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

The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria

My gift to you both is a love for this Earth,
and thankfulness for all that it’s worth.
Your travels have served to open your minds
to people in places of all different kinds.

The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria is an exciting and lyrical adventure story that showcases beautiful sights in Syria using full-color illustrations. Shaped like a picture book but divided into sixteen chapters, it has pages of illustrations and pages of text in columns. It is published by the Beauty Beneath the Rubble initiative, which aims to “change the narrative of countries associated with war and conflict.”

One morning while their parents are out, Laila and Ahmed find their grandfather’s special book about his travels all over the world. Their grandfather was Ibn Battuta (yes! that one), and his book was, of course, Rihla. When they open it to look at the drawings, stories, and maps, they find a note addressed to themselves. In it, their grandfather urges them to see the world and offers them a clue to get them started on their journey. Before they can decipher the first clue, a strange light envelopes the book and it grows and grows until it is the size of a door in the wall. The door opens onto a whole new world. They walk through it and find themselves in Syria.

Throughout the rest of the book, the two children journey from city to city, seeing famous landmarks, buildings, and curiosities, all while looking for their grandfather’s next clue. I loved the celebration of all of these places. They go to a castle, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, and Souq al-Madinah. They see the waterwheels at Hama, the oasis of Palmyra, and the Church of St. Sergius. Their journey ends in Damascus.

These days, when most people think of Syria, the picture that comes to mind is the most recent shot of rubble that they’ve seen on the news. This book challenges that perception and reminds readers of the beauty of this country, which has a rich culture and history.

I do wish that the castle that was their first stop had been named: I’m sure Syria has many castles, and I’m not sure which one I read about.

I really appreciate the fact that a map appears before the story. Being able to trace Laila and Ahmed’s journey on the map was invaluable. It helped me show my seven-year-old that all of the places Laila and Ahmed visited were in Syria. He read the book on his own as soon as it arrived, and he promptly declared that it was “the best book [he] ever read.” When I prompted him for more information, he gave me a detailed synopsis of how Laila and Ahmed’s journey began. He said that they went “all over,” and he somehow missed the fact that their journey took place exclusively in Syria and not all over the world. Being able to trace Laila and Ahmed’s journey on the map helped him center their journey in Syria. As for his comment that it was the best book he ever read, he really liked reading a chapter book in picture book format.

Something that I found odd about this story is that while Laila and Ahmed recognize some of the places they visit from their grandfather’s book and from his stories, they don’t recognize much, if any, of the context from their own heritage Arab and Muslim identity. For example, Laila has to explain what the adhan is to Ahmed. How has he never heard the adhan before? It also would have been nice to see them reconnecting with familiar foods in a new context in Syria instead of approaching everything as if they were tourists.

I highly recommend this book to all parents, librarians, and teachers. This book is not only a cute story but can also be a great resource for students of geography, social studies, and current events. It is a beautiful reminder of some of what is at stake in the conflict, and I highly recommend it.

Find it here: Goodreads | Beneaththerubble.org | Amazon.com | Book Depository

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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