Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

tenthingsihateaboutme“How can I be three identities in one?  It doesn’t work.  They’re always at war with one another.  If I want to go clubbing, the Muslim in me says it’s wrong and the Lebanese in me panics about bumping into somebody who knows somebody who knows my dad.  If I want to go to a Lebanese wedding as the four hundredth guest, the Aussie in me will laugh and wonder why we’re not having civilized cocktails in a function room that seats a maximum of fifty people.  If I want to fast during Ramadan, the Aussie in me will think I’m a masochist.

I can’t win.”

Jamilah lives a double life: at home, she’s Jamilah, the girl who plays an instrument in an Arabic band and tries to convince her super-strict father to lighten up once in a while.  However, at school, she’s Jamie, with bleached hair, contacts, and endless excuses for why she can never socialize after school.  She just doesn’t want people to see her as a stereotype; she’s afraid they’ll hear Muslim and think extremist.  However, the strain of constantly hiding who she truly is wears on her, and her friends are wondering why she’s never around.  She can’t keep it up much longer-but what will happen if everyone knows the truth about her?

This is Randa Abdel-Fattah’s second novel about Muslim teenagers struggling to find a place within a larger culture that doesn’t always understand or welcome them.  Her characters are complex, from the hijab-wearing activist Shereen, to a father struggling with the task of raising three children alone-he doesn’t want to create strife between him and his children, but he also feels compelled to raise them in line with his core values.  While Jamilah often feels like an outsider because of her cultural identity, she gets great joy out of sharing meals, playing traditional instruments, and speaking Arabic.

Abdel-Fattah takes pains to differentiate between ethnicity, culture, and religion, and explore the different ways they can be expressed in her characters. It may not always be easy to have a hyphenated identity, but Randa Abdel-Fattah opens an important dialog about faith, fear, and the self in her thoughtful, timely novels.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Ten Things I Hate About Me. Orchard Books: New York, 2006. 297 pp. Ages 15 and up.

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Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde

“‘I’m trying to jumpstart the world.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I’m trying to remind the world to be what it knows it should be.'”

Elle’s beautiful, aloof mother dumps her in a New York apartment alone, just shy of her 16th birthday.  The reasoning:  her mother has a new boyfriend, and he’s just not interested in having a teenager hanging around.  So Elle gets her own apartment, conveniently out of the way.  After she moves in, she meets Frank, her next-door neighbor.  Right away, she notices something different about him.  She finds herself drawn to him.  He’s a great listener, and Elle really hasn’t had anyone to really listen to her in her life before.

When her new group of friends point out that they think Frank is transgender, Elle becomes very upset.  During her sheltered life, she has never been exposed to any of the GLBT crowd before.  She’s not sure what to do, and for a while she avoids Frank and her friends at school.   She has a lot to think about.

That’s the point of this book: what Elle is thinking about.  It’s not a plot-driven story; it’s more about how Elle’s thoughts develop and change.  I like that, actually.  It gives the story a quiet, introspective feel.  The language is simple, almost sparse, and feels thoughtful in the sense that these are Elle’s thoughts, her first-person narrative.  She honestly discusses her preconceptions, hurts and fears throughout the book.

I am always grateful to see books about transpeople.  One of the most powerful motivators of hatred is fear and ignorance, and it’s a step in the right direction to be exposed to many different types of people in this nonjudgmental way.  That said, I would really like to see more of these books about GLBT characters to be written by GLBT authors.  I’m not saying that this would have been a better book had the author been transgender herself, but I would like to see more of our voices out there.

All in all, a quiet, pleasant read.  Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://www.catherineryanhyde.com/

Hyde, Catherine Ryan. Jumpstart the World.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.  208 pp.  Grades 8-10.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

“It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”

This graphic novel is a super-award winner (the heavy hitters- the Printz Award and a National Book Award finalist nomination).  It is composed of three stories: the folk tale Monkey King, an blonde-haired, blue eyed student whose cousin, a very stereotyped Asian caricature, comes to visit, and then Jin’s story.

Jin’s parents are Chinese immigrants, who met in graduate school.  Until third grade, Jin lived in Chinatown in San Francisco, and had a good group of friends and a community.  However, when the family moves and he transfers to a different school, things get complicated.  Jin has to listen to the tired Chinese jokes, racial slurs and hurtful, ignorant comments of his classmates.  He’s not sure how to defend himself when other students ask if he eats dogs, or if he’s related to the other Asian student in the class.

When he develops a crush on a pretty, blonde girl, and one of the other white students confronts him and asks him not to date her, all of Jin’s internalized self-hatred combusts, and he ends up saying some very hurtful things to his only true friend.

Told in sections that juxtapose myths of the Monkey King, Jin’s internal thoughts, and his life at school, this graphic novel is provocative and interesting.  I finished it quickly, but it left me thinking for a long time after I stopped reading.  The honest reflection of prejudice and commentary on the process of assimilation made for some good dinner-table conversation.

Happy Reading!

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006. Ages 12-15.

If you liked this graphic novel, this author has written several other books.  Check out Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks or The Motherless One.  If you want to explore books by other authors, my favorite graphic novel is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

“The war-if there ever was one-was over, but the curfew was still in effect.  Every evening at the stroke of six, the lights in every house and every street were extinguished.  And when night fell, the seven hills of Kampala were trapped under what seemed to Sabine like a big black burkha that wrapped them all in the dark while the countdown snared its prey.”

In 1972, the president of Uganda announced a countdown:  the British Indians within the country have ninety days to get out.  Sabine is Indian by heritage, but she and her mother, father, and brother are Ugandan citizens, so they are hoping that they’re safe.  However, things get complicated when Sabine’s uncle disappears and she suspects it’s because he’s been imprisoned, or worse.  To make things more confusing, Sabine and her best friend, who is a Ugandan, fight about their loyalties.

Through it all, Sabine tries to be brave for her family, take care of her little brother, and understand the racism and socio-economic divide between the Indians and Ugandans in Uganda.  In the end, she finds herself growing and being stronger and braver than she ever thought was possible.

There’s a lot going on in this book: political strife, a government kidnapping, racism, class tensions, issues with gender identity and special needs, and fights between friends.  I actually think that each separate thread in the novel could be a story in itself, but the setting is interesting and not very well-known.  That alone makes the story worth reading.

Author’s website: http://www.snanji.com/

Nanji, Shenaaz. Child of Dandelions. Front Street Books: Honesdale, PA, 2008. 214 pages. Ages 12-16.  ISBN 978-1932425932.

If you like this book, try Chain of Fire by Beverly Naidoo, or Frances Temple’s Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti.