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Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Publisher’s description

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

Amanda’s thoughts

I love Yusuf. And I love this book.

Pakistani American sixth grader Yusuf Azeem is in middle school in Texas. He’s best friends with Danial, one of the few other Muslims in town, and loves robotics and coding. But the year is off to a rocky start with mean notes in his locker. And as the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, tensions in his small town rise. Yusuf doesn’t really know a lot about 9/11. None of the adults in his life seem to want to talk to him about it, it’s hardly discussed in school, and is view by many as “ancient history.” Then his uncle, who was Yusuf’s age when 9/11 happened, gives him his journal. He’s finally able to gain more insight into what it was like for a Muslim in the US at that time, to learn more about what it felt like, how people were reacting, and so many other facts and feelings he just hasn’t been able to wrap his mind around.

Meanwhile, because disgustingly little has changed in 20 years, things in his own town in Texas are not great. The 11 Muslim families in town are working to build a small mosque and find themselves being picketed, challenged at zoning meetings, and harassed mainly by a small group of vocal townspeople called the Patriot Sons. Yusuf and others at school as called “terrorists” and told to go back where they came from, referred to as “the enemy” and sweeping statements are made about “your kind,” not just from the adults in this Patriot Sons group, but by their classmates. Yusuf is hurt and furious. This is their home. And so he starts calling out the bullying he’s witnessing. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but he does want to be a decent person who spreads kindness and protects others—things he sees as his duty as a Muslim. He’s speaking out and standing up, but horrible stuff just keeps happening—a peer’s hijab is ripped off, his father’s shop is vandalized, and, eventually, Yusuf is accused of having a bomb at school and hauled into the police station. He listens to his friends tell him it’s just easier to stay on the sidelines and not get involved, but that’s just not who Yusuf is. Someone has to be brave. Someone has to speak up.

The journal entries from 2001 and Yusuf’s narration from 2021 show the kind of hatred and cruelty that exists. And though Yusuf faces a lot during his sixth grade year, he is also surrounded by so many good people who also stand up for what’s right, who speak up, who are willing to learn and change and grow. This emotional read will give readers plenty to think about—whether because they’re learning to see people and events in a new light, or because they see their own experiences reflected in Yusuf’s. A must for all collections.

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Talking With Kids About 9/11, a guest post by Saadia Faruqi

Most young people don’t really care about 9/11. It’s not surprising, since the attacks occurred twenty years ago and are considered ancient history by anyone who’s growing up in the age of TikTok music videos. They study about it in schools in a very perfunctory manner, or hear about it from adults on each anniversary of the attacks. If they come from a family that was personally affected, they will pay homage to the victims. Beyond that, 9/11 isn’t really something on most kids’ radars.

Still, I find myself talking and writing about this subject frequently. I discuss it with my own children, a high-schooler and a middle schooler. I write about it in articles and essays. I think about it more than I probably should. The reason: 9/11 wasn’t just the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, it was also a phenomenon that led to a deep change in our society, our laws, and how we view each other. The day after the attacks in 2001, we began to view a group of our neighbors, friends, and community members as suspicious because they shared the religious beliefs of our enemy.

This group, Muslim Americans, were harassed on streets, told to “go back home” and treated like enemies. Our government enacted regulations that targeted us, such as additional security at airports, secret surveillance, and racial profiling. Kids were affected then, and still are today. In fact, those who weren’t even alive during 9/11 still have to live in a world completely shaped by that time period. Think about the movies they watch and the video games they play, where the enemy is always someone who looks like me. Think about the taunts in the cafeteria and the playground, where the targets are always kids like mine. Think about teachers saying grossly inaccurate and even offensive things when they teach World History or World Cultures. This treatment is extended to anyone who is perceived as Muslim: brown people, Hindus and Sikhs, Arabs, immigrants, and more.

These are all the reasons why we need to talk about 9/11 and its aftermath. It’s a much bigger and more nuanced conversation that many adults realize. It’s about who was impacted by government policies, and how prejudice was institutionalized. It’s about how we treat our neighbors and classmates. It’s about which regulations are wrong, and how we can use civic action to make changes.

The good news: kids are very smart. They will understand and analyze this issue in ways that will amaze you. They just need the opportunity to learn and discuss.

In my book YUSUF AZEEM IS NOT A HERO, I explore many aspects of a post 9/11 world and how they affected my community. Yusuf is a sweet, nerdy sixth grader excited about starting middle school, and maybe winning a regional robotics competition. But his small Texas town is preparing for the 20th anniversary of the attacks, riled up by a white supremacist group called the Patriot Boys who want to run Yusuf and his Muslim community out. They bully the kids in school and the adults in neighborhoods, block the construction of a new mosque, and vandalize private property. From calling a kid a terrorist in the school hallways, to accusing another of bringing a bomb to school, the story shines an ugly but accurate light on our society today.

Yusuf learns more about 9/11 from his uncle’s journal, and realizes that the past informs the present and therefore affects the future. That’s what I hope from all my young readers. Learn about history, because how human beings react to events and incidents offers insight about what needs fixing. We need to treat others better, and with more respect. We need to make our communities and schools more welcoming. We need to look at people with love and understanding, not hatred and suspicion. When we start talking about 9/11 and everything that happened after that – politically, culturally, religiously – we will begin healing.

Meet the author

Photo credit: QZB Photography

Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” co-written with Laura Shovan (a Sydney Taylor Notable 2021), and “A Thousand Questions” (a South Asia Book Award Honor 2021). Her new book “Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero” details the experiences of the Muslim American community twenty years after 9/11. Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and children. 

About Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero

At a time when we are all asking questions about identity, grief, and how to stand up for what is right, this book by the author of A Thousand Questions will hit home with young readers who love Hena Khan and Varian Johnson—or anyone struggling to understand recent U.S. history and how it still affects us today.  

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win.

Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an anniversary that has everyone in his Muslim community on edge.

With “Never Forget” banners everywhere and a hostile group of townspeople protesting the new mosque, Yusuf realizes that the country’s anger from two decades ago hasn’t gone away. Can he hold onto his joy—and his friendships—in the face of heartache and prejudice?

ISBN-13: 9780062943255
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years