Category Archives: 5th grade and up

The Kingdom Over the Sea by Zohra Nabi

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The Kingdom Over the Sea by Zohra Nabi

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This 336 page middle grade fantasy book had a lot of promise for me, but ultimately fell a little flat.  The protagonist was likeable, there was emotion, the story was compelling, and I know it is widely said that debut novels tend to be a little weak or be underdeveloped or having pacing problems, yet I hesitate these days to use this as an excuse.  I’ve been around the industry a few years and it seems many author’s debut novel, is not, in fact, the first book they’ve written or even the first book they’ve “sold.” Books are written and finalized years before they are released for some genres particularly of late, so I’m trying not to let myself get caught up in the author’s writing journey (I’m sure I’m all sorts of wrong about what I think it would be anyway), and just review the book in front of me. This book has no religion, and I don’t know if the author identifies as Muslim.  There are a hodgepodge of Arab and Desi cultural references in the characters’ names, and in the sprinkling in of salwar qamis, abaya, head scarf, sambusak, and there is a ma’a salama at one point along with the presence of jinn (not religiously referenced). There is also mention of medicinal wine, magic, a lady who has a crush on another lady in her youth, music, and dancing. The book held my interest as I wanted to see how it unraveled, and I recognize that there is a book two, so some of my thoughts might be premature, but I struggled with the premise of the protagonist trying to understand the journey her deceased mother has sent her on, and how the person she was supposed to find for the answers simply won’t talk, even though the two are living together.  It made the story really drag in places and seem underdeveloped.  The world building, the backstories, the adventure at hand, really is imaginative, but the development of the relationships in the story are absolutely non existent, and the book overall suffers because of it. Also the ease in which rising action is resolved is often the kids just throwing an idea out and it being right.  I read and review through a critical lens and many recent middle grade fantasy books have been absolutely incredible, perhaps it isn’t fair to compare, but this book just came up short for me in developing memorable characters and plot, even though all the elements were present, capitalizing on bringing it all together stayed just out of reach unfortunately.

SYNOPSIS:

Yara’s mother has died and when she finds a letter with instructions of what to do and where to go should this moment arrive, she decides to dodge her social worker and journey to a world of magic across the sea.  Unsure of her own background, she thinks she might be Iraqi, but doesn’t speak Arabic, she longs to find a place to belong, and when she arrives in Zehaira and hears the language of her mother, she is hopeful that this Leyla Khatoun, who lives in the third to last house on Istehar Way, will provide her with answers. But alas Leyla is not there, the Sultan’s alchemists are, and Yara is now on the run in a foreign land.  Help finds her and with a little magic she finds Leyla.  Leyla begrudgingly takes her in, but refuses her any insight into her past, her relationship with her mother, or why the letter directed Yara to her.  As the alchemists poison the sorcerers, Leyla and some other kids (friends?) have to find a way to save the settlement and magic in the land.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Yara as a character is likeable, she is plucky, resourceful, determined, and despite her circumstance does not want or need pity or handouts.  She advocates for animals, the poor, is a grassroots organizer, and unapologetic in how she carries herself.  I love that she isn’t whiney or helpless, and that she trusts herself to problem solve and isn’t afraid to think outside the box, while maintaining her kindness and appreciation for those around her.

As someone who doesn’t like Alice in Wonderland type stories, this book grounded the world building in an easily consumable way, so even though it is Yara leaving the UK and stepping into a new world, the functioning of the new world didn’t feel random or surprising.  While this was beneficial for someone like me, it made the focus of the story more on the characters’ relationships in enhancing the plot, and the book wasn’t strong in showing those connections.  Yara meets a map maker for a moment and a cat, and months later recalls the cat and the map maker by name and face.  A boy, Rafi, who is also studying magic and Yara don’t get along, yet are friends because it says so, the book doesn’t show us their bond.  Rafi meets some great uncle and the great uncle is painfully underdeveloped (along with his “friend”) and the tangent weak in reinforcing the major climax. The relationship between Yara and Leyla is the center of the story and so glossed over, there is no tangible connection, or cathartic release when details emerge, it was very disappointing to say the least. Yara and Ajal, the jinn, what is that relationship even, she frees him à la Aladdin freeing the Genie, but they are friends, not friends, he looks out for her, but doesn’t like her, the telling and the showing don’t align.  Even Yara’s relationship with the settlement and the inhabitants is disconnected from the plot of saving magic.  The climax is weak because we, the reader, don’t feel any connection to any magical folk.  The emotion of the mother dying at the beginning and the slight retrospection (I’m not going to spoil it) of the mother’s love at the end, was developed and made me invested in Yara, that same energy did not present itself, sadly, in any other relationships in the book.

 

FLAGS:

Death, loss, poison, imprisonment, magic, mention of medicinal wine, one line mention of a female character liking another female character as more than a friend, dancing, singing, jinn, torture, male and female friendships, destruction, lying, sneaking.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use this as a book club selection and wouldn’t go out of my way to shelve it in the school library or classroom library.  I will probably read the second book though and see where the series goes and reevaluate. I will also probably read future works from the author as the sparks of good story telling and writing definitely show promise for the author even though this particularly book wasn’t “magical” for me.

 

Nayra and the Djinn by Iasmin Omar Ata

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Nayra and the Djinn by Iasmin Omar Ata

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Set in Ramadan this graphic novel for middle grades has a coming of age theme brought to life with fantasy, religious practices, and storylines of bullying, acceptance, and folklore.  Nayra is fasting, she prays, she says bismillah and Assalamualaikum, her  practice of her deen is never in question and by and large I don’t know that anything is “haram” in the Islamic representation.  Yes, she says bismillah in julus, the sitting position of salat, there is sihr, magic. done by the djinn, and a lot of liberties about the ghayb (you can’t really disprove them), but honestly my biggest problem with this book is that somehow even though it is a graphic novel, more visual than text, there is way too much telling and not enough showing.  The reader is told that there is bullying, but only shown that one girl calls her “baba ghanoush,” we are told over and over that she is friends with Rami and that she needs to fix the relationship, but we never see what the friendship was before, only the forced awkwardness that it is now. The inside flap of the book stereotypes the “strict family,” but we never really see them being overly demanding or difficult, and the conclusion is very naïve with both the two girls and the two djinn resolving everything on Eid. I wanted to care about the characters, but never felt a connection to their stresses, traumas, and relationships, and many mirror my own life.  In full transparency though, I must acknowledge to you all, that I do not read a lot of fantasy graphic novels or even comic books, if the choppiness, and lack of depth is what makes the genre work for others, then this book will be fun with its pink and purple pallet and tracking of the Ramadan moon.  I really might just be the wrong person to review this OWN voice djinn fantasy authored by a Palestinian Muslim who like her fictitious djinn goes by they/them pronouns.

SYNOPSIS:

Nayra is being picked on by Tanya for messing up in volleyball in PE, and gets to calling Nayra “baba ganoush.”  When the book opens Nayra fasting for Ramadan is what Tanya chooses to attribute Nayra’s lacking skill too, and Nayra is ready to find a new school.  Her family offers no support, her older siblings set the bar high and got through by ignoring the bullies, and expect her to do the same.  The one other Muslim at school is Rami, and Nayra needs a break from her, they meet to break fast every evening, but Rami is exhausting.  When an online forum somehow gets a visit from a djinn, Nayra offers to be the anchor that Marjan needs to escape the ghayb and exist in the human world.  Marjan’s past comes back to haunt them, and when Zirkouniya arrives, there is only so much protection the month of Ramadan can offer as Eid arrives and the djinn are returned to full strength.  Djinn and human alike will have to own up to their mistakes, forgive others, and rebuild the relationships that matter.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like the Ramadan centering, and appreciate that the coming of age story line was not an identity crisis about Nayra’s faith.  I  finished the book feeling like I didn’t understand much.  There was a lot of build up for a strict family, and djinn wisdom, that just didn’t exist.  The conflict with the friends was superficial and the resolution the same.  Maybe I missed the visual resonance as I tend to enjoy lyrical writing and relatable text, but the story seemed really simplistic, and the characters flat.

I honestly don’t know if the liberties of the djinn world and djinn themselves goes too far or if folklore, mythology, and fantasy give it fictional protection.  There are details that perhaps come from culture, or are completely made up, I don’t know.  Djinn in Islam are real, they are made of smokeless fire, some are good, some are bad, they have genders, and families, and feelings, and communities.  Outside of that, I don’t know much, and do not presume to, when I sent @bintyounus some of the pictures from the book, she remarked, “Djinn are part of the Ghayb/unseen, So it’s not like we say oh none of it is true, but we also don’t take it as 100% true.”

The magic is minor just a fixing of a flower and flower pot, so in reality the only fantasy are the details about the djinn and the journey to the djinn world.

FLAGS:

Lying, bullying, magic, sneaking out.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is not enough in the book to discuss in a book club, and because of the lacking resonance, I don’t know that most kids would read the book or be interested in it. I can see it being thumbed through, but I don’t think it would be finished by Muslim kids at the Islamic school, or by my own children.  Those that know the Islamic view of djinns won’t find that enough of a hook when the story inside is about a friendship, and not a particularly deep or fleshed out one.  They might see the bullying as relatable, but being called baba ganoush doesn’t really seem that bad compared to what many endure and pining for friends, when you have a very loyal friend, also will probably be met with some confusion.

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.

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

An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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An Andalus Adventure by S.N. Jalali

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I truly am glad I read this book. I love historical fiction, visiting Spain is on my bucket list, this book has a map, details about what is historical what is fiction, has Islam woven in to the heart and soul of the story and characters, and yet it was a hard read.  The first few pages grip you, the last 50 bring it all together, but the middle 250 were hit and miss in this lower YA/upper MG book.  I honestly had to force myself to keep reading.  My teen and tween son couldn’t get past 38 pages or so, and I’ve asked around and no one I know that started the book, finished it.  I think ultimately there are just too many characters, too many points of view, that even though the history is rich, the literary points all in order, their isn’t enough character connection to hold the readers through the wandering details.  This author’s style is a bit more slow, but I think in the House of Ibn Kathir series, the setting of being in school and having friend problems is relatable to readers; boarding horses on to a boat, deciding to wage war, and going in to battle are not familiar concepts, and without the emotional connection it loses momentum.  The climax is nice but ultimately rather lackluster, and the beauty of characters taking shahada, Jews being freed, Solomon’s table, an old lady with a premonition, and a character dying are just not enough to keep the story in reader’s hands, unfortunately. 

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SYNOPSIS:

The summary might make the book seem fast paced, and while it does constantly move forward to a clear destination, it isn’t a “buckle your seatbelt and hang on” type of story.  The setting is Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, 92 years after the Hijrah.  The book opens with two young siblings Ben and Bella, overlooking the coast, dreading their lives under Visigoth oppression, and hiding their Jewish culture and faith.  It then jumps to the Governor of Ceuta, Count Julian (Ilyan), awaiting to meet with Umayyad leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad.  He is hoping to rescue his daughter from the court of King Roderick and convince the Muslim General to enter Iberia, restore the rightful king, and free the people essentially.  Add in voices from Qasim, a young Berber, and Jacob a captured Iberian, and the stage is set to get everything in order to cross the straights, survey the enemy, take on the King, and introduce Islam to the new land.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I absolutely love the Islam and the history and the fictional liberties.  I love that the book is clean, although, I do wonder if more information about Lady Florinda would have helped the reader understand her father’s desperation, I do understand the vagueness, but it is a glaring omission that keeps the reader curious.  Ultimately I wanted more backstory.  The little given about the characters was engaging.  I loved the teasing about being a shepherd, Jacob coming to love Islam, Bella not wanting to marry, but it seemed to always stop short of sweeping me away.  I didn’t cry (SPOILER) when Hisham died, I barely knew him.  I didn’t feel the urgency to hide and escape from Leander’s proposal.  It set up to add depth regarding Old Mother Magda, the Cave of Secrets, and the unverified death of the king, but after being stated it was never mentioned again or resolved for any real purpose. 

All that aside, I think the book has value, it is just really dry in spots, a lot of spots, and given the vocabulary, the changing narrators, the choppiness between chapters, and the history, it is hard to keep reading or be anxious to pick up once you have put it down.  So with all that in mind, I think the book would be great to use in a classroom setting.  You could read a chapter Monday, and then pick it back up on Thursday and not worry that no one remembers anything because it is focusing on new characters anyway.  In a middle school, or upper elementary the book would be a great crossover between History, English, and Islam classes. The book would naturally lend itself to the students keeping character journals, the supplements and backmatter would allow for references and insight in to real history, and I think the book would do really well in this set up to connect with the audience. 

The Epilogue was nice, but a little disjointed.  I appreciated the updates on the characters and it showing Muslims and people of other faiths coexisting and being accepting even within families, but the connection to the story was a little lost.  Similarly, I love that it mentioned  Abbas Ibn Firnas, but I don’t know that most kids know enough about him to know what is being hinted at and what the outcome was of his flight at the end.

FLAGS:

Death, war, battles, killing, nothing graphic, very tame, not graphic or detailed gore.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that I could get middle school students to read the book for a book club, it would have to be motivated by a grade to get through it in a classroom setting I’m afraid.  See above to read my thoughts on how to present it.

I purchased my book on Amazon and will receive a few pennies if you decide to purchase a copy using this link.

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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Fight Back by A.M. Dassu

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

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

It can be pre-orderd here

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My Laugh-Out-Loud Life: Mayhem Mission by Burhana Islam

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My Laugh-Out-Loud Life: Mayhem Mission by Burhana Islam

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Fairness aside, any book about a genuine Muslim British boy written in first person with doodles, lists, and hilarity for middle grade readers is going to be compared to the Planet Omar Books, and not only do they have the advantage of being first, but they also have set the bar really high.  This 266 page book is decent and fun, and if your children enjoy Omar, they will enjoy this, but even my kids compared the two and found this one just a bit lacking.  The story is outrageous and funny and has a lot of heart, the writing is sufficient, it just feels like the story gets away from the author.  Information is given for no reason and to no purpose, the story loses its way and fumbles around for a bit in the middle, seems to get off track at points, and is a bit weak in character development.  That being said, would I purchase and read future books in the series? Absolutely! I love that the standard and quality for books with Muslim characters by Muslim authors for our children are at this level.  There is no apologizing for Islamic Bangladeshi culture in this book, and the mainstream publication means Muslim and non Muslim children are seeing a nutty, loving family that they can relate to in a myriad of ways, alhumdulillah.

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SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf’s much older sister is getting married, and she remarks that he now needs to be the man of the house.  Unsure of what that means, he asks Sheikh Google, and is not prepared to do what it entails.  Not at all, he is only nine, but rather than discuss it, he decides instead that he must stop the wedding. So, with a bit of help at times from his cousin Aadam, it is full steam ahead to sabotage the upcoming nuptials.  With little time, he attempts to make his sister unwanted in her inability to cook, keep her hidden in her room by removing all the hijabs in the house, spreading rumors that she has died, ruining her wedding dress, and more, so much more.  It is cringe worthy at times, and hard to put down at others, but alas there is a happy ending, and lucky us, we get to read all about it in Yusuf’s year five what I did over summer vacation essay.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the family dynamic is a single mom, her mom, and the two kids.  I think it is important to show some diversity that reflects the family situations of many Muslim children that have thus far been a bit down played.  The book is relatable and contemporary with Marvel references, while tossing in everyday cultural references too.  The family prays, does tasbeh, memorizes Quran, covers, etc.  The book tries to give some depth to the characters, such as Yusuf’s eczema, but it kids don’t get it and the text muddles it to the point, that it misses connecting to the readers.  Also, even kid readers get that a simple conversation could have prevented most everything in the book.  Time is tight, but not that tight for things to get so outrageous.  The book is a British, but I think US readers can handle it, they may, like me, have to Google Jaffa Cakes, but I think they will be fine.
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FLAGS:

Deceit, sneaking, lying, gossip, destruction of food and property.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think the book would lend itself to a book club, but I think home and classroom and library shelves will benefit from hosting this book.

The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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The Great (Food) Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Elisa Paganelli

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As an adult setting out to read this book, I imagined that the goal of the book was to bring awareness to a specific issue, food insecurity, and to rally support to help others with this basic need.  The beauty of Muslim author and activist Onjali Q. Rauf, however, is that even with such a clear intent, the storytelling, character building, and  enjoyment of the book makes you connect to the plot and issues and feel the message, not just be told it.  For children seven through 12  with no prior expectation of the book, they will be emotionally effected by the reality shown and feel empathy and compassion for characters that will hopefully translate into their real life.  My 10 and 12 year old boys read the book in about an hour, not realizing what the book was going to be about and hounded me to read it with glowing reviews.  This 103 page middle grades book has diverse characters (none are Muslim), and is a great story, a great educational tool, a great empathy check, and a great resource for how to get involved to start helping food banks, and breakfast clubs, all while being funny, relatable, kind, and engaging.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nelson, his younger sister Ashley, and their Mum work together to make hard “tricky” months manageable.  They are creative with their meals, they go to breakfast club, and they use their vouchers on Thursdays at the food bank.  Some times though, it isn’t enough, Mum has to pawn her jewelry, they go without meals, and generous friends share their snacks.  When the food bank starts running low, Nelson breaks his secrecy about breakfast club and his close friends Krish and Harriet are determined to help figure out why donated food isn’t reaching the bank and what they can do to make sure it does.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it shows how the family has food insecurities on a day-to-day basis and how never feeling full affects so much of the characters’ attention.  I also love that it shows their mom works, she is a nurse and works really hard, they don’t steal or load up on food that is donated, they are very grateful for all assistance given and their friends don’t judge them.  It shed light on a different narrative that many children perhaps don’t think about: that people they know and are close with, might be hungry.  I think the maturity of the kids is a lesson to adults reading the book too, that reminds us that kindness and assistance doesn’t need to come with judgement or arrogance.  The characters are all really likeable, they aren’t perfect, but even though the book is short, you feel your heart being affected by them in their handling of the mystery and the larger concept of hunger.

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FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would read this book aloud in a classroom (2nd-5th), and if I get a chance to participate in Lunch Bunch (where a book is read to children while they eat their lunch) at our local Islamic School, I will start off with this book.  I think kids have bigger hearts than we often think they do, and while they might not recall the less fortunate when you want them to finish all the food on their plate, they often notice kids without lunches at school and share without prompting.  

Here’s a great clip and reading by the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVYBLh0kODc

Happy Reading!

 

Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed

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Make sure you are sitting in a comfy spot when you crack open this middle grades fantasy adventure, because it hits the ground running from the very beginning and doesn’t let up over 368 pages.  The like-able and relatable brother sister duo snarkily banter and bicker about everything from cultural Indian (Desi) folklore, religious stories, Marvel, Lord of the Rings, He-Man, Arabic Sesame Street, Star Wars, hygiene, fears, potential science fair projects, and food, all while battling jinn, devs, peris, and reality as they work to save the worlds.  The book is chalked full of STEM concepts, cultural touchstone, Islamic footholds, pop culture, and fun, as one character remarks, it is the ultimate fan fiction. I regularly Googled people, references, and concepts, and ended up learning quite a bit.  And don’t fret if you ever get lost or confused, or something doesn’t make sense, you don’t have to worry that you missed something or that the author left a gap in the narrative, the book moves quick and Amira’s constant dialogue and commentary points out all the ridiculousness of what they are experiencing and the questions that she wishes she had time to ask, explore, and discover.  The author never loses control of the narrative, and keeps the world building on level without skimping on details and understanding.  I have not loved any of the author’s previous books in their entirety, I think this one, however, is her best one yet, and the switch to middle grades is a good fit.  

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve-year-old Amira and her 10-year-old brother Hamza are heading to the Shriner’s Madinah Temple in their hometown of Chicago to explore the exhibit of Ancient Astronomy artifacts, or as Hamza calls it “tools that belonged to dead Muslim Astrologers.”  Hosted by the Islamic Society of Ancient Astronomy corresponds with the eclipse viewing party of the incredibly rare super blood blue moon.  In typical Hamza fashion however, a Nerf gun is brought and things are touched.  When Amira is tasked with bringing her brother up to the roof to learn how to use the telescopes, the two scuffle over a small box with a tiny moon inside, a series of snatching and tussling between the siblings cause the Box of the Moon to break, or rather start working.  As day turns to night, the moon seems to be breaking a part, and everyone in the world is suspended in sleep except for Amira and Hamza, and an entire jinn army is heading their way.

When jinn leaders Abdul Rahman and Maqbool reach the children they must convince them that they are not there to harm them, but rather to recruit them as the chosen ones to save the worlds: Qaf and Earth and the barrier, the moon, that keeps the realms separate from destruction at the hands of Ifrit.  The confusion over there being two of them creeps up, but is squashed as Suleiman the Wise left tests to prove that the chosen one is properly equipped to battle Iftrit as it has been prophesized.  The children must work together to prove themselves they must then actually seek out and defeat Ifrit.  As tests and challenges arise, it becomes clear (pun intended) that the two are not the chosen ones, but with no option of turning back they must forge ahead none-the-less.

“What? We’re Indian, dude, we were basically born half doctor.”

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love Amira and Hamza’s banter.  The references are at times laugh out loud funny.  Similarly, I was impressed by all the historical and STEM concepts intertwined in the story, there is even a tiny bit about mental health.  I learned about parts of the moon, historical figures, folklore, and more.  The characters are Muslim, Amira wears Ayatul Kursi around her neck and they talk of Sunday school.  The book isn’t religious though, in they aren’t saying Bismillah before they embark on things, or supplicating when in danger, but they greet different beings with peace, and the framing is clearly from an Islamic paradigm.  I think the high speed pacing works for most of the book, and somehow you still get to know and connect with the characters, but at times a slight pause to clarify a point would have been nice.  I would have liked to have the kids proving they were the chosen ones a bit more articulate and dramatic before hand rather than in retrospect.  I feel like the jinn transportation of cauldrons could have used a bit of backstory as well.  And a little fleshing out of the scroll, the government structure and communication methods of Qaf, would have helped some of the transitions between the action.  I read a digital ARC and it had a page reserved for a map, and I think when the physical book comes out that will be really helpful, as I didn’t quite fully understand the 18 realms and their locations  in comparison to the locations the children encounter.  

FLAGS:

UPDATE:  I TOOK THIS BOOK AS COMPLETE FICTION. THAT THE ISLAMIC PREMISE WAS A STARTING OFF POINT, AND DIDN’T DWELL TOO MUCH ON THE ACCURACY.  I READ AN ADVANCED READER COPY OF THE BOOK THAT DID NOT HAVE ALL THE SUPPLEMENTAL AUTHOR’S NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END.  I WAS UNAWARE THAT THE AUTHOR FELT SHE WAS INCOPERATING FACT AND ACCURACY IN THIS INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED BOOK. AND AS A RESULT I AM NERVOUS TO SUGGEST THIS BOOK TO THE MIDDLE GRADE INTENDED AUDIENCE.  IF YOU HAVE A MUSLIM CHILD THAT IS WELL VERSED ON PROPHET SULAIMAN, THE CONCEPT OF FICTION, AND IS OLDER THAN THE IMPRESSIONABLE EIGHT OR NINE YEAR OLD INTENDED AUDIENCE, ONLY THEN PERHAPS WOULD THIS BOOK WORK FOR YOU.  IT WOULD BE VERY MISLEADING IF YOUR CHILD TAKES THE TWISTED STORY AS FACTUAL AND BASED ON THE NOTES AND RESOURCES AT THE END, THIS VERY WELL COULD HAPPEN. To read more about the concerns you can click here and head over to Muslim Mommy Blogs take on the book.

There is magic and magical beings. A transgendered jinn.  It mentions Amira and Hamza celebrating Halloween. Death and fighting.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this would be a great audio book to listen to with the family or a read aloud in a middle grades classroom.  It is too young for middle school readers to not find it slightly predictable, but if you had it on a classroom or home shelf I am sure it would be picked up, read, enjoyed by middle grades and middle schoolers alike.  It reads much like the Rick Riordan Presents series and I hope that there are more books featuring Amira and Hamza in the future.