Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Nayra and the Djinn by Iasmin Omar Ata

My problem is that I'm always comparing books with other books, or just wanting things out of them that they never promised. This is, of course, a Me Problem, and I try to tamp it down when it hits.

I have a major case today, but I'm going to try to be fair to Nayra and the Djinn, a fine new graphic novel by Iasmin Omar Ata with lovely colors, a positive story, and a message that will resonate with a whole lot of readers younger than I am. Nayra is officially published today; you should be able to find it in all the usual ways and places you find books.

You see, I recently read another book about wishes, Djinni-adjacent, connected to Egyptian culture and Islam - Deena Mohamed's Shubeik Lubeik - and anything I say about Ata's YA book could well be me wanting it to be more like Mohamed's book for adults. That's a bad impulse! I want to make that clear. Each book, each story should be precise and particular - even things I might think of as flaws [1] can be important and specific to that book.

I'm saying all this to stop myself from doing it. Let's see if I succeed.

Nayra Mansour is a younger child in a high-pressure Arab-American immigrant family. She also has only one close friend at school, Rami, and is being bullied - in the mostly psychological, nasty-names way that young women are most likely to attack each other. She's feeling overwhelmed and increasingly unhappy, especially since it's Ramadan.

She's fasting all day, since that's important to her, but that makes her hungry and cranky and tired - and also gives her bullies more things to use to attack her. It's a vicious circle that only gets tighter, especially when her parents refuse to listen to her complaints - admittedly, she mostly does the nonspecific teenager-y "you don't understand me!" yell rather than trying to explain in depth, and they are equally loud and stereotypically tigerish immigrant shouty parents - and just point to her high-achieving, seemingly perfect older siblings.

In case I buried the lede above: this is very much a YA book. Nayra continually fumes and runs away and has titanic, massive emotional swings. I don't know exactly how old she is, but she is about as sixteen as it is possible to be. Readers who are many decades past their own equivalent life-stage may find they have less patience for that kind of drama, and may wish that Nayra was somewhat more constructive in her problem-solving.

But, instead, she meets a djinn, which the cover and title gives away. Marjan has their own issues and has fled the djinn world for reasons that won't be explained for a while, but that stays secondary to Nayra's problems. (Again: YA story. Big, overwhelming, all-encompassing drama.)

Nayra's new friendship with the djinn supplants her previous friendship with Rami - parenthetically, I kept getting the vibe that the relationship was hugely more important to Rami than it was to Nayra, and wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a romantic thing, but the relentless focus on Nayra and her emotions leaves that unclear - but having Marjan in her corner generally does make things better for Nayra, as the month of Ramadan rolls on.

On the other hand, Nayra has also secretly applied to transfer to another school, to get away from the bullying. Her parents don't know this, and would probably not be in favor: they don't seem to be in favor of anything other than "shut up and be a perfect student." And the bullying troubles are getting worse. And her schoolwork is taking a hit - from spending time with Marjan, from the bullying, from stress and anxiousness, from spending too much time reading about Arab folklore online, and from the physical stress of Ramadan.

So everything blows up, as it must in a YA story. It does end mostly happily, though Nayra still doesn't explain things to other people in the ways I hoped she would. Still, she's young: she has a long time to learn that skill, which will be hugely valuable. I hope she does.

As I said up top, Ata has a colorful art style that pops particularly well when showing the djinn world. The publisher compares their style to Stephen Universe, which I've never seen - it looks like plain 'ol manga-inspired western comics to me, all big eyes and huge gestures, but I am One of the Olds. Nayra is a positive, energetic, very teen-aimed book where problems are resolved non-violently and people do eventually learn to understand each other's differences, which are all good things. I found it a little too teenager for my personal taste, but I did stop being a teenager in 1989, so that's only to be expected.

[1] I'm not the authority on flaws. Other people have different opinions.

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