Category Archives: 6th grade and up

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

amira and hamza

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:

There is magic and magical beings.  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.

 

Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui

barakah

I have been waiting for this book for a really long time: a girl leaves an Islamic school for a public middle school and is not just unapologetic, but proud of who she is and of her religion, all while navigating such a huge life change and the day-to-day stresses of school, family, friends, and life. This is it right, the middle grade 288 page book that holds up the mirror to our own experience as a typical Muslim family in the west, that so many of us have been waiting for? Except, sigh, for me it was just ok. Don’t get me wrong, if you are new to seeing mainstream (Scholastic) Muslim protagonists shining and making their salat on time, this book is revolutionary and amazing. But, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I guess I wanted more than a tweak on Aminah’s Voice. I wanted to relate. I’m not a hafiza, nor do I know many 12 year olds that are. I enjoy boy bands, but have never been asked to join one. Sure the details and her decision to follow Islam the way she understands it is a great message, but it doesn’t clearly appear til nearly the end of the book, and until I got there my brain was constantly finding holes in the narrative, to the point I got out a notebook and started taking notes. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t read the book, and I know I am clearly in the minority here, so brace yourself this is a long review. If you see this at your child’s book fair and you think it looks cute, grab it, it is. I am cynical and jaded and I’m owning it, so perhaps we can agree to disagree, I’m just sad that I didn’t absolutely love it, so hold on, because I’m going to get it all out so that I can move on, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with Nimra at her Ameen, a celebration to acknowledge her completion of not just reading the entire Quran, but of memorizing it. Her best friend Jenna, her non Muslim neighbor, is there and as everything is explained to her, the readers learn about Surah Yaseen, becoming a hafiza, and the schooling differences that Nimra and Jenna have had. That night when Jenna is sleeping over and the girls are watching Marvel’s Infiniti War, Nimra’s parents inform Nimra that she will be starting public school and that the two girls will finally be together. The news is big, but Jenna shrugs it off, and Nimra senses that something is off between them. When school starts, Jenna is surprised that Nimra is planning to wear her hijab to school, and this is before they have even left in the morning. The rest of the day: comments by Jenna’s friends, purposefully being excluded at lunch by Jenna, and being overwhelmed with a big school and so many teachers, makes Nimra miss her small three person Islamic school. Additionally she loves art, and is always tucked away in a corner with a sketch pad, her parents, however, have made her take Spanish instead of art class, and the frustration is painful. When she asks the principal for a quiet place to pray, another girl Khadijah pipes up that she can pray in the band room where she does. Khadija and her immediately hit it off, but she has already prayed, so Nimra sets off on her own to find the room. As she is about to start, some music starts, so to tune it out and focus on her salat, she recites aloud. When she exits, three boys are in awe at her vocal abilities: Bilal, Waleed, and Matthew, three Muslim boys. Better known as the middle school celebrity boy band, Barakah Beats, the boys beg her to join them. Nimra says she’ll think about it, but as the days show her and Jenna drifting further apart, being in the band might just be the way to get Jenna to pay attention. Unfortunately, Nimra’s family doesn’t believe Islam allows for musical instruments. She acknowledges that it is controversial, but that her family doesn’t play any instruments, attend concerts, or get up and dance. She figures she can join the band, just long enough to get Jenna’s friendship back on track and then dump the band without having to tell her parents. There is just one giant hiccup, they are planning to perform at a refugee fundraiser, oh and she really likes hanging out with the boys and Bilal’s sister Khadijah.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Had I read this book five maybe seven years ago, I’d be gushing, swooning, but when the author says in the forward that she is showing a girl proudly owning her religion, and essentially daring to be her authentic self, I expect something almost radical, revolutionary even. We are all settling in to seeing our Muslim selves in fiction and acknowledging that we are not a monolith, that we are diverse and flawed and valuable, but this premise felt different somehow, and I really wanted to connect with Nimra and her family, so when I didn’t, it hurt. It isn’t just a main character Muslim POV, or an OWN voice book, it is portrayed as being authentic to those of us that love our faith and don’t feel like we need to tone it down to be American. We are second or third generation American Muslim, we know our deen and this is our country, there is no going back to a homeland or assimilating. The book is about her being true to her self, but I don’t know that I know what she wants or what she believes, aside from her parents. The book addresses intergenerational conflict of power and expectation between her parents and grandparents, but other than for Spanish vs Art class, it seems to skim by the music issue, the main issue of the book. The book expects readers to acknowledge the maturity and voice of a 12 year old girl, but that same expectation isn’t given to the readers of nearly the same age. It glosses over any articulate arguments for why musical instruments are or are not allowed. It mentions that some people feel it is ok if the lyrics are not bad, some say it isn’t ok, that there are disagreements, that there are controversies, but it never explicitly answers, why? And readers are going to notice. I found it incredibly odd, that the music controversy is at the heart of this book, but the safe alternative is art and drawing. Drawing faces is a HUGE point of differing opinions among Muslims, perhaps as big, if not bigger than music. Nimra is always sketching and it mentions that she often is drawing super heroes: people, with faces, and possibly (magic) powers! The whole book she is in the band, and she regrets that she is using it to get back at her friend, but there isn’t a whole lot of internal debate if she thinks music is haram like her parents or it is ok, she just stays in the band, and plots how she will leave it so her parents don’t find out. SPOILER: I like that she ultimately makes the decision that is best for her and leaves the band after fulfilling her commitment, but we never see that, that is what her heart is telling her. There is no self exploration or critical thinking, it is just justifying why she is doing it, and then not doing it.

In terms of character development, only Nimra is really explored, the side characters are all pretty flat. Jenna gets some depth, but not much. I mean, how does Nimra’s best friend and neighbor who comes over every day after school not know that she has been working on memorizing the Quran? Not know how to dress at a religious themed celebration, a halter dress, really? Jenna is never shown to be a good friend, or even a nice person, the tone around her is negative from the start. We are told she is a good friend, but we never see it. The conversation about Nimra wearing hijab to school is like two lines, but is made to be a much bigger issue in Nimra’s head as she feels things haven’t been right since then. But, I’m not buying it. The girls go to movies, they go shopping, and she wears hijab, so why would school be so different? All of Jenna’s friends know about Nimra, so she can’t really be that embarrassed by Nimra’s scarf if they go out when she is wearing it and none of the other classmates seem surprised. I also felt off with the portrayal of the character because we so fervently believe that often the best dawah or even method to break down stereotypes and bigotry is to get to know some one personally. Jenna knows all of Nimra’s family and has for nearly her whole life, and she is so hateful and clueless to everything Islam? It is a stretch, the family prays, fasts, dresses Islamically, cares for her, feeds her cultural food, yet she is oblivious to it all. I get that her hate or lack of interest is probably reflective of how a lot of our neighbors are, but there aren’t many non Muslims in this book, and that portrayal is going to linger heavily for young readers.

Nimra is likeable enough on the surface, but the more you think about her, she isn’t really any different than those she is hurt by. She is mad when Julie assumes she doesn’t speak English, but she assumes Matthew isn’t Muslim because he is white. She checks her self in other ways, but this one seems to slip by. Other inconsistencies I noticed are when the first day of school teachers are really mean to her, but then it is never mentioned again. I wanted to know did they keep at it, did she prove them wrong? It was built up and then just abandoned. At her old school there were two other girls doing hifz, but when she meets up with one at Saturday school it seems they both are no longer at the school either. Did they graduate? Did they abandon it? Her Quran teacher comes to see her perform a song, perhaps a little understanding about her point of view in addition to the other Muslim’s in the band would have helped explain the why music is controversial in Islam. Also, does and would ADAMS allow music at an event? I’m genuinely curious. I even tried to Google it. Most masjids probably wouldn’t, but maybe a community center would. Readers are going to be so confused why Nimra is so stressed when the religious teacher and the place of worship are fine with it.

The friends as boys thing is sweet, but a little surprising, having three boys come over to hang out and watch a movie, high fiving them, sure it isn’t shocking, but its a bit inconsistent given the narrative. Plus, Nimra trying to help hook Waleed and Julie up? For as much as the book doesn’t want to sell itself out, little acts like this without a little hesitation or comment or introspection, kind of make it seem like its trying to normalize non Islamic acts as being ok.

I love the pop culture Marvel references, The Greatest Showman songs and the shoutout to Amal Unbound. I even loved the Deen Squad remixes getting acknowledged, but it made me wonder if all the songs of Barakah Beats are Islamic themed. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it would be interesting to know since the entire school adores the band, even asking for autographs at one point.

FLAGS:

Nothing a third grader and up couldn’t handle: music, art, lying, bullying, talking about crushes.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think I’d pass on the book as a middle school book club option, as it really is a middle grades read, and the thematic issues brought up for discussion are better found elsewhere. If I had an in person classroom, however, I would have the book on my shelf, it is a quick short read, that I think might encourage a discussion on music to take place, or at least allow readers to see a proud Muslim doing well in different environments.

Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

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Lala Comics: The Hilarious encounters of a Muslim Woman Learning Her Religion by Umm Sulayman

Lala

A mix of information and entertainment, this 124 page comic book is divided into thematic sections which further break down in to mini-episodes or comic strips that feature a situation, an Islamic advice often based on a Hadeeth or Quranic ayat that is noted, and a misinterpretation taken to a comical extreme. The book is a great way to remind ourselves and children, middle grades and up, aspects of our faith that we might know, or introduce us to specifics that we should know, by showing the concept in exaggerated action. Because the examples are relatable and come from everyday life, the humor is that much more enjoyable, and as a result makes the “lessons” that much more memorable.

The three sections cover topics included in 1: Muslim Identity/Mindset, 2: Habits/Lifestyle, and 3: Adhkaar/Prayer, after an introduction of the characters, and the magic of the ‘Aalim Hat are explained, the stories begin. They are not sequential and can be read in any order, and are about four to 10 pages each. The book surprisingly does a good job of not getting overly predictable. Even though you know something is going to be taken incorrectly or to the extreme, it doesn’t drag on or get redundant. At times Ayye, is overly preachy, ok, all the time, but the persona is intentional and reads intentional, as his grounding of events is actually the point of the book.

The illustrations are clear and enjoyable. They are expressive and easy to follow. The glossy pages and full color print help keep the readers, especially the younger ones, tuned in to what the lesson is, and what silliness is ensuing. The hardbound 6 x 9 book is great to have around where it can be picked up and thumbed through. I read the entire thing in one setting, as did my 12 and 14 year old, and all of us have subsequently picked it up and flipped through it to muse over sections once again. A few of the pages seem to bleed into the binding and require some effort to see the cut off text, hopefully the book will have multiple reprints and this can be rectified. If you don’t follow the author on Instagram you should @LalaArtwork.

It is important to note that I am not a scholar, or anywhere remotely qualified to opine on the authenticity or interpretation of the points given in the book. The hadeeth are sourced, stating if it is a Saheeh hadith or found in Bukhari or Muslim for example or who narrated it. And ayats from the Quran tell the surah and verse. They are sourced when stated, there is not a bibliography at the end.

Potential concerns in the book: it does show a Muslim celebrating halloween and birthdays in a comic about Eid. In an episode about being strangers in this duniya, it mentions drinking and clubbing and nudity, boyfriends, etc. as things to avoid in this world. There is hyperbole and revenge, and bad judgement, but it is all in fun to make clear Islamic points and I think children nine and up will have no trouble understanding what is real and what is exaggerated, inshaAllah.

Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

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Yusuf Azeem is Not a  Hero by Saadia Faruqi

yusufazeem

It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, and this 368 page upper middle grades novel is very relatable to kids about to experience the anniversary and to us adults that were in high school/college when the event occurred. The book is very contemporary mentioning Covid-19 and grappling with the effects of the attacks, the war, the Patriot Act, and Islamophobia, both at the time of the terrorist attacks and now, 20 years later. The characters are unapologetically Muslim, and doctrine, practice, culture, and rebellion are all included in a book that takes a bit of time to get going, but then holds you close and makes the characters feel like old friends who sat around the table telling you their story. The middle school characters present in a lot of shades of gray as they learn about themselves, their place, and begin to understand those around them. There isn’t really a lot of resolution in the book, it is more a snap shot of life and the stresses that Muslim communities in the US feel and have felt for the last two decades. Possible concerns: a group of Muslim kids dress as Santa Clause as they sneak out to trick-or-treat, the kids discuss eating halal or not and just not telling their parents as well as discussing the requirements and purpose of hijab, an Uncle has a girlfriend and is off to meet her parents, and a Muslim boy wears an earring. All pretty tame, and really pretty judgement free, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Yusuf Azeem is excited to be starting middle school, but when he swings open his brand new locker and finds a note saying, “You suck,” he is rattled. Surely the note was not meant for him, he doesn’t have any enemies. He is the son of the beloved owner of the local dollar store in tiny Frey, Texas. He loves robotics and dreams of being on the middle school robotics team and winning the Texas Robotics Competition. But the next day there is a note again. Best friend Danial is convinced middle school is going to be awful, but ever optimistic Yusuf is not ready to concede, although he really doesn’t want to be a hero either. However, with the 20th anniversary of September 11th approaching, and the appearance of a group calling themselves The Patriot Sons, life is getting very tense for the Muslim families, and their friends, in this small Southern Town.

Yusuf and his friends gather at robotics club and at the Mosque the parents are building themselves. They sort through their differences, they work on their friendships and they start to find their own thoughts and opinions. Along the way Yusuf is given his uncle’s diary that was written during the 9/11 attacks and the first hand account allows Yusuf to broaden his view of this historical event, combined with him understanding his Sunday school lessons and seeing himself and others bullied, really forces Yusuf to decide who he wants to be, and if in fact he can avoid being a hero.

On the surface there is discussion of xenophobia, being a Muslim in America, and interfaith cooperation, but there is also some very frightening and real-life based inspiration of vandalism, and imprisonment of a child that play heavily on the storyline.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the relationship of Yusuf and his much younger sister. She is in awe of her big brother, and he is absolutely adorable with her, whether it is babysitting her dollies or programming her unicorn games, it is precious. I also love the diversity within the Muslim families in Frey. There are hijabis and non hijabis, halal only and eat outside meat folk, there are very chill and very nosey aunties, but they all stick together, there aren’t that many of them and I love it. Similarly, the non Muslim side characters also are not a monolith, they grow and change and have their own lines that need to be drawn within families. The town rallies and the robot thread is strong, but I didn’t feel like the book had a storyline and plot and resolution, it just kind of shows the characters, and gives a glimpse in to their lives, so I was left with a lot of questions: how was the little sister’s health, what happened to the Patriot Sons, did the mayor finally stand up to them, did the uncle get married, where was Cameron’s mom, did Jared’s mom stay home or did she just get a leave for Thanksgiving, did Jared’s grandma ever get involved?

The character I struggled the most with was the mom. She is an American born daughter of immigrants, she lived through the attacks in America, she is competent and articulate, but I feel like she doesn’t quite radiate the strength I wanted her to have. I wanted to love her, and I wanted to be inspired by her and her frustrations, but she seemed to just fade in most instances. The dad is a bit underdeveloped too, he has a shop, but few customers, I’m kind of worried about the financial security of the family, and then takes weird gifts to the neighboring church on Christmas Eve.

I didn’t understand why so many people didn’t want to talk about their 9/11 experience. I get that everyone deals and views things differently, but I have never really found people hesitant to talk about the attacks and the aftermath. I was at the University of Utah studying Mass Communication on that day, I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years regarding what they experienced, and talked to my kids and had others talk to my kids, no one has ever once shown hesitancy, so I initially struggled with the premise that Yusuf didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to forget and why his family kept trying to avoid talking about the changes of life before and life after.

The book does a good job of articulating how painful the loss of life was for all of humanity and showing that Muslims were both grieving the deaths and destruction, while also having to defend their separation from those that committed the atrocities.

I do love that Sunday school lessons, and elder advice, and khutbahs are a part of the tools given to Yusuf to sort through his world and decision making processes. I like that he pushes back and doesn’t just accept everything thrown at him. Even the nosey harsh aunties he finds connection with and tries to see their experiences, it really is impressive.

FLAGS:

It talks about the death tolls and the gut wrenching loss of life. There is also bullying, and false imprisonment, and a crime with a gun that is mentioned. There is a hijab pulled off, vandalism of a Muslim owned store, there are threats and pushing. Yusuf’s uncle is out of town and his mom and grandma are bickering that he is meeting his girlfriend’s parents, so it isn’t clear if it is all arranged, or everyone is on board or if it is something more or less than what it is. Cameron has an earring. Danial doesn’t eat outside meat, but really wants too. The kids don’t lie necessarily, but they sneak out in Santa Clause costumes to trick or treat on Halloween after commenting that they shouldn’t and don’t celebrate the holiday. Yusuf’s dad knows Christmas carols and discusses his favorites at interfaith exchanges, the highly religious, “Silent Night” is among them. A cat also goes missing, an incident from the diary, and then is placed on the doorstep dead.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think, like with other 9/11 books I’ve done as book club selections, just sharing my experience and asking any other teachers to chime in with theirs is enough to take fiction out from the pages and make it real for the kids. They then ask questions, connect it to the text and to their history lessons and the story resonates with the historical event. I think this book could work for a middle school book club and provide a lot, aside from the Islamophobia to discuss, I think it would in fact be a great book to start the school year off with to get to know the kids and how they view the world.

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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world in between

I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.  

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

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Zenobia by Morten Durr illustrated by Lars Horneman

img_8794There is a reason that this 93 page graphic novel is labeled as “Teens.”  There may only be 300 or so words in the entire book, and the pictures at times are very basic, but oh subhanAllah is it devastating. Real, unfortunately, but I was not expecting my heart to be shredded and for me to be haunted by the framing and perspective of the story.  I read a fair amount of books both fiction and nonfiction regarding Syrian refugees and I try not to ever become numb to the plight of so many, but this book was such a reminder that things don’t always turn out well, that sometimes no matter how inspired your life is to follow in the footsteps of a warrior queen, there isn’t always hope.  That no matter how brave you are, horrible things will still happen, and that sometimes there is no one to hear your cries and pleas, and for so many in this cruel world, there is only silence.

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SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Amina on a crowded makeshift book in the ocean, the boat capsizes and we are thrust back in to her memories of playing hide-and-seek with her mother.  The juxtaposition of her little body playing a game hoping not to be found with her limp body in the ocean begging to be found is stark.  The memories then take us back to her mom preparing dolmas with only rice and salt, since that is all that is left.  Her father jokes that they are too salty.  The ocean is salty as well, and the memories continue to flow.  Her parents go to the market and she is not able to go with them.  It doesn’t tell why, but her mother reminds her to be strong and brave like Zenobia. Her mother often reminds her of the Syrian warrior queen who was the most beautiful woman in the whole world, who ruled, fought, and rode like a man.

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Her parents don’t return.  She waits and waits.  There are attacks, an uncle comes to take her away.  They pass destruction and rubble and sleep in the road.  Her body starts to sink in the water.  Her uncle finds some fisherman, he gives them all his money, but it is only enough for one to go on the boat.  He sends her. A kind lady on the boat shares a bit of food, before the boat flips over.  Her body is lost in the ocean, hoping to be found, voiced only as a whisper inside her head.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I really don’t like it.  That isn’t to say it isn’t well done and powerful.  It is hard to finish though.  You really hope she will be plucked out of the water even though a part of you know she won’t.  I made me kids read it.  It rocked them.  In a good way I think, I hope.  We can never forget how privileged we are, although we do all the time.  Books like this remind us how quickly it can all change and how we at the bare minimum need to be acutely aware of what others go through.  If it is hard to read, imagine living it.

The book is Danish, I don’t know if it is translated or originally in English.  It says that it won the Danish National Illustration Award in 2017, so I’m not sure how much to critique phrasing, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how Zenobia was presented as riding, leading, and ruling like a man.  I’m pretty sure she did those things better than MOST men.  Having her stature be glorified as being that equal to a man weakened her and her accomplishments.  Yes, doing what she did at a time when many women were not allowed to do it is impressive, but she was great in her own right, not just in comparison to the male gender.

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FLAGS:

For teens nothing. For younger kids, under 10, it is subtle, but too devastating in my opinion.  Tweens should read it with some discussion, they should know it isn’t always happy and hopeful, but use your discretion if they can handle a drowning, loss of parents, and destruction.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short for a book club, but I think families should consider it and talk about it.  Syria and many other nations may not be headline news at the moment in America, but that doesn’t mean wars and their far reaching implications have stopped.  It just means we have grown weary and changed the channel.

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu

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In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant.  Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better.  Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal.  He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life.  When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami.  The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking.  The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave.  Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.  

Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister.  The journey is perilous and fraught with danger.  The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable.  The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids.  In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam.  Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean.  Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.

Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed.  The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process.  Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami.  When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming.  School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking.  With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.  

Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus.  It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board.  I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue.  I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal.  It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith.  It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people.  Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them.  I like how the process humbles the characters.  Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing.  Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation.  The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.  

The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing.  These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life.  Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear.  They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.  

At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave.  He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends.  He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture.  It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation.  The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.

The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original.  Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different.   Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants.  In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.  

I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.

FLAGS:

The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault.  There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off.  The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year.  There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans.  This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with.  They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.

Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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Islamaphobia deal with it in the name of peace by Safia Saleh illustrated by Hana Shafi

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This nonfiction book has given me pause.  The information, the approach, the presentation, the importance, is all really well done, I just can’t really grasp how to use the book.  It is broken up in to four sections:  Islamophobia 101, The Believer, The Intolerant, and The Bystander. In each sections it has scenarios, comic strips, quizzes, infographics, advice columns and so much more spread out over 32 pages.  After it explains what Islamophobia is, it offers believers (Muslims) ways to see if what they are facing is classified as Islamophobia.  It has quizzes and questions and advice for people that are intolerant, and then if you are just around Muslims and intolerant folk what you can and should be aware of and do.  I think in a classroom all sections could be gone over, but I’m not sure in which grade and in what context.  In an Islamic youth group I think it could be really thought provoking to look at different sides and encourage the members to share their personal experiences, but I don’t know.  If you are a bully, would some quizzes and graphics be enough for you to recognize your own bias, could it make you change your attitude? I’d love to hear from others that have read this book, I checked mine out from the library.  It says it is for ages nine and up and other books in the series cover topics such as: consent, homophobia, transphobia, anxiey, racism, and freedom of expression.

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The first section: Islamophobia 101 starts off with a scenario of a girls first day of school after the summer and her first day wearing hijab.  No one really says anything, but there are whispers, her best friend asks if everything is ok at home.  It defines Islamophobia as “a kind of intolerance, or a refusal to accept and respect ideas and views that are different from your own.  It is the belief that Muslims, or people who follow the religion of Islam, are a group to be fearful of.”  It goes on to explain in examples what Islamophobia is while giving facts about Islam and things to think about. There are graphic comic type scenarios showing what Islamophobia can look like based on ignorance, stereotypes, then assumptions, and finally fear.  The section then offers a 10 question quiz, followed by questions and answers to a fictitious counselor in an advice column format. Finally there are myths and a Did You Know Section.

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The next section: The Believer, starts with a scenario of a Muslim holding their breath while watching the news.  Of being proud of your family and faith, but being tired of convincing people you are a Muslim and a good person.  An advice column about handling halal food, terrorism, hijab and sports is next followed by tips to not feel alone and an infographic on dos and don’ts to not be overwhelmed by your experiences.

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The third section is The Intolerant which asks if other people’s religions bother you, or if you question why religion has to be part of daily life and not kept personal.  There is a a 30 question true and false quiz, then a challenge to be part of the problem or part of the solution, with information on what you can do.  There is a sidebar about the role of social media as well as some highlights of current Muslim sports figures.

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The Bystander section asks if you’ve seen someone bullied or harassed for being Muslim, if it bothers you to hear people talk about immigrants and refugees as a threat, and what you can do to speak up. There are dos and don’ts a 10 question quiz, some more Islam facts and some direction to get more information.

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Overall the book is well done, and I had my kids look through it to see a way to facilitate anything they experience and how to articulate how they are treated and might treat others.  

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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Ayesha Dean- The Lisbon Lawbreaker by Melati Lum

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In this third Ayesha Dean book, that can be read as a stand alone, the Australian teen sleuth finds herself on the other side of the law in the beautiful city of Lisbon in Portugal.  Over 333 pages, she must understand what she is being accused of and figure out how to clear her name, all while marveling at the beautiful historic sites, diving into the delicious food, and looking fabulous while she does it all.  Middle grade to early middle school readers will enjoy the fast pace mystery that has history, crime, adventure, and friendship.  There, as always, is a twinge of romance, but it all stays halal as Ayesha is a proud and practicing strong Muslim young woman.

SYNOPSIS:

Ayesha Dean is now 18 and has just arrived in Lisbon for three months as part of an internship program to help little kids with their english.  This is her first international trip without her beloved Uncle Day and her two closest friends Jess and Sara.  Not to worry, there are a lot of young people participating in the internship program and she will be rooming with two girls, Mara and Aveline. Things start of routine enough as Ayesha gets to know the handsome and kind Raimy from America and tries to figure out why Aveline doesn’t seem to like her.  But on her way to the school she will be working at, she finds a wallet filled with money and no identification, just a phone number.  When she calls the number and a meeting is setup, the stage is set for a series of events that will include telling Raimy off for mansplaining things to her, a man murdered, a chase scene, a necklace stolen, no memory of it all, and Ayesha being arrested.

Knowing only a few people in the city, and having just met them at that, Ayesha makes bail by getting help from her friend’s Aunt in Spain who comes to provide Ayesha a place to stay as well. She has some time before her formal hearing, and Ayesha is determined to figure out what she is being accused of and how to clear her name.  With the help of Mara, Raimy, a young girl in the elementary school Ayesha was working at, and some chance encounters, Ayesha finds herself risking her own safety in an underground environmental gang ring. I won’t spoil all the ups and downs and ultimate ending, but Ayesha Dean’s tae kwon do, faith, and wits will all be used and the last page will definitely leave you wanting more.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I feel like the writing has finally found the perfect balance between description and action, the first chapter was a bit choppy, but once it hit its stride it was smooth.  I was intrigued by the historical detail that was all new to me, and am pondering how to convince the author to lead a tour group through all these places that Ayesha visits.  As always the descriptions of food and architecture and fashion are all so spot on that you feel like you are there.  I absolutely love that religion is so genuinely a part of Ayesha, but it is for her, she doesn’t do it for any one else.  She prays, she wears hijab, she doesn’t drink, she clarifies to Raimy what she can do, she acknowledges possible stereotypes and discrimination, but chooses to move forward and not get bogged down by it.  She is physically and mentally strong, but doesn’t come off as arrogant or judgmental or unrealistic.

I like the diverse characters in this book, and in all of them.  The multi ethnic protagonist has friends from all sorts of backgrounds and it is really refreshing and natural.

FLAGS:

There is murder, assault, crime, drinking and alcohol.  Nothing is glamorized or anything a third grader couldn’t probably handle.  There is a hint of possible romance, but nothing that crosses any lines or standards.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club if the majority of the participants are 6th graders as it would not have the same appeal to older 8th graders.  I think they would benefit the most and enjoy the strength and cleverness of such an inspiring lead.  Of the three books in the series, I think this one would work the best for insightful discussion and empathy.  It would great to hear them imagine themselves in her shoes: a foreign country, no family, no longtime friends, minimal language skills and accused of a serious crime. Oh I can’t wait to share this book with my reading friends!