fiction · middle grade

Book Review: A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

I learned about A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion Books/HMH, 2020) a while ago, but while the premise interested me, I learned about it at a time when I wasn’t reading much middle grade, so it never ended up on my TBR. But a trip to the library last week had me walking past a display of books about food from the children’s section, and this book was on there. ‘Wait, I know that book!’ I said to myself as I passed it. ‘Guess it’s time to finally read it!’ And into my bag it went. Dual narrative middle grade. So fun!

It’s the first year of middle school for sixth graders Sara (that’s SAH-rah, not Sarah as in Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Elizabeth, and neither is having the best of times. Sara’s new to the school, having transferred from her small private Muslim school after her parents could no longer afford it; Elizabeth is struggling with friend issues after her best friend has taken up with a more popular girl. It’s Elizabeth who’s enthusiastic about joining the after-school South Asian cooking class club; Sara is only there because her mom is teaching it. Their first interactions are hostile at best, and neither walks away feeling great.

But as their time together in the club increases, Sara and Elizabeth realize they have a lot in common. Both are daughters of immigrant mothers; both are having trouble making the transition to middle school; both are desperately in need of friends. But in order to forge a new friendship, both will have to learn to listen to each other, to form a bridge over what divides them and learn to appreciate what makes each of them unique. A cultural festival and a cooking competition will force them to work together, and what they create at the end will be far more than just a new recipe.

What an enjoyable novel. I love dual narratives, and I can’t remember ever having read one from the middle grade section. Sara is downright prickly at the beginning, and this is completely understandable. She’s a Muslim student at a new school, and it’s not like this country is super understanding about non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Her mother’s accent and unfamiliar-to-everyone-else dishes make her feel like she stands out even more, and her defensiveness, even to the most basic of inquiries, is a learned skill. She’s also carrying the financial stress of her family with her, knowing her mother’s catering business is struggling and costing the family money they can’t afford. She lashes out a few times at Elizabeth, and I wanted to hug her. We don’t make life for immigrants or second gen kids easy at all here.

Elizabeth is struggling with problems of her own. Her grandmother died over the summer and her mother is grieving. Her father travels for work most of the week, leaving Elizabeth and her brothers on their own while Mom knits, listens to podcasts, and cries. Elizabeth is deeply worried her mom is going to return to England and leave the family behind, and to top it all off, her best friend is following in her racist father’s footsteps and making hideous comments about Muslims and immigrants. Cooking club and learning to make delicious food for her family helps with the stress, but she’s not having the greatest year either.

The friendship the two girls forge is fascinating. It’s not an easy one; it takes work for Sara to let down her guard and accept that Elizabeth is well-intentioned; Elizabeth has to learn that Islamophobia is a constant part of Sara’s life, and that it’s also her responsibility to speak out and defend her friend from it. (I really loved the role Sara’s friend from her private school played in this; she’s a super chill character and the voice of reason in their interactions, whereas Sara is more impulsive and fiery.)

Both girls are carrying an enormous amount of stress for their ages, an unfortunately not-uncommon experience these days, and while readers may not be personally familiar with their exact problems, I feel like most middle graders will understand what it’s like to worry about family matters you can’t control.

The authors really worked well together to create two middle school girls who are challenged in a variety of ways, and who begin not quite as adversaries, but as two distinct characters who aren’t necessarily on the same page…but who, with a little hard work and understanding, make it there, and the results are great.

What a fun, meaningful book, from an excellent writing team!

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Visit Laura Shovan’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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nonfiction

Book Review: Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman

It was a segment on NPR that clued me in to the existence of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman (New Press, 2021). Located about forty-five minutes from me, Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago, the focus of this book, has one of the highest populations of immigrant and refugee students in the country. It’s a fascinating place, and the author gave a wonderful interview. As soon as I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot, I grabbed my phone and smashed that ‘want-to-read’ button on the Goodreads app.

For an entire schoolyear, author Elly Fishman followed the students and teachers and administrators of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. Increasingly known as a school that serves a population of immigrants and refugees, its students hail from thirty-five countries and speak at least thirty-eight languages. These students have been through and are still experiencing immeasurable trauma; they and their families are struggling to adjust to not only a new language, a new culture, and a new country, but also brand-new dangers in the form of gangs and street violence. Their setting may have changed, but often the levels of the students’ stress has stayed the same, or worse, increased.

While Ms. Fishman focuses on just a small handful of students and professionals at the school, it’s easy to see both the determination and the dedication of both, and the difficulties they all face. The increasingly hostile-to-refugees political climate has absolutely affected the school; fears are up, both for the safety of the students and for the funding that allows the school to stay open, continue to improve, and best serve their population of new Americans. It’s an incredible look into a world few long-time Americans often aren’t aware of, though they all should be.

What an amazing book. At times, it’s heartbreaking; the students have already been through so much before even arriving in America, and more often than not, their lives here continue to be terribly unstable, with poverty, family violence, and insane amounts of stress affecting everything. And with Chicago having the problems it does with guns and gang violence, this bleeds into the lives of these students. With great respect and humility, Ms. Fishman documents their stories, the ups, the downs, the pain, the joys. This can’t have been an easy task, but it’s a masterful account, and respectful every step of the way.

I’m so grateful to authors like Ms. Fishman, who take us as readers into places we would never get to see otherwise. In Refugee High, we sit with students struggling with the language, communicating with each other via Google translate, fearful of the gangs that roam their streets and are targeting them, engaging in a tug-of-war between cultures, between the person they want to be and the person their parents are demanding they become. With all the refugee crises raging across the world, it’s imperative that we develop a better understand of why they’re here and what they go through when they arrive. Refugee High is an incredible look into the world of teenage refugees and what it takes to help them integrate into their new world.

Such a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Visit Elly Fishman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

book review · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali

I’ve followed Wajahat Ali on Twitter for years. His astute political commentary, sense of humor, and love for his children (especially his daughter Nusayba, who fought stage-4 liver cancer and won with the help of a new liver – which was found because Dad tweeted about it! Bless that man who gave her part of his, when he didn’t have to) made him an easy and enjoyable follow. So when I learned he was coming out with a book, I added Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American (WW Norton Company, 2022) to my TBR. And this week, it was finally in.

The son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Wajahat Ali has led an interesting life, much of which I knew nothing about. This part-memoir, part-humor writing, part-textbook on Islam in America and the immigrant and second-generation experience, introduces the reader to a world they may not understand much about. With a large extended family and frequently gossipy community, Wajahat Ali may not have always felt accepted by white America, but he kept his nose down, worked hard, and tried his best. Life fell apart, however, when his parents got caught up in some shady business deals, were arrested, and were sentenced to prison.

Instead of getting started with his adult life and heading straight to law school after college like he’d planned, Wajahat picked up his parents’ mess, attempted to take over the business (while trying to finish up school as well!), and did what he could to support his parents and try to garner more support from the outside community. The stress nearly devoured him whole; he survived, finished law school, became a playwright, a writer, and a lawyer, and became a man who, if only on the outside (anxiety and OCD solidarity, Mr. Ali!), handles himself and the challenges he faces with courage, grace, and a wicked sense of humor.

Wajahat Ali’s writing style will pull you in. When terms come up that a non-Muslim may not be familiar with, he’ll define them, but he’ll do so in a way that keeps the conversation going. Never once does he talk down to his audience, even when he knows far more about the subject than we do. He wants to engage us, to involve us in his story so that we understand the full Muslim-in-America story: what it’s like, how it feels, how white non-Muslims have affected his life (positively and negatively). How white people have ignored people like him, until they can blame him for something that someone who may have looked like him or shared his religion did – something we don’t do to white people. (As I write this on July 4th, police are frantically searching for the gunman of the Highland Park parade, which is only about 45 minutes away from me. Ten bucks said that guy had a Christmas tree in his house when he was young, and I’ll bet all my savings that we’re not going to hold all Christians or Christianity responsible for his behavior. And we shouldn’t. And the same courtesy should be extended to our Muslim brothers and sisters.)

What I’m trying to say is that this will make you think deeply about how you think of Muslims – the ones in your community, the ones you see on television, the ones in your family or friend group, if you’re lucky enough to have them. How are they portrayed in the media? Are there any ways you think about them differently than you’d think anyone else? Can you do better? (The answer here is yes. Always yes. We – and this includes me – can always do better.) This book is a great start, and it’s a great read.

I’m glad this made its way to my list, and I look forward to hearing more in the future from Wajahat Ali. I’m glad I got to enjoy his writing in longer form.

Visit Wajahat Ali’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

nonfiction

Book Review: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

I struggle to understand a lot of things sometimes, especially the tough parts of the world. Some things are just so terrible that I find them difficult to grasp, and I have to read multiple books about those subjects in order to feel like I’m making any headway at fully getting it. The situation in Syria the past twenty years or so is definitely on that list, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend, but I keep trying. It just so happened that after reading Other Words for Home, which dealt with a young girl immigrating from Syria, one of the next ebooks available from my library was We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman (Custom House, 2017). It’s the kind of book I wish everyone would read, especially those people who don’t want Syrian immigrants coming to their countries, and who boast about how THEY would stay and fight if their country went the way that Syria did. Those people have no clue, no idea what Syrians have gone through, and I wish they would educate themselves.

Arranged in a style reminiscent of the interview-style books of Svetlana Alexievich, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled tells the story of a country and the people who loved and left it when a devastating crisis tore it apart. Each section recounts the history of the crisis through its citizens, the ones who hoped and dreamed of living in a country where their voices could be heard and they could live in freedom, the ones who worked for it and fought for it, and the ones for whom the country gradually turned into a living hell.

Starvation. Rape. Beheadings. Explosions. Gunshots. Imprisonment in the most deplorable conditions imaginable. Torture. Constant fear. All this and more are what the citizens of Syria lived with every day before many of them fled the country for a chance to live in safety. Some of the testimonials are lengthy (though not more than a few pages); others are just a few words, but each eloquently describes nightmarish situations that will break the heart of even the most jaded reader.

The style makes this an easily readable book; the content makes it difficult. Ms. Pearlman makes it easy, however, to place yourself in the shoes of the Syrians interviewed, however, and I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before about just how terrible the situation was before so many people made the difficult decision to leave their country (difficult in that it’s always hard to leave your home, and the conditions they traveled in were bleak and often deadly; leaving was likely the best decision out of a handful of terrible options). The prisons weren’t something I’d known about before; the conditions in them were shocking to read about, as were the accounts of torture (if you’ve ever read anything about Iraqi prisons, it’s similar). When people fighting for a better life in Syria were captured by the government, the soldiers would go through their phones and begin rounding up all their contacts. And that’s just the beginning of the reign of terror that so many Syrians needed to flee.

I’m glad I read this, though it’s a heartbreaking book, and it’s one I’m going to be recommending every single time I see people crowing about how people fleeing desperate situations should just stay and fight. That’s something that’s extremely easy to say from the comfort of your own home in a stable country, and when you have a better understanding what people are fleeing, statements like that sound even more appallingly callous. If you don’t have a great understanding of what caused so many Syrians to leave home, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria should be on your list.

Visit Wendy Pearlman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Another library ebook for me! Next up on my TBR was Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (Balzer and Bray, 2019). This has been on my list since I first learned about it. I always forget how great middle grade books are- my son has been out of that age range for quite a while and my daughter isn’t ready for most of those books in terms of interest (reading ability, yes; interest, ehhhhhh), so I don’t spend a ton of time in that section quite yet. But I learned about this book on a list of multicultural middle grade books, and after reading that it was about a Syrian girl who leaves her home to live in the US, onto my TBR it went. (And look at that gorgeous cover!)

Jude has lived in Syria all her life with her parents and older brother. She’s always loved American things, right along with her best friend, but when life starts getting complicated in her home country, she travels with her pregnant mother to live in Cincinnati with an uncle and his family, leaving her father and her missing brother behind. Life in America is complicated. Jude, who used to be the best at English in her school in Syria, is now struggling to understand both the language and the culture around her. No one seems to want to try to understand her. She misses her father, she’s worried about her brother and her best friend (who isn’t answering her letters), and her cousin Sarah seems to hate her.

Bit by bit, Jude pulls together a life for herself in America. Her English improves; she makes friends in her ESOL class, a Muslim friend, and a friend from her math class; she works up the courage to try out for the school play. When anti-Muslim sentiments start up in her town, it’s not what Jude had hoped for in her new life, but she responds with courage and dignity, just as she takes on the rest of her journey.

Written in verse, Other Words for Home is a look at a young girl tasked with starting over under difficult circumstances, how she rallies, and how the people around her make her new life both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of helpers, but there are plenty of people- including adults- who try to bring her down.

This is a quick read, but it’s a great one. It would make an utterly fabulous read for a mother-daughter book club (especially if you’re looking for books that touch on immigration and/or refugees, the crises in Syria, and Muslim girls. Heads up for a few mentions of menstruation, a few mentions of bombings, and several instances of anti-Muslim behavior- all of which are things that kids in this target reader age are either likely to be discussing or need to discuss with adults, but sometimes parents need a little bit of time to think and prep for how they want to approach these subjects).

Jude is a delight of a character, strong and determined and an excellent role model (not necessary for a character, but it’s nice when you come across one). She works hard to understand the whys of her life: why are she and her mother moving to the US; why is her father staying behind; why does her brother feel the need to fight; why are people treating her this way in America (not sure there’s really an answer for that, to be honest). She works hard at everything she does, even when it’s difficult, and she never stops trying, even when she’s pretty sure she’ll fail. A new immigrant, still learning the language, trying out for a school play? RESPECT. I didn’t even have enough courage to try out for my school plays when I’ve lived here my whole life. I would have been in utter awe of Jude when I was young. I wish I’d known girls like her. Maybe I did and didn’t even know it.

Super great read, this one. I always enjoy a good novel in verse, but the subject matter and Jude as a narrator really hit it home for me.

Visit Jasmine Warga’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Two books by Nicola Yoon!

The parent education series that brings authors, clinicians, speakers, and other experts to our area is one of my favorite things about where I live- at one of the last events I attended, the director let us know that they’d just confirmed booking Tara Westover, author of Educated, for next year! Super excited about that. But next week, young adult author Nicola Yoon will be here, and since I’m never one to miss out on an author event, I prepared by reading both of her books.

First up was Everything, Everything (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015), because I own a lovely hardcover copy which I snagged at a used book sale last summer (right after I learned she’d be coming here). Madeline is stuck in the house- literally and quite permanently, a victim of SCID, commonly referred to as Bubble Boy disease. Her mother, a doctor, cares for her with the help of a visiting nurse; the house is equipped with an airlock, a mega-air filter, windows never open, and almost no one ever visits. Madeline does her schoolwork mostly online and spends her days reading, until a new family moves in next door. Olly, the cute teenage son who catches Madeline’s eye, begins to awaken in Madeline the desire for a bigger life, a life outside her bubble, but the risks she takes will end up revealing some long-buried secrets and truths about the health of her family.

After I finished that, it was off to the library to grab their copy of The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte Press, 2016). In a novel that’s reminiscent in certain ways of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, two teenagers with different backgrounds and ways of looking at the world meet and fall in love in the twenty-four hours before one of them is due to be deported. It’s a race through New York City, a journey to the heart and soul of identity, family, culture, home, and what it means to fall in love and make yourself vulnerable to another person.

Between the two books, I preferred Everything, Everything, even though I called the twist pretty early on. Madeline is a sympathetic character, and I loved the premise of a character who isn’t allowed to live in the normal world. Carla, her nurse, was my absolute favorite; without her, the story would never have gotten legs, and her willingness to take a chance, to defy Madeline’s mother (and her exasperation with her teenage daughter!) made her complex and realistic. Olly’s situation lends even more credibility to the story, and the culmination of it all is nearly perfection.

The Sun Is Also a Star was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it quite as much. While I respected Natasha’s commitment to science and logic (and understood her reasons for doing so), at times, her denial of the importance of emotion annoyed me, and her constant chirping of science facts was tiresome. Daniel is pretty great all around, but just like Nick and Nora, I didn’t find the premise of the book to be entirely realistic. I’m well aware of and remember acutely from my own teenage years the huge emotions that adolescents are capable of, but having these two fall that hard for each other so quickly, when Natasha is trying to square up her family’s situation…I couldn’t *quite* buy that she’d have the mental space for that at that particular time.

So now I’m ready and prepared to listen to Ms. Yoon speak next week! (That is, if coronavirus or the stomach virus with which my daughter is currently plagued doesn’t take us all down…) I’m glad I got these two read beforehand, because once again, I’m so far behind in my reading. I do have these two books and my library book discussion group book done for the month, though, so there’s that, which is nice. 😉

Are you often able to attend author events? I used to go to them fairly frequently when I lived in the Nashville area, especially when the Davis-Kidd bookstore still existed and hosted them (*pours one out for Davis-Kidd, which was an excellent store*). There’s a local-ish store here that plays host to a ton of amazing contemporary authors as they pass through on book tours, but I haven’t managed to make it over there yet; most of the author appearances are at times when traffic would make it difficult for me to get over there. But one day… Most of the events I attend now are through this parent education group (anyone of any age is welcome to attend; it’s not just for parents), so I very much appreciate its existence!

Visit Nicola Yoon’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto- Suketu Mehta

Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years, and I think we’ve all seen how ugly that conversation can get. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog (I think…) that I’m married to an immigrant (who is also a citizen, and a veteran, thankyouverymuch); his family moved to this country when he was three, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult a move this must have been on my mother-in-law. Three children, one of whom was a baby, a new language (that she’d studied in school, but the difference between learning in school and actual spoken language is pretty major), a husband who traveled more often than he was home, I’m not sure I could have managed all of that, but she did, and I’m in awe of her. I do my best to include marginalized voices in my reading, and that very much includes immigrant voices, so I knew I had to read This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta (Vintage Digital, 2019) when I learned about it.

Bursting with pages upon pages of footnotes and sources to back up the argument that immigration is necessary and beneficial, This Land Is Our Land covers all facets of immigration: the who and the why (they’re here because we- our country- were most likely there, in their country, exploiting it until a living could no longer be made and its citizens were forced to leave in order to provide for their families), the many wheres and the how (and the dangers of that how). This is world history- England’s brutality in India, Belgian’s brutal, bloody rule over the Congo, the United States overthrowing the government in Guatemala and funding death squads in El Salvador (and, once again, they’re here because we were there. Mr. Mehta describes this as, “You break it, you buy it,” and I think that sums it up perfectly). There are stories that escaped my previous learning, such as Chiquita Brand’s (yes, the banana company) involvement in supporting paramilitary and drug trafficking groups in order to protect their workers, and stories that I’d learned about years ago (if you’ve never read anything about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo, I highly, highly recommend King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild). There’s a lot of heartbreaking, infuriating information in this book that will have you stopping to take a deep breath and wondering why and how we can continue to perpetuate such atrocities against our fellow man.

But this is also contains great beauty, offering statistics and anecdotes (more statistics than anecdotes) of how societies flourish when we open our doors and welcome the stranger. In almost every case and in every way, society is made stronger and more economically powerful when immigrants join us. The benefits are not always immediate, and there are instances where it’s a long-term investment, but the research is overwhelmingly clear: immigrants are beneficial to societies and we need more immigration, not less.

Despite the heavy subject and often painful examples of the horrific maltreatment of immigrants, this is a quick read that will present any native born citizen of any country with a more nuanced take on their immigrant neighbor than they may have had before. It would be nice to see this book appear as required reading in high schools, college classes, book clubs, and community reads, because frankly, we as a society and as a world have a lot to learn in the way of compassion for those who have left their homelands behind.

Visit Suketu Mehta’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter- Erika L. Sánchez

I love where I live. Have I mentioned that? I do. Every year, the high school conglomerate parent education group has a long list of speakers that present to anyone who wants to attend, on topics involving youth mental health, preparing for college, how to better connect with and understand your teenager, screen time, drug use, and more. And every year, they invite multiple authors to come and speak. (I’ve already gone to hear David Grann this year, and while I wasn’t able to read any of her books in time, I got to hear Julissa Arce speak earlier this month.) Next month, Erika L. Sánchez will visit our area, and in preparation, I read her young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017). When I mentioned this to my 17 year-old son, his face lit up. “I read that last year!” he said, and told me he’d go with me to hear her speak. Which is pretty awesome, considering I hardly ever get to hang out with him these days. Makes a mom’s heart pretty happy. 🙂

Julia’s sister Olga is dead after a sudden and terrible traffic accident, and no one in the family is coping well. Her father has retreated further into himself, her mother is angrier than ever and demanding that Julia have the quinceañera they could never afford to throw Olga, and Julia? She throws herself into finding ways to escape her family, like going away to college (which perfect Mexican daughters like Olga never do; instead, they stay at home, attending community college for five years straight and working as secretaries in order to always stay near their families), sneaking out to parties with her friends (not like boring Olga, who never went out), meeting boys (Olga would have never!).

But as she deals- or doesn’t deal- with her grief, Julia learns that there was more, a lot more, going on with Olga that anyone ever expected. She’s bound and determined to figure out what, if her own darkness doesn’t consume her whole first. She’s not the daughter her parents may have expected, but she’s all they have left, and Julia and her parents will need to learn to reconcile that.

Obviously, this isn’t a light read. There are immediate content warnings for death (loss of a sibling) and the heavy grief (and mixed feelings; Julia and Olga were not close, so that complicates things) that comes with it; suicide attempts; rape; violence; poverty; mentions of sexual abuse, eating disorders, parental abuse and toxic behavior, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting off the top of my head. That said, this feels like a pretty important book that deserves to be read, because Julia’s struggle to live up to her parents’ expectations and bridge the gap between the culture she’s been raised in and the culture they come from is one that’s so common among first-generation teenagers.

Julia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s biting; she’s sarcastic; sometimes she’s downright rude. Part of this is a defense mechanism; some of it is just her personality in general. I quite enjoyed her snarky comments and her sharp tongue (I feel your irritation with the world, Julia…), but I understand why other readers may find this tiresome. Her desire to move beyond what her parents want for her- a safe life within arm’s reach of the family at all times, because that’s what they know, what they’re comfortable and familiar with- is so strong, and Ms. Sánchez’s depiction of it is so vivid that at times it’s necessary to take a deep breath and release yourself from the far-too-real feeling of suffocation. We’ve all wanted to break free of something at some point in our lives; Julia’s not-uncommon need to be something bigger than the dreams of her parents, even in the wake of familial grief, is presented in a manner so intense that you’ll feel you’re right there with her in her run-down apartment on the south side of Chicago.

Her attempts to discover who her sister truly was are bittersweet for reasons I don’t want to spoil, and there’s a journey back to Mexico to visit family and heal where Julia unearths long-buried secrets that aid her in beginning to understand her parents, especially her mother. So, so much heartbreak and pain; it’s amazing that those who suffer such deep wounds are ever able to even walk upright with all that they’re forced to carry through this life. If anything, this book will either deepen your empathy or have you understanding immigration and life as an immigrant (and the child of immigrants) in an entirely new way.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a heavy book written in an utterly engaging manner, featuring a heroine who is as prickly as a cactus but who contains multitudes. This is a book that will stick with me, and I’m so excited to hear Ms. Sánchez speak next month.

Visit Erika L. Sánchez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir

The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in by Ayser Salman

Another book from my wandering-the-library-with-no-list day! The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman called out to me right away from the New Arrivals shelf- with a title like that, how could it not? We’ve all felt like we’ve been sitting at the wrong end of the table at one time or another in our lives, as Ms. Salman points out; I’ve definitely been there (#socialanxiety #awkward #thisiswhyIstayhome), and so this jumped off the shelf and into my book pile. 🙂

Ayser Salman was born in Iraq.. Her family moved to the US when she was three for her parents’ jobs (as well as to flee the growing fascist regime), living first in Ohio and then moving to Lexington, Kentucky, which did have a small Arab community (very small, from the sounds of it). Ms. Salman never felt like she fit in with the other kids: the food she ate was different, her religion was different, her hair was different, her family’s customs were different, even her name was different from those of her fellow classmates. There’s no angst, no whining or woe-is-me style of writing here; on the contrary, Ms. Salman displays a level of humor and good-natured acceptance of her far-too-often outsider status in her youth that would be difficult for most to achieve. When her family spends a few years in Saudi Arabia, though some things ring familiar (she’s finally with people like her!), there are still plenty of times she remains on the edges.

Ms. Salman covers a variety of topics from her life, from her primary education, her love life (and occasional lack thereof, which isn’t always a bad thing!), her parents (you’ll love her mother) and her relationship with them, siblings, her work life and her struggle to get where she is, how September 11th affected her community, and much more. Over the course of these many essays, she grows from a child who can’t quite find the place where she’s supposed to fit in, into a woman who’s fully able to forge her own path, create her own place, and embrace all that her history and her culture mean to her.

The Wrong End of the Table is a fun read. Ms. Salman’s comical way of explaining her childhood antics had me smiling as I turned the pages, her relationship with her mother charmed me to pieces, and the family’s move to Saudi Arabia, coupled with her fear, fascinated me. I’d read accounts of adults moving there, but never that of someone who moved as a child, so this book was worth the read for that alone, to better understand what that experience is like.

She does get into politics a little, including the Muslim ban; I don’t think there’s any way for that particular subject to be avoided these days, nor should it, especially since it affects Ms. Salman’s community and most likely affects people she knows personally. Her tone is optimistic, more so than I would have been, and so I’m only mentioning this so that you keep it in mind when you’re choosing what you can handle reading. There’s an awful lot in the news that I’m currently not handling well at all; I’ve had to put a few books down because I’m not in the right headspace to be able to carry the emotional weight of those books as well as everything else right now. (And that’s not to say that I won’t ever go back to those books at a different time.)

So this was a great modern take on living in the US as a Muslim immigrant, by a woman with a gift for storytelling. I enjoyed reading such a refreshing take on American life through Ms. Salman’s eyes.

Visit Ayser Salman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.