Review of the Day: Planet Omar – Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, ill. Nasaya Mafaridik
Troublesome boys. Lifeblood of early chapter books. Where would we be without them, after all? It seems to me that at some point in history it because a well-established fact that the best way to get kids reading on their own was to hand them a series of incurably naughty heroes and heroines. Here in America you have your Iggy books by Annie Barrows, your Julian stories by Ann Cameron, your Horrible Harry titles by Suzy Kline, your Stink books by McDonald, and on and on the list goes. In England they’ve their own crop, with titles like Horrid Henry. Of course, overwhelmingly, these boys tend to be white (Julian being the rare exception). Their books might discuss world views, but never religion. They’d mention mummies and detention, but never prejudice and racism. So when you pick up a copy of Zanib Mian’s Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet it looks like those other books. It feels like those other books. It has just as many laughs and action and mistakes. It just also happens to raise the bar by having juuuuust a little more going on under the surface. Omar’s the Muslim hero we’ve been waiting for. The start of something big.
Shenanigans. Omar’s sort of prone to them. If he’s not accidentally spitting on his brother when trying to rid himself of a nightmare then he’s trying to get away with wearing barbecue stained clothes to school on the first day or attracting the attention of Daniel, the mean kid at school. He’s just moved with his family to a new house and things are complicated. I mean, there are good things, sure. He likes Charlie, a kid at school with a toothy grin, and he loves his mom’s cooking (particularly her biryani), and even his little brother. But then there’s that mean old lady next door that keeps complaining on her phone about “the Muslims” or Daniel, talking about how the Muslims will all get kicked out of the country. Fortunately Omar has his family, his friends, and best of all his sense of humor to turn any situation on its head.
Children’s books written for the mainstream public don’t tend to talk much about religion. Think of a bunch of children’s classics off the top of your head, if you please. Obviously fantasies like Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland wouldn’t have, but let’s look at realistic fiction. Harriet the Spy. Holes. One Crazy Summer. A Single Shard. Any religion or spirituality in any of those? Not so much. And there’s nothing wrong with including or not including religion. The only reason I bring it up is to explain why it can feel so surprising when you encounter religion in Accidental Trouble Magnet. You do it right away, honestly. At the beginning of the book you meet Omar, his little brother Esa, and his older sister Maryam all within the span of three pages. Each kid gets one page all to themselves and there are around four to five facts about each kid per page. Maryam’s says stuff like she loves peanut butter cups and is thirteen, but also contains the statement that she, “Knows 28 surahs of the Qur’an by heart.” As for Omar himself, he’s no stranger to big, grandiose, spiritual questions. And while he does have a tendency to treat prayer the same way one might treat magic wishes from a genie, his heart’s in the right place.
I called this title an “early chapter book” at the beginning of this review, but that’s not entirely accurate. Accidental Trouble Magnet actually occupies a much stranger, much more interesting niche. Indeed, this might be the book that you hand a kid after they’ve graduated past some of those other books I mentioned. That doesn’t make it any less remarkable when Mian chooses to include moments of pure racism on her pages. At one point in the book, Omar has had an encounter with Daniel, the bully. Standing behind Omar in line, Daniel hisses, “You’re Muslim. I saw your mother the other day, looking like a witch, in black. You better go back to your country before we kick you all out.” Right there. Front and center. That’s racist kid territory that is. After reading it, I was very curious to see how Mian would choose to handle this situation. Let the bully get away with being mean? I see that way too often in books and, quite frankly, that solution wouldn’t fly with this kind of book. Have the bully get caught in the act of a minor hate crime? Probable but unsatisfying. Give the bully a complete change of heart? Please. Respect the reader’s intelligence. I hadn’t counted on the hybrid solution of change of heart + context. It eventually comes to light that Daniel picked up this language from his cousin. Well… that’s what he says. I think a lot of parents reading this book to their kids might cultivate alternative theories as well.
And it’s fun! I’m sorry. I’m one of those adults that too often forgets to mention the fact that a book is fun before launching into lofty theories about contemporary attitudes towards racism and allyship in modern children’s literature. Those are important but fun is important too. Fun is what gets kids past that first page. You know what the first page of this book is? It’s a picture of Omar that reads “ME” in big bold letters and explains “My name is Omar – this is my face.” It also explains that “I have a HUGE imagination,” “I hate carrots,” and “I once raced against my dad’s car on my bike – and won!” And to make clear how perfect that opening is, it would behoove me to give a little credit to illustrator Nasaya Mafaridik who somehow manages to match Mian’s tone for this book, pitch for pitch, word for word. Together, Mian and Mafaridik work in tandem to keep the tone and feel of the book light. When Mian opens the first chapter with the sentence, “There was a big puddle of spit on my little brother’s forehead,” Mafaridik’s there to draw that spit. And Omar pointing at the spit. Because if there’s one thing I know about children’s books it is this: You can never go wrong beginning a book by accidentally spitting on the head of a little sibling. That’s just science.
So give me all those troublesome boy books. Give me more of them even! Give me differently abled troublesome boys. Give me (please please give me) a troublesome transgender boy who gets into all kinds of mischief. Give me Native American boys. Give me Asian American boys. Give me boys with stutters and bald boys and army brats and all the different kinds of troublesome boys that are out there. To say nothing of equally troublesome girls! Omar is doing his part, but he can’t do it alone. If we want to show our child readers the wide, wonderful, wild world out there in all its myriad forms, we need as many different perspectives as we can find. And until that happens, let’s hand Omar to as many kinds as we can name. Because as far as I’m concerned, funny books that also prove to be smart and socially conscious (not to mention anti-racist) might help us get out of the mess this world is in.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy checked out from library.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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