Tag Archives: strength

A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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I honestly don’t know how I feel about this book.  I have read it and reread it and thought about it and read it again, and ignored it and read it again, and alas I have no idea.  I really am having a hard time articulating my thoughts on this 40 page children’s book.  I think part of the problem is that I’m reading it shortly after reading another “religiously inclined” clothing inspired picture book for the same target demographic and I’m having a hard time not comparing them.  When I intentionally start to write a review that doesn’t compare them, I am cognizant that my readers probably will and the review spirals.  So I’m going to establish what I love about this book, and then highlight why I’m torn and leave it to you all to draw your own conclusions and opinions.  InshaAllah this will not be the new norm, I will not make a habit of straddling the fence, but for this book, I think it is the only way.

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I absolutely love the illustrations.  The warmth and joy the pictures portray are endearing and smile inducing.  I love the mother and daughter relationship and how feelings are not dismissed or belittled.  The mom connects the little girl to a legacy of strength and conveys her confidence, that the little girl is similarly brave, not just when things are hard, but especially when they are.  The little girl is shown to “feel” confident and joy in her clothing, not just “look” pretty, which is messaging that I love.  It is never too early to show that how one feels is more important than how one looks.  This depth, is not examined, but by simply using the words “When I put it on, I feel like a dainty seahorse,” rather than saying, “I look like a dainty seahorse,” the priority is not lost on the reader.  I like that the character has growth and challenges and has to reaffirm her position and as a result raises herself and those around her as well.

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So why some confusion you ask.  Well- the word burkini is used to explain the little girl’s new swimsuit.  Burkini traditionally is a Muslim implied modest swimsuit, derived from combining the words burka and bikini.  That said, anyone of any faith can order a burkini online and their faith is not a factor.  The little girl is young and doesn’t wear hijab, her hair is not covered.  The mother and the ancestors pictured wear hijab, but Islam or Muslim is never in the text.  Part of me likes this, people wear modest swimwear for a lot of reasons: comfort, religion, sun protection, personal preference.  Similarly for head coverings in a pool some people where them for hair preservation, modesty, hijab, aerodynamics, speed, preference, comfort, etc..  Unlike hijab which is in the Quran, birkini is not an “Islamic requirement.”  No one is forcing you to swim, no one is forcing you to wear this brand or that style if you choose to swim.  Covering and wearing modest clothing is a must on Muslim women, covering the awrah is required after puberty.  I both like that the little girl is covering up and wish that it said why she is, but also appreciate that it is left open.  I like that you should be able to wear whatever you want and be comfortable with it.  I like that you don’t have to conform, and you can be you and whether that comes from a religious rationale or a fashion one or a health one or a comfort one, it doesn’t matter, don’t police what women wear.  But the implied illustrated framing is Islamic and the link is not there in the text.  See why my thoughts are scattered.

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Similarly, the term “mermaid” is gender specific.  But colloquially it is often used to just describe someone with a human top half and fist tail.  So, isn’t “mermaid girl” redundant? At the end when male presenting Sam asks if he can be a Mermaid girl too is it implying gender neutrality? Is it like female kids saying they want to be a girl policeman or a lady firefighter?  Does it matter?

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The story starts with Heba and her mother looking at photographs of past generations on their wall remarking how they are all mermaid girls.  Heba has gotten a new swimsuit, and her and mama are going to match in their new burkinis.  When they get to the pool however, all the excitement is pushed back on when her friends ask her if she can swim in that, and they tell her it doesn’t look like a real swimsuit. Heba sticks up for herself, but when she looks around, she sees, they are right, she doesn’t look like everyone else.  Mama reminds her of those before her and reassures her that she is not alone. She rejoins her friends, doing all the things she wants to do, and by the end they too want to be mermaid girls.

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There is music depicted and women in one and two piece swimsuits.  As someone who wore modest swimwear my whole life, this book had a lot of mirroring of summers arguing with life guards, showing up with other Muslims at public pools to rude comments and aggressive stares, and swimming all over the world to people asking where they could get a suit like mine as well.  Definitely normalizing swimwear that looks like a burkini is a great concept to see in a book.

I do wish there was backmatter.  Perhaps giving voice to the many reasons women should be free to wear what they want at all times, but how particularly in water activities it has become a political point of judgement and policing.  Perhaps something about how this little girl is wearing it for religion and modesty, but that people everywhere wear things for lots of reasons.  I like the ambiguity, but also wish their was more of a connection to Islam/Muslims.  I leave it to you to make your own decisions.  I found my copy at my local library, it is mainstream published and can be purchased here as well.

Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

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Moonlight Hope: A Muslim American Coming of Age Story by Nora Salam

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This 354 page New Adult read is truly Islamic fiction, and as long as you know what you are getting in to, you probably will thoroughly enjoy it.  It is Islamic centered, it is preachy, it is idyllic, it counters many stereotypes about Muslims and various cultures, while simultaneously falling into other tropes that define the genre, it has mature framing that is not suitable for younger readers, but doesn’t detail anything that is super “haram.”  If you are looking for a potentially halal romance between YA and Adult ages with Islamic messaging this book is a solid choice.  If however, you will be annoyed by any of the aforementioned labels, this book will not hold your attention or beg to be finished.  It reminds me a lot of Umm Zakiyyah’s If I Should Speak and A Voice books where the story has its own twists and character arcs but it spends a lot of time preaching and setting itself up to tout an Islamic perspective, or concept as well.  I wanted to read two books in the “New Adult” category and see if I could spread my reviews to include them, and with this being the second,  I think I should resist the temptation, and stick to what my library background familiarized me with.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in alternating voices of Intisar and Majed, two individuals in New York City, at different places in their life, but finding that when they hit rock bottom, Islam is the answer.

Intisar is graduating nursing school when the story opens and has only one goal in mind, get married.  She has strict Sudanese parents and has put all of her dreams on finding freedom in the perfect spouse.  She meets a guy at a friend’s house and they secretly date, kiss, and hold hands.  When he ghosts her, she is devastated and reluctantly finds herself agreeing to marry a much older man of her parent’s choosing.  Loosing herself in the idea of marriage, she finds herself heartbroken, ostracized and falling apart.  She starts to put herself back together slowly by finding Islam, her confidence, and some much needed perspective.

Majed has a famous family: his mother a model, his father and siblings singers, and he manages their careers.  After passing out from drugs and alcohol more than once he really starts to examine his life and the road he is on.  He sneaks away to rehab and in the process stumbles on to Islam.  He is Egyptian, but the family is not religious at all, and infact stop talking to him when he converts.  The trials of being a Muslim in New York with no family are not easy, but he feels it is worth it and his journey to Hajj and through loss brings him closer to Allah (swt).

The two stories are parallel and collide slightly in the periphery, but the book ends with them finally coming together and the ever dreaded words of “to be continued,” leaving the reader hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I do like that the story shows struggles when one comes (back) to Islam, it isn’t always a walk in the park, it has challenges and stresses.  The book starts each chapter with a verse from the Quran and is very open about what it is.  So, while at times, the preachiness did get to me, it was very clear what type of book it was from the beginning and I kept reading.

Some of the side characters I felt needed to be fleshed out a bit.  I didn’t understand many of the random friends, how they affected the main character often seemed off, or completely underdeveloped in what was revealed about them: particularly Izzedine, Parita, the girl that married Mansour, the uncle at the Masjid that thought Majed was a spy, etc..  I also really struggled with the presentation of Uncle Munir and his calling Majed, baby, and how he just happened to bump in to him outside the bar, and the kisses.  I’m guessing it was meant to show him as over the top affectionate, but it just read as odd.

I like that the book addresses hypocrisy, mental health, and expectations.  It doesn’t paint all Muslims as good or bad, nor society at large.  The book reads as a journey, and many characters are given a chance to correct their errors and be seen in a new light.

The majority of the book is written well, but right away the book gave me pause as Intisar and her friends chat all through the Jummah khutbah, I get that it is trying to show her disregard for intentional practice of her faith and her “boy crazy/marriage” obsession, but you cannot speak during the khutbah, it isn’t just dirty looks, you truly cannot talk for it to count, and it isn’t even remarked upon, and it made me skeptical of the book for a while.  There is a word missing from a sentence on page 161 and at one point a brother in the prayer hall aims a shoe to throw.  But you wouldn’t be wearing shoes in the room where you pray, and the mosque has hallways and a glassed off section for women, so this seemed like an obvious oversight that should be fixed.

FLAGS:

Drugs, alcohol, lying, overdose, sneaking out, kissing, hooking up, physical affection, violence, temptation, sexual predatory behavior, it is an adult book, so I’m not going to continue listing everything. Nothing haram is overtly detailed or glorified. Ages 17 and up, could handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Too mature for my book club crew, but I wouldn’t mind it on a shelf in the school library.

My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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OWN voice books are always important, and while we see a rise in minority voices claiming their own stories, to read a child’s story about war and hope by a child, is particularly impressive.  Bana Alabed was born in 2009, she is an activist, a Syrian refugee, and now an author.  Her clear voice doesn’t stumble and her perspective is unapologetic, yet hopeful.  Over 40 pages she tells her story in her own words with beautifully warm and complementary illustrations filling the pages.  For kindergarten and up, this book stands out in a crowded field of refugee inspired stories for its authenticity, strong author, and overall emotional connection.

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Bana begins her picture book memoir by asking her mother why she was named Bana.  Her mother explains that she was named after a tall bushy tree that grows in Syria.  Her favorite tree.  A tree that is qawai, Arabic for strong.

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Bana then asks what it means to be strong.  And once again her mother lovingly explains, that strong is to be brave even when you are scared, and to be sturdy so others can lean on you.  It also means you use your mighty voice to speak up when something is wrong, you read, study, and exercise your body.

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Bana appreciates her name, and being strong, because war came to her country.  When bombs fell they had to hide, when her brothers were scared, she had to keep them distracted, when they moved to a new place where they didn’t know the language or any people, she had to be strong still.

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As a young girl, Bana tweeted about the war, the book doesn’t touch on that, but it does show her being strong as she shares her story all over the world.  It then returns to her and her mother discussing amal, Arabic for hope, and Bana imagines herself strong, reaching into the sky.

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The book ends on a simpler note of acknowledging her little brothers’ names: Laith and Noor, lion and light.  The Author’s Note at the end is just as powerful as the text of the book and provides more information about Bana’s experience and outlook. The way that war is handled is not overpowering for young readers, and will provide a great starting point of discussion.  The relationship between Bana and her mother is warm and supportive and equally deserving of mention with the little people you share the book with, alhumdulillah.

“Kids shouldn’t have to always be strong.  Every child deserves to live in peace.” Bana Alabed

Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

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This AR 3.6, 89 page early chapter book features three stories set in Lagos, Nigeria.  The main character and her family are Christian, but many of the neighbors are Muslim, and the third story is set in Ramadan with Easter and Eid falling at the same time.  The sense of community throughout the book, the OWN voice detail and charm make this book silly, warm, and delightful for first through third grade readers.

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SYNOPSIS:

In the first story Tola heads to the market with her Grandmommy.  Not the fancy mall, but the muddy market further away.  Her older brother Dapo is too busy playing soccer to help, her older sister Moji is busy with homework, that leaves little Tola to carry the items on her head with her tough as nails little grandmother.  Everyone says she is too small, but Grandmommy knows she can do it.  As they purchase the items, and neighbors call to have them pick up items for them too, the duo have to take lots of breaks on their way home, but Too Small Tola does it and proves to herself and others that she might be small, but she is strong.

The second story once again focuses on life in Lagos and the one bedroom apartment the family shares.  One morning both the power and the water are out and the jerry bottles need to be filled at the pump.  When some bullies trip Tola and the water spills, an elderly neighbor lady patiently waits for the right time to get her revenge on Tola’s behalf, and when the bully challenges the woman, the entire line stands together.  Tola may be small, but she stood for something and made a difference.

The final story involves the neighbor, Mr. Abdul, the tailor who lives downstairs, coming to measure Tola and her family for their new Easter clothes.  He let Tola measure everyone last year and praises her as the best measurer in Lagos, and Tola is eager to take the measurements this year.  When the tailor breaks his leg, he is worried he will not be able to ride his bicycle to his clients and will not be able to prepare the Eid feast and pay rent.  Tola knows they have been fasting all Ramadan and between her, Grandmommy, and Dapo they come up with a plan to help.  Dapo will peddle the bike and take Tola to measure everyone for their orders.  Tola may be small, but she can save the day for the Abdul family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love little Tola and her sassy grandma.  The book would lend itself so wonderfully to be read aloud as it bursts with personality and dialogue.  I love the sense of community in such a day-to-day life that would seem to stark and hard to most western readers.  Tola’s draws on those around her to find her strength, from her Grandmommy, to her neighbors, they may tease her that she is too little, but they also build her back up and stand with her.  I love the diversity in Tola’s world.  She seems so excited that Eid and Easter will be aligned and that after her services they will be joining the Abdul’s feast, such a great lesson of tolerance and respect without being preachy about tolerance and respect.  Young readers will enjoy Tola and the insight into Nigeria.

FLAGS:

Grandmommy lies when a neighbor calls her in the market to ask her to pick up his TV, she pretends the battery dies as she and Tola laugh at how ridiculous them carrying a TV would be in addition to everything else they are carrying.  There is bullying when Tola is tripped and then when Mrs. Shaky-Shaky trips the bully.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for a book club, but would be ideal in small groups, or to be read aloud.  There would be a lot to discuss as children would relate to Tola and find themselves cheering her on.

My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

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My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

This adorable 32 page book about facing worries, anxiety, and fears is told in story format and meant for ages four and up. The personified monster isn’t scary, but he is big, and the little boy learns to talk about him to get him to shrink. The book is engaging, fun, and powerful. I had my teenager who has anxiety read it and she loved it, a few days later as she was forcing herself to get out of the car, she mentioned that she needed to make her monster small. Normalizing mental health, feeling like you aren’t alone, finding the words to explain to others how you feel, having empathy for those that are facing challenges, are all things the book conveys without being preachy or condescending. I think every child, parent, and caregiver, needs to be aware of what children are facing and find ways to be like the gran in the book and listen, so that children suffering aren’t doing so alone. The fact that the author is a Muslim celebrity chef in Britain and the protagonist is a boy with brown skin, makes the message that much more universal.

The book starts out with an unnamed boy introducing himself and his much bigger monster. He doesn’t know when the monster arrived, but it seems he has always been there, and the monster knows all about him.

The monster is big, and when he stands infront of the little boy, the little boy can only see his tummy. At night he snores too. When he asks his mom or dad or brother to take the monster away, the monster hides.

Over time the monster has gotten bossier. When the little boy is getting dressed or brushing his teeth or when he wants to play, the monster is always there, blocking him.

One day after school the monster was there and the little boy tried to lose it, but couldn’t. Gran asked what was wrong when he showed up crying, and the little boy told his grandma all about his monster.

Gran listened quietly and the more the little boy talks, the smaller the monster gets. Pretty soon the boy realizes he can make his monster go away. When he finds the monster later, the little monster is confused, so the boy puts him in his pocket.

The monster is always there, but the little boy can make him behave and he isn’t scary any more. At the end the boy is big, and the monster is little.

I love that the boy finds someone to talk to, and that he accepts that the monster may never leave. Even if you don’t have anxiety or worries, the book is a great metaphor that even little kids can understand to help them cope when stresses do occur. I love the large size of the book, the minimal text and the bright illustrations. Truly a great book that needs to be in classrooms and homes and anywhere kids are.

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty

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Based on the true story of Alia Muhammed Baker, the Basra librarian who saved 30,000 books in 2003 from the destruction during the Iraq War, this 32 page graphic novel, is an AR 3.9 and while it isn’t a chapter book and isn’t just a picture book, it works well for 2nd through 4th grade readers that will enjoy a bit of history, a lot of excitement, and detailed panels that make the story come to life.  The story, as it is based on fact, is very similar to The Librarian of Basra, but with it’s different presentation style, might appeal to a larger audience to appreciate and celebrate what she did to save such precious books, naturally, I’m a huge fan!

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SYNOPSIS:

Alia is the Chief Librarian of Basra Central Library and has always loved books and learning.  As war draws closer, she tells her husband she is worried that the library could be bombed or set ablaze.  She goes to the government to voice her concerns and ask that the books are relocated, but her request is denied.  So she takes matters in to her own hands, and starts smuggling books under her shawl and in to her car, and stacks them in her home.  Every day she does this for a week, soon closets are over flowing and she starts stacking the books in her guest room.  Worried that she isn’t making fast enough progress, she gets the restaurant owner next door to help her when looters start taking the pencil sharpeners and furniture from the library.  She has a plan to have everyone possible come together to move the books, and many people come to help.

Eventually the library is set on fire, the news gives Alia a stroke.  When she recovers she learns she saved 30,000 books, and up next for this real life super hero? Building a new library, inshaAllah.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows the value of libraries and books, the determination of one person, and the support of a community.  People are awful during a war, yet, sometimes they are pretty amazing too.  The illustrations are detailed and varied, with inviting text and clear concise language.  It really is well done.

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FLAGS:

Destruction of property, sneaking, looting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think it would be great to have kids read this story and the librarian of Basra and discuss

 

Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow illustrated by Luisa Uribe

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An amazingly empowering simple story that breathes pride and beauty in to names and our identities.  The 40 pages are a celebration of the rhythm of our names and the dreams and hopes that they contain for us.  Perfect for kindergarten to second graders, readers of all ages will find something valuable in this book.  Those with “common” names might reevaluate what their names mean or why they were so named, children with “unique” names will find the music and confidence to ask others to learn their name correctly, older kids might reconsider shortened nick names, and we all inshaAllah will make more of an effort to get people’s names pronounced right.

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A little girl has had an awful first day of school.  As she stomps toward her mom at dismissal.  No one could say her name.  Not even the teacher, it got stuck in her throat.  Her mom gently reminds her stomping is only for dancing, and tells her that her name is a song.

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The little girl is skeptical, but as they say people’s names on their way home, and find the magic and rhythm and beat in each one, they address the horrible things that have happened to the girl that day regarding her name.  At lunch girls pretended to choke on her name, and later one boy said her name was scary, some even tell her, her name sounds made up.

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Her mother explains that some names come from deep in the heart, not the throat and cannot be choked on, that names are fire and strong, and that names are made from the sky when our real names were stolen and so new ones have to be dreamed.

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All the way home they go through names, diverse names, beautiful names.  The next day she doesn’t want to go to school, but she has a song to teach.  When her teacher starts calling  out names, the little girl starts tapping the rhythm, when Ms. Anderson starts to struggle on the little girl’s name, she starts to sing it.  She explains that her name is a song, and that she will teach it to them.  The other children then ask her to sing their names. And with a smile on her face, it is music to Kora-Jalimuso’s ears.

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I love that there are three pages of the names mentioned in the story and their origins and meanings listed.  I also like that the little girl’s name is not revealed until the end.  The pronunciation of the names is in the text, all of them, even Bob.   And when I read the name Trayvon, I felt an added weight of saying people’s names, breathing them into our lives and not forgetting them.

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The family could be Muslim based on the mom’s head wrap.  The author is Muslim and there are Arabic and Islamic names included in the story.

Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

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Women you have heard of, some you are meeting for the first time. Some you like, some you disagree with, women that cover, women that don’t, some young, others older, some athletic, some academic, some a little bit of both.  One fictional, a few political, but in the end, all strong women of today, all Muslim, all unique, from all over the world, all known for paving the way for others to follow.

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In 42 pages, 19 females are highlighted and illustrated to inspire Muslim and non Muslim boys and girls alike, but really Muslim girls will get the most out of it.  Sure a female gets mentioned here or there in other compilations of influential people of our time, but this one, well, this one seems mostly for us.

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There are famous females in science, activism, fashion, film, sport, education, media influencers, make-up artists, you name it, and Muslim’s participate, so finally a book shining a light on the best of the best.  With each person getting a full two page spread, a few tidbits about who they are and what they are “famous” for are detailed in easy to read sentences that inspire, and if you haven’t heard of them before, enough general knowledge to get acquainted.  A few felt a little generic, but once you have a name, Googling them or researching them, is obviously, not difficult.

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I wish there was a bit more information detailing who was chosen and why.  At first I thought it was  US or “western” movers and shakers, but then you have Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the tennis player in Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi from Iran.  So then I thought ok, they are all contemporary, but Maryam Mirzakhani passed away in 2017.  Needless to say, one could argue that the list is arbitrary, and I think I would agree.

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One could also argue, that these women may make history for notable things, but that they might say or do things that you might take issue with, and again, I agree.  They are people, they are fallible, and diverse, and have different perspectives and life experiences, but that’s ok, infact I think that might even be the point.  We all have different passions, and paths, and views and yet at the end of the day we should be able to lift each other up and inspire.  I think every person who reads this book will find someone that sounds or feels or looks like them, and that is a good thing, no, a great thing!

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My favorite was the Kamala Khan entry, because I didn’t realize the G. Willow Wilson was Muslim.  I erroneously assumed the other co-creator, Sana Amanat gave Kamala’s back story and home life its sense of OWN Voice, and I love that I learned I was wrong from a book.

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The illustrations are right on and do an amazing job of conveying the character and the inspiration of the collection.  The book is much needed and I hope they do a similar style book for Muslim women in other time periods.

Special gratitude and appreciation to Gayartri Sethi (IG @desibookaunty) for gifting me this book for no other reason than to share the power and strength of women, and being a leader in that, by sending me a beautiful book.  May I learn from your generosity and pay it forward! Thank you.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

blueLOVE! Yes, usually when I’m so anxious for a book it disappoints, but not this one, it warmed my heart and soul and made me smile.  In 40 pages surrounded with absolutely adorable illustrations, the reader feels the love between siblings, the strength of self confidence, the power of being true to yourself, the beauty of hijab, and the awesomeness of light-up sneakers and five cartwheel recesses.

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It is the first day of school for sisters Asiya and Faizah, and Faizah’s first day of wearing hijab.  The book starts out with the girls and their mom picking out a new scarf at the store.

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The first day of school has the girls walking to school hand in hand, Asiya in her beautiful blue scarf, and Faizah in her new shoes admiring her sister as if she were a princess.

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In line a classmate whisper asks Faizah about her sister, and Faizah has to find her voice to speak up about her hijab.  She then likens the blue hijab to the sky, special and regular before recalling that their mom had told them “The first day of wearing hijab is important. . . It means being strong.”

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Throughout the day at school Faizah checks on her sister, sees other kids make fun of her, liken the blue to something beautiful, and then recall something their mom has told them to give her solace and strength.

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As Faizah puts into practice the lessons from her mom about being strong, knowing who you are, and not carrying around hurtful words, she, like her sister finds strength.  A strength which radiates to those around them, and further connects the two girls.

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Faizah has an amazingly sweet and authentic voice as she counts her light up steps and looks up to her older sister.  I love that the story stays on track and has its own rhythm of a school incident, a strong declaration about blue, a lesson remembered from Mama and a resolution.  With lots of mini climaxes the reader sees the strong perseverance and how being authentic will be challenged repeatedly.  The subtly of the hijab being whispered about and then proclaimed loudly is really tender and emotion filled.  Little reminders why OWN Voice stories are so important.

The illustrations are absolutely amazing on their two page spreads: the colors, tone, expressions, are perfect and a huge part of the narrative.  I love that when a boy points at Asiya, not just Faizah, but Asiya’s friends too are unhappy with the boy.  I also like that the boys being mean are not depicted clearly, but rather are shown in the shadows, furthering the point that mean words and those that spout them are not worthy of your time.

There are Authors’ Notes at the end and a picture of Ibtihaj  and her two sisters Asiya and Faizah. I think the book should be on every shelf, truly.  To be yourself and be proud of who you are is universal, as is kindness. The book does not discuss religion or mention Islamic reasons for her covering, and girls and boys alike will benefit from multiple readings of the book.

 

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

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This book was suggested to me and I was thrilled to find it at the public library so quickly after its May 8, 2018 release date.  I love that it is an AR 4.2 and 226 pages about a girl standing up for her self, determined to be educated, and facing whatever society, and culture, and circumstance throw at her.  The protagonist is 12, but I think most middle school readers will find the story a bit too idyllic, perhaps even too simplistic and neat.  I really think the AR level of 4.2 is spot on in terms of writing level, interest, and story telling: 3rd through 5th graders will benefit the most from this inspiring, memorable and informative tale.

SYNOPSIS:

Amal lives in a small Pakistani village.   The book opens with her begrudgingly having to take time off from school, as the oldest, to help her mother who is about to deliver her fifth daughter.  The stage is quickly set to show a supportive father, but the cultural stress involved in educating a girl is incredibly strong.  The priority is to care for the home when push comes to shove and this fight is simplified in the book, but not completely belittled.  Right away we also see some class divisions with servants and landowners and the various positions in between.  It is easy to judge those with money as being evil, but the author does show some nuances in character aside from wealth and position.  As Amal’s mom struggles with recovering after the baby, it is decided that Amal will miss more school.  This devastates Amal who dreams of being a teacher.  Burdened by keeping up the house and carrying for everyone’s meals, laundry, and watching her younger sisters constantly, frustration mounts and she snaps when an arrogant man tries to take her pomegranate in the market.  Her simply saying no, is the catalyst that changes her life as the man she stands up to, Jawad Sahib, is the wealthy land owner everyone in town is indebted to.  Saved by his mother, Nasreen Baji, who is in need of a personal servant, Amal is now forced to pay off an impossible debt to a cruel powerful family. 

In  many ways the story doesn’t really get good, until Amal enters the Khan family’s world, about 50 pages in to it, but obviously the character building and detail is necessary, so if you find your kid is getting a bit bored, encourage them to keep going.  

Once, she arrives at the Khan compound, she begins to make friends, and enemies, and similarly see just how ruthless Jawad Sahib is, and can be.  As she finds her own voice and realizes her own role in determining how others treat her, what her future holds, and what power she does have, she is forced to wrestles with the choices in front of her. Ultimately, the reader will cheer for her to take a stand and be bold in doing what is right, no matter the cost.  And while one can guess, because of the target demographic, that it has a happy ending, I won’t spoil the climax, the resolution, or outcome of the young heroine.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that despite the themes, the story isn’t depressing, in many ways it is informative and inspiring. I think the fact that things are not left to ponder but clearly articulated, has its merits in a book for elementary children who might be overwhelmed by the cultural aspects to think critically on their own.  At the beginning, with the birth of yet another daughter, the biggest concern is that the mom is depressed because she hasn’t had a boy.  The mom even apologizes to the dad about this.  The neighbors, friends, everyone seems so upset about it, but Amal doesn’t understand why the women particularly seem disappointed, when they themselves were little girls once, and this simplistic point of view on such a complex and real issue, is so spot on and obvious, I loved it.  The mom and dad point out that it is God’s doing and they clarify that they are not sad the baby is a girl, and to me it seems obvious the mom is suffering from postpartum depression, but the book only describes it, it doesn’t identify it.  I also love that there is perspective on how while Amal is in forced servitude and thus not free, either is her female boss, who is unable to go visit her family, or to garden.  This helps amplify that even the wealthiest woman, is still limited to be truly free in the context of the character’s world.  

I like that the book is culturally authentic and not judgemental.  There are strong females, supportive male friends, and plenty of details to show that the author is writing about what she knows, and that she loves her culture.  Islam is mentioned only a few times with regards to prayer time, but nothing more.  There is nothing about praying for anything specific, or covering, or religious beliefs, practices, or traditions.   The book like the author’s first book Written in the Stars, almost oddly leaves religion out, and stresses culture.  Because this book is for a younger audience, it isn’t as obvious, and if I didn’t write reviews about books I probably wouldn’t notice.  

The presentation of culture, the idea of indentured servitude, and females being educated is balanced and explained pretty well.  At most many of the readers will know little of Pakistan, but may have heard of Malala, and the author talks about her in the Author Note.  I like that this book shows a fictional strong female in a similar vein as Malala, but also shows that it isn’t an outside force, the Taliban, preventing her from an education, but in some ways a whole societal view.  I think this expansion of paradigm is really the most powerful thing about this book.  It is important to understand that people may want their daughters educated, and opportunities may be available, but sometimes more is needed.   A lot more to change tradition, on a lot of different fronts.

The book also does a good job of showing some of the paradoxes that exist in developing countries as well: Amal rides in a car for the first time, but also is handed a cell phone from her mom, she knows all about email but has never used a computer.  For readers to see that somethings are very similar to their own lives, and some things are foreign, will make Amal and what she stands for have staying power and relevance, long after the end of the book.

FLAGS:

There is talk of physical violence when people are murdered, crops burned, and Amal is slapped.  There is some lying, but the truth comes out. Overall: clean.

 

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would absolutely present this book as an Elementary Book Club selection and I would encourage teachers to use it as a novel study.  There is a lot of perspective to be had from this book, and its clean simple style will keep the keep points in focus.

Author’s website: http://aishasaeed.com/amalunbound/

Q & A with the Author: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/76814-q-a-with-aisha-saeed.html

Discussion Guide: http://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/AmalUnbound_Brochure.pdf