Tag Archives: OWN Voice

Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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This beautiful 32-page picture book by Muslim author Rahma Rodaah radiates joy through the text and illustrations.  The powerful and lyrical words on the page inspire confidence to take up space and encourage celebration through their messaging and tone.  My three-year-old enjoyed me reading it aloud, it kept his focus and his interest, and my seven-year-old read it over my shoulder and then numerous time on his own.  The sway and images painted by the text are so well refined that you could truly read this book a dozen times and still be moved by the passages.  The illustrations compliment the author’s message in their reflection of Black children of all shapes, sizes, shades, and mobility.  There is even a visibly Muslim woman in hijab (#muslimintheillustration) that looks like the author herself.

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I look forward to sharing this book with various story times in the community, in my children’s classes, and in regular rotation at my own home.  Framed as a letter to a beautiful Black child, the book speaks to “you.”  It starts with encouraging you to stand in your own light, take up space, say your name proudly, and proclaim your native tongue.

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It inspires the Black child to speak confidently, roam freely, to be rooted, yet move swiftly. To write the books and tell the stories that only they can tell, and to trust their inner compass.  It also reassures them that they are not alone, that there are those that will always help, always cheer them on, and remind them of their glory.

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The book is as powerful as it is beautiful and I hope it finds a home on every classroom, library, and home bookshelf.  I purchased mine here.

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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This stand alone middle grade read by Muslim author Nizrana Farook is similar to her first two books about an elephant and a whale in that it is set in Serendib a long time ago and revolves around a beautiful wild animal and clever, endearing, determined young children. This actual story is an easy read at 203 pages (the end of the book is the first four chapters of one of her previously published books).  I think seven and eight year olds will enjoy getting to know Selvi and the beautiful leopard Lakka that she considers a friend.  For me the ending took an odd turn that seemed out of place, but up until then I was enchanted by the lush imagery, sheer determination, and sweet friendship shared within the pages.  The main character is not Muslim, but presumably some of the side characters are with names such as, Amir and Salma.

SYNOPSIS:
Selvi and her mother live in a small home on the mountain.  Most days she runs wild with a golden leopard she has named Lakka.  She keeps her distance, but there is a pattern to their interactions, and when Selvi’s mother finally allows her to go to school, and she finds the other children unkind, Lakka becomes her only friend.  One day poachers are on the mountain hunting not just any leopards, which are protected by the queen, but the rare golden one that is often seen in the area, Selvi tries to interfere.  And before she knows it, they are after her.  She hides near a home, and when the poacher’s come looking for her, she is at the mercy of Amir to lie and say he hasn’t seen her.  Amir is a classmate, a mean one, but he has seen her before with the leopard, and suddenly Lakka is not so alone.

Between making friends at school, battling her uncle’s rules to start behaving more ladylike, and keeping a leopard safe, the adventure is fast paced and the story entertaining.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love kids outsmarting adults and saving the day, it makes for good story telling.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I really felt like it was forced.  I truly do not understand why the children needed to take a drugged Lakka to the port and back.  Why not leave him with the new friends and go to the port without him? He is a wild animal, we have been given reasoning for so much of the human animal interactions to be believable, that this seems to be negligent.  So much could have gone wrong and for what? There was no need.  The kids wanting to see punishment handed out is motivation enough for them to make the journey in my opinion.  Sigh, I don’t know that younger kids will be as bothered as I am, but I think fourth graders and up will definitely question it and be confused.  I also don’t know that I have ever seen the sneak peak of another book included at the end, being for a book previously published.  Aren’t they usually for upcoming releases? Either way, it seemed to make the last portion of the book deflate a bit for a story that was engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down until then.

FLAGS:

Lying, poaching, abuse, threats, killing, animal cruelty, bullying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime.  The short chapters have little illustrations above the headings that hint at what is to come, and the writing style is perfect for short blocks of time.

The book is available on Amazon

The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

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The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

This sweet middle grades book about two girls in Ghana is a friendship story and a rags to riches gem.  The 336 pages immerse you in a rich and vibrant culture and share a story that while at times simplistic, really pulls you in and makes the over the top happy ending, tearful and joyful.  I read the entire book in one setting and loved that there was no glossary, or white pandering; the story works in the explanations and details for those unfamiliar with West African cultures to share a story about classism, friendship, growing up, and challenging stereotypes.  I loved while so much was new to me and culture specific, so much, at the same time, was universal and relatable to all.  The story is OWN voice, the main character is a wealthy girl,  but the friend is a poor Muslim one.  I am not sure where the religious representation ended and the cultural practices started, but the book does not criticize any culture or traditions, it only criticizes the mindset that one is superior to another because of where they are from.  I also don’t know that the Muslim character will mirror global Muslim experiences, but having the character identify as Muslim and be such a wise and determined friend, makes her a great character to cheer on and love no matter the reader’s background.  This would be a great book to teach, to shelve, to read aloud, and to discuss.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen year old Abena is spending her summer with her aunt in Makola market while her mother has traveled to London to give birth.  Abena’s father is a physician and her friends are part of the wealthy and privileged class that attends American schools, vacations abroad, lives in mansions with servants, and have the latest phones.  In a bit of a culture shock spending the weekdays with her aunt at the bustling market, Abena starts to see her country and its people in a different light. One day while getting out of her aunt’s car she makes eye contact with a kayayoo, a porter who carries customers purchases on their head.  She snaps a picture of the girl who appears about her age wearing an orange scarf, as she secretly is working on a journalism competition, and something about the girl intrigues her.  The two smile and carry on.  Later when they meet again they realize they do not share any common languages, they both speak a number of dialects and languages, yet somehow the girls connect.  Day after day they sneak away to have lunch together and learn about one another as they learn each other’s language, culture, history, and dreams.  Faiza opens Abena’s eyes to so much about Ghana that she had never known existed and Abena teaches Faiza English, science, shows her the internet and gives her the foundation for how to read and write.  Abena’s aunty does not approve of their friendship: stereotypes and assumptions about poor Muslims from the North prevent her from treating Faiza as an equal.  Yet, she doesn’t forbid the friendship either.  As the girls’ friendship grows, summer vacation comes to an end and goodbyes will have to be made.  Things get expediated though, in a climax of misunderstandings, regrets, and friendships separated by class and religion.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that right before Abena sneaks Faiza on to the laptop to Google dinosaurs, and the solar system, and cities in Ghana and maps, I was Googling images of geles, okro and Makola market, maps to see where Hausa and Dagomba regions are, and enjoying learning about people because it is so enriching whether fictional or in real life.

I love that there isn’t judgement by either girl on trying to understand why children are given to aunts to raise or why women are forced to marry.  It shows so much without othering any facet of sub culture within Ghana or anywhere for that matter.  Abena’s cousins aren’t put down for being wealthy, or Faiza for being poor.  Even the Haji looking for a fourth wife is not favorable because he is old and has brown stained teeth, not because there is judgement upon him having more than one wife or the family wanting their daughter to marry him.

I often remark that I like middle grade books that don’t tie everything up in a neat and tidy bow, but this book went the other extreme and tied everything up far in to the future, that I ended up loving the extreme nature of it as the tears of joy dripped off my cheeks.  If you are going to do it, do it for a reason, and this book did it to great effect.

Faiza is Muslim she wears hijab and stops Abena from taking it off at one point, but then at the end she has braids hanging out from underneath her scarf.  There are crushes and hugging between Faiza and males and an implied potential romantic relationship between Faiza and a non Muslim male that is never given pause.  A character goes for hajj, it mentions a space that Faiza uses for prayer, and it mentions Faiza’s Muslim family members getting drunk.  Nothing more than these details are given about being Muslim, other than her being labeled as a Muslim and identifying as one.

FLAGS:

Theft, crushes, lying, classism, racism, running away, drinking beer, getting drunk, forced marriage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think that the book would lend itself very easy toward discussion and appreciating a people and culture that for many in the west would be new and unfamiliar.  I think outside research to supplement would be a natural extension and that the characters, their voices, their lives, and experiences, will stay with readers of all ages as we can rest easy knowing that they got their happy endings.

Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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This sweet board book is part of a series, the other two books are Japan and France, releasing in October.  All are brightly illustrated, 20 page books for ages zero to four and take the littlest of readers into a country, through sights, experiences, foods and language.  This particular book does not feature any visible #muslimsintheillustrations but the author is Muslim, and so I am reviewing and sharing it here.

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The framing of the book is a day in the life of a little girl, who wakes up with bosas from her mama and baba and greetings of Ahlan.  Some of the words are written in Arabic script with the English transliteration and pronunciation provided, other times it is just the English transliteration of the Arabic with the pronunciation asterisked and written smaller immediately below the text.

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Once she is awake, she gets dressed, brushes her teeth and is off with her baba to buy pita and ful.  The busy street offers sights to see and fruits to pick from.  She ponders and asks herself and the readers which one to choose.

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At her Teita and Geddos there is dancing and tabla playing before walking back home along the Corniche.  Dinner is served and bedtime has arrived. The book concludes with a summary of her day linking the Arabic words to the illustrations and English meaning, as well as some pronunciation tips for the Arabic sounds.

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As a Muslim reviewer I had to hope there might be one hijab clad woman in the illustrations, I know many Muslims don’t cover and Egypt is diverse, but considering the lens I review from, I feel obligated to state that opinion.

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A little more critically, I was a bit surprised on the page with the colorful boats that the color names yellow, blue, and purple, were not included in Arabic and only in English.  Seemed that would have been an naturally and easy inclusion.

Overall, the book did a good job of celebrating Egypt without over explaining, keeping it bright and engaging for toddlers.  I really like the language being shared in a story context, not just a book with a picture on it and words in different languages.  I also liked that while the details were Egypt specific, there were also pages that were universal.

Available for preorder and purchase here

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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This 320 page full color middle grade graphic novel is a powerful and moving read. The memoir focuses on the young Syrian boy who began reporting on the war from the perspective of children and sharing his work on social media.  The raw emotion, the determination to make a difference, the familial love, are conveyed in a way that allows eight and nine year old readers to connect to living through horror with compassion and outrage and empathy.  Older readers will also be drawn in and moved by the relatability of a boy their age having his world turned upside down.  I particularly like how the book dispels so many assumptions and stereotypes by showing what life was like before the devastation, a bit about the role of outside forces and political oppression, and really creating a mood where you can imagine what you would do if you were in Muhammad’s situation.  The book is heavy, but also has a lot of hope and and joy. I tend to like nonfiction graphic novels that are character driven like this one.  I find I understand the scope of what they are enduring by seeing it through their eyes and feeling like I know them and thus can better grasp what their reality is.  There are photographs at the end which further connect the readers to Muhammad and Syria, and I hope this book finds its way into classrooms, libraries, homes, and hearts, so that we might be better to one another.  Readers of When Stars are Scattered will similarly love this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book begins with eight-year-old Muhammad hanging around his father’s carpentry shop in Eastern Ghouta, playing soccer and pleading to by treats from the candy seller.  When Assad’s soldiers come, destroy his soccer ball, and his family warns him not to trust anyone, including the new candy seller, Muhammad’s world is suddenly not so certain.  When his family must seek shelter at a moments notice, homework is left, videogames paused, and fear very real.

Muhammad is the miracle child, born after the family didn’t know if they could have any more children, he is the fourth, and spoiled. Even with destruction and sheltering though, there is joy, more children are born in to the family, and while Muhammad’s status might be in question, his love of his little brother and sister, motivate him to do something to create a safer home.

At age 13, his father and uncle go for Jummah salat, and his father is killed while praying.  At 15 Muhammad is done hiding, he knows he will never be safe and he starts filming and sharing stories of children as a way to honor is father and fight back against oppression.

With the support of his family, and constant worry that Assad’s army will target him, Muhammad keeps telling the stories of those with no voice.  Eventually his following grows, catches international attention, and gives Muhammad purpose.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the format for this story, you truly can’t put it down.  It shows the emotion so powerfully that you cry when characters are lost.  You know hundreds die every day, but the singling in on a character that you have grown to love dying moves the reader, add in that you know this was a real person and that Muhammad really endured the loss, and it reminds you of your humanity.  The love the characters all have for their oldest sister is absolutely incredible.  The pages of the family just being so connected are my absolute favorites.

The characters are Muslim and it is a part of their daily lives, there is no pulling out of the narrative and explaining or preaching.  The women wear hijab, they plead with Allah swt, they reflect on Allah’s plan, they go for prayers at the masjid.

FLAGS:

Death, destruction, war, fear. It is not sensationalized, and I truly think middle grade and middle school readers will benefit from reading, even the sensitive ones.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be wonderful to teach in the classroom tying literature, current events, and history together.  I absolutely think every library, classroom, and home bookshelf should feature this book.

It can be pre-orderd here

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon

Swimming on the Lawn by Yasmin Hamid

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Swimming on the Lawn by Yasmin Hamid

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This 176 page book about life in Khartoum, Sudan reads almost like a memoir with short, loosely connected chapters detailing a young protagonists day-to-day life growing up.  There is no real conflict  until the very, very end, and the majority of the chapters just seem like snapshots with little to no continuity.  That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy all the stage setting and the easy voice detailing a time and place that I know too little about, but I don’t know that most kids will feel compelled to keep reading.  The book is slow and wandering, best suited for lower YA/middle school, if they can be persuaded to read it.  I think the book would do well taught, as some good discussions about Sudan, growing up with an English mother in Africa, the role of religion,  the 1960s, the impact of financial comfort, and the threat of violence would make the book very relatable while also being eye opening.  The power and beauty of OWN voice makes this prose filled book thought provoking and memorable in a subtle and light way.

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SYNOPSIS:

The standalone chapters follow Farida and her siblings in Sudan in the 1960s.  Their summer vacations, visiting friends, trips to villages, making tea, lots and lots of tea, reading books sent by their Grandma in England, and the abrupt arrival of soldiers.  Told from a child’s perspective the short chapters focus on the events front and center and don’t carry over or carry morals or lessons.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the chapters titles are written in English and Arabic and that Islamic holidays and customs are mentioned.  Interestingly though, the family doesn’t seem to practice.  There is cultural presentation of Eid and Mawlid and talk of hajj, but not of praying or saying Bismillah or inshaAllah in daily conversations.

I wish there was more information about the mom being English and how the parents met, and what cultural obstacles maybe had to be ironed out.  I also wish there was a bit more at the end, an afterward even something that gave some closure or insight into what the ending means for Farida and for Sudan.  The choppiness grows on you, but some stories even at that were too unresolved.  The whole chapter detailing her traveling with her uncle to his village only to find her back at home the next chapter without any reflection on the journey, how she returned, the cousins she met, etc., just seemed unresolved.

FLAGS:

A birth and burying the placenta is described, alcohol is mentioned, fear of a friends dad is hinted at, soldiers being present, father being taken away by force, shootings.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think in a middle school classroom setting the book would have a lot of potential.  Read a chapter and have kids journal their impressions or thoughts perhaps, or have them imitate the style and write about themselves.  It probably wouldn’t work as a book club, but it definitely should be shelved in a school or classroom library.

You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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Books like this are hard for me to review, and I have gone back and forth on whether I should post anything or not.  On the one hand, we need books that are unapologetically Palestinian written by Palestinians.  They need to be celebrated and elevated and I want to offer my support to the stories, to the voices, to the authors, illustrators, everyone involved.  On the other hand, if I didn’t love it, why should I shy away from saying so, when I have purchased the book (pre-ordered and changed the shipping address even, to have it delivered to me on vacation because I didn’t want to wait to read it).  The book is emotional, but the last six pages unraveled the whole book for me, and in a picture book particularly of this nature, when you finish- if you don’t have a cathartic pull, you start to find holes in the story as you feel deflated.  The book, I would go out on a limb to say, needs to be discussed and given context even if you are Palestinian.  As someone who is not, I recognize my arrogance in such a statement and am happy to be corrected, but from a literary reviewer standpoint the book needs discussion and additional context.  The Nakba is only articulated in one paragraph in the author’s note.  In the story itself there is no indication that what happened to Thaer happened to so many Palestinians in 1948.  The use of color and how it is depicted in the illustrations is tangible and powerful, but as odd as it is to say, the words got in the way of the story.

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The book starts with Thaer trudging to school in dull sepia filled pages to begrudgingly sit at a desk and begin an art lesson.  He is glad the spitballs are just spitballs and not real explosions, but the tone is still melancholy.  When he sees boys playing soccer he recalls the last time he played soccer, and the memory comes alive in color.  He was in Yafa, it was the day before the Zionists came and took his family’s home.

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The teacher, back in muted tones, asks him to draw what has made him smile, and Thaer gives it a try.  Blue for the color of the sea, green for zeit and za’tar, brown for taboon to get fresh bread, etc..  When he takes the drawings home to his mother, she is not impressed.  Drawings are silly and colors aren’t going to bring Baba and Susu back.

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Defeated, the next day in class, Thaer recalls the men pounding down the door and Baba being shoved in a truck and Susu falling.  The next day at school they hang up some of their pictures and Thaer talks about his sister.  (SPOILER) On the way home Thaer paints the alleyway and brings color to his and his mom’s world.  His mama says that he is the color, and when the following day’s prompt is to draw what you want to be when you grow up it shows Thaer (presumably) on the beach as an adult painting.

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The disconnect for me occurred with the painting of the alleyway.  I was incredibly invested in the story, my heartstrings were being tugged, I was breaking for this character and his experiences, and it all came to a screeching halt because I couldn’t understand where the paint and the alleyway and the mama’s change of heart all manifested from.  As for the ending, I think I know what the author was going for, but it didn’t connect with any of my kids aged 2-15 nor my mother, a 40+ year early elementary veteran teacher.  I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces as she read the book to them.  The frozen expressions of huh and confusion at the end, until my 11 year old to broke the awkward silence to ask if the boy wants to be a painter or a father or an adult?  Those facets coupled with the often advanced vocabulary, makes the book an important one, but one that needs a lot of outside commentary to connect with the readers and to further the conversation about Zionism, al-Nakba, the occupation, and the continued oppression of Palestine.

There are flags of loss, kidnapping, sorrow, violence, etc., that parents will have to gauge if their children can handle. I’m not sure what age group is the best fit, the murder of a young girl, the forced displacement from one’s home, the removal of the father are all heavy themes.  I appreciate that it isn’t “watered down” for a western gaze so to speak, but I wish there was more about what happened to the dad, is there hope he is alive? I wish there was something about this not being an isolated reality for the protagonist and his family.  I wish there was some conversation or connection between the mother and son, because the loss of continuity really derailed the story.

As for the idea of the story, and the use of the illustrations to physically show two worlds I think is a great idea, it just sadly fell apart for me at the end: the faltering conclusion and the loss of emotional buildup that the first two thirds of the story worked so hard to create.

Mark My Words: The Truth is There in Black and White by Muhammad Khan

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Mark My Words: The Truth is There in Black and White by Muhammad Khan

This 304 page YA/Teen book was surprisingly well written, gripping, relevant, and engaging.  I say “surprisingly” because the cover and title don’t scream pick-me-up-and-read-me, at all.  If I’m being completely honest, it looks like a self published book from the 90s, not one about to be released on June 1, 2022.  Appearances aside, it reads real and raw and even though it is very British and I didn’t understand a lot of the slang or the framing, I still was very invested.  The main character is Muslim and while part of the plot is focused on her identity, it isn’t her doubting herself, it is her in all her facets taking on stresses in her life, sticking up for what’s right, and going to bat against some very heavy hitters in the community.  The book has drugs, parties, racism, islamophobia, lying, crushes, cross dressers, gay and straight characters and relationships, privilege, assault, theft, robbery, language, hate crimes, talk of condoms, rape, sexual assault- it is raw, but the Muslim characters know who they are and engage in the environment around them as informed practicing Muslims.  The main character wears hijab and when she goes undercover she wears a wig and that conversation with herself if it is ok or not takes place, as she starts to have feelings for a boy and she tries to justify if it is ok for her, that conversation in her mind also is written out, many of her friends are of different sexual orientation and there is no judging or preaching, she accepts and celebrates them and they do the same for her. The drug use is never glorified and racism and misogyny are called out. The author is a teacher and it states in the backmatter the role his classroom and the students have in his writing and I think it shows.  The book says ages 12 and up, but I think for the content, critique on systemic racism, details about drug and drug use, gentrification, and media bias, the book is better suited for 16 year old readers and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Fifteen year old Dua’s school is under renovations which means her whole grade is being integrated with students at Minerva College, an elite private school on the other side of town.  It is an exam year, and what should be a dream for hard working Dua to get a foot in the door at her ideal school, quickly becomes anything but.  The kids from Bodley are made the scapegoats for a growing drug problem and the journalist in Dua is not standing for it.  When she doesn’t make the Minerva paper, she decides to start her own, and the dirt her and her news crew start uncovering isn’t mere gossip, it is outright illegal.  While journalism starts taking over her school life, Dua’s home life is quickly crumbling.  Her mother is falling apart mentally, failing to get to work, and struggling to keep her own demons at bay.  When Dua’s slightly estranged father tries to step in to help, Dua has to reconcile her past relationship with him and find a way to move forward.  In between all the drama at school and home is Dua’s time on the basketball court, and star Minerva Rugby player, Hugo, has taken an interest in her Kobe sneakers, and her.  The two spend some flirty time on the court leaving Dua with some decisions to make, and her questioning who to trust as everything starts to blow up.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love how fierce and strong Dua is.  Yes, she over does it at times, but just as fiercely as she pushes for what is right in her mind, she acknowledges her errors and works to correct them.  She is Muslim because she is Muslim it is never a label she wears for attention or for someone else, it is who she is.  I love that there are also Muslim side characters including the principal.  Dua and Huda, another girl at school are always getting mistaken for one another, which is a great OWN voice (even though the author is male) inclusion.  Additionally Huda has a boyfriend, and when in the midst of a conversation she refers to him as her fiancé, Dua freezes, and Huda explains that they are getting married as soon as they turn 16 since dating is Haram and their parents all know.  I love that there is no explaining or judging at 16 year olds getting married, it just is what it is. Most of the book is written in that tone, that there are girls wearing hijab, and yes it gets pulled off at some point, there are guys writing make-up columns, there are gay guys explaining sub groups within the minority, but it all comes across as judgement free.  When racist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic, or misogynistic, or classist comments are made, other characters call them out, not to debate or preach, but to just emphasize the live and let live tone the book seems to advocate.

I was thrilled to see Dua’s best friend Liam wears hearing aids and that is very much a part of him, it isn’t a label stuck on and forgotten.  It is joked about, it is a daily presence and the author notes it in the backmatter as well.

There were some side storylines that felt a little under devolved, I would have liked a stronger emotional arc in Dua’s mom’s mental health deterioration, as well as what drove her parents to divorce.  The book is fast paced, so I wouldn’t want a lot more back story, but a little more to connect with would have been nice.

Honestly it took a few attempts to get in to the story, just because I’m American and the book is British.  I finally just read through the first twenty pages and kept going and then I was fine.  I know that is my own bias, but it is worth noting since the title, and cover aren’t attractive and then once you start it isn’t immediately clear what is going on, that some determination might be required before the book becomes difficult to put down.

FLAGS:

Drugs, drug use, sexual assault, physical assault, corrupt police, racial profiling, gentrification, systemic racism, media bias, partying, deception, bribery, expulsion, mental health, bullying, cross dressing, relationships, attraction, misogyny, hate crimes, threats, corruption, property damage, theft, stealing, cursing, language, alcohol consumption, dealing, to name a few, it is a contemporary high school setting with students taking on racist elitists.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I know the flag list seems long, but I think there is a lot of sleuthing, action, character and story building and investment that give the book a lot of heart.  I think it could be shared in an Islamic high school and would result with some amazing discussions.  If you want to grab a copy, you can go through this link that will benefit me, I think Amazon gives me 2.2% back, lol, but when you pay for your own books, truly every little bit helps! Happy Reading!

Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

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Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

hollow fires

Every YA Samira Ahmed review I have written I remark at how amazing the premise is, how flat the characters are, and how forced the romance feels.  I am so happy that I did not dismiss this book, and when I return this copy to the library, I will be eagerly awaiting the purchased one to arrive so as to be placed on my book shelf.  There is connection to the protagonist, she is even likeable, the brief flirty romance is natural and not heavy handed, and the only thing better than the premise is the contemporary commentary.  The multiple writing styles, lyrical voices, and thriller/mystery elements make this 404 page teen book hard to put down.  Islam is present in different forms in different characters. There are very gentle elements of faith that really contrast the chaos of the plot and radiate peace: fajr salat, wanting a janazah, identifying as Muslim.  And while the book says 7th grade and up, I think it is more suited for high school readers.  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power, to name a few reasons that I think older readers (and adults) will appreciate and understand more deeply than most middle schoolers, how remarkable this book truly is.

SYNOPSIS:

Safiya is in her senior year at her elite private school, she’s a scholarship kid, and her passion is journalism.  As the editor of the paper she is unafraid to challenge the principal and spur others to action.  When a fellow Muslim kid, Jawad, at a nearby local school gets arrested for bringing a makerspace jetpack to school, it bothers her.  When Jawad goes missing, and events at school and in the community start putting Muslims and other minorities on edge, Safiya finds herself collecting bread crumbs and getting closer to the truth.  Throw in vandalism to her parents Desi store, smoke bombs in the bathrooms, swastikas graffitied at school, and a dead boy whispering to her and you have yourself an action packed thriller that hits close to home.  When the circumstances of how Jawad’s body are found and the clues start to fall in place, Safiya and readers will find themselves rushing against the clock.  Her to safety, and readers to see if their suspensions are correct.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love how each chapter starts with a fact, or a lie, or an alternate fact, or truth, I keep rereading them. They are so clever, and thought provoking as the short lines stare at you in black and white and get under your skin.

I don’t think the book explains if a ghost in Islamic doctrine would be possible, but I do like that the book on more than one occasions tries to explore it.  I think for me acknowledging that it doesn’t fit, but that jinn exist and that maybe it just is what it is allowed me to overlook it and read the story for what it is.  I appreciate that the author gave the characters presence of mind to try and view it through an Islamic perspective and see answers that way, even if it did come up short.

I love the parents in the book, all of them. There is no oppression or force or lack of understanding, from the parents which was a nice break from the normal YA Muslim family dynamic presentation.  As a result perhaps, Safiya has never gone to a school dance, but when asked to Winter Formal she doesn’t have any religious or cultural hesitation in agreeing to go.  Part of me wishes it would have crossed her mind, but I think the other part wins out- that for her it is a non issue and that her view and practice of Islam is just different than mine and that is ok.  I think part of the reason I am ok with it is because there is no overly forced make-out sessions or drawn out angsty scenes.  There is a kiss on the cheek and one on the forehead, a tiny bit of snuggling, and maybe a handhold.  Suffice it to say it isn’t overboard and extreme, it never says that Safiya prays, she notes her parents do, but it seems she goes to the mosque, she identifies as Muslim and she is unapologetic, so by moving the choice to her to go or not go to a dance allows Islam to stay Islam and her actions to stay her actions.  A subtle difference I’m sure for most, but for me a very powerful one in a book that is about more than Islam’s view of premarital relationships.  I think it is also promising in that it shows how far literature has come that these nuances can exist without being overly explained or made into black and white issues.

In a similar vein is how the three Muslim characters are presented.  At one point it says they all go to different mosques because of geography or ethnicity, but to them they are just Muslim.  This includes Usman a kufi wearing Shia Hazara from Afghanistan who is always crushing on his tennis partner, or some other guy.  There is nothing more said about it, and the book carries on.

The style of the writing between the alternating voices of Safiya and Jawad are nice, but I particularly liked the inclusion of the interviews, articles, excerpts, and court transcripts.  The change of pace made it feel like it was more than a fictionalized story about the characters at hand, and a societal trend that is impactful to us all.  Which of course is a theme of the book, and was a nice way to show and convey that sentiment without having to say it over and over again to be heard.

FLAGS:

Copy and pasted from above:  There are strong themes of islamophobia, media, and privilege, there is killing, murder, attempted murder, a gay Muslim, a ghost, assault, language, planning to go to a school dance, racism, vandalism, misogyny, Halloween, relationships, hate crimes, and abuse of power. The hand of Fatima symbol is apparent in the marketing of the book, it isn’t a huge part of the story itself.  It is a key chain that was given to a character and then passed on with a message that it will keep you safe.  Clearly it doesn’t keep you safe and the irony and the passing of it from one character to another (I’m really trying not to spoil anything, can you tell) is the only significance it has on the story.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have already told my daughter she needs to read the book this summer after finals (she is 15), and while I would love to do this as a high school book club book, I don’t know that the ease of going to a dance, the normative presentation of a gay Muslim, and the ghost as a main character would be widely accepted at an Islamic school.  I think I will suggest it to high schoolers that I know, and would do so confidently as the writing, overall messaging, and critique on the media and privilege are so well executed in a compelling story, but I think the flags might keep me from “teaching” the book or shelving it in the school library.