Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan.
Salaam Reads imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017.
Middle grade realistic fiction, 197 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: Not yet leveled.
Amina is shy and a little afraid of some of the big changes coming with middle school, like a chance to enter a singing contest or her uncle coming to stay. Her best friend is Soojin, a Korean immigrant who’s finally becoming an American citizen and wants to change her name. They find that their different cultures have some cultural norms in common, and they bonded over having unusual names. But if Soojin changes her name, is she also going to change her best friend?
There are going to be lots of reviews of this book, so I thought for my review, I’d take a different perspective. Kirin at Notes from an Islamic School Librarian reviewed Amina’s Voice and had only one issue with it, which confirmed my idea that this #ownvoice novel is a great representation of Muslim culture.
A few reviews of this have already come out, and the consensus (with which I wholeheartedly agree) is that it is an accurate and sensitive portrayal of a Muslim middle school student. There are a few instances of poor choices, including an incident in which Amina’s older brother might have been smoking, but the book is highly moral and completely appropriate for middle schoolers and students a little younger, especially those fourth and fifth graders who are worrying about the transition.
From an interview with Khan:
“I wanted people to get to know a Muslim child and family and to offer a window into her family, home, and religious community through a story about an American girl dealing with relatable middle school challenges. I tried to weave in practices that are often part of Muslim life without overemphasizing them. Like all my books dealing with Muslim themes, I introduce the idea that we all have a lot more in common than it may seem, and that we share the core values of community, family, and charity. Parents and educators can do their part to help to drive home that message as well.”
I would say these goals were well met.
There is some community violence (and the aforementioned smoking incident) which would make me cautious about recommending this book below second grade even if a reader is quite advanced. However, if you don’t feel your young child or student would be scared, this would make a great family or classroom read-aloud and a nice entry point for discussion about hate crimes based on religious discrimination.
One Wisconsinite’s Opinion on the Local References
Part of the reason that I was so excited about this book is because it’s set in Milwaukee, the largest city in the state of Wisconsin (but Madison is the capital).
“in the Urdu accent he hasn’t lost after living in the Milwaukee area for twenty years” p. 15
This is accurate. Most immigrant kids I know would say about their parents “after living in America” but I liked that the location was established so soon.
“We’re doing a modified version of the classic Oregon Trail game.” p. 28, teacher dialogue
Okay, this isn’t a Milwaukee or Wisconsin specific thing exactly, but almost everyone I know in Wisconsin played Oregon Trail hardcore. I’m pretty sure that at least one teacher I know is going to start doing this after reading this book. I don’t know if this is regional, but it’s a cultural touchstone that delighted me.
“she and Julie spread a rumor at school that Soojin’s parents served dog meat at their downtown Milwaukee restaurant, Park Avenue Deli.” p. 29
It’s not that there couldn’t be a Park Avenue Deli, but this one didn’t ring true to me. Park Avenue has more connotations of partying, and in this area Deli doesn’t normally mean Korean cuisine, but Italian or other European-American sandwiches. Usually downtown is referred to by the neighborhood, which would give a lot more information about the restaurant.
” ‘Nothing like that will happen here. We have a strong community, and there are so many Muslims living in Milwaukee. People have been good to us,’ Mama says.” p. 40
Very true, Milwaukee has a big Muslim presence and I think most people are welcoming. There’s a lot of interfaith dialogue.
” ‘You too,’ Baba glowers. ‘ You and your Packers. Bunch of cheaters!’ ” p. 52
I’m glad the Packers were mentioned in this! It’s difficult to explain because most American sports teams are run a bit differently, but the Packers are owned by the state of Wisconsin, so there are fans, and owners, all across the state, not just in Green Bay. One time when we were at Target on a game day and I was sitting in the car, I counted 28 out of about 50 people wearing visible Packers memorabilia and I’m willing to bet that there were more with shirts I couldn’t see under their coats. Everybody knows at least the quarterback’s name and our Superbowl prospects, even the least sporty people (me). However, I don’t really understand why Baba is a Bears fan if he’s lived in Milwaukee for the past 20 years. The Vikings rivalry is fierce and we’re not Bears fans either.
“I live for snow days. We have to get at least a foot in Milwaukee, but when things do shut down, it’s like a block party.” p. 69
This is mostly accurate. I would say at least a foot and snow still falling, because once the roads are even marginally clear, we’re moving again, even if the snowdrifts on either side are taller than your car. It’s not really comparable to a block party, but when there is a crust of ice on top of the snow, children will walk over it to the park and go sledding. There are not a lot of snow days in Wisconsin. People still grill out if it is snowing.
“He is going out for pizza with his team after his game tonight. They had to play in Oak Creek.” p. 113 Mama dialogue
Oak Creek is a city in the suburbs of Milwaukee. It’s pretty big so if the game was on the other side of it, they might just eat there. Depends on where they live.
“But then I think about how Soojin has been the best part of school ever since she moved to Greendale.” p. 146
Hmm. So they live in Greendale, which is not that far from Oak Creek (it’s to the southwest of Milwaukee, while Oak Creek is to the south). I wonder why he didn’t come home for a late dinner then? Is this a sports thing?
“A van labeled Channel 7 News arrived while they were inside.” p. 158
No Channel 7 News in Milwaukee area. Not sure if that was intentional.
“Every time I hear about things like this in other places, I think, it’ll never happen in Greendale.” p. 151 Mama dialogue
Pretty universal. I guess the mosque is set in Greendale then too.
Spoiler warning “I just want to say that this is a terrible, challenging time for the Muslim community here in Milwaukee. On behalf of the entire police force, I can say that we are all deeply saddened by this hate crime. It’s simply unacceptable, and it’s un-American. We will do whatever we can to prevent anything like this from happening in the future and to make sure justice is served.”
I liked that Khan included this speech and the way the community rallied after the destruction of the mosque. It’s important for teens of any color to see authority figures that look like them or at the very least, respect their communities. End of Spoiler
” ‘A long day like this calls for some frozen custard. I asked your mom, Amina, and she said you can come to Kopp’s with us.’ […] I love the creamy dessert and loading it up with all my favorite toppings.” p. 180-181
Frozen custard is definitely a Wisconsin and Midwestern thing. It’s not ice cream, it’s richer (the opposite end of the spectrum from frozen yogurt) and has different flavors. Custard places make their own and usually have a favor of the day. I’ve been to Kopps, but it’s kind of touristy. I don’t recall them having a toppings bar. Folks around here take icy sweets seriously and will travel for their favorite place.
This book has been getting a lot of attention because it’s the first to be released from the new Salaam reads line. It definitely deserves that attention. Even if you don’t live in Wisconsin, I would highly recommend this book for 3rd to 8th graders. I was impressed by how good a job Khan did weaving the location into her novel, given that she’s never actually lived here!