The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

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The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

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It has been a long time since I have stopped reading a book because I simply do not want it to end.  Clearly I have no self control, so a day later I picked it back up and finished the 496 pages, but oh what a treat to be swept away aboard a magnificent tale with rich history, Muslim characters, Islamic references, developed fantasy world building, complex side characters, excitement, plot, adventure, and everything else you would expect from the author of the Daevabad series.  The book is an adult read, and I really can’t suggest it to YA readers, the protagonist is a middle aged mom with a foul mouth and a bad knee, there is cursing, and killing,  hetero, gay and demon love interests among the main characters, a transgendered character, sex mentioned, drinking, and magic, it is all part of the story, but it isn’t so in your face that older mature Muslim readers will be uncomfortable.  So why am I reviewing it here, I honestly don’t know.  Clearly it is not to be shelved in the Islamic School Library, but there is so much authentic Islamic centering on every single page, that I want to give it space to remind/encourage us all that we don’t have to hide or water down our faith in mainstream books- not if the writing, story, and characters are so incredible.  I really thought a historically set pirate fantasy would be hard to read, that the vocabulary and references would leave me lost and confused, but it is written so beautifully that the pages fly by and you forget you are reading; it is as if you are watching the story unfold in front of you.  Please consider preordering this book so that publishers know support exists for authentic OWN voice Muslim character led books, I have an e-version, but have also preordered a physical hard back copy here.

SYNOPSIS:

It has been a decade since the infamous nakhuda Amina al Sirafi has taken to the Indian Ocean to plunder and sail. The stories of her have grown and traveled in her retirement, but life is now more about protecting her daughter and fixing her leaking roof.  When her previous life finds her and threatens her, however, she must return to her Marawati, call on her old friends, and put together a crew.  Told through a storyteller, with banter between Jamal and Amina, the fourth wall is broken and the reader knows that the hero will survive, yet the adventures of outsmarting Aden’s defenses, peris, demons, Franks, pirates, and marids to prevent the Moon of Saba from being manipulated is a fast paced chaotic adventure that pulls you in from the first page.  The fairly linear story from one point of view (mostly), connects the haunting past to the trials at hand, as the crew and characters are understood through their captain.  I don’t want to give anything away, but the side characters are nuanced and developed in a way that you feel just as close to them as Amina does, and as she becomes frantic to save them, the reader too is invested in their choices and actions.  Pirate adventure, saving the day, a mom as a hero and a missing demon husband refound, yeah, don’t read summaries of this book, just read the book.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was surprised at the religious redemption arcs and details that were included on truly every page, from the meaning of the translation of Ayat ul Kursi, to acknowledging past sins and striving to not repeat them, Amina al Sirafi practices her Islam in her five daily prayers, regular supplications, regular repentance, and view of the world and her place in it.  She isn’t preachy, and much of what she faces tempts her to drink wine and fornicate again, but her struggles are really refreshing to see.  It isn’t that she is Muslim and that is the framing for the al-ghayb elements alone, it is so part of her and thus of the book, that you can’t help but feel seen.

The gay character’s lover is mentioned, neither are Muslim, but it is only a few lines in the entire book.  The transgendered character starts off uncomfortable with being forced to marry and hints that she doesn’t feel feminine, Amina pieces together what she is saying and then at the end it shows that she is now identifying and carrying herself as a man.  It isn’t a big part of the text, it has a strong effect on the story and it does touch on God’s view of such things, as the character is Muslim.  The demon love interest SLIGHT SPOILER is Amina’s husband that she thought she had killed, she has had a lot of husbands, but when he turns up alive, she realizes technically they are still married.  He asks her quite often to have sex.  It is usually is just that blunt with no romance or longing, and when they do partake in the act, it isn’t overly graphic, it is “closed door.”  There is killing and murder and deceit and lying and drinking, all things assumed would be in a pirate story.  None of it is overly glorified, but it is normalized.

I really just love the characters and the fast paced action, the book leaves off implying there will be more tales to come and I hope there are.  (I keep writing what I love about the book and deleting it, because you know….spoilers, ahh).

FLAGS:

As previously mentioned: cursing, sex, hetero and gay relationships, magic, fantasy, killing, murder, lying, drinking, drugs, jinn, peris, marids, fantasy, occult, demons, death, loss.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would never do this for a school book club, but would do it in a heartbeat for an adult book club!

 

 

Babajoon’s Treasure by Farnaz Esnaashari illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

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Babajoon’s Treasure by Farnaz Esnaashari illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

This beautifully illustrated imaginative story focuses on Persian culture and a grandfather-granddaughter relationship.  I have no idea if the characters, author, or illustrator identify as Muslim, the scarf on the grandma and the salaam greetings might just be cultural, but Muslim kids will see themselves in those words and images and thus I am reviewing the book.  Young Miriam spends a week with her grandparents, Babajoon and Mamanjoon, every summer, and on this trip, she has reason to believe her grandpa is a pirate.  The progression of Babajoon sharing his culture with his granddaughter who has misread the signs is silly, but honestly also a little sad.  It seems she is very unaware of her family’s culture, not just generational details, but basics.  The story itself is for kids, but I think parents will find a deeper message in the importance of maintaining cultural ties and familiarity no matter where our children are raised.

Miriam loves her week every summer with her grandparents, it is a magical adventure spending time with them at their tea shop.  One day Miriam and her Babajoon head out for rocket pops and a mysterious gold coin falls out of her grandpa’s pocket.  As they enjoy their popsicles, Babajoon starts singing with a parrot, and he has a secret language with an old friend before crystals are revealed, the only possible connection for the young girl, is that her grandfather is a pirate.

Babajoon reveals the cultural context of all the days adventures tying them back to his childhood in Iran.  He encourages her to ask questions, and Miriam worries that she isn’t like her beloved Babajoon.  His reassures her that they are alike and that they will teach each other, leaves the book with both appreciation and hope and a whole lot of love from a little girl to her family and culture.

There is a bit of a continuity issue for me as the little girl is excited her grandfather is a pirate, and then at the end, glad he isn’t.  Also that she doesn’t know what Farsi sounds like or where her grandfather is from seems a little bit of a stretch as she herself calls them Babajoon and Mamajoon and says salaam to them.  They also own a Persian tea shop called Aziz and the sign board is written in English and Farsi.  If the little girl is aware enough and old enough to piece together the clues to discern that he is a pirate, clearly she recognizes the difference in the titles, foods, and clothing her grandparents wear to the larger society.  I know, I’m being picky, but it took me a few readings to get past all that, and appreciate the story for what it is, and how beneficial it really can be to encourage children to ask about their family heritage and traditions.

The 40 page horizontal hardback book is beautiful to share in groups or one-on-one.  The illustrations are enjoyable, and the pirate aspect will make this book a frequently requested read.  You can preorder your copy here, after March 28, 2023 you can still purchase through that link.

Free Radicals by Lila Riesen

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Free Radicals by Lila Riesen

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This contemporary 400 page YA book about an American Afghan girl dealing with life and boys and worrying about family in Afghanistan since America’s withdrawal from the country, is written by an Afghan Australian, raised in America, and thus it seemed like a book I should review from an Islamic lens even if the blurb on the back seemed a little stereotypical with the oppressed-can’t-meet-with-boys theme.  Well, suffice it to say the blurb on the back is terribly misleading and this OWN voice book lightly sprinkles in Islam as cultural adoptions and there are flags, oh so many flags.  In the first 20 pages alone there is normalizing and discussion of sex, watching pornography, voyeurism, a females breast being exposed, drinking alcohol, a trans character changing, cheating, gossip of the main character circle jerking three guys, partying, a boy sneaking over, parents vacuuming to cover the sounds of their son and his girlfriend in the bedroom, attempted sexual assault, and the book doesn’t just say it is young adult, it specifies, 7th grade, ages 12 and up! I’m reviewing it as an Islamic School Librarian, but I am not ok with any 12 year olds reading this, and worry the American flag on top, the masjid on the bottom and the young girl on the side, just might entice a young reader to start reading, and that is alarming. The characters do not identify as Muslim, the grandpa known as Baba is a “conditional Muslim” he skips Ramadan, celebrates Christmas, and only prays a few times a week, so the drinking and the dating are really not concerns for the characters. I kept reading to see if there was some religious arc with the family in Afghanistan possibly coming, but SPOILER, I’ll save you the read, there is no Islam, a Quran is mentioned to be stored in a box with old shoes, the dad starts reading the Bible and considers “converting” and there are make-out scenes, a pan sexual character, vandalism, sexual assault rumors, just to name a few.  The writing is entertaining if not chaotic at times, but I cannot recommend this book for Muslim readers, and have reservations about some of the stereotypes for non Muslims, I will stay focused on the Muslim reader in this review, however, since the book is OWN voice, and just because I don’t like or agree with various aspects, does not mean that they are not accurate or real.

SYNOPSIS:

Mafi is 16 and since rumors about what she did at a party with three guys started circulating she finds herself friendless and unseen.  She has become the dealer of vengeance, working to ensure people get what is coming to them when the notes left in a tree are verified.  Living each day in sweats and hoodies she dreams of  Jalen, a basketball player, being more than just her brother’s friend.  When she starts to get sloppy in her justice “ghost” dealings she finds herself emotionally involved and her world changing as a result.  There are numerous side characters and side stories that keep this book buzzing: her parents relationship falling a part, her sister away at college, her grandfather’s dementia, her brother Rafi and his girl friend Bian, Rafi getting signed by a college for basketball that wants to make public his Afghan roots, a father who wants them to always deny their Afghan roots, Jalen’s own drive to be signed with a college, Jalen’s dad’s PTSD, motocross, driver’s license, the kid next door that smells of smoke, piercing noses, Brit, a popular trans activist with no sex drive who befriends Mafi, and rumors and gossip that poke and complicate every aforementioned character and relationship.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I have issues with the blurb on the back, the cultural/religious restraints are really non existent in the book, the SOL tree is only brought in for two acts of vengeance, and the age demographic is just too young to read about the sexual exploits, that are not detailed but are very present and normalized.  I have issues with the religious references that are present anecdotally for the dismissiveness it implies, but it is not an issue for the characters- because religion is not a part of their lives, and honestly- ultimately, I’m glad it was kept at arms length, because with so many “haram” story lines, it would be problematic to see the characters identifying as Muslim.  The writing at times was really engaging and smooth and I was shocked at how fast the pages were flying by.  At other times it seemed too chaotic and underdeveloped.  Keying a car seems such a sad planned act of vengeance, I wanted to know what acts she had done in the past other than the two mentioned in the book, there was a lot of set up to go deep on Bian, or Jalen’s dad or Mafi’s loss of friends, but it all just fizzled.  I never felt emotionally tied to the family in Afghanistan, or the dad on the deck.  I wanted to understand some of the walls the family established so that I could feel what the characters were feeling- and so often it just wasn’t there.  I absolutely loved the grandfather and his quirks and the sibling relationship of Rafi and Mafi as the story progressed.  After the initial shock value, the book really did settle down and have a lot of heart, but those first 20 pages were aggressive, and the last twenty seemed to just unravel.  I would have loved to see some commentary about the hypocrisy or ironies of Mafi’s life, she has insights, they just seemed missing when reflecting on her own family quirks: her family doesn’t want to identify as Afghan, yet all their nicknames are Afghani, she claims she can’t hang out with boys, but she seems to all the time with no problem, they have no Afghan friends and yet there is no acknowledgement of this when the man on the moped shows up, how long Baba has lived with them seems inconsistent, they eat dinner together most nights but seem like strangers.

Politically, the author has her views and thus the characters theirs.  For those not familiar there is enough information about Hazaras, and the Taliban, to understand her point of view, but I don’t know that the books really conveys a lot of the nuance or accounts for why the family would be heading to Pakistan while dropping jabs at Pakistan’s view of the Taliban. There is a bit of othering and we are the good ones not the terrorist ones that seems stereotypical, but the remarks are said in passing and not often.

FLAGS:

Sex, kissing, making out, voyeurism, porn, female breasts exposed, trans character changing, Islamophobic remarks, misogyny, bullying, language, loss, dementia, discrimination, drugs, mental health, rumors, gossip, lying, sexual assault, violence, ptsd, relationships, pan sexual, racism, theft, hate speech, death, fear, threats, sneaking out, Halloween, alcohol, hung over, violence, mention of murder, masturbation word play, a child using a dildo as a sword, pretty much every flag you can think of is present in some form.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not shelve this book in an Islamic school library or classroom. I would hope that public libraries would not be displaying it near the books for younger YA as well.  It isn’t that I am holding it to a higher standard than other YA books, but it would be naive to think that the Afghan architecture on the bottom right of the cover that looks like a mosque and the light hearted blurb on the back, might excite young Muslim readers, and thus I’ve posted this review as much for my own conscious in making sure parents don’t pick this up for their kids as for warning Muslims that there isn’t Islamic rep in the book.

Amir’s Blue Jacket by Sarah Musa illustrated by Rania Hasan

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Amir’s Blue Jacket by Sarah Musa illustrated by Rania Hasan

This heartfelt elementary picture book does a remarkable job of drawing the reader in to the emotions of the main character, his relationship with his grandfather, and imparting a moral message without being preachy. The illustrations are lovely on their own, but the way the muted tones convey the memories and illustrate the text really ties the book together. Whether it is for a larger story time or a one-on-one bedtime read, the book will offer discussion, comfort, guidance, and a little surprise at the end for Muslim and non Muslims alike. The slightly allegorical book does conclude with a widely known hadith (it is attributed to Prophet Muhammad saw, but is not further cited/sourced) and the family is clearly Muslim with their names mentions of Eid and God, and a hijab clad woman, but the book is universal and a lovely addition to any book shelf.

The book starts with Amir finding his Grandpa’s old blue jacket and recalling wrapping himself in it the day after his beloved Grandpa died. With it smelling like mothballs, he tosses it in the washing machine, but unfortunately when it comes out it has clearly shrunk. Amir is in denial, he says it fits fine and he has no desire for a new one. It is Grandpa’s jacket, and Amir is going to wear it, no matter how tight it is. Amir storms off to sit under the apple tree and recalls picking apples and making applesauce the year before for the whole neighborhood. Grandma shares that she used to keep grandpa’s cane but when someone needed it, she let it go.

Grandma stirs another memory in Amir when she pulls the tray of ka’k out of the oven, of him trying to sneak a whole plate for himself only to have his hiding spot taken over by ants. When he is asked this time to share a plate, every step to the neighbors house reminds him even more of making the trip with his grandfather. Slowly he starts to realize that his memories are with him, not in his grandfather’s things, and Amir makes a decision that would make his grandfather proud, and (inshaAllah) give him more good deeds, even though he is gone.

The idea of sadaqah jariyah is understood through the story, and present in the hadith at the back, but it is never mentioned outright. Just as God is used, not the term Allah (swt). As Amir feels denial, frustration, and eventually peace, nothing is really told, it is shown, which really opens the book up to be a tremendous tool in sharing it with children and asking them to discuss what they understand, what they feel, and what they took away from Amir and his Grandpa’s blue jacket story.

The book is available through the publisher Ruqaya’s Bookshelf as well as HERE at Crescent Moon Bookstore where code ISL will save you 10%.

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf

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Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf

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This 400 page middle grade retelling of Little Red Riding Hood bursts with Malaysian culture, magic, action, and adventure.  The main character and her family are Muslim and hijab, duas, zikr, halal, Qur’an and salat are included throughout.  The mix of legends and characters from Malaysian culture in building the fae world is not contrasted with religious faith, but assumed to both coexist without issue.  The book is clean for ages nine and up and the only concepts worth noting are some intense life and death situations, close male and female friendships, dementia, and the element of fantasy.  The book is set during the Covid-19 pandemic which will ultimately date the book as it doesn’t convey the tone for readers unfamiliar with the curfews, social distancing, controversies, and masking.  Those who have just lived through it, will not need the framing, but in a few years I do fear that the book will be lacking in fully understanding why the tourists, parents, and markets are so absent.  As with all of the author’s books there are also dated pop culture references, that slow the narrative down for today’s readers.  The book grabs you from the start and the second half flies by smoothly, but the middle quarter is a bit slow as the world building is not robust, and the reader is thrust into a magical world that is just accepted without pause, and the reader is asked to accept it at face value as well.

SYNOPSIS:

It is Hamra’s birthday, but the independent 13 year old is not being celebrated- everyone has forgotten: her mother is a front line worker, her father helping those with limited resources, and her aging grandfather and her are left to care for her memory slipping grandmother.  When Hamra, Little Red, storms off to the jungle to collect some herbs, in an act of spite, she defies the rules drilled in to her 1- Always ask permission before you enter.  2- Don’t challenge what you can’t even see. 3- Never use your true name. 4-Never take what isn’t yours. 5-If you hear someone calling your name, never, ever look behind you. She also doesn’t listen to the regular reminders to tie her shoes.  Simple rules, that when broken set the story in to motion.  Along with her best friend Ilyas, the two will strike a deal with a weretiger for their transgressions that takes them on a journey to try and save Opah, themselves, and prove their quest a success.  The characters they meet, the clues they unravel, the legends they understand, and the scenic islands they explore are as lush as the love Hamra has for her family and the drive she has to return home safely.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the way Islam is truly part of the characters, and a natural extension of how they see the world and act within it.  I wish there was stronger world building blending the world of the known and the fantasy for the reader.  The writing of the Malaysian setting is beautifully unapologetic and I love that there is not a glossary or overly explained descriptions, it is immersive and I appreciate that, but the framing of the two worlds I felt was a bit disjointed and needed some fleshing out.  At times it feels more telling than showing in detailing the depths of the legends or the superstitions that are true for the story.  I did enjoy the characters’ quirks and stubbornness, there is not a lot of arc and growth, but with the intensity of the adventure and culture, I didn’t feel it lacking in development.  For much of the book I didn’t quite appreciate the Covid-19 framing, but by the end I understood that it was a way to have the tourist spots void of people, the parent’s out of the way; a little more development though would have had the uncertainty of so much more fully realized.

FLAGS:

Fear, trickery, danger, loss, death, music, musical references, dammit is said.  There is some violence, close male and female friendships, and a possible trigger of dementia in a loved one.  There is myth, legend, magic, fairies, fae, and fantasy, if you are ok with the concepts in general the presentation is clean even with mixing religion and these concepts.  If you are uncomfortable of fantasy and Islam coexisting, this book draws the two worlds very close.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have taught two of her books in middle school book club discussions, and I would teach this one as well.  It is enjoyable to see Malaysian Muslim characters so confident in their identity and having adventures that are enhanced by their faith and culture while focusing on larger themes of friendship, family, forgiveness, and adventure.

The book comes out in March of 2023, I’ve preorderd mine HERE and I hope you will as well.

Crescent Moon Friends by Wadia Samadi & Mo Duffy Cobb illustrated by Lisa Lypowy

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Crescent Moon Friends by Wadia Samadi & Mo Duffy Cobb illustrated by Lisa Lypowy

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This 32 page book does not read like a new release, it looks like something you would have found in the early 2000s when the recent war in Afghanistan started and books about refugees from the region were popping up.  Admittedly back then, I probably would have been more forgiving that the smiling illustrations showed Islam in action and two characters from different cultures coming together through dialogue, respect, acceptance, and fun, but for reasons I’ll articulate, this book reads very superficial, dismissive and erroneous at times.  I am not Canadian or Afghani, I am a neighbor to both as a Pakistani American, and the book is OWN voice, so if I am just being overly picky, or sensitive, and am wrong, I am happy to acknowledge it, but before you push back, please read the entire review.

The description of the book says:

Crescent Moon Friends introduces the reader to two best friends Amelia and Aisha. While the pair is from Canada and Afghanistan, the girls reconcile their differences through exploration of the values they share. This book initiates a family conversation about Islam, explores tradition and language, and brings the girls closer together as a result. It is our hope that the book will be used as a teaching tool to help children understand the cultural backgrounds of others, and to create a warm environment for refugees resettling in Atlantic Canada from the Middle East.

This picture book is for both non- Muslims who are living in the West, and Muslims who are living outside their home countries. The focus of the book is on tradition, not religion, it also captures the significance of Islam. This is a valuable title for library and classroom use.

So first of all, I feel like the foundation of the book is othering Islam in making it seem that this book is an introduction of Islam to non Muslim with the premise being that Islam is what, a foreign religion? Numerous Canadians are both Afghani and Muslim in 2022, before I even began the book I was already fearing the framing.  Then it identifies Afghanistan as the Middle East, which just made me really question the accuracy.  Somehow after that first paragraph, the book then tries to say that the book is not about religion, but traditions.  While part of me appreciates that distinction, the second part of the sentence saying that it wants to capture the significance of Islam really shows the poor focus of the book.

Let me pause here though and answer a question I’m sure many of you are wondering, “why review a book that is not well written, and is not widely promoted or known about.” The answer is simple, a book such as this may not sell in big numbers and be regularly seen online and in stores, but they often do find their way into libraries and classrooms.  They are often shelved to fill “diversity” or “inclusion” quotas and thus their messaging does often reach our children.  I also highlight books like this, not just to pick on this particular book, but to show that OWN voices doesn’t make something automatically correct.  If this is the author’s own experience or is a memoir, there is some leeway, but saying that Afghanistan is in the Middle East or that Salam is Dari, not Arabic, or that it is “naan tandori” instead of “tandoori naan,” just makes the book seem inauthentic.  Often publishers, editors, agents perhaps don’t want to push back and appear uncultured or racist, so they don’t question details, is the only thing I can think of as to why this trend continues to perpetuate.  Which is also why the importance of having a piece sensitivity read cannot be overlooked, even when the author is writing about their own religion or culture. Yes, I too am only one person saying I have issues, but beta and sensitivity readers such as @muslimbookreviewers are four people and we discuss based on what we know and between the four of us there are a lot of singular specialties and a lot of  overlapping expertise that really help books get it right. Sorry for my rant, back to the book at hand…

The book starts with the white Canadian girl camping with her family and wondering what the upcoming school year will bring.  The text says. “she loved to look at the crescent moon.”  Already the writing is clearly weak, who loves to look at a particular phase of the moon, does she not like the waxing gibbous or whole moon? The next spread introduces Aisha, she is standing in the foreground with a mosque behind her and the text says she loves the moon too.  “There was a crescent moon on top of the mosque where her family went to pray.” Aisha has her hair loosely covered, and immediately we are connecting Aisha to her faith and to Amelia through their love of the crescent moon.  Interestingly, Aisha who would presumably love the crescent as it symbols holidays and month changes in the lunar calendar is presented as liking the moon because of it decoration aesthetic. It is where her family went to pray, sure it reminds her of home, but chances are she didn’t often go to the masjid as culturally most women don’t, so I’m not sure that this spread really has any accuracy or value, it just sounds good…if that.

The next spread is the first day of 6th grade with the teacher introducing a new friend to the class.  If it is the first day of school, aren’t they all new to the class? Aisha recalls that she left Afghanistan because there was a war in her country and school wasn’t safe, if she is twelve or thirteen, I’m not sure what caused the change in real life for the war timeline being referenced.  On a more relatable note it mentions that she missed swinging in her grandfather’s garden with cousins as well.

The next page showing the girls being silly with pencils to look like a bunny and walrus is sweet.  It shows language isn’t necessary, that silliness is universal and it is cute.  The girls then show how they share things unique to their culture with one another.  Aisha teaches her how to say Salam, hello in Dari, how to dance the Attan, about Eid, the most important Muslim holiday, and about a game with stones called anjaaq panjaaq.  But this is wrong, Salam is Arabic, Eid is Arabic for festival or holiday so what Eid is the book referring to? Also why not tell how to play the game, or how to do the dance or how Eid is celebrated? If the book is to build cultural (or religious) bridges, thus far I’ve only learned how to stick pencils in my mouth to look like a walrus or behind my head to look like a rabbit.

It is then Amelia’s turn to share Canadian culture and the book picks: ghosts, goblins, Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny.  I find this a bit offensive on Canadians’ behalf, really their holidays are what make them who they are?  Later we will learn that Amelia is not religious, yet the symbols for religious holidays of Easter and Christmas are what are being presented.  Additionally, the holidays mentioned are not even unique to Canada: Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, are the same in America at the very least.

The next spread shows their moms becoming friends and the girls playing in Aisha’s mom’s scarves, hijabs, shoes and make-up.  I find the joy sweet, but I wonder if the book as stated in the details by the author/publisher is to help refugees- is this a bit misleading- that they are settled and have an abundance of clothing accurate?  Often refugees need assistance, will a book like this send the wrong message about helping those fleeing war get established, by not just avoiding talking about need, but celebrating surplus?

Aisha is then shown helping Amelia with math and when Aisha needs help with a Halloween costume, Amelia is there.  The book really is doubling down on the importance of Halloween to Canadian culture, which again feels off.  But also most Muslims don’t celebrate pagan holidays, so I’m not sure I like the positioning that it is cultural to celebrate and that to be Canadian one must engage in the rituals.  Whether you see it as pagan or just assimilation, either way it doesn’t sit right for a book aimed at finding common ground between diverse individuals.  Math is neutral and universal, why not have Amelia help Aisha with something also less controversial?

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The next spread shows Aisha missing Afghanistan, and Amelia being a supportive friend and wanting to visit Afghanistan too.  Unfortunately, once again the weak writing has her sounding like an adult missing the laughter in the air and hope and flowers, not a kid talking.  When Amelia joins in, naan tandori is mentioned, which is backward, if it is the same as in Urdu it should be tandoori naan.  She also wishes they could wear colorful Afghani clothes and dance the Attan, which are two acts not limited to Afghanistan.  They can put on traditionally clothing and dance in Canada.

The story then takes a huge pivot and shows Aisha and her mom praying with the very vague text of her mom “described her way of life, Islam as the peace in her heart, and said turning to Allah in prayer would keep Aisha happy.”  The text seems misplaced and the messaging completely pointless, why not frame it as what Aisha believes or what her faith teaches her? It almost comes across as her mom forcing the belief on her and this being the first Aisha has heard about it.  The next page is set up the same, but shows Amelia’s faith to be kindness and compassion while they sit in nature.  I think the intent was to be positive, but when you have two people representing entire populations, all sorts of stereotypes come in to play that either have to be so general as to be accurate or more specific to the two characters at hand.  In this case I feel the takeaway is that holidays define Canadians, even religious holidays, but they are fine to participate in because Amelia is not part of organized religion.

Thus the next spread of Aisha’s family celebrating Christmas with Amelia makes sense in the story, but I find alarming because it normalizes abandoning your own religious convictions and adopting another faiths in order to fit in and assimilate.  Imagine a teacher reading this book to a first grade class and little Muslim children who demand that Christmas and Easter stay out of public schools are hearing messaging normalizing the holidays for people of all faiths.  Imagine a recent immigrant or refugee further feeling pressured to adopt these practices because they want to be seen as “good citizens” or be accepted by the larger community.  The contrast of Aisha’s family celebrating Christmas is Amelia helping make star and moon shaped cookies for Eid.

The story comes back to the girls love of the moon, one as a dreamer, the other as a scientist.  It tells of other firsts Aisha experiences and Amelia learning about Aisha and her faith.  I’m not sure what a genie lamp has to do with Islam, but it is in the illustration with a hamsa hand, a book, a tasbih, and a crescent with a minaret coming out.

Aisha then starts to wear hijab and Amelia learns how to wear one too. No details about what or why hijab is worn or given, and in the illustrations it doesn’t completely cover anyone’s hair. The girls ski together and drink hot chocolate and living in Canada allows Aisha “to be the girl she was meant to be.”  I’m not sure what that means, but that seems to be the resolution to the book before it circle backs to the mom and concludes.

I think on the very surface the book is a nice idea, but the conflation of what it means to be Canadian with observance of holidays and the lacking details of what it means to be Muslim Afghani make the book miss so much and ultimately do more harm than good if shared.

Animals in the Qur’an Search & Find by Jenny Molendyk Divleli illustrated by Guliz Gerdan

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Animals in the Qur’an Search & Find by Jenny Molendyk Divleli illustrated by Guliz Gerdan

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This book is targeted to preschoolers, but with the minor details the book sends readers looking for, I think children up to third grade will enjoy the mix of fun and learning that this book offers.  The book uses animals in the Qur’an as the theme for each two page spread, tells what surah the animal is mentioned in, and some Islamic context, as well as some basic facts about the animal.  Over 45 pages kids will learn about bees and snakes, donkeys and wolves, and dive in to the challenge of finding a spider with spots looking to the left or a fish with strips swimming to the right.  My three year old can not differentiate between some of the more specific markings of this cow or that, but he still loves the illustrations and benefits from the brief factual text. This book is a great addition to school, masjid, and home libraries with its Islamic foundation, beautiful large execution, and wide audience appeal.

The book starts with the Arabic ayat of verse 45 in Surah Nur and the English meaning of the translation.  It then establishes the format of the book, and then lists the 20 animals featured, where they are found in the Qur’an and on what page number, in the table of contents.

Each page offers the animals and some nature elements to be found on the large 10 x 10 pages.  The pictures are playful and colorful with the print quality glossy and a sturdy thickness.

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I enjoy the book and think most families with young elementary aged children will as well.  You can purchase a copy here from Crescent Moon Store and if you use my initials “ISL” at checkout, you will save 10%

A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi

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This Secret Garden retelling mixes the heart of the original with a dash of modernity, the flavor of desi culture, and the lyricism of a good writer.  Over 368 pages the slow plot but rich imagery will draw readers in, hold their attention, and leave them thinking about the characters they have been fortunate to spend time with on Long Island.  Islam is practiced and normalized and naturally woven into the Muslim characters’ daily lives without othering or over explaining.  I did struggle a bit trying to keep the relationships of who was supposed to be caring for the protagonist at various points since her parent’s died clear, but once I abandoned stressing about it I was able to be swept away.  I recently reread The Secret Garden with my own children and the original is not plot heavy, nor action packed, but I watched as my own children were drawn to the slower, more grounded (pun intended) nuanced tale, and I think this book, in the same vein, will find its way in to the hearts of middle grade readers.  The book is clean, there is a possible crush hinted very slightly at the end, periods are also endured, and I do have reservations of the terrible marital relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne, but it establishes that change will occur, so at least it isn’t normalized.  There are sprinkles of magic implied regarding the house, but it is always framed without clarity and in a subtle way to set the tone and the emotions the characters are feeling more than centralizing something rooted (see I did it again) in fantasy.

SYNOPSIS:

The book updates and mirrors the original fairly well with an obstinate orphan arriving at a sprawling house, finding a prickly boy, and setting off to form a tentative toleration of one another with friendly neighbor kids in a garden that is unquestionably off limits.

Maria Latif arrives from Pakistan against her will to be taken in by a distant relative (I’m not sure how she is related), but Asra has been called away and she is forced to stay with Lyndsay, the new wife of Mr. Clayborne.  The first wife was a friend of Maria’s family, but Lyndsay is just as emotionally overwhelmed and lost as the child in her charge.  With Mr. Clayborne away on businesses, his mother Charlotte keeps them all on edge.  When Colin Clayborne is expelled and returns home, more tension erupts and the two children find themselves in an off limits garden trying to make the most of a difficult situation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the mix of poetry and standard novel format.  It is beautifully written and clearly the author does a remarkable job of making her very unlikeable characters worm their way in to the reader’s heart.  Both Maria and Colin are thorny and difficult, stubborn and rude, but you seriously cheer for them, and I did shed a few tears at the end.  With the author’s writing ability apparent, I’m still not sure why the foundation of the relationships and getting Maria to the Clayborne home is so cumbersome.  It is too muddled and it drags the book down every time it is revisited.  The Dadi having the aunt’s phone number was too easy, the inconsistency of the neighbors having no relationship to the Clayborne’s for so long and Lyndsay not even pausing to think another Bangladeshi family living a few houses down might be my husband’s first wife’s friends, seems inconsistent.  Honestly Lyndsey in general needed to read like a competent woman struggling, not a teenager in over her head. I disliked her and Mr. Clayborne’s relationship and I would hate to think any reader would find it ok or normal.

I love the Islam and how it presents when the character has to pray, she goes and prays, it is part of the story and it is seamless.  I don’t think the culture is handled quite as well.  Lyndsay is a foot writer who is always cooking, yet knows nothing of desi foods? If Colin’s mom is desi, wouldn’t she at some point tried to cook familiar foods for him.  Half the neighborhood is Bangledeshi, so it seems everyone has a parent or step parent or distant relative that is desi and I loved the normalizing, but it seemed a bit assuming.  I don’t think kids will wish it was more clear, but as an adult reading it, I felt like it needed to be interjected more without explanation, or if left as is, adding some context. I also wanted to know what Maria’s parents did and a little introspection from Maria.  Again as an adult I see how her anger and grief changes how she remembers them, but from them always being away, to such soft poignant memories at the end, I think kids will need a little hand holding to understand the grief process and her understanding of them.  As it is, they just seem terrible and then all of the sudden great, and the pacing gets thrown off in the process.

FLAGS:

It seems to hint at the end that Maria might have a bit of a crush on Colin, I honestly thought up until a single line that they were making a chosen family with the people who cared for them, but that line seemed to suggest it might be more of a romantic feeling than friend or brotherly.  I read an early copy, so this is subject to change.

Maria gets her period and it is detailed what she is feeling.  I think boys and girls can and should read it.  It is presented on age and appropriately: cramps, achy, dry about blood leakage, having it start young like her mother, etc..

Implied magic (possibly), music and musical instruments being played, milaad, lying, sneaking, being kicked out of school for physical assault, close male and female friendships, ADHD stigma.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION

I think this book would work in a classroom and would appeal to readers in an Islamic or public library.  I would consider it for a middle school book club, I think readers will connect and feel empathy for Maria, Colin, and Lyndsay and be better for it.

I preordered my copy HERE and I hope you will do the same

A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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I read this 30 page early elementary book a few times before writing this review and honestly my cheeks hurt because I cannot stop smiling.  The lyrical writing radiates warmth and pride, culture and tradition, legacy and identity, while acknowledging both the playfulness and solemnness of a piece of fabric.  My heart breathed with the clarity and articulation that is felt and contained within the fabric that perhaps all Pakistanis feel, but cannot convey so poetically.  The book may be meant for children four to eight years old, but all readers will appreciate the text and illustrations that seamlessly flow like a favorite dupatta grabbed while running out the door. I struggled with picking only a few images to share, as every page became my new favorite as the book progressed.  Admittedly though, one page did give me pause as it conflated incense burning with getting rid of evil spirits which comes across as a religious belief, but is a cultural practice.

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The book starts out with the actual physical description of what a dupatta is and how it is adorned.  It then moves on to describing the color, the sound, the smell, the place, the function, the art, the beauty, the fun, the faith, the legacy, and the identity.  Each spread ends with the words, “but a dupatta is so much more…” seamlessly weaving so many facets of what a dupatta is together to create a true understanding of it from a tangible, to cultural, to practical perspective.

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I love that there is a page about faith, and praying five times a day with a dupatta being worn, it is a little odd that there is a portrait decorating the wall behind the two characters making dua, but at least it is clearly behind them.  I absolutely loved that so often the wearer of the dupatta was also wearing a hijab, particularly the bride picture- which is absolutely gorgeous.  It signals without words that a dupatta can be worn to cover a Muslim woman’s head, but it is also often not.  The backmatter further details that it was once worn as part of the national dress and as a form of modesty, but now is often worn as an accessory.

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One summer in Pakistan, a friend and some cousins and I started trying to formulate 101 Things to do with a dupatta (wipe noses, pull things out of the oven, catch fish), it was the year of net dupattas so clearly covering your head was not one of them.  Sure we were being silly, but to see the book also highlight wiping sticky hands, and wrapping it up like a sari, and using it as a cradle to rock a baby was very, very accurate and heartwarming.

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Please pre order this book, it signals to publishers that these books are in demand and is a way to show what type of books we want to see.  I preordered  mine here.

The Kindest Red: A Story of Hijab and Friendship by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

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The Kindest Red: A Story of Hijab and Friendship by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali illustrated by Hatem Aly

This heartwarming book centers kindness, family, and friendship in an inclusive way; and while the tagline says “A Story of Hijab and Friendship” I think the hijab angle is a bit of a stretch.  The authors are Muslims that wear hijab, the older sister and older females in the family wear hijab, but there is nothing in the story or text that connect hijab to Islam or to something Muslim women wear as part of religion.  I don’t want to compare the first book in the series, The Proudest Blue, to this book, but hijab really was centered in that book and the Author’s Note mentioned that hijab is an Islamic act.  This book does not make those same connections, which is fine, I just want consumers to be aware.  This book is beautiful and the messaging endearing, and the tone and heart over 40 pages ideal for preschool to early elementary children.  It works as a standalone, but with the same characters and sisterly love, I think most people will enjoy keeping them together.

The book starts with Mama passing on Asiya’s dress to Faizah, that had been Mama’s even before that.  It is picture day, and the girls are helping each other get ready. At school Faizah and her friend Sophie twirl in their pretty dresses before heading in to class to discuss what kind of world they want.

Faizah wants a kind world, where there’s always a friend nearby, where everyone helps. At recess, Sophie and Faizah combine their visions, superheroes and kindness, to help other kids on the playground.  When picture time arrives the class is full of smiles, but when it is time for sibling pictures, Faiza and Asiya realize they don’t match.

Faizah is sad, and Sophie notices, can the kindness be passed along like the dress to help the sisters? To make Faizah happy too? I’m not going to give away the conclusion, but it is sweet and idyllic and shows how lovely the world can be if we all just share some kindness.

I love the illustrations and the hijab wearing super hero that presumably Sophie drew is powerful.  I think the book does wonders to normalize hijab, even if I do wish it articulated why one would wear hijab.  It seems that the industry trend is to keep hijab superficial and I recognize I am in the minority that wants religious centering for religious tenants.  So yes, I’m fully prepared for the backlash when people want to point out that it is joyful and that I’m a naysayer, but I deal with people on a daily basis that do not know that my own hijab is a reflection of me being Muslim.  With as connected as the world is through technology, I  think those in diverse environments take for granted the understanding of basic Islamic principals in the general population.  However, not everyone has those real life connections and rely on books and media to fill the gaps, so when books about hijab, don’t actually connect hijab to faith, I feel obligated to point it out.

I purchased (preordered) my copy here, but I hope you will support small business and order yours here  use code ISL for 10% off.