Posted in Reviews

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

aisha-saeed-amal-unbound-collage

Saeed, Aisha. Amal Unbound. Middle Grade Fiction. Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin , 05/2018. 240 pp. $17.99. 978-0399544682. (RECOMMENDED). Ages 10-12.

I acquired this book during a library conference. When I sat down to read the book, I had no idea what was in store for me. Unlike most people, I rarely read the back/inside cover of a book before starting it. All I knew about the book was that 1) the author was Muslim, 2) the character was a Pakistani Muslim, 3) it was a kid’s book and 4) the cover was GORGEOUS.

Amal Unbound is a middle grade novel which focuses on Amal, the oldest of four girls. She loves school and wants to become a teacher when she grows up. However, with her mother due any day now, Amal is told to stay home to help out. One day, while running errands for her family, she ticks off the village’s wealthiest landlord and finds herself a new servant in his household.

Aisha Saeed, author of ‘Written in the Stars’, weaves a realistic story through the voice of Amal of what could happen to a young girl from a small village in modern day Pakistan. She meets different servants in the household, those she enjoys being around and those looking to make trouble for her. She even teaches one of the younger girls her alphabets. Trouble begins to stir in the household both for Amal and the wealthy landlord. While Amal begins to wonder if her debt will ever be paid off so she can go home she continues to hang on to the hope of one day finding her way out of her situation and finds her escape in studying.

While Saeed does not touch on the Muslim religion at all, she does, however minimally, bring in different aspects of Pakistani culture and how life for girls can be in Pakistan’s smaller villages. The cultural aspect becomes glaringly obvious when Amal’s father tells her that it is her duty as the eldest to stay home from school and help out even though she is only 12 years of age. As the eldest she is often reminded that it is her duty to look after her younger sisters and the needs of the family come before her own. Amal’s village is divided into two classes: high class, which is held by one man who reigns terror over the village and controls the police and lower class, the rest of the village. Saeed also touches on the cultural aspects of traditional clothing and wedding festivities.

I was able to get through the book in a couple of hours. The book itself was a pretty fast-paced read as things pick up the further along you get. This would be would be a great book for realistic readers looking for a hint of mystery and drama while learning some societal and cultural things about the country of Pakistan.

Posted in Reviews

Sadia by Colleen Nelson

Nelson, Colleen. Sadia. Dundurn., 02/2018. 240 pp. $12.99. 978-1459740297. (ADDITIONAL PURCHASE). 10+

Sadia came out in February of this year, just after the formal release of young adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty, following controversyin fall of 2017. Much of the conversation around American Heart had to do with a white savior narrative, white gaze and lens, and reduction of a character of color to a device in order to enlighten and give complexity to a white character. This is all apart from giving an accurate depiction of Islam and of an Iranian woman. I cannot comment on the novel, given that I have not yet read it, but it is in our queue. Public opinion and reviews by other Muslim readers haven’t encouraged me to put it high on our list.

Sadia coverEnter Sadia. I asked a Muslim author if she had read this book yet, and we talked a bit about American Heart, white gaze and who should tell our stories. We talked about own voices; we talked about colonized minds and internalized racism and what happens when an “own voice” becomes a voice that oppresses. Sadia is a book by a white, Canadian author, Colleen Nelson, who is a teacher librarian in an elementary school. She has also worked with refugees.

Nelson reflects a bit in her blog about why she decided to write Sadia and what it meant for her to try to publish a book that was not an own voice. It is disappointing to see that she was worried that her book would not get published because more ownvoice/diverse authors are publishing books. Ultimately she did it for her students to be able to see themselves and to fill a void in her library, and hopes that there are many more published stories by Muslim writers in the future.   

In the novel, fifteen-year-old Sadia has lived in Winnipeg for the last three years. Her family left Syria, shortly before the war. Though she has had time to acclimate to her life in Canada, high school means even more confusing changes.

Particularly jarring for Sadia is the behavior of her best friend Mariam, whose family relocated to Canada after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mariam has been Sadia’s best friend from the first day they met. They even started wearing hijab around the same time.  But this year is different. Mariam “de-jabs,” taking off her hijab during school, and putting it back on at the end of the day before going home. Mariam has also been distant, and her behavior has Sadia questioning the entirety of their friendship, which is made more complicated by her own friendship with Josh, Mariam’s crush.

Josh and Sadia are also trying out for the school’s co-ed basketball team, which Sadia desperately wants to be on. When Sadia makes the team her skill and passion is obvious, but playing basketball with hijab is more difficult than she had thought. Its especially disconcerting when she finds out that she may not be able to play in regulation games with it on.

Sadia is asked to help a new student acclimate to high school, Amira, whose family has recently relocated to Canada from Syria, under entirely different circumstances from her family. Thinking about the circumstances of Amira’s family fleeing Syria make her uncomfortable and the ideas Amira has about growing up Muslim in Canada have Sadia questioning her identity and how much she has already given up.

As someone who wears a headscarf on a daily basis, and has dealt with every day travails of scarf slippage and the like, I can identify with Sadia’s headscarf issues, but mostly I felt irritated with how hijab was given an impish, quirky quality where the Sadia cannot “take a jump shot without the bottom of the scarf flying in my face,” (p. 25).  or where her arm catches her hijab and falls into her eyes (p.23), or where Sadia has no peripheral vision (p. 26).

Mostly, I wondered (with consternation) why athletic Sadia didn’t have an Al-Amira hijab, often considered training scarves for beginner hijabis and ideal for athletic activities. Another reviewer pointed out that access may be an issue, so I give them props for taking that into consideration. Though not always true, it is a significant plot device that will give non-Muslim and non-scarf wearing readers a window into what someone who wears a headscarf may have to deal with. And though we have seen many women compete in sporting events over the years wearing hijab, it was only last year that International Basketball Federation (FIBA) overturned a ban on head coverings. If you want to learn more about a young Muslimah basketball player, watch this video about Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, teaching Muslim girls how to play basketball.

There an omission in the text, where Sadia refers to her grandmother as Teta (p. 38) and then on the following page uses the word Sitta. Both are correct, and sometimes used interchangeably (according to Hadeal and Sara), but without context, readers may be confused. Some of the turn of phrase is awkward as well. On page 78, Sadia says, “I could feel a blush spreading under my hijab.” I’m not sure why Nelson does not say, “I could feel a blush spreading across my face,” instead, as Sadia doesn’t cover her face. I took issue with the idea of Sadia and Amira never having touched snow (p. 48), when it does snow in Syria though infrequently, it is unlikely that both have never touched it. At the end of the book, a student exhibit has a silver collection plate used to collect donations from attendees. This collecting funds is compared to the concept of zakat, a form of alms-giving treated in Islam as a religious obligation, one of the five pillars of Islam. It would be more accurate to compare this to giving to sadaqah, or voluntary charity.

There are many times in the book where the relationship between Sadia, Mariam and Amira on occasion, is reduced to hijab. Some of that is oversimplification and equating Islam with hijab, some of this looks familiar to reactions to “de-jabbing” in the Muslim community, and some general adolescent issues, where one could substitute hijab for any other thing that might drive a wedge in a friendship. The two also have a conversation about being judgemental and hypocritical. A positive is that problems between Sadia and Mariam are also solved by them, there is no intervention by a white character, or a male character. Nelson captures growth and adolescence well, with characters pushing against boundaries, though these boundaries feel much younger than high school.

Headscarves and Hardbacks blogger, Nadia, points out that the framing of hijab and forced modesty is problematic in the book, because ultimately parents are forcing head scarves on their daughters and daughters cannot be modest without one. A conversation about hijab occurs in class where Mariam says, “It’s a hijab, a head covering. A woman’s hair must be covered, according the Qur’an.” Then, when the student questions why she doesn’t wear one she says, “it’s a personal choice” (p. 107-108). Though this is a reality for some Muslim girls and a majority of Muslim scholars, having all characters define hijab this way, as a required heading covering at all times, is oversimplified.

Sadia and Mariam also feel discomfort and guilt in interacting with Amira and realizing that they have had privilege in their relocation, coming to Canada as non-refugees. Sadia’s familial conversations about Syria are inconsistent. They talk about helping relocated Syrians early in the text, but when the family discusses those unable to leave, Sadia’s brother Aazim says, “It’s a war. That’s what happens. Innocent people suffer.” This struck me as rather callous. Similarly Mariam does not seem to reflect much on leaving after the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both families are not particularly proactive until the end of the book.  

Nelson does capture some issues well. There are Islamophobic experiences that involve Sadia and her mother, one involving stares on the bus and another with a woman that tells Sadia’s mother, if she “wanted to stay in Canada, I should be Canadian and stop dressing like a terrorist.” Sadia reflects on if students in her class might feel the same way. There is also some self-realization in the book, where Carmina, Sadia’s Filipino-Canadian friend, wants to create a graphic novel featuring a Filipino character because she hates that there aren’t books with characters who look like her. Mariam wants to be both Muslim and Canadian, and while one should be able to be both, this sentiment captures the feelings that many Muslims have over having to choose identities and what that means in terms of cultural loss and normalization of “western values.”  

Overall Sadia’s teammates feel genuine and have depth, even if on occasion they are used as devices. Alan is given depth with the revelation that his brother Cody has cerebral palsy. Nelson also has placed a male Muslim character on Sadia’s basketball team, but there is no interaction between the two of them. His primary function being to be on the basketball team and to tell Josh that there was no hope for him in being allowed to date Sadia.  Despite the sports trope, with the opposing team depicted as unsportsmanlike racists, it is moving to see Sadia’s team and the spectators cheer for her and advocate for her to play, on top of Sadia and her parents separately advocating for her religious rights as a Canadian citizen.

So what is my overall verdict for this book? There is definitely a didactic and educator positive feeling to this book, promoting the idea that a really good teacher can have the power to foster empathy, create nuanced conversations and give students agency. Teachers are also presented as people who make mistakes. Yet, this book has its own mistakes and I still struggle to see, between a Muslim and non-Muslim reader, whose gaze is most important. Sadia gives non-Muslim readers a glimpse into the lives of several Arab Muslim characters with a level of complexity to their personalities. It allows Muslim readers to see a few pieces of themselves, with some amount of accuracy, though I do wonder if any Syrian Muslim readers vetted this book prior to publication.  

I would argue that the tone of the book, and the level of conflict make the book feel younger than a typical YA book, and could have been targeted to younger readers. Still, it is a solid entry point for readers who want a basketball-playing, hijab-wearing protagonist in a coming of age story because, as far as we know, those don’t exist yet. Are there better books about Muslim identity by Muslim authors? Yes. If you do add this book to your collection, don’t let this narrative be the only one your readers will get.

Posted in Author Interviews

Author Interview: Hena Khan

Hena Khan is an author of Picture Books and Middle Grade books for children, and range from her Scholastic Worst-case Scenario books to her books about Islam and Muslim identity. Her latest series Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream focuses on third-generation, Pakistani-American Zayd and his dreams of playing professional basketball. You can find out more about Hena on her website, following her on Twitter or checking out her author pages on Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint or Chronicle Books.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain

  1. When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?
    I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little kid who wrote stories, plays, and epic poems because I thought it was fun! I’m pretty sure that my love for books and reading for pleasure, which was a big part of my childhood, was what inspired me to want to write myself.
  2. How did you decide to write for youth and what is your main message to them?
    I started to write for kids because that was the time in my life when books impacted me the most and helped shaped who I am today. I love the idea of my books resonating with kids the same way my favorites did with me. I don’t think I have a message for youth as much as I want to create books with relatable characters they can connect with, and content that excites them and makes them want to keep reading. At the same time, many of my books do have Muslim themes and characters as I think we need these stories that didn’t exist when I was a kid. I hope my stories help bring understanding and hopefully foster compassion and tolerance in addition to serving to represent kids who haven’t always been included in the literature.Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns
  3. For Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets what was your thought process in deciding which Islamic elements to relate with different colors and shapes?
    When I wrote Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, I picked concepts and objects that represent the major tenets of the faith, like prayer, fasting, charity, etc and linked them to various colors. Some of the elements were obvious color choices, like dates for brown, while others aren’t necessarily correlated in real life. When writing Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, I kind of wished I had saved a few things from the first book that would work great as shapes! But I tried again to focus on things are very significant in the Muslim faith or Islamic traditions and link them to shapes.
  4. When you talk about Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets, you mentioned that the people in the book are Muslims from all over the world and mention specific countries. If you can, please tell us which countries, if any are represented in each spread, particularly rectangle and hexagon. Was this your choice or preference, your illustrator Mehrdokht Amini’s choice, an editorial decision or a collective one? In the book you do not mention specific countries, why? Was that an intentional choice?
    The idea to represent different countries was a natural fit when presenting shapes and highlighting Islamic art and architecture. It was my initial suggestion, but everyone agreed and was on the same page. It was a way to highlight the diversity that exists among Muslims and include things that are found in different parts of the world. We considered mentioning which countries are depicted in the author’s note, but chose not to since many of the spreads could represent more than one. In other cases, like the Ka’aba spread, it’s obvious where it is. I’ll tell you that the rectangle spread is Zanzibar, Tanzania, and that we might include a list of countries on the discussion guide that is being finalized.
  5. This is your second collaboration with Mehrdokht Amini are beautiful in being both visually striking and having textual flow. We understand that editors/publisher pair authors and illustrators together. Was is just luck that Amini was able to work with you on the second book, a request from you, or a decision to create continuity?
    We were overjoyed to work with Mehrdokht on Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, which was actually the first children’s book she published in the US. Both my publisher and I discovered her portfolio, were blown away, and wanted her for the project. And she did such a phenomenal job. When it came to a sequel, we couldn’t imagine anyone else illustrating it, and luckily she agreed since she has been busy working on a number of gorgeous books.
  6. Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets has a lovely author’s note that we appreciate for its references to geometry and shapes in Islamic art and architecture, which we know from school but many readers will not. It is a great discussion point and may create further curiosity and inquiry in students. We noticed that Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns does not have an author’s note. Is there a reason why it does not? Was the decision to include an author’s note in Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets based on a need you saw for further information?
    Shapes and geometry have a special significance in Islamic art and architecture that I felt was important to highlight, which is why we included an author’s note in Crescent Moons. For Golden Domes, there wasn’t the same need to delve deeper into the role of colors.
  7. Because there are so many extensions that can be done with these books for Muslim and non-Muslim children did you ever feel like you had to include teaching resources or more back matter?I’ve been delighted to see all the ways that my books have been used, and the creative lessons, crafts, and activities people have developed over the years. Chronicle Books is in the process of developing comprehensive teacher guides for Night of the Moon, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, and Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets which will be available for download soon, including on my website.Amina's Voice
  8. Your middle grade book, Amina’s Voice, features a Pakistani-American middle schooler whose experience, while representative is also quite universal. Have you seen it resonate with children of different religious or ethnic backgrounds from Amina?
    Absolutely! I’ve had children and adults of all backgrounds, races, genders and ages tell me that they connected with Amina and her story and could relate to her on many levels, which is enormously gratifying. I’ve had a librarian in upstate rural New York tell me that a little white boy in her book club said he could sympathize with Amina, a teacher working with a Somali refugee in Atlanta say that the book was the first her student was motivated to read in full, and immigrants from all backgrounds, from Ecuador to Ethiopia, tell me that they could relate to her experience. It was really important to me to create a character that people could see themselves in and connect with, despite differences.
  9. You mentioned on your website that the masjid in Amina’s Voice reflects elements of your masjid growing up. Did your community also have a similar demographic? What is your community like now?
    When I describe the physical structure of the masjid inAmina’s Voice, it’s actually the masjid that was constructed while I was in grade school located in Maryland. It was primarily attended by the Pakistani immigrants who built it back in the 1980s but it has shifted to have a more diverse population over the years. There are a lot of communities in my area now, including some that are trying to overcome ethnic divides and create a more unified community.
  10. You have spoken before about how your parents were supportive of your dreams and did not pressure you to become a doctor or an engineer. (Ariana: Those were my Pakistani-American husband’s two choices). Not everyone has parents who are as supportive of choosing different careers. What words of encouragement do you have for children (or families) of aspiring writers, whose families may not be as supportive?
    As a parent, I can understand the desire to steer your children towards careers where they will have a stable income. My parents recognized that I was more verbal than scientifically or mathematically inclined, and even though they didn’t push me to be a doctor or engineer, my mother would have loved for me to be a lawyer, which I considered for a little while. I ended up worked in international health communications, writing and editing and disseminating research findings, and writing children’s books on the side. I only started writing full-time as an author in the past few years. I would encourage anyone who loves to write to DO IT! Do it in your spare time, even if you have another career to pay the bills (which you will likely need). And hopefully what is a passion can turn into a profession eventually. You don’t need to study creative writing or get an MFA to succeed as a writer. Just make sure to keep reading and working on your craft. And families will come around when they see you are serious about it and have skill and hopefully some success. But it take a lot of hard work and commitment.
  11. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
    I saw aspects of myself in some of the books I read as a kid. I loved the book Little Women, probably because that family was more traditional and conservative than modern American families, and I could relate to it on many levels. But I never saw a true reflection of myself, a Pakistani American Muslim girl, in the literature. When I was in college I searched for myself and found South Asian authors, but most were women from India, so I could only relate to a point. I saw elements of my experience in other literature I read–African American, Caribbean, and East Asian. But the first time I truly recognized myself and my life in a book was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri when I was in my 30s.
  12. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change?
    zayd saleem.jpgI think there are books that feature Muslims both positively and negatively, written by Muslims and non-Muslims. I hope the trend will be to move away from books related to the terrorist narrative, and away from books that highlight pain, oppression and discrimination, or “otherness” and in favor of more books that feature other themes or kids who aren’t struggling with identity issues. That’s why I’m excited about myZayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series–it’s fun and lighthearted and I think Muslim kids deserve to be heroes in books and deal with regular kid issues.
  13. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
    I have a lovely and pretty extensive collection of picture books, since I bought everything I could find from mainstream publishers over the years, including early Ramadan books like Ramadan Moon and My First Ramadan, Eid stories like Nabeel’s New Pants and The Best Eid Ever, folktales and poetry like The Conference of the Birds and Mulla Nasruddin, and successful self published titles like Ilyas and Duck. I have non-fiction books, and books published by Muslim publishers of varying quality. And now I’m happy to have a growing collection of middle grade and young adult fiction, including everything by N.H. Senzai, Sheba Karim, Randa Abdul Fateh, G. Willow Wilson, and more, along with my fellow Salaam Reads authors, Karuna Riazi and SK Ali. Plus it’s exciting to see a new crop of Muslim writers publishing new titles that are coming out this year!
  14. Have you ever felt pressure to edit anything out of your books or fulfill a certain image of a Muslim or Muslim family? Do you feel like Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include specifics about Muslims or Muslim communities in their narratives from publishers, editors, agents or even readers?
    No, but it took me a while to accept the fact that I cannot and don’t have to represent all Muslims in my work, especially since early on I was one of the few Muslim children’s writers out there. I put that pressure on myself and worried about writing things from a Pakistani perspective, and how others might react to that or question their authenticity. In general, I have tried to challenge stereotypes in my work, for example by requesting a variety of races, cultures and styles in the illustrations of my books. I think we all hear things or get feedback from readers from time to time about what should and shouldn’t be included, but I haven’t been pressured by my editors, agent or publishers.
  15. What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature? What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years?
    Honestly, the best things you can do are buy books written by Muslim authors (preferably from independent bookstores, but anywhere will do); leave reviews and help promote them among readers, librarians, bloggers, and others; be positive and encouraging; and celebrate the success of others. We need more Muslim librarians, agents and editors as much as we need Muslim writers, if not more, so I hope to see more of them in the years to come. And in the future, I hope Muslim writers just be seen as writers and that “diverse books” are just seen as books that reflect the world we live in and don’t need to be called out for what they are.
  16. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
    I’m so incredibly grateful to everyone who has read my books, made them a part of their lives and their families, and shared them with others. I have days where I feel low or insecure or anxious about the future, and alhumdulilah I will get a note or a message or something that reminds me that my work is valued and means something to people, and it makes all the difference in the world to me and keeps me going. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. I need it more than you know!