Category Archives: 3rd grade and up

The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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This is not a religious story, it is part cultural, but it is really all heart.  The sweet relationship between a boy and his sidi stole my heart in The Turtle of Oman, and in this stand alone companion book, I once again was swept away by the admiration and relationship of the two.  This lyrical middle grade book is slow and enveloping with its cadence and detail.  There is no real climax, but the character driven story will linger long after the last of the 322 pages are read.  The book is clean, and never states the characters are Muslim, but it hints at it.  It celebrates Oman and America, and would be a great read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime with its poetic passages, lists, and emails back and forth across the ocean.

SYNOPSIS:

Aref has finally left Oman for Michigan and as he and his mother board the plane and start their adventure to America to join their father who has gone ahead to set everything up, Aref’s heart aches for all he has known in Oman, and for his beloved grandfather.  Once in Michigan, his days are filled with tagging along with his parents to their university classes, exploring Ann Arbor, making friends, and getting to know the neighbors.  Everything in America is new and different, but sometimes the same too.  He writes messages catching his Sidi up on all that he is taking in, and Sidi writes back, but it isn’t the same.  From new flavors of ice cream, the first snow, celebrating Christmas for the first time, and giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr Day in an Omani hat, there are so many new things Aref feels his Sidi is missing, if only he would come and visit.

Sidi on the other side of the world is lonely.  He is trying to take computer classes so he can email his grandson, he can’t figure out how to message on his smart phone, and tries to avoid going anywhere that reminds him of Aref.  But he and Aref went everywhere in his jeep, so Sidi doesn’t go out, and is not doing well as a result.  It will be three long years before they return to Oman, and Sidi might need to be brave and board a plane.  The reunion is not a surprise for the reader, only for Aref, but it is tender and warm and worth the journey for them both.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I wish there was some clear Islam, there is mention of not celebrating Christmas normally, a prayer room at the airport, peace be upon him when there is a death, and prayer beads, so it is possibly there if you search, but it isn’t at the same time.  I know I say this a lot in books like this, but it seems that when the religion and culturally religious words are withheld it seems a bit hollow.  A family coming straight from Oman to America doesn’t say Assalamualaikum ever, or make dua when hardships arise, or say InshaAllah or MashaAllah? It seems watered down and overly dismissed. I guess the way Christmas is framed is understandable, they are trying so many new American things they decide to give each other one gift to try it too, I wish though Ramadan would have been mentioned or Eid.

All that being said, I absolutely love Aref and the world through his daily actions.  He is endearing and his love for his grandpa is goals.  I love that Aref’s new school is so diverse and that everyone is celebrated and accepted, it isn’t a story of him being the new kid, but rather them all bringing something unique to the school experience.  The first graders as conflict resolvers is either a bit hard to believe or based on something real and absolutely brilliant, I am still undecided about that. Also as an adult reader, I couldn’t help but notice how money never seems to be a problem, and while I don’t know if children will pick up on it, it seemed a little surprising for two parents that are professors to never stress about it.

The language and emotional pull the story has is remarkable, and I think the slower pace would be hard for kids to get used to initially, but it will win them over and the rhythm of the story will hook them and make it hard for them to put the book down once they get going.

FLAGS:

Some bullying discussions

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Too young for any book clubs I host, but definitely want it on the library shelf.

Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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Must Love Pets: Friends Fur-Ever by Saadia Faruqi

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This 208 middle grade novel by a Muslim author features a desi family and the protagonist’s love of pets.  Iman Bashir is on summer break and is determined to convince her mom and grandfather that she is responsible enough for a pet dog.  The internal realization of selfishness, her ability to problem solve, be a good friend, and know the limits around her, keep the story from being whiny and annoying.  The writing is superb and the characters relatable.  I wish there was a bit more Pakistani culture, or some indication of the characters faith (there is one Salaam), not because all books need it, but rather because it almost seems that text goes out of its way to not contain it.  The story is clean and the first in a series that I think most kids will enjoy. The father in the story has passed away and at times Iman struggles with sharing her thoughts on him, I don’t think it would be triggering, it is subtle and adds depth to the story, but it is worth noting incase it hits too close to home.

SYNOPSIS:

Iman has been begging, or rather asking her mom for a dog at every chance she can get, but after 43 rejections she is thinking she needs a new plan.  When she meets the new neighbor, Olivia, who is the same age as her and her best friend London, an idea is hatched to start a pet sitting business.  Iman’s mom is always stressing how important it is to help others after all.  Opportunity strikes when Sir Teddy’s owner has to rush out of town, the girls offer their services to watch the beloved dog.  But how do you share caring for a dog at three different houses? How do you let your parents know what you have committed to? What do you do when your brother is allergic to dogs, or you have a cat that doesn’t like dogs, or your house is still in boxes? What do you do when your first customer goes missing?

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the side stories the best: the grief of losing a parent, the Dada Jee and his lemons, the soccer team helping search for the missing dog.  The story itself is fine, albeit predictable on the surface.  Where it really shines is in the point of view of Iman.  I love that her internal dialogue knows that she is being selfish, that she is being a bad friend, but that she is still feeling these very real feelings adds depth to the book, character, and plot.

I like that the mom is a strong single mom, and I hope that as more books in the series are written we get to see some emotional unpacking and connection between her and Iman.  I do like that the meaning of Iman’s name is explained in Arabic, and desi foods are featured, but I couldn’t help but feel that the writing would set up for something more, and then abruptly pull back.  There really is no explanation about why Dada Jee doesn’t like dogs other than saying in Pakistan they aren’t allowed in the house.  So finish the though, face palm, they are not let in because religiously which has influenced culture- dogs are generally not brought inside, it is a bit of a contentious point.  I get because Muslims feel differently about dogs it was probably kept out, but she is a talented writer, she could have still acknowledged the hole in the rationale without committing to a side.  Sure in my Islamic School Librarian head, I would have loved the characters taking their shoes off when they enter the house, eating halal, and pausing to pray, but I accept that isn’t the story.  At times though it didn’t feel OWN voice, it felt very watered down on the cultural rep and it makes me wonder why it was really included at all.

FLAGS:

Clean.  Loss of a parent.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This is a solid MG book and would be a great addition on a school or classroom library shelf.

The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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The Button Box by Bridget Hodder & Fawzia Gilani-Williams

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This 152 page book reads like a historical fiction interfaith Magic Treehouse for middle grades tale, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I learned about Sephardic Jews, the language of Ladino, Prince Abdur Rahman, and a tiny bit about the Abbasids overthrowing the Ummayads.  I love that it starts with a map and ends with sources, facts about what information is real in the book and what is fiction, and a bit about Muslims and Jews and how to be an ally if you witness prejudice.  The book is co-authored, and in many ways the Jewish narrative does take the majority of the focus, but the Islamic phrases sprinkled in, the Islam practiced by a major character, and the setting, allow for both religions to shine and combine to make a compelling magical time traveling story for third graders (and their parents) and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Cousins Ava and Nadeem are in fifth grade and spend their afternoons afterschool with their Granny Buena.  Granny and Ava are Jewish and Nadeem is Muslim, though they believe differently, they always seem to find more that is the same, and respect is always given.  When they face bullying at school Granny Buena pulls out a crystal box full of buttons and tells the children, and the cat Sheba a tale about their ancestor Ester ibn Evram.  When she stops the story short, the two kids exam the button closer and find themselves back in time tasked with saving Prince Abdur Rahman and getting him from Africa to Spain.  They aren’t sure if that will be enough to get them back to their own time though, but they don’t have time to overthink it because if they fail, the Golden Age of Islam won’t happen, peace won’t come to Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the region, and their Jewish ancestors may face the backlash of helping the Muslim escape.  Along the way, they learn about their own family traditions, beliefs, and gain wisdom to handle their bullying problem at school.

WHY I LIIKE IT:

I love that I learned so much, and from what I could Google and ask about from those more knowledgeable, the facts about the time period and cultures all seem to check out.  Only one passage comparing Jewish belief and the text of the Quran is phrased oddly in my opinion, the rest of the Islamic sprinkling is well done.  There are numerous bismillahs, mashaAllahs, stopping for salat, quoting of the Quran and more.  The narrative is primarily Jewish, but the setting Islamic with athans being called and Salams being given.  The book does have a lot of Jewish detail, but I don’t think it was preachy, and the further uniqueness of Ladino words and culture I think would appeal to all readers no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are with the two religions.

There are some questions that as an adult reader I wanted to know more about: how Nadeem and his mom are practicing Muslims in a strong Jewish family, how making sure history happened as it happened the first time sent the two kids back…then why were they sent there at all, is there going to be more button adventures, were their two cats or was it the same cat?   Honestly, a lot of the more obvious fantasy plot holes were accounted for and done quickly and simply: how their clothes changed but the button remained, how they could speak the language, how confused their aunt would be when her real niece and nephew arrived, etc.. The writing quality kept it all clear for the reader, and did so without the pacing of the story suffering.

FLAGS:

Near death experience, magic, mention of killing, fear, deception, bullying, fighting, physical altercation, misogynistic assumptions.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a great story to share if I return to the classroom. The history, the religions, the storytelling would provide so much to connect to and learn about.  As a book club selection though, it would be too young for our middle school readers and ultimately too short.  I would consider it for a read a loud with fourth and fifth grade.

To Purchase: Here is the Amazon link: https://amzn.to/3D9LyxI

Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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This middle grade series has been highly recommend to me numerous times over the years, and I finally found a copy to read and review.  It is book three in the series, and I have not read the first two, so I may be missing something, but the book didn’t wow me honestly.  The 147 page story published in 2011 has a lot of potential, but I felt like it didn’t know who the audience would be, and thus often felt cumbersome and disjointed to read.  At times it uses Islamic terms (muezzin), other times the Urdu words (namaz), and way too often the english meanings (ablution, peace be upon you, mosque), often all three in a single paragraph.  It is Islamic fiction and stays adventurous, without getting overly preachy and didactic, but there are some cruel life threatening antics by the girls, and some heavy themes of child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, gender treatment in Islamic spaces, finance and micro loans, but to its credit, it stays on level and, while as a mom some of the adventure needs adult intervention, I think young readers would support the young girls handling so much on their own.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve year old Zahra and her classmates from her Islamic boarding school are headed on a class trip from England to Egypt.  For ten days they will be learning about the history, the culture, and connecting to Islam.  A group of first year girls and their chaperones in a foreign country meet with former students, another girls school from the UK, and some of their chaperone’s husbands giving this short book a lot of characters to get to know briefly, and only in passing.

The adventure starts right away as bully Saira locks a claustrophobic girl in the airplane lavatory in revenge of being locked in a freezer and forced to eat spiders earlier in the school year, and the foreshadowing that these battles are not over is set.  Once in Egypt, the girls muddle through worksheets sharing what they have learned, stopping to pray, and enjoying the experience.  Every so often at the hotel however, they see a girl they have dubbed, “sad girl” and the mystery to figure out what is making her so sad will ultimately make this a trip that brings the girls close to danger, and if successful will make them heroes. Toss in a nasheed concert, a runaway camel, and it is going to be a busy week and a half for them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book presents a lot of Islam, and I think most readers will learn something and see Islam practiced authentically.  There is praying, and wearing hijabs, and halal meat, and Islamic history, and the 99 names of Allah all present in the characters naturally.

The book starts with Zahra and her mom and aunt rushing to the airport, they are running late.  Zahra’s aunt is not Muslim and presumably her mom is a convert, there is some really awkward dialogue before the family leaves, and it is called out as being awkward, but it just didn’t seem to fit either.  Why would a girl’s brother tell a non Muslim to wear a scarf? A character that is just in the first scene? I’m hoping there is more to her as a character in the first two books, and maybe this is a reference to something, but it just reads really weird and unrealistic (I hope).

Similarly, I am sure the first two books cover the forcing a bully to eat spiders and why she was locked in a freezer, but to just see that this is the level of the pranks, is a little disturbing.  The book acknowledges that locking a girl in a bathroom who has claustrophobia is dangerous, and that triggering the camel to run-off was similarly potentially deadly, but what about the other cruelties? It doesn’t even hint that there is more there, and I would have liked to see some context to recognize that these aren’t benign pranks, they are pretty big acts.

The child trafficking and kidnapping plot really had me wishing that the girls at least talked to Anu Apa. Having preteens take on such a dangerous situation so haphazardly was a little stressful for me, and I need to find some middle grade readers to help me see the actions through their eyes.

The randomness of the nasheed concert didn’t seem to fit for me, the song she wrote wasn’t that good, the whole thing came together too easily, and then some of the girls taking off their hijabs in wildness seemed such an odd tangent to me.

The biggest obstacle for me was the terminology and diction.  I don’t think it matters if the readers are Muslim or not, use the Islamic terms.  The teachers and students go to an Islamic school, it isn’t a stretch to have them use the proper term of salat instead of namaz, they can remark on the athan, not azan, they can say Assalamualaikum, they don’t need to say in english peace be upon you, and upon you when they greet, it seems so halting to the authenticity of the characters and flow of the story.

I think part of the difficulty in getting these books in the US is they just had one edition printed, and I genuinely hope that at some point the author will revisit the books especially now that she has been published mainstream for her other works, and hopefully grown as an author.  There is a lot of good in the book, it just could use some polishing and updating.

FLAGS:

Child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, cruel pranks, physical assault.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get these books on a classroom shelf based on this one book.  If a classroom or library already has them, I wouldn’t remove them.  Utlimately, I don’t know that many readers will stick with the sorting out of all the characters in the beginning of the book, and those that do I think would probably be slightly disappointed, not with the presentation of Islam, but in the side story building details.

Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah by Catherine Hapka illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

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I love that a reader talked to her mom about this book, and then they brought it to my attention. Published in 2011 it is book six in a popular middle grade series told from the horse’s perspective where each book features a different culture from around the world and is set in different time periods. This book is told from an Arabian horse’s perspective in the 9th century and details her growing up an orphan, trying to understand the Bedouin humans around her, and establishing herself as a war mare.  Allah swt is mentioned quite often, as is Arab hospitality, and some guests at one point are briefly mentioned as they are on their way to Hajj.  My problem with the story is the portrayal of the raids.  I don’t know enough about Bedouin culture in the 9th century to opine on the accuracy of the raiding that would occur between tribes, but when juxtaposed with the humble God fearing, grateful religious people, blatantly stealing from the neighbors, it is hard to cheer for Yatimah and her humans at being thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

The birth of Yatimah takes the life of her mother, the beloved war mare of Nasr.  Her loss puts distance between the Bedouin leader and the foal.  Nasr’s daughter Safiya, however, has a soft heart for Yatimah and the two form a close bond. As Yatimah is accepted to nurse from another mare and grows with the companionship of her colt, Tawil, the two young horses show the reader how when the grazing starts to disappear in the desert, they are fed dates, and when those start to deplete they move to more fertile lands.  Always on the move, they raid other camps to steal sheep, and camels, and horses as needed, and work to prevent other’s from stealing from them.  Since the death of Yatimah’s mom, Nasr has not found a proper war mare, and thus the training of Yatimah begins. The climax is a raid that will give Yatimah a chance to prove herself and win over the still distant Nasr.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the illustrations and the detail that often accompanies them.  I also really appreciate the appendix at the end that gives information about Arabian horses, Bedouins, and war mares.  I learned a lot about the specific strengths of Arabian horses, and why the Bedouins favored riding mares over stallions. 

I liked that many of the exhausting stereotypes were not present in this book in regards to women.  Safiya is a young girl at the beginning and then starts to wear hijab as she grows, but she is still free to come and go as she pleases it seems.  Her father respects her and shows affection and kindness to her throughout.  I just find the premise a little off that we readers, are hoping that Yatimah becomes the lead thieving horse.  It mentions that it doesn’t make sense to the horses, but to have that be the whole point of the story, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially when the story could have been developed in so many other ways to focus on something a little bit more positive.

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FLAGS:

Stealing, thieving, death, loss.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think the book would be fine on a classroom bookshelf, but I wouldn’t highlight it unless I was prepared to discuss with young readers the culture and why perhaps this was such a part of the lifestyle.  I would not want to perpetuate any stereotypes of Muslims, or provide a negative impression on readers that are drawn to these books because of their love of horses.  I learned a lot by reading the books, but I worry what a 8 to 10 year old would take away about a culture and religion after reading such a story, I fear the word barbaric may arise.

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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I saw this book at the library and was shocked: a Palestinian pov story written by an Israeli.  I checked it out, braced myself, and got ready to rage.  Except it isn’t blatant, and I can’t just chop it up to obvious hate, but that isn’t to say that the 183 page middle school book should be shared and deemed harmless: it subtly minimizes the occupation of an entire people, it in many ways glosses over the apartheid taking place.  It gives the inequity lip service, and I’m sure many western non Muslim, non Palestinian readers will find the book balanced, but I never could quite shake the looming shadow throughout, of trivializing the oppressive regime that is Israel.  I don’t know if the undermining is intentional, and I couldn’t find anything with a Google search to see how the book was received by Israelis in 1994 when it was published (it was translated in 2000), but either way it provides a great example as to why OWN voice books are so much more powerful.  This is not the oppressors’ story to tell.  I’m not saying the author isn’t sympathetic to the Palestinian struggles or that she actively supports encroachment of Palestinian homes, I honestly don’t know her stance.  I do know that the lived experiences of Palestinians though, is best left to be told by people that live it, have lived it, and those that feel loss because of it.  It is not a narrative to be told by the force that is causing the pain.  My biggest worry is that readers will take away from the story that the situation isn’t that bad, that Israelis are taking care of this poor injured Palestinian boy out of the goodness of their hearts so they must be nice, and at the end of the day the two sides are just two opposing forces, but the people once they get to know each other, bond over the fact that they pee the same and can be friends.  It waters down that it is, and was, major international powers backing the Israelis and that it is not, nor has it ever been, a simple disagreement between two equal sides. No I don’t expect every book about the region to detail the specifics, but don’t tell me that killing of children, a life of checkpoints, curfews, and fear can all disappear over a few months when the “enemy” provides medical care, regular meals, and arts and craft times. I’m not Palestinian and I can see the short-sided reality of that real quick.  It leaves young impressionable readers with a very skewed view, no matter how diplomatic the author attempts to be on the surface.  And I cannot support it.

SYNOPSIS:

Palestinian boy Samir injures his leg in a bicycle accident, quite seriously, and his mother who cleans for an Israeli lawyer is able to get him a special permit to be taken to the Jew’s hospital to be cared for by a visiting American surgeon.  He speaks broken Hebrew, but understands quite a bit as he has worked in a Jewish grocery store in the past.  When he gets to the hospital, he is placed in a room with other children to wait.  He stays there for weeks until the doctor can arrive and then even after the procedure he stays for physical therapy for weeks before he can return home.

While he is there, he gets to observe and know, in some ways, the other patients.  Yonatan is always buried in a book, but at night, when the other kids go to sleep he talks to Samir and plots with him a trip to Mars.  Yonatan’s mom lives in American, he lives with his dad who is an astronomy professor.  He also ethically is a vegetarian and saves his kabobs and chicken from his meals to give to Samir.  There is a girl that was hit by her father and refuses to see him, and one that is like a princess that doesn’t like to eat.  Tzahi wears a colostomy bag and is always jumping around and causing trouble.  His brother is a paratrooper in the Israeli army and he hates Palestinians.  It is hard for Samir when the brother comes to visit, the fear is real.

Samir’s younger brother Fadi was recently killed by Israeli soldiers and the memory, horror, and anguish is still very fresh for Samir and his entire family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I really couldn’t articulate the saccharin taste the book was causing to form in my mouth as I read.  The curfews, and check points and loss of Fadi was being discussed and contrasted to the luxury of the Israeli hospital, and then it began to occur to me that, it was almost worse than just being blatantly hateful.  The placating and sugar coating slowly diminishes the horrors of reality.  At the beginning Samir doesn’t want to go to the hospital, he would rather have a limp, but the narrative slowly becomes about the kids in the hospital also have stressing and hard lives, and that seems sweet, except, their issues while specific, are universal.  Samir’s leg is as well, but the oppression of his people is systemic and helping him doesn’t erase that the same people running the hospital killed his brother, dictate his reality, and his future opportunities.  It is not enough for the “anti Palestinian child” to have a surgery that corrects his ability to urinate and at the very end, they pee in to the planters.  It might work on the surface, but it trivializes too much. If Samir would have gotten to tell them about his life and his pains, and his experiences, and they would have accepted them as valid, maybe I could see bridges being built, but bonding over basic human functions, and celebrating that an Israeli boy finally talks to a Palestinian, isn’t compassion, it is arrogance.

The only real positive takeaway I had of the book was that even in the tiniest human kindnesses Yonatan showed Samir it was something for Samir to contrast with his life long friendship with Adnan.  That growth of realizing what makes a good friend was more humanizing and affectionate than any other storyline in the book.

FLAGS:

Murder, fear, harassment, oppression, bullying, teasing, violence, gun violence, abuse, talk of urinating, showering in front of others.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No way, I will never have Palestinian children read about their life experiences from an Israeli person speaking through a Palestinian character.

The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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I have a vague memory of being told that this book features a Muslim family when I reviewed the author’s first book, but I can’t find the message, nor recall who sent it and to where.  The text does not suggest any religion by any of the characters, but that being said there are “Islamic” names present in this 195 page middle grades book by a Muslim author and set in Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka.  The fast paced story pulls you in and sets three kids up for adventure, overcoming fears, outsmarting adults, and becoming heroes along the way.  I didn’t love this book as much as The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, but it probably isn’t fair to compare them.  The book was released last year in the UK and will release shortly here in the US, I don’t know that I would rush out to purchase it, but I would definitely put it on hold at the library.  It is an adventure filled read from a boy protagonist perspective, it starts with a mutiny, features treasure, plotting, close encounters with a whale, and bringing justice to murderers and thieves.

SYNOPSIS:

Zheng has never had much of a family, and when his Captain’s First Mate and the cook poison their merchant ship crew and leave them to die, Zheng escapes.  He washes up on the shore of Serendib, not far from Galle, and is found by local fisherboy Razi.  Razi is a fisherboy that doesn’t fish, or rather no longer fishes, not since his father was killed by the sea.  Razi just tries to help get Zheng some food and get him out of the sun, but when Marco and Cook question him about the whereabouts of Zheng, he protects the boy and gets himself involved.  Promising not to tell anyone about Zheng, he immediately tells his twin sister Shifa.  Shifa is the rational one int he group and doubts Zheng’s adventure stories.  Her quick thinking and clever sneakiness provides time-and-time again in the book, a chance for the three kids to rescue each other, find the treasure, and return it.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book is so fast past and unapologetic.  The descriptions of the island, and the plants and sea life, really is impressive and insightful into a country and culture not often explored in children’s books.  My mommy heart did not like that the kids would just leave for days at a time, and they never even thought that she might be worried, spoiler, she was! 

I like how subtly the grief and loss of the father manifested in Razi.  How he had to reconcile his emotions and start to move forward.  It isn’t in your face, but I would imagine that any child who has gone through something similar, would be reassured by seeing a fictional character experiencing something similar.  It is reinforced by Zheng’s lack of family and his need to find a “home.”

I felt like a few plot holes were too quickly glossed over in the heat of action.  I don’t know that it is a result of carelessness, I think it was more to keep the story fast moving and appropriate for the target audience, but I could have used a little filling in of the gaps: the ease of pulling people in to boats, where Zheng was going at the end and how it was all figured out, how Cook and Marco found Zheng, how everyone in Galle immediately recognized the dagger, why the kids were never killed even though numerous people were drugged at the beginning without a second thought, what the praise was for the returning of the dagger, what the oxen cart owner’s response was to the damaged cart, etc..

I wish there would have been a prayer to Allah swt at some point, or a bismillah, or an Assalamualaikum. The sister’s name, Shifa, and the medicine man that she trains under, Abdul Cader, imply a tinge of Islam, but I would have liked a tiny bit more, the book sets itself for lots to be sprinkled in, the children nearly die multiple times, but it was never there.  

FLAGS:

Death, lying, sneaking, near death experiences, grief, loss, theft.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a fun elementary read-a-loud with the short chapters and fast paced action.

Click to access The-Girl-Who-Stole-an-Elephant-Comprehension-worksheet.pdf

An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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An Ayesha Dean Novelette: The High School Heist by Melati Lum

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If you are a long time fan of Ayesha Dean and you have been waiting for some children in your life to grow up just a little, so you can share the strong Muslim detective books with them, you are in for treat.  This book is a short novelette for middle grade readers!  It isn’t a prequel detailing her personal backstory, but it does show how she got her first taste of sleuthing at age 13.  If you are new to the series: the book like all the others is Islam centered, fast paced, authentically voiced, and an overall fun read.  Unique to this book is that it is for ages 8 and up, and takes place in Ayesha’s home country of Australia.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha is at a new school, she has recently started wearing hijab and she just wants to settle in to it all with friends Jess and Sara.  Things have been going missing from year eight lockers, but it isn’t until Ayesha is a victim does the concern really hit home.  Add to that getting paired with the jerk Dylan Wyley for a project in Indonesian class, and Ayesha is not having a good day.  When she senses some suspicious activity, she is on the case: ready to get her stolen book back, take down a bully, put her Tae Kwon Do training to use, and make it to the library to pray her salat on time.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed the relatable voice of young Ayesha, having read all of the other books in the series, it was sweet to get a peek of her in her younger school days.  I love how much Islam is in the book, and not in a preachy way, but rather in a ‘I’m Muslim and this is how I see the world and this is what I do’ sort of way. I’m not going to lie though, I wanted more backstory on how she became friends with Jess and Sara, how she settled in to living with Uncle Day when her parents died, and all the backstory four books solving crimes around the world just couldn’t get to.  But I fully realize, that is just something I may never get (hint, hint) and will have to be content with the fast paced, culture and Islam rich stories that we thankfully get.  I’m not complaining, I just get overly invested.

To all my arrogant ignorant readers out there, that like me, might be a bit confused about Australian schooling and culture- I embarrassed and humbled myself and annoyed the ever gracious author to learn more about Ayesha’s world.  In Australia the lockers are located in the students’ homeroom classrooms (tute rooms), hence they don’t often padlock them.  High school refers to ages 12-17, and sometimes 11th and 12th grade are called senior school, and “How did you go” is a phrase in Australian English.  See, aren’t you glad I asked, now we know, and can widen our view together.

The only thing that I think I would have liked to see would have been a bit of pause before Ayesha got into a fight.  It is high energy, and she does it to help someone, but I feel like at 13 years old, in a book for 8 year olds, and as someone familiar with Tae Kwon Do, it should have been more articulated that she was nervous to engage in a physical altercation, and was only doing it because she could not diffuse the situation, get the victim away, and thus had to step in.  I recognize that pulling out of the scene might have made it lose momentum, but I felt a little off celebrating a school fight without that pause of introspection.

FLAGS:

Fighting, stealing, bullying, Islamohobia, racism, bigotry.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The book is short and for a younger age than I meet with, but I look forward to purchasing the book on February 20, 2022 to have available in the school library for anyone to pick up and read, inshaAllah.

Pepperoni, Pitches (and Other Problems) by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Upit Dyoni

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Pepperoni, Pitches (and Other Problems) by Shifa Saltagi Safadi illustrated by Upit Dyoni

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I absolutely love how smart this book is, and how it allows for elementary aged readers to feel that “aha moment” when they read it, get it, and realize that they need to remember the lessons because it could happen to them.  The illustrations are an added bonus and are perfectly aligned with the tone and text of the story.  My only issue, is the title.  Pitches reads as a euphemism for another word and since the book involves girl drama, teasing, and misunderstandings, it really is hard to not have that thought zap your brain when you see the title.  Perhaps if the “and Other Problems” would have used a bigger font on the word “Problems” the alliteration would have been more obvious, and hidden the word “Pitches” a bit.  If I’m alone in this, I apologize to the author and publisher, (I’ve mentioned my concern to them), but for others that saw the word and questioned the content, rest assured it is about baseball and the book doesn’t have even a speck of questionable content.

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Amira is at a new school, and luckily it is Tuesday, Pizza Tuesday to be exact, and she can’t wait to dive into a cheesy slice.  Unfortunately, Olivia takes the last cheese piece and when Amira asks if she will let her have it, Olivia says she had it first.  Stuck with an egg salad sandwich that smells, Amira sits alone and broods.

In gym they are playing baseball, but no one knows how good Amira is, and she is picked last.  When Amira is up to bat, Olivia is the pitcher and her pitches are terrible.  Amira still mad about lunch and afraid that the others will blame her for not hitting the unhitable balls, shouts, “you’re supposed to aim at my bat.”  Everyone laughs, but Olivia runs off clearly upset.  The new pitcher sends a decent throw and Amira hits a home run.  The captain of the team praises her, and Amira is hopeful she’ll have someone to sit with her at lunch.  After class, Amira sees Olivia crying in the bathroom and no one asking her if she is ok, Amira doesn’t feel so well, and doesn’t ask either. On the bus ride home Amira is greeted with cheers for her home run, but Elena the captain, isn’t among them.

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The next day is picture day, and Amira trips and rips her shirt.  Everyone laughs, Elena says, “it was an ugly shirt anyways.”  Only one person offers her help.  Could Amira have misread the whole class dynamics?  How should she move forward?

Sorry, I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the message about owning up to your choices is stressed, along with making kind decisions, and sometimes needing to take a step back and understand things from someone else’s perspective.

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Like nearly all Ruqaya’s Bookshelf books, the story is universal, but the characters, illustrations, and point of view is a relatable Muslim one that allows our young Muslim readers to feel seen and celebrated.  The reliable large glossy pages make the book a great deal for your money and is available on the publisher’s website: http://www.ruqayasbookshelf or from my favorite bookstore http://www.crescentmoonstore.com

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Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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Daring Dreamers Club: Piper Cooks Up a Plan by Erin Sodenburg illustrated by Anoosha Syed

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This is book two in the series, I couldn’t get the first book from the library, and I wasn’t willing to wait for the one that focuses on Muslim character, Zahra’s story to be published, it could be a few years.  At 224 pages this middle grades book is fairly formulaic with five diverse girls becoming friends, each book featuring one girl’s story with the others serving as supporting characters, and with the tie-in to Disney Princesses, I really didn’t expect much. Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the characters and their lessons and struggles, sigh.  The book is sweet, the characters like-able, and the author really doesn’t try and force all the characters into every scene.  The book focuses on Piper and the other girls add to her story where it helps, they don’t all have equal time and it doesn’t get confusing because of it.  You can even read the books out of order.  Zahra wears hijab and her Islam is mentioned in a journal entry where she discusses the five pillars, the importance of charity, and getting dirty looks.  There is nothing preachy, but none of the other character’s are defined by their faith and I truly don’t know if I’m bothered by the singling out of Islam being her identity or flattered by it.

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SYNOPSIS:

Five girls are grouped together at school in an advisory class to help prepare them for middle school: Milla, Piper, Ruby, Mariana, and Zahra.  Their advisor loves Disney Princesses and in their weekly journal entries has them write about their assigned Princesses as they explore their similarities and how they would tackle challenges, face fears, and the like.  The girls are diverse in family dynamics, race, religion, ability, etc.  Milla is African American with two moms and food allergies.  Zahra is good at art, Muslim, and likes to sew.  Ruby is a twin, her parents are divorced and she is great at sports.  Mariana is hispanic, and is an amazing swimmer.  Piper is Jewish, has dyslexia and loves to cook.  In the book she is struggling with school, while she excels in her food science creations.  She gets accepted to appear in a kids cooking show competition, but will need the help of her Daring Dreamer friends to prepare for the challenges about to be thrown at her during the competition, and to help her from falling behind in school.

Each girl has their journal entry presented in the book which helps to understand more about the different girls, as well as a little bit of introspection to the events happening in the larger story.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the characters are really supportive, and the lessons aren’t so on the nose.  Piper isn’t just told that she doesn’t have to win the competition to have value, you feel it long before she accepts it herself.  Her personality really comes through and it isn’t for attention or for sympathy, she helps a competitor, there is no giant round of applause or moral reflection, she just helps.  I love that even though the story is Piper’s and her dream, there are larger issues woven in and felt, not necessarily preached. Piper is the middle child and feels she has to prove herself, she remarks on how being pulled out of class in early elementary school to get help has made it hard for her to ask for academic help now, the role of confidence and how charity and giving back is important, even while her own family’s financial situation isn’t clear.  I like the role of Piper’s siblings, they are quirky, but loving, and they work through their annoyances to help each other.  It is heartwarming.

I have my own mixed feelings about Disney Princesses, as a child of the 80’s, the 90’s brought all the glory of Jasmine, and Ariel, and Belle, and Mulan, and my friends and I definitely identified with different characters.  I may or may not have tied my hijab up many a days and claimed that I was Mulan in high school, but somehow with my own daughter I didn’t really bring the Princesses in to her day-to-day existence, I don’t think she has even seen all the movies, we read books (we didn’t even have a tv when she was little), she’s 14 now.  It had become too commercialized, I worried about the messaging more.  This book reminded me of what my friends and I as older “kids” channeled the Disney Princesses to be.  It wasn’t all about pink and sparkles, it was battling the bad guy, hanging on to your dreams, and persevering when things were tough.  This book channels those thoughts, it isn’t in your face Disney, it is more muted, and I appreciate that.  It is a solid middle grade read and I think an enjoyable one at that.

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FLAGS:

In this particular installment, there are no crushes, no holidays, no music, one character has two moms, but in this book, I don’t know that a casual reader would pick up on it. It says “Moms” once, it might be a bigger deal in the story that focuses on Milla, but I haven’t read it to comment.  There is lying and Piper tries to justify it, but I think it is clear and has its own resolution.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

It is much too young for a middle school book club, but I think because it is such an easy engaging read, that in a home, or classroom, the book would be appealing to 3rd graders and up.

The author’s website: https://www.erinsoderberg.com/daring-dreamers-club.html

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