Tag Archives: music

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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This author won me over with More Than Just a Pretty Face, and his ability to celebrate and show flaws within our desi cultures while simultaneously presenting relatable Islamic experiences in a romantic comedy.   I have been yet to determine if this YA/Teen 328 page book follows in those footsteps, or cuts a little too critically and close on the Islamic presentation.  Undoubtedly the story is hard to put down, culture and Islam are present, but I don’t know what the lingering taste of Islam would be for a non-Muslim reading the book.  Would they see the faith separate from those that practice or actively don’t practice, would Muslim readers?  Literature is quickly showing how Muslims are not a monolith, but I worry that that nuance might be lost in this particular book, and the takeaway would be far more stereotype affirming, than critically thought provoking.  The packaging of the story is memorable characters and quality writing, even if the plot and purpose is a little shaky at times.  I admit for as much as I crave discussions on representation and twists and defined characters, this book has me at a bit of a loss on how to feel about the book overall.  I think it is possibly the first time I just haven’t seen myself and my experiences mirrored at all in a book with this much Islamic content. As a reviewer it makes me feel useless, but as an American born Muslim, I kind of love the uneasiness and challenge that my head is trying to wrap itself around.  The references, the language, lust, plentiful innuendos and physical abuse make the book a solid high school and up read.

SYNOPSIS:
Arsalan lives with his 100 year old Nana in Sacremento.  His mother has passed away, and his father is out of the picture in Arizona as he attempts sobriety.  Homeschooled and isolated from other kids, technology, and the world around him, he suddenly finds himself in a public high school trying to make his way.  Afraid that when his Nana passes he is going to be all alone in the world, he reaches out to the stepdaughter, Beenish, of the community match maker to see if she can help him with an arranged marriage.  She agrees on one condition, he dances with her at an upcoming competition.  He agrees, but first a makeover is required and before you know it a romance is blooming.  Awkward and formal and ever the gentleman, Arsalan uncovers that there is no competition, the dancing is required to break up Beenish’s sister’s wedding.  The girls’ biological mother was a dancer and the shame it brought on them all as it destroyed her career, her marriage, and the family has made her daughters the black sheep of the family and community.  The stepmom wants to get them out of the house as soon as possible and thus dancing of any kind is forbidden at Qirat’s upcoming nuptials.  Beenish despises the groom and hopes her dancing will not only remind the family that the mom has been banned from attending the wedding, but also hopefully prevent the wedding from taking place.  As the story moves forward with learning to dance, relationships must be reconciled, friendships developed, and growing pains felt, with some sass from Nana at every turn, more than one character will have to learn to make hard decisions and accept the outcomes that result.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Right from the start Arsalan makes it known that he is not a practicing Muslim, that he is “nominally one.”  His Nana has raised him to be a skeptic, his abusive father would beat him when feeling religious and guilty for his alcohol consumption, and his deceased mother was more spiritual than disciplined.  So, for the next few chapters, whenever Islam was mentioned I would snap a picture.  Twenty pages later and dozens of pictures of text made me stop and realize that this coming of age book is not a story about Islam, but rather the characters are dealing with their own identities and Islam just happens to be present, for all of them.  Arsalan remarks how our roots shape us as he quotes hadith, ok paraphrases them, and discusses sahaba, eventually having to accept that knowledge and wisdom and truth must be recognized, even when it comes from a source that he doesn’t favor.  Similarly, the most presenting tough guy, music and sports and appearance obsessed character is always hanging around the mosque, at the MSA, and encouraging Arsalan to come and pray.  The love interest calls out Muslims for their fake religiosity saying that her stepmom wears it as a fancy dress, she owns it, but takes it off when she wants.  Her father came to Islam late, and is relatively strict and conservative as a result, she is Muslim, but more culturally as she doesn’t seem to have sorted it out herself.  The characters dance, which involves touching and immodest clothing, at the end they do kiss.  There is language which is noted as being course and vulgar, and there really is no “model Muslim” or any characters that want to be.  So, similarly there are no haram police commenting when the characters, as individuals seemingly step out of line.  The sister character is quote unquote religious, but I don’t know if she covers, she doesn’t seem to be representative of anyone other than herself and she has her own cultural family issues, so her Islam is just stated, but not explored.  Some only eat halal, that gets included but not really opined on.   It really is the first time I feel like I’ve read so many Muslim characters in one place that represent only themselves, which is very much real life, but also a shift in Muslim rep in literature.

The story has some foundational issues which made me laugh when reading the author’s note that says he, “writes in the dark.”  Meaning he doesn’t know where he is going until he gets there.  I think it might show in this book more than he realizes. Aiza Aunty is shamed as scandalous because of her dancing in Lollywood (Pakistan’s version of Bollywood, which is India’s version of Hollywood) films.  She apparently got her sari a bit too wet in a waterfall scene, and it was too much shame to rebound from.  So why did that ruin her life? I mean any production has rehearsals, and blocking, and post editing, and retakes, why does one scene seem to fall squarely on her shoulders, every single decision maker along the way passed it through.  I’m not buying it.  I also don’t buy the whole wedding is hanging on a single thread of dancing, it tries really hard to make it make sense, and by the end the reader really is just prepared to go along with it, but holding auditions, not planning to tell Qirat, really is expecting the reader to suspend reality just a tad more than the genre should be asking one to do.

The book is smart and it expects the reader to be smart.  The references the character’s personas and need to be seen and loved is not always spelled out, it has to be pieced together and I love it.  The Thanksgiving scene, the misfit members of each family coming together and bonding with Nana and Arasalan is sweet, but actually really sad, and I love that it doesn’t say it, it shows it.

Of all the characters I love Diamond the most, I just wish we knew more about what motivates him.  He reads too nice and too puppy doggish and I wish we got just a bit more to see why he is the way he is.  Truly all the characters are memorable, and I’m pretty sure they will stay with me for a while.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, romance, crude language, lots of sexual innuendos, physical violence, physical abuse, child abuse, death, shaming, manipulation, alcohol addiction, religious zealousness, dancing, intimate dancing, body objectification, music, singing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could never teach this book, but please, please, please, read it and help me to understand how I feel about it.

Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

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Salaam, with Love by Sara Sharaf Beg

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This 288 page YA contemporary Islamic romcom is very Islamic centered, and the storyline provides some nice twists along the way.  Unfortunately the writing is terrible.  Not the storytelling or even grammar per se, but the contradictions, errors, underdeveloped characters, and the inconsistencies. Yes I read an uncorrected proof, but this book is a mainstream major publisher presented book coming out in a few weeks, and it is in desperate need of some attention.  I really don’t think it is the author’s fault, it reads as if this was a manuscript that got shopped around and picked up and then never refined, polished, and made to sparkle.  The only saving grace is that as terrible as it is literary wise, once the main character starts to get over her “internalized islamophobia” (thank you @bintyounus for bringing this concept to my attention), the book as a whole presents a lot of unapologetic specific Islamic content on every single page: how Eid salat is different than normal salat,  the beauty of tajweed, the meanings of so many duas and surahs said regularly, the list goes on and on and doesn’t just cover the basics.  The flip side is that the characters are in a band that performs Islamic songs, but with instruments and everyone is fine with it, there are artists in the book drawing faces and portraits hang on walls, it is a romance, but it at most an arm or hand is touched and when tropes about Desi college choices are pushed back on the parents break the stereotype and relent.  There are threads of cultural-ism within Islam, Islamophobia and a violent near death experience, but the book is very clean and  honestly has a lot of potential, I have no idea why it is so sloppy.  SO SLOPPY, and I took notes, so buckle up.

SYNOPSIS:

Seventeen year old Dua is an only child and her doctor father and caterer mom are the only Pakistani and only Muslims in their small Virginia town.  They decide for Ramadan that they are all going to go and stay with family in Queens, New York for the whole month.  They have given Dua less than 48 hours notice to plan to spend the end of her summer with cousins she hasn’t seen in five years.  The parents hope that Dua will benefit from being around family, being closer to other Muslims in the month, and enjoy the cultural environment.  Dua is not excited, but when bear hugs and genuine smiles meet her at the door, she is sucked in to a bustling house and the happiness and drama that is bound to unfold.  Sharing a room with her older, law school bound cousin Mahnoor is by far the hardest relationship to cultivate.  Newly engaged, Mahnoor is quiet, reserved and deeply unhappy.  Dua makes little progress, but with Ramadan starting and her cousins setting goals for the month, Dua is determined to do better in all aspects of her life.  As she gets close to Mahnoor’s best friend, Haya, she also gets closer to Haya’s brother Hassan.   It is Ramadan though, and she isn’t good around boys, but Hassan is a hafiz and is helping her reach her memorization goals for the month, Hassan is also in a band and needs Dua’s help.  When Mahnoor’s engagement is called off to Haya and Hassan’s brother, everything comes to a standstill between the families, but when a cousin is shot, the families come back together to support one another and deal with their decisions and their outcomes.  By the end of Ramadan, every character has changed and grown and is sad the month is over and that Dua and her family are leaving.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Suffice it to say I love how Islam centered it is. I honestly checked the publishing information because of how much Islamic content is included, also for the amount of errors.  The book did not start off well for me with Dua trying to separate herself from her “religious” cousins.  The ones who practice communally and wear hijab.  She was not like “them” and the dichotomy of measuring religiosity as acceptable or not, too much or too little, enrages me.  It sets up that she practices Islam but in a relaxed manner and has been taught by her parents, and it is who she is, but it isn’t a huge part of her life.  As the story progresses, it seems that she just doesn’t know a ton of surahs, she actually is pretty religious, and devout, it is very awkward and not presented clearly, which is why I attributed it more to her being in denial or embarrassed by her identity, not about her level of belief.  Dua is also not like-able, she is incredible privileged and arrogant commenting on the size of houses and rooms, and her shoes.  About half way through she starts to comes across as clumsy, not sure then why is she always wearing heels.  Ultimately she is just not well-developed and often reads like an annoying helpless child.  The framing of Dua being a musician and not being so religious is quickly questioned as she gifts her cousins music paraphernalia, and looks at portraits on their walls.  If most are like me, and both families are praying, fasting, reading Quran, active musicians and artists and ok with hanging pictures, one would assume they are pretty in-syc with one another on their religious views and in practice.

Dua is not the only character that is poorly voiced, fractured, and inconsistent.  Her parents are so unrealistic and awkward in the beginning I physically cringed reading them telling her their reasons for going to New York.  In the car on the way, they even quiz Dua on her cousins names.  She hasn’t seen them in five years, she isn’t a toddler, she should know their names, she has clearly purchased incredibly personalized gifts for them, and is filled with detailed memories of when they all met up in Pakistan together, the whole scene is pointless. One of the cousins, Ibrahim, is blind and Dua says that a few years ago her parents had to explain to her what it meant to be blind.  Seriously?  I get the learning how to let him take the lead and how to interact, but you as a teenager didn’t know what it means to be blind? When you met him in Pakistan you didn’t know he was blind? The four year old cousin is cute and adorable, and has the vocabulary and mannerisms of a seven or eight year old at times, most times.  The 12 year old cousin has the wisdom of an old uncle and why do none of the adults in the book seem to work?  The book probably should have started at chapter five, it seems the book hits a bit of a stride that at least makes it readable.  

A huge plot of the book is the band, Sheikh, Rattle, and Roll, but the details about it are terrible.  Mahnoor is walking out the door and her mom tells her to take Dua.  The reader doesn’t know where they are going, but Mahnoor reluctantly agrees and they head out on the subway.  Mahnoor constantly is telling Dua to hurry so they aren’t late and miss it, when they arrive, the band performs one song and that is when Hassan and Dua and Haya all meet.  But the other two band members are her cousins, she is staying in their house.  What? Rabia is constantly talking, that is her character quirk, how does Dua not know that they are performing? Not know they are in a band?  No way would it not be mentioned.  And why only one song? That is so random.  At the end when they perform again on Eid, it is a concert, it is again only one song.  A concert is not one song.  Do they not practice or load up equipment, how is all this going on in one house and Dua is so clueless? 

The inconsistencies are aplenty.  A few examples: it says her cousin doesn’t wear make-up, a few chapters later has a whole face of make-up, on Eid she even does Dua’s make-up.  When they all are sitting down to write their lists of plans for Ramadan it says they don’t have to share their lists.  Yet a few lines later Dua is singled out in a very creepy way to share hers.  In a single paragraph it says that at home she prays fajr half asleep, or late and in a rush before school, but concludes the description by complaining that praying in congregation is more difficult for her to focus in.  Huh? praying while half asleep or in a rush gives you more focus than praying in jammah?  Even non Muslims are going to be scratching their heads.  At one point as Dua is trying to figure out what she wants to study and if she wants to start an MSA in her high school, since she is the only Muslim, she internally discusses how she wants to prove herself to her parents.  Then when she decides what she wants to do for her, she remarks that she isn’t just doing it to prove to her parents, but because she wants it for her.  The only problem is, no where have we seen or has it been established that her parents are requiring this proof.  

There are odd errors as well.  The athan on a phone goes off, the Uncle reaches in to his pocket for his phone and turns off his iPad.  That is a big pocket indeed.  Dua gifts Hassan a CD, really a CD? What is this 1999? Who gifts CDs in 2021? Dua starts playing a keyboard in someone elses house and no one mentions it other than the two people with her, how big is the house that you can’t hear it? The Uncle gets upset that Dua doesn’t pray Asr right at time, but a lot of people prefer Asr specifically to be prayed later within the time frame.  In a two chapter frame it mentions letting out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding three times, word for word the same.

I was genuinely surprised that music being questionable was not brought up at all, two of the bandmates are huffaz.  The author lets her own qualifiers slip in, perhaps her own desire to not take a stand that could seem alienating.  She says, “allegedly” the time right before iftar is the best time to make dua.  As Dua tries to figure out what is going on with Hassan she often remarks how it is hard or confusing “especially because he is Muslim.” Would a relationship with a non Muslim be ok, less hard, more hard? There is no lowering of any gazes, which for as religious as everyone in the book is, should have at least been mentioned even if not adhered to.  The book puts on odd stress on tasbeehs and kufis, not sure why.  

I do like the genuine love the characters have for Islam, Allah, Ramadan, salat.  It is so much a part of every thing they do, and it is lovely.  I also love Dua’s friend in Virginia, Kat, she is fasting in solidarity and wants to join the MSA even though she isn’t Muslim, but a seemingly amazing friend.

FLAGS:

The on-gain-off-again engaged couple do touch hands at Eid prayer.  Hassan touches Duas arm when she is perceived as helpless.  There are anti Islam protests and an angry man shoots Adam.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If the sloppiness gets resolved, the book could be used as a high school book club choice.  Those girls love them some halal romance, and this book is incredibly religious and clean. 

Arab Arab All Year Long! by Cathy Camper illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi

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Arab Arab All Year Long! by Cathy Camper illustrated by Sawsan Chalabi

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This 40 page month-by-month celebration of Arab culture, both old an new, will be a source of pride and smiles for readers of all ages.  The author is an Arab American of Lebanese decent and the illustrator was born in Lebanon.  The book shows Muslim’s teaching others about Ramadan, looking up hijabi fashions, as well as making cookies at Easter and dressing in sleeveless shirts.  To be Arab is not a monolith and this book seems to convey that culture and tradition and love are all it takes to be included in the broad diverse identity of being Arab.

January starts with finding stars with Arabic names, and February recalls how a comic about Martin Luther King, Jr. helped inspire the Arab Spring.  The kids in turn make a comic to teach others about Ramadan.  March is a chuckle about Arab time, and April is making maamoul with Sitti for Easter. May is learning to write Arabic and June for gathering grape leaves to make warak enab.  July is picnics that remind mama of Morocco and making perfume with familiar smells and memories. 

August is playing the doumbek with Dad who is in an Arab band. September is researching hijab costumes to wear to comic con.  Dressing up like Umm Kulthum wins first prize.  October is pomegranate time, which means the kids jump in the tub to eat and enjoy the messy fruit. Chilly November air requires the Palestinian keffiyeh to keep memories warm, and December when friends are busy over winter break it is time for sleep-overs and henna parties.

I like that dressing up is not for Halloween and that while some examples are country specific, many are general.  The book specifically mentions a few Arab countries, but the electronic arc did not include all the supplemental information that the published hardback book will contain.  I can’t wait to check it out and gift to my Arab friends and their children. 

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.

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan by Maxine Rose Schur illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi

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This 44 page fictionalized retelling of Queen Goharshad, a 15th century monarch of the Timurid dynasty in Afghanistan should really be a larger book than 8 x 8 to appreciate the artwork that is detailed and stunning.  The story of Goharshad, wife of Emperor Shah Rukh, and her influence on art, music, culture, higher education, and architecture, is one that we should be more familiar with, but the actual text and manner in which the story is conveyed isn’t consistent for me and I wanted more details about the society she stepped in to to rule,  I know it is fiction, and meant for 2nd to 4th graders, but I would like to think that readers will want to know what obstacles she had and what support she enjoyed and from where.  That they will question if it was a rich kingdom that she could pay musicians to play everywhere, and wonder if families sent their daughters to the University she built, ask why it wasn’t for women to design a  Masjid, and what was the name of the smaller mosque that bore an older woman’s name? The book at times overly summarizes and at other times is haltingly detailed.  It is a good read to reflect a strong woman and her influence on her land, but unless assigned, I don’t know that seven to ten year olds will pick up the book and be inspired by it enough to change their perception of the Afghanistan that they may see on the news.

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Seven centuries ago Goharshad loved beautiful things such as painting and the texts of Rumi.  Her brothers played at being like Genghis Khan and teased her for not being brave.  She vowed to be brave with beauty even though she didn’t know what that even meant.  At age 14 she was given in marriage to the king, Shah Rukh, in Herat.  She ruled with her husband and had resources and time to spread her beauty by speaking up and being brave.

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Her first act of beauty was by filling the kingdom with music.  She wanted music every day in the court and beyond. Music that was playful and pious, music that painted pictures in the listeners minds and brought joy like the laughter of God.  She next sketched and designed a beautiful and enchanting garden to be built.  It doesn’t say where it was, but that people came from all around to enjoy it.

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Feeling braver she turned her sights on building a mosque in the western city of Mashhad.  She designed it and called the court architect, Qavam al-Din Shirazi to discuss.  He doubted if it was right for a woman to design such spaces, but she assured him that she had the talent for it, so construction began.  An elderly woman refused to sell her cottage for the new project unless a mosque with her name was built.  The advisors wanted the old woman put to death or imprisoned, Goharshad disagreed appreciating the woman’s strength and instead agreed.  The big mosque was built with Goharshad’s name and a smaller one on the property with the old lady’s.

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With such an accomplishment complete, the Queen again summoned the architect and expressed her desire to build a great center for learning.  A college for girls, a grand mosque for prayer, and a vast library.  She wanted the structure decorated with paint from precious stones and sold her crown to finance the project.

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After her husband died Goharshad reigned, but sadly after she died, much of her accomplishments died as well.  Over time, harsh weather and war, nearly all her buildings disappeared and those that remain, do so in ruin.  The book ends with hope that memories of her will endure, A guide to some of the words in the story,  an Author’s note, and a Guide for Parents and Educators.

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There is not a lot of Islam in the story, just the building of masajid .  Some may take issue with her stress and celebration of music, and likening it to God laughing, but if you look at it as her story, it should be able to be appreciated even if you disagree.

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Sasquatch in the Paint by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

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sasquatch

My tween boys read the first two books in the Streetball Crew Series and recommended I read book one because there is a Muslim character and I’m a fan of the basketball all-star author who draws on his own life and experiences growing up in the story.  It is 265 pages, an AR 4.5, and while the story is decent, and I enjoyed the majority of it, I didn’t love it.  I was not thrilled at the choppiness of the story telling and ultimately the way Islam was presented.  Obviously there are plenty of Muslims that will occasionally eat pork and who get violent as they get more religious, but I don’t think it is the norm and definitely isn’t a message most middle grade Muslim readers would identify with, nor want non Muslims assuming about Muslims as a whole.  The book randomly has a sudden Muslim chapter toward the end and attributes some threats on the main character as being from Muslims becoming more devout.  The main character is not Muslim, this is a side character and her family, and you don’t find out til the book is nearly over that she is Muslim. I worry how younger readers will be affected by the negativity toward Islam, as it really isn’t explored or even part of the story.  There is enough going on in 8th grade Theo’s life with out the insertion of religion.  I was glad I read it so that I could discuss it with my boys, but I would encourage the book for more middle school aged kids, if at all.  The book involves basketball as a subplot, but has larger life lessons and developments away from the game.  Do be aware one of the young characters smokes cigarettes, there is female objectification talk among the male characters, racism is discussed, there is some physical assault, and beer, R-rated movies, tattoos, branding, and dating are mentioned in this coming of age book.

SYNOPSIS:

Theo is 13, in 8th grade, and over the summer has grown six inches.  He identifies as a science nerd and a geek and is on the Academic Olympic team at his school.  He now, however, finds himself on the school basketball team, and has no idea what he is doing.  Towering over everyone, he is assumed to be good, but his lanky body and new found size brings him ridicule and teasing. His life long best friend, a fellow geek, can’t figure out why he won’t just quit the basketball team, but Theo is oddly enough,  enjoying the concept of team, and suddenly being recognized in the halls.  When he joins a pickup game to improve his skills however, he gets in a fight with another kid, get’s threatened by some guys on motorcycles, and teased by a weird girl named Rain.

Outside of school it is just Theo and his police officer dad. Theo’s mom has recently passed away and the two are creating a new normal, that is until Theo finds out his father is giving online dating a try.   After the first abysmal basketball game, Theo is forced to go visit his cousin in LA who is a tiny bit older than him, but much rougher.  He constantly teases Theo and puts him down.  He claims to be a great musician, but no one has ever heard his music, and suddenly on this visit, he seems a bit more insightful, which has Theo confused. 

With Theo being pulled in multiple directions, he risks being kicked off the basketball team, moved down to alternate on the Brain Game Team, killed on Friday by the motorcycle gang and to top it all off, a CD of his cousins music has been stolen from Theo’s backpack and band has gone viral with one of the songs.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it is a coming of age book for boys.  I feel like there are a lot of girl books out there, but this one really does get into a young males head.  It isn’t always pretty, and while women/girls are at times objectified in his thoughts and while chatting with his friends, I think he realizes it and doesn’t treat or talk to women in a negative way.  I like that race is discussed as he is one of 14 black kids in his school of 600.  There are times when he or his family are treated different for their skin color, but his mom never allowed him to accept it to be a reason for not being the best ‘you’ and she would make them put money in a jar any time they blamed race for something bad happening, a tradition they continue even though she has passed.  I like the pop cultural references, a lot of books overdo it, this book makes it pretty smooth and relatable.

*Spoiler Warning* So Rain, turns out to be Matar, Arabic for Rain, she has convinced her aunt and uncle to let her change schools while her parents are in Iraq (her mom is Iraqi, her father a Quaker from Pennsylvania) and call her by her American name and let her wear American clothes (no hijab).  The motorcycle villains, are her cousins, who were trying to find her and were threatening  Theo to try and find out where she was.  Their frustration with her behavior and dress is what prompted them to hit Rain which made her run.  Rain and Theo discuss why after September 11, she was tired of being accused of being a terrorist and so she wanted a fresh start.  Her uncle and aunt are noted as being nice, but clearly the devout Muslim cousins are what will be remembered.  She also discusses sometimes eating pork, that hijab is modesty in the Quran, not a requirement to cover your hair, and that she is Muslim, but doesn’t know if she will be when she is older.

The book didn’t find its flow for me until nearly half way through, maybe about page 100 or so.  It seemed to struggle to get all the characters introduced, flesh them out, and then decide what the book should be about.  Once it got through all that it flowed better, but still left me confused as to why there was a spontaneous breakfast party, why a lawyer would so quickly get involved in the music case, why Theo was withdrawing from his friends, why Rain wouldn’t just talk to Theo, how Rain had friends she could stay with after just starting at the school, how Rain could switch schools without her parents there. Really the Rain character in general seemed really forced.

FLAGS:

I listed most of the potential concerns in the opening paragraph so that anyone, like me that would think, ‘oh fabulous a middle grade sports book by a Muslim author’ would be aware that there are a few potentially concerning elements.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club selection, it is a little all over the place, my 11 year old disagrees and thinks it would be a great book club read, so I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Video interviews with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about the book:

https://video.disney.com/watch/sasquatch-in-the-paint-with-kareem-abdul-jabbar-4e8f920a40dec5fcc9be6a5d

 

Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

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Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

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This middle grades companion book to Amina’s Voice, reads in much of the same way as a lot of Hena Khan books in that I feel she is presenting Pakistani Muslims in America to non Pakistani non Muslims in the west.  In the first quarter or so of this 288 page book that takes place in Lahore,  I felt a different tone than really spoke to me. Granted I am (half) Pakistani and Muslim, but when Amina says good-bye to her family, I was in tears.  It was relatable and powerful and so real to me that I got emotional, the rest of the book, sadly, not so much.  It’s not to say that it isn’t well written, I just feel like the majority of the book are borderline issues for many Muslims looking to see themselves in literature: music, school dances, boy/girl friendships, and when presented that a religious family is permitting and celebrating of these issues, it seems to be trying to make us fit in, rather than support us for holding to a different perspective.  There is a lot of good in the book about finding your voice, sibling and family relationships, friends, and challenging stereotypes, that I think the book would be great for some 3rd graders and up.  However, if your family is against the aforementioned potential flags you may find the book that talks about reading Quran and praying makes the characters harder to separate from your own kids, you may want to hold back in recommending it to them.  Don’t get me wrong the book is clean and well done, I just know from personal experience that sometimes when characters do things that you family doesn’t agree with it is easier to say that those things are for them, not us, but when the family doing them looks a lot like your family, you have to be ready to explain the differences.  

SYNOPSIS:

Amina is in Lahore exploring the city with her brother and cousins.  She is visiting her uncle who had come to visit in Amina’s Voice and as the trip comes to an end, she doesn’t feel like she is the same person that came to Pakistan a month ago.  She is closer to her older brother Mustafa, she feels connected to her extended family, and she is growing more comfortable with pieces of her self she didn’t know existed before.  Excited to go back to America and tell her friends about her summer, she finds they really aren’t interested, and she is unsure how to keep her promise to her uncle to show the world the beauty of Pakistan.  

Once school starts, Amina is assigned a wax museum project in Social Studies that requires her to research and present a person that has changed the world.  She picks Malala, but when she explains to her class at a midway check how Malala was shot for going to school, rather than feel inspired, her classmates feel sorrow that Pakistan is so backward and oppressive, the complete opposite of what Amina felt surrounded by such vibrancy and strength while in Pakistan.  Determined to set things right, she reaches out to her cousins and uncle in Pakistan, except her uncle is back in the hospital and worry consumes Amina and her family, who are torn with being so far away from their loved ones. 

At the same time Amina is feeling like her best friends Emily and Soojin are drifting apart.  Emily is in chess club, Soojin is running for class president, and Amina just wants to write music, produce songs and sing.  There is a new kid Nico, who is half Egyptian, and has music computer software that when he offers to help Amina produce music she says yes, and he starts spending a lot of time at Amina’s house.   

Friends new and old along with immediate and extended family, love and support Amina and cheer her on as she finds her voice to share the beauty of Pakistan, fight for her friendships, and be content with all her pieces that make her unique.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Amina realizes her culture is more important than following rules and her grade.  She breaks from the assignment to spread light on more strong, brave Pakistani women than just the one, and is ok with her grade suffering as a result.  I love that she realizes the headlines don’t reveal reality and that you have to see more than one side to the story.  I love that she is religious and that the imam is cool and that her whole family is service oriented and compassionate.  I love that her friends are diverse and their families are close friends as well.  The sense of community established is carried over from the first book, and I think it gives the book a level of comfort that is pure and honest.

I have issues with Amina’s family being ok with her going to the school dance.  She goes with her female friends, but to me it seems like a conversation is missing or she shouldn’t be going.  It is mentioned that Mustafa went alone to a high school dance, but never explains why.  Similarly, Amina is nervous about having Nico over and her family at times is bothered by it, but again it never specifies why.  I feel like if there was a conversation about why her family would be weird about it or why she is nervous to tell her mom that the friend coming over is a boy then when Amina reminds her mom that her best friend in kindergarten was a boy and everyone was fine with it, or that when her mom asks if there is anything more than friendship going on, the reader would know why it is such a big deal.  It seems to skip the explanation part and jumps from the nervous to have a boy who is a friend, to defending the friend being a boy, and skip the why part.

I didn’t get why Nico identifies as Muslim and Christian but never says salam, and I especially didn’t get why Amina’s mom was more relaxed when she thought he might be Muslim.

I also wish that after the whole emphasis on music, that the lyrics would have at least been shared. I was looking forward to it and was let down by it not being shared.

FLAGS:
Nothing blatant.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION: 

I don’t think that this would work level wise or content wise for a middle school Islamic school book club.