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Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain is Here by Sabina Khan


After reading a few chapters of this book, I really had no intention of finishing it, knowing that my review highlighting the main character’s bisexual identity and romance would draw critiques from both people that don’t want to see Muslim character’s identifying as any of the LGBTQ+ labels and those angered by my mentioning of them as potential flags.  Alas, I did finish the book, and I am reviewing it because as a (former) Islamic School Librarian, I would want to know how much romance is in any book that I would shelve or recommend, and this book particularly gives no insight about any romance in the blurb on the inside flap.  The author’s first book was very clearly about being a queer Muslim, but this YA short 244 page book focuses a lot on Zara’s relationships, her parents support and acceptance of her being bisexual, and her new romance with a girl.  The book is not graphic or even overly steamy, but the blurb suggests the book is only about immigration, hate crimes, and bullying.   So, I write this review to give a heads up to parents, like me, that might see this book on the library shelf or if like the author’s first book, which was picked up by Scholastic, in a school book fair, and not realize that there is a fair amount of discussion about her sexuality and how it is perceived in the Pakistani and Islamic culture, as well as how she doesn’t see the need to fast in Ramadan or pray five times a day, but still identifies as Muslim.  All that aside, I also didn’t love how the book was written, it is a lot of telling and not showing, I feel like the mom is painfully underdeveloped and flat, and the story threads don’t weave together consistently;  it reads scattered.  The book is pretty short for YA and with so many heavy themes, it ultimately can’t spend much time exploring any of them particularly well, a shame since the author in real life seems to have endured much of what she writes for her characters in regards to immigration status and citizenship.



Zara Hossain is a senior at a Private Catholic school, in Texas, she has friends that have over the years become family as the parents too regularly get together.  Zara came to American when she was three.  Her family left Pakistan for more educational opportunities and after her father’s pediatric residency, he stayed on with a work permit and green card waiting for citizenship.  The process continues to drag on, and it isn’t finalized.

A boy at school, Tyler, is harassing Zara for being Muslim, an immigrant, and brown.  Her father wants to discuss it with the principal, her best friend Nick wants to beat him up, and her mother just worries.  When finally a meeting with the principal is set, Tyler’s father doesn’t show, and things escalate.  Zara’s locker is defaced with profanity, Tyler is suspended, and the Hossain’s house is vandalized.  When Zara’s dad, Iqbal, goes to talk to Tyler’s father, he is shot, by Tyler’s dad.  He ends up in a coma in the hospital.  During all this Zara is crushing and pursuing a relationship with Chloe, who has just come out to her parents.  Zara’s family is very accepting of Zara being bisexual, and take Chloe in when she needs a break from her conservative Christian family.

Tyler’s dad is well connected in Corpus Christi, and while Iqbal recovers, he is faced with trespassing charges.  Although trespassing is a misdemeanor, by pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine, a criminal record will further complicate their citizenship status, and where they call home.


I like that it shows how messed up legal immigration often is. Dr. Hossain is the victim, he is shot,  he is a vibrant member of his community, but is being forced to leave and uproot his family.  The issue however about trespassing isn’t ever completely clear, the reader is never given a play-by-play account of what happened that night.  I wish we were.  It would be nice to not leave that area gray.  Also a lot of what lead up to Tyler causing Zara so much trouble is rather glossed over.  I wanted to hate him and be angry with him, and then be forced to examine how much was his doing and how much was his father’s, but I never really felt that emotion until the book told me to be mad.

I vaguely recall from the book that she is in a religious high school, the inside flap when I took the picture (see above) seems to stress it more than the story does.  She does mention that they couldn’t start a Pride Club, but I wish she would have talked a bit about being Muslim in a Catholic school, or better yet, shown the reader.  She doesn’t come right out and say that all Muslims are different and this is her.  I wish she would have, instead she talks a lot about being annoyed at having to explain why she doesn’t pray and fast.  Yet she never tells the readers why she doesn’t.  She goes to mosques to counter Islamophobic protests, and talks of going to Sunday school to learn Arabic as a child, but she is very clear that she was encouraged to question religion and God, but not what she found or why she still identifies as Muslim if she doesn’t believe it.  I was curious if she doesn’t believe it actually, why fast at all? If she is still questioning, why not say that.  I really felt that Islam and being Muslim was just a box to be checked to justify the hate crime, but really, she could have just focused on the culture.  There are Urdu phrases, and lots of foods mentioned, she clearly loves Pakistan and talks highly of it and often points out the good and bad in both Pakistan and America.  Food is in the book a lot, and not just Desi food, frozen yogurt is a crutch for the story, and it gets a bit annoying.  I wish there was as much character development as there was food detail and banter.

I liked that her parents defend and stick up for their daughter.  Whether you accept the lifestyle of Zara and her family or not, it is wonderful to see families stick together.  The nosey aunty got put in her place and if you have ever had to deal with the stereotypical aunties or the threat of what everyone will say, you had to cheer for Zara’s parents.  I don’t care what your thoughts are about LGBTQ+, that scene was awesome.  Great job Iqbal and Nilufer.  It was one time that Nilufer got to shine, I really don’t get why Zara’s mom is relegated to the cooking, feeding, worrying stereotype for much of the book.  I lost track of the number of times the book says, “no need to worry your mother,” or something to that effect.  The lady clearly is loving and strong, but doesn’t get developed, and it is frustrating.

The ending is a bit abrupt, yes time is ticking, and whether to move to Pakistan or stay and fight the system is definitely not an easy decision, but how is Canada suddenly the magical answer? I assume for most it is enough, and being the OWN voice tale seems to be very close to reality in this regard, I have no room to roll my eyes, but Canada has civil rights issues with Muslims too, and this 2021 published book kind of made it seem like it is just the perfect answer to all their problems.


Violence, bullying, Islamophobia, profanity, vandalism, crime, shooting, stereotypes, hate, lying, straight and lesbian romance, crushes, kissing.


This book would not work for an Islamic School middle school book club selection.

From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saossan Askar illustrated by Rebecca Green

from far away

Robert Munsch is a staple in most classrooms and libraries, but somehow, much to my embarrassment, I just learned about this book.  Originally published in 1995 with a different illustrator, I read the newer version that was rereleased in 2017.  I’m not sure how they differ, but they stem from an autobiographical experience of the co-author Saossan Askar, and her leaving of the war in Lebanon.  She wrote to the author and their letters back and forth are how the book came to fruition. 


The 24 page picture book is an AR 3.5 and my guess it is because of the content a bit more than the reading level.  While it never gets graphic or sensationalized, she does leave a war zone of bombs and shootings, and the words may trigger fear in younger children.


As the book progresses, the focus is much more on Saoussan settling in to her new life and the hiccups along the way.  From not knowing what anyone is saying, to sneaking out of class to go to the bathroom, and being frightened by a paper skeleton.  The book gives concrete examples that while silly, really show how someone unfamiliar with a new culture could be very confused and even scared.  


The book has a happy ending with Saoussan adjusting and making friends and even becoming the best reader and speller in her class.  She also gets in trouble often for talking too much.  


The book, like many in the genre of discussing war and refugees on a child’s level has its strengths and weaknesses.  The heart of the story I would say is wonderful, the illustrations lively and engaging, some of the transitions and details, however, are a bit abrupt and unsatisfying.  Once you know that it is based on reality and came about through letters, it makes more sense, but even that is a concept older readers will appreciate more than younger ones will.


I checked the book out from the public library and I think does a great job of inspiring empathy.  It is vague as to what conflict is being left which makes it timeless in that I, unfortunately don’t see refugees disappearing soon.  The mom wears hijab, but there is no mention of religion in the book.

Here are the letters from his website: https://robertmunsch.com/book/from-far-away

From Far Away started with this letter:

To Robert Munsch
I am a little girl. My name is Saoussan. I am seven years old. I am in grade two now. I came to Canada one and half year ago. I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I was just sitting and listening. A lot of funny things happened to me.

Children were trying to talk to me, but I was not able to answer them. I began to talk a little by little.

I finished grade one and now I am in grade two. The teacher now is complaining to my dad that I am talking a lot in the class and I read and write a lot of stories.

One day I found a book called Thomas’s Snowsuit. I read it and I laughed with my family.

I went to the library and I brought some of your books. I enjoyed reading them. I even read them to my dad that he laughed so hard he could not stop laughing.

Please come to our school we want to hear a story from you and we want to see you.
I wrote back and asked her what “funny things” had happened. Saoussan wrote back telling me about her first Halloween in Canada:
To: Robert Munsch
Thank you for your letter. My teacher read it to the class and he said: I am not going to tell the class the funny thing that happened to her when she was in kindergarten and I am not going to embarrass you.

I don’t remember all of the funny things. But I remember one thing.

When I wanted to go to the washroom I didn’t know how to say I want to go to the washroom. That’s why I used to crawl to the door and when the teacher turns her head and looks at the other side I crawl under my friend’s desk and when someone opens the door I crawl out and go to the washroom.

When I come back from the washroom I wait beside the door and when someone opens the door I crawl in and go to my desk.

Once I crawled to the washroom. When I opened the washroom door I saw a skeleton. Then I screamed: Aaaaahhhhhhhhh!

Everybody came out. My teacher, Mrs. Garwan came, opened the washroom door and she tried to tell me that it is Halloween time and the skeleton is paper.

I didn’t understand her and I didn’t know what Halloween is.

She jumped up and down and danced around to explain to me that Halloween is just fun, but I thought the skeleton made her crazy and I screamed louder.

Then she hugged me to make me feel better and I jumped on her lap and the pee went down my knees. She put me down because she got wet.

Now I am in grade 2/3 and I am the best reader and speller in the class. This year when it was Halloween I weared a mask and a costume and we did a party at school. Then I went with my sister trick or treating to the neighbours.

Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come to our school.

I liked her letters so much that I decided to turn them into a book.

So Saoussan and I wrote a lot of letters back and forth and we made the letter into a book. Saoussan and I are both the authors and we split the royalties.