I’m not sure how I missed this 1999 published YA book by the OG-groundbreaking-industry-changing- Rukhsana Khan, but until @bintyounus mentioned it to me recently I didn’t even know it existed. The book has so much Islam, ayats, hadith, salat- Islamic fiction self-published often doesn’t have as much as this mainstream book has, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the content was a bit shocking. Part of my surprise I think comes from the fact that the book is only 206 pages, it takes its title from a game I remember playing in elementary school at recess, the main character is in 8th grade and the cover is soft pinks. This book is solid YA both now, and nearly 25 years ago, it carries some incredibly heavy themes: attempted suicide, topless photographs, sexual coercion, cigarette smoking, assault, racism, misogyny, toxic relationships, neglect and more (see flags below). The book is memorable and hard to put down, the Islam is confident and explored, even when weaponized by an older sister, but there is no denying the story telling abilities of the author, and while I won’t be letting my 11 or 13 year old read it any time soon, I know I benefitted from reading it- reminiscing about wanting Lucky Jeans and standing in awe of how EVERY. MUSLIM. DESI. author making it in mainstream today is benefitting from the path paved by Rukhsana Khan. On behalf of readers everywhere- thank you. Thank you for fighting to tell your stories your way, raising the bar, and offering real Muslim characters from a Muslim voice.
Zainab has no friends and doesn’t own a pair of Lucky Jeans, she is the only one in 8th grade that doesn’t. She feels like if she could trade in her polyester pants for the “cool” pants everyone has, she’d be accepted. When that plan fails and lands her in trouble, she gets tasked with directing her house’s school play. The teacher convinces her that it will be a way for her to make friends, and earn her classmates respect, but middle school is never that easy. Everyone is in love with Kevin, including Zainab, but he is a jerk and if he isn’t the lead, no one else will audition. Jenny is poor, but has a big chest, so even though she is nice to Zainab, she is more in love with Kevin who only wants her for one thing, and takes advantage whenever his girlfriend isn’t around. Add to the drama Zainab’s very strict older sister who lists off Zainab’s faults every night with Islamic references to try and make Zainab a better person, and this coming of age story will require Zainab to sort through it all and find her own way to be. There are a lot of subplots that circle around the play, social circles, toxic relationships, and self growth, that while the characters are worried if they will win the competition and break the curse, the readers (at least this 41 year old mama) are hoping that the characters will survive the year unscathed.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the family is the same family that will become its own story in Big Red Lollipop just grown up, with names changes, and that the story is summarized. I’m still a little torn if I love the raw grittiness of the way the two sisters interact or if it goes too far and leaves a bitter taste about Islam. I really am on the fence about how young readers, both Muslim and non Muslim, in 1999 and in 2022, would view the role of Islam in the dynamic. I think it reads powerfully, but I had a hard time going back to look at it through my 13 year old eyes and it as an adult it is intense. I still can’t believe that this book was published with how much Islam it contains, even the play put on in a public school was religiously centered. White privilege is called out and stereotypes about whites are stated, a Hindu character and the Muslim main character work through their baggage, economic privilege is opined on, women’s rights and expectations discussed, comments about “othering” are present- it really covers a lot. Quite impressive in a lot of ways.
The relationship and love themes are not shied away from which caught me off guard. I expected some making-out and heavy petting, but was surprised it went to topless photos, a character’s mom being a nudist, and that there is a lot of forced touching. I think for most Islamic school 8th graders, this book would be too mature, in fact I genuinely hope it is. Not to say it is not accurate, but it is very critical to the story and I think would need some discussion.
I love that the characters draw you in, as much as you despise everyone picking on Zainab, you know she isn’t a pushover and you really pull for her. I didn’t want to put the book down and kept reading because I wanted to make sure she was ok, see what choices she made, and in a fairly short book, that is remarkable story telling.
The book is for mature readers in my opinion. There are relationships, assault, cigarettes’, nudists, kissing, spying, sexual assault, coercion, topless nude photographs, attempted suicide, bullying, teasing, cheating, physical assault, language, verbal abuse, stereotypes, talk of female anatomy, and use of Islam to hurt.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know that I would shelve this in the library, I would see if perhaps there is a version with a different cover, one that might signal a more mature reader. I would worry if an early middle schooler read this, I think it would be a lot for them to take in, process, and reflect on. It isn’t a light read, and would need some discussion, but ultimately I don’t know that a middle school book club at an Islamic school would be the right place for it. It could be for sure, but not the one I’m currently at.