Author Archives: islamicschoollibrarian

Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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Ida in the Middle by Nora Lester Murad

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Ideal for middle school readers (upper mg/lower ya), this magical realism book takes readers from middle school in American to a Palestinian village outside of Jerusalem through the consumption of some magical olives.  Written by a Jewish author married to a Palestinian Muslim who raised their three daughters in Palestine, the book features a lot of Islam, but is Palestinian centered in its insight, critique, culture, and dreams.  Over 224 pages, Ida starts to find where she fits in both in understanding her self within her family, her place in America, her passion in life, and what it means to be Palestinian.  The story is important, and is told in a way that will encourage readers to learn more about the occupation.  Nuances are shown in characters and groups, but the line that the occupation is oppressive is never compromised.  I appreciate that the author writes from her own experiences and openly acknowledges that she is not trying to take away from Palestinian born and raised OWN voice stories, but she is an advocate, she has raised her children and lived in the West Bank, and her characters reflect a sense of intimate knowledge, love, and appreciation.  Even with Ida having to decide to stay in America or Palestine, the two countries are not pitted against each other or seen as black or white, as to which is better or worse, the middle is where much of the story takes place, and appreciating your culture no matter how much others are trying to erase your existence, is always stressed.

SYNOPSIS:

Ida is the middle child of her Palestinian immigrant family and isn’t artistic like her younger sister, a ballet dancer like her older sister, or a soccer player like her father.  She wishes she was invisible.  Especially when her classmates turn on her every time there are conflicts in the middle east.  When it seems that everyone wants to diminish her heritage, she finds herself at a new school, unsure of where she fits in.  With anti Palestinian attitudes and Islamophobic people, Ida just wants to go unnoticed, unfortunately middle school requires a passion project to be presented and Ida has no idea what her passions are, and how she will face the crowds.

One day when looking for a snack she finds a jar of olives stuffed in a cupboard- olives brought by a family friend from her now deceased aunt in Busala, one bite and she is magically transported to the familial village.  It is an alternate reality of what life would be if her parents never came to America.  Not only is she in a country she has never seen before, meeting family members she has never met before, but even her own parents and sisters are somehow different.  She enjoys the warmth, the communal activities, the extended family.  Her mom in hijab, the athan being heard, the men all going for jummah, but then they sit down for a meal and the same olives are served and Ida accidently takes a bite and is whisked back home.

Once home, she longs for so much of Palestinian life, but relishes in the convenience and ease of America as well.  Her passion project still looms and she finds herself hoping to escape it by going back to Palestine.  When she finds herself back near Jerusalem she ventures out with her Aunt, who isn’t dead in this reality, and learns more about the occupation and oppression, and how the families interact with the various Israelis: some sympathetic to Palestinians, some actively working to help Palestinians, and some settlers- forcefully killing and bulldozing Palestinian homes.

When Israeli military troops enter their village, the families meet to discuss the best course of action, the families do not agree, there is no clear way to prepare, there is no guarantee of survival.  Ida starts to find her voice, and when the soldiers enter, Ida finds herself rushing out to help a small boy. Guns, demolition, rocks, tear gas, fear, so much fear, what can one person do? What can one village do?  What will Ida do?

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is relatable and moving, not just for those with a tie or interest in Palestine.  It is a coming of age story that shows a girl grappling with forces so much bigger than herself, while at the same time dealing with homework and friends and stereotypes.  Ida has a lot to figure out and the book doesn’t sugar coat a happy ending, it simply provides a moving story based on reality, through a character whose quirks and personality you find yourself rooting for.

I love the presence of Islam and the way it is apart of Ida and her surroundings, even though she makes it clear early on that her family is not religious.  The Quran is mentioned, the athan, various salat, hijab, Hajj, Ayatul Kursi, Ramadan, Eid, wasting food as being haram.  In Boston her friend knows she doesn’t eat pork, she went to Sunday school to learn Arabic at the mosque when she was younger.  It doesn’t gush with Islam, but it is present, for example Ida’s sister and her joke about a good Palestinian girl shouldn’t have a boyfriend, it isn’t tied to their religion. The story is a Palestinian one, and as someone who is not Palestinian, the images, the foods, the smells, the love all seemed to embrace everything I’ve ever heard Palestinian friends talk about, and it feels like a warm hug to read the effects being in Palestine has on Ida.

I love that the author is upfront about her perspective, and I love that she is putting this story out there.  The writing is sufficient: I was invested in the story, and it was an easy read. I don’t know that I’ll remember it months from now for it’s imagery or power, but I’m certain I’ll remember the commentary about life under occupation and the struggle to not be erased by a world that doesn’t seem to care about the settlers still taking Palestinian homes and their way of life away by force.

FLAGS:

Fear, crushes, death, injuries, loss, magic, bullying, racism, Islamophobia, guns, physical assault, threat of force, destruction.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Our school is majority Palestinian.  Years ago when we read Where the Streets Had a Name, I learned so much about the students, their families, their own experience living under oppression, that I can’t wait to present this book with the middle schoolers and take notes on their thoughts.  I would not lead the discussion, I would let them, their voices will not be erased by me.

Preorder available here: Amazon

Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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Dear Black Child by Rahma Rodaah illustrated by Lydia Mba

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This beautiful 32-page picture book by Muslim author Rahma Rodaah radiates joy through the text and illustrations.  The powerful and lyrical words on the page inspire confidence to take up space and encourage celebration through their messaging and tone.  My three-year-old enjoyed me reading it aloud, it kept his focus and his interest, and my seven-year-old read it over my shoulder and then numerous time on his own.  The sway and images painted by the text are so well refined that you could truly read this book a dozen times and still be moved by the passages.  The illustrations compliment the author’s message in their reflection of Black children of all shapes, sizes, shades, and mobility.  There is even a visibly Muslim woman in hijab (#muslimintheillustration) that looks like the author herself.

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I look forward to sharing this book with various story times in the community, in my children’s classes, and in regular rotation at my own home.  Framed as a letter to a beautiful Black child, the book speaks to “you.”  It starts with encouraging you to stand in your own light, take up space, say your name proudly, and proclaim your native tongue.

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It inspires the Black child to speak confidently, roam freely, to be rooted, yet move swiftly. To write the books and tell the stories that only they can tell, and to trust their inner compass.  It also reassures them that they are not alone, that there are those that will always help, always cheer them on, and remind them of their glory.

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The book is as powerful as it is beautiful and I hope it finds a home on every classroom, library, and home bookshelf.  I purchased mine here.

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Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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Freestyle: A Graphic Novel by Gale Galligan

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I one hundred percent understand that Muslims are not a monolith, but, I’m truly tempted to reach out to the author/illustrator of this upcoming 272 page middle grade graphic novel and ask her why she chose to have the female instigator in this coming of age story- that focuses on a dance crew, said girl tutoring a boy one-on-one in his bedroom, Halloween and a school dance, wear hijab? Yes there is also parental expectations, friend drama, leaving for high school stresses, and yo-yoing, but Sunna Ahmad being presented as a Muslim definitely gives me pause.  There is no romance in the book save a few background characters filling in frames holding hands, and it never articulates that Sunna or her older brother Imran are Muslim, but she doesn’t wear hijab when home with her family, does wear it when she goes out, so it definitely seems to imply it.  The cover and inside pages are bright and clear, and I think the book will be very tempting for young Muslim readers with the visible hijabi on the front.  Additionally the book is published by Scholastic, so if you are a parent whose kids get book order forms and attends a school where the Scholastic Book Fair is a big deal, you might want to read the entire review to see if it is Islamic representation that you are comfortable with supporting.

SYNOPSIS:

The Eight Bitz B Boy band is in their final year of middle school before they all go in separate directions for high school.  They want to win this year’s competition, or at least the leader of the crew, Tess, does.  Tess doesn’t want them freestyling and messing around, she wants the choreography and dancing in-synch and on-point.  Her military dictatorship is tearing the crew a part.  When Cory’s grades are not where his parents want them, he is grounded from dancing and forced to work with a tutor, Sunna Ahmad.  Sunna is weird, always writing intently in a secret notebook at school, and Cory wants nothing to do with her.  When he happens to see her throwing her yo-yo at school, though, he is impressed.  Reluctantly she trades teaching him yo-yo tricks if he agrees to do the work needed to get his grades up. Using yo-yo angles to teach geometry, it doesn’t take long before the two are friends.  It comes to a culmination when he invites her to the Halloween dance and his crew is both shocked and mad that he is hanging out with her, when he should be practicing with them.  As secrets and intentions come out, Cory has to make things right with his parents, his crew, Sunna, and himself.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love graphic novels, they show context and setting and emotion, that often can’t be conveyed as well with words.  I absolutely love that Sunna wears different clothes on different days, from the hijab to the outfit, she has personality in her clothes as any middle schooler would, and nothing is mentioned about her hijab or her long sleeves, but the reader see’s it hopefully in a positive light. I do like the detail of her not covering at home when she is alone, or in the flashbacks when she is younger.

The story overall is decent and the added hip hop dancing and yo-yo infused details set the story apart, but some of the character building and plot points are a little rough.  When Sunna first starts tutoring Cory she feels like an adult disciplining, and reprimanding him.  She comes across as really arrogant and condescending, that he is somehow beneath her, yet they are the same age, in the same school, and are lab partners.  It reads off for no reason.

Similarly, I understand that the tension between middle schoolers and parents can be a source of contention, but the forced apology from Cory’s parents is incredible demeaning and cringe.  Sure flesh out that he shouldn’t yell at his parents, (Sunna shouldn’t either for that matter), but while the delivery was poor, the message was heartfelt and I think a book like this encouraging young kids to talk to their parents would be a great message, rather than have it almost glorified to not make the effort at all.  Not saying that the effort will always be received, but the forced apology would turn even kids with a good relationship with their parents questioning if it is worth talking to their mom and dad.

Poor communication and the stress it causes is a theme of the book, and I don’t understand why Tess keeps her choreography dreams a secret from the crew.  It seems underdeveloped, had she said that, that was the motivation, I think all the other seven members would have stepped up, not walked away.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, girl and boys being alone with each other, girls and boys arms around each other, attending a school dance, girls and boys dancing together, Halloween being celebrated, birthday being celebrated, yelling back at parents, lying, secrets.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

In all honesty, I would probably not have this book on the library shelves, and would not display it during the book fair.  It normalizes a lot of gray if not haram actions for a very impressionable demographic because the character is visibly Muslim.  If the character was not visibly Muslim, I actually might be ok with shelving it and selling it.  The rep may be intended to show inclusion, but the character does not show actions that Islamically are appropriate.  If it were one or two actions, I might reconsider, but it is a lot very specific and varied activities.

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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The Girl Who Lost a Leopard by Nizrani Farook

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This stand alone middle grade read by Muslim author Nizrana Farook is similar to her first two books about an elephant and a whale in that it is set in Serendib a long time ago and revolves around a beautiful wild animal and clever, endearing, determined young children. This actual story is an easy read at 203 pages (the end of the book is the first four chapters of one of her previously published books).  I think seven and eight year olds will enjoy getting to know Selvi and the beautiful leopard Lakka that she considers a friend.  For me the ending took an odd turn that seemed out of place, but up until then I was enchanted by the lush imagery, sheer determination, and sweet friendship shared within the pages.  The main character is not Muslim, but presumably some of the side characters are with names such as, Amir and Salma.

SYNOPSIS:
Selvi and her mother live in a small home on the mountain.  Most days she runs wild with a golden leopard she has named Lakka.  She keeps her distance, but there is a pattern to their interactions, and when Selvi’s mother finally allows her to go to school, and she finds the other children unkind, Lakka becomes her only friend.  One day poachers are on the mountain hunting not just any leopards, which are protected by the queen, but the rare golden one that is often seen in the area, Selvi tries to interfere.  And before she knows it, they are after her.  She hides near a home, and when the poacher’s come looking for her, she is at the mercy of Amir to lie and say he hasn’t seen her.  Amir is a classmate, a mean one, but he has seen her before with the leopard, and suddenly Lakka is not so alone.

Between making friends at school, battling her uncle’s rules to start behaving more ladylike, and keeping a leopard safe, the adventure is fast paced and the story entertaining.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love kids outsmarting adults and saving the day, it makes for good story telling.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I really felt like it was forced.  I truly do not understand why the children needed to take a drugged Lakka to the port and back.  Why not leave him with the new friends and go to the port without him? He is a wild animal, we have been given reasoning for so much of the human animal interactions to be believable, that this seems to be negligent.  So much could have gone wrong and for what? There was no need.  The kids wanting to see punishment handed out is motivation enough for them to make the journey in my opinion.  Sigh, I don’t know that younger kids will be as bothered as I am, but I think fourth graders and up will definitely question it and be confused.  I also don’t know that I have ever seen the sneak peak of another book included at the end, being for a book previously published.  Aren’t they usually for upcoming releases? Either way, it seemed to make the last portion of the book deflate a bit for a story that was engaging, entertaining, and hard to put down until then.

FLAGS:

Lying, poaching, abuse, threats, killing, animal cruelty, bullying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime.  The short chapters have little illustrations above the headings that hint at what is to come, and the writing style is perfect for short blocks of time.

The book is available on Amazon

Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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Mr. Grizzley’s Class: Rahma’s Gift by Bryan Patrick Avery illustrated by Arief Putra

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This 32 page early reader is part of Mr. Grizzley’s class, a series that sets out to help promote social and emotional skills in real life settings for ages five to seven.  The diverse class is featured in all the books with one student being the focus of each individual book.  This book highlights Rahma, a visibly Muslim girl of color, who has a gift of helping others with their problems.  The richly illustrated story shows what happens when she is having troubles with a friend, and what Mr. Grizzley and fellow classmates can do to help her find a solution.  I like the premise, I like the focus, I like the illustrations, but I did not understand the messaging.  I don’t understand why Rahma had to own the entire apology.  Sure, friendship is more important than a small misunderstanding and moving on by saying your sorry, even when it isn’t all your fault, has merit- but the book doesn’t take all that in to consideration.  It has Rahma taking responsibility for Madison not talking to her, Madison misinterpreting something Rahma did and getting jealous, and Rahma owning all the lacking communication, when clearly both of them failed to do so.  I found myself confused reading the book the first time, clearly I must have missed something, right? No.  And now writing this, I’m actually quite upset.  So, while the idea of the book and series might be sweet, I don’t feel like this particular book was well executed.  I have not read any others in the series, and thankfully checked this out from the library.  There is nothing particularly Islamic or religious in the book other than the hijab Rahma wears.

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The book starts out with Rahma nearly late for class because she was helping other kids resolve an argument.  It is a gift of Rahma’s to help others work out their problems.  When she tries to tell her best friend Madison about it, Madison doesn’t respond.  When Rahma tries again, Madison says, “I’m not speaking to you.”

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As a result when they pair up for math, Rahma works with Annie.  She tells Annie she isn’t working with Madison because she is mad at Madison for not speaking with her. Annie prods a bit and Rahma says, “I’m not talking to her if she won’t talk to me.”  Annie encourages Rahma to find out what is wrong.

Mr. Grizzley is then told, and he also tells her to find a way to find out why she is mad. At recess, Chad comes to thank Rahma for helping him and Ashok, and when she tells him her problem he gives her, her advice back, “listen to the other person.”

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Rahma definitely is in a pickle since Madison won’t talk to her, but with incredible maturity she tells Madison she doesn’t know what she did to make her angry, but she is sorry that she feels bad.  Madison caves and tells her she is jealous because Rahma made a necklace for Semira and she understood it to mean that because she didn’t make one for her, she didn’t want to be her best friend any more.  Semira and Rahma explain that Semira’s dog was sick and she was sad, so Rahma made it for Semira to cheer her up. The girls hug and all is well.

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The book concludes with directions on how to write an apology letter, a glossary, questions to talk about, and prompts to write about.

I loved Rahma’s phrasing of her verbal apology and wish that would have been the focus of the book: how to take someone’s feelings in to account even if you don’t know how you contributed or even if you feel you did not do something wrong.  As it is written with the two page spread at the end on how to write an apology note though, I feel like Rahma took on a lot of the blame unnecessarily.  I know I’m reading in to it a lot, but I don’t like the vibes that the book gives.  Madison in my opinion was in the wrong multiple times throughout, and Rahma each time took ownership and worked through it.  Yes, truly that is a gift, but I really hope people don’t take advantage of Rahma in the future.

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The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

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The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo

This sweet middle grades book about two girls in Ghana is a friendship story and a rags to riches gem.  The 336 pages immerse you in a rich and vibrant culture and share a story that while at times simplistic, really pulls you in and makes the over the top happy ending, tearful and joyful.  I read the entire book in one setting and loved that there was no glossary, or white pandering; the story works in the explanations and details for those unfamiliar with West African cultures to share a story about classism, friendship, growing up, and challenging stereotypes.  I loved while so much was new to me and culture specific, so much, at the same time, was universal and relatable to all.  The story is OWN voice, the main character is a wealthy girl,  but the friend is a poor Muslim one.  I am not sure where the religious representation ended and the cultural practices started, but the book does not criticize any culture or traditions, it only criticizes the mindset that one is superior to another because of where they are from.  I also don’t know that the Muslim character will mirror global Muslim experiences, but having the character identify as Muslim and be such a wise and determined friend, makes her a great character to cheer on and love no matter the reader’s background.  This would be a great book to teach, to shelve, to read aloud, and to discuss.

SYNOPSIS:

Fourteen year old Abena is spending her summer with her aunt in Makola market while her mother has traveled to London to give birth.  Abena’s father is a physician and her friends are part of the wealthy and privileged class that attends American schools, vacations abroad, lives in mansions with servants, and have the latest phones.  In a bit of a culture shock spending the weekdays with her aunt at the bustling market, Abena starts to see her country and its people in a different light. One day while getting out of her aunt’s car she makes eye contact with a kayayoo, a porter who carries customers purchases on their head.  She snaps a picture of the girl who appears about her age wearing an orange scarf, as she secretly is working on a journalism competition, and something about the girl intrigues her.  The two smile and carry on.  Later when they meet again they realize they do not share any common languages, they both speak a number of dialects and languages, yet somehow the girls connect.  Day after day they sneak away to have lunch together and learn about one another as they learn each other’s language, culture, history, and dreams.  Faiza opens Abena’s eyes to so much about Ghana that she had never known existed and Abena teaches Faiza English, science, shows her the internet and gives her the foundation for how to read and write.  Abena’s aunty does not approve of their friendship: stereotypes and assumptions about poor Muslims from the North prevent her from treating Faiza as an equal.  Yet, she doesn’t forbid the friendship either.  As the girls’ friendship grows, summer vacation comes to an end and goodbyes will have to be made.  Things get expediated though, in a climax of misunderstandings, regrets, and friendships separated by class and religion.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that right before Abena sneaks Faiza on to the laptop to Google dinosaurs, and the solar system, and cities in Ghana and maps, I was Googling images of geles, okro and Makola market, maps to see where Hausa and Dagomba regions are, and enjoying learning about people because it is so enriching whether fictional or in real life.

I love that there isn’t judgement by either girl on trying to understand why children are given to aunts to raise or why women are forced to marry.  It shows so much without othering any facet of sub culture within Ghana or anywhere for that matter.  Abena’s cousins aren’t put down for being wealthy, or Faiza for being poor.  Even the Haji looking for a fourth wife is not favorable because he is old and has brown stained teeth, not because there is judgement upon him having more than one wife or the family wanting their daughter to marry him.

I often remark that I like middle grade books that don’t tie everything up in a neat and tidy bow, but this book went the other extreme and tied everything up far in to the future, that I ended up loving the extreme nature of it as the tears of joy dripped off my cheeks.  If you are going to do it, do it for a reason, and this book did it to great effect.

Faiza is Muslim she wears hijab and stops Abena from taking it off at one point, but then at the end she has braids hanging out from underneath her scarf.  There are crushes and hugging between Faiza and males and an implied potential romantic relationship between Faiza and a non Muslim male that is never given pause.  A character goes for hajj, it mentions a space that Faiza uses for prayer, and it mentions Faiza’s Muslim family members getting drunk.  Nothing more than these details are given about being Muslim, other than her being labeled as a Muslim and identifying as one.

FLAGS:

Theft, crushes, lying, classism, racism, running away, drinking beer, getting drunk, forced marriage.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think that the book would lend itself very easy toward discussion and appreciating a people and culture that for many in the west would be new and unfamiliar.  I think outside research to supplement would be a natural extension and that the characters, their voices, their lives, and experiences, will stay with readers of all ages as we can rest easy knowing that they got their happy endings.

Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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Tittle Tattle Talia: A Story about Gossiping by Salwah Isaacs-Johaadien illustrated by Zeyneb Yildirim

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I really enjoyed this Islamic moral book about gossiping.  Over the years I’ve taught a few Sunday school lessons, class lessons, and even hosted story times on the Islamic cautions regarding backbiting, and honestly I don’t think kids really grasp how easy it is to commit the act and be a part of it.  They understand they shouldn’t do it, what the punishment is, and that it is bad, but I don’t know that the materials I’ve used and seen, have really connected with younger kids without a lot of supplementing; and this book highlighted that we really can be messaging better on a child’s level.  The pages are incredibly text heavy, but neither I nor my audience seemed to mind until close to the end, because of the comedy and relatability of the story up to that point.  I think the coach getting overly involved took it back to being a lesson from adults and broke the child perspective tone.  I do love that the kids that listen to the gossip are also held accountable, the importance of the coach’s message clearly is important, but the story telling quality would have benefitted from a few tweaks.  The illustrations are cute, unfortunately the font is not very appealing.  I do like that the salwat is given in Arabic, and that Hadith are mentioned in the text as well as in the backmatter with an author’s note.

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The story starts with Talia owning that she loves to share tales about the people around her, before telling one to her older sister.  Her sister tries to stop her and tells her that she needs to watch what she says or she might one day have to eat her words.  Talia wonders what eating your words means.  Similar situations occur between Talia and her brother, her mother, as well as her father.  Each time the story is reprimanded and a funny euphuism remarked upon and then giggled about by Talia.

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At school she does the same, telling stories, often at the expense of a boy named Ahmed, and the more interest the other kids show, the more outrages her tales become.  She soon starts telling them about everyone, and her classmates and friends grow weary and fearful that they might be next.

It all comes to a climax when Talia’s classmates say enough is enough and stop talking to her, and go as far as refusing to pick her when picking teams, and playing with her at all.  The coach concludes then that the match should be cancelled and Talia should apologize.  The cancellations seems extreme, and the forcing to apologize almost takes away from the emotional realization that her “tales” have become bullying.

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As Talia leaves, her classmates gather up and she sees Ahmed not joining them.  When she gets to her front gate, her friends catch up to her and apologize and acknowledge their roles in perpetuating the gossip.  Talia then goes to find Ahmed and get him some ice cream to apologize.

I don’t quite think the friends needed to apologize, I think they should have just realized their role, I think with discussion it might be clarified, but I worry that it defers Talia’s ownership of wrong doing, and could send some mixed messages.

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It is also a little pausing that Talia makes up a story about why a girl wears hijab, when her own mother wears hijab and she is clearly Muslim.  On the one hand, I like that it shows how ridiculous her tales have gotten, but it also could seem like she is falling for a stereotype as well.  There is good rep in the illustrations of those that cover and those that don’t, there is a child in a wheelchair and lots of shades of skin colors and hair types.  The text also contains traditional Islamic names and some that are not.

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The book helps our children to be better and the story engaging enough to be memorable, that while I wish it was cleaned up a better to strengthen the writing, I do find it a benefit on a shelf to be shared at bedtime, in classrooms, in story times and as a reminder to not participate in gossip or listen to it.

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen

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I didn’t know what to expect as I opened this 416 page book: it was recommended to me, my library had it, and I wanted a break from reading on a screen, so I dived in.  The map, the character list, and the setting of 13th century Mongol empire had me bracing for a complex read. I gave myself a goal of a few chapters to see if I could connect, but by page 20 I was completely absorbed and not to be disturbed.  The character driven plot is written in a rather contemporary manner, although the setting is historical fiction (with a lot of noted liberties) it reads really quickly and easily.  It is definitely 16 and up, romantic YA and has triggers of suicide, murder, drowning, death, war, abuse, misogyny.  While reading it, there often felt like there were holes in the plot as the story builds on itself in quiet layers- the story is fairly linear just broken up and rearranged in time, but the informatio

n shared is gently teased out, and nearly every hole filled by the final page.  I think if someone told me about the book in detail, I would not have read it.  There are many things that I feel like I shouldn’t like about it, but truth be told, I enjoyed the story.  The tokenish Islam found a way to convince me it was done intentionally, the (few) main characters present held my intention at all times, the backmatter detailing the research and liberties just all combined masterfully, that I feel compelled to share the story on my platforms even though the Islamic rep is only slightly more that the YA equivalent of a #muslimsintheillustrations tag.

I tried really hard not to include spoilers, so forgive some of the vague sentiments.

SYNOPSIS:

The story without any spoilers is quite simple- a slave girl, Jinghua, is mourning her dead brother and comes across Prince Khalaf, son of Timur, the ruler of the Kipchak Khanate, while working in the family’s service.  Shocked by his kindness, and persona, she falls hopelessly in love with him and when his family is exiled she decides to stay with the prince and the khan rather than flee.  They journey together and their feelings grow.  To save his family’s rule, however, Prince Khalaf decides to attempt to wed the daughter of the the Great Khan.  Princess Turandokht is exceptionally beautiful, wise, and powerful.  She refuses to wed and has set up a test for any prince wishing to try and marry her.  She has three riddles, each one to be answered in seven minutes, anyone who answers wrong is immediately put to death.  Numerous suitors have been killed.  When Khalaf sneaks off in the night to test his wits, the story of how how intertwined Jinghua and Khalaf’s stories are comes to light before the final riddle is answered.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It is not OWN voice, it is researched and based on a tale from The Thousand and One Days, but having very little to no knowledge of Mongol history (I’ve read the book Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World years ago, but that is about it), and have never seen or read the opera, poetry, or stories that this tale has presented as, I have nothing to compare it to. The book does not need knowledge of the story or time frame to make sense, but the backmatter is well done and makes the process of the story more fulfilling.

For the majority of the book, Islam and the khan and prince being Muslim is just a label occasionally remarked upon when the khan praises the Eternal Blue Sky, instead of Allah swt, and that is about all.  In fact Allah swt I don’t think is ever mentioned in the book.  Based on the information in the back about Mongol’s and a few dialogues in the book it seems that many practices were a hodgepodge of many faiths and traditions, especially by leaders to unite their subjects.  A few ayats from the Quran are mentioned as are some hadiths loosely, which are sourced at the end.  Khalaf gets drunk, and acknowledges that it is haram, and sleeps next to Jinghua for warmth which he also notes is haram.  It mentions a few times that he prays.  There is a weird emphasis on his turban, but it could be culturally Muslim (?), so I let it slide.

The first person voice really sets a good pace for the story, and all of its twists and turns, but does make the love, crush, infatuation theme seem very naïve in the beginning, with more telling than showing.  I think it is accurate for Jinghua, but does require the reader to just accept it and keep reading.  It seems at times she is also rather helpless and so desperate to be seen that the stereotype is a bit cringe, particularly at the end.  I get that appearance and women’s worth is tied to the time and setting, but it still doesn’t completely absolve how triggering the main character’s portrayal can be.

Jinghua’s religious beliefs of the Song Dynasty made me understand the offerings made to her ancestors and the ghost of her slain brother to be religious in context, not literary fantasy.  Many places have labeled this a fantasy romance book, but I don’t know that the world building was fantasy as much as it was historical reimagining.  Either way, there are ancestral ghosts that the main character dreams about and often sees, the epilogue pushes this element, but in my mind still adheres to the same point of ghosts and ancestors being a religious thread.

A found the fear of water story detail a little forced as she was not scared of water when washing out the bloody clothing in the river alone, but then was terrified to stand near a river.  Perhaps a minor detail, but one that I noticed none the less.

My favorite character is the the cantankerous old goat, I’m not going to say much about him other than if at first you hate him, stick around, he might win you over.

FLAGS:

There are multiple suicides and it is glorified, seen as a mercy, and shown as an act of desperation.  There is cruelty and classism along with misogyny and reducing a woman to her appearance.  There is talk of penises and them being seen when urinating, as well as one scene of an erection being felt.  There is killing, war, battle. murder, death, that is fairly detailed.  There is language and crudeness.  There is talk of rape, and affairs, and fornicating.  There are a few kisses, one while a character is drunk, one forced upon a nonconsenting woman. Jinghua disguises herself as a boy. There are theological concepts present and ghosts.  Alcohol and wine are consumed. Nothing is over the top or overly stressed to the point of being obnoxious, but it is present and older YA readers can probably handle it.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to discuss with readers, but not my students, I don’t think it would work for an Islamic school book club selection.  The “Muslim” character gets drunk, kisses two different women, has an alter to honor the dead, places offerings of wine.

Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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Egypt by Aya Khalil illustrated by Magda Azab

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This sweet board book is part of a series, the other two books are Japan and France, releasing in October.  All are brightly illustrated, 20 page books for ages zero to four and take the littlest of readers into a country, through sights, experiences, foods and language.  This particular book does not feature any visible #muslimsintheillustrations but the author is Muslim, and so I am reviewing and sharing it here.

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The framing of the book is a day in the life of a little girl, who wakes up with bosas from her mama and baba and greetings of Ahlan.  Some of the words are written in Arabic script with the English transliteration and pronunciation provided, other times it is just the English transliteration of the Arabic with the pronunciation asterisked and written smaller immediately below the text.

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Once she is awake, she gets dressed, brushes her teeth and is off with her baba to buy pita and ful.  The busy street offers sights to see and fruits to pick from.  She ponders and asks herself and the readers which one to choose.

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At her Teita and Geddos there is dancing and tabla playing before walking back home along the Corniche.  Dinner is served and bedtime has arrived. The book concludes with a summary of her day linking the Arabic words to the illustrations and English meaning, as well as some pronunciation tips for the Arabic sounds.

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As a Muslim reviewer I had to hope there might be one hijab clad woman in the illustrations, I know many Muslims don’t cover and Egypt is diverse, but considering the lens I review from, I feel obligated to state that opinion.

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A little more critically, I was a bit surprised on the page with the colorful boats that the color names yellow, blue, and purple, were not included in Arabic and only in English.  Seemed that would have been an naturally and easy inclusion.

Overall, the book did a good job of celebrating Egypt without over explaining, keeping it bright and engaging for toddlers.  I really like the language being shared in a story context, not just a book with a picture on it and words in different languages.  I also liked that while the details were Egypt specific, there were also pages that were universal.

Available for preorder and purchase here

Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia Faruqi illustrated by Ani Bushry

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Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia Faruqi illustrated by Ani Bushry

I thoroughly enjoyed the voice and playfulness of this 144 page early chapter book.  Mary Khan is a hoot as she navigates third grade, her Pakistani-American family, and the politics of birthday parties.  There is not a lot of Islam sprinkled in, save a few salaams, but the mom and Dadi wear hijab which is mentioned in the text and in the illustrations. Culture is presented warmly and her current stresses are not tied to her faith or background.  There is mention of witches and churrails, and she calls her sister one too, some lying, and numerous over the top efforts to be helpful as “Operation Help the Khans” is put in to action.  Nothing a first or second grader won’t be able to handle or understand, and a great series in between the author’s Yasmin books and her Must Love Pets series.

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SYNOPSIS:

Marya’s birthday is two days after her neighbor Alexa’s, her rich spoiled neighbor who is also in her class, and in her seating group.  The youngest of three kids Marya often feels that no one listens to her, and her wanting a birthday party this year, is met with the same dismissal in her eyes.  Aliya is a teenager and Salman, who she calls Sal to her grandmother’s chagrin, is in 5th grade, so Marya often finds herself hiding out in her Dadi’s room watching dramas in Urdu that she doesn’t really understand.  When she sees a birthday on the screen with henna, a band, and an elephant, Marya doesn’t want just any old party, she wants it all. 

Every year Marya’s best friend Hana comes over for pizza, cake, and a sleepover, but when Alexa hands out beautiful invitations to everyone at school, Marya says she too is having a party, a henna party.  Hana knows something is up, but it is full steam ahead for Marya as she devises a plan to convince her family to allow it to happen. With her mom’s flower shop busy with an upcoming wedding, there are lots of ways that Marya can help around the house, and then her family will have to let her, right? If only something could work out as Marya plans.  Then to top it all off, Marya starts to feel bad for the annoying Alexa and in a moment of kindness invites her to her party. It will just be boring pizza and cake, but if Marya can be nice to Alexa, perhaps anything is possible, and there might be more surprises in store for them all.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the vocabulary calendar words thrown in and the fertilizer smell that permeates all.  The story line might not be the most unique, but the silly disasters and the spunk of Marya make her endearing and the book enjoyable.  I love that the stress isn’t her culture or religion, she is a Pakistani American Muslim and she has concerns that all kids have, everywhere.  I also love that the mom owns her own flower shop and is passionate and successful in her work.  

One thing I didn’t quite get was why henna is called henna in the book and not mendhi? There are desi food names included, I wish it would have also maybe had a conversation in the book explaining that it is called mendhi in Urdu, but they are calling it henna.  I love that Dadi doesn’t like Salman’s name getting shortened and that mom’s hijab is remarked upon in a normative way. 

I probably shouldn’t like the comments that Marya makes about her sister, but I laughed, and yes she is cheeky, but it is funny and love filled, I hope. She also makes mean comments about Alexa, but the growth arc shows improvement and reads real.

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FLAGS:

Name calling, lying, teasing, mention of jinn, birthday, bands.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Too young for a book club, but definitely preordering for the school library.  

Thank you to Netgalley and Amulet Books for the arc.  You can preorder your copy HERE