Huq creates a powerful visual language through color and scale. Sudden lush views of gardens hint at the beauty of Bangladesh, green moments echoed throughout the novel to signal comfort. The palette changes as abruptly as Nisrin’s moods; scorched reds giving way to blue sorrow, the candy-pink of an unexpected gift, the warm creams of a new friend. Nisrin’s grandfather, a pompous armchair pundit, shrinks to a tiny figure adrift on rolling swells during a family argument about Bangladesh. “We are all very lucky to be alive,” he insists, though his wife notes that “I refuse to be grateful for my own life.”
This is a terrific argument, in which three people who experienced the same trauma have different, nuanced opinions about its meaning, just as Nisrin and Firuzeh must find different ways to heal. Young readers will understand why Nisrin’s mother worries: Will wearing hijab make Nisrin a target? But her story offers courageous ways forward. “I can’t walk down the street and be safe,” Nisrin realizes. “If I can’t be safe … then can’t I at least be proud?”
Yusuf Azeem has his own reasons to be proud, despite the title of Saadia Faruqi’s “Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero.” The newly minted middle schooler is an excellent student, loving brother and son, cheerful friend and ambitious programmer who has looked forward to the Texas Robotics Competition “his entire life.” But his first-day excitement over opening his locker fades when he finds an anonymous note inside: “You suck.”
Yusuf hopes the note isn’t meant for him. But “kids can have enemies too,” he learns in this richly imagined novel, set in 2021 in a fictional Texas town, where a banner at school reminds students to “Never Forget.” Yusuf is more focused on the future, determined to assemble a winning robotics team, but he begins to read his uncle’s boyhood journals from 2001 as notes keep coming and a white supremacist group threatens the safety of his Muslim community.
Faruqi finds engaging ways to explore how myriad tragedies of 9/11 have lodged in our memories, from uncomfortable questions in Yusuf’s classroom to a conflict over the construction of a mosque. His mother, who initially hushes political discussions, emerges as a leader when she addresses a town assembly to point out that “we are Americans just like you.” When a virtual cat that Yusuf programmed for his sister is mistaken for a bomb in his backpack, Yusuf finds himself at the center of escalating tensions, wondering who his friends are.
This is an important question, one that arcs back to the locker notes, Yusuf’s evolving relationships and his family’s sense of belonging in the place they call home. Among the novel’s strengths is the hope it offers young readers, because despite the real menace from those who consider Muslim Americans “the enemy … among us,” Yusuf does have allies. They cannot solve all his problems, but they can see him as we all hope our children will be seen, for their decency, potential and hearts.