with the loveliest illustrations by Wastana Haikal. Like, I’m not joking, the pictures add so much to an already really terrific story. Bapak Wastana really captures all the different multicultural generations in his line drawings, and I’m wholly in love with them.
The story itself far exceeded my expectations from reading just the blurb. Zara Saleem is the Queen of the Neighborhood: she’s always making up the rules for the games that the kids in her neighborhood play. When a new family moves in on their street, new girl Naomi proves a threat to Zara’s position. Zara decides that the best way to reclaim being the center of attention is to get into the Guinness Book Of World Records. Unsurprisingly, this does not go to plan. Will Zara learn that being Queen is nowhere near as fun as being friends?
So here’s the deal. As a bit of a bossy boots myself, I’m always wary of books that portray being an assertive female negatively. If no one takes charge and shapes the discourse, everyone just stands around being grumpy that no one is taking charge and shaping the discourse. Then there are the passive-aggressive people who expect you to read their minds when trying to come to a group consensus, or say one thing when really meaning another. Leadership is a difficult skill, and female leadership is too often portrayed negatively. Like, when was the last time you read a book about a boy being ostracized for being bossy?
Hena Khan sidesteps that pitfall by, first, having the two rivals both be girls. She also makes it clear that Zara does try to be a good leader, and that the other kids for the most part do appreciate her efforts. The main issue here isn’t even her leadership skill so much as it is her need for attention, which is a trait much more in need of being addressed, as well as less gender-coded. Ms Khan does an excellent job of portraying Zara’s insecurities, as well as how she and her friends are all good-hearted kids. The author’s afterword talks about how Ms Khan was inspired by books like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, with fallible kids in relatable situations: Zara and co are definitely continuing in that fine tradition.
I also adored how casually Zara’s Pakistani Muslim heritage is woven into the proceedings. It’s described as matter-of-factly as more commonly described cultures in American literature are, and it’s so wonderful to read. I’d also like to shout out the Maryland setting! I’m not sure where Brisk River is, but as a Silver Spring resident, I deeply appreciated the local references. I’m currently trying to get my oldest child to read this book, but he’s in his “I can’t read in the summer” phase, siiiigh. Will update should I manage to persuade him.
Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan was published April 19 2022 by Salaam Reads and is available from all good booksellers, including