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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: 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: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Publisher’s description

night diaryIn the vein of Inside Out and Back Again and The War That Saved My Life comes a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country

It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.

Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.

Told through Nisha’s letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl’s search for home, for her own identity…and for a hopeful future.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

This was another of those rare books that I read in one sitting, ignoring all of the other things I was supposed to do, allowing myself to be sucked into this book and its world.

Nisha, an introvert who rarely speaks to people outside of her family, begins keeping a diary in July 1947, after Kazi, the family chef, gives her a blank book for her 12th birthday. She narrates her life and the events unfolding around her in letters to her Muslim mother, who died while giving birth to Nisha and Amil, her twin brother. Nisha’s father is Hindu (as are Nisha and Amil), and Kazi is Muslim. Nisha is used to being friends with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, but that all changes when Partition happens. Nisha struggles to understand how India will soon be free from British rule, but will be divided up into two countries, one for Muslims and one for Hindus and Sikhs. Where they live will now be part of Pakistan, where Muslims will live. Nisha and her family must leave behind Kazi and make the perilous journey to their new home on foot. The trip is long, and they have very little food or water. As they grow more exhausted and dehydrated, Nisha becomes sure that she, Amil, her father, and their grandmother will all die. Their destination, while ultimately the new India, is first making it to Rashid Uncle’s house, halfway to the border. Rashid is their mother’s brother, someone Nisha has never met before. Their time there is precious, with Nisha recognizing so much of herself and her mother in Rashid. Leaving his house, being displaced yet again, is hard for Nisha. The remainder of their trip is horrific and frightening, but they arrive safely in their new home, where an unexpected surprise helps Nisha feel like this is more like home.

 

This intimate look at Partition, families, and identity is beautifully written and especially engaging due to the diary/letters format. A solid read for those looking for historical fiction, books about India’s history and culture, or refugees. 

An author’s note explains that this novel is loosely based on her father’s family’s experience. A glossary is appended.

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735228511
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/06/2018

Book Review: Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Publisher’s description

love hateIn this unforgettable debut novel, an Indian-American Muslim teen copes with Islamophobia, cultural divides among peers and parents, and a reality she can neither explain nor escape. 

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I burned through this important and immensely readable book in one sitting. In fact, I got so engrossed and read it so quickly that I was actually pretty shocked when, at one point, I set it down to go get something to drink and realized I was nearly done!

Maya, who is Indian American and Muslim, is rarely without her camera. She loves watching life unfold through her camera lens and dreams of going to NYU to film school. That’s actually a very attainable dream for her, as she’s been accepted there, but her parents have made it clear that filmmaking is a nice hobby, but she needs to stay close to home and attend the University of Chicago, maybe became a doctor or lawyer. They also would love to get her set up with a suitable Indian boy, but Maya isn’t interested in being set up—she’s interested in Phil, school quarterback and homecoming king, a boy who has always been friendly to Maya, but never seemed within reach. Until now.

In between chapters, we see another story unfolding, one of a young man who is about to commit a heinous act of terrorism in Illinois, killing more than a hundred people. Though initially reported as being carried out by a young Egyptian Muslim, the perpetrator is actually a white man with ties to white supremacy organizations. This act, and its incorrect reporting, stirs up some never-far-from-the-surface Islamophobia in one of Maya’s classmates, putting her safety and that of her family at risk. Shaken, her parents want to keep her close by them and safe, but Maya still dreams of leaving home and living in New York. She’s conflicted over how to live the life she wants and how to be a good daughter at the same time. Over the course of the story, she learns how to assert herself and pick her own path, even if its one that will come with some heartache. A searing look at racism and Islamophobia mixed with an excellent romance. Authentic, powerful, and important. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781616958473
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/16/2018

#SJYALit: Time For Confrontation: Moving Forward in the Diversity Conversation, a guest post by S. K. Ali

sjyalitThe first time I saw myself, I got scared. I was twelve and I’d brought my plate of lentils and rice into the living room in order to sit beside my dad as he watched the news. And there she was: a girl like me. On television.

The girl had on a blue hijab exactly like the one I wore to school. But this girl wasn’t going to school. She was getting bombed — by “our” side.

I remember the scene vividly; remember how my chewing slowed and how my father shook his head and how I felt a profound sense of disruption, of dissonance.

I mean I’d never seen people who looked like me on TV before. And this first time wasn’t fun TV like my favorite show, The Facts of Life.

This was my earliest memory — a searing one — of seeing myself represented, or rather, myself presented to me. I wish I could say that things got better but of course they didn’t. Due to the subsequent Gulf Wars and the North American media coverage of them, as well as books and films set abroad featuring the Sad Plight of Muslim Girls, I only saw Muslim women who were either to be hated or pitied.

Growing up, looking in the mirror meant seeing the negativity surrounding my Muslim identity reflected back, almost web-like over my real self.

Viewing yourself as others have misconstrued you either silences you or enrages you. Both these outcomes are detrimental — at the individual as well as societal level.

And here, I pause to present my privilege. I hope when you’re reading it, you think of those without this privilege and the depth of internalized pain carried around as a result.

When I think of the girl sitting beside her father, eating lentils and rice, watching the news, I also see the bookshelves lining the walls behind her.

I was fortunate to live in a home housing knowledge that challenged this negative view of myself — my father’s library had hundreds of books on Islam and Muslims that told another story — and so I was able to see through the web disfiguring me.

Yet still, the knowledge of self that I gleaned from my family, our home library, the mosque, and Muslim events stayed on a parallel course, a far one, from the “knowledge” about Muslims served daily on the news and at school by teachers who talked about “them” while one of “them” was sitting right there in her hijab.

The two streams of knowledge never met because to merge them would mean confrontation and I hated confrontation.

But then one more frustrating, negative news story about people like me led me to a decision at seventeen: I would tear at the web strands that disguised who I truly was. If it meant challenging things publicly – in classrooms, on the streets, writing to newspapers, so be it. If it meant confrontation, so be it.

Much of my University years were spent fighting Islamophobia, including undertaking a yearlong research paper surveying the depiction of Muslim women in popular culture.

This thesis, written over twenty years ago, documented the negativity surrounding Muslim identity, in particular female Muslim identity. It pains me to say that so very little has changed.

With one exciting exception.

The exception is a result of an intersection of sorts, a confrontational intersection.

The point at which real, dynamic change occurs. Where real stories, real characters, real art emerges.

The intersection happens when the authentic knowledge we hold about ourselves as we truly are, as members of marginalized communities, confronts the knowledge about us that has been in circulation for years, or, in many cases, centuries.

To have these streams of knowledge run parallel to each other, never meeting, has proven to be dangerous. The increase in hate crimes and policies affecting certain communities disproportionally provides that proof.

Old, untrue narratives hurt, internally and externally. They’re also same-old, same-old boring.

But now, we’re seeing an increase in stories arising that challenge the old. The exciting exception.

Ali - Saints and MisfitsOver the past few years, the invaluable work of diversity advocates like WNDB brought the important task of changing the publishing landscape to the fore. The #ownvoices movement sharpened the focus and asked us to consider the important question: who gets to tell “diverse” stories?

Earlier this year, #MuslimShelfSpace asked readers to reflect on whether they were making space for Muslim-authored content in the face of increased Islamophobia.

Who gets to tell stories featuring Muslims? I say it’s the children who grew up — who are growing up still — unable to see themselves clearly when they look in the mirror.

They’re the ones with the stories you’ve probably never heard. They’re the ones who’ll confront the same-old.

They’re the ones with Art to share.

Meet S.K. Ali

SKAliPicPrintS.K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits. She has written on Muslim culture and life for various media.

 

 

 

About SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali

Saints 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.

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

Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim

Publisher’s description

that-funny-thingThis young adult novel by Sheba Karim, author of Skunk Girl, is a funny and affecting coming-of-age story for fans of Jenny Han, Megan McCafferty, and Sara Farizan.

Shabnam Qureshi is facing a summer of loneliness and boredom until she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. Shabnam quickly finds herself in love, while her former best friend, Farah, who Shabnam has begun to reconnect with, finds Jamie worrying.

In her quest to figure out who she really is and what she really wants, Shabnam looks for help in an unexpected place—her family, and her father’s beloved Urdu poetry.

That Thing We Call a Heart is a funny and fresh story about the importance of love—in all its forms.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I really liked 2/3 of this book. The first 1/3 was rough for me. It’s slow to really get to the heart of the story, the love interest is (at first) insufferably perfect and manic pixie dream boyish, there were completely unnecessary scenes (the party at the start), and Shabnam, the main character, kept referring to Farah and their falling out but didn’t delve into it more for a long time. BUT. But. Once Jamie (the love interest) gained some nuance, and Farah appeared, and Shabnam started to think harder about her relationships, I was in.

 

Shabnam, whose family is Pakistani-American, just wants to get through the summer and get to U Penn, where she can reinvent herself. At first, we don’t know much about her. We know she’s had a falling out with Farah, whoever that is. She makes out with Ryan, the “hottest boy in school,” who is a total tool and says super cool things like, “What are you?” to Shabnam. We know she is capable of spinning up a really elaborate and horrible lie about her family’s history with Partition. We also know she has complicated feelings about her own background. Her mother is Muslim, her dad is… well, he’s an extremely practical mathematician who believes in numbers and Urdu poetry and maybe not much else. And Shabnam? She says she’s “nothing.” She’s embarrassed by her great-uncle, who’s visiting from Pakistan. She makes several remarks, about him and about Islam/Muslims that are surprising (things like that her uncle looked almost like a member of the Taliban). She meets Jamie, a cute boy whose aunt runs a pie shop, and falls hard for him. Jamie gets Shabnam a job at the pie shop for the month it’s open. They’re in New Jersey and he goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s only there for the month, but in that time, Shabnam falls in love with him (even though there are plenty of things about him that are really, really annoying and off-putting. But we’ve all been there, right? You like someone so much that you can’t see their flaws… or really understand how one-sided that like may be).

 

For me, the story became much more interesting when Shabnam reconnected with Farah, who was her best friend until Farah decided she wanted to wear a hijab. That drove a wedge between them. Farah is awesome. She’s an outspoken feminist punk girl who sees herself as a “Muslim misfit.” She goes back to hanging out with Shabnam even though Shabnam was and is a pretty crappy friend. She’s dubious about the whole Jamie thing, but Shabnam isn’t going to hear any of that. During the latter part of this story, Shabnam thinks harder about her other relationships, particularly with her parents, and her feelings about what went on with Farah and their drifting apart. She begins to think more about family, history, poetry, and religion. She finally begins to see beyond herself and starts having more open discussions about everything. 

 

My advice: if you feel, like I did, that this book is slow to really take off, stick with it. It’s a good look at the complexity of friendships, love, and family and shows that Muslims and Pakistani-American girls are (of course) not a monolith. Now I’d like a whole book just about Farah, please. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062445704

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 05/09/2017

Spotlight on Salaam Reads

salaam-readsLast year it was announced that Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing would launch a Muslim children’s book imprint called Salaam Reads. From the S&S website, a Feb 24, 2016 post says this about the imprint: “Salaam Reads will introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works. The imprint, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “peace,” plans to publish books for young readers of all ages, including picture and chapter books, and middle–grade and young adult titles.

Salaam Reads will reside within the larger Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers imprint, led by publisher Justin Chanda and executive editor Zareen Jaffery. The imprint plans to publish a minimum of nine titles per year for all ages.”

 

To read more about this great imprint, check out the following articles and blog posts:

Simon and Schuster Launches Muslim Imprint for Children’s Books (Publishers Weekly)

Simon & Schuster launches Muslim kidlit imprint Salaam Reads (YA Interrobang)

Salaam Reads: A Q&A With a New Publisher Imprint for Muslim Children (Education Week)

Salaam Reads Aims to Publish Muslim YA Stories (Teen Vogue)

Read an exclusive excerpt from Hena Khan’s new book, Amina’s Voice (Entertainment Weekly)

Read an exclusive excerpt from Karuna Riazi’s debut novel, The Gauntlet (Entertainment Weekly)

Cover Reveal: SAINTS AND MISFITS by S. K. Ali (YA Highway)

 

You can also follow their social media accounts and check out their website: Website, TwitterInstagramFacebook

 

These are the books that have been announced so far (summaries from the publisher):

 

amina's voiceAmina’s Voice by Hena Khan (ISBN-13: 9781481492065 Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 03/14/2017)

 

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George and Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

(READ MY REVIEW HERE)

 

gauntletThe Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (ISBN-13: 9781481486965 Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 03/28/2017)

A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?

(READ MY REVIEW HERE)

 

Ali - Saints and MisfitsSaints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (ISBN-13: 9781481499248 Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 06/13/2017)

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

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tightknit Muslim community think of her then?

 

yo soyYo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini (ISBN-13: 9781481489362 Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 08/29/2017)

From Muslim and Latino poet Mark Gonzales comes a touching and lyrical picture book about a parent who encourages their child to find joy and pride in all aspects of their multicultural identity.

Dear little one,
…know you are wondrous.
A child of crescent moons,
a builder of mosques,
a descendant of brilliance,
an ancestor in training.

Written as a letter from a father to his daughter, Yo Soy Muslim is a celebration of social harmony and multicultural identities. The vivid and elegant verse, accompanied by magical and vibrant illustrations, highlights the diversity of the Muslim community as well as Indigenous identity. A literary journey of discovery and wonder, Yo Soy Muslim is sure to inspire adults and children alike.

 

 

salam aSalam Alaikum by Harris J, illustrated by Ward Jenkins (ISBN-13: 9781481489386 Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers Publication date: 09/05/2017)

From “the Muslim Justin Bieber” (NPR) Harris J comes a picture book that celebrates spreading peace, love, and happiness throughout the world, using the lyrics of his international YouTube hit of the same name.

Salam Alaikum means “Peace be upon you.” It is the greeting that Muslims around the world use to say “hello” and “good-bye.” International music sensation Harris J has taken that greeting and created a call to action.

Spread peace on the earth…
Treasure the love, let it surround us
Always be kind, always remind one another
Peace on the earth every day

Using the lyrics to the hit song of the same name, and accompanied by heartwarming illustrations that depict the power of paying it forward, this sweet and charming picture book celebrates kindness and community.

Book Review: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Publisher’s description

gauntletA trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Bangladeshi Farah Mirza plays lots of board games with her family, which is good, because she’s about to play the game of her life. On her twelfth birthday, The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand, a mysterious board game, appears. It’s wrapped up like a gift, which she thinks is from her aunt, but she quickly learns that that the game seems to have a mind of its own and has somehow found its way to her. Farah figures she’ll play the game quickly with Essie and Alex, her best friends, then return to her birthday party (though she’s in no real hurry—the party is mostly populated with people from her new school, where she feels out of place as the only girl in a hijab). But before she knows it, her little brother, 7-year-old Ahmad, disappears into the game. Farah and her friends will need to win the game to destroy it and rescue Ahmad. If they lose a challenge, they’ll have to stay in Paheli, the game’s city, forever. They’re warned that there are time limits, to watch out for surprises, and also cautioned that the game cheats. The three kids must work together, plan, play games within the game, and outsmart others. Just when it seems like they are making progress, obstacles crop up, making it feel like they may never get out of the game and back to their real lives.

 

This middle grade fantasy will appeal easily to younger readers. It’s fast-paced, the stakes are high, and the innovative world-building within the game will keep readers guessing what may happen next. A solid debut and a very welcome addition to the growing field of books starring Muslim main characters. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781481486965

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

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Life-enhancing things that matter to young Muslim women, a guest post by Khadija

sjyalitToday’s post is brought to you by my friend Khadija, one of my very favorite people. Khadija also wrote something for TLT before in a Muslim Voices post. I’ve known her for seven years and had the joy of watching her go from a high school kid who hung around my desk in the library to a curious and hard-working college student to a writer and library employee. I asked if she’d like to write anything else for TLT and this is what she came up with. Grateful to add her voice to our conversations. 

 

Being Muslim is not something that I have to get used to because I’ve always been a Muslim. It’s difficult for me to understand that when some people see a Muslim person, it’s all they notice about them. They imagine the negative stereotypes associated with practicing Islam. Most people around the world believe in a higher power or follow a religion, but in my experience no religious group struggles with their image as much as Muslims do. There is so much more to a Muslim person, especially a Muslim woman, than her belief in a higher power. There are so many things that matter to young Muslim women and some of those things are things that matter to many people regardless of their religion. Some of these things include: 

 

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Green space or a park area: Walking and running in order to get in their daily physical activity is very important to Muslim women such as me and my Muslim friends. We see it as a way to not only have control over our bodies, but to also fulfill part of our religion. We find the parks in our neighborhoods just as essential as the rest of the non-Muslim residents.

 

 

 

Being active members of their individual communities: Many of the young Muslim women I am friends with are very active in the community. In order to create a better life for their family and the rest of the people in the community, they volunteer in community centers and places like the Red Cross and Boys and Girls Club. They use their time in a way that enhances the lives of others and makes their own a rich one.

 

Hair care and hairstyles: Yes, many Muslim women do not reveal their hair in public, but that does not mean that they let the hair fall into a state of disarray. They still use products that keep the hair looking and feeling healthy. From my experience my hijab stays in place much better if my hair is not a mess underneath. The hair is still styled underneath the hijab. It can be braided, made into a low bun or some other style.

 

Having a successful career: Muslim women go to college in order to be lawyers, engineers, and artists. Many of the Muslim women I know see college as a great starting point towards a career that they will love and one that will allow them to be both contributors to their community and financially independent. They see it as absolutely necessary to stand on their own feet especially in a society that sees them as oppressed and terribly vulnerable.

 

Reading whatever book that’s new and hot: The young Muslim women I know read anything from The Hunger Games to The Divergent series to Harry Potter. These books are ones that not only cross racial boundaries, but also cultural and religious ones. From my experience, they have allowed growing up as different and seeing it negatively because of outside experiences to be a little more bearable. Having passion for young adult series is something that my Muslim women friends have in common with other non-Muslim young adults. Being able to use books to escape is something that I as a Muslim woman appreciate.

 

Meet Khadija

Khadija is a recent college graduate with a degree in English. She lives in Minnesota, works at a library, and is looking at getting into a graduate program in order to receive an MFA in creative writing. Besides working on her poetry writing skills, she likes to draw nature—mostly leafless trees in the dead of winter.