Ah, Twitter. Land of intense debate, mocking quips, up-to-the-moment news, adorable animal pictures, and far, far more book recommendations than I have time for. It was just a few weeks ago- September 11th, to be exact- when I learned of the existence of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (Quill Tree Books, 2021). It was a fitting date for the book to be shared and to go onto my TBR, since the story deals with the anniversary of 9/11 and Muslim families. My library had a copy in the New Books section of the middle grade books, and, desperately needing some fiction (I feel like I’ve read so little fiction this past year!), I grabbed it on my last library trip. My library is excellent about promoting diverse books; we live in a really amazing diverse community, but honestly, diversifying their collection should be a goal of every library out there. When we learn about each other, we understand what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes, and that makes the world a better place.
Yusuf Azeem is a new middle schooler in the small town of Frey, Texas, nervous for this school year, but excited about the prospect of finally being able to participate in a well-known robotics competition for his school’s team. But tensions are high among his family and his Muslim community as a whole, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, something Yusuf, who was born well after 2001, doesn’t fully understand until his uncle gives him his journal from 2001, when he was a boy. As he reads his uncle’s entries, Yusuf learns about the Islamophobia his community experienced, the hatred they felt, his uncle’s best friend who turned against him. Yusuf better begins to understand the strain everyone around him is feeling.
Things aren’t great in Frey. While Yusuf works diligently with his robotics team, nasty notes appear in his locker, a local group purporting to be patriots begins to threaten the Muslim community’s new mosque, his father’s store is vandalized, and Yusuf is repeatedly bullied by a fellow student (and he’s not the only victim). Saadia Faruqi has penned a novel that will have readers understanding the effects of hatred and fear on families, communities, and friendships.
This book has a more positive ending than a lot of real-life stories. Ms. Faruqi stated she wanted to show what life could be like when a community steps up and does the right thing, and I think that’s not only an excellent message, but that this book provides an excellent blueprint for what it looks like to do the right thing, from Yusuf’s gentle parents, the pastor who doesn’t back down, the friend who realizes he was wrong, the principle who steps in to change school policy. There are a lot of examples of missteps in this book, but there are far, far more examples of characters who recognize their errors and who work hard to make things right. And that’s how things should be.
Yusuf is a well-developed character. He’s a diligent student with varied interests, and his affection for his much younger sister is really sweet to read. His friend group is diverse, with distinct characteristics (one boy who’s more religious than Yusuf, another who is dead-set on assimilation, a girl who’s initially miffed at her role in the robotics club but who totally rocks it, a relative of the school’s and town’s biggest bully who changes throughout the story), and his religious community is complex, varied, and interesting. I enjoyed the scenes set in Sunday school (Islamic teaching classes for kids that happen on Sunday; my synagogue also has Sunday school for kids! Just religious school on Sunday), and Yusuf’s relating the lessons he learned there to the events happening in his daily life.
The Islamophobia is painful to read, no doubt. Yusuf’s family and friends suffer (and suffered in the past) due to people’s fear and misunderstanding about their religion and culture. Even the microaggressions, such as Yusuf’s teacher calling him up in front of the class to explain an Islamophobic incident in school, as though he were the authority on all things Muslim simply because he’s Muslim himself, show his distress well (teachers and other folks, don’t do this to your students!). If this were a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to read about other people’s pain in order to fully understand it, but I hope that this book makes clear how harmful it is to disregard the feelings of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the pain it causes them when we stand on the sidelines instead of coming to their aid.
Homeschoolers, this is an excellent teaching tool if you’re doing a unit on September 11th, and it would make an AMAZING parent-child read together or book club selection. (DO NOT put your Muslim members on the spot, though! If anything, ask them privately if they’d like to share anything about their experiences, but don’t expect them to put their pain on display as a teaching tool. PLEASE.) Heads up for several mentions of COVID, including mention of a family death in the year prior; COVID is over during the telling of this story, so I’m guessing either the references were added in afterwards, or the book was finished in the days when we expected this would be a much shorter-lived experience.
Wonderful, wonderful book that I can’t recommend highly enough, both for the middle grade to early YA set, and for adults as well.