are beautiful.

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There is nothing religious about the book or even culture specific. There is a hijabi in the illustration of the market place in the unspecified “overseas country” and the name Kareemalayaseenadeen has Arabic bits, but a lot of names do as well, grandma is refereed to as Sitti, but isn’t defined, so the book is definitely meant for eveyone, especially those who will never find their name on a mug at a gift shop!