Tag Archives: immigrant

Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

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Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

zara

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.

Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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Fatima’s Great Outdoors

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As a partially brown person who enjoys camping and does it frequently, I have been anxiously waiting to get my hands on this beautiful 40 page, kindergarten to fourth grade picture book. So, trust me, I’ve read it multiple times to myself, to my children, and even to a Muslim storytime group to try and figure out why I like it, but, unfortunately, really don’t love it. Ultimately, I think it is because there is just too much going on.

Everything about this book is wonderful: the idea to encourage brown people to go camping, to highlight that time in the wilderness is for everyone and doesn’t have to look a certain way, that bullying and micro aggressions are oppressive, that immigrants have diverse and full lives in their home countries and work hard when they come to America, that culture and language and food and music is diverse, yet universal, that learning new skills and trying hard things makes you a super hero, that dad’s can cook and mom’s can be great fire starters and critter catchers, truly it is all so powerful and affirming, it is just a lot for one book.

It could easily be a three book series with just the information and layered themes presented, and I really wish it was spread out. If you are a 4th grade desi kid who has been camping or desperately wants to go camping this book is a great glimpse to mirror your place in the hobby without compromising your unique spin on it, but I think for anyone not in that demographic, many of the little celebrations, messages, themes, and cultural nuggets will simply be lost.

I wanted to hear the campfire stories and jokes, and laugh at the lyrics being belted out, not just told about them. I wanted to feel Fatima’s accomplishment at helping set up the tent and maybe see her struggle and rebound, not just be told she suggested reading the directions. The book has a ton of industry praise and personally came with a lot of expectation for me, so perhaps I’m overly critical, but kids in my storytime were struggling to stay focused when they couldn’t relate to the cultural touchstones being tossed out, they didn’t get the “not being good at math stereotype,” they needed the non text pictures to be explained to grasp their impact on the story, and they wanted to know why of all the Islamic things a Muslim family could do while camping, halal bacon was the only Islamic reference and came with precious little contextual defining.

The story starts with a Fatima and aapa waiting to be picked up after a terrible week of school to go camping for the first time. The Khazi family has immigrated from India and their father has told them that camping is an American pastime. During the week Fatima has been teased for her pronunciation and lunch, had her hair pulled and done poorly on a math test. But when her parent’s pull up with a packed car and the girls jump in to enjoy samosa and Bollywood songs, the weekend holds promise.

When they get to the campsite, Fatima and her dad tackle the setting up of the tent. Dad cannot seem to figure it out, and after the week she has had, Fatima is scared to help, but after a while she suggests looking at the directions and it seems that does the trick. The family enjoys shami kabab and rotis from home for dinner, before the girls climb in the tent.

A spider on the outside of the tent is magnified inside, and has the girls terrified it is a monster. Mom, the ever brave lizard and scorpion disposer in India reassures them that it is nothing and sends them off to brush their teeth before settling in for the night.

The next morning mom shows the girl the small spider keeping the mosquitos out and they all share a laugh while dad is cooking anda and roti on a gas grill. He calls the girls to come out in urdu to attempt a campfire to cook the halal beef bacon on like other American’s do. Dad and Fatima can’t get it to light, so mom, who is from a smaller town in India has to show them how it is done. Along the way Fatima looks at the other campers and is annoyed that they aren’t having trouble and that her family always is so different. The other families it is worth noting are white.

The Khazi family then starts to pack up and then they go for a hike, play in water and when the time to leave comes Fatima is sad. She doesn’t want to go back to the life they live where they are different and teased and her parents have to work two jobs each. But aapa suggests she share her fun at show and tell, and the family reassures her that they will be back.

The book ends with Fatima telling her class she is a superhero because she can build fires and tents and isn’t afraid of spider monsters. There is no glossary to define the urdu words used and spoken, but there is a reference at the end about the author’s @brownpeoplecamping initiative.

I think the book is rather remarkable and ground breaking because of its subject matter. The illustrations are wonderful, and the book a great reminder that camping and being outdoors is for all. I just wish it focused on a theme or two and highlighted them for this Indian American Muslim Family with relate-ability for other types of minority groups. The book set its own standard in what it wanted to achieve and convey, and sadly I think it missed the mark.

Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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hana khanTechnically this book is adult fiction because the protagonist is 24 years old, but the halal rom-com is so sweet and considering the YA options that exist in the same genre, I think high school juniors and senior would do better to dive in to this light, enjoyable, albeit predictable, read over so many of the other options out there.  I read the 368 page book in two days, I was hooked and impressed with the strength of all the female characters, the step away from all the stereotypical tropes and the smooth writing style.  The book is for everyone and while packaged as a light read, there are some themes of immigration, family, choice, and OWN voice realizations that are presented and explored in a thoughtful and impactful manner.

SYNOPSIS:

Hana Khan’s mother owns and operates Three Sisters Biriyani Poutine in Toronto, there are not three sisters, biriyani poutine is not on the menu and business is bad, really bad.  The 15 year old restaurant that Hana named when she was nine is struggling even though it is the only halal option in the close-knit, diverse, golden crescent community.  When news hits that a new upscale halal restaurant is opening a few doors down, Hana chooses to ignore that the business was struggling and instead blames the new proprietors.  They are wealthy, corporate and insufferable.  Well, the dad is anyway, the son Aydin, he isn’t so easily defined.

Hana balances shifts at the restaurant, her internship at Radio Toronto and her own anonymous brown girl podcast.  Hana, real name Hanaan, comes from a supportive and close family.  Her dad was injured in a serious car accident, her older sister is pregnant, and her cousin from India along with a cousin-aunt have just arrived under suspicious circumstances.

As the new restaurant gets closer to opening, Hana finds herself stooping to all new lows to sabotage their success.  Encouraged by an anonymous podcast listener who she has been chatting with for quite a while, and inspired by her rebel cousin-aunt, Hana is determined to secure a permanent job in radio, save her family restaurant, and destroy the competition.  But, an attack downtown draws attention to growing Islamophobia and forces Aydin and Hana to work together.

In a fictional story where everyone knows everyone both in India and Toronto, crazy family members are endearing and loyal, it is no surprise that the main characters are more connected than they think.  As Hana finds her strength to carry on amidst change, she also figures out what direction to focus her energy, her talents, and voice.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the writing.  I was invested in many of the characters, not just the protagonist, and absolutely cheered as she gave a nod to so many assumptions so that she could move past them: forced marriage, hijab, acceptable professions, inclusion, etc.. The family is all about choice and not getting hung up on stereotypes show the power that OWN voices have in telling stories that resonate with everyone.  The book is full of religion, from waking up for fajr, to listening to the khutbah at jumah, going to the masjid to find peace, and believing in destiny.  It is not a preachy book by any means, but the characters are Muslim inside and out.  The traditional family does not pressure Hana to get married, her sister’s marriage was a love one.  She is often alone with her male cousin or brother in law, or best friend Yusuf.  She knows who she is and her family trusts her.

I love the food, the insight of immigrants and family.  I was particularly moved by her articulation of being told by outsiders what it means to be Muslim in Canada, or an immigrant and then not being listened to when pushed back upon. Her challenging a teacher on what the fourth pillar of Islam is and not being heard, resonated profoundly.

Within the first 100 pages or so the reader figures out who everyone is and how they are connected, save one surprise, but it is like watching a favorite movie, you keep going because it is fun, and enjoyable and the point isn’t to figure it out, but to enjoy the ride.

FLAGS:

There are relationship threads, but nothing more detailed than a hand touch after a funeral.  Her best friend Yusuf marries their best friend Lily an Agnostic, knowing that both families are against it.  There is music and racist talk and vandalism.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The high school book club usually tries to include a halal romance novel for the loyal participants that clamor for it in the group and I plan to suggest this one to them.  For as light and straightforward as the book is, there is a lot to discuss when the surface is peeled back.  There would be lot to explore from her podcast, internship experience, and her hate crime experience, that the romance part will be seen as simply a vessel to more profound issues to explore.

Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza

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There is such a shortage of male Muslim protagonist middle grades books that I have been waiting quite impatiently to get my hands on this one, and alhumdulillah, it didn’t disappoint.  I’m not sure if it qualifies as OWN voice, being it has a female author, but the authenticity in the little religious and cultural details would suggest that it should.  The 320 page book is meant for ages 8-12, but the weight of Aziz’s father’s illness, the plot pivoting around three classic books (Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and the clever reflections of Ahmed along with his quick wit and thoughtful choices, might make the book’s sweet spot be 5th to 7th grade readers (as well as us moms who are suckers for elementary literary references, teachers who are heroes, and kids realizing their potential).  The book has a bully, but is clean and wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Ahmed is leaving the only home he has known in Hawaii to move to Minnesota.  His dad has Cirrhosis, a result from a rare genotype of hepatitis C, and Minnesota is one of the top options for treatment.  The family is nervous to move in general, but more so to move to Minnesota.  It is where Ahmed’s dad Bilal grew up, and where his dad’s younger brother passed away at age 12. Ahmed’s younger sister, Sara, is perhaps the only one excited for the new adventure.

The family arrives and is greeted by Bilal’s old friends, and when school starts he realizes one of his dad’s best friends, is his English teacher, and somewhat of a legend at the school in getting kids to try and beat her at an end of the year quiz show like competition.  The school is also where Bilal and his brother Muhammed went to school and a picture of Muhammed hangs right above Ahmed’s locker.  The biggest stress at school is Jack. Jack who lives a few houses over, Jack who rides the same bus, Jack who is in Ahmed’s English group, and Jack who has a lot of followers at school.  Jack is a bully.  One who makes Ahmed’s life miserable at every turn, not just socially, but even the police.

Ahmed is a laid back kid that doesn’t like to read, but loves words, who wants to blend in yet is the only brown kid in a sea of white, who enjoys attending  Jummah salat, but ultimately hates going because of the shoe chaos afterwards.  Ahmed has no intention to read the books assigned in class, but some how the three classic books assigned do get read, and  Holes, Bridge to Terabithia, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tie together and weave in and out of Ahmed’s epic year.

I don’t want to spoil much, but Ahmed’s dad is in the hospital a lot, there is a lot of plotting to survive being bullied, as well as getting revenge on the bully in Ahmed’s own way without involving parents.  Ahmed slowly grows to love Minnesota, his small circle of friends, and his school while learning about his uncle and the kind of person he wants to be as he grows up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Ahmed is Muslim and while his mom prays five times a day and his dad is an occasional prayer it doesn’t specify how often Ahmed prays or how he feels about religion, other than going for Jummah.  At first Ahmed thinks he is being bullied by Jack because he is brown, his mom is an immigrant from India, his father the son of immigrants from India, but learns that Jack picks on anyone new.  I like that for as much as Ahmed hates stereotypes and assumptions, he acknowledges that he makes them too.  I like that Ahmed doesn’t like to read, but is smart, and eventually comes around to reading.  He is tech smart and very mature in how he views the world and himself in it, cares for his sister and parents, handles things on his own, and builds others up.  Ahmed is a good kid, not in that he doesn’t make errors or is a teacher’s pet, but in that he has a really good heart and a good head, and I think would make anyone better for knowing him.  I love that the book is smart too.  If you have read the three books mentioned you will love the discussions and questions about the books, if you haven’t read them, you will be tempted to after you finish this book.  I wish there was a tad more religion, there is a sprinkling of culture, primarily the mom’s tragic cooking, but a bit more religion in a book that has illness and death would seem natural to me.  The storytelling is superb, I was so curious where the father’s parents were, but alas it did answer that, I would have liked it sooner, but I was glad it made it in none-the-less.  I would have liked a bit more from the parents about why they wanted Ahmed at his dad’s old school, or how they were comfortable constantly leaving the two kids home alone at night, but Ahmed like I said is pretty mature.  I particularly love the brother sister relationship.  Ahmed is a good older brother and it reminded me in some ways of my older brother, which made my heart warm, good siblings are a blessing.

There are multiple climaxes, but while I expected the dad’s health to be a big one and Jack getting what was due to be a close second along with the outcome of the literary contest, I was not prepared for the level of Jack’s torture to climb to, and was pleasantly surprised by the unresolved thread of Jack and Ahmed’s future relationship.  Things in life don’t magically resolve and I love when middle grade novels keep that in mind.

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely do this in a heartbeat for a middle school book club selection.  Even if the book is more middle grades, I think the students will enjoy it and be surprised by the emotional investment the dad character extracts.  I think they will also benefit from the literary references, relatable characters, and the overall great storytelling.

Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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Spell it Like S-A-M-A-R by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Saliha Caliskan

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This 36 page book for kindergarten and up shows the role perseverance, confidence, and believing in yourself can play in conquering bullies, carving out a space for yourself and finding success.  While the book is a little predictable on the surface, older kids will understand that by winning the spelling bee, Samar didn’t just benefit by standing up to the bully, but in proving to herself what she is capable of and ultimately being more confident of her place in a new country.  The book is presented on large 8.5 by 11 full color glossy pages and features discussion questions at the end.

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Samar is in 3rd grade after recently moving to America from Syria, where she was the best student in her class.  ESL wasn’t difficult, but mainstream class is proving to be a challenge, mostly because of Jenna, the class bully.

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Jenna, snickers when it is Samar’s turn to spell words in front of the class, she teased her about her jump rope songs not being in English, and she makes fun of her for her accent.  With the help of a kind friend, Angela, the two girls decide the school spelling bee will be the best chance to prove how smart Samar is, by winning.

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The first step Samar must do is convince her teacher, Ms. Bryan to help her study.  To  show her commitment she offers to give up her recess to study.  The teacher agrees, but on the way home Jenna teases her saying she’ll never win when she can’t even speak English properly.  Deflated, when Samar gets home, she doesn’t study the flashcards and opts to watch cartoons instead.

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When later in the week her teacher quizzes her, Samar admits she didn’t study.  Ms. Bryan encourages her by sharing her own story of coming to America and having to learn English.  When Samar gets home she sees her mother, a former dentist in Syria, studying for the exams to be a dentist in America. This is the spark she needs and she studies hard, everywhere, and with anyone who will help.

On the day of the bee, Samar spells word after words correctly and after saying bismillah before spelling the final word, wins the competition and beats Jenna. The audience cheers and the next day Samar and Angela are jumping rope and Samar is singing in Arabic.

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I love that Samar and her mom wear hijab while out, but not at home, that they speaks Arabic, and Samar says bismillah.   Samar’s mom is clearly highly educated and determined and mom and dad are supportive.  I love that Samar’s drive, however, comes from her own determination, no one forces her or guilts her, it is her leading the way and understanding what her mother is going through and her teacher has gone through, and using that as inspiration.  I love that at the end she doesn’t rub it in Jenna’s face that she won, and the symbolism of Jenna just disappearing from the story makes this clear as Samar steps in to her own.  I truly love that for every Jenna in the wold there is also an Angela.  Be kind, be supportive, be a good friend!

I got this book from http://www.Ruqayasbookshelf.com and it can also be found at my favorite book store http://www.crescentmoonstore.com as well.  Happy Reading!

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.

The Day Saida Arrived by Susana Gómez Redondo illustrated by Sonja Wimmer translated by Lawrence Schimel

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The Day Saida Arrived by Susana Gómez Redondo illustrated by Sonja Wimmer translated by Lawrence Schimel

saidaThis absolutely gorgeous lyrical book will sweep you up and hold you tight as you imagine a world where more people take the time to get to know one another through the power and beauty of language.  Over 32 pages that are exquisitely and whimsically illustrated the words dance and come to life in English and Arabic as a friendship is formed.  Perfect for preschool through 3rd graders, older children and adults alike will be softened by the kindness and example shown between two little girls.

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Told from the perspective of a little girl that meets a new girl in school named Saida and decides right away that they are going to be friends.  Unfortunately Saida speaks only Arabic, and the little girl only English.

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But it is no problem, because the little girl is going to help Saida find her words.  She is going to look everywhere to let her get rid of her tears and throw away her silence.  So that she doesn’t see questions and sadness locked up in her.

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That night at home, the little girl’s parents tell her about Morocco and find it on the globe.  They explain that Saida’s words don’t work here and that her words wouldn’t work in Morocco.

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Undeterred the two girls start teaching each other words in their languages.  Some stick, some float away, but the two learn and communicate and connect. They find friendship in learning each other’s words.

They recite a poem by Jacqueline Woodson and tells stories about Marrakesh. The two girls plan to travel the world together. The book concludes with both alphabets shared and the reader wishing to join the little girls on their adventures.

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I was blown away by the presentation of the book and the feeling of compassion and cultural appreciation depicted.  Such a beautiful approach to welcoming someone different in to your life.

There is nothing Islamic or religious in the book, or really even cultural, aside from language.

Down and Across: A Novel by Arvin Ahmadi

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Down and Across: A Novel by Arvin Ahmadi

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This 320 page book featuring an Iranian American lead written by an Iranian American is a coming of age story written on an AR 5.2 level, that I don’t think most reading this blog would want their child to identify with.  It is an OWN voice book from what I can gather in the author’s interviews online, and sure many Muslims definitely receive the label of “Muslim” more from others than from their own self identity, but I don’t know that many would want their children seeing themselves in the main character who runs away from home, hangs out in bars getting drunk, picks up girls as a challenge, and basically tells one lie after another, especially while being completely endearing and quirky and someone you really find charming.

SYNOPSIS:

Sakeet Ferdowsi aka Scott, is an only child of Iranian immigrants who really love him and want him to do well in life.  The story opens with 16 year old Scott chatting with his dad at McDonalds about his lack of direction, his lack of interest in his summer internship, and his parents leaving him alone for the summer as they journey to Iran.  Sakeet’s dad tells him of a professor at Georgetown University who writes about “grit” and how grit, not wealth or IQ is the greatest predictor of success.  With a track record of not seeing things through, Scott is told he needs to find some grit and some direction in life.  Drawn to this idea, Sakeet lasts a few days at his mouse poop research internship before become obsessed with grit, jumping on a greyhound bus and heading from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. to get help face-to-face with Professor Cecily Mallard.

On the bus, he tries to position his backpack to prevent having a seatmate, but a college girl, calls his bluff and forces him to chat with her.  Fiona is not like most people with her free spirited ways and her love of crossword puzzles, and with her now in his life, Scott’s four week DC adventure is set to be memorable.

While in DC Scott learns a lot about himself from the people he meets, the situations he finds himself in, and in general the freedom from his parents.  He is mistaken as a college student and keeps the ruse running to everyone he meets outside of Fiona, Professor Mallard, and Trent.  Trent saves Scott after he crashes a stolen bike (he didn’t know it was stolen) and is being chased by its owner.  They quickly discover they both know Fiona and the big hearted southern helps Scott get a fake ID to get in to bars, and a job working behind the bar to pay for his time in DC.   Trent dreams about working with his favorite senator, which is a big part of the climax, as is the fact that he has been cut off by his well-to-do family because he is gay.  Throw in an ultra conservative “girlfriend” who Sakeet picks up on a dare at the National Zoo and Sakeet to discover if in fact he has grit.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book reads really easy and smooth, hence the middle grade AR level, but I don’t think any elementary kids should read it, or even middle school for that matter.  As a coming of age book, early high school would probably be the best fit, but with such a focus on drinking and bars, and sex I kind of feel like the rave reviews are coming from adults who find the antics quaint and idyllic as a way for Scott to grow, not as something they would want their own child to identify with.  Online reviews praise the person of color protagonist and the Muslim representation, but really I don’t find either of them overtly influential in the story.  Yes, Scott is straddling two worlds as a child of immigrants and must balance parental expectation with his own mysterious wants (he doesn’t know what he wants), but I don’t know that culture or religion shape him other than his parents not letting him go to overnight camps growing up.

When he is called a terrorist by a drunk guy, or dumped by a girl for being Muslim, he takes it, he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t let it really rile him either.  At one point Scott amends Fiona’s statement of calling him a Muslim.  “‘ish,’ I said.  ‘A long time ago I asked my parents what religion I was, and accepted what they told me.  Haven’t gotten around to reevaluating it or whatever.'”  Other’s call him a Muslim, but I don’t know that he every really says it himself, which ironically I kind of appreciate.  In a few phone conversations with his parents he says “Salam” or “inshaAllah,” but there is no Islamic practice or conscious or even expectation in the book.  I think for readers they will respond to Sakeet and his faith based on where they are in life.  For Muslims, they may find such a careless label frustrating and belittling, or possibly relatable.  Non Muslims may understand Sakeet’s practice means Islamic rules are not followed, and those that do follow them more “extreme.”   Islam is fluid and we are all flawed, so I don’t expect a fictional or real character to be perfect, I’m just pointing out what my concerns would be to have this book in an Islamic school library.  As a reader, I appreciated that the author had the character articulate that he is Muslim-ish only, and have other people call him Muslim and have him not constantly use his faith and culture to set himself apart.  He is fallible and growing and he has a lot of parts to his persona not just these markers.  Incidentally the parts he is exploring and questioning and learning about himself as he looks to his future don’t involve Persian culture or Islam.

FLAGS:

Alcohol, getting drunk and hungover, cursing, some violence, theft, nudity, kissing, talk of sex, sexting, talk of making out, a gay character, lying, drug addiction, getting high.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection because of the themes and inconsistency of values, also because of the inconsistency of topics and writing style.

Author’s website: https://www.arvinahmadi.com/

Interviews with author:

https://mashable.com/article/mashreads-podcast-down-and-across-arvin-Ahmadi/

https://ew.com/books/2017/08/03/the-hate-u-give-author-angie-thomas-interviews-arvin-ahmadi/

https://www.npr.org/2018/01/27/580837850/a-puzzled-teen-seeks-answers-and-finds-crosswords-in-down-and-across