Saturday, January 29, 2011

Boy vs. Girl

Boy vs. Girl by Na'ima B. Robert 2010
Frances Lincoln Children's Books

Rating: 3/5

IQ "Why should I care what the girls at school think? she thought. Or my teachers? After school, they go back to their lives, to their kids. They're not living their lives thinking about me." Farhana pg. 30

Farhana and Faraz are twins with very different problems. Farhana wants to wear the hijab but she's afraid of what the other girls at her school will think. And even though she goes to an all girls school she worries about what other guys might think of her wearing the hijab. Especially one guy in particular, Malik, who broke her heart. Faraz has managed to get in trouble with some of the lads (due to being more of a peaceful guy who would rather draw than fight) and to protect himself he becomes friends with Skrooz. Skrooz is bad news, vengeful, involved with dealing drugs and an overall terrifying presence in the neighborhood. Skrooz protects Faraz from the bullies at school but his protection comes at a price.

Unfortunately this book has a very heavy message behind it. The author makes no effort to spread her message through a story, instead it reads as a 'Merits of Ramadan' book. I liked learning about the meaning behind Ramadan and the positive impact it has on those who participate in it. But at the same time, I quickly grew weary of the 'miraculous' transformation Faraz and Farhana underwent. Both of them became calmer and felt at peace. Perhaps it's the skeptic in me but I found that hard to believe. Do people change so quickly all of sudden because of religion? This is just one of many characteristics of the twins that contribute to their perfection. Both of them are gorgeous, obedient to their parents and talented. Faraz might not be an A student but he's a fantastic artist. Farhana is a genius. It was hard for me to see these main characters as flawed simply because Farhana asserts herself and wants to be allowed to attend nightly prayer (which only women are allowed to do) or because she had a crush on someone. The book also starts off very slowly and the dilemmas of Faraz and Farhana are merely hinted at for a large part of the book. I was expecting a bit of an introduction but then we would dive right into the story. That is not the case. The book is very short (256 pages, large print, short chapters) and it can't afford to get off to such a slow start. Plus the writing isn't anything special, it keeps the story moving but the descriptions and characterization are just....ordinary.

At the same time, I did like that this book offered a view of a religion (Islam) that I'm not very familiar with from a teen perspective. Gradually, Farhana and Faraz come off their religious high and start to battle with it. This made them both seem more authentic. Instead of blindly going along with their faith, they struggle with certain components of it. It's interesting because this book does an excellent job of pushing past Western stereotypes about Muslims. Farhana's mum DOES NOT want her to wear the hijab. Her mother believes it's too extreme and that it will give people the wrong idea, that Muslims are oppressive. And if we're honest with ourselves, many of us do think that way. I used to until I read Does My Head Look Big in This? Books like Boy vs. Girl go a long way towards helping people to be more understanding of Muslim culture. Then you have Farhana's young, 'hip' auntie Najma who wears a jilbab (long cloak) and a niqab (face veil) but she also has her nose pierced and wears jeans under her kurta tunics. While Farhana was too perfect, Faraz was easier to relate to. He ends up associating with people he probably shouldn't and hides the troubles he's going through from his family. Any teenager can understand that.

Boy vs. Girl is an engaging drama because there is a sense of foreboding. The book starts off at a snail's pace but I knew that there would have to be some kind of dramatic showdown and it didn't disappoint. The plot often gets buried under all the religion. Traditions and prayers are explained in a great deal of depth which is good for those like me who are still trying to learn about Islamic beliefs. Not so good if you (like me) were hoping the religion would only be a backdrop and make up one part of the story. I would have liked to hear less about Farhana and Faraz's new-found devotion and more about the difficulties of being a teenager in London who happens to be South Asian. There was one little plot line that disappeared completely (concerning Faraz and painting a mural). This book could use a bit more polishing but it works well as an introduction to what it's like being a Muslim teenager in the UK. There's some frustrating racism and some unexpected surprises (like see-through shalwar kameez that are supposed to cover all of you. There's some rebellion). There are many different perspectives on how to handle being Muslim in the 2st century and these perspectives will keep readers learning and the dramatic tension will have readers racing to finish the book.

Disclosure: Received from Tricia, thank you!!