Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart

Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Genres: Contemporary Romance
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After hooking up with the most racist boy in school and telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman’s explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.

Review: After hearing so many great things about Karim’s new novel I was really looking forward to it. It was #ownvoices and had numerous Muslim characters in a contemporary romance, which is sorely needed in the world of YA literature. Unfortunately, I came away with a “meh” kind of feeling with this book. It took me a long while to get into it and connect with the main character Shabnam Qureshi. There was something about her that I just didn’t like. Some of her comments really rubbed me the wrong way, specifically about her weight, which I felt could be triggering to folks. Additionally, she was a little too crazy over Jaime, which is what I just realized I didn’t like about her. When I was in high school, boy-crazy girls drove me batty and that is why I didn’t connect with Shabnam. She is a character of contradictions, however, because even though she is very selfish, she does work to understand her father and help him to become a more active participant in their relationship and the relationship with her mother. The father-daughter moments in the novel were truly sweet and moving.

I feel like the “romance” of the novel was less about Jaime and Shabnam and more about the relationship between Shabnam and Farah. At the beginning of the novel the two are estranged from each other with Shabnam missing her best friend terribly. And I can see why as Farah seems to be Shabnam’s total opposite. Where Shabnam is unsure of herself, Farah is confidence personified. Where Shabnam hesitates to speak her mind, Farah doesn’t hold back. Their home lives are opposites as well as Shabnam is an only child whose parents are in a somewhat happy marriage where as Farah is the oldest of four (If I remember correctly) and her parents are constantly at odds. Even though the novel begins with Shabnam and Farah apart from each other, we are given flashbacks of how their friendship developed. These were two girls who connected over not fitting in, even though they were so different, and ended up dependent upon each other. And that desire for her best friend is why Shabnam chose to re-connected with Farah; she wanted to share her happiness about Jamie. I felt Shabnam was quite selfish for only going to her friend then, but ultimately the girls have a heart to heart and get to the bottom of why their friendship fell apart. It was a moving moment and one that I loved because after Shabnam’s time at the pie shack is over, there are an number of pages left to the book and most focus on Shabnam and Farah rekindling their friendship. Shabnam’s character development is due to her coming to accept Farah for who she is now and that even though her best friend is wearing a hajib, she is still the same complex being before she decided to wear the hajib. Shabnam learns to love her friend for who she is and comes to truly appreciate her relationship with Farah.

The touching relationships Shabnam had with her father and Farah, however, were not enough to make me fall in love with this book. I felt that Jaime was extremely two dimensional, almost a stereotype of the carefree white boy who visits and works with his aunt during the summer. I truly did not see what Shabnam saw that made her fall head over heels in love with him. I didn’t feel any heat or passion that I should expect from a contemporary romance. Jaime and Shabnam’s romance was just kind of blah. There was no rooting for their HEA; in fact, I was waiting for them to break up because that meant that Jaime would be off the page. Clearly, the opposite reaction a romance novel is aiming for. Though, if the point of the romance was the friendship between Shabnam and Farah, then mission accomplished.

 

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LGBTQ Teens of Color Speak Out

To celebrate Pride here at Rich in Color, I thought I’d gather a few teens to talk about the intersectionality of being an LGBTQ Teen of color and the representations, or lack thereof, they see of themselves in books. Spending 8 hours a day with Teens of Color, I was able to gather a few LGBTQ teens for a lively roundtable discussion and one-on-one interviews. The teens are a mix of future, current and former students whose ages range from 13-16. All of the students are very outspoken about LGBTQ issues and are voracious readers, hence the perfect kids to ask about their thoughts on what they want and need from their literature.

First off, teachers, librarians, publishers, anyone who wants to get diverse LGBTQ stories into the hands of teens of color, we all need to step it up. When I asked my students if they had ever read a book with an LGBTQ protagonist, let alone a protagonist of color, all of them, ALL OF THEM, said no. With the roundtable, the “no”s were so forceful that I was momentarily taken aback. These young people, who love to read, had never read a book that featured an LGBTQ character, especially a character of color, as the lead. Instead, they stated, they turned to fan fiction. The reasons they were drawn to fan fiction was that it offers “more perspectives of people like us, more LGBTQ, more options in genres, more points of view,” stated Awesome Kid #1. Then a student remembered reading Alex Gino’s novel, “George”. Awesome Kid #2 was excited to read the book “because it matched how people feel. Sometimes you can feel more feminine and sometimes more manlier. It captures how some us feel sometimes. We feel trapped, in some body that doesn’t feel like ours.” Former student, Awesome Kid #3, fell in love with the Half Bad Trilogy because “it mixes my two of my favorite things – gays in love and magical powers.” While Awesome Kid #3 did love the trilogy, they did not particularly enjoy the heartbreaking ending because it is a trope that is harmful and they wished to see a happy ending in an LGBTQ story.

Since none of my students saw mirrors of themselves in YA literature, I asked them what type of stories they would like to see and their responses were just as varied as the types of books they read. Awesome Kids #3 & 4 wanted less of a focus on “coming out stories and/or discovering sexuality” tropes and focus more on normalizing the character, that being LGBTQ is just who they are. Awesome Kid #4 said, “I would really love to see a book not focus on sexuality or gender identity, cause then I want people to normalize that you shouldn’t really focus on someone’s sexuality. I have friends who are bisexual or trans and I don’t focus on that.” Awesome Kid #3 agrees, saying they want “a story that’s not a big deal of their sexuality, yeah slide it in there, but like don’t make it every single aspect of them. Don’t make it a constant struggle with it [sexuality].” Awesome Kid #5 stated that they would love a book where a lesbian fell in love with a girl who is straight because that is something they experienced and would love to see that conflict brought up in a book.

As their teacher, I of course, asked them about reading books with LGBTQ characters in class. All of them agreed that it would have been helpful, not just for themselves, but for their classmates as well. Awesome Kid #4 stated, “Teens find ourselves through middle school and we get that encouragement from adults, even homophobic adults are like ‘okay, you don’t know, you’re young,’ but it’s not really because it’s so difficult to find yourself and if there was a book out there it would be really useful and make you think it’s not wrong to be like this.” Again, Awesome Kid #3 concurs that teachers should include more stories involving LGBTQ characters, and characters of color, because “[teachers] don’t want to offend or assume someone that’s [gay} in there, but they should always assume. My thing that I always remember, I saw it in a post, is that 1 in 10 kids…there’s about 30 kids in a classroom so 3 kids are hiding a secret, so you never know what someone needs.” All students stated that having teachers read books would have helped them, but the Awesome Kids of the roundtable did express concern about how teachers would handle the immaturity of some of the other students in the class. They also mentioned that in order for the teachers to be able to share books that feature LGBTQ characters, the teachers themselves would need to check their own feelings towards LGBTQ students. Awesome Kid #2 was surprised to find “George” in their teacher’s classroom because they know that some teachers are not supportive. Awesome Kid #2 stated, “I was confused but happy because I didn’t think teachers would have books like that because sometimes they [teachers] aren’t supportive and you can see it how they, the way they look when you bring something up like that, but to have a teacher like Mrs. D have the book made me feel calm.”  Awesome Kids #3 & 4 both stated that if teachers used books that featured LGBTQ characters, especially characters of color, in their classes, it would help open the minds of straight kids and allow them to see past stereotypes and see that LGBTQ kids are the same as any other kid.

Overall, the conversations I had with these Awesome Kids the past few days have been illuminating. This small group of 7 students is just a microcosm of the thousands of LGBTQ Teens of color who are wanting to see representation of themselves in literature. These teens are fully aware of how their media is failing them, but also know what could be done to bring about change. So I ask all of the teachers (myself included), librarians, writers, editors, publishers, anyone who is involved in producing books for teens, to take a good look at where you can step up to work harder to meet the needs of all the teens out there.

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New Releases

The summer literary season is starting off right as we have a number of anticipated novels coming out this week. These are definitely going on my TBR pile.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Simon Pulse

A laugh-out-loud, heartfelt YA romantic comedy, told in alternating perspectives, about two Indian-American teens whose parents have arranged for them to be married.

Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways. –– Cover image and summary via Goodreads

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Desi Lee knows how carburetors work. She learned CPR at the age of five. As a high school senior, she has never missed a day of school and has never had a B in her entire life. She’s for sure going to Stanford. But—she’s never had a boyfriend. In fact, she’s a disaster in romance, a clumsy, stammering humiliation-magnet whose botched attempts at flirting have become legendary with her friends. So when the hottest human specimen to have ever lived walks into her life one day, Desi decides to tackle her flirting failures with the same zest she’s applied to everything else in her life. She finds her answer in the Korean dramas her father has been obsessively watching for years—where the hapless heroine always seems to end up in the arms of her true love by episode ten. It’s a simple formula, and Desi is a quick study. Armed with her “K Drama Rules for True Love,” Desi goes after the moody, elusive artist Luca Drakos—and boat rescues, love triangles, and fake car crashes ensue. But when the fun and games turn to true feels, Desi finds out that real love is about way more than just drama. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden
Bloomsbury USA Childrens

Award-winning author Tonya Bolden sheds light on a tragic moment of the Civil War in a searing, poetic novel about hope and freedom.

When Mariah and her young brother Zeke are suddenly freed from slavery, they set out on Sherman’s long march through Georgia during the Civil War. Mariah wants to believe that the brutalities of slavery are behind them forever and that freedom lies ahead. When she meets Caleb, an enigmatic young black man also on the march, Mariah soon finds herself dreaming not only of a new life, but of true love as well. But even hope comes at a cost, and as the treacherous march continues toward the churning waters of Ebenezer Creek, Mariah’s dreams are as vulnerable as ever.

In this powerful exploration of a little-known tragedy perfect for fans of Ruta Sepetys, readers will never forget the souls of Ebenezer Creek.

No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky
Scholastic

He’s not asking for much. All Gregor Maravilla wants to do is feed all of the starving children on the planet. So when he’s selected to join Camp Save the World, a special summer program for teenage activists from all over the country to champion their cause, Gregor’s sure he’s on the path to becoming Someone Great.

But then a prize is announced. It will be awarded at the end of summer to the activist who shows the most promise in their campaign. Gregor’s sure he has the prize in the bag, especially compared to some of the other campers’ campaigns. Like Eat Dirt, a preposterous campaign started by Ashley Woodstone, a famous young actor who most likely doesn’t even deserve to be at the camp. Everywhere Gregor goes, Ashley seems to show up ready to ruin things. Plus, the prize has an unforeseen side effect, turning a quiet summer into cutthroat warfare where campers stop focusing on their own campaigns and start sabotaging everyone else’s.

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Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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A Plea to Publishers

Two weeks of book festival loot. Photo by my friend Haneen Oriqat.

 

With spring comes book festival season and I’m a huge lover of any celebration of books. Here in Southern California the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is one of the biggest festivals around with an estimated 150,000 festival goers, according to the LA Times FOB website. It is a perfect place to be introduced to up and coming authors as well as seeing your old favorites. I attend every year ready to listen to authors speak on panels, get autographs, and of course, spend lots of cash. However this year, as many friends pointed out, there seemed to be a lack of “color” shall we say. I like to go to panels with authors of color to support them, but this year I only went to 2 panels (would have been a third, but scheduling conflict) and while there were a number of interesting YA panels, I chose not to attend them because the diversity in the panel was glaringly absent. I also did not see publishers pushing any of their authors of color and that made me extremely sad. There were some authors of color there signing books, but the ratio of authors of color to white authors was disappointing. Now, I do know that YallWest was the following weekend and there was more of a balance in terms of signage and panels, but even then, more books by authors of color were not pushed.

So what do I mean by being “pushed”? I’m talking about giveaways, signage, call to action items, etc. I saw very little pushing for authors of color at LAFOB, and there was some push at YallWest*. At both festivals, publishers were giving ARC’s, holding raffles, etc for authors and unfortunately between both festivals only about 4 books by authors of color were promoted in such a manner. Why is that? Why were more not given the push? Why didn’t publishers/publicists push for more authors of color to participate in panels at the LAFOB? A number of the best sellers were represented, which is great, but what about everyone else? What about the debuts by mid-level authors? What about sophomore novels by authors of color?

Book festivals are the perfect opportunity for publishers to expose readers to different voices and promote authors of color to a wider audience. Book festivals also give teens of color a chance to meet authors who look like them, maybe even inspire future writers. I’ll never forget the look on a former student’s face when I introduced him to Jason Reynolds at YallWest last year. His eyes lit up at the fact that he was meeting a cool looking author of color just like him. I encourage my students to attend both LAFOB and YallWest in the hope that they get to meet their favorite authors, as well as meet new authors, specifically authors of color. I can’t imagine I’m the only teacher to do so. In fact, last year at YallWest, there were buses of teens, specifically teens of color, at the event. That was the perfect opportunity for publishers to push their authors of color, as we know that when teens love a thing, they really love a thing, and will spend money. I understand that publishing is a business, but as Disney found out, when you actively make your product more diverse and push diversity, you will make more money. So, I have a plea for publishers – please put more money and effort in promoting your authors of color. There is a hungry market out there for diverse titles, you publishers just have to go find them, and trust me, you will not be disappointed when you do.

*Disclaimer – I was unable to attend YallWest due to reasons, but I had a friend attend and give me the scoop.

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New Releases

Two new releases for this first week of May. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been waiting for the third “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” novel for a while now. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book. How about you?

Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3) by Jenny Han
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.

Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding.

But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean’s the one who’ll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind.

When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to? — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

 

Four Weeks, Five People by Jennifer Yu
Harlequin Teen

They’re more than their problems

Obsessive-compulsive teen Clarissa wants to get better, if only so her mother will stop asking her if she’s okay.

Andrew wants to overcome his eating disorder so he can get back to his band and their dreams of becoming famous.

Film aficionado Ben would rather live in the movies than in reality.

Gorgeous and overly confident Mason thinks everyone is an idiot.

And Stella just doesn’t want to be back for her second summer of wilderness therapy.

As the five teens get to know one another and work to overcome the various disorders that have affected their lives, they find themselves forming bonds they never thought they would, discovering new truths about themselves and actually looking forward to the future. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

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