A fresh perspective

30312547Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan (2017)

Opening line: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”

Amina is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, living in Milwaukee, WI, and she’s having a hard time finding her way in middle school. As anyone who has been to middle school knows, things always seem to shift if that first year after elementary, when you are trying to figure out your talents and who your friends are.

Amina’s best friend is Soojin, whose family is from South Korea. The girls have always bonded over their differences from their classmates, the ways substitute teachers struggle with their names and how other students turn up their noses at the contents of their lunchboxes. But Soojin and her family are about to become American citizens, and with that, they plan to change their names, adopting more “American-sounding” ones. Amina is surprised by how much this upsets her, and starts to feel left out when Soojin begins to befriend classmate Emily, a girl who has always hung around with the popular kids and has made fun of Amina and Soojin in the past. Things become even more tense when the one place Amina feels like she really fits, her family’s Islamic Community Center and mosque, is badly vandalized, and Amina questions where she belongs.

I loved this story. What’s so great about it is that it will open the eyes of many students who know nothing about Islam or the immigrant experience in a way that is totally accessible and that they will identify with. The whole time I was reading about the friendship dramas between Amina, Soojin, and Emily, I was brought back to my fifth grade year when I was certain I was going to lose my best friend to the popular girl. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t, and said “popular girl” is now my best friend 18 years later.) Readers will recognize and connect to Amina’s story, while seeing a completely different (and much more accurate) picture of Islam that we see on the news.

A book for every middle grade shelf, 2.5 stars.

 

A Beautiful Gift for a Sad Anniversary

All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)

Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”

That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.

The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.

Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.

This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.

While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).

I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.

2.5 stars

Required Reading, please

51dw5mh9-zlNo god but God, by Reza Aslan (2005, updated 2011)

Opening line: “Midnight, and five hours to Marrakech. I have always had trouble sleeping on trains.”

I rarely blog about adult books, and I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about one of the books I’ve read for my mini-book club I have with my dear friend Mallory (check out her very impressive website), whose books have so far been entirely religious non-fiction. She and I met at church, and one of the things we both love about our church home is that it is wide open in terms of what you are “supposed to” believe. In fact, it regularly makes it known that there are no “supposed tos.” We decided a few years ago that we wanted to explore what other religions are all about, because although we both definitely identify as Christian, we weren’t sure why (despite growing up in church). And so we embarked on a journey, one that has led us through Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as touching on several others).

I think both of us would say this one has been one of our favorites. Early on, we wanted to learn more about Islam. With so much happening in the world that seems tied (correctly and incorrectly) to this massive religion (we’re talking 1.5 billion Muslims, guys), we felt the need to be able to speak to what we regularly felt was just blatant misconception. It took a few missteps (and several very dense books) to get us to this one, but, at least for me, this is just what I was looking for.

Author Reza Aslan provides an incredibly encompassing picture of the religion of Islam, starting with its inception  with the Prophet (well, actually well before that), and traveling all the way through its current reformation. Somehow, in less than 300 pages, the reader gets a broad tutorial in the basic beliefs, the widespread historical context, the varying sects, and the very contentious political implications of Islam in its current state. All while keeping me engaged. I think his skill lies in his position as a youngish Muslim who, while incredibly smart and well-researched, is personally connected and invested in the future of this religion. The text never comes across as preachy (he’s not trying to convert non-Muslims by any means), and while the majority of the text is framed as informational, he definitely has opinions on how Islam is represented (see: poorly). In fact, my first encounter with Reza Aslan (although I didn’t know it at the time) was in this ridiculous CNN interview in which he refuses to let the “journalists” talk shit about his religion. (I apologize for my sarcastic quotes. But, like Professor Aslan, I have a hard time when smart people ignore basic facts.)

In any case, I feel like this book should almost be required reading in this day and age. Like he tells us in his last chapter of his book, Islam is in the process of undergoing a major reformation, just as Christianity did those hundreds of years ago with good ol’ Martin Luther. It’s all over the place right now, both metaphorically and literally, and NO, THE VAST MAJORITY OF MUSLIMS DO NOT BELIEVE IN KILLING PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT BELIEFS. If we’re ever going to come to any sort of world peace (beauty contestant answer, I know), we have to actually learn something about one another. Let’s make it happen.

2.5 stars