Nisa Qamar is a ten-year-old living in Johannesburg, South Africa with her single mum, Zainab, her annoying little sister, Aisha, and her three-year-old twin brothers, Ali and Isa. She’s no Harry Potter. She’s female. She’s Muslim. And like most young girls her age, Nisa loves books, ice cream, bicycles and hanging out with her best friend, Fahima. She looks forward to holidays with her grandmother who tells her tales of j-folk and stories from the past, linking her own experiences with her grandchild. This is because they share a special gift in the form of being able to see and experience life forms that many cannot see. Gran says its because they choose not to see. Gran also teaches her special things like the Verse of the Throne and other special recitations passed down through the generations from the Companions of the 6th Century. Nisa has a special friendship with trees and the creatures that live in them. She has memories of playing on a swing hanging from the tree in the courtyard, and overhears her mother mentioning to Gran that they removed the swing because of her strange experiences. Zainab is not in favour of her mother entertaining Nisa’s questions and Nisa overhears this conversation. This just makes her more eager to figure out what her mother has been trying to get her to forget about. Her curiosity is piqued when her twin brothers see something in the tree, and then a girl from school gets spooked by something at the skate board park one weekend. Her mother takes her to a hakim, a traditional healer, who says it’s an over active imagination at work. And then strange occurrences at her school get her looking for clues. The school toilets are flooded. There are chalk drawings across the assembly area and bins are overturned. Students from the higher classes are walking around aimlessly almost like zombies. And then Nisa and Fahima get locked into the store room. Something or someone is messing up the school and trying to scare them off.
Nisa uncovers a plot to take over her school, the Iqra Academy of Excellence by an evil Troublemaker. She finds out that there is a colony of j-folk causing mischief in her schoolyard and attempting to get rid of humans using the area, prompted by the Troublemaker. Nisa has to figure out who to trust in order to stop the Troublemaker or lose the game to the ruler of the j-folk, the Master of Jinniaville.
The story relies on the retelling of myths of humans and jinn, the unseen as passed down through the ages while bringing to it a contemporary story and ways in which young readers will identify. It is the first in the series and actively promotes the idea that even a young child can make a difference by keeping the heart clean and making positive choices.
There remain fewer books written with female protagonists. Through the use of positive and strong female characters, this book also challenges gendered assumptions and stereotypes in a fun and accessible way.
This book is written about a young Muslim girl, but is not a book written only for Muslim readers. What it does is offer a window into Muslim life in South Africa to readers of all ages and cultures in the form of an exciting new adventure series, something lacking in the local landscape. And it takes on universal challenges through the eyes of a child, and gives readers a way to reflect and find ways to solve them.