I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.
The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.
In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.
Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.
The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.
I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.
Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.