Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.

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Ms. Marvel: Civil War II

by G. Willow Wilson, et al
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Other is the series: No Normal, Generation Why , Super Famous
Content: Violence, mostly. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, but it’s good for teens and up.

I’m not sure if I’m completely up on Ms. Marvel (it’s hard to keep track!)… but I picked this one up, and fell into it. Kamala is having issues at school and as a superhero – she doesn’t have time for her friends much anymore, and Bruno is no longer happy with being her “sidekick”. And then Captain Marvel asks Kamala to be the head of this predictive crime unit, where they take a psychic’s premonitions and then arrest people before they commit a crime. It’s going fine, until one of Kamala’s friends gets arrested for thinking about doing something drastic. Maybe predictive crime prevention comes perilously close to profiling?

Kamala tries to get out of it, but ends up alienating everyone, so she heads off to Pakistan to her family’s home, trying to find herself there. But not everything is quite as simple as it seems.

It helps that each issue is really its own arc, and that you don’t really need to know what went on before, which is good because I’m not sure I remember from issue to issue. That said, this one touched on some really interesting ideas, including profiling, and the costs/benefits of trying to stop crime before it happens. The side trip to Pakistan at the end was interesting, too, as was the Kamala’s parents’ backstory that was threaded throughout the issue. I keep picking these up because I love the story arcs that Wilson comes up with, and this one didn’t disappoint.

Written in the Stars

writteninthestarsby Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “‘Naila, I wish you didn’t have to miss the game,’ Carla tells me.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher ages and ages ago.
Content: There’s a (non-graphic) rape and some REALLY bad parenting. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) Section of the bookstore, but if a 12- or 13-year-old were interested, I’d recommend it.

This was one I’ve been meaning to read for a long, long time. I have no excuse for not getting to it, except that I have a LOT of books to read (so much so that I’m actually starting to panic about my piles. There’s just not enough time!) and many things competing for my attention.

But, recently, I picked this one up and gave it a try. And finished it nearly in one sitting. It’s just THAT compelling.

Naila is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, ones who are fairly traditional. While she can go to public school and is not required to wear a hijab, she’s not allowed over at friends’ houses, to date, to drive, and college is still up for grabs. (An interesting side-note: Saeed never spells it out, but the discrepancy in treatment between Naila and her younger brother is both unsurprising and frustrating.) She happens to have a boyfriend, though, one she keeps secret from her parents. And when her secret gets out, her parents react by whisking her away to Pakistan where they go about arranging a marriage for her. Behind her back.

It’s awful. ┬áSeriously: I know that arranged marriages like this happen, and that they’re not always bad, but Saeed makes no bones about it: the way Naila’s parents go about this, in order to “save” her honor from the boy she picked, is just awful. And that’s being mild.

It’s an interesting thing to think about though: the balance between choice and tradition, between religious principles and progressive thought (I’ve been trying to think of a better way to say that, and I just couldn’t), between The Way Things Have Always Been and what individuals want. It was especially interesting reading it as a parent because I could see that while her parents thought they were doing right, they were so, so very wrong. And that’s a tough thing to see.

It’s excellently written, highly diverse (hardly any white people at all!), and an intriguing story. One that I hope many, many others will read.