Tag Archives: young adult

The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

Standard
The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

bird

I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in.  The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed.  The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily.  It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny.  While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio

n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page.  I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it.  There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story.  The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.

I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.

SYNOPSIS:

The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service.  Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee.  They journey together and their feelings grow.  To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan.  Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful.  She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her.  She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death.  Numerous suitors have been killed.  When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.

For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all.  In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book.  Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects.  A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end.  Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram.  It mentions a few times that he prays.  There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.

The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing.  I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading.  It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end.  I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.

Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy.  Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining.  Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.

A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river.  Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.

My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.

FLAGS:

There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation.  There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance.  There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt.  There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed.  There is language and crudeness.  There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating.  There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts.  Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection.  The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.

Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

Standard
Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile by Rukhsana Khan

img_1788

I’m not sure how I missed this 1999 published YA book by the OG-groundbreaking-industry-changing- Rukhsana Khan, but until @bintyounus mentioned it to me recently I didn’t even know it existed.  The book has so much Islam, ayats, hadith, salat- Islamic fiction self-published often doesn’t have as much as this mainstream book has, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the content was a bit shocking.  Part of my surprise I think comes from the fact that the book is only 206 pages, it takes its title from a game I remember playing in elementary school at recess, the main character is in 8th grade and the cover is soft pinks.  This book is solid YA both now, and nearly 25 years ago, it carries some incredibly heavy themes: attempted suicide, topless photographs, sexual coercion, cigarette smoking, assault, racism, misogyny, toxic relationships, neglect and more (see flags below).  The book is memorable and hard to put down, the Islam is confident and explored, even when weaponized by an older sister, but there is no denying the story telling abilities of the author, and  while I won’t be letting my 11 or 13 year old read it any time soon, I know I benefitted from reading it- reminiscing about wanting Lucky Jeans and standing in awe of how EVERY. MUSLIM. DESI. author making it in mainstream today is benefitting from the path paved by Rukhsana Khan.  On behalf of readers everywhere- thank you.  Thank you for fighting to tell your stories your way, raising the bar, and offering real Muslim characters from a Muslim voice. 

SYNOPSIS:

Zainab has no friends and doesn’t own a pair of Lucky Jeans, she is the only one in 8th grade that doesn’t.  She feels like if she could trade in her polyester pants for the “cool” pants everyone has, she’d be accepted.  When that plan fails and lands her in trouble, she gets tasked with directing her house’s school play.  The teacher convinces her that it will be a way for her to make friends, and earn her classmates respect, but middle school is never that easy.  Everyone is in love with Kevin, including Zainab, but he is a jerk and if he isn’t the lead, no one else will audition.  Jenny is poor, but has a big chest, so even though she is nice to Zainab, she is more in love with Kevin who only wants her for one thing, and takes advantage whenever his girlfriend isn’t around.  Add to the drama Zainab’s very strict older sister who lists off Zainab’s faults every night with Islamic references to try and make Zainab a better person, and this coming of age story will require Zainab to sort through it all and find her own way to be.  There are a lot of subplots that circle around the play, social circles, toxic relationships, and self growth, that while the characters are worried if they will win the competition and break the curse, the readers (at least this 41 year old mama) are hoping that the characters will survive the year unscathed. 

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family is the same family that will become its own story in Big Red Lollipop just grown up, with names changes, and that the story is summarized.  I’m still a little torn if I love the raw grittiness of the way the two sisters interact or if it goes too far and leaves a bitter taste about Islam.  I really am on the fence about how young readers, both Muslim and non Muslim, in 1999 and in 2022, would view the role of Islam in the dynamic.  I think it reads powerfully, but I had a hard time going back to look at it through my 13 year old eyes and it as an adult it is intense.  I still can’t believe that this book was published with how much Islam it contains, even the play put on in a public school was religiously centered.  White privilege is called out and stereotypes about whites are stated, a Hindu character and the Muslim main character work through their baggage, economic privilege is opined on, women’s rights and expectations discussed, comments about “othering” are present-  it really covers a lot. Quite impressive in a lot of ways. 

The relationship and love themes are not shied away from which caught me off guard.  I expected some making-out and heavy petting, but was surprised it went to topless photos, a character’s mom being a nudist, and that there is a lot of forced touching.  I think for most Islamic school 8th graders, this book would be too mature, in fact I genuinely hope it is. Not to say it is not accurate, but it is very critical to the story and I think would need some discussion.  

I love that the characters draw you in, as much as you despise everyone picking on Zainab, you know she isn’t a pushover and you really pull for her.  I didn’t want to put the book down and kept reading because I wanted to make sure she was ok, see what choices she made, and in a fairly short book, that is remarkable story telling.

FLAGS:

The book is for mature readers in my opinion.  There are relationships, assault, cigarettes’, nudists, kissing, spying, sexual assault, coercion, topless nude photographs, attempted suicide, bullying, teasing, cheating, physical assault, language, verbal abuse, stereotypes, talk of female anatomy, and use of Islam to hurt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I would shelve this in the library, I would see if perhaps there is a version with a different cover, one that might signal a more mature reader.  I would worry if an early middle schooler read this, I think it would be a lot for them to take in, process, and reflect on.  It isn’t a light read, and would need some discussion, but ultimately I don’t know that a middle school book club at an Islamic school would be the right place for it. It could be for sure, but not the one I’m currently at.

Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

Standard
Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed

hollow fires

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

Standard
Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

court

I don’t know what it is about male protagonist sports novels, but they often seem to be overly crass and crude.  Perhaps that is the real life environment that inspires such writings, or perhaps it is just male voiced YA books, but in this one in particular it seemed to stand out because the storytelling by-and-large is really enjoyable, it just has a lot of flags, A LOT.  Beside the language, sexual innuendos, drug use, violence and romance, it also has a few religious and cultural concerns that are possibly just specific to the niche that I review for, but did have me shaking my head out of confusion and sighing in disappointment. To its credit there is a decent amount of Islam featured, some male friendships that are quite heartwarming, and some emotional depth that presents really well.  The 312 page book is marketed to readers 12 and up, but there is no way I would encourage the book for anyone that young, Muslim or not.  For Muslim youth specifically I would say 17 plus.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told from the perspective of fifteen year old Fawad who lives in Regent Park with his mom and sister.  He dreams of being the first Pakistani NBA player and the linear story bounces in time at the start and he sometimes even speaks to the reader, but the story is all his.  Regent park is a poor part of town pressed right up against a wealthy part of Toronto and the neighborhood is rough.  Fawad is a good kid: he doesn’t go out much after dark since his father died, he helps his mom, doesn’t run with a gang, he gets good grades, loves basketball, and doesn’t have a girlfriend, not yet anyway.  The story starts with him reliving the final minutes of a summer league basketball game where he opted to pass out of fear of the ever looming threat of Omar, rather than take the shot himself.  Omar ends up missing and they lose, oh yeah and Omar is the imam’s son.  Under the protection of Abshir, Fawad’s friend Yousuf’s older brother: Omar, Yousuf, and Arif have someone looking out for them on the streets.  Arif has some help from the Bengali crew, and Yousuf is Somali, but there are not enough Pakistani’s to make a stand or demand respect when out and about.  When Abshir gets murdered, Yousuf retreats into himself his music and smoking joints, Arif keeps his playboy ways to take his mind off things when he isn’t reciting Quran beautifully in classes at the masjid, and Fawad makes the high school basketball team and finds a girlfriend. Things with Omar physically escalate as well, while things at home have his mom putting in to action plans for Fawad to marry his cousin in Pakistan.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like that Islam and culture are presented powerfully with OWN voice strength and detail.  Things are not defined or over explained and if you don’t know what haram or Ramadan or an imam are, figure it out.  I rarely find myself wishing the ending of books were different.  You hear a lot about that in movies, that they didn’t screen well or something, and so the ending was changed, and that is how I feel about this book.  *SPOILERS* Fawad and Omar should not have resolved their issues so easily, it was more than a respect thing, there was blood and hospitalizations.  We never even knew why they had issues in the first place. Arif and Nermin should not have hooked up. The whole book she comes across as the strong Muslim hijabi that blurs the lines by side hugging her guy friends, but not being ok with it, then she shows up to a dance, and then hooks up with Arif, didn’t like that at all.  I get the mixed signals of Fawad having a girlfriend from his mom, and while he seems to be connected to the mosque it never shares that he understands Islam more than just I have to do this and I can’t do this, but I didn’t like him going back to Ashley and wanted him to choose his own self-worth and respect over accepting her apology and going back to her.  I do not understand why Fawad waited so long to tell his mother about Nusrat. It was nothing that would upset his mom, I don’t get why he dragged it out.  I do love that the cousins were friends or friendly, but were fronting to their parents, but it was unnecessarily dragged out, and the more it got dragged out, the more complicated and intertwined it got with Fawad having a girlfriend.

I did not get the mom and sister relationship at all.  The mom seems to have just given up on her, but they seem to spend a lot of time together, so that was a disconnect for me.  At first I kind of liked the twist on the stereotype that the boy was not allowed freedoms to go out, but the sister was, but it kind of unraveled in the logic department.  I am desi, (half anyway) and the stereotype is that the boys are earning before they get married.  So to be arranging Fawad’s wedding at age 15 is bonkers.  To be arranging anybody’s wedding at that age is, but it is so contrary to custom, that I couldn’t even ignore it and move on, it was constantly blocking the story from being smooth.  The mom’s rationale is that she wants a daughter-in-law to take care of her.  Again kind of bogus, but maybe there is some truth there, unfortunately there is the big gaping hole that she, the mom, doesn’t take care of her in-laws, so why the difference of expectation.  Suffice it to say the mom and sister are both road bumps in the story for me.

I was impressed at how much basketball play-by-play was in the book and how it didn’t get boring.  I love that there were plenty of male role models in the community and that the three boys really looked out for each other, supported each other, were connected to each other’s families, etc..  I didn’t like the abusive religious imam trope.  I’m glad that Omar’s dad wasn’t blind to his son, but to be abusive was uncalled for.

I don’t know why Nermin is called, “Arabic,” at one point, that is clearly erroneous and I wish that the condom talk and sexual innuendos were greatly reduced.  There isn’t a lot of resolution regarding who killed Abshir, if Fawad caused any permanent damage by playing, or what the future holds for any of the characters and their relationships, but it was a quick read and held my intention and I did quite enjoy the writing.

FLAGS:
Lying, violence, murder, physical assault, kissing, making out, talk of arousal, talk of condoms and sex and getting physical.  Drugs and alcohol and addiction.  Child abuse, theft, stealing, threats.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I could teach this to middle school or high school in an Islamic school.

Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

Standard
Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas

squire

This 336 page YA graphic novel set in a fictitious world draws on the authors’ Arab culture and creates relatability for universal readers everywhere.  Themes of coming of age, war, family honor, discrimination, classism, deceit, and friendship, all interweaves with rich illustrations and warmth.  With a few unnamed #muslimsintheillustrations the story shows a lot of heart and with some language, violence, death, and oppression would be best suited for 9th grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Aiza and her family belong to the Ornu tribe and are treated as second class citizens in the Bayt-Sajji Empire.  With their traditional arm tattoos and seemingly more plentiful food, they are greatly disliked by the larger community and oppressed at every opportunity.  Aiza dreams of joining the army, rising in ranks, earning citizenship for her family and changing their future.  She also dreams of being a hero.  When she finally convinces her family to allow her to enlist, they also encourage her to hide her identity, and just like that, she is off.

Once in training she is pushed to excel or risk being sent to the front lines.  As she navigates new friendships, harsh instructors, and the shadowy General Hende, Aiza learns there is so much more to war and politicking than meets the eye.  Her life, her loyalties, her understanding of the world will all be tested, as Aiza must decide which path is for her.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The text and illustrations are seamless in conveying a united story, I was a little nervous with two authors, and I like that the story has twists and multitudes.  I loved seeing strong women in the military, as the authors’ say tough girls with swords.  While reading it I was completely submerged in the story and the characters, but writing this review a few days later, I’ve largely forgotten the characters names and quirks.  I’m not sure if it is because I read a digital version, or because the character building is a little lacking.  I don’t know that I was emotionally invested in some of the major plot points because I was not seeing the struggles it was requiring of the character to endure.  Admittedly I have not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels, so I don’t know that I have a lot to compare it to, but I do plan to read a physical copy when I can, and read follow up books in the series, to see if my impression changes.

FLAGS:

Some language, bullying, oppression, violence, death, killing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is nothing religious in the text, so I wouldn’t use it as a book club selection, but I would definitely shelve it in a school library, classroom, and keep it in mind for readers that love these kind of books.

Hakim’s Odyssey: Book 2: From Turkey to Greece by Fabien Toulme’

Standard
Hakim’s Odyssey: Book 2: From Turkey to Greece by Fabien Toulme’

hakimcover

It is easy to assume that refugee stories are all the same, but in my experience, the more I read about the journeys people take in desperation for safety, the more I realize it doesn’t matter if “parts” are similar, the individual experience should never be dismissed or become commonplace.  I try to make a point to read them, and spend time with them, and be affected by them, so as to not grow apathetic.  I have not read the first book in this series, but this book, the second book can stand alone, and I hope that you will keep an eye out for it when it is published, and spend time with Hakim and his son Hadi.  In much of the way the middle grade novel When Stars are Scattered, swept me up and consumed me, this book also enveloped me in the characters’ emotions and left me sobbing and heartbroken more than once.  The framing of the story, gratefully shows that Hakim survives, but the power of the words, illustrations, and experience, still physically move you and make you imagine how truly horrific situations must be that force people to risk it all to leave their homes and start over.  This 264 page book focuses on the part of his story that takes Hakim from Turkey to Greece, but references to Syria and his life there allow for a fleshed out understanding and appreciation for the trials he has faced, and continues to face, subhahAllah.  Suitable for mature teens, at least 16  or 17 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with the author/illustrator heading off with his daughter to interview Hakim.  His young daughter has heard a lot about Hakim and his family, but never met them.  They “recap” the first part of his journey, the first book, and settle in to hear more of his life and the extraordinary circumstances that he has faced to reunite with his family since fleeing the war in Syria.

The birth of his son Hadi is a definite high point in Hakim’s life and the daily struggle of selling enough goods on the streets of Turkey to provide for his son keep Hakim looking forward.  With his wife, Najmeh, and her family around them, they crave stability, but are managing.  As the days stretch on though, Hakim is prevented from selling without the proper permissions, and his father-in-law is still unable to find work. Hakim’s wife and family are granted permission to relocate, but Hakim and Hadi cannot legally join them.  The tearing apart of the family is devastating.  And carrying for his young son alone while trying to earn enough to survive is incredibly challenging.  When Hakim has exhausted all the legal ways to join his family in France, he considers illegal methods.

An Iraqi neighbor offers him the money needed to hire smugglers, so Hakim is faced with deciding what risks he and his young son are willing to take to “start living.”  The step in to the unknown, the crossing of the sea in an inflatable life raft, brings them closer, but with one more book in the series, and not knowing who the children are in the present time scenes, your heart will be made incredibly fragile as you hope that young Hadi survives.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that you get to know the characters and can see why they make the decisions they make, or rather why the choose to do what they choose based on the information they have, and the impossible choices before them.  I also love that it shows so much humanity.  You see Hakim’s story brought to life and you see him and his family as whole people, not just numbers or nameless, faceless victims.  You see the joy and devastation, the testament to human strength and mental anguish, it is moving and powerful.  I also love that you see the side characters, see the little mercies, and the horrific injustices, often in the same scene. The graphic novel format allows the subtleties to show without the words, it adds to the connection of emotions and truly putting yourself in the character’s shoes.

I like that it should how happenstance much of the journey was for Hakim, at times he didn’t know who to talk to, where to go, what to expect.  I was a little confused about the payment to the smugglers, and how it had to be handled after he arrived.  I don’t know if my own understanding of how shady the smugglers are based on the media is making it muddled, or if I just missed something in the telling.

There is not a lot of Islam in the book, they don’t stop and make salat or say Bismillah, but they reference thanking Allah swt, and praying to Allah in desperation.  Hakim’s mother in law and wife wear hijab.

FLAGS:

Fear, smoking, cheating, lying, illegal immigration acts.  There is nothing obscene, the older audience recommendation is because of the weight of the subject matter, and the lingering effects of war and escaping.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing high school book club read.  The characters, the relatability, the empathy, it would be great to share it with a group of students that might have similar experiences and provide them with a platform to share with those that might not.

10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

Standard
10 Steps to Us by Attiya Khan

steps

I try really hard to keep an open mind when reading Islamic YA romance books knowing that certain standards are probably not going to exist to move the story along, and of course I’m fully cognizant that Islam is practiced in a myriad of ways and chances are, I will disagree with a fair amount of any book in this genre.  This particular book though, was hard to read.  Ultimately I just didn’t like the protagonist, she was shallow and flimsy and her grasp on reality seemed lacking at times.  The premise of the book is that you can have a boyfriend, if the boyfriend is Muslim.  So by not agreeing with the very foundation; made the rest of the book hard to wrap my head around.  The book is largely about hijab, and the author starts the book thanking the individuals that “educated her about the hijab,”  yes, the article “the” is often used, and thus so much of the nuanced lived OWN voice experience of wearing hijab, is lacking.  The book features language, lying, kissing, making out, talk of wanking, condoms, groping, and a scene that nearly concludes with sex, but stops short, barely.  Perhaps high school seniors and college age teens could read this 231 page book, but I don’t know that the book is worth their time.  Practicing Muslims will be irritated by the lack of mirroring, cultural readers will be annoyed that the protagonist didn’t push back on toxic assumptions, and non religious readers will be left confused at what the book hopes to accomplish by including religion and culture to no real definitive purpose in a romance novel.

SYNOPSIS:

High school student Aisha wears hijab much to her parents protests, and tries to avoid the Islamophobic aggressions that she endures in her white Kent neighborhood.  She learns more about Islam than cultural superficiality from a family friend, an aunty, and she goes through her daily life largely unnoticed.  She has a close friend, who is popular and likes to party, but Aisha doesn’t go out much, yet Isabelle still finds ways to include her.  Everything starts to change however, when Darren moves in to town, defends Aisha at the bus stop and seems to be interested in being more than just friends.  Aisha doesn’t date, but reasons if Darren were a Muslim, nothing would stop her.  She devises a 10 step plan to make it all work, she just has to convert him.

While she sets her plan in motion, she finds herself lying to Isabelle, who has a crush on Darren, lying to her parents so that she can sneak around with Darren, and lying to Shafqat Aunty about her relationship with Darren.  Along the way, she will lose her friendship with Isabelle, uncover dangers of equating culture and religion, remove and reconsider her hijab, nearly lose her virginity, and have to decide where her boundaries are.  By the end of the book, nothing is clearly articulated for Aisha’s future or what she has decided regarding her relationship with Islam, hijab, and future boyfriends.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I struggled with the book.  I like the flipped stereotype of the family not supporting hijab, but Aisha wearing it for her self anyway, unfortunately, I never felt that I understood why she felt strong enough to wear it, what brought her closer to Islam, and learning about Islam, and what the catalyst of it all was.  I think knowing more of Aisha’s backstory might have made her more like-able.  Throughout the book Shafqat Aunty is her whole Islamic touchstone.  She doesn’t seem to have any other way of learning, or studying Islam.  It seems that to come to Islam in high school would mean a level of maturity would exist that the character simply does not exhibit.  I started wearing hijab at 16, I was the first in my family, I did it for me, I was actively trying to be a better Muslim and understand Islam, and hijab was simply a physical, tangible manifestation of that.  So to see a character so passive in the learning, was a bit of a disconnect for me.  I’m not saying that everyone has an experience like mine, but her grasp of basic Islamic tenants seems so weak, and she doesn’t seem to have a way to acquire understanding, or even a desire to obtain it.  Often Darren seems to know more about Islam than she does.

I really struggled with the conceptual thread that her hijab prevents her from feeling comfortable making-out with Darren, so she hides it when clothing starts falling off.  Shouldn’t hijab be the reminder to not have gotten in that situation in the first place? Perhaps if she would have had some depth, or the relationship wasn’t “love at first sight” I would feel a bit more invested in her trying to sort out her beliefs while in the midst of such strong lust, but it wasn’t developed to that level.

I liked the initial idea of sorting through cultural and religious views on divorce especially considering the woman involved is being abused, but I didn’t think the book exerted a strong enough stance that divorce in Islam is absolutely ok, that abuse is not ok, and anything otherwise is backwards culture.  The book set itself up to make a strong statement, but then it abandoned it.  I’m not sure why the author didn’t get up on a soap box and preach, I mean it would have given the book something really powerful to highlight and given Aisha some growth in understanding where culture has undermined the power of women’s rights in Islam.

The book dismisses understanding one’s faith, and falls into predictable troupes despite setting itself up to be “different,” when  Aisha fears being shipped off to Pakistan when her parents find out about her and Darren.  The writing feels forced at times, and a few times He when referencing God is not capitalized.  I appreciate that some surahs, and duas, and Ramadan are included, but they don’t seem to shape Aisha, it seems like she is simply going through the motions.

The book ends on a “cliff hanger” of her either placing her scarf in the hamper or the garbage.

FLAGS:

Language, talk of sex, fairly vivid make-out scene that stops short of sex when they pause to acquire a condom and then Aisha changes her mind.  There is a lot of lying, normalizing relationships if both are Muslim, even if both are not, talk of domestic violence, slut-shaming, hickies, crude jokes.

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I would encourage this book in an Islamic school setting.

You Truly Assummed by Laila Sabreen

Standard
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

Standard
Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

huda f

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.

img_5036

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.

img_5035

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.

img_5037

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.

This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

Standard
This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

woven

At 512 pages this teen/YA fantasy book immerses you in the lives of two characters pitted against one another that are inevitably, drawn to each other.  The world building is slow, as it seems to spend more time character building and shaping the magical Jinn filled world around the characters, through their eyes, and their interactions, than simply building a world, and then dropping characters in it.  It never seems to drag, but the rising action is not concluded, it in fact ends on a cliff hanger raising the expectation for the next book in the series to take the story toward more action, emotion, and twists.  I absolutely love and applaud the author’s note that articulates and clarifies that this book is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for this completely fictionalized tale.  There is a passionate kiss, and violence, but this book is remarkably clean and an enjoyable read for ages 14 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The story opens with Alizeh sitting by the fire sewing.  She is freezing, she is always freezing, she is a Jinn, but her veins are ice.  Completely alone, she is working as a maid, but as she is on probation, she lodges in a tiny closet away from the other service members, and is deathly afraid of the dark.  Her loving parents raised her and nourished her, she is educated and strong, but since their deaths she has been on the run, trying simply to survive in a world where Clays forbid Jinn from using their magic.  Alizeh is no ordinary Jinn though, the earth has chosen her to be the future Queen, her ever-changing eyes prove it, but for now, she has no kingdom, no family, no friends, no hope to lead.  Only cryptic riddles given to her by Iblees that she dreads and fears, but warn her of impending dangers.

Kamran is the second storyline that builds the world of Ardunia.  As the crown prince, and future king, he has returned from touring the country and has had his eyes opened to the forces threatening the empire, the inevitable war that is looming, and the shortage of resources that threaten them all.  He is irritable and brooding and acting out of character when he intervenes in an altercation in the streets between a servant girl and a young boy.  This sets off a series of events that will bring Alizeh and Kamran into direct conflict as their worlds intertwine and their passions build.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the clarification at the beginning, stating that this is not Islamic and that religious and cultural inspiration was just that, inspiration. It allowed me to get comfortable and enjoy the tale for what it is.  I wasn’t worried about checking things, or worrying about religious impressions and accuracy, it was so freeing, thank you.  I really hope that there is a map in the final physical copy, because I just really like maps.  I liked the Persian numbers and script on the chapters and the references make the book that much richer and fleshed out.

I am admittedly fairly new to fantasy, so I enjoyed the slower pace and character building.  I found it enveloping and smooth, there were small conflicts, but the subtle world building through understanding the characters, and their perspectives, was a nice framing for a story that very easily could have dragged, but in reality flew by.  The only point that I found unrefined, was how much Alizeh knew of her past and the impact it had on her current situation.  There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect in teasing that thread.  The reader knows who she is, so I’m not sure why she seems to not know, and then proves that she does, there is no subtlety in that regard.  And the only character, that seemed underdeveloped was that of Hazan, his banter with the Kamran grated on my nerves, and I didn’t understand the abruptness of his and Alizeh’s relationship, it seemed forced.  Nearly everything else in the book was very organic and gently referenced and established very deliberately, but it almost seemed like I missed a chapter or two, when all of a sudden Hazan emerges as being such a main character in Alizeh’s life.  Undoubtedly it was a surprise for the reader, but some nuance in the revelation through Alizeh’s eyes, would have assisted in the continuity of the character and tone of the book.

FLAGS:
A kiss, and attraction, talk of illegitimate children.  There is killing and violence, attempted assault: physical and sexual, not detailed, but referenced as a fear as she walks alone at night.  There is darkness and talk of the devil, deceit, lying, plotting.  Nothing an early teen could not handle.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would have to delay deciding if I could do this as a book club selection until I read the next book.  There is so much potential, that I truly hope that I can introduce the series to young readers to enjoy, get lost in, and discuss.