This Fall, I received a promotional sneak preview booklet of the first two titles from Simon and Schuster’s new children’s book imprint Salaam Reads: The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi and Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan. Both are middle grade titles to be launched in March 2017, and from these excerpts, I highly recommend adding both to your Goodreads “To Read” list. These are both books I can imagine reading and loving as a child, and I definitely enjoyed reading the excerpts as an adult.
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi
The Gauntlet starts off with the same basic premise as Jumanji. Farah Mirza receives a board game from her aunt for her birthday, and when her younger brother Ahmad touches it, he disappears into the world inside the game. To save him, Farah and her friends must enter the game themselves and play by its rules. The excerpt had me glued to the page and excited to see how it turns out.
According to the press release, Salaam Reads aims to “share the stories of Muslim children, in all their diversity.” In The Gauntlet, we not only have a Muslim protagonist and meet her family, we also have a scene at Farah’s birthday party where her mother serves chakphati (“chickpeas and egg and plenty of delectable, generous spices”) and Farah’s classmate Jeff calls it “disgusting” and asks for fries or pizza instead.
Jeff, who couldn’t pronounce Iran and didn’t know how many pins it took for Farah to keep her scarf out of his overly inquisitive fingers, but would insist up and down that Farah’s curry in her lunch box was gross-looking and her plain yogurt was no better than baby spit. [p. 8]
Riazi’s description of Farah’s mother “just [standing] there, smiling and nodding and wringing her hem between her fingers” and Jeff’s mother “[laughing] nervously through her teeth” is particularly vivid. I felt such a layering of emotion I can’t even begin to explain, but it’s a beautifully crafted scene, and I can only imagine its impact on young readers who may relate to the experience. I somehow hope a real-life Jeff will read this too, and realize how hurtful such thoughtless comments could be.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
Amina’s Voice is a completely different genre of story, which is awesome because this imprint will then attract a larger range of potential readers. Amina Khoker has a beautiful singing voice but is too shy to perform in public. When she starts middle school, she notices her best friend Soojin Park is hanging out a lot more with one of the “cool” kids, Emily, whom both Amina and Soojin pretty much hated throughout elementary school. To top it all off, Amina’s uncle is coming from Pakistan for an extended visit and her father wants everything to be perfect for his more traditional brother, which includes signing up Amina and her brother for a Quran competition. The blurb at the back of the book mentions that the local mosque Amina’s family attends is vandalized, so the story just keeps ramping up from there.
I can totally see myself reading and loving this book as a kid. I realize that the story is mainly about Amina, but I absolutely love that one of the main characters is Korean, and even better, that her family is still waiting for their citizenship! There are a lot of stories out there about immigration, but not usually (in my experience at least) treated in this way, where the character is just like any other school girl and her main conflicts are about friendship and popularity, and she just happens to mention in passing that her family is about to take their oath of citizenship. It seems a minor thing, but as an immigrant myself, it means a lot to see this story told in this way, and I don’t know if I can even fully explain why.
I also love that Soojin sees her citizenship as the opportunity to change her name to something more like “American” like Melanie or Jessica. Amina doesn’t quite support the change, because to her, Soojin changing her name is akin to Soojin changing to a more “cool” and popular version of her old friend, and I just love seeing the dynamics between the two in what, ultimately, was a very brief and casual conversation.
There is so much realness going on in just the first few chapters, and I am so excited to find out how things turn out for Amina and Soojin! I’m even curious about Emily, as it would be so easy to paint her as a typical mean girl but from what I’ve seen of Khan’s storytelling so far, she seems to eschew easy stereotypes and create highly textured characters that practically breathe on the page. I’d love to see this happen in Emily’s case as well, and am both concerned and curious about how Amina’s family and her community will respond to the vandalizing of the mosque.
NOTE that any quotes in the above are from the uncorrected Advance Reader’s Chapter Sampler, and so may be edited for the final copy.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster Canada for a sneak preview of The Gauntlet and Amina’s Voice in exchange for an honest review.