Book Review: Nayra and the Djinn by Iasmin Omar Ata

While my son was in the library, I decided to pick up a graphic novel from the middle grade/young adult section to read over while he ignored storytime and played with all the hands-on activities in the children’s section. This story caught my eye because of its multicultural elements: it follows a Muslim student who is fasting during the days of Ramadan, and she is being bullied for it by her classmates. At her school, which I presume is American based on the descriptions on the cover and marketing materials, there is only one other Muslim there, and she seems to expect Nayra to be best friends, which seems exhausting for Nayra. I have several Muslim students, and I was hoping for this book to be sort of a Life of Pi experience, highlighting the beauty of Nayra’s religion, even in the context of a hostile American culture. For instance, we had an end-of-quarter celebration that involved food, and because of the timing of the school calendar, the celebration took place during Ramadan. I asked my student if she would rather spend the class in the library rather than have to watch her classmates eat, and as I made that offer, I wondered how it truly felt to be a Muslim student fasting in a largely American school.

I was hoping the book would bring me into a rich perspective on that.

I was further intrigued by the premise that the character is visited by a djinn, a mythical character, who helps Nayra with the coming-of-age story. I do enjoy magical realism and elements of fantasy. I liked the color schemes of the pages, and the artwork looked simple enough to let the story work on its own.

In all honesty, though, I was disappointed. I realize the book is for middle-grade readers, but it was too simple. There was not enough richness of culture, and there was a lot of flat characters and telling instead of showing. I was hoping for more perspective from Nayra on what fasting means to her, but it seemed like she was just going through the motions of it—along with everything else in her life. Maybe I am “cursed” by having read and loved Life of Pi, but in a single passage, Martel is able to express the beauty that the main character (Pi) finds in everything, but specifically in all aspects of religion. In Nayra and the Djinn, I never felt connected with any of the characters.

Nayra doesn’t like her friend, the only other Muslim in the school, and I get that her friend is being a little pushy, always wanting to hang out, but I wonder what Nayra wants instead. Then there are the Americans. They are all so cruel to Nayra, but the taunting gets old. Yes, I teach, and yes, I have seen cruelties, but these characters read as flat and unmotivated. The characters seem angry at Nayra because her fasting seems to be impacting her ability to play volleyball, and at first I thought maybe the American characters had a point—maybe it was a way to introduce the complexity of the issues of fasting in a society that doesn’t fast. I was hoping for an in-depth discussion or examination of that issue: should a varsity volleyball player fast and risk harming the team? Should the team respect a player’s decision to fast? But then I saw that it was just gym class. It wasn’t even a real competitive team. This made the Americans seem too petty. I’m guessing it’s a private school, but it seems the girls who were mean to Nayra wouldn’t care too much about how good or bad they look in gym class based on someone fasting being on their team. And in my experience at school, teachers are made aware of when fasting is taking place, and we are asked to keep an eye out for students who might be physically struggling, such as in gym class, during that time. The teachers in this book were also unsympathetic and unaware of the bullying, and I found it hard to believe that there were not any more sympathetic characters until the very end.

I never felt I was deep enough in Nayra’s perspective, whether in the words or the images on the pages. I felt the book would benefit from being two steps deeper, and even if for middle grade, I wasn’t sure the simplicity of the story would mean anything to a reader. There are a lot of questions unanswered. Even Nayra’s family seems a stereotype. How do they feel? Where actually do they live? Why do they live in a community that doesn’t accept them? How did Nayra’s siblings do well in school, and why is she so different?

The djinn side story was interesting, but I was looking for even more parallels and connections between Nayra and the djinn. Overall, I did finish the book, but it is not one that will stay with me, despite my wanting to love it.

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