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Writing Myself a New Story, a guest post by Jasmine Warga

I first met my uncle Abdalla when I was four-years-old. Up until the moment he got off the plane, walked straight toward me and picked me up off the ground with a twirl, whispering in rapid-fire Arabic to me, my uncle had only existed in stories that my father told me.

I didn’t understand most of what my uncle was saying when he greeted me—I was only familiar with a couple of Arabic phrases—but I also felt like I understood every word. That’s how it always was with Abdalla. I understood, and if I didn’t, he made sure that I did.

My parents had asked him to come to America to take care of me during the birth of my baby brother and the subsequent hectic weeks that would follow. I think their hope was that I’d be too distracted by my new uncle to resent the fact that I was no longer the baby of the family. It worked. My uncle and I spent the weeks leading up to my brother’s birth trading stories. He would tell me about Jordan—my great-aunt with a temper like a snake, my grandmother who believed deeply in otherworldly things, and a whole city made of a rose rock that he would show me when I visited. My uncle is the one who first taught me the true power of storytelling. He rendered Jordan so gorgeously and evocatively that I was desperate to visit.

I finally got the chance to visit when I was eight-years-old. My uncle greeted us at the airport, pulling me into a hug, and telling me, “Welcome home” in both Arabic and English. At first, Jordan didn’t feel at all like home. Jordan was people eyeing me with curiosity, confused that my name was Yasmine Nazek, but I didn’t speak smooth and confident Arabic. Jordan was hilly roads that made me slightly nauseous as we drove up and down them. Jordan was open windows at all times, and the sound of the call to prayer at dawn. It was pomegranates that exploded in my mouth. It was big family dinners of mansaf and crowded rooms filled with people I’d never met but who loved me and I loved them. It was playing soccer with local neighborhood children in an empty lot that would soon be filled with luxury condos.

One of the last nights of the trip, I sat with my uncle outside on his patio, and told him through tears that I was going to miss Jordan so much when I went home. That I didn’t want to go home because this was home, could be home. My uncle took my face in his hands, and told me that I could come visit whenever I wanted because, “Jordan belonged to me.”

Jordan belonged to me.

The thing about diaspora kids like me is that it is hard to believe that any place belongs to us.

Not our homes in America where we are othered, sidelined, and marginalized. And not the countries of our ethnic origin because how can you muster the audacity to lay to claim to a country—a culture—that still feels foreign to you, no matter how much you want it to be familiar.

I was always told how lucky I was to have two homes—and I know I am—but it’s also deeply lonely to feel like a stranger in both worlds.

When I got back from that first trip to Jordan, I did a presentation for my third-grade class about it. My dad came in to help. We served the class hummus. This was before everyone in America knew what hummus was. Most of my classmates were excited to try the strange dip in front of them, but you can probably imagine the look on some of their faces—a puckering of the lips, declarations of “weird!” and “ew!”

I remember going from a feeling of surging pride—having just shared an incredible photo of Petra—to deep shame. This is one of my first childhood memories of really feeling different from my classmates and wanting not to be. I’m sure I’d had those moments before—I’d must have—but none stand out to me as clearly as this one. Sweating in my hand-embroidered thobe that moments ago I’d been so delighted to wear. Running to the school bathroom to pull it off; and making excuses about why I needed to change that instant.

I was eight years old then. I never talked about Jordan at school again until I was seventeen.

As more and more people begin to read Other Words for Home, I’m being asked if Jude is a stand-in for me when I was twelve. I always pause at this question. The differences are obvious to me. They are almost as wide and daunting as the ocean that Jude crosses in the book. The most glaring of which is, while we are both Arab, Jude is Syrian-born, and I am American-born.

It is not lost on me that the character in the story who I most identify with is the novel’s main antagonist—Jude’s American-born cousin, Sarah. Sarah is hurting on the inside—feeling lost and lonely in a way that she doesn’t even have a vocabulary for—and so she lashes out at others.

I believe so much in positive representation. I used to parrot this idea that our job as writers was to write the world exactly as it is, exactly as we experience it—an academic idea I’d stolen from older white male authors who I’d seen talk about their books. I thought that repeating it would prove that I, too, was hip, educated, and literary. That I deserved my seat at the proverbial table.

But the older I get, the more I believe that books give birth to the world we live in. Media representation shapes actual perceptions, and so instead of writing sad, lonely brown girls, I decided to write a girl like Jude. A girl who has pride in her family, her culture. A girl who, of course, makes mistakes, but is sure of her heart. Growing up, I never saw a character like Jude. If I encountered a self-assured heroine, she was always white, and beautiful in a way that every media outlet had led me to believe was the only way to be beautiful—fair skin, light hair, a nose completely unlike mine.

Jude does not exist to help Sarah to grow. I want to make that very clear. She has her own story and agency. But one of my very favorite things about the book is the way in which Jude’s confidence in her identity begins to influence the way Sarah sees herself. We can all learn from one another, and the way Sarah learns from Jude, and in turn, the way Jude learns from Sarah, are particularly meaningful to me.

When I was sixteen, and visiting my uncle in Jordan for the summer, I remember whining to him that I didn’t want to be Arab or Muslim anymore. That everyone in the world hated Arabs and Muslims. When I told Abdalla this, memories from my childhood came flooding back to me—desperately wishing to look like my white American girl doll in fourth grade, lying and saying I was Italian instead of Arab in ninth grade, staying silent even though it turned my insides to acid when I heard ignorant things said about Islam. I also thought of the deep shame I felt about not posting a single picture from my visit on Facebook that showed one of my hijab-wearing relatives. Instead posting a series of photographs of the westernized cafes that had recently opened up in Amman.

My uncle didn’t get upset or angry at my declaration. He simply smiled at me in a knowing way. He told me that I only thought that because of the story the American media was telling me. “But Yasmine habibti, you’re a writer, yes? Write another story.”

My uncle Abdalla died before I finished the first draft of Other Words for Home. He never got to read it. But I still like to imagine that somewhere he’s smiling, knowing that I did write myself another story.

Meet Jasmine Warga

Photo credit: Braxton Black

Jasmine Warga is the author of the middle grade novel Other Words for Home (Balzer + Bray; May 28, 2019), as well as several teen books: Here We Are Now, and My Heart and Other Black Holes, which has been translated into over twenty languages. She lives and writes in Chicago, IL. You can visit Jasmine online at www.jasminewarga.com.

About Other Words for Home

A gorgeously written, hopeful middle grade novel in verse about a young girl who must leave Syria to move to the United States, perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Aisha Saeed.

Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always loved haven’t quite prepared her for starting school in the US—and her new label of “Middle Eastern,” an identity she’s never known before.

But this life also brings unexpected surprises—there are new friends, a whole new family, and a school musical that Jude might just try out for. Maybe America, too, is a place where Jude can be seen as she really is.

This lyrical, life-affirming story is about losing and finding home and, most importantly, finding yourself.

ISBN-13: 9780062747808
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/28/2019

Book Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Publisher’s description

It’s just three words: I am nonbinary. But that’s all it takes to change everything.

When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.

But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.

At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.

Amanda’s thoughts

Go order this book now. Request it from your library, buy it from your local bookstore, order it FOR your library, email your media specialist to make sure they know about it, just go. I’ll wait.

Did you do it? I really hope you did, because this is an Important Book. There are not a ton of nonbinary teens yet in YA books. This fact alone makes this book noteworthy. But it’s the fact that Ben’s story is so complex and emotional and that the writing is SO GOOD that really makes this book one that you need.

This is not always an easy book to read, but just know that it gets easier and has a happy ending. And that’s not a spoiler—I think it’s important to know that this book about a nonbinary teen kicked out of their home isn’t a story just full of misery and betrayal. That’s certainly part of the story, and not an unimportant part, but Ben’s story is so much deeper than that. And, thankfully, it’s so much more joy-filled than just that.

Ben’s parents kick them out when they come out as nonbinary. Ben (they/them) feels like they are living a lie and that their parents don’t actually know them. Their parents’ reaction is, obviously, not positive. Ben’s mother says this isn’t what God wants and Ben’s father is totally unwilling to even entertain this as an idea that exists. Thankfully, Ben’s sister, Hannah, takes them in, but it’s been a decade since Ben saw her and, while so grateful to her and her husband, Thomas, Ben still has complicated feelings about how she left the family. Hannah and Thomas are great. They get Ben set up with school, new clothes, a supportive and affirming home, and do their best to use the right pronouns. They are learning, but they are working hard to do so. Hannah also gets Ben set up with a therapist, so they can talk about what went on at home. It is during these sessions that Ben also is able to address and start to understand their depression and anxiety with panic attacks. This system of support that is being built around Ben is SO important.

Ben also finds unexpected support through new friends at school, including Nathan. Ben isn’t out as nonbinary at school and is worried what Nathan may think, especially as they grow closer. (Readers probably won’t worry what Nathan will think—he’s such a wonderful, sweet, charming character and it was nice to not feel like this is just someone else who will judge or hurt Ben.) Ben begins to thrive in their new life, painting, slowly making friends, feeling safer, and starting to think about the future. Used to being a loner and seen as “that weird kid,” Ben still has trouble trusting people and feeling secure, but they are surrounded by people who show them that this is okay.

Another wonderful source of support for Ben is Miriam, who is nonbinary and has a popular YouTube channel. From Bahrain, Miriam is Shi’a Muslim and immigrated to the US. Now in California (Ben is in North Carolina), the two connected online and have a strong bond. Miriam says they are Ben’s “enby mama” and helps to guide Ben through this time in their life. Miriam’s role as a mentor, friend, confidant, and example of a nonbinary person happy and successful is so important for Ben.

Could I use the word “important” more in this review? I’ll try.

The not easy to read parts include Ben constantly being misgendered. Remember, they are not out to anyone beyond their family, Miriam, and their therapist. An unknowing Nathan refers to Ben as he/him, boy, Mr, prince, and dude. These all hurt Ben, but they are not yet ready to come out. Ben’s parents are really just so awful, even when they allegedly try to make some amends. As a parent of an almost-teen myself, they are what most infuriated me and ate away at me while I read. I cannot imagine not accepting anything to do with my child’s identity. Of course, I know plenty of young people who have been exactly where Ben is—they come out and are kicked out. Thank goodness for Hannah and Thomas. Thank goodness for all the love, support, and kindness that surrounds Ben. This is such a shining example of the family that can form around you and hold you up when the people who SHOULD always be there for you refuse to. Shall I tell you that it’s an IMPORTANT message? Because it is.

This heartfelt story will empower readers. Ben’s journey is not always easy, but it is full of love, affirmation, and eventual happiness. And have I mentioned that all of this is so important? I can’t say that word enough (though you may argue otherwise at this point). This story, this representation, this example is so needed. Get this on your shelves and into readers’ hands.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338306125
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 05/14/2019

Book Review: Love from A to Z by S. K. Ali

Publisher’s description

love fromFrom William C. Morris Award Finalist S.K. Ali comes an unforgettable romance that is part The Sun Is Also a Star mixed with Anna and the French Kiss, following two Muslim teens who meet during a spring break trip.

A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.

An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.

But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.

When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.

Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.

Then her path crosses with Adam’s.

Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.

Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.

Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.

Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…

Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

First thing first: this is easily in my top five for books I’ve read so far in 2019. EASILY.

 

Second thing, well, second: I am in the very fortunate position to receive a ton of books to consider for review. And while I am so grateful to get them, look through them, tweet about them, include them in posts for collection development, and read them, there is just no way I can actually read most of them for review here unless I quit my job to be a stay-at-home dog mom and then do nothing but read (hmm…). So I sort through options and almost always choose something that I already assume I will like (because of the content or the author’s previous work or the genre or a particular issue). I don’t “have” to review anything and certainly don’t want to waste my time reviewing something that isn’t good or doesn’t hold my attention—unless I find it so problematic or concerning that I want to review it to warn people away from bad rep etc. Alllll of that is to say I went in assuming I would like this book and it totally blew my expectations out of the water. And what a joy when you think you’ll love something and get to find out that you LOVE it.

 

Am I just going to gush at you for multiple paragraphs? Maybe. I save my academic review writing for SLJ. Here at TLT, I get to be conversational and less professional and GUSH. So yeah, my notes include things like “I’M IN” and “I am so here for this!” and hearts and exclamation points.

 

The summary up there is really thorough. It captures the plot points really well, but does nothing to capture the real spirit of the story or the characters. All it took was the first few pages, meeting both Adam Chen and Zayneb Malik and seeing their marvels and oddities journals, and I was swept up into the story. I scratched the rest of my to-do list for the day and just read this book straight through. There is so much heart to this book, whether with family or friends or support or passions or convictions. It is full of strong feelings, of passionate convictions, and of complicated characters who don’t always do or say the right thing, but make choices for logical and important reasons. This book is about love, family, and the changes and challenges life throws at us. It’s also about Islamophobia, justice, peace, activism, social justice, civilian casualties of war, righteous anger, and being Muslim. It is SO MUCH about being Muslim. Zayneb was raised Muslim from the start and Adam converted, along with his father, a handful of years ago. Zayneb’s father is from Pakistan and her mother (who also converted) is Guyanese and Trinidadian. Adam is Canadian by way of China and Finland.

 

There was so much in this book that either I was cheering for (Zayneb repeatedly calling people out for their racism, Islamophobia, white feminism, and cultural appropriation) or marveling (sorry) over (have I read a book set in Qatar before? Have I read a book where there are characters who converted to Islam before?). Despite their bumps along the road, it’s so clear to the reader that Adam and Zayneb were meant to meet and be in each other’s lives. For very different reasons, they both feel so alone, but find more connections than just each other. This is a beautiful, complex, and important book. I hope that all libraries will get this on their shelves and on display. A wonderful story that centers the Muslim experience and shows the power of anger, peace, and connection. 

 

 

Review copy (e-ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534442726
Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 04/30/2019

Book Review: American Panda by Gloria Chao

Publisher’s description

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.

At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

american pandaI LOVED this book. It was on my list of books I’m most looking forward to this year and it totally delivered.

At only 17, Mei is a first-year pre-med student at MIT. Her Taiwanese immigrant parents should be proud of her. She should be excited to be in college and on the path to her career. Except her parents only sparingly dole out praise and Mei doesn’t actually want to be a doctor. Her debilitating fear of germs is one roadblock, sure, but it’s more that she just really has no interest in this career; she’d love to own a dance studio instead. But her parents pressure her and expect certain things. After all, all it took for her (now doctor) brother to be disowned was him falling in love with a Taiwanese-American woman who has endometriosis and may have trouble conceiving. Mei’s mother is endlessly critical of her (telling her that no man wants a panda—lazy, round, and silly—her body-shaming is incessant), micromanaging her life and making it clear that anything other than the plans her parents have laid out for her are unacceptable. Mei longs for freedom now that she’s in college, but it’s hard to achieve with your parents constantly checking in and criticizing.

 

 

Despite the pressures, Mei can’t help but live her own life, one that she has to keep secret from her judging parents. She dances, teaches dance, spends time doing things other than studying, shadows a doctor and HATES it, reconnects with her brother, and falls for the charismatic Darren Takahashi, a Japanese-American classmate. Keeping so many things secret is hard on Mei, who is struggling to figure out how to exist in multiple cultures, how to carve out her own life, and to figure out where her parents end and she begins. After years of convincing herself that what she wants doesn’t matter, that fulfilling her duties is what’s important (even if it makes her miserable), Mei begins to see there may be another path. But making her way along it won’t be easy.

 

Though the pacing was sometimes a little off (with extraneous scenes/characters that didn’t particularly move the story along), overall this was a fantastic read. Mei is a great character—funny, awkward, determined, and conflicted—and the plot of how to straddle cultures as a child of immigrants will appeal to many readers who can relate, as will the story of wanting to make your own choices but not being sure how to go about that. Mei’s voice is strong and determined, in spite of what her controlling parents have tried to impose. I loved seeing her begin to stand up for herself and surround herself with people who got to see who she truly was. I can’t wait to see more from Chao!

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481499101
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 02/06/2018

Book Review: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali

Publisher’s description

ra6Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:

1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.

2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.

Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.

But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?

3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

Like the monster at my mosque.

People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

Except me.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Ali - Saints and MisfitsThis excellent book manages to be both about BIG things (faith, family, sexual assault) and about very everyday things (friendship, tests at school, crushes). Ali does a great job of weaving the big and little things together as we watch sophomore Janna Yusuf learn, grow, and find her voice.

 

We first meet Janna, wearing a burkini, while she’s in Florida with her dad and his family. She’d rather not be hanging out with them, but after her friend’s cousin sexually assaults her at a gathering, she needs to get out of town. Farooq, who Janna mostly just refers to as “the monster,” is well-respected in their community, a sort of golden boy at their mosque, who has memorized the entire Qur’an (but doesn’t appear to actually understand any of it). Janna keeps the assault to herself for much of the story, busy navigating the many parts of her life, but the monster is always around and Janna is fearful and angry. Janna’s brother, Muhammad, has recently moved home, taking a year off from college, and is courting Sarah, a study circle leader at their mosque, who Janna feels is, annoying, “the most perfect Muslim girl.” Janna spends time with Mr. Ram, her elderly Hindu neighbor, tries to figure out what to do about her crush on white, non-Muslim Jeremy, and hangs out with friends. She takes part in an Islamic Quiz Bowl team, too, getting to know more about people like Nuah, a nice dude who is friends with the monster, and Sausun, a niqab-wearing girl who becomes a surprising ally for Janna.

 

As Janna finds her voice, she struggles with how to fit in (both with her Muslim friends and her non-Muslim friends, as well as within her divided family), with what is important to her, and with how to make real connections with the people in her life. This is a thoughtful and engaging look at identity and finding your footing in your own life. As with the other books from Salaam Reads, this should be in all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481499248

Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 06/13/2017