Category Archives: Arabic

As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.

Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A Story of Immigration, Family, and Finding Home written and illustrated by Zahra Marwan

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Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A Story of Immigration, Family, and Finding Home written and illustrated by Zahra Marwan

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This 48 page picture book shows the journey of a young girl from one desert to another.  The soft water colors in this author illustrated book tell so much of the story and illuminate the prose.   For me the most powerful part of the book was the backmatter.  The learning why the family had to move from Kuwait to New Mexico was new and interesting and gave the story a lot of depth.  I read it to my 6 and 3 year old and it couldn’t hold their attention, the book is not text heavy, but is is long.  I think had I read the author’s note at the end first, before sharing it with my kids, we could have discussed the pages a bit more.  I think the added framing and context would have increased connection and engaged them.  The book shows one aunt in hijab, Allah swt written in Arabic and a picture of the kaba hanging on the walls of their home, a hand of Fatima as well.  There is music and dancing and connections between family, strangers, cultures, and people.

The book starts by establishing the rich and loving life the little girl enjoys in her home: butterflies, swimming in the sea, family.  It then fades to being held close and the stress of people saying they don’t belong.  The next step is the family having to leave their extended family and say their good-byes.

They arrive in a new place, not talking like others, questioning the connections of their ancestors in this far away land.  Eventually there are some similarities, and then the music of a guitarron is heard and people dance and there is joy.

The shift opens up a feeling of home, and connections are not lost, and a new comfort is felt in a place where hot air balloons fill the sky.

As an adult I appreciated the paradigm shift of not being welcome in their home elsewhere and being welcome in America, it is subtle but a nice change.  I love a lot of details come full circle.  I think the book would be a good tool not for the intended 4-8 crowd, but for older kids in a teaching setting.  There are a lot of subtle story telling techniques that could be discussed, stereotype assumptions challenged in a nudging way, and offer social studies and political discussions.

Lina, the Tree and the Woodcutter by Eman Salem

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Lina, the Tree and the Woodcutter by Eman Salem

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I’ve enjoyed another book in this bilingual series, Little Tree Goes for Hajj,  and was excited to see little tree all grown up and the focus of a book on the environment.  The 22 pages in Arabic and English start out promising, setting the stage, establishing the familiar characters, discussing caring for trees and not harming them for no purpose, but then the book just kind of ends.  It is wordy, the English anyway, I cannot comment on the Arabic, but it is sweet and warm in its own Islamic fiction way.  I didn’t feel like a glossary was needed, it mentions Allah in the text and seems meant for Muslims, so why the definitions of Allah, Hajj, and Mecca are included is a bit odd especially when it uses Christianity and Judaism in the explanation of the oneness of Allah.

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Little tree is now an old tree and was a friend of Lina’s grandfather, they had traveled to hajj together.  As they sit chatting, they hear a horrible noise and discover it is a woodcutter chopping down a tree.  When the young man stumbles upon the talking tree and Lina they question his motives.

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He wasn’t chopping wood for fuel, or to build a home, he was just chopping it because he could.  Lina and the old tree explain what was lost with the destruction of the tree and teach him that Allah swt has made people the earth’s caretakers.  The woodcutter learns from his mistakes and apologizes.

I wish the book maybe would have made a stronger point that trees take a while to grow and that sorry is well and good, but not enough to restore what was lost.  I like that the woodcutter wants to learn more, but a few lines detailing what he learns or that he came every day to sit with them or some sort of ending would have been nice.

You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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You are the Color by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Noor Alshalabi

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Books like this are hard for me to review, and I have gone back and forth on whether I should post anything or not.  On the one hand, we need books that are unapologetically Palestinian written by Palestinians.  They need to be celebrated and elevated and I want to offer my support to the stories, to the voices, to the authors, illustrators, everyone involved.  On the other hand, if I didn’t love it, why should I shy away from saying so, when I have purchased the book (pre-ordered and changed the shipping address even, to have it delivered to me on vacation because I didn’t want to wait to read it).  The book is emotional, but the last six pages unraveled the whole book for me, and in a picture book particularly of this nature, when you finish- if you don’t have a cathartic pull, you start to find holes in the story as you feel deflated.  The book, I would go out on a limb to say, needs to be discussed and given context even if you are Palestinian.  As someone who is not, I recognize my arrogance in such a statement and am happy to be corrected, but from a literary reviewer standpoint the book needs discussion and additional context.  The Nakba is only articulated in one paragraph in the author’s note.  In the story itself there is no indication that what happened to Thaer happened to so many Palestinians in 1948.  The use of color and how it is depicted in the illustrations is tangible and powerful, but as odd as it is to say, the words got in the way of the story.

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The book starts with Thaer trudging to school in dull sepia filled pages to begrudgingly sit at a desk and begin an art lesson.  He is glad the spitballs are just spitballs and not real explosions, but the tone is still melancholy.  When he sees boys playing soccer he recalls the last time he played soccer, and the memory comes alive in color.  He was in Yafa, it was the day before the Zionists came and took his family’s home.

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The teacher, back in muted tones, asks him to draw what has made him smile, and Thaer gives it a try.  Blue for the color of the sea, green for zeit and za’tar, brown for taboon to get fresh bread, etc..  When he takes the drawings home to his mother, she is not impressed.  Drawings are silly and colors aren’t going to bring Baba and Susu back.

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Defeated, the next day in class, Thaer recalls the men pounding down the door and Baba being shoved in a truck and Susu falling.  The next day at school they hang up some of their pictures and Thaer talks about his sister.  (SPOILER) On the way home Thaer paints the alleyway and brings color to his and his mom’s world.  His mama says that he is the color, and when the following day’s prompt is to draw what you want to be when you grow up it shows Thaer (presumably) on the beach as an adult painting.

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The disconnect for me occurred with the painting of the alleyway.  I was incredibly invested in the story, my heartstrings were being tugged, I was breaking for this character and his experiences, and it all came to a screeching halt because I couldn’t understand where the paint and the alleyway and the mama’s change of heart all manifested from.  As for the ending, I think I know what the author was going for, but it didn’t connect with any of my kids aged 2-15 nor my mother, a 40+ year early elementary veteran teacher.  I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces as she read the book to them.  The frozen expressions of huh and confusion at the end, until my 11 year old to broke the awkward silence to ask if the boy wants to be a painter or a father or an adult?  Those facets coupled with the often advanced vocabulary, makes the book an important one, but one that needs a lot of outside commentary to connect with the readers and to further the conversation about Zionism, al-Nakba, the occupation, and the continued oppression of Palestine.

There are flags of loss, kidnapping, sorrow, violence, etc., that parents will have to gauge if their children can handle. I’m not sure what age group is the best fit, the murder of a young girl, the forced displacement from one’s home, the removal of the father are all heavy themes.  I appreciate that it isn’t “watered down” for a western gaze so to speak, but I wish there was more about what happened to the dad, is there hope he is alive? I wish there was something about this not being an isolated reality for the protagonist and his family.  I wish there was some conversation or connection between the mother and son, because the loss of continuity really derailed the story.

As for the idea of the story, and the use of the illustrations to physically show two worlds I think is a great idea, it just sadly fell apart for me at the end: the faltering conclusion and the loss of emotional buildup that the first two thirds of the story worked so hard to create.

The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

FLAGS:

Some bullying discussions

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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This book is so long overdue, yet at the same time it was worth the wait.  The writing is simply superb: Fatima al Fihri is celebrated, Islam is centered, there are references, and the story compelling.  We, Muslims, as a whole know so little about the beautiful impact fellow Muslims have had on the current world and our way of life, that to see this book being celebrated in public libraries, in Islamic schools, at masjids, and retail bookstores, truly makes you sit up a little straighter, and reach confidently to get this book in your hands to share with those around you.  Thank you Mindy (@moyuksel.author) for these 40 pages of absolute delight, ages 5 and up will read it to learn, read it again to enjoy, and inshaAllah read it repeatedly to be inspired.

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The book begins with a Hadith regarding seeking knowledge and leaving knowledge behind.  It then begins the biography of Fatima as a small girl curious about the world around her starting with the word Iqra, read, from the Qur’an.  It sets the stage of her living in the desert in the early ninth century, a time where some boys went to school and some girls learned at home. Her connection to Islam and it teaching her the value of knowledge caused her wish, to build a school, to grow stronger.

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When war destroys her town her family flees to the busy city of Fez, Morocco.  She begins to accompany her father to the souk and enjoys listening to talk of planets, distant lands and different languages and wishes these scholars could educate everyone. She grows and gets married and her and her family become wealthy merchants.

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Tragically, her father and husband die, and Fatima must decide what to do next for her family.  She decides to help her community as a form of sadaqah jariyah and make her wish a reality.  She sets out to build a school where everyone can live and study for free.  She purchases land, and the building begins.  Fatima oversees each detail and names it the al-Qarawiyyin after her hometown in Tunisia.  It takes two years to build and it still functions today.

The back matter is just as compelling as the story with an Author’s Note, information on The University of Al-Qaryawiyyin, a Glossary, Bibliography, and a Timeline.  The only complaint I have about the book, are the illustrations.  I really don’t understand why half of her hair is showing when based on the time and her connection to her faith, she most likely was a niqabi.  I don’t understand the continuity of the hijab from a young child to adulthood.  I get that it shows her influence moving forward at the end, but it could have been a small print on an outfit for token representation of symbolism, I don’t get it as being a complete outfit her whole life.

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I absolutely love the role of Islam in both Fatima’s life and in this book.  It is so much a part of her and her wish, that every reader will recognize how connected her faith and the creation of the University were and I’m confident both Muslim and non Muslim readers will be in awe of her devotion and accomplishments, inshaAllah.

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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I’m not sure how to really review this 167 page book.  It is the translated YA work of an Arabic Epic that took place somewhere between the seventh and 10th centuries and began possibly being compiled in the 1100s.  It was told orally, but when written, comprised some 6000 pages.  The translator notes that the choices of what to include and how to translate, all potentially alter and reshape the narrative, so as a reviewer I’m simply going to review the text in my hands.  I have no outside knowledge of this epic woman, and approached the book as I would have in high school when reading The Odyssey or Beowulf: some of the history is accurate, the characters fictitious, the culture possibly representative.  As a result, I find the comparisons to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen on the back cover, very odd choices.  At times the contemporary diction, in my opinion cheapens the narrative.  Sure I appreciate the modernization of the text to make it an easy read, but throwing in modern slang seems too much.  I found the book’s framing unfortunately counterproductive of what it hoped to achieve.  I have no idea what the other 5,900 pages include and what the translator had to choose from, but the majority of the book focuses on marriage, being raped by her husband, and working to prove who the father of her Black son is when her and her rapist husband are white.  I was prepared for battles, and conquering, and fighting misogyny, and saving the down trodden, not every one just wanting to marry her.  Many of the characters are Muslim, some convert to Christianity to escape Dhat al-Himma, the Quran is quoted, prayers are made, the Kaaba visited.  I do however, take issue with the explanation of the child’s skin coloring being attributed to intercourse (rape) occurring while Fatima is menstruating and a case of Prophet Muhammad (saw) being used as proof of this occurring.  So much of the text is footnoted, this instance is not, and I find it disturbing.  The book also contains a lesbian character who ends up marrying a man, violence, death, and many other potential flags (see below) that might make it better suited for older college age readers.

SYNOPSIS:

The story doesn’t begin with the birth of Fatima, but rather with her great great grandfather.  It sets the stage a bit to show culture, how women and honor are treated, and the line of her ancestry.  When we get to know Fatima a few chapters later she is being born and her gender is a disappointment, so she is hidden away.  As she grows away from her tribe she becomes an accomplished warrior and captures her father in a raid.  When she returns to her people, her cousin, Walid, born the same time as her, is struck by her beauty and wants to marry her.  She refuses.  Repeatedly.  Finally she agrees to battle him and if he wins, she will marry him.  She wins, and he still doesn’t back down, finally she is forced/tricked in to marrying him by the Caliph’s agent.  The two are pronounced wed, but little changes for Fatima, she is a warrior and does not seek intimacy or companionship.  Eventually, her husband Walid enlists the help of Fatima’s milk brother and friend, Marzuq, to have him drug Fatima, so that he can rape her.  He acknowledges the rape, the whole community does, but allows it, because he is her husband.  When the child is born he is Black and Walid and his family refuse to accept that the child is his.  Amira Fatima is socially put on trial for being a whore and that the child is illegitimate.  As Walid works to have them killed, Fatima works to prove her innocence and carry on with her life trusting in Allah swt completely, all while the Arab-Byzantine battles are raging in the borderlands.  As Abdelwahhab, Fatima’s son, grows he too becomes a formidable warrior and the two have continued adventures.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the richness of the culture coming through a compelling story. Fatima is incredibly devout in her worship of Allah, swt.  She does not falter, ever.  When she is being tested she needs only her faith, at one point a man converts to Islam upon having a dream as a result of her conviction in praying.  That being said, I genuinely don’t understand a few critical points.  How can a woman who single handedly destroys tribes not be listened to, to make her own decisions to lead her own life.  I get that that is perhaps the poignant point of the story in today’s context, but there are a lot of strong women in this book, so why does her marriage and being defined by her not wanting to marry get so much of the spotlight? Her father didn’t want her, but they don’t resolve anything, they just reunite and all is well.  I need more.  I want to know what happened to Walid once he became Christian, was it a permanent thing, a temporary fix? What ended up happening between her and Marzuq? He was her trusted advisor and immediately regretted drugging her, what happened to him.  I want more about her mother, maybe even her Aunt or other women to see how their lives compared and contrasted to the powerful women highlighted.  How did they view her, was she inspiration, an anomaly, beloved, loathed?

I appreciate the footnotes, the introduction, the Note on the Translation, the further reading list, help with pronunciation and the character list.  A map would have been nice.

FLAGS:

There is violence, killing, rape, talk of sexual intercourse and menstruation.  There is misogyny, racism, flirting, sexual temptation, a lesbian character, magic, jinn.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not be able to lead a proper discussion on this book, I am just not knowledgeable enough on the larger story.  I think I would like to be a student or be able to join a discussion led by someone well versed in The Tale of Princess Fatima and all the subtext that brought her story to life and maintained it over time.  It would be fascinating.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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Set in Lebanon, this 32 page book for kindergarten to second graders uses the ever important olive tree as a point of contention between two neighbors. Muna’s family moved away during the conflict because they were not like the others in the village, and while they were gone, Sameer’s family cared for the olive tree on their neighbor’s property, and collected the olives that fell on their side of the wall. But now that the neighbors have returned, Sameer is not only disappointed that they don’t have a boy his age to play with, but also clashes with Muna when she says that he shouldn’t take their olives. By the end of the book, olive branches of peace will be referenced and hope hinted at in this brightly illustrated book with a lesson.

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I like that why Muna’s family left is not abundantly clear, saying that “For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. . . that the family who lived there had gone away during the troubles because they were different from most of the people int he village.”  Lebanon is a diverse place and the illustrations seem to show both Mom’s wearing head scarves, the text does not detail if they are unlike each other because of religion, or culture, or some other reason, and I kind of like that it is left vague so that children learn in the end perhaps, it doesn’t matter.  

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When the family moves back home, Sameer watches them and recalls the ways his mom prepares the best olives in Lebanon.  The neighbors are polite, but not friendly.  They don’t ever say much and they don’t return visits.  One day when the ripe olives have fallen on the ground, Sameer heads out with his basket to collect them.   Muna, who has never looked over at Sameer, watches him and tells him that they are her olives, and that the tree has been in her family for a hundred years.

The two bicker about who has rights to the olives on Sameer’s side of the wall and in anger, Sameer dumps his basket of olives on Muna’s side and walks off.  After that, no one on Sameer’s side collects the olives on the ground.  One night there is a storm and the olive tree and part of the stone wall are destroyed.  The adults gather to survey the damage, but walk off without saying anything.  The two children are left to decide what to do next about their beloved tree, and their relationship with one another.

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I like that the resolution is subtle, but thought provoking and that the adults don’t seem to interfere too much.  I can’t imagine that they don’t have opinions about their neighbors and the olives, but the book stays on the children and the assumptions, stubbornness, and unsaid words that have created such a divide, and must ultimately be resolved as a result.

 

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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