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Shame on You: Desi Shame Culture and its Impact on Muslim Kids, a guest post by Farah Naz Rishi

A long time ago, my local masjid hosted a Ramadan dinner, as it always did in the holy month of fasting for Muslims. Usually, these dinners meant praying together as a community, and breaking our fast together on a potluck style meal that involved samosas, curries, and the ubiquitous, vague semblance of a pasta dish.

However, I had other plans.

After that one particular dinner, under cloak of darkness, I slipped out of the masjid and walked to the nearby Sunday school, a small cottage that had been converted into a schoolhouse. That night, it was empty of students—save for the boy I was secretly “dating” at the time, waiting for me.

I cherished these Ramadan dinners because it was the only time he and I could see each other in person. Being South Asian Muslims in a conservative community meant hiding our illicit, budding romance, even if everyone already knew about it. It didn’t matter that we were a couple of awkward teens who only snuck out to talk, face-to-face, uninterrupted (we usually only talked through text messages). As far as anyone knew, we were lovers in the dark, the epitome of sin. All our lives, we’d been taught that the performance of being a “good Muslim,” of maintaining one’s public image for the sake of family and community honor, was to be valued above all else. A lesson that clearly didn’t take.

Which is why, when we were caught that night, one uncle in our community loudly proclaimed that if we were caught alone again, he would break our legs. My parents didn’t speak to me for days.

I was fourteen years old.

In IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU, protagonists Kiran and Deen, who dated in the past, reveal that they had made pact to hide their relationship from their family. Kiran notes that she kept her relationship with Deen a secret because she didn’t want to “add stress” to her family: “Dating in the casual sense,” she says, “is still frowned upon Muslim communities, and it’s not something you can openly talk about unless you’ve practically made a formal Jane Austen-style declaration that you’re in pursuit of a life partner.” In the Muslim community I grew up in, this was precisely the case; dating carried a stigma, and that to date meant that I was a sinner, that I must have a weak faith. Regardless of my own religious beliefs—individual beliefs that I was still developing myself, on top of everything else—it felt that my community demanded I follow their brain trust iron-clad rules. That in some way, developing my own personal beliefs was wrong, too.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Although there are exceptions, many South Asian teens are expected to live up to their parents’ origin country’s cultural and religious standards, or at the very least, do so on the surface—all in the name of maintaining public image and family honor. And when one fails to do so, like in the case of Deen, one carries that shame and guilt for years to come, a weight that drowns you in a sea of expectation, and can lead to a self-destructive spiral.

The concept of honor reflects a family’s reputation and prestige within a community; and individual actions can raise of lower the entire family’s honor. Looking back on my own past experiences, it almost makes sense why some Muslim teens want to leave their community altogether: It gets exhausting seeing everything through the lens of shame and honor. Every act in life carries the extra consideration of, how would this affect my family and community? As if life isn’t already difficult as it is for a brown teenager.

Also exhausting? Being a second-generation immigrant teen balancing mainstream Western cultural norms and one’s family’s traditional values. It can often feel like an isolating experience, growing up too “westernized” to be accepted by the motherland, but too brown to be anything else. You are forever the Other. It makes sense, then, to find love with a fellow misfit trapped in the same limbo space. In this love, you can find an ally: someone who understands why you can’t go to sleepovers with friends from school, why you can’t go to school dances, and why sometimes it feels impossible to reconcile the need for emotional connection with your parent’s religious views.  

But for those teens who aren’t lucky enough to find that ally, the sense of isolation can prevent them from seeking help when they need it most. In the case of Deen’s older brother, Faisal, the pressures of growing up in an influential family, of being anything less than perfect, became too much to handle. And instead of having an open, transparent conversation—one necessary for healing—Faisal’s parents tell him to hide his pain for the sake of the family’s honor. Of course, this eventually results in Faisal’s sense of failure reaching an unavoidable and dangerous fever pitch. For many, this is an experience far from fiction. As “shame culture” is most utilized as a method of control in Asian communities, Asian American young adults are the only racial group with suicide as their leading cause of death (source: https://theconversation.com/asian-american-young-adults-are-the-only-racial-group-with-suicide-as-their-leading-cause-of-death-so-why-is-no-one-talking-about-this-158030).

I wrote IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU because I wanted my younger self to feel seen and understood. I wanted a wider audience to understand how difficult it was to grow up, for better or worse, in a tight-knit community that felt like it was always watching, and how the threat of shame can have very real, dangerous consequences on our mental health, and stain the perfectly innocent act of growing up.

My parents and I never spoke again of that night at the Sunday School. Despite their obvious disappointment with me, they carried on as if nothing happened. Instead of using it as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect and know more about their daughter’s personal life, they swept it under the rug. I suppose the public shaming we received was enough.

But there’s no room for growth if we’re not allowed to make mistakes. The irony is that using “shame culture” as a weapon to control often drives teens to hide under cloak of night, and internalize that hiding our shame is better than communicating it—the original problem that drove Kiran and Deen apart in the past. This is precisely why I wrote IT ALL COMES BACK TO YOU: to show South Asian Muslim teens who are finally able to break the silence—and that ultimately, the most important lesson any teen can learn is that despite those who pretend otherwise, we’re human, flaws and all.

And there’s no shame in that.

Meet the author

Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her BA in English from Bryn Mawr College, her JD from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. She is the author of I Hope You Get This Message. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter and Instagram @farahnazrishi. Learn more at https://farahnazrishi.com.

About It All Comes Back to You

Two exes must revisit their past after their siblings start dating in this rom-com perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Morgan Matson.

After Kiran Noorani’s mom died, Kiran vowed to keep her dad and sister, Amira, close—to keep her family together. But when Amira announces that she’s dating someone, Kiran’s world is turned upside down.

Deen Malik is thrilled that his brother, Faisal, has found a great girlfriend. Maybe a new love will give Faisal a new lease on life, and Deen can stop feeling guilty for the reason that Faisal needs a do-over in the first place.

When the families meet, Deen and Kiran find themselves face to face. Again. Three years ago—before Amira and Faisal met—Kiran and Deen dated in secret. Until Deen ghosted Kiran.

And now, after discovering hints of Faisal’s shady past, Kiran will stop at nothing to find answers. Deen just wants his brother to be happy—and he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Kiran from reaching the truth. Though the chemistry between Kiran and Deen is undeniable, can either of them take down their walls?

ISBN-13: 9780062741486
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/14/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

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

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

Publisher’s description

A timely, accessible, and beautifully written story exploring themes of food, friendship, family and what it means to belong, featuring sixth graders Sara, a Pakistani American, and Elizabeth, a white, Jewish girl taking a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom.

Sixth graders Sara and Elizabeth could not be more different. Sara is at a new school that is completely unlike the small Islamic school she used to attend. Elizabeth has her own problems: her British mum has been struggling with depression. The girls meet in an after-school South Asian cooking class, which Elizabeth takes because her mom has stopped cooking, and which Sara, who hates to cook, is forced to attend because her mother is the teacher. The girls form a shaky alliance that gradually deepens, and they make plans to create the most amazing, mouth-watering cross-cultural dish together and win a spot on a local food show. They make good cooking partners . . . but can they learn to trust each other enough to become true friends? 

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s the really easy way I will sell this middle grade book at my school: If you enjoyed Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks, check this out! Save Me a Seat has been a local reading award nominee so many of our older students have read and enjoyed it.

Sixth grade is a rough time. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to survive when my kid was in sixth grade. There’s so much going on. For many, it means a new school, new friends, likely drifting apart from old friends, and often an increased awareness of family issues and the world around them. These are all true things for Sara and Elizabeth. Both feel a little out of place in their suburban Maryland middle school. Sara is new to public school after years at an Islamic school. Now she’s one of very few Muslims at her school. And Elizabeth is being ditched by her best friend, in addition to worrying about if her British mother ever intends to become a citizen or may go back to England. When the two girls meet, their friendship is not immediate. It’s not some kind of instant relief or intimate understanding of the other. They are friendly-ish, on their best days, and maybe not cut out to be friends at all, on their worst days. After all, Elizabeth’s possibly former BFF is constantly saying horrific racist things to Sara, and does she really want to be friends with someone who could call a girl like that her best friend?

But they connect over cooking, and as they begin to get to know each other beyond surface impressions and quickly hurt feelings, they begin to really like one another. Their mothers become friends, too, as they both study for the citizenship test (Sara’s mother is from Pakistan). They learn about each other’s religions (Judaism and Islam), backgrounds, and families while preparing for their schools’ international festival and a cooking competition. Both girls deal with many large issues—Elizabeth’s mother is depressed after the death of her own mother and her father is often gone for work, while Sara knows that her family is not doing well financially. Having one really good friend helps both girls feel better about life in middle school, and the adults do the work of figuring out their issues and reassuring the girls that things will be okay.

I particularly value this story for showing how complex making a new friend can be, but showing characters who push through their discomfort and hesitations to make a real connection. Another strength of this story is that secondary characters work through their own issues and learn to be better friends, showing both growth and working to unlearn what they may hear at home. A valuable look at friendship, family, and fresh starts.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780358116684
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years


Book Review: The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah, a guest post by Sanya

Publisher’s description

In the last days of the twenty-first century, sea creatures swim through the ruins of London. Trapped in the abyss, humankind wavers between fear and hope-fear of what lurks in the depths around them, and hope that they might one day find a way back to the surface.

When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the city’s prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.

Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture-or worse.And her father will be lost to her forever.

Sanya’s thoughts

An underwater world, a submarine race, an adorable puppy companion, an unlikely romance, and too many unanswered questions…

THE LIGHT AT THE BOTTOM OF THE WORLD by London Shah is an own voices Young Adult sci-fi set in the year 2099. Society lives completely underwater. Leyla, our main character, is Muslim, and loves submarine racing and her dog, Jojo. But when her father is falsely accused of crimes he didn’t commit, and the government won’t even disclose where he is, Leyla knows she must uncover the mysterious circumstances of her father’s arrest and what other secrets the government may be hiding.

What I love most about this story is its easy diversity. Yes, Leyla is Muslim, but this story is not about her faith. It’s simply a part of her identity that no one questions, no one taunts her for, no one asks inane questions about. The year 2099 is free from Islamophobia. Leyla also does not struggle with her own faith. In fact, she turns to it for solace when struggling. As a Muslim girl myself, this kind of representation feels so important. I’m sure there any many like me that feel underrepresented in YA, but especially in a non-contemporary setting, and I’m so glad London Shah felt comfortable putting a part of herself on page like this.

My only true complaint for this book is how short it is. And yet still so much happens. From submarine racing to adventures beyond London, this story is jam-packed with happenings, but is perfectly paired with just the right pacing to make it feel like it’s not too much, too fast. It’s almost impossible to tell that this is London Shah’s debut, as her writing style is far from basic. She does a wonderful job at describing the lush and complex world of London under the sea. The implications and consequences of such a society are clearly well thought out, and the technology is deeply researched. At no point did I feel the need to question why something was done or explained a certain way. And broody Ari is the perfect addition to this deep sea mystery.

This story is an adventure. It’s about questioning everything you’re told and not being complacent. It’s about going outside of your comfort zone and doing whatever it takes for family, even if it scares you. But most importantly, this story is about never giving up hope, even when things seems darkest.

Meet Sanya

Sanya is a full time student at the University of Texas at Dallas and part time bookseller at Barnes & Noble. When she isn’t crying over her homework or forcing people to read her favorite books, you can find her squealing about dogs, hoarding fancy pens and journals, or writing poetry. Find her on Twitter @itsSANiiii and @BNFirewheel.

ISBN-13: 9781368036887
Publisher: Disney Press
Publication date: 10/29/2019
Series: Light the Abyss

Book Review: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—Two high school seniors find their voices and first love in this enemies-to-lovers story told from dual perspectives. Brusque and controlling filmmaker Rachel Recht, a Jewish scholarship student at the prestigious Royce School, wants nothing to do with Sana Khan, cheerleading captain and model human being. But when a literal run-in forces them to work together on a film, their tense relationship morphs into something beautiful and unexpected. As they collaborate, they begin to share their most private feelings. Sana, who is Muslim, reveals that she’s been having a crisis about her future, hasn’t sent her down payment to Princeton, and has secretly applied to a fellowship. Rachel knows she’s NYU-bound if the scholarship funds come through, but her future is in jeopardy if she can’t get this last film finished. Working together on this project about a woman forging her own path could be transformative for both, if only they could stop arguing and misjudging each other’s intentions. Determined to find success on their own terms, the ambitious girls learn to stand up for themselves as they challenge, support, and infuriate each other. Immensely readable with strong characters and quick, clever dialogue, this romance has real depth. Though there is no question that the girls will end up together, it’s a joy to watch them fumble toward their eventual happy ending. As much about finding yourself as it is about finding love, this smart, feminist story shows that expectations shouldn’t dictate the future. 

VERDICT This well-written and supremely satisfying romance should be in all collections

ISBN-13: 9781250299482
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 06/11/2019

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