Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi was published to coincide with the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is a powerful and important book at any time. Despite the subject matter of discrimination and prejudice this is a story of hope and understanding.
Twelve year old Yusuf is starting middle school and although a little nervous he is looking forward to new adventures and most especially to competing in the regional robotics competition. On his first day he discovers a note in his new locker bearing a cruel message and his joyful anticipation dwindles.
Yusuf’s family are Pakistani Americans, his father owns the local store, his mother works from home and Yusuf is close to his little sister. They are part of a friendly Muslim community who are working together to build a new mosque just outside the town of Frey where the family live. Yusuf does not confide in his parents about the notes which appear almost daily in his locker, nor does he tell his best friend Danial. However as the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks draws near the forthcoming commemorative parade prompts a hostile group of townspeople to protest against the mosque. Yusuf is also finding himself up against a bully at school whose father is leading the protest. As the Muslim community becomes more nervous Yusuf’s school life, his friendships and his family life struggle in the face of prejudice and discrimination.
Saadia Faruqi deftly conveys this story across two time periods with the inclusion of Yusuf’s Uncle Rahman’s journal which he has passed on to the boy. The interweaving of the events of 2001 and the present day captures the trauma of the attacks on the American people and the lasting impact they have had on the communities affected. Although the subject matter is distressing Faruqi has an understanding of her readers and descriptions are not graphic but they do convey the emotions felt by the people involved. As an inter -faith activist the author concentrates on the power of communication and understanding to breach the divide between people and this is a hopeful and positive read.
The everyday school life, the boys’ friendships and family life are full of the little details that children will recognise and enjoy reading. There are some interesting characters in Yusuf’s life, both adults and children. His teacher, Mr Parker, is full of enthusiasm and kindness, and school boy Jared deserves a story of his own. The dynamics of the friendships as they are tested and reconciled are well written and young readers will, I think, engage with these character and the moments of humour. Yusuf himself is a wonderful blend of shy, quiet and maybe a bit of a nerd, but on the other hand loyal, principled and determined, learning to stand up for what he believes and for what is right.
Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero is a powerful story with an important message. As Yusuf’s Uncle Rahman says, “History informs the present , …and so it affects the future.” This book would be excellent for KS3 and YR6 and demonstrates the value of writing about recent historical events for young people to aid their understanding. There are teaching notes available on Saadia Faruqi’s website.
I should like to thank the publishers, Quill Tree Books, for my proof copy. Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero was published in October 2021. You may be interested in A Thousand Questions also written by Saadia Faruqi which is set in modern day Karachi, and is told from the perspectives of two eleven year old girls.