Other Words for Home

by Jasmine Warga
First sentence: “It’s almost summer and everywhere smells like fish, except for right by the sea where if you hold your nose just right you can smell the sprawling jasmine and the salt water instead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s talk of periods starting. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jude lives in a seaside Syrian town, and she’s happy with her life: her father runs a store that caters mostly to tourists, and she and her best friend and her brother love what they can get of American culture. But then the civil war breaks out, and Jude’s older brother disappears and Jude’s parents decide to send her and her mother to the U.S. to live with family. They say it’s for a “visit”, but that visit turns into months as the situation in Syria gets worse. Jude learns English, starts the seventh grade, and figures out how to navigate both her family life — her American, half-white cousin isn’t terribly thrilled about Jude coming to live with them — and her school.

This is a very sweet novel in verse, telling the story of a new immigrant and how she learns to adjust to life in the U. S. I read several of these sorts of stories for my multicultural children’s literature class, and I have to say that while this has many similarities, it’s also a different story. Jude is dealing with post-9/11 Islamophobia and so when she chooses to wear the hijab after her period starts, she has to deal with the fact that she’s wearing a visual representation of a religion that is often maligned in the U.S. It also deals with her everyday difficulties: understanding slang, getting along with classmates, trying to figure out where she belongs all while dealing with uncertainty about her brother and father back in Syria. It’s done quite well, and in a way that I think kids will relate to. It’s not just an important book, it’s a very good one.

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Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Hearts Unbroken

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Half past nine a.m. in the residual haze of my junior prom, I ducked into a powder room off the kitchen at the swanky lake house where the after-party took place.”
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Content: There are multiple f-bombs and a tasteful sex scene. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Louise is a senior at a small(ish)-town Kansas high school, and has decided this year to be on the newspaper. She mostly wants to try out something new, but it’s also because her last boyfriend, Cam, turned out to be racist towards Native Peoples. And since Louise is a member of the Muscogee Nation, that really sat wrong. She’s decided that she’s going to make a stand against all the little micro-aggressions toward Native Peoples that she sees.

It doesn’t help that her family is being targeted by racists: her younger brother Hughie has been cast as the Tin Man in a color-blind casting of The Wizard of Oz (a black girl was cast as Dorothy) and the white people in town — especially the wife of the pastor of the big evangelical church — are Up In Arms. They think this is Ruining Their Values. And so, Louise, and her potential-love-interest Joey, tackle the story through the high school paper.

I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. On the one hand, I appreciated all the ways that Leitich Smith pointed out that we, as a culture, have adopted stereotypes of Native Peoples, and how that’s affecting them, whether directly or indirectly. But, I feel like there wasn’t much of a story there. Sure, there was a plot: Louise is dealing with her own issues, working on a relationship with Joey, and trying to balance friendships and family and school. But, I never really connected with it. I just felt like is was “here’s a situation, let me explain why this is racist”. Maybe that’s my problem: I felt like white people were the audience for this book, and while it’s an Own Voices title, I’m not sure how much a Native teen would relate to this book. I felt like Leitich Smith was Explaining Things to me, when I just really wanted a story about a Muscogee girl in Kansas who is dealing with high school and issues.

But maybe it’s just me.

Monster

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
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Content: There is some frank talk about what goes on in prison, the use of the n-word as well as f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Steve Harman is a 16-year-old black kid in Harlem who is in jail waiting trial for murder because of a drugstore robbery gone bad. He’s not the only one on trial; his “acquaintance” is also on trial for the same murder (I found myself wondering about the legality of this). Because Steve is an aspiring filmmaker, the book is written as a screenplay, covering the trial with flashbacks to Steve’s life as well as the night of the incident, interspersed with handwritten journal notes from Steve.

The most fascinating thing about the book, for me, wasn’t the format (which took a bit of getting used to). It was the way the story unfolded. We were basically the 13th juror, albeit with a bit more information, listening in on the trial from the opening arguments to the testimony and cross-examinations through the closing arguments. I don’t feel like Myers biased the reader in one direction or another (or maybe he did, wanting us to be more sympathetic to Steve), but instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.

On top of that, it’s a scathing look at the justice system. Sure, people are just doing their jobs, but when a 16-year-old kid ends up in an adult prison just because of who he knows, or what lawyer he can or can’t afford, when the guards don’t do much to protect the prisoners from each other… no wonder we need prison reform in this country!

It really was a fascinating and enlightening read, and I’m glad I did.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.

Glory Be

by Augusta Scattergood
First sentence: “What was taking Frankie so long?
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Content: There’s some physical violence. It’s short and the chapters are short. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Glory, the youngest daughter of a Southern preacher, has grown up all her life in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She hasn’t thought much about how her cook, Emma, is black. Or why she doesn’t see any black people at the pool or library. But, it’s the summer of 1964, and things are changing. The pool closes “for repairs”, but it’s because the pool committee doesn’t want “those people” sullying the waters. They try to do the same with the library, but the librarian stands up and keeps it open. And Glory’s best friend, Frankie, is on the line because his older brother and father are leading the charge against desegregation.

This had a lot of the same feeling as The Help did: white southern people being enlightened and standing up to their racist neighbors, but not really doing much else. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, and I’m glad that white people have this kind of awaking story, but it kind of left a sour aftertaste. It was a very white book (I am surprised it was on my list for a mulitcultural children’s literature class…) and I wanted, well, more. Emma, the cook, didn’t play a huge role, and the whole book had a white savior narrative to it: Look! White people can recognize that black people are people too. Ugh.

I wanted more.

Internment

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are instances of mild swearing, plus a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but just because of language. The themes are good for anyone, really.

It’s in the near future, and the U. S. government has decided that Muslims are a threat to the country. It started with a registry, with everyone declaring their religion. And then Muslims began to be discriminated against (well, they probably were already), and now they’re being rounded up and taken to internment camps. To keep the rest of America safe from them.

Layla and her parents are among those rounded up and sent to camp Mobius in the California desert. It’s a harrowing experience: being arrested at home and then shipped on a train to an isolated “camp” (read: prison; there aren’t cells, but they’re kept in with an electric fence) where they were expected to comply to rules and are constantly watched over by drones and guards.

Layla, however, is not okay with all this. (Fair.) In spite of her parents’ pleas to just get along, Layla decides that she needs to Do Something. So, she smuggles out articles she’s written about conditions in the camp — the Director using intimidation and force and the disappearances of other internees — to be put on blogs. She organizes protests. She makes friends with sympathetic guards on the inside who help her along with her boyfriend on the outside. They stand up for what they believe in, and resist.

I think that was the thing that was most striking to me: that resistance to authority comes from the teenagers. It probably always has. Adults get complacent, and are conditioned to not make waves. But teenagers? They’re often idealistic and want a better world. And have the courage to make it happen. And Ahmed captured that perfectly.

Yes, this book is heavy-handed: Ahmed hammers the idea that This. Is. Wrong. home in so many ways, but I think this book is meant for White People. Seriously. I am sure that so many of the themes of racism and exclusion and mistrust of the Other are already known to Muslim (and Black and Asian and Native) people. The people who need to see this are White. And probably middle class. And comfortable in their lives. (Like me.) We need to remember that inaction is the same as action. And that just because we don’t see or experience the problems doesn’t mean they’re not there.

In the end, the question I thought this book was asking was: What kind of White Person will you be? (Granted, I’m coming at it with this perspective. I’m sure others will get something different out of it.) And that’s a good question to be asking right now.