Tag Archives: islamic school

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.

You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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You Must Be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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This OWN story, upper middle grades book, is heavy on the pop culture, relatable on the Islamic family presentation and honest in its portrayal of Islamaphobia, yet somehow the tidiness in which everything wrapped up seemed too forced and a bit flat.  At 293 pages, including a three page glossary, the book is a quick read meant mainly for girls.  It involves robotics, academic achievement, and invention, while also discussing crushes, a character coming out to his family and friends, and mention of girls not praying at certain times of the month.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla lives in Australia and goes to the Islamic School of Brisbane. Her Sudanese family: older brother, younger twin brothers, and parents, her Doctor mom and medical machine tech dad, are active Muslims and proud of their culture.  They assimilate to Australian norms in varying degrees, but with all the kids at ISB, Layla doesn’t feel all that different in her school and social life.  Unfortunately she wants more, she wants to be an adventurer, and when she meets Adam over the break and learns about the various opportunities he has it his school, Layla decides she wants to prove herself on a larger stage.  Going in to “shut down” mode Layla has tunnel vision to ace the scholarship and entrance exam and go to a new school.

She gets in to Mary Maxmillion Grammar School and when she goes to meet the board they let her know that the decision to accept a girl like her was not unanimous.  Layla is an immigrant, she is black, she wears hijab, she is loud and proud, and apparently very smart, but as one trustee asks, is she brave?  On the first day of school she arrives late to first period, insults the teacher repeatedly and also makes friends with a group of slightly diverse boys.  At the end of the day however, Peter, a boy who had insulted her earlier, reinforces his disapproval of her being allowed at their school and pushes her.  Standing her ground, she verbal attacks and then head butts the boy in front of a large portion of the school at dismissal.  No one offers any help, nor speaks up when she is suspended for a week, her scholarship and admission put on probation, no one even asks for her side of the story, Peter, is let off completely free, as he is also the son of the Board Chairman.

Layla decides to prove she belongs at the school she is going to win a prestigious robotics competition and since everyone already is on a team, she decides to go for it solo.  The only problem, is she doesn’t know what to invent.  When she returns to school, her friend that she is crushing hard on is acting weird, and she gets caught up in a lie of sorts that serves as both the idea and silliness turned cleverness of the book.  While choking on gummy worms, she says she is working on an edible actuator for her robot, and somehow has to make that come to fruition.

The rest of the book is Layla making a lot of silly errors of judgement: missing classes being in SD mode in the workshop, forgetting to file the paperwork and registration to actually compete in the competition, and leads up to the resolution between her and Peter, learning her crush is gay, and deciding to be herself and proud of it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually like the majority of the book, I really like how Islam is presented and lived.  They pray and say salam and cover, and recite tasbeeha to reflect, and quote hadith very naturally, even how others attack them, and the anger that Layla’s brother Ozzie feels at his inability to get a part time job reads and feels very authentic.  I also like how one of the teacher’s own experience as being a descendant of the forgotten generation and being a first nations ethnicity is woven in.  I felt the side character being gay was added and forced in as an after thought and I don’t know why, as it didn’t show Layla to be a particularly good friend.  She handled his coming out well, but when he was miserable she was wrapped up in her own stuff and didn’t reach out very well, even though he ended up being the spark for her invention.  Her friend at ISB is also an under developed character, that while I get is used to show another side of Layla, in many ways also showed her to be a rather poor friend.

I found the pop culture references annoying, not in and of themselves, but in knowing that they will date and make the book irrelevant in a few short years.  There is a lot of repetition of phrases and ideas that a few times when I put the book down I struggled to re-find my place (I know bookmarks, right?) but certain refrains and paragraphs seem so very similar.  I

There is a lot of good information about Sudan and their food and culture and traditions.  There is also a decent amount about Muslims in Australia.  I like that even within her family there are different views on how much to assimilate, and how much to fight back against perceptions, the fact that there is a lot of gray makes non Muslims and non immigrants reading the book hopefully realize how diverse all people are and to not assume anyone is only one way.  I would have liked more about Layla’s mom and being recruited to come to Australia, and how she was perceived at work, by patients and colleagues.  I also would have liked some sort of resolution about Ozzie and his job search.  Really though my biggest complaint is Layla, herself.  What does it even mean to want to be an adventurer? I like that she is fallible and human and in some ways she does grow, but I felt like her being smart and a go-getter is the foundation of the story, but that she didn’t seem to have much common sense seems a bit off.  Yes she is loud and funny and puts in hard work, but the way she talks to teachers, and misses classes and deadlines, and behaves seems like a disconnect from the pages constantly telling me how smart she is.  To me, part of being smart is knowing when to lash out and when to listen, I don’t feel like her growth arc was all that great, in a nut shell, she changed schools and confronted a bully, that is the story, while not a bad story, it could have been so much more.

FLAGS:

There is crushing, violence, a gay character, mention of alcohol at a party Layla didn’t attend, talk of hooking up in passing and some language.  There is lying but it is acknowledged guiltily, and not familiar with Australian slang, regular use of the phrase, Janey Mack, which according to google is a replacement for Jesus Christ.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know why I wouldn’t use this book as a book club selection.  It just didn’t strike me as something they would benefit from.  I wouldn’t be opposed to someone picking it up and reading it in my house, but I doubt I’ll recommend it to my daughter and she is the ideal reader: she wears hijab, is in 8th grade at an Islamic school, and loves to read.  The book is really not memorable as good or bad, it just fell flat and I doubt I’ll read it again, luckily it only took two sittings to read, so I don’t feel like it was a waste of time, but seeing as I had to pay cover price and international shipping, I kind of regret rushing to buy it.

Teacher guide: https://www.penguin.com.au/content/resources/TR_YouMustBeLayla.pdf

The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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The House of Ibn Kathir: The Competition Begins by S.N. Jalali

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At 254 pages this boarding school story beautifully blends Islamic information, mystery, and compelling characters embarking on a new stage of their lives.  I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and engaging this book for upper elementary aged children reads and would strongly recommend it for grades 3-5.

SYNOPSIS:

Eleven year old Yusif is about to begin his first year at the prestigious Dar Al Ilm Academy a few hours away from his family, friends, and home.  Nervous to be on his own, he is excited to be giving his dream of memorizing the Quran the chance to become a reality.  When he arrives at the old mansion turned beautiful campus, he is paired up with Reda, a student to help him get situated and before you know it the two are fast friends.  When they get put in the same house, Ibn Kathir, with Warsoma and Daud, the four friends embark on a year of adventure and bonding as well as growth and learning.  Along the way they learn some Islamic history, they understand important hadith and Quranic Ayats and are challenged to live according to the sunnah even when tempers and frustrations abound.  When items start to go missing the boys and their house will have to keep their cool, not accuse anyone, but figure out what is going on all at the same time.  When the culprits are uncovered, they will be further tested to hold a grudge, offer forgiveness, or even extend an invitation to friendship. 

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WHY I LIKE IT:

This idyllic story and predictable mystery will appeal to impressionable readers that can’t see what is coming and can still be inspired by the beauty of such a protected environment.  The window might be small for such readers, but well worth the attempt as the book is well written and the characters well developed.  The boys are diverse and kind and helpful and all the things we want our children to be, especially when they are away from us.  Each character has their strengths and weaknesses and the friends accept them and celebrate one another rather than try and force them to change. The four houses and the characters vying for year captain and having fun along the way reminds me of a Harry Potter spinoff, but alas I think that is just my ignorance of the British school system.  I love that the four houses and their namesakes are detailed at the end as well as there being a glossary of terms.  There are illustrations every chapter or so that are appealing and offer a nice visual of the boys’ world.  The text, line spacing, chapter breaks and all are perfect for the demographic and while the fictional story is solid, I am happy to report I learned a number of things as well. 

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FLAGS:

None, alhumduillah

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I can’t find much on the author or even on any future books, which is unfortunate because I think it would be great for an elementary book club selection, and I may read it to my 4th and 5th grade Lunch Bunch group after we finish The Great Race to Sycamore Street.  I think it should be in Islamic School Libraries and classrooms as its cover will hold its own and compel kids to pick it up off the shelf.

Book trailer: http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/trailerfullhd.html

Book website:http://www.ibnkathir.co.uk/index.html