Tag Archives: mental health

A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

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A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

a show for two

I didn’t love the author’s debut novel, but wanted to see what a second novel would offer, and sadly it really is a lot of the same: light funny romcom surface story featuring a Bangladeshi Muslim character lead mixed in with layers of mental health, a toxic family, high school stress, and cultural expectations driving the plot.  There is crude language, hetero, lesbian, bi, and pansexual relationships discussed, but nothing more than kissing is detailed in any of the scenes.  There is a lot of cultural trauma from the parents and to the book’s credit, it does establish pretty early on that the main character is not religious, but that she does believe in Allah swt.  Similarly, there is a Bangladeshi loving family in the story, so it is not making a critique on the entire culture, it is just the character’s family that is cruel.  Ultimately, at 416 pages I was surprised that there were gaps in character arcs and plot.  I never really liked the protagonist, Mina, but because of how underdeveloped and pivotal the best friend and younger sister were, when it all came to a climax, I found myself rooting for her, which is a very shallow reasoning in an OWN voice book. Additionally, the parents are terrible, and had I dnf-ed it (I was tempted until about 30% through it) I doubt I would have ever known that there was a time that they weren’t terrors.  The peeling back of the layers of the family came too late, too slow, and the progression was muddled.  I probably will not actively seek out further books from this author if the same themes and tropes are present, if she changes it up, I probably could be persuaded.  The book is marketed 7th grade and up, but with the triggers, hate, language, content, genre, language, length I would say 17 and up, if at all.

SYNOPSIS:
Samina “Mina” Rahman is waiting to leave New York and her hateful parents, and start her life at USC as a film student.  All she needs to do is win the Golden Ivy Film Competition, and get excepted to USC.  Her parents dismissing her dreams, passions, and abilities agree to only let her leave if she wins the competition, doubting that it would ever happen, they even put it in writing.  Co-president of the high school film club and best friend, Rosie is equally determined to win, there is just one big problem, every year the winning film has a cameo by a famous actor.  Cue accidental meeting of Mina and Emmitt Ramos, up and coming indie movie heart throb that is cast in the new Firebrand blockbuster.  Sent to Mina’s high school to research for his upcoming role, Mina is tasked with convincing him to make an appearance in their film.  It is a romance story, so you can see where it is headed in this enemies to lovers book.

As family, friends, and college admission stresses mount, the simplicity of what Mina wants and how to go about getting it will be called in to question as her walls crumble and she will have to evaluate people in her life and how they will be affected by her actions.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the story is based on real events in the author’s life, not just the religion, culture, mental health threads, but that an actor came to her high school in preparation for a part: Tom Holland.  I also like that while her parents don’t value her, she has found a support group of sorts that do.  At times Mina reads a lot older than she is, particularly when she is admonishing the freshman, but at other times she storms off pouting and seems to be very childish.  I vacillate between this being intentional and it being an inconsistency in the writing. The younger sister Anam is painfully written.  She is bold and confrontational, yet at the same time so clingy and needy and all over the place.  At one point I thought she perhaps was suicidal and was braced for a really dark twist in the story, but no it was just Anam being Anam, I suppose, and the stress was never revisited let alone resolved.

I truly dreaded the passages about Mina’s home life and her family, they all were just awful to each other and rather than taking Mina’s side because I was shown, I found myself questioning what I was missing in the before and after dynamic.  It is clear they are wretched, the victim doesn’t need to justify the abuse. The transformation of the family dynamic just felt lacking and in fiction when parts are explored it could have really showed some of the micro aggressions and changes that existed and made the relationship salvageable so that the reader would understand why saving and fixing the family were no longer options.  Generational trauma is real and serious and a little more attention I think could have provided an amazing mirror to readers dealing with similar elements.

If the book was half the length I would assume that details would be glossed over, but this book had room, and I don’t understand why so few photography and director references seem to find their way into the text to show that these characters truly are passionate about what they are claiming to desire.  I know the story isn’t a film story or a culture story, but they don’t spend hours editing the film or working on props? Emmitt is regularly pulled away from shoots, but always seems to have enough photos to choose from?  Mina talks of her dad cooking, but foods aren’t detailed, the connection of food to love to family and that being severed seemed like a gaping hole in the crumbling home scenes.  If halal food and no pork can make it into a love relationship, that much cultural/religious depth should have made it inside a families home.

As mentioned in the intro, it didn’t bother me from a religious perspective that Mina was off kissing a boy, that Anam had boyfriends, etc. because Islam was accounted for and the characters are not practicing, so I do appreciate that it didn’t become a stereotypical rebelling against religion book.  Truly, thank you.

FLAGS:

Language, relationships (straight, bi, lesbian, pan), kissing, making out, hand holding, lying, mental health, hate, deception, cruelty, emotional abuse, angry ex boyfriend, triggers.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Would not shelve or encourage young readers at our Islamic school to read this.

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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This 320 page YA book is hard to put down and middle school readers and up that love words, a good mystery, and fantastic writing are in for a treat.  I can’t recall the last whodunit that had me absolutely sure that I knew who was guilty, while simultaneously doubting myself until the reveal.  I mean, maybe there wasn’t even a crime to unravel? And fear not, I’m not going to spoil anything in this review.  Just know that this Muslim authored, Muslim character filled, Malaysian set, Scrabble feast is worth a space on your shelf as it will undoubtedly make a place in your heart and beg to be read again and again to see what you missed.

SYNOPSIS:

It has been one year since Najwa has competed in a Scrabble tournament, one year since her best friend, Trina Low, died playing Scrabble at the very same tournament, at the same hotel, with many of the same participants.  And with Najwa battling her angry negative thoughts, splotchy memory, nerves, and grief, she is walking a fine line of functioning and faltering.  When Instagram posts and messages start popping up from Trina’s account, everyone becomes a suspect in unraveling what really happened and doing it fast enough to prevent it from happening again.

The backdrop is the Scrabble games that are still taking place, the play on words, the scoring, the plotting, the twists, the scrambling, and unraveling of so many characters that are more connected than they first appear.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Scrabble, my mom and I used to play weekly when I was in junior high through college, and while the games were “friendly,” and neither us very good, the game holds wonderful memories. Usually chess is referenced for strategies in real world approaches, so to see Scrabble on a competitive level and have it being in many ways a metaphor for the larger storyline truly had me giddy.  I’m still grinning in fact as I write this review.  The mixing of the two story lines is flawless, with the word play, and scoring, and definitions, that I am just beyond impressed with the writing, the clarity, the intensity, and the way it holds the readers attention.

Many of the characters are Muslim and they mention their hijabs, waking- or rather trying to wake each other up for fajr. At one point Najwa and Mark, Trina’s ex-boyfriend are meeting to talk and she acknowledges the halal gap left as they sit down and how they are both always mindful of her Muslimness and his non Muslimness.  Islam is there, but is not a big part of the story. I beamed when it popped up, but if doesn’t influence the story much, for example one night Najwa plans to sleep in her hijab incase she has to run for her life, so you know, she won’t be slowed down by trying to cover her head.  Yeah, the book has some dry humor too.

There is a large mental health role in the book, as it seems in all of the author’s books: The Weight of Our Sky and The Girl and the Ghost.  Najwa is coping with her grief and trauma and working closely with her doctor to improve her situation.  Other characters mention going to therapists and likewise getting professional help.  I love that it isn’t just a character trait, but that it is a big part of the story, and not in a negative way, but in an actively working to manage it way.

I like how the gender neutral character is handled and pronouns are used.  It is not opined upon, it is not in your face, it is a side character, they have a preference of how to be referred to as, a quip is made that if they win they don’t want to be queen of the tiles, but a more less gendered term perhaps monarch, and that is it.  It is not a judgement, it is not a big part of the story, and no one makes it a huge issue, the character isn’t fleshed out much, but they are respected and have more to their personality than this one facet.  I think that provides a great approach in seeing something in literature that can perhaps spark important conversations in real life in need be.

The only slight pauses the book gave me were when it talks about how incredibly wealthy and distant Trina’s parents were, but then for much of her life she lived in a modest town house style house.  Also, despite Mark and Najwa’s awareness of boundaries, and Najwa being called out for crushing on Mark, at one point he hugs her and I don’t know if that is an oversight or was intentional.

FLAGS:

There is death, murder (?), poisoning, deceit, plotting, cheating in multiple ways, kissing, crushes, relationships, multiple mental health threads, intense competition, danger.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to do this as a book club selection.  I think as long as no one spoils the outcome there would be so much to chat about: the twists and turns, the way Islam and Malay culture is shown, the influence of western culture, concept of competitive Scrabble, pronoun sensitivities, and healthy friendship.  Girls and boys in middle school will be drawn to the story, and I can’t wait to share.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

I Lost Something Very Special by Husna Rahman illustrated by Anita Bagdi

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I Lost Something Very Special by Husna Rahman illustrated by Anita Bagdi

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This beautifully illustrated 34 page story about the loss of a beloved grandfather is universal and heartfelt.  It is not an Islamic fiction book as there is no mention of the duniya or akhira or accepting Allah’s decree, the family however, is visibly Muslim and it shows women in hijab and the little girl narrator praying salat with her now deceased grandfather.  Similarly, there are no cultural words or references in the text, but the illustrations show Bangladeshi culture, writing, and warmth.  The author is a psychotherapist and counselor, and all readers, young children and up, will benefit from the tenderness and emotion-filled paperback book.

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A young girl starts the book stating that she has lost something.  She recalls other things she has lost, a scarf, a toy, her voice, a tooth, and how after a while the item was found or it came back and she was able to carry on.  Today, however, is not the same, she has lost her grandfather, and he isn’t coming back, and she doesn’t know if she can carry on.

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She goes to his house, and he isn’t there, and the heartbreak is palpable.  She knows in time she will forget the lost scarf and lost voice, but she doesn’t want to ever forget her grandfather.  She finds some pictures and recalls him teaching her to ride her bike, them praying together, and planting a garden, his stories, his smell, his laugh, his hugs.

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As she assembles the pictures in a scrapbook, she is filled with memories and warmth and his wisdom.  The book ends with her seemingly coming to accept her new reality and then the book asking the reader if they have felt loss, what memories they carry, and what they miss the most about those that are gone.

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The sparse text and amazingly expressive illustrations make the book a beautiful addition to help children cope with their own feelings, and to learn empathy for others going through their own trials of loss.

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Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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Show Yourself by Adeeba Jafri

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At 98 pages the book claims to be two YA mental health novellas that bring attention to mental health in a relatable and contemporary audience through Muslim characters.  As someone with some experience in loving individuals going through some of the issues addressed in the book, I was thrilled that voices were making it on to the page and in a capacity to increase discussion about self-harm.  Unfortunately, the presentation of the two short stories baffled me and I don’t think the book will find its way in to many YA reader’s hands.  I don’t know why it is two novellas when the characters are the same and it very easily could, and should, have been fleshed out into a single longer novel.  I think it would have shown a better well-rounded understanding on the importance of knowing and recognizing signs of someone struggling with their mental health, how coping skills aren’t often enough and outside help is needed, how assumptions and stereotypes further alienate those suffering, and just overall made the characters deeper and more relatable.  Instead we get two isolated snapshots that subtly try to discuss mental health, but use a very immature cover story that misses the target audience.  The book as is, is better suited for middle school readers, but I think even they would get a limited view of how to help those close to them, or reach out themselves if they are hurting.  It needs to be five short stories with different characters and a unifying theme, or one complete novel.  Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to share this book with my teen daughter so we could discuss, I couldn’t convince her to read it, which is unfortunate, because the author can write, it just isn’t tempting presented as it is.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is two novellas, the first focuses on three female Muslim friends and one’s little sister.  The girls all go to school together, but are of different economic statuses, have different interests but support one an other, and have different family dynamics, that all come in to play.  The close knit community means the parents are social with each other as well, and one parent or another is always picking or dropping them off at each other’s homes.  When Hana gets a new phone, Aliya is clearly jealous, Lena tries to brush it off and keep the peace, but, when Hana’s phone goes missing, even she has to admit that “rebel” Aliya is looking guilty. As the girls search for the phone, Lena spends time with her family, goes to her brother’s robotics tournament and finally confronts Aliya.  Aliya’s mom has disappeared earlier, and with her purple dipped hair, sudden influx of funds for Ubers and new accessories, the girls fight and Aliya pulls away.  When Aliya and her dad don’t attend Hana’s younger sister, Sara’s ice skating performance, it seems the friendships are irreconcilable.  Aliya, however, shows up to the after party things are revealed and amends are made.

The second novella is the story of what happened with Aliya’s parents, particularly her mother.  Similar to Sara, Aliya’s mother was harming herself and eventually abandoned her family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows Muslims suffering, coping, and dealing with mental health issues.  The topic is way too taboo and it effects all swaths of the human population, we need to normalize discussions about it.  I wish the novellas would have stressed getting professional help more, sure it is great that Hana is going to try and put her phone down and pay attention to her younger sister, but that is not always enough.  Aliya mentions that after her mom left her and her dad went to therapy, but the mom claimed to leave to get help and then never came back.  I think there needs to be A LOT more emphasis on what “good” help looks like and what it can do to change lives.

The book is self published it seems through a publisher, so hopefully the author could ramp up the story telling, character building, and messaging, to really make the book shine.  I don’t understand the title, I don’t know why it is under a hundred pages.  I don’t know who the forward is written by.  If you want to write a book about mental health you really need to have done a lot of research, not just necessarily your own experience, and you probably should have a bunch of letters after your name.  Otherwise just write a work of fiction and touch on some of the issues that you want to support discussions about.  The book seems to straddle committing to one or the other, and ultimately it falters because of it.

I do like that the characters are Muslim, the book is not preachy, some seem to be more religious then others, but it isn’t really part of the story.  The characters’ culture and nationalities seem to be left intentionally vague.  It mentions gossip from the ladies at the masjid, which I think should have been drawn out more.  Really if you ask me, this is a great rough draft, it needs fleshing out is all, build it up to 250 pages and set out to reach middle school readers instead, and it will resonate and have the effect I think the author is hoping for.

FLAGS:

Self harm, abandonment, assumptions about a man Aliya seems to be sharing a meal with in a photograph, gossip, lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Because it doesn’t seem to stress how to help and what help is out there, I don’t know that the book would be a great read for all.  I think if you are looking to open a discussion with a small group of readers or individually, you may be able to assign the book and discuss in a safe environment.

Salaam: Mindfulness for Muslims by Humera Malik illustrated by Najwa Awatiff

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Salaam: Mindfulness for Muslims by Humera Malik illustrated by Najwa Awatiff

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I had planned to wait until the physical book comes out on the 15th to offer up my thoughts, but the Kindle version has released and I want to help put it on everyone’s radar.  My own kids went back to school today and emotions and feelings are all over the place: excitement, nerves, anxiety, worry.  Changes in general cause heightened feelings, throw in Covid cases on the rise, puberty, friends, more open discussions about mental health, etc., and kids need tools to be successful.  Alhumdulillah, the Qur’an and Sunnah offer guidance, reassurance, and direction, and this book helps organize and present coping tools for ages seven to adult.  Thirteen emotions over 85 pages follow a pattern of a title page, a “Remember” page with an ayat from the Qur’an (except in one case it is a hadith), then an affirmation to be said that is either a verse, a dua, or dhikr, followed by an adorably illustrated spread of simple activities to do and try in a checklist manner.  Not only will young Muslims find reassurance and direction in the text provided, but inshaAllah, they will also be comforted knowing that what they are experiencing is very human and that Allah swt and Prophet Muhammad saw have provided insight and acknowledgement of such emotions.

The 13 emotions highlighted are: afraid, angry, disappointed, grief, jealous, lonely, overwhelmed, sad, shy, sorry, upset worried, grateful.  There is an author note to parents at the beginning that mentions that the book is meant to be read “cover to cover in peaceful times and to be dipped into to find specific advice” when needed, and I couldn’t agree more.  There is also a note for the readers normalizing big emotions and reassuring them that Allah swt does not want them to despair.

The diverse character illustrations are absolutely heartwarming and I hope that they will be made in to pictures or charts to be purchased so they can be hung.  They are really well done, and the visual mapping will help kids retain and put the tips in to practice.  I’m not sure what the sizing will be in the physical paper back book, but I hope it is large enough for them to be properly enjoyed.

 

 

Talaal and the Whispering Worrier by Shereeza Boodhoo illustrated by Khalif Koleoso

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Talaal and the Whispering Worrier by Shereeza Boodhoo illustrated by Khalif Koleoso

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This 38 page book addresses anxiety and self confidence with Islamic tips and tools to help kids cope and feel less alone in their struggles.  The rhyming text on some pages is flawless, and elsewhere falters and distracts from the text.  Similarly, the panda that personifies the “Whispering Worrier” is at times a compliment to the story, and at other times seems to muddle the seriousness being discussed (I don’t understand the ever-present watering can).  The book is long and the text small, but overall the message is good and presentation sufficient.  Books like this by qualified professionals are incredibly valuable and important.  The use of Quran and trust in Allah swt to feel confident and at ease is something we need to share with our young ones early, often, and regularly. 

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Talaal comes home from school and declares that he feels sick and is not going back to school.  His parents can’t seem to find anything wrong and send him to go do his homework.  He passes his older sister who is praying and seems so relaxed, when she is done she comes and talks to him.  He explains how he felt when the teacher asked them to share and how the fear and nerves felt like his heart was being beat on.  She reassures him that she feels the same way at times and that a Whispering Worrier whispers unhelpful thoughts to tear us down.

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She suggests countering the negative thoughts with helpful positive ones.  She also suggests reciting Qur’an.  She then has him practice some ayats.  He recites the begining of Surah Ikhlas, and starts to feel better.  Talaal excitedly goes to tell his parents what is going on, and the suggestions his sister has given him for coping and overcoming his stresses.  They let him know that they too get nervous.  His mom, goes a bit off topic and explains various wonders that Allah swt has created and they reassure Talaal that he too is beautifully made.  Talaal starts practicing and finds over time, in different situations, he starts to calm his Whispering Worrier.

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I like that the advice is rooted in Islamic concepts and that his sister, not an adult, is who coaches him and guides him, making it seem normal and not a punishment.  I like that it isn’t an instant fix, but something to work out and be consistent with over time.  The end has a note to caregivers and some tips.  I think reading the book and having discussions is the first step and inshaAllah if your child or student is struggling that professional help will be sought, so that children don’t have to suffer needlessly.  

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I read this to a group of early elementary students to try and normalize the topic and encourage them to talk to a parent or teacher if they felt similar to Talaal.  Unfortunately, the book had a hard time keeping their attention and I think, in retrospect, it might be a better selection for smaller groups or one-on-one so that discussion and feedback can safely occur.

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq

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At 224 pages, this graphic novel tells an important OWN voice story in beautiful and powerful illustrations, but despite reading it multiple times, I ultimately found the pacing off, the narrative and plot holes quite large, and the conclusion too forced.  It claims to be for middle grades which would explain the happy ending, but the assault, trauma, mental health, Bengali history, language, and protagonists age (13), make it more suited for upper middle school readers.  I read a digital ARC in predominately black and white images, so I’m hopeful that part of the problem is on me, and that I simply missed or misunderstood parts that seemed to jump around and assume, or that because it was an uncorrected proof, some revisions are still to come.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nisrin is 13 and lives in Oregon with her mother, and maternal grandparents.  Her mom travels a lot and she seems to spend most of her time with her loving Nani, grandmother.  The story opens with Nisrin in 8th grade giving a presentation about her Bangladeshi heritage to her school.  On the way home with a friend, Firuzeh, she is still wearing the cultural clothing and they are playing around with the scarf, when they are violently attacked and the scarf is ripped off of Nisrin’s head.  Her hair is pulled out in the process and the two girls are taken to the hospital and when released maintain professional counseling to process and deal with the assault.  Nisrin fears leaving her house and is increasingly isolated within her home.

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Over the summer we see her and her Nani go over to some cousin’s house where Nasrin is gawked at with her short hair and everyone is unsure how to act around her.  She joins some cousins playing video games where she asks about a cousin in hijab who says that it is essentially her choice between her and Allah (swt), that it isn’t any one else’s business.  A younger cousin tells that she plans to start hijab soon and is surprised to learn that Nisrin’s mom is not Muslim.

As summer comes to an end, Nisrin will be starting high school and exits her room the night before wearing a hijab, or in Bengali, an orna.  Her family freaks out, her Nana, maternal grandfather, is furious claiming that she should have been raised better, and Nisrin is scooted off to her room by her Nani, so that her mom and grandfather can argue.

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On the first day of school, Nisrin tries to talk to Firuzeh, but once again things are awkward between the two girls.  A teacher refuses to try and say Nisrin’s name and becomes angry and aggressive, and at PE she is called a slut and asked if she will be beat for showing her legs.  Nisrin goes home to research Islam and hijab, but everything is so angry and opinion based that she is more confused than when she started.

The next day she meets a nice girl, Veronica, and the two work on an assignment in class and then have lunch together.  Veronica suggests that Nisrin learns about Islam like she would a school assignment and go research it at the library.  Later at home, Nisrin starts to understand what her grandparents and mother saw and endured in the war of 1971 when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.  Her mom and Nana argue over what was seen and Nisrin starts to find her voice in her family.

Nani takes Nisrin shopping for long sleeved clothes and scarves, things are worked out with Firuzeh and Nisrin’s family accepts that Nisrin is not asking permission to wear her scarf, but is hoping they will accept it.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is such a flip on the over-used-stereotype that Muslim girls are forced to wear hijab, in truth many are encouraged not to.  At one point Nisrin says, “If I can’t be safe…then can’t I at least be proud.”  She was attacked for just playing with a scarf and putting it on her head, so she reasons, that there is not safety from racism and hate, she might as well be proud of who she is.  I also love the strength in the idea that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission, it is her faith, her head, her choice.

There is a lot of good in the book, but I struggled understanding quite a bit of it.  It mentions that she was at Texas and she loved it, but there was bullying? No idea what it was in reference to or what purpose it served.  At the beginning the two girls seem like they have been friends for a while, but yet Nisrin warns Firuzeh that her Nani will force her to eat.  Nisrin seems to really love her sleep overs, and I don’t know if it is just to show at the end the healing by coming full circle, but it seems a bit juvenile to be that excited about it to me.

The family dynamic and history, left me very confused.  Nisrin doesn’t know her cousin wears hijab, and is confused that her aunt doesn’t.  Nor do her cousins know that Nisrin’s mom isn’t Muslim?  These cousins call Nisrin’s Nani, Dadi, and since there is no father in the picture it is obvious to even none desi folk that these cousins are related through the mom’s family and the cousins father, so why when Nisrin decides to wear hijab is the maternal side so upset? Why does Nasrin’s mom ask if her cousins have put her up to it? Ok if the mom isn’t religious, but does she actively practice another faith? Why in one of the portraits on the wall does the woman seem to have a bindhi? The Bangladesh independence admittedly is something I should know more about, but I don’t, and this book, didn’t really fill me in.  How is the grandfather both siding? He doesn’t like invader nationalism, but I still don’t completely understand why he left, and what that solved.

The pacing and tone at times are off too me too.   I didn’t feel the strain on Nisrin and Firuzeh’s relationship, the text suggests that they are and were best friends, but when Veronica asks if Nisrin’s stress is in part to the cute girl she was staring down, I was curious too if there was more to their relationship.  A lot seems to happen between the attack and Nisrin starting to wear hijab and I wish we were allowed inside Nisrin’s head to know how she feels about her mom, her nana, starting high school, her attack, her desire to wear hijab, it seems a bit rushed.  Which is odd since, the story spends a few pages detailing when Nisrin feels like everyone hates her after Nani picks her up on the first day of school and Nani points out that not everyone hates her, the squirrels don’t, and the dogs don’t, etc..  It seems really childish for the incredible ordeal she has been through.

I like the informative section at the end about Bangledesh. I wish the book would have shared some of what Nisrin learned about Islam in her own research, she goes to the mosque, but doesn’t detail if she plans to pray regularly, fast, etc..

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FLAGS:
Language, violence, war imagery, rape mentioned, physical assault. Use of the word slut.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that this would work for a middle school book club at an Islamic School, graphic novels are often to quick of reads, but I have a few friends from Bangladesh and I really want them, and their daughters, to read it and clue me in to what I am missing, their view of independence and their impression of the book.

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

emotion

This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!