More to the Story

Hena Khan’s newest middle grade novel is inspired by Little Women and follows a family of four sisters—Maryam, Jameela, Bisma, and Aleeza—living in Atlanta.

Thirteen-year-old Jameela (aka Jam) wants to be a journalist and make a real change in the world. She’s frustrated with the fluffy pieces that her editor-in-chief at the school newspaper is publishing. When she meets Ali, a family friend who has moved to Atlanta from the UK, she thinks this might be her chance to write an award-winning story. But things don’t go quite as planned. On top of that, her dad has taken a job across the world for six months, and then the family receives some scary news about about Bisma.

I really love Jam’s character: she is fierce with the world and supportive and protective of her sisters. She is brave, speaking up for what she knows is right and going after what she wants. She uses her strengths to make her family’s lives better. 

This book takes its inspiration from Little Women, but Alcott doesn’t get in the way of Khan’s writing at all. Despite being familiar with the original story, I was able to tune it out and enjoy More to the Story on its own. After I finished reading the novel, it was easy to connect the dots, and I really appreciate the way that Khan imagined Little Women in contemporary times. I also liked the way that the original story inspired the family dynamics in this book: the  closeness between Jam and her dad, the support and protectiveness between the sisters, and the close relationship between the mom and dad. 

Something that I didn’t care for was the budding romantic feelings between eighth-grade Ali and seventh-grade Jam. In this age group, not every story needs to include romance, and I dislike it when the reciprocation of feelings is linked to some kind of validation.

As far as the Muslim representation goes, I’m always happy to see Muslims represented in literature, and I know that representation will take many shapes, as it should. In More to the Story, the family is a Muslim family of Pakistani descent living in Atlanta. Although the parents don’t drink alcohol and the girls don’t date, only the mom tries to pray regularly. This is definitely one way that people practice Islam in the US, and it deserves a place in literature. But every time a book is marketed as about a Muslim family or is published by an imprint focusing on Muslim stories, I feel hopeful that this book will reflect the Muslim American experience of my community. And I’m usually disappointed. Only S. K. Ali and Uzma Jalaluddin have reflected that experience, and it’s not nearly enough. So while I appreciate More to the Story and I believe that Hena Khan is playing a vital role by representing her community, it’s on publishers to make sure there’s a variety of Muslim experiences being represented. 

I recommend this book for readers who enjoy middle grade and are interested in Muslim rep, Pakistani-American rep, or stories about cancer, microaggressions, or ethics in journalism.

More to the Story is out from Simon and Schuster on 9/3 and you can find it here: Goodreads | Simon and Schuster | Amazon.com | Book Depository

I received an eARC of More to the Story from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Battle

Ahmad is used to two things: being on his own and getting into trouble. But when Ahmad’s classmate Winnie hands him a package from his sister Farah, everything is about to change.

The Battle, by Karuna Riazi, is an exciting follow-up to The Gauntlet and picks up years after the Mirzas moved to NYC. Farah is away at college, and Ahmad is muddling through life as a twelve-year-old. He loves to draw and spends a lot of class time doodling pictures of a strange city called Paheli that he remembers dreaming about as a kid.

Winnie is intrigued by the package and follows Ahmad home. But when they insert the video game cartridge into the console, strange things begin to happen. Winnie notices that the avatars look just like the two of them. They’re still examining the girl avatar with Winnie’s curly hair when the city freezes around them. A thick blackness rises up and covers everything around them, and then the city is replaced by a futuristic version of the city with tall, floating skyscrapers and flying rickshaws. Soon, Ahmad and Winnie come to understand that they’ve been transported into the game. If they want to get home again, they’ll need to play the game and win.

This action-packed adventure combining video games with a South Asian–inspired fantasy world is ultimately about the power of friendship. As the game goes on, the stakes get higher and higher, and the lines between friends and foes blur. I loved seeing the developing relationship between Ahmad and Winnie and seeing Ahmad grow in self-confidence as a result of that. 

While a fun ride, I found this novel weaker than the first. It is repetitive at times, and the world building is not as clear as it was in The Gauntlet. I often felt confused about the challenge they were facing and rules of the world around them. While this confusion was at times meant to be a part of the plot, it wasn’t the most pleasant reading experience.

Although readers will recognize elements of Paheli and know information about the Mirzas from The Gauntlet, The Battle is not a strict sequel and can be read as a stand-alone.

I can recommend this middle grade novel for 8–12 year old kids who enjoy stories about video games or adventure stories in general.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Find it here: GoodreadsSimon and Schuster | Amazon.com | Book Depository

Ayesha Dean: The Seville Secret

The Seville Secret is the second installment in the Ayesha Dean middle grade series by Melati Lum. It follows Ayesha, a hijabi Australian teenager, as she travels and solves mysteries with her friends.

In The Seville Secret, Ayesha goes with friends Jess and Sara and her Uncle David to Spain. He has business to attend to while the girls go on holiday. On the plane, they meet Kareem, who is going to Spain to look for his grandfather, who disappeared while studying some ancient jewels. Ayesha offers to help, and adventure ensues. View Post

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour

The Green Bicycle is a middle grade novel based on the feature film Wadjda—the first Saudi Arabian produced film directed by a woman. The director, Haifaa Al Mansour, is the author of the book. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can say that sometimes when books are based on movies (instead of the other way around), they feel incomplete or are paced awkwardly. Not so here. This novel is really well-written, with short chapters that keep the plot moving. View Post

Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

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Escape from Aleppo is a middle grade novel by N.H. Senzai about one girl’s escape from the Syrian city of Aleppo when fighting reaches the city.

The novel opens with Nadia being awoken in the early morning; her family are finally leaving the city for good. She hasn’t left her house since she was injured by shrapnel from a barmeela that exploded nearby while she was on line for bread. As Nadia hesitates before exiting the building, a bomb goes off, separating her from the rest of her family. They reluctantly move on, and she spends the rest of the novel trying to make her way through the city to the Turkish border where her father is waiting for her. View Post