Tag Archives: OWN Voice

Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

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Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond

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Occasionally I get asked about short story and/or essay from a collection that a college or high school student is hoping to share with a class that doesn’t take long to read, but shows Islamic representation.  And I never have a suggestion.  The middle grade collection Once Upon an Eid is amazing, but for younger readers.  When I learned about this collection that features two known Muslim authors, Karuna Riazi (The Gauntlet series) and S.K. Ali (Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z), and involves food, I thought to take a look and see if I might finally have a suggestion.  Sadly, no.  None of the 13 stories wowed me, or really impressed.  A few I started then skipped, and none were really memorable.  The premise is unique: all the stories take place in the same neighborhood, feature food, and crossover characters, but some are love stories, others redemption, some have super heroes, others murder and gang violence, some really keep the food central, and others just mention it as being present.  There is familial love, romantic straight, lesbian, and trans love, there is friendship and food from many cultures served up to varying effects.  I admittedly read few short story collections, but even with that taken in to consideration, I think skipping this 353 page YA/Teen book is probably the best option.

SYNOPSIS:

I’ll only summarize the two Muslim authored stories.  A few of the others are culturally Indian, but they eat pork, so I’m assuming they are not Muslim, and the Persian one by Sara Farizan features alcohol and a lesbian romance, so since in a past book of hers I noted that I didn’t know if she or her characters identify as Muslim, I will skip reviewing hers as well.

Hearts a’ la Carte by Karuna Riazi:   Munira works at her families food cart, King of Kuisine and serves up Egyptian food to the people on Hungry Heart Row.  When a guy falls from the sky, she finds her self also falling hard for Hasan, as he regularly starts coming to eat and visit, but when it is revealed that he is a super hero (the Comet) and the reason her families cart is destroyed, Munira is not willing to pursue things further.

A Bountiful Film by S.K. Ali: Hania and her family have recently moved to Hungry Heart Row, where her father grew up and grandma Valimma lives.  Irritated that she had to leave her school, her job at Daily Harvest and friends behind, Hania is hoping to lose herself in putting together her film for the upcoming competition and beating her long time rival Gabrielle Rose.  With no clear idea of what her film should be about she starts with interviewing Valimma and her friends, which turns up a bit of an unsolved mystery involving a missing boy that keeps showing up on the security footage from local businesses.  Hania decides to pursue it, but finds herself being watched, and filmed in the process.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the stories are interconnected, I don’t know that it works, but I like the idea of it.  As for the two Muslim authored stories, I like that Islam and culture are included slightly, but that the story is much more than that, and the characters have more pressing issues to figure out.  I wish in both of these two stories, food was more fleshed out.  They seemed to be lacking the magical food premise that many other stories in the collection had.

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FLAGS:

See above paragraph for some collection flags.  Riazi’s story has crushes and a budding romance, but nothing overtly “haram.” Ali’s story is clean.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t probably even shelve the book in our Islamic school library, it doesn’t offer much in my opinion.

The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

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The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah

I was a little nervous to read an adult fantasy book with jinns, both in terms of length and knowing I would undoubtedly compare it to the Daevabad trilogy, but I got an ARC and dove in.  I was put off by the use of gods, and that there was no Islam present at all.  I’m not sure if the author identifies as Muslim, or what her background is, so I told myself I’d read at least 25% and then state I didn’t finish it because I primarily review juvenile fiction with Islamic content or by Muslim authors.  Well, lets suffice it to say that arbitrary percentage came and went and I had no intention of putting the book down.  So why am I featuring it? Simple, it is clean and I liked it.  Aside from the plural little g gods, the book is Arab culture rich as a retelling of the Arabian Nights, according to @muslimmommyblog the Arabic is accurate, the story is engaging, and really my only question is, why isn’t it YA?  I have a handful of reasons why I focus on children and teen lit, but one very strong one is that the books are “cleaner” in theory.  Lately though, it has been hard finding YA that followers of my reviews can confidently share with teen readers.  I think this one, although it isn’t a religious mirror, the salaams, culture, Arabic, and storyline, tinge the framing and make it a fun “safe” read to suggest to our kids.  At 480 pages, it probably is best for ages 15 and up, and it ends on a cliff hanger, so I’m not sure what the next book might introduce, just be aware this review is for this book alone.

SYNOPSIS:

Layla aka Loulie aka The Midnight Merchant hunts and sells magic jinn relics that she locates with the help of her jinn bodyguard Qadir.  After her tribe was slaughtered by a mysterious army, and she the only survivor, Qadir and her have been a team.  When her skills align with the needs of a powerful sultan she is forced to go on a journey with his son, the prince and one of his 40 thieves, to find a magic lamp that will lead her to answers about her past, offer her chances of revenge, test her abilities, plague her with loss, and fill the pages with adventure.  Stories of the One Thousand and One Nights are weaved in through oral storytelling, world building is built and explored through the characters’ understanding their world and the jinn, and the non stop action keeps the story moving forward with minimal dialogue and a lot of high energy showing.  Clearly if I say too much, the excitement will be lost, and I don’t want to spoil the characters’ arcs, their foibles, their illusions, and the climax- seeing as it is a linear story and if the motivation to move forward is lost, the book will lose its charm.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book keeps pace pretty well, a lot of the spoilers are not dragged out and I appreciate that they are not used to dangle the reader’s interest.  The story has depth, the characters are fleshed out, and the truth and illusion reveals are done without insulting the reader.  I’m still undecided about the (SPOILER) comic book quality of death for the main characters, but it keeps it interesting, so for now at least, I’ll play along.

There aren’t a lot of characters, but there are a lot of names for each character and at times in the thick of fast paced action sequences, I did get a little confused as to what was happening to whom and who was saying what.

I don’t truly understand why the divinity is plural or why they say salaam, but nothing else “Islamic” is remotely present save the concept of jinn.  I suppose though for all the fantasy books that use Islamic terms and imagery and then present them horribly, I should be glad that this one really doesn’t conflate the two, but an athan in the background or a few inshaAllahs, sigh I suppose a girl can dream.

FLAGS:

Language, violence, murder, killing, deceit, minor seduction, betrayal.  Very clean not just for an adult fantasy, clean for most any YA or Teen book.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It would be a bit of a pivot for me to feature this book as a book club selection because there is plural deities and NO Islam, but it is very tempting to suggest it to the high school advisor.  The book comes out May 17, 2022, you can preorder it which helps show support, or order after it releases on Amazon.

A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

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A Show for Two by Tashie Bhuiyan

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Tiffany Rose

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Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Tiffany Rose

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I really don’t know what more you could want from a 40 page brightly illustrated picture book for ages 5 and up.  I felt seen, I got a little emotional, I was inspired, I smiled, I felt compassion and empathy, hope and nervousness.  I was reminded of the power of role models, of getting down on a child’s level, literally.  I was reassured that we all make mistakes, learn differently, and can still thrive. Suffice it to say the book is moving.  The OWN voice lyricism will resonate with children of all colors, but that the messaging is from a Black Muslim boy and is so unapologetic and proud and beautiful, makes the emotions Abdul feels palpable.  Every classroom bookshelf needs this book, every child needs to hear it, read it, and explore the layers contained within.  Alhumdulillah.

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The book starts out with absolute joy.  Abdul loves to tell stories.  Writing stories, however, is something else.  The letters are tricky, they get turned around, they aren’t straight and crisp like the one’s the barber cuts.   His pages don’t look like the neat lines of his classmates.

He decides that maybe his stories aren’t for books.  It isn’t like he even sees stories like his in books:  stories about the people and places that he knows.

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Then one day a visitor comes to class, Mr. Muhammad, and he is a writer.  He encourages the children to, “write new stories with new superheroes.”  Abdul tries, but he keeps making mistakes, and then he has to erase, and before long his paper is covered in smudges and holes.

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Mr. Muhammad encourages Abdul to keep trying and fix the messes later, Abdul has an idea, and with a “bismillah,” he gives it another go.  There is no perfection, there is just determination.  The struggles, success, and support of his peers and Mr. Muhammad, just might change Abdul’s mind about his stories.

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I love that the book is Black centered and Muslim centered.  There is praying salat, mention of bean pies, a classmate in hijab, and saying of Bismillah.  I’ve read the book seven or so times and it has yet to get old.  The characters burst with personality, even the side ones, that I’m positive it will be a favorite at story time and bedtime alike.

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Can be purchased at Crescent Moon Store or Amazon

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Nour’s Secret Library by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrated by Vali Mintzi

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Set in Daraya, and based on a real events in Syria, as well as the author’s own life in Lebanon, this 32 page elementary and up story does an amazing job of showing relatable childhood adventures and ingenuity shining through even in the most horrific of environments.  The book is inspiring and warm, but the backdrop of war is very much present.  Some young children may be bothered by the images and text, while others will benefit from understanding the humanity that is affected by such violence.  I know the book says the pages are not final, but I wanted to put it out to help drum up interest.  I feel this story would best work in intimate settings where discussion, compassion, and gratitude can all intuitively transpire.

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Nour’s best friend is her cousin Amir, they love to read and imagine adventure and secret societies.  As their dream to create a secret club, complete with a secret password and handshake, for them and their friends starts to come to fruition, war arrives first. 

Families are forced to seek shelter away from the bullets at night in their basements, and only are allowed to venture out when absolutely necessary.  Every time Amir goes out, he collects any books he finds, and encourages his friends to do the same.  

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They begin sorting the books, and trying to decide what to do with them, when Nour has an idea to create a secret library.  Everyone pitches in when an empty, half destroyed basement is located, and the books are moved and set up on discarded planks of wood.  A boy next door is entrusted with the secret handshake and becomes the deputy librarian.

As word spreads, everyone from boys and girls to soldiers and rescuers, collect books to stock the shelves and checkout books to keep their minds busy.  The library, named Fajr, is open every day from morning to evening and closed during Jummah.  It becomes the city’s best kept secret and a source of hope for the community.

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There are references at the back that tell about the true story of the Secret Library in Syria, the author’s memories of hiding in the basement in Lebanon, a glossary of terms, information about Syria, the illustrator’s research, information about the war, and famous libraries in the Middle East.

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You Truly Assummed by Laila Sabreen

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You Truly Assummed by Laila Sabreen

We need more diverse books, especially within Islamic rep stories.  So I was so excited to receive an arc of this 352 page YA/Teen Black Muslim authored and featured OWN voice story.  I was prepared for rawness and grit and insight and all the feels.  Sadly to say, it is not that.  It is surface level plot points that are unexplored, disjointed, emotionless, and overshadowed by poor writing, contradictory details, and errors. Admittedly I saw an early copy and there is hope that the spelling errors, continuity mistakes and numerous contradictions can be fixed, but I highly doubt the narrative, character arcs, and holes, will or can be rewritten.  It is such a shame, because every time I was ready to put the book aside and claim I could not finish it, a powerful beautiful paragraph or sentence would pull me in and give me hope that the book would turn around and be what its own blurb claimed the book set out to do: “shatter assumptions” and “share truth.” In full disclosure, this book centers the intersection of being Black and Muslim, an experience I do not share firsthand nor claim to know in all of its multitudes and complexities.

SYNOPSIS:

Sabriya, Zakat, Farah: three Black female Muslim 17-year-olds in different parts of America, with different passions, different life experiences, and different dreams, take one alternating chapter at a time to tell their stories with occasional blog posts scattered between.  A terrorist attack in the in the D.C. metro, lots of serendipitous technology events, and a need to find community and the girls come together to create a blog that gathers followers and haters alike in the summer before their senior year.

Sabriya “Bri” is a ballet dance, and often one of two black ballerinas in class.  The book opens with her preparing for the summer intensive audition process when news of the nearby metro attack makes time stand still.  Her mom cannot be reached, and multiple people are killed and many more injured.  Bri and her younger sister Nuri identify like their father, as Muslim, but their mother is not.  It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, except in that Bri’s mother often cannot relate to experiences her daughter is going through.  Bri asks Allah swt to keep her mom safe, but throughout the entirety of the book it does not mention her praying salat or actively showing she is Muslim aside from wearing an Allah swt necklace and her sorting through her desire to prove to others she is a Muslim versus eventually being content to be enough for her own self.  She does at one point refuse to cook bacon, but she does have a love interest, and Islam reads more of a label to her, than a practiced way of life.  Bri journals as a way to let off steam, and her younger sister Nuri encourages her to move to an app to blog.  Reluctantly Bri agrees, after being reassured that she can keep it private, she names her journal/blog ‘You Truly Assumed’ and accidentally sets it to public.

With the city reeling, the family commits to volunteering every day to provide food to those directly affected.  Bri is placed in a group with her father’s new boss and Hayat, a Muslim boy that she thought was a popular showoff, but is quickly falling for.  The micro aggressions from her father’s boss, who is also the volunteer group leader elevate, and the more she learns about him and his connection with an alt right group, the more she writes about in her journal.  By the time she realizes that it has all gone public, she decides based on the comments that she should keep it up, recruit more contributors, and get someone on board that is tech savvy.

Farah Rose lives in California with her mom.  Even though she knows who her father is, she has never had a relationship with him.  When her mom decides that this summer she should go to Boston to meet him and get away from the tensions following the DC attacks, she reluctantly agrees.  With a passion for tech, Tommy, her father persuades her by registering her for an intro computer science college course and a chance to meet her siblings.  Farah is nervous to leave her boyfriend, and worries about being a summer babysitter, but out of love to her mother, agrees to go.  When she learns about the blog, she joins to help with the tech side.

Once in Boston she struggles to connect with her father and his wife, but is immediately drawn to the children.  Her story provides some insight into the concept of privilege within black communities.  Her father and his family are not Muslim, nor did they seem to know that she was. Presumably the only reason it even comes up is when they serve bacon at breakfast and she mentions she is Muslim and a pescaterian  Farah meets a lesbian Muslim girl in her college class and learns that there has a been a hate crime and taken the life of her new friend’s friend.  Farah offers to help with the vigil and her commitment to the blog increases as hate crimes, and Islamophobes seem to be on the rise.

Zakat “Kat” seems to present the more “conservative” Muslim.  She lives in an idyllic town and attends an all girls Islamic school.  There is also an all boys Islamic school and they are big rivals of the public high school.  Kat loves art and often takes art classes in the Islamic school with music pumping through the halls, unfortunately her parents don’t want her majoring in art at school.  They were the victims of predatory college loans and want her to be more pragmatic in her chose of school and direction of study.  She is more sheltered and even has to go behind her parents’ backs to be a part of You Truly Assumed.  She shares her sketches and comics and art work and loves knowing that people are connecting with her work and messages.

When her quaint town becomes the victim of hate crimes, she has to decide if she is going to step up and use her voice, or blend in as she has always done.  Zakat prays regularly, often at the gender neutral mosque behind a female identifying imam, wears hijab, and deals with jealousy as her best friend becomes friends with a girl who years earlier bullied Kat.

The three girls’ stories intertwine as they become friends, share their own personal lives with one another, and thus the reader, and create a space to be seen and heard through the blog.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book honestly reads sloppy.  I don’t know why it seems the growing trend is to not properly edit these Islamic OWN voice YA novels, but this is another book that indicates a troubling trend.  I love that these voices are emerging, but it sadly feels that editors are nervous or afraid to question things and demand better.  The book is so much telling and so little showing.  I don’t want to be told that the blog posts are powerful, and moving, I want to read them and feel moved.  I don’t want to read that you had to understand that you had to stop proving your religiosity to others and just live for yourself, I want to see the incidents and reflection that brought on that growth. I don’t want to be told that you are becoming friends with the other two bloggers, I want to see that they understand you when no one else does.  The whole premise of the book is to connect with the reader, but the emotion isn’t in the pages, so there is nothing to connect with unfortunately.  Saying there is a terrorist attack, saying that hate crimes are occurring, does not bring forth an investment to the story if details, context, and cathartic releases are not also included.

There are some basics errors.  Wudu is described in the wrong order, Zakat talks of living in Georgia in a fictitious town, but the landmarks and colleges are all accurate until she mentions looking out over Lake Erie.  I Google mapped it, there is no Lake Erie in Georgia (just the Great Lakes one on the Canada US border), it is only mentioned once, so presumably an oversight, not a fictitious landmark.  There are some spelling errors and grammar errors as extra words enter a few sentences (3%), dinner replace the word diner.  At one point it mentions the girls meeting on a Zoom call, and then the next line refers to it as a Skype call (54%).  The plushness of the Georgia mosque is often commented on, but they have to put down their prayer rugs to pray, this is pre covid, so a little off.

The book contradicts itself at 11% saying that they can drive to North Carolina or New York for auditions, while the rest of the chapter is convincing Bri to volunteer because they cannot. One of the reasons Farah left California was because of the tensions, but Boston is closer to the place of the attacks and also a large diverse bustling city.  When Farah is wanting to talk to Tommy and his wife about the vigil, she walks in to a room and comments on who is there, in the next line, it mentions that it isn’t a good time to have the conversation since Jess is not there.  Jess was just mentioned as being there and the conversation does end up taking place (84%).  When Bri has a blow up with her dad’s boss, Hayat is worried that she hasn’t been delivering meals all week as a result, later in the chapter it mentions that the conversation happened yesterday (77%).   When Bri introduces her friend to Hayat she doesn’t mention that the two girls know his little sister very well, and it seemed unnecessarily awkward.  Zakat stares off in to space and imagines a sketch and remarks that she has never shared a sketch before and it is something she wants to explore.  This is 81% of the way in to the book, she has been sharing her sketches on the blog since she joined.

In terms of Islamic representation, Zakat’s mosque has one entrance and doesn’t divide based on gender, there is a female imam, the steps of wudu are in the wrong order, the girls all seem to focus on their “Islamic” necklaces or rings as if they are such an integral part of the religion.  The girls never pause or hesitate to have boyfriends, kiss them, bring them around their Muslim family.  Even Zakat who reads really naive and young and goes to an all girls Islamic school decides that a logical event is to have a mixed gender party with music and none of the parents have an issue.  It is even held in a Muslim girl’s basement. There are very few salams or mashaAllahs or inshaAllahs, or bismillahs in the book.  There is music, dancing and dating.  Not naive to say that Muslims don’t participate in all these activities, but to not offer any pause, reflection, or clarification, in a book trying to show the life of some one who identifies as Muslim is a little puzzling.  At the beginning it mentions that Black Muslims are “othered” in Islamic gatherings, and I really wish this thread would have been a larger part of the book.  To see where the larger community is racist and lacking, to see where the engagements occur and where they fall short is a very unique lived experience that the book seemed to tease, but ultimately abandoned completely.

Plot points were not fully developed, a book of secrets was not built up or stressed and then became a huge issue without sufficient understanding as to why offered.  The hate crime in Boston that took the life of a young black Muslim girl was also not given enough weight in the story, or how she helped organize the galvanizing vigil.  The blog aspect was just not believable, so much happening by happenstance and then the material not being shown.  Show us the comics, the sketches, the passages.  Let us read the comments and show us your texts back and forth to see your friendship growing.  I loved the parts about Bri and her dad’s boss, about Farah’s father’s family and her interacting, the parts that mentioned Juneteenth and bean pie.  I wanted more immersion in to these characters lives.  To know their back stories and their struggles.  I wanted to feel like I was seeing something that for too long has not been given the space to be authentic and real, but ultimately I finished the book just glad it was over and I no longer needed to exhaust myself trying to imagine the book that it could have been.

FLAGS:

Domestic terrorism, hate crimes, death.  Relationships mentioned, straight and queer.  Transgendered and ungendered masjids, female imams.  Boyfriends both Muslim and non Muslim.  Mixed parties, dancing, music, art with faces, lying, cursing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think there is enough content to discuss in a book club setting, neither to relate to nor open ones’ eyes to.  I would like to discuss the book if any one has read it, if I am simply so ignorant of the Black Muslim female experience that I don’t get the book, I am happy to learn and listen and change, inshaAllah.

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

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I think everyone has heard about this book by now and how fabulously fun, real, and relevant Huda’s life  is for so many.  I am happy to jump on the praising bandwagon, as this teen/YA 192 page graphic novel really is a great OWN voice unapologetically Islamic mainstream tale.  It does mention periods, relationships, hate crimes, and finding yourself, so probably 14 or 15 year olds and up.  My middle school boys read it, so it isn’t that it is inappropriate, just the target audience is more teen girl.  I know a lot of people, including Huda’s mom according to the inscription, have issues with the title, but I think it is brilliant.  She takes ownership of her name and it isn’t just for shock value, the book is about figuring out who you are, how you feel about Islam, establishing your friend circle, and growing and learning along the way.  My public library has it, as do major outlets, so what are you waiting for, go read, laugh, and feel seen.

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SYNOPSIS:

Huda has just moved to a new school and she is no longer the only hijabi.  She has moved to Dearborn, Michigan and there are A LOT of Muslims.  She is no longer defined by the cloth on her head, she has to figure out who she is.  Who she really is.  And sometimes the best way to do that, is to figure out who you are not.  

Huda tries different clubs, and different circles of friends, both at school and at the masjid.  Along the way she learns how much she craves approval and who is always in her corner.  When a kid at school is targeted for being Muslim, Huda will have to see how much internal hate she carries as well.  Her clothes change, her outlook changes, she tries new things, and she grows, all while the laughs help the story bounce from one serious topic to the next without coming across as arrogant or stereotypical.  This is Huda’s story and we are just along for the ride.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that there is nothing to critique, it reads autobiographical even if parts are exaggerated or only based loosely in reality.  By being so real, and so well done, you are excited when you see yourself staring back, but you feel like you’re a friend learning about Huda even when you can’t relate exactly. Her comics online and her previous two books are all amazing, and I love that she is continually creating new material for us all to enjoy and benefit from.

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FLAGS:

She tells a boy she likes him that she doesn’t really like.  Periods are referenced and blood and a pad are shown, not graphic and gross, but the sentiment is there.  Discrimination is present, as is Islamophobia and stereotypes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Just keep the book out and around: it will be picked up, read, and mentioned, no tools needed.