Mona’s Scrapbook Adventure by Nouha Deliou illustrated by Kadhima Tung

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Mona’s Scrapbook Adventure by Nouha Deliou illustrated by Kadhima Tung

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Algerian culture, as far as I’ve seen, is incredibly underrepresented in western literature and not represented at all in children’s books.  I love that this author, who felt the same- did something about it.  This 40 page colorful story incorporates Algerian traditions and culture with universal themes of sibling love, wedding excitement, and being sad about change.  The OWN voice warmth shows Muslim characters in America holding to traditions and making new ones.  The book is long, but is not text heavy.  For toddlers and preschoolers up to second grade, I can see readers enjoying the detailed descriptions of the dresses and foods, and feeling the feelings of little Mona as her beloved older sister prepares for her wedding and ultimately leaving with her husband.

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The book starts on the morning of the big day, Layla’s engagement.  Mama explains to Mona that the Imam will do the kitab and that her older sister is excited because she has known Ahmed since school and likes him a lot.  Once dressed Mona watches Layla get ready in traditional Algerian clothes.

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When Ahmed and his family arrive, he and Layla announce that after the wedding they will be moving from New York to Arizona.  Mona is devastated, as the women start to zaghreet in celebration. She wonders if she can go with them, but decides she can’t leave her parents.  Later that night, Layla and Mona chat and decide that Mona will help plan for the wedding and they will make a scrapbook.

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Over the next few months, clothes are bought, cakes are tasted, flowers are decided upon, and Arayech is made.  The night of the henna is fun, but then it is the wedding, and then time for Layla and Ahmed to go. Happy tears and promises to always be connected conclude the story before a scrapbook page for the readers is revealed to make their own designs.  That is followed by a glossary, and information about the author and illustrator.

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I love the detail about the different cultural and regional Algerian dresses in the illustrations, the Algerian traditions shared through the text, and the connection between the two sisters. The book is available in hard back or paper back and I got mine from Crescent Moon Store  

Mona's Scrapbook Adventure

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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At 384 pages, this middle grades book takes on hijab, terrorism, Islamophobia, finding your voice, and fighting back.  At times the book was insightful and smoothly written, at other times the voice seemed childish and the writing directionless.  The inconsistencies don’t ultimately make the book good or bad for me, but rather very forgettable.  I read the book over the span of three days, but honestly remember very little about the book without looking at my notes.  The writing just isn’t particularly strong.  I never connected with the main character, and no it wasn’t because I didn’t agree with her wearing hijab out of solidarity, I accept that people make the decision for a variety of reasons, somehow I just never felt sympathetic to her as a person, or found myself cheering her on.  Her naivety vacillated too much for me to find her believable, and the pacing of the book made it hard to get revved up.  I think upper MG and middle school readers will be a better fit for the book with hate speech, assault, school bans, concert, musical references, and alt right indoctrination.  I think the book is worth shelving in a classroom/school library and I’m considering it for a book club selection, but I’m skeptical that the book would be finished, even if started, by most readers without some incentive to see it through.

SYNOPSIS:

Aaliyah and her friends are at a K-pop concert when a terrorist attack kills and injures numerous people.  A Muslim takes responsibility and with it coming on the heels of numerous London attacks, Islamophobia is at an all time high.  For 13-year-old Aaliyah, it is a stranger yelling at her mother in a parking lot, her best friend Lisa ignoring her, and her brother getting riled up in retaliation, that gets her to wonder why her mother wears hijab, when she started, and decide to start covering herself, in solidarity. As a result for Aaliyah there is now increased bullying at school which results in physical assault, and teachers turning a blind-eye.  It reaches an all time high when a religious display ban goes in to effect.  Still dealing with trauma from witnessing horrific violence, Aaliyah decides to push back.  Finding her inner strength and finding allies in a few good friends, and a secret cat adoption, she finds enough motivation to keep her plugging forward against the growing hate in her world. When she finally finds her voice will it be enough to overturn the ban and save her brother? Nope, not going to spoil it.  The fight is not a one-and-done, as anyone who has gone up against racism and systemic oppression knows, and this fictional book keeps that integrity and doesn’t give a happy ending, but rather hope and motivation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the Islam is centered in a consistent and empowering way.  At times it is a perspective that I’m not completely onboard with, but a few pages later the insight is powerful and the messaging clear.  I found it odd that Aaliyah doesn’t know when her mom started covering or why, or anything about hijab, it comes off very immature. The book keeps culture and religion separate, hijab a choice, and I like that it was Aaliyah who wants to cover even when her parents try to talk/force her out of it.  I find it a little off that she doesn’t go to the mosque, but her father consulted with masjid folks when looking for advice for handling the alt right groups.  She prays a few times in the book and it being mentioned is nice.

I like that the kids in the book think for themselves, and that the adults don’t have all the answers.  I enjoyed the passages asserting why the family came to the UK generations ago and why they have stayed, is powerful.   A few of the characters that are really strong at the start don’t ever get mentioned again.  Which is fine, but I did wonder about Harpreet and why Yusuf’s friends weren’t contacted when Aaliyah was sleuthing about.

Loved the literary shout-outs, and the hypocrisy of allowing swim caps and hats but not hijab, but sigh, didn’t love the cat thread.  I think I just don’t like fictional cats, I sound like a broken record.  I think the inclusion was to show how much Aaliyah had to keep hidden in her life and how she needed comfort, but I don’t know, sigh, I found the contrast of tone jarring to the pacing.

There is a glossary at the end, and the definition of Hijab is a bit odd, highlighting Western and South Asian terminology and not the Middle Eastern or even global use of the Arabic word.  I don’t know that the glossary is even needed as the book really tries to establish that the characters are a part of their society and don’t need footnotes and differential treatment, so the inclusion of a glossary for me, diminished the point a bit.

FLAGS:

Assault, hate speech, bullying, fear, death, injuries, bombing, terrorist attack, lying, music, mention of a transgender/gender neutral student, a rainbow pin. sneaking out.  Criticism of police, alt right indoctrination.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is unique in showing affects of the alt right and not having it all work out in an MG book.  It shows the anxiety and fear that Muslims often feel and the determination of not becoming victims. It also does a good job of showing that something like a religious symbolism ban doesn’t just affect Muslims, but people of various faiths and culture, and thus when common ground is found, there are more allies that one often thinks.  I think it could work for a middle school book club and undoubtedly the discussions would be great, but I am given pause with the main characters view of hijab as not being something in the Quran, but rather done in protest and in solidarity.  I think once I see which kids are interested in book club I can gauge if it is something that we can work through and discuss or not.

That’s Not My Name by Anoosha Syed

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That’s Not My Name by Anoosha Syed

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I have been looking forward to this book, as I’ve enjoyed so many of the illustrations the author has created for other authors, and was anxious to see what kind of story she would write for her own authorial debut.  Unfortunately, the book didn’t wow me.  It is rather forgettable, the book conflates notions of not being able to pronounce someone’s name with not being memorable and with not having a “normal” name, and then recognizing how so many classmates have unique names too.  A bit scattered in messaging, and overall reading like an adult talking, not a young girl of four or five, on her first day of school.  No doubt the illustrations are beautiful, and the book isn’t “bad” or a “waste of time,” but it isn’t a strong clear story.  I’ve seen reviews where people find the little girl rude, and I don’t know that I’d agree with that, she is frustrated and wants to scream, “that’s not my name” when people say it wrong, but I do agree that she could model what to say better and how to handle it.  Not that I expect those with uncommon names to have to carry the weight of making things easy, but the little girl at the end remarks that she has so many new friends at school with “unique, beautiful names, and she always makes sure she says them right,” implying that some dialogue, both about her name and about theirs, takes place to ensure pronunciation is correct, and some “showing” of how that is achieved would be nice.  Before the story starts, on the title page, there is a pronunciation breakdown of Mirha, but not in the text itself. There is nothing Islamic in the book, the Grandmother wears a scarf loosely draped over her head, there is a crescent and moon wall hanging in an illustration, and the girl’s name is claimed to be Arabic in origin.

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The book starts with it being Mirha’s first day of school.  She is excited to learn, to play, and to make friends, but when no one seems to be able to say her name, she starts to feel shy. Frustrated and sad she decides to change her name, and tells her mom when she gets home.  Her mother tells her, her name is beautiful and why she was named what she is named.  She builds her up and the next day armed with her mother’s words she is ready to make friends and teach them how to say her name. By the end of the book Mirha has friends, and wants to be your (the reader’s) friend too.

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The voice of the book is inconsistent at times it feels very older kid, almost adult, even though the 40 page book is meant for three to five year olds.  The examples read like an adult reflecting on their childhood struggles with their name, not as a young girl finding her voice and appreciation for the name she has.

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When Hayden asks if he can call her Maya instead of Mirha it is because Maya is easier.  Kids are hearing all sorts of names for the first time when they enter school, that conversation seems so forced.  Whether the kids are in preschool or daycare or kindergarten, most of the names they are hearing of their classmates are being heard for the first time.  If they watch a lot of tv and YouTube and movies, they have heard a whole variety of names, they are not going to have a dialogue that sounds like that, at that age, just not realistic.  Similarly after the first day of school she wants to change her name to something “normal?” What is a “normal” name even, then the mom even reinforces that notion when saying she knows she named her something “unique and different.”  A concept that returns at the end when asserting that Mirha has friends with lots of unique names.  Seems to go in circles.

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I appreciate that examples are given about not seeing your name on keychains or having the barista get it right, but again, she is under the age of five, are these really her points of reference for having a less common name than those around her?  When her mother is making the case that she shouldn’t change her name she references that names such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo are memorable.  First of all, what (under) five year old knows those names or who those people are, and second of all, now her name is not memorable? I thought it was hard to pronounce? Has she done something worthy of history books and admiration? I get what the author is trying to do, I often tell my students that they need to demand people say their names right.  If they can rattle off names from Pokemon, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Beyblades, they can say the beautiful names they have been given.  But the kids I am saying it to are not in preschool, nor am I conflating the pronunciation of their names with being names of famous people that are memorable. Additionally, I do not speak Arabic, but a quick Google search does not show that Mirha means happiness in Arabic, and I have heard from native Arab speakers that they also found the meaning off.

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The illustrations are engaging, the broader message of getting people’s name right and demanding people get your name right is important, it just needed a more age aligning voice and connecting with the reader.

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Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

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Anisa’s International Day by Reem Faruqi

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Full of determination, creativity, culture, misunderstandings, and learning from your mistakes, this story will resonate with readers 6-10 who want to solve problems on their own, stand out and be special, and who must own up to their mistakes when they happen.  In just under a hundred pages of story, the characters are developed and made memorable, the voice realistic, and the story engaging and enjoyable.  I love that there is no cultural or religious identity crisis, no parental fixing of problems, and no preachy moral overtones.  There are many lessons learned, explored, and threaded through the book, but the incredible writing never lets the threads overpower the story.  The emotional attachment to Anisa has you cringing when she messes up, cheering for her to solve a problem, and sighing in relief when amends are made.  The backmatter is quite robust with recipes, a glossary, numerous activities, and notes from the author.  I know the book says it is meant for grades 3rd through 7th, but I think early chapter book readers will enjoy it the most.  There is not a lot of Islam in the book, but enough that Muslim readers will appreciate the representation and OWN voice authenticity.

SYNOPSIS:

Anisa is an artist, a baker, and pushes herself to be ingenious in all she does.  With her aunt’s wedding coming up, her and her sister and their A-Z Bakery are tasked with making cookies for a party, and her Nani in Pakistan has even sent clothes for her to wear.  Included in the package is a beautiful kurta that Anisa decides to wear to school.  Inspired by her pride in her culture the teacher, Miss Torres, decides the class will have an international day.  Anisa can’t wait to bring samosas, but Prerna from India commits to bringing them first and ingenious Anisa can’t copy her.  To make matters worse, Anisa’s best friend Katie doesn’t seem to like the mehndi Anisa got put on at the dholki.  Misunderstandings, assumptions, and hurt feelings get amplified when Anisa takes action, and when everything gets put out in the open, she will have to find a way to make things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the drama is not over sensationalized, it is on par for 3rd grade and the solutions are as well. The teacher and Anisa’s parents are supportive and present, but they don’t solve the problems or force reflection, the children in the story do.  I love the subtle backstory of Anisa and Prerna seeming to be in competition, but finding support in one another as the story moves through.  I also love that no one puts pressure on Anisa to be the most creative or the best at anything, it genuinely feels like her personality and a standard she expects for herself.  I was glad that there was no cultural (or religious) self doubting.  The problems with a friend is communication, approval, and misunderstanding.  The mehndi is the catalyst, but it is not meant or perceived to be a symbol of a whole culture and identity.  It is just mehndi. Of course I also love that the apologizing is not just saying sorry, but rather making things right.

There is mention of the aunt wearing hijab and taking it off because Anisa’s dad is not home, that is tucked in and appreciated.  There are black and white illustrations sprinkled throughout that show women in hijab (#muslimsintheillustrations) as well.  The pictures are not finalized in the arc I received, so I will update the included images in this review at a later time.

FLAGS:

There is mention of music, not sure if it is just drums, or other instruments as well. Makeup is also worn by the adult women and mentioned a few times.  Anisa is mean, but she does apologize.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think fans of the Yasmin series (Saadia Faruqi) will move on to this book, and also enjoy the upcoming Marya Khan series also by Saadia Faruqi. The book fills a gap for this reading demographic, and will add relatability, representation, and warmth to whatever shelf it is placed on.

Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story by Malak Mattar

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Sitti’s Bird: A Gaza Story by Malak Mattar

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I hate that this book is so timely.  It was written by the author/illustrator recalling the 2014 airstrikes, but alas, has anything changed for the Palestinians’ suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupiers amid the  apathetic silence of the world?  This 32 page picture book shows family love and daily life while Gaza is under siege.  The heartbreak of a young girl’s reality and perception shows the reader, in a simple empathetic, heart-wrenching, real-life example how her dream was limited and caged because she is not free.  The book is not sensationalized, nor graphic, it is written by someone who endured this as a child, and has written the book for children. The theme is not even political, but more hopeful as art is found as a respite and way to keep dreams from completely dying.  May Allah swt ease the suffering of those under occupation and free Palestine, ameen.  

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The book starts with a little girl and her parents going to Sitti’s house for the best maqlouba.  Sitti has a beloved bird, Malak wonders if she too is in a cage.  Her grandmother encourages her to fly in her dreams.  At school she is happy with her friends, playing games, listening to stories, but when an explosion sends them all home, she won’t get to return for 51 days.

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Constant airstrikes keep the family home and in fear.  Malak finds some paints and starts to create.  Sitti’s bird is lost when Sitti’s home is destroyed, but somehow shows up at Malak’s home.  Eventually Malak returns to school and she shows her teacher all her paintings. Her teacher decides to host an exhibit. 

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People show up and marvel at her art work.  Months later an international exhibit invites her to attend with her parents, but sadly she must decline.  Gaza is closed.  She cannot leave.  

The book is hopeful, but does not have a happy ending, and I think the weight of that makes this book all the more powerful: because it is timely, because occupation persists, because dreams cannot be made into reality, generation after generation, this story inshaAllah will inspire some change and lots of compassion.

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There is nothing Islamic in the book, save some #muslimsintheillustrations, the author is Muslim.

Available here at Crescent Moon Book Store https://crescentmoonstore.com/products/sittis-bird?sca_ref=1601585.fIPhoqtScY  

Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with Videos (The Story of Riya) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra binte Absar Kazmi

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Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with Videos (The Story of Riya) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra binte Absar Kazmi

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This illustrated 64 page Islamic fiction chapter book is meant for early readers, but it was a good reminder for me as well.  Tackling the rarely covered topic of Riya (to do good deeds only to be seen by others), the book has been checked by a religious scholar (and his name included), features Quranic references at the end of the story, and the book is entertaining, relatable, funny, and adorably, albeit simply illustrated, by a child no less.  Like the first book in the Hiba’s Readalicious Series, there are a few grammar errors, and the Mommy/Daddy references read childish, but the story has interest, heart, humor, and both myself and my children found the book engaging on its own while also lending itself to worthwhile discussion around the dinner table.

SYNOPSIS:

Twins Zayd and Musa don’t have a smart phone and their friend Isa not only has one, but also has a YouTube channel.  Isa’s desire for likes and followers gives Zayd and Musa a variety of feelings, and with the context of their involved parents, friendly neighbor, and their own conscious, they learn about riya, and that often things in life are not just good or bad, but one’s intention that matters.

The illustrations not only illustrate the text, but also include talking bubbles with additional comedy or facts about screen usage, internet availability and study results as pertaining to the topics raised.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the topic isn’t just handed down from the adults in the story, the boys and their point of view flesh it out and make it so the reader will actually understand the concept and hopefully recall it later in life.  The humor makes it relatable and the lessons while preachy, it is that type of book, are not presented as good/bad, right/wrong, it shows different scenarios, and how we all must constantly check our intentions, not just the “antagonist” of the story.

FLAGS:

None

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book lends itself to discussion with older children than the intended audience.  While the book is meant for say a six year old, the discussion using the examples in the book, at least for my children, was much more relevant to the middle schoolers.  Naturally, teaching early readers about intention is still a valuable lesson, but I’d encourage 10 and up to also read the story, so that discussion from their perspective can occur.  It is an easy read for older kids, but a beneficial one- just give them a heads up that the kid parent relationship is notably cringe and babyish, the lessons however are food for though.

Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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Hamza’s Pyjama Promise by Marzieh Abbas

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When I flipped through the book standing on my porch as the delivery truck drove away, I groaned a little internally at the simple illustrations, terrible font, large amount of text on each page, and the four fingered boy at the center of it all.  Alhumdulillah, I gave it a chance and ended up really liking it.  The book stayed with me, then I read it to my kids and it stayed with them.  Then I mentally made a checklist of all the teachable ways this book could be used in an Islamic school classroom, story time presentation, bedtime reading, and even just as a regular reference point.  This Islamic fiction book packs a lot of information in while connecting to religious concepts kids are most likely familiar with and silly points that will make five to eight year olds giggle.

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The book opens with verse 65 from Surah Yasin in English meaning of the translation and the Quranic Arabic.  The story then begins with it being bedtime for young Hamza and him running up the stairs to put on his rocket pyjamas.

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When he brushes his teeth he looks in the mirror and finds notes hanging all over addressed to him.  The first letter he reads is from his hands reminding him to wash them before he does anything and reminds him Prophet Muhammad (SAW) “said the best Muslim is the one who doesn’t harm others with his hands or tongue.”  It then mentions that the left hand doesn’t like carrying weight so use your body to ensure you get your book of deeds on the Day of Judgement in your right hand.

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The book continues with eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and feet writing messages urging Hamza to cover his eyes when something inappropriate pops up on the screen, or protecting his ears from listening in on other people’s conversations.  Every point of how to act is connected to an ayat in the Quran or Hadith of Rasullallah.

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After reading the letters, Hamza makes wudhu, says a dua before bed which is shared in English, promises to take care of the body Allah swt has blessed him with and then asks the readers what their pyjama promise is.

The book concludes with pictures and captions of Hamza’s bedtime routine of brushing his teeth, reflecting on his day, making wudhu, reciting tasbih (SubhanAllah 33 times, Alhumdulillah 33 times, and Allahu Akbar 34 times), reciting Ayat ul Kursi, and sleeping on  your right side.

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There are no sources in the book, but most seems “general knowledge” so to speak.  And for as preachy as the book may sound in my review, it really isn’t.  The character’s voice or rather the body parts’ voices are relatable and light.  I think young ones enjoy that they are hearing things they have probably heard before and making a connection to them being repeated in a new way.  Having your body parts talk is both silly and sobering as the target age group can imagine it happening.  It really reminds kids that their actions are seen and recorded, in a non scary or overwhelming way.

I look forward to sharing this book in library story times, masjid story times, and regularly with my own children.  The publisher is a Shia press, but I don’t think any Muslim would find anything controversial in the book (please note though I am not highly educated in these things). And while American’s may find the spelling of pyjama hard on the eyes, with the exception of that one word the book is not region specific or difficult to connect to for global readers of any age.

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus illustrated by Julie Robine

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This 320 page full color middle grade graphic novel is a powerful and moving read. The memoir focuses on the young Syrian boy who began reporting on the war from the perspective of children and sharing his work on social media.  The raw emotion, the determination to make a difference, the familial love, are conveyed in a way that allows eight and nine year old readers to connect to living through horror with compassion and outrage and empathy.  Older readers will also be drawn in and moved by the relatability of a boy their age having his world turned upside down.  I particularly like how the book dispels so many assumptions and stereotypes by showing what life was like before the devastation, a bit about the role of outside forces and political oppression, and really creating a mood where you can imagine what you would do if you were in Muhammad’s situation.  The book is heavy, but also has a lot of hope and and joy. I tend to like nonfiction graphic novels that are character driven like this one.  I find I understand the scope of what they are enduring by seeing it through their eyes and feeling like I know them and thus can better grasp what their reality is.  There are photographs at the end which further connect the readers to Muhammad and Syria, and I hope this book finds its way into classrooms, libraries, homes, and hearts, so that we might be better to one another.  Readers of When Stars are Scattered will similarly love this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The book begins with eight-year-old Muhammad hanging around his father’s carpentry shop in Eastern Ghouta, playing soccer and pleading to by treats from the candy seller.  When Assad’s soldiers come, destroy his soccer ball, and his family warns him not to trust anyone, including the new candy seller, Muhammad’s world is suddenly not so certain.  When his family must seek shelter at a moments notice, homework is left, videogames paused, and fear very real.

Muhammad is the miracle child, born after the family didn’t know if they could have any more children, he is the fourth, and spoiled. Even with destruction and sheltering though, there is joy, more children are born in to the family, and while Muhammad’s status might be in question, his love of his little brother and sister, motivate him to do something to create a safer home.

At age 13, his father and uncle go for Jummah salat, and his father is killed while praying.  At 15 Muhammad is done hiding, he knows he will never be safe and he starts filming and sharing stories of children as a way to honor is father and fight back against oppression.

With the support of his family, and constant worry that Assad’s army will target him, Muhammad keeps telling the stories of those with no voice.  Eventually his following grows, catches international attention, and gives Muhammad purpose.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the format for this story, you truly can’t put it down.  It shows the emotion so powerfully that you cry when characters are lost.  You know hundreds die every day, but the singling in on a character that you have grown to love dying moves the reader, add in that you know this was a real person and that Muhammad really endured the loss, and it reminds you of your humanity.  The love the characters all have for their oldest sister is absolutely incredible.  The pages of the family just being so connected are my absolute favorites.

The characters are Muslim and it is a part of their daily lives, there is no pulling out of the narrative and explaining or preaching.  The women wear hijab, they plead with Allah swt, they reflect on Allah’s plan, they go for prayers at the masjid.

FLAGS:

Death, destruction, war, fear. It is not sensationalized, and I truly think middle grade and middle school readers will benefit from reading, even the sensitive ones.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think the book would be wonderful to teach in the classroom tying literature, current events, and history together.  I absolutely think every library, classroom, and home bookshelf should feature this book.

It can be pre-orderd here

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A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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A Mermaid Girl by Sana Rafi illustrated by Olivia Aserr

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I honestly don’t know how I feel about this book.  I have read it and reread it and thought about it and read it again, and ignored it and read it again, and alas I have no idea.  I really am having a hard time articulating my thoughts on this 40 page children’s book.  I think part of the problem is that I’m reading it shortly after reading another “religiously inclined” clothing inspired picture book for the same target demographic and I’m having a hard time not comparing them.  When I intentionally start to write a review that doesn’t compare them, I am cognizant that my readers probably will and the review spirals.  So I’m going to establish what I love about this book, and then highlight why I’m torn and leave it to you all to draw your own conclusions and opinions.  InshaAllah this will not be the new norm, I will not make a habit of straddling the fence, but for this book, I think it is the only way.

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I absolutely love the illustrations.  The warmth and joy the pictures portray are endearing and smile inducing.  I love the mother and daughter relationship and how feelings are not dismissed or belittled.  The mom connects the little girl to a legacy of strength and conveys her confidence, that the little girl is similarly brave, not just when things are hard, but especially when they are.  The little girl is shown to “feel” confident and joy in her clothing, not just “look” pretty, which is messaging that I love.  It is never too early to show that how one feels is more important than how one looks.  This depth, is not examined, but by simply using the words “When I put it on, I feel like a dainty seahorse,” rather than saying, “I look like a dainty seahorse,” the priority is not lost on the reader.  I like that the character has growth and challenges and has to reaffirm her position and as a result raises herself and those around her as well.

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So why some confusion you ask.  Well- the word burkini is used to explain the little girl’s new swimsuit.  Burkini traditionally is a Muslim implied modest swimsuit, derived from combining the words burka and bikini.  That said, anyone of any faith can order a burkini online and their faith is not a factor.  The little girl is young and doesn’t wear hijab, her hair is not covered.  The mother and the ancestors pictured wear hijab, but Islam or Muslim is never in the text.  Part of me likes this, people wear modest swimwear for a lot of reasons: comfort, religion, sun protection, personal preference.  Similarly for head coverings in a pool some people where them for hair preservation, modesty, hijab, aerodynamics, speed, preference, comfort, etc..  Unlike hijab which is in the Quran, birkini is not an “Islamic requirement.”  No one is forcing you to swim, no one is forcing you to wear this brand or that style if you choose to swim.  Covering and wearing modest clothing is a must on Muslim women, covering the awrah is required after puberty.  I both like that the little girl is covering up and wish that it said why she is, but also appreciate that it is left open.  I like that you should be able to wear whatever you want and be comfortable with it.  I like that you don’t have to conform, and you can be you and whether that comes from a religious rationale or a fashion one or a health one or a comfort one, it doesn’t matter, don’t police what women wear.  But the implied illustrated framing is Islamic and the link is not there in the text.  See why my thoughts are scattered.

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Similarly, the term “mermaid” is gender specific.  But colloquially it is often used to just describe someone with a human top half and fist tail.  So, isn’t “mermaid girl” redundant? At the end when male presenting Sam asks if he can be a Mermaid girl too is it implying gender neutrality? Is it like female kids saying they want to be a girl policeman or a lady firefighter?  Does it matter?

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The story starts with Heba and her mother looking at photographs of past generations on their wall remarking how they are all mermaid girls.  Heba has gotten a new swimsuit, and her and mama are going to match in their new burkinis.  When they get to the pool however, all the excitement is pushed back on when her friends ask her if she can swim in that, and they tell her it doesn’t look like a real swimsuit. Heba sticks up for herself, but when she looks around, she sees, they are right, she doesn’t look like everyone else.  Mama reminds her of those before her and reassures her that she is not alone. She rejoins her friends, doing all the things she wants to do, and by the end they too want to be mermaid girls.

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There is music depicted and women in one and two piece swimsuits.  As someone who wore modest swimwear my whole life, this book had a lot of mirroring of summers arguing with life guards, showing up with other Muslims at public pools to rude comments and aggressive stares, and swimming all over the world to people asking where they could get a suit like mine as well.  Definitely normalizing swimwear that looks like a burkini is a great concept to see in a book.

I do wish there was backmatter.  Perhaps giving voice to the many reasons women should be free to wear what they want at all times, but how particularly in water activities it has become a political point of judgement and policing.  Perhaps something about how this little girl is wearing it for religion and modesty, but that people everywhere wear things for lots of reasons.  I like the ambiguity, but also wish their was more of a connection to Islam/Muslims.  I leave it to you to make your own decisions.  I found my copy at my local library, it is mainstream published and can be purchased here as well.

Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon