Tag Archives: India

A Sari for Ammi by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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A Sari for Ammi by Mamta Nainy illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat

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This book combines knowledge with a sweet story and a spunky narrator.  Over 32 brightly illustrated pages the reader learns about the art of dyeing yarn, weaving, and the tradition of weaving saris in India moving from Mysore to Kaithoon in Kota.  The little girl loves it all, helping her father dye the threads, and watching her mother work the loom.  It often takes a month to make a sari, and her mother makes beautiful saris, but she never wears them.  With the help of her older sister Sadaf, the little girl hopes to earn enough money to gift her mother a beautiful sari to wear.  It will take a lot of work, some community help, and some sacrifice, but Ammi is worth it and the girls are up for the challenge.  Preschool to early elementary readers will enjoy learning about the daily life of these amazing Indian Muslim artisans and a craft that they perhaps were not aware existed.

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The buffalo are sleeping, but in the afternoon Abba is busy dyeing threads, and mama is weaving colors into prints of mangoes, peacocks, birds, leaves, and flowers.  The whole family helps.  Abba goes to the haat to sell the completed saris.  Sometimes Mama goes as well, but she doesn’t wear the saris, she wears worn-out salwar-kameezes.

One day, when Ammi finishes a particularly beautiful sari the little girl asks her to keep it, but her Ammi says, “If we keep the saris, how will we eat?”  The little girl doesn’t understand, they don’t eat saris.

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Sadaf explains to her little sister that the only way their Ammi will wear a sari is if they buy her one.  So the little girl breaks her bank apart to count the money she has and convinces Sadaf that the things they wanted with the money are nothing compared to how much they want something for their mother.

But Sadaf says they only have enough money for a towel, not a sari, so the girls gather some items to sell to the junk man.  They have enough to buy Ammi a duputta, but still not a sari.

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They wander home through the wheat field trying to come up with other money raising ideas.  The wheat remind the little girl of worshippers on Eid day- all praying together at the mosque.  The little girl remembers that sometimes their neighbor Amina Khala purchases dyed threads from them and they rush over to see if she has any work for them.  Luckily she does, and they have just enough to buy a sari for Ammi and be rewarded with a smile and tears from their beloved and talented mother.

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The book has an information page at the end about The Saris of Kaithoon, as well as a glossary.  The story ends a bit abruptly, but the teardrop in the illustrations, the hugging, and the smile, do provide a universal relatability to parents everywhere when their children gift them something so genuinely from the heart.  The illustrations also show women with their heads covered going about their daily life.

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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House of Glass Hearts by Leila Siddiqui

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This 278 page magical realism YA book featuring a Muslim family grabs your attention and heart in the prologue, unfortunately it quickly releases it, and until you get over a third of the way in to the story, it is a struggle to read.  Once you accept that half of the book, the storyline set in the present, is going to be terrible, you enjoy the historical narrative and appreciate that the short book with a quick pace spends more time in the subcontinent during partition, than it does with the painfully underdeveloped characters trying to make sense of past secrets and their present day manifestations.  The book doesn’t have any major flags in terms of religious representation, it is just ritual acts of praying and reading Quran, nothing detailed or explored, and relationship-wise there is nothing high school readers can’t handle (spoilers and more details can be read in the FLAGS section).  Despite being a first time author, she works as an editor, so one would really expect the climax to hit harder with clearer writing, the characters to be developed, the details written to serve a purpose, and the protagonist teen’s voice not to read overwhelmingly at the beginning as a five year old.  The overall story concept and historical fiction component are exciting, the development of the characters just really failed an otherwise engaging read. 

SYNOPSIS:

Maera’s brother Asad goes missing in 2011 from their grandfather’s home in Pakistan while they are visiting.  They search and cannot locate him or a body, the loss devastates Maera’s family.  Ten years later, her grandfather passes away, and the next morning a greenhouse appears in their backyard in America.  Not just any greenhouse, her grandfather’s greenhouse from Pakistan.  Maera thinks she is going crazy, her mother doesn’t acknowledge the structure, she doesn’t acknowledge much, not about the reality in front of them, not the night Asad disappeared, or the needs of her daughter. Maera’s aunt (mom’s twin) and cousin come from Pakistan to mourn the loss of the grandfather together, he passed in Pakistan, not sure why Maera and her mom didn’t go there, but I digress.  Cousins Jamal, aka Jimmy, and Maera are the only two that seems determined to figure it all out.  Their grandfather’s journal turns up and with Maera’s friend Sara and Rob, the neighbor and former best friend of Asad, the four of them set out to understand what is going on in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse seems to be alive, and entering it dependent on the whims of something within, a churail,  a shape shifting creature of myth that is more than a witch, a succubus that targets men.  A woman who died violently and was wronged by men, whose feet are turned backward, and who is neither alive or dead.  As the four work through the journal, venture in to the greenhouse, and confront those within, secrets will be unearthed, exposed, and finally dealt with.

The historical interwoven story is that of the grandfather during colonial British rule and partition.  As a young boy Haroon is searching for his father fighting in Burma and the adventures he has along the way. Shah Jehan’s father takes Haroon in at one point, and the girl with an emperor’s name sneaks him out to watch the village deal with the churail who are killing the men in their village.  The incident scars Haroon, but his affection for Shah Jehan and the role she will continue to have in his life is established. The understanding that the subcontinent is being carved up and starved by the colonizers in the name of freedom is made clear in the characters that Haroon encounters and the quickly maturing boy grows in to a young man as he starts to understand the world around him and the larger powers at play.  When the migration and violence between Hindus getting to India and Muslims going to Pakistan occurs, the pieces in the past and present come together to reveal the terrors that the greenhouse houses. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I loved the commentary both in the text, and explicitly detailed in the afterward about how culturally the past is handled.  How little generations discuss what they have endured and been through.  I have been asked by my father-in-law a few times to try and coax my mother-in-law to detail her journey with their oldest son from India to Pakistan.  She has apparently never clearly told what happened, what she saw, and what they experienced.  She waves it off now, but her own children didn’t even know there was more to the story, and as my inlaws approach their 90s I have little hope of them recalling or sharing their stories.  Recently my son needed to hear some first person accounts of war, so he contacted my American grandfather to learn about his time in the Korean War, much of it I knew, Americans, generally speaking, talk about this type of experience in passing.  My son, also wanted to compare his story to someone who lived as a civilian through a war, and asked my mother-in-law, his Dadi, about her experience living through the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, not that long ago, and we all sat spellbound as she recalled the sirens and how they kept the children fed and calm and whatnot.  They were stories no one had thought to ask it seemed.  She has seven children and almost thirty grandchildren.  This book struck such a chord with me, I need to actively seek out these stories before it is too late.   Chances are no one else in the family will. Not speaking the language fluently has cost me my chance to learn my own father’s family’s stories and I need to find a way to gather my husband’s family’s stories before it is too late. I love that in the book, The Past is capitalized as if it is a named living person shaping the lives of so many.  It is, and these stories are wonderful reminders and motivators to ask the elders to share their memories.

The present day story thread, however, is chalked full of holes, one dimensional characters, and pointless tangents.  Sara and Maera read like they are early elementary aged.  They are so terribly voiced in the beginning, I have no idea, how an editor author and mainstream publisher did not require correction.  The dialogue, the action, the role of the parents, it is terrible.  Speaking of terrible, the mother and aunt are absolutely flat and useless.  They mope, sleep and sit in the corner.  I don’t understand why you wouldn’t develop them to link the past story to the present one.  I’m not being picky here, it is that bad.  I also wanted to know why the dad left.  Seems like it would flesh out the mom a bit, justify her approach to life.  Sara and Rob are obviously brought in to serve as vessels for the action, and for Maera and possibly Jimmy to play off of.  But their backstories are so pathetic.  How do you not know or see your neighbor for ten years.  Ok, I get that he was Asad’s best friend and your family in their grief and denial pushed him away, but he never checked the mail or took out the trash, or was seen? And Sara offers absolutely nothing to the story other than to be part of the forced crush/romance line pairing off her and Jimmy and Rob and Maera.  Alhumdulillah, it stays tame with the angsty longing and hand holding.  

Random details that serve no purpose reach a pinnacle with the paragraph long time spent on Maera wearing Rob’s tank top.   I have no idea why we should care that she is wearing a tank top.  Sure as a Muslim reviewer it furthered the notion to me, that she is probably more culturally religious, and yes I know Muslim’s dress to different degrees of modesty, but I really couldn’t find any other reason for the emphasis on the black tank top. Overall, all the friendships in the story seem so off: Rob and Asad, and Sara and Maera.  They should be easy plot points, but they don’t connect, or read believable.  

Plot wise: if you had a building magically appear in your back yard along with a journal, would you not read that journal as fast as possible? Sure you would lose sleep and maybe skip a meal or two, but hello, a building just appeared in your back yard that is moving and growing, your grandfather died and your brother’s body was never found: stop what you are doing and read the journal.  It mentions that when Asad went missing there were a lot of other kids, cousins at the house, so where are they now? Why was there no mention of them, and only Jimmy seems to have a vested interest in the grandfather passing, and the growing need to remember Asad.  I did not understand the sacrifice and hair connection and how that was what Maera understand the Churail to be asking for.  I did not understand the end of chapter entitled “The Separation,” it says they entered together, so…. ya?Off and on in the greenhouse there are multiple churail, this seems inconsistent with what we learn from the one churail about leaving.  The whole climax needs a Cliff’s Notes synopsis.  I honestly have no idea what happened.  The churail was scared of the beast, but they all went off together, affectionately? I’m trying not spoil anything here.  Why was the churail so different at the beginning compared to the end, why did she get a growth arc, when the other characters didn’t? Shouldn’t there have been some cathartic reprieve verbalized between the mom and SPOILER (sorry I tried) Asad? I felt deprived.  

There were a few grammar errors, but because I read an ARC, I’m hoping they have been corrected

FLAGS:

There is a little bit of language (F word at least once).  Children are conceived, it isn’t explicit, but the fact that it happened is critical to the story.  There are crushes, angsty/longing, hand holding, hugging.  There is sexual assault implied as a major plot point, but not detailed.  There is death, and killing, often gruesome, some real, (hits harder), some far fetched.  The book is YA and  ok for high school readers and up in my opinion.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would be interested in seeing if some of the muddled passages are cleaned up in the published physical copy, the book’s characters are weak, but the historical fiction component is a story that needs to be shared more and more as we, collectively, seek to understand the past, the impact of colonization, and the emergence of telling our OWN voice stories.  For all the flaws, I haven’t completely written off the book, I’m hopeful that even if this one doesn’t make the cut for a book club, that inshaAllah the author will keep writing and filling in the blanks.

Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Make sure you are sitting in a comfy spot when you crack open this middle grades fantasy adventure, because it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn’t let up over 368 pages.  The like-able and relatable brother sister duo snarkily banter and bicker about everything from cultural Indian (Desi) folklore, religious stories, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, He-Man, Arabic Sesame Street, Star Wars, hygiene, fears, potential science fair projects, and food, all while battling jinn, devs, peris, and reality as they work to save the worlds.  The book is chalked full of STEM concepts, cultural touchstone, Islamic footholds, pop culture, and fun, as one character remarks, it is the ultimate fan fiction. I regularly Googled people, references, and concepts, and ended up learning quite a bit.  And don’t fret if you ever get lost or confused, or something doesn’t make sense, you don’t have to worry that you missed something or that the author left a gap in the narrative, the book moves quick and Amira’s constant dialogue and commentary points out all the ridiculousness of what they are experiencing and the questions that she wishes she had time to ask, explore, and discover.  The author never loses control of the narrative, and keeps the world building on level without skimping on details and understanding.  I have not loved any of the author’s previous books in their entirety, I think this one, however, is her best one yet, and the switch to middle grades is a good fit.  

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Amira and her 10-year-old brother Hamza are heading to the Shriner’s Madinah Temple in their hometown of Chicago to explore the exhibit of Ancient Astronomy artifacts, or as Hamza calls it “tools that belonged to dead Muslim Astrologers.”  Hosted by the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy corresponds with the eclipse viewing party of the incredibly rare super blood blue moon.  In typical Hamza fashion however, a Nerf gun is brought and things are touched.  When Amira is tasked with bringing her brother up to the roof to learn how to use the telescopes, the two scuffle over a small box with a tiny moon inside, a series of snatching and tussling between the siblings cause the Box of the Moon to break, or rather start working.  As day turns to night, the moon seems to be breaking a part, and everyone in the world is suspended in sleep except for Amira and Hamza, and an entire jinn army is heading their way.

When jinn leaders Abdul Rahman and Maqbool reach the children they must convince them that they are not there to harm them, but rather to recruit them as the chosen ones to save the worlds: Qaf and Earth and the barrier, the moon, that keeps the realms separate from destruction at the hands of Ifrit.  The confusion over there being two of them creeps up, but is squashed as Suleiman the Wise left tests to prove that the chosen one is properly equipped to battle Iftrit as it has been prophesized.  The children must work together to prove themselves they must then actually seek out and defeat Ifrit.  As tests and challenges arise, it becomes clear (pun intended) that the two are not the chosen ones, but with no option of turning back they must forge ahead none-the-less.

“What? We’re Indian, dude, we were basically born half doctor.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Amira and Hamza’s banter.  The references are at times laugh out loud funny.  Similarly, I was impressed by all the historical and STEM concepts intertwined in the story, there is even a tiny bit about mental health.  I learned about parts of the moon, historical figures, folklore, and more.  The characters are Muslim, Amira wears Ayatul Kursi around her neck and they talk of Sunday school.  The book isn’t religious though, in they aren’t saying Bismillah before they embark on things, or supplicating when in danger, but they greet different beings with peace, and the framing is clearly from an Islamic paradigm.  I think the high speed pacing works for most of the book, and somehow you still get to know and connect with the characters, but at times a slight pause to clarify a point would have been nice.  I would have liked to have the kids proving they were the chosen ones a bit more articulate and dramatic before hand rather than in retrospect.  I feel like the jinn transportation of cauldrons could have used a bit of backstory as well.  And a little fleshing out of the scroll, the government structure and communication methods of Qaf, would have helped some of the transitions between the action.  I read a digital ARC and it had a page reserved for a map, and I think when the physical book comes out that will be really helpful, as I didn’t quite fully understand the 18 realms and their locations  in comparison to the locations the children encounter.  

FLAGS:

UPDATE:  I TOOK THIS BOOK AS COMPLETE FICTION. THAT THE ISLAMIC PREMISE WAS A STARTING OFF POINT, AND DIDN’T DWELL TOO MUCH ON THE ACCURACY.  I READ AN ADVANCED READER COPY OF THE BOOK THAT DID NOT HAVE ALL THE SUPPLEMENTAL AUTHOR’S NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END.  I WAS UNAWARE THAT THE AUTHOR FELT SHE WAS INCOPERATING FACT AND ACCURACY IN THIS INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED BOOK. AND AS A RESULT I AM NERVOUS TO SUGGEST THIS BOOK TO THE MIDDLE GRADE INTENDED AUDIENCE.  IF YOU HAVE A MUSLIM CHILD THAT IS WELL VERSED ON PROPHET SULAIMAN, THE CONCEPT OF FICTION, AND IS OLDER THAN THE IMPRESSIONABLE EIGHT OR NINE YEAR OLD INTENDED AUDIENCE, ONLY THEN PERHAPS WOULD THIS BOOK WORK FOR YOU.  IT WOULD BE VERY MISLEADING IF YOUR CHILD TAKES THE TWISTED STORY AS FACTUAL AND BASED ON THE NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END, THIS VERY WELL COULD HAPPEN. To read more about the concerns you can click here and head over to Muslim Mommy Blogs take on the book.

There is magic and magical beings. A transgendered jinn.  It mentions Amira and Hamza celebrating Halloween. Death and fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great audio book to listen to with the family or a read aloud in a middle grades classroom.  It is too young for middle school readers to not find it slightly predictable, but if you had it on a classroom or home shelf I am sure it would be picked up, read, enjoyed by middle grades and middle schoolers alike.  It reads much like the Rick Riordan Presents series and I hope that there are more books featuring Amira and Hamza in the future.

 

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.

Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin

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.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

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Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

mad bad

I really should give up reading Samira Ahmed books.  This is the third one I’ve read, and while she is definitely getting better, I still don’t know why her editors don’t fix her flat notes.  Like in Internment, the premise in this book is amazing, but other parts are just cringe-y and painful and really, really unnecessary.  My guess is, she would identify herself as a romance YA author, and yet consistently in her works, that is the most lacking part: the character building and forced romances.  The art history mystery, the inspiration and “real” life of the characters from the past, the setting of Paris in the summer, the fight for woman to be heard are all so well done and compelling and interesting that this romp that blurs fact and fiction might deserve a read, but you have to overlook the forced love triangle, excessive kissing, be willing to suspend reality regarding Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron, artifacts and sleuthing, but if you can do all that, this 337 page book for 9th grade and up, is definitely fun and hard to put down.

SYNOPSIS:
The protagonist is 17-year-old French-Indian-Muslim-American Khayyam, who is spending her summer in Paris with her professor parents like they do every year.  But this year is different as she is being ghosted by her boyfriend Zaid back in Chicago and has just been humiliated by her poor research attempts to link a missing painting from artist Delacroix to author Dumas in an entrance essay competition to her dream school.  Khayyam’s story is really just beginning though as she steps in dog crap and bumps into a descendent of Alexandre Dumas as she wipes it off.  A cute descendant, who shares the name with his distant grandfather, and viola’ the two of them are off on a whirlwind adventure of clues and attraction and mystery solving.

Khayyam’s story is interwoven and told between small glimpses of Leila’s story.  Leila is a Haseki, a chosen concubine of the Pasha in Ottoman Turkey, but the lover of Giaour and friend of the jin.  As we learn her story from 200 years earlier and her struggle to break free of her gilded cage in the harem, only to be defined by the artist and poets and author men around her, her story and Khayyams collide.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I know precious little of art history, I can name drop a few artists and paintings, but that is being generous, so the fact that I have no clue what is real and what is fake and what is possible, made this story all the more fun and engaging.  Yes, I researched, aka Googled, stuff as I read and am perfectly content to accept the fictional what ifs that the book offers.  I love how the art world and literary world are one in the book and that they inspired each other. The way the sleuthing, the finding of artifacts, and unraveling of it all is presented is indeed a romp.  Realistic? Not a chance, but fun.  I also love how both Khayyam and Leila had to define themselves and ultimately not do it in the reflection of a male.

The rest of the book, is a bit of a stretch.  Leila’s story naturally has holes in it as it is told in broken pieces, but Khayyam’s story does too.  I just didn’t care about her past boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/friend, whatever Zaid is or was, and clearly after moping about him for 300 pages and then not even giving him a proper goodbye, means that the author and character didn’t really care either, which made the already forced, cringe-y annoyingness all the more grating.  As for the relationship, the other piece in the triangle, with Alexandre, was fine in that there was angst, but they put it aside to solve the mystery, so it didn’t bother me too much.  Of course the fact that Khayyam is a practicing Muslim who seems to have no problems with boyfriends, and making out and that her parents don’t mind either, makes the faith aspect all the more befuddling.  I guess practicing might be a stretch, her mom and her go to Jummah prayer on Friday, thats about the extent, and she mentions she doesn’t drink.  Zaid, sets up a tutoring program at the masjid, but his instagram has him hanging all over girls too, so not sure why the characters are even Muslim.  I suppose it is good to have that diverse representation, but it doesn’t seem to make much necessary sense to the overall story.

FLAGS:

Implied concubine activities, with the Pasha and the lover.   Lots and lots and lots of kissing, nothing graphic, but annoying amounts of it being mentioned.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want someone to discuss it with me and point out where the facts end and the speculation starts and when the full on fiction takes over.  I don’t think I could use this book as a book club book because of the center stage of the haram romances in both Khayyam’s time and Leila’s.  But if you have read it, talk to me about it, I’m curious!

NPR’s Review: https://www.npr.org/2020/04/11/831873365/in-mad-bad-dangerous-romantic-sleuths-uncover-a-byronic-secret

 

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

neither this nor that

This 251 page novel reads like a biography that has no climax or real conflict in its linear retelling of the protagonist from 3rd grade to a junior in college.  If you are part or all Desi, raised in America in the ’80s and ’90s and have fond memories of NBC’s Must See TV, rolling your pants up, your family packing Corning Ware sets to take to the homeland, and the joys of TJ Maxx, you might enjoy the nostalgic similarities you too experienced, but even at that, with no plot or character arcs, the book is easily forgettable and you might forget to finish it.  For all my critiques of Muslim stories that don’t read authentic, this one definitely does, she doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t ever go against Islam, but because she is similarly not ever tempted to, I think most readers won’t relate to this fictional girl, who’s biggest worry is smelling like her mother’s cooking.  The book seems to just want to tell her life story, and getting through it is the point of the book, not making emotional connections, giving the reader something to think about or even inspiring others, which is ultimately a missed opportunity that this book could and should have capitalized on.

SYNOPSIS:

It is the first day of school for Fatima Husein the eldest of many daughters in her Indian American suburban home.  With a mother who doesn’t speak much English and parents that don’t seem to understand Fatima’s desire to fit in, the stage is set that will carry through the entire book of Fatima loving to study and separating herself as the girl at school pretending to be more American than she really is, and the girl at home pretending to be more Indian than she feels.  As the book follows the character through college, along the way Fatima and her family have extended maternal family move to America from India and then move back, they take a trip to India which is not enjoyed at all, her dad’s family then moves from India and settles near them, they move to be closer to the masjid, and they go for Hajj.  Characters bounce in and out: school friends, community friends, cousins, etc.. The only real constant is Fatima’s love of school and her paternal grandmother grumbling about her getting married. There are the ups and downs of life that are shared, most very specific to a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) living in the ’90s.  Fatima is religious and Islam is important to her and she never waivers in her black and white view of things.  It does take her a little while to wear hijab, but there is no real self reflection and catharsis, it is just states she wants to fit in and isn’t ready.  The conclusion is she finally accepts a proposal from the son of an old family friend who lives in Chicago.  Not so much because she likes him, but more because she has no reason not to say yes and her parents are in favor it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

If this were a biography and it was someone famous, the minutia of day to day living might be compelling, but as it is fiction and you have no idea where the story is going, it just seems to tell a story about a typical girl doing typical things.  It has value in that it shows how normal and boring even, a normal Muslim family is, but it gets really preachy at times and really dry.  None of the side characters are memorable.  I have no idea how many sisters Fatima has, when her grandfather passed away I felt nothing, when two who families died in a car accident Eid morning on their way to prayers, I had to flip back to see if the characters had ever been mentioned before.  It seems like the whole point is to get to the end, and more heart and less tedium would have made this book an amazing example of American Muslims in America.  The first page mentions friends and there is no follow up to where they are or what happened to them, and this happens all through out the book, there are no emotional connections, nor attachments among the characters to include the reader into their plight as well.  The protagonist one must assume gains her voice from the author’s experiences herself, but it just lacks internal dialogue and conviction.

Fatima lives through the Gulf War and makes big changes and has to find her place, yet the book just tells us all this, it doesn’t show us how she internalizes and processes and emerges from the experiences shared, it just gives an example and then comments on it.  The font and layout visually looks like a text book, and at times, the internal structure reads like an essay, sharing an anecdote, backing it up, and moving on to the next event on the time line.

I feel like I know the character, it definitely comes from a place of shared experience and credibility, but you have no idea where it is going, and just like I doubt anyone would want to read my life story, the book needs a little direction and editing.  In the author interview posted below in the “Tools to Lead the Discussion” she mentions that mainstream publishers wanted more rebelling and she wouldn’t compromise.  I agree with her, we need books that don’t follow that assumed track, I think that the presentation of the story, however, as it is, is lacking.  The integrity is there, but the character is really flat, and there are plenty of literary tools that could enhance the story without compromising Fatima’s character to drugs and alcohol and boys.  The book was self published in 2010 and I really hope at some point the author will re-edit it, to make it relevant to preteens and teens today and more personable.  Ultimately making it so that the successes Fatima has are cheered on by the reader, who are also inspired by her accomplishments while staying true to her beliefs.

FLAGS:

Considering how many pages are dedicated to how she and her sister are to behave in India as to not seem naughty or as arrogant Americans, the curse words flow pretty regularly in the book, and the way she speaks to her elders and in front of her elders is not always kind.  There are side comments about hooking up, STDs, and drinking, nothing any of the characters engage in, but judgments regarding these topics for those that do is present. She also talks about her mom’s failure to discuss menstruation before hand, to exemplify how things are only discussed once they need to be dealt with.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that as a book club selection today’s youth would voluntarily pick up and read this book.  There might be some ability for a teacher to assign it and then turn around and make the students write something similar about their experiences in a fictionalized form.  I think students would struggle to relate to Fatima with the outdated references and the lack of conflicts and climaxes in the narrative.

 

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

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The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

night diary

I was curious to see how partition would be presented in this book by an Indian Hindu author featuring characters who are half Hindu and half Muslim relocating to Hindu India.  Told in journal entries written by 12 year old Nisha to her deceased Muslim mother, the 264 page AR 4.5 book is wonderfully done, extremely compelling, and about so much more than the politics that birthed India and Pakistan.

SYNOPSIS:

Nisha and her twin brother Amil are opposites, yet they complete each other and care for each other in such a tangible and heart swelling way, that you can’t cheer for one while not rooting for the other one to find success and their place in the world as well.  As the twins turn 12 and Nisha is gifted with a journal from the families beloved cook Kazi, India and Pakistan too are about to come to fruition and Nisha’s journal entries detail her understanding of the larger events around her as well as her own struggles to come in to her own.

For Nisha words do not come easily.  She excels at school and loves to cook, but talking to people, or making friends eludes her and her longing for her deceased mother, make her a quiet reflective child.   She observes and  takes in so much around her, internalizes it, ruminates on it, and pieces it back together in a gifted way when she writes, that reading her entries, and the voice the author creates for her, is really amazing and fluid.  You feel like you really know Nisha and what makes her tick, what she fears, and how she thinks, you also get emotional attached to her and her world and find yourself surprised at how invested you are in not only her family’s successful migration across the new border, but also in her finding her voice and the confidence to use it.

Amil’s voice comes through Nisha, but her love for him and the way his strengths are her weaknesses and vice versa allows insight into the other family dynamics and attitudes to the two children.  Amil is an amazing artist, that suffers from dyslexia and does poorly in school.  He is weak and wiry, but fast, and he can talk and charm and ask all the questions that Nisha wants asked but can’t find the words for.  He and their physician father are rarely on good terms, as he isn’t the ideal strong boy with a medical degree in his future.

When it is decided that the family must leave their city where Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs live together and journey into Hindu India, the twins, their father, and their father’s mother, Dadi, must rely on each other to survive the riots and violence of the mass migration.  Nisha must also survive the understanding that with a Hindu father and Muslim mother there is so much about her own place in the world she doesn’t understand, and thus the journey is both an internal and external one, that will change Nisha forever.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the protagonists voice is so steady and believable.  I truly fell in love with Nisha and felt her pain, happiness, anguish and overall got emotional for her, it was a rollercoaster.  The author does an amazing job of painting the politics of Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten in broad strokes, but believable ones to the understanding of a 12 year old.  She sees that one India held people of all faiths and that this breaking up of everything is leading to violence, upheaval, and horrors previously unimaginable.  She doesn’t understand why people had issues with her mother being of one faith and her father another, she loves her Muslim cook and loves listening to him pray five times a day as her paternal grandmother sings Hindu prayers in the other room.  She is both Hindu and Muslim and doesn’t see the contradiction within herself, suspending the reader’s own opinions on partition (if they have them), because how she sees it, does make sense for the story’s narrative.  The author takes Gandhi’s side of non violence and staying together, but balances very well and very intentionally that atrocities and humanity was seen from people of various faiths and political persuasions.  The role of British colonization and freedom from it, is slightly glossed over to the point of disservice, but again, being the target age of the reader and the age of the characters, I’m willing to over look it.  Families with Indian and Pakistani heritage will want to take the lacking information and help their children to fill in the blanks.

I love that the backdrop is the action of the story, but the relationship between the characters is truly the heart.  A lot of growth and compassion is conveyed very succinctly and powerfully.  Nisha wants so desperately to speak, but can’t, and her internal struggle and the pain she feels when she can’t speak up to help and participate in the world around her is gut wrenching.  As she confides in her diary, you realize that kids understand so much more than we adults often give them credit for.  The lesson is not lost on me.  I initially thought a book steeped in subcontinent history, with religious conflict and foreign words, wouldn’t appeal to a western elementary aged readers, after reading it, however, I now think this heartwarming story should be thrust upon them all.

FLAGS:

There is violence and death.  Not sensationalized, but detailed enough to set the tone of how serious the journeys were between the two countries when British rule stopped  There is some bullying and mention of the father smoking socially with friends.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is an Author’s Note, and a glossary at the back, and the inside covers have maps showing the journey the characters take.  I would absolutely do this as a Book Club selection for upper elementary, and will consider it even for middle school.  A lot of tools for teaching the book are available online, here are just a few:

Educator’s Guide: https://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/The-Night-Diary_Educator-GuideWEB.pdf

Children’s Discussion Questions: https://www.readbrightly.com/brightlys-book-club-for-kids-the-night-diary/

Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2018/06/the-night-diary/

 

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

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Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin

ayesha at last.jpg

This is not a YA book.  The back of the book and about 75% of the story could really make it seem ok for mature middle school and early high school readers, but I’m reviewing it as a “public service announcement,” that it really isn’t appropriate for a young adult demographic.  No where does the book claim to be YA, I’ve just seen a lot of people online ask if their 13-16 year old (ish) daughters would like it.  That being said, the 351 pages of halal romantic comedy a’ la Pride and Prejudice inspiration, really is a fun light summer read that I enjoyed and feel young college age girls and up will too.

SYNOPSIS:

Set in Canada, Ayesha is 27 and still sorting out what she wants in life while considering expectation, obligation, and passion.  Born in India, she came to Canada after her father died in secretive circumstances, and with a workaholic mom against marriage, a Nani who once studied to be a police officer, a Nana who quotes Shakespeare at all times, Clara, a best friend, and a flighty beautiful younger richer cousin, this cast of characters cheer her on, gently nudge her, and support her, giving a diverse and nuanced view of what a Muslim family looks like and how they interact.  Then throw in Khalid.  A very black and white character in his views on Islam, and culture and pretty much everything, and you have a storyline with a lot of potential, twists, and interconnections.  

Khalid works with Clara, lives across the street from Ayesha, and has an incredibly controlling mom who has just sent a marriage proposal to Ayesha’s flighty cousin Hafsa.  When a conference at the masjid forces Ayesha and Khalid to work together after meeting earlier, tension and sparks fly, and to top it all off Ayesha is pretending to be Hafsa. 

Khalid has his own team of supporting characters, Amir an alcoholic- womanizing-homeless colleague who for some reason is considered a friend, a sister who was banished to India and forced into an arranged marriage 12 years earlier, an Islamaphobe boss, and his own baggage regarding his father’s sudden death. 

Bring in the Wickham character of Tarek and the cast of characters is complete for all the action to go down at the mosque and give the Aunty Brigade a whole lot of gossip to process and spread.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is fairly predictable in the major story arcs, but there are a lot of twists that keep you hooked, and the author’s writing is smooth and fluid.  Being it is a loose retelling of a classic, I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised how well the story would stand alone as an OWN voice piece about growing, maturing, changing and willing to challenge oneself. 

I love that every Muslim and desi character in the book is different and unique and not a cookie cutter of stereotypes and tropes.  Most of the females cover, but they are nuanced in how they do it, what it means, how they carry themselves etc., some shake hands with males some don’t, some are comfortable in bars, some are more reserved, some have never had a boyfriend, some have, and they really show the reader that Islam is a deeply personal conviction and the rules are interpreted and challenged differently for each person.  It also shows different male approaches and the internal struggles of doing what you want to do and what you know you should or shouldn’t do in a very realistic non preachy way.

My favorite relationship by far is that of Ayesha and Clara, I love that Ayesha’s non Muslim friend knows that Khadijah (RA) proposed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and jokes about rishtas and frequently asks “What would Nana do.”  Seriously, as someone of  Paki background, who started covering in high school, who is half American and proud to be Muslim, this is friendship goals!

The book is perfect for the beach, or a day at the pool, it is light and silly and really you just go with the outrageousness of some of the details.  There are a few thought provoking themes, but really it is just fun and sweet.

FLAGS:

I was really impressed how halal the main story romance remained, however a few of the side stories are a little intense for younger readers and don’t really appear until about 2/3rds of the way into the book.  Yes, Clara has a live in boyfriend and there are a few jokes and situations involving  hooking up, virginity and porn, along with some characters smoking and drinking and being around alcohol, but then the climax really puts more mature situations on center stage. 

Khalid’s sister had an abortion resulting from a pre-marriage relationship and thus was sent to India.  Amir shows Khalid a porn website where hijabi and niqabis strip and pose, a website that is discovered Tarek runs and Hafsa is featured on. The website and the pregnancy/abortion really are the crux of the book and it becomes a big portion of the last third of the book.  It isn’t that the content is overly detailed, it just what the concept presents.  It isn’t salacious or pornographic or titillating in presenting the information to the reader, but the mere presence of it in the story would make it inappropriate for a YA book or younger readers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way the book could be taught in an Islamic school book club setting, however, if the teachers wanted to start a book club, this one would be a great candidate.