Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

What’s The Matter Habibi? written and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

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What’s The Matter Habibi? written and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

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This short silly 32 page AR 2.7 book by the illustrator of the famous Click, Clack, Moo books tells a tale of an unhappy camel in Egypt and his caring owner Ahmed’s attempt to understand what is wrong.  There is nothing religious in the book, save a few visible hijab wearing women in the bazaar illustrations, and the main human character’s name.  The cultural backdrop though,  does introduce and encourage familiarity for young readers who may not have exposure to Arabic words and people.  The author is clearly not Arab, but the book thanks the Cairo NESA delegates for their help in developing the story.  Before reading it I was nervous that because the presentation would be coming from an outside perspective,  that the messaging would be condescending and/or stereotypical.  I think I was perhaps giving the book way too much thought, because ultimately the story isn’t that deep.  The illustrations and tone are warm and focus on a camel wanting a fez and the efforts it takes for Habibi to acquire one and for Ahmed to track him down.  It is surface level silliness for younger kids, the camel and owner are kind to each other and the setting just ties it all together.  I am not Arab, and could definitely argue that the camel and his silly owner do perpetuate stereotypes, so feel free to offer up your thoughts if you have read the book.  Irregardless of where you side, the fact that I’m sure had I read this book in 1997 when it was published, I would have been gushing to see the name Ahmed in a widely available book, but here we are nearly 25 years later and I’m questioning if these are stories that are better left to be told by OWN voice perspectives.

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Ahmed and Habibi give rides to children every day, but one day Habibi refuses to get up.  Ahmed asks if it is a toothache, a tummy ache, and no response.  When he asks if his feet hurt, Habibi stands up, and Ahmed gives the camel his babouches (that magically fit).

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Habibi then takes off running through the bazaar.  He approaches the man selling fezzes and a trade is made: the slippers for a hat.  Ahmed trailing behind barefoot, then has to purchase his own shoes back.  As Habibi passes different shops and hears how handsome he is, Ahmed is able to follow him.  When they finally reunite, Habibi is surrounded by happy children, and Ahmed admits, he really is a handsome camel.  Happily Habibi gives the children extra long rides and then let’s Ahmed ride him home.

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This book would work well for story times to ages four and up.  It would lend itself to themes about silly animals, hats, Egypt and Arab culture.  The crowds of people including the children are dressed in both thobes and pants and t-shirts.  You see traditional headgear on some and none on others.  It seems clear that the camel is not the normal mode of transportation, as there are no other camels, or even cars, only people walking in the book.  Habibi is a novelty for the children and adults he passes, so one could possibly safely assume he is a tourist attraction of sorts.

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

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

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

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SYNOPSIS:

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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FLAGS:

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

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

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There was an Old Auntie who Swallowed a Samosa by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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There was an Old Auntie who Swallowed a Samosa by Asmaa Hussein illustrated by Milton Bazerque

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I feel like such a broken record of late (and in the future), of my reviews of books published by Ruqaya’s Bookshelf; the stories are WONDERFUL, but I really struggle with the titles.  I truly thought this was a cultural/religious version of the classic, I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.  But it isn’t.  It is an original clever, laugh-out-loud hysterical story for preschool to early elementary.  And one that parents and caregivers will not dread reading over and over again with the well done rhyme, expressive illustrations, a silly conclusion, religious framework, and universal appeal.  The book is on point, the title and cover illustration, sadly for me are not, and don’t, in my opinion, do the story justice.

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Auntie Sophie is making samosas with some peppers she grew herself.  Under the close company of her kitty, we learn how the Scotch bonnets were grown and cared for.  The doorbell rings and Auntie Eynara has arrived with her beautiful cake to take to the masjid for iftaar.  

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Auntie Sophie  hurries and fries her samosas and the ladies head up the hill to the only mosque in town.  Everyone breaks their fasts with a date, but Auntie Sophia dives in to her samosas.  When the imam’s mic crackles, she swallows the samosa whole and something is terribly wrong.  Her belly is on fire and jelly nor garlic knots nor mint lemonade not rice can cool it down.

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Just when she thinks she is ready to pray, it starts up again, and having eaten everyone’s dinner, Auntie Sophia is getting very tired. As she rolls out the door and down the hill to her house, she figures out what happened to her delicious samosa filling, and calls to have pizza and halal hot wings delivered to the mosque.  She also pledges to grow flowers next year instead!

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Kids will love the book as it is outrageous, while at the same time being so relatable.  The mosque, iftar, eating something spicy, the book is a favorite at our house for both the two and six year old and the horizontal 8.5 x11 orientation, keep eyes glued to the pages, while the rhyming lines move the story along.  I enjoy being able to talk about the peppers and different foods and smell of garlic with my kids after the 17th reading or so, and I love the diversity of the characters at the mosque. 

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

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

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

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SYNOPSIS:

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

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WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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FLAGS:

None

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Happy Reading!

 

The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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The Tale of a Tiny Droplet by Ally Daanish illustrated by Oana Cocheci

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I would imagine if you were to pitch the idea of this book it would go very favorably.  A raindrop goes on an adventure to a desert kingdom after facing adversity for being small, an ocean wave wants to consume her, a chance encounter with a grain of sand and confidence in Allah swt to keep them safe leads to refuge being offered in an oyster who journeys them through the ocean to salam its inhabitants only to wash up near the palace and at the feet of a prince who has been searching for a treasure for his mother’s crown.  The problem comes in its delivery.  It is told in rhyme that is incredibly forced and trying to do too much.  It is a 32 page children’s picture book trying to blend religion, science, adventure, and two points of view.  It needs to be clear, not concerned with a rhyme scheme that muddles the themes.  The book has potential and with the QR code and online teaching resources I could see an Islamic school teacher using this to explain how a pearl is formed and the incredibleness of one of Allah’s creations, but it will take a lot of outside explanation.  I am confident that no four to six year old is going to independently understand clearly what is going on.  I myself had to read it multiple times to figure out what was going on, and even then I found more holes, inconsistencies, and head shaking then there should have been in a large, glossy, well illustrated, effort filled book.

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A tiny droplet wants to be free, but this personified little water being’s friends tell her only great things live in the kingdom and she is too small.  Not sure how greatness and physical size become synonymous, but they do apparently.  So, on a windy day, the raindrop jumps out of the sky to join the ocean as a means to reach the kingdom.  A hurricane, or wind gale, catches her and she collides with a grain of sand.  But the pov switches, and the sand collides with her and it hurts the sand.  Grain apologizes and Droplet says not to worry she she is heading to the ocean too.  Grain warns her that the ocean isn’t safe, that there is a big wave who will consume them.  Droplet says she isn’t afraid and trusts Allah swt will keep them safe.  The wave threatens to chase them with all its pride (?) if they dare to run and hide.  The pair find an oyster to hide in and they swim with the tide. The oyster is bothered by their tiny feet so he throws them a blanket.  The wave continues to give chase, but they trust Allah swt and after months and days they wash up on the kingdoms shore.

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The book then pivots and focuses on a young prince who is searching for a gem for his mother the Queen.  Her crown has lost its shine.  He has travelled for months and day through mountains and valleys to no avail. One day while walking, back home on the beach, he hears voices hoping for safety from the wave.  Droplet and Grain think the wave has perhaps finally got them, but it is the prince opening the oyster and finding just the gem he needs. The book concludes with the pearl saying “Alhumdulillah” to the distant stormy sky, “All things can live in the kingdom and its palace rising high.”

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So my questions, first I’m not sure how a droplet isn’t free, is there only one wave in the ocean? Who is talking at the end, obviously the anthropomorphism as a science lesson kind of hits a dead end, it went from two talking objects to one new talking object, so thats creepy.  Wouldn’t it have been better to end when the gem was found and then have an info or fact page highlighting how pearls are made, having two distinct characters morph into one is a bit jarring story wise. The concept of the kingdom not allowing in little things, and then concluding that all things are welcome, is also so painfully underdeveloped.  Even little readers are going to find that assumption so off the mark.  I like that they trust Allah, but Droplet keeps saying she isn’t scared, but continues to run? swim? The duo don’t want to be consumed, but essentially aren’t they consumed by the oyster? The Pearl feels like it beat the wave despite its size, but it was the other drops that were telling Droplet she was too small, not the wave.

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All confusion aside, my kids and I might just not be the ideal readers.  My six year old didn’t know what a pearl was, so he was incredibly confused.  I thought the book was going to be about the water cycle, so it took me a minute to realize that wasn’t where the story was going. There is a QR code on the front and if you go to the website a number of resources are available https://www.lotehouse.com/product-page/the-tale-of-a-tiny-droplet. I wish there was info within the binding though to explain the process of sand and water in an oyster making a pearl and I wish a heavy handed editor would have cleaned up the text.  Sadly, a potential great book mixing adventure, science and deen just really missed the mark.

Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

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Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

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This 245 page middle grade doodle filled novel features a Pakistani-British protagonist as she endures life with a family that yells, brothers that prank, aunts that meddle, and now a magical talking obnoxious stuffed llama.  Yasmin Shah stopped speaking years ago, and a 10th birthday wish has brought about Levi, a llama who uses highly unconventional methods to help Yasmin stand up for herself and find her voice.  At times funny, tender, and relatable, the book similarly often feels really forced as it relies on predictable jokes for cheap laughs:  bum worms, wee wee taunts, the threat of being sent to Daadi in Pakistan as a punishment, bras and knickers being thrown around, etc..  The overall message is good and silly, and middle graders will probably feel some anxiety and frustration with Levi, but ultimately enjoy the book, and look forward to future books in the series.  

SYNOPSIS:

Yasmin lives in a full loud home.  It is her 10th birthday and she feels completely unseen.  Her mom has made her a lovely cake, but when her brothers use pepper to make her sneeze, the cake gets destroyed and she once again meets the wrath of her family.  She wishes she could stand up for herself, and just like that her life gets a whole lot crazier.  A stuffed old stained llama she saw in the market and her aunt decided to gift her, has sprung to life and won’t stop talking.  Levi seems determined to make Yasmin’s life even more miserable.  He shows up in her backpack at school and his misguided help gets her detention, he doesn’t want her to be friends with the octogenarians she plays checkers with at the local senior center and embarrasses her and gets her banned, life at home is more miserable too as he takes revenge on Yasmin who keeps trying to get rid of him.  At times it is hard to know if Levi is really trying to help and is just really misguided, or if he is out to get her.  As Yasmin loses her elderly friends and the chance to be checkers champion at the OLD home, she slowly lets new kid Ezra wear her down and possibly be her friend.  The climax reveals not just her voice, but a remorse for Levi that further helps Yasmin determine what her life will look like moving forward.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Antics aside, the story is about Yasmin being pushed/encouraged to be heard in her life.  The jokes amplify the need for her to find her voice and defend herself, her love of the old people and determination to win the checkers tournament is endearing, and her struggles with kids her own age shows real heartache.  I absolutely love Ezra and his mannerisms.  He is new at school, trying to meet Yasmin where she is at, and encourage her all while trying to focus, channel his energy, and fit in as well.  Yasmin’s family redeems itself and I think readers will get the exaggeration of much of the antics, but really Levi is annoying and while younger readers might find him hilarious and well-intentioned, I think anyone older than the intended audience will just want to strangle him.  

The illustrations, the comic strips, and the little flourishes on the pages are wonderful.  They bring the book to life and provide the charm and humor that the text needs to connect with the readers.

The only religious thing mentioned is Eid at the beginning.  Some of the women in Yasmin’s family wear a scarf on their head and her teacher wears hijab, it isn’t mentioned in the text.  I could not find if the author or illustrator identify as Muslim, I read that the author’s father is Pakistani so culturally and perhaps experience wise it is OWN voice, and reads with a lot of authenticity.  

FLAGS:

Possible verbal abuse, anxiety and bullying.  Mention and illustrations of undergarments.  Plotting and planning to harm/destroy a magical talking toy.  Practical jokes, threats, lying, deception, back talking, deceit.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I’d use this as a book club selection as it is for younger children than middle school.  But I think it is a fun book to have around the house and classroom for middle grade readers to pick up and chuckle over.

The Muslims: Book 1: The Test by Ahmad Philips

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The Muslims: Book 1: The Test by Ahmad Philips

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This is the first anime comic book in an eight book series aimed at early elementary readers.  Often books have lessons, this however, simply presents as an illustrated moral.  There is a situation that contains the lesson that one should always try their best for the sake of Allah swt and that is about it.  The knowledge isn’t tested a few additional times or in different situations, it is just 22 pages to illustrate the concept of doing things for the right reason, in this case studying after a failed test.  There isn’t anything wrong with the bright colorful book, the brother sister duo read authentic as they try and recall Islamic teachings, and get each other in trouble by accident, the diverse family is supportive and understanding, it just seems that it would apply to a specific lesson in a home or classroom and then sit on a shelf unasked for and not very memorable.

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The book starts with seven year old Hani trying his best on a multiple choice test that he didn’t study for.  He battles the personified Quiz Monster to no avail and on the way home from school confesses all to his little sister, Huda.  She reassures him that Allah swt doesn’t give us more than we can handle and agrees to not tell their parents.  Hani plans to tell them himself, inshaAllah.

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When they get home though, she slips, and spills the news to their mom.  Their dad comes home soon after and everyone knows.  The parents he imagines will turn into evil monsters themselves, but rather they laugh and remind him that he should have the intention of pleasing Allah swt in all things, so that he will assuredly never fail.  That if he makes that his goal, then he will inshaAllah find success.  Hani decides that he isn’t going to be careless in his studying and keeps focused.  He has a nightmare that he studies the wrong material, but alhumdulillah it is just a dream and he is ready, inshaAllah.

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The Islamic lesson and the situational allegory isn’t super clear, and I feel some discussion will need to take place to connect all the dots and convey the lesson in a way to be succinct and memorable.  Had he maybe made dua or intention before he studied, then the message would have been put in to practice, not just something the father talked to him about.  It is admirable that Hani was honest, that he didn’t try and hide is score, which I wish would have been praised.  Additionally, a little resolution between the siblings to show all was forgiven would have been nice.  The mom wears hijab even in the home, and there is a glossary at the end as well.

Ahmed and the Very Stuck Teapot by Sarah Musa illustrated by Rania Hassan

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Ahmed and the Very Stuck Teapot by Sarah Musa illustrated by Rania Hassan

This 36 page early elementary book is packed full of choices and lessons packaged in a sweet story that kids and adults will enjoy reading and discussing over and over. My only real critique is the title. I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for nearly a year thinking it was just a silly book about a calf with a teapot on her hoof that is stuck and would probably involve different people and methods and attempts to get it off. But the teapot is off by the tenth page, and the story is really just getting started. Like all Ruqaya’s Bookshelf picture books, the large thick shiny pages with a stiff soft cover binding make the story a great choice for storytime and bedtime alike. There are Islamic threads and references, but the story overall is universal.

Ahmed and his friend Tariq are practicing their kite flying skills for tomorrow’s annual competition, when Ahmed’s kite gets destroyed in a tree. Heartbroken Tariq suggests he hurry to buy a new one before the store closes at Maghrib. As the boys rush off they come across a brown calf with a teapot on her hoof. Ahmad recognizes the teapot as his mother’s and feels like he should help the poor animal. Tariq keeps reminding him that the shop will close, but Ahmed decides to take the cow to Amo Waseem’s to get help.

Amo Waseem, is able to help the cow get free, but in the process, the cow get’s hurt. The cow needs help from a shepard, Amo Salih, but Amo Waseem can’t go, and Tariq wants to practice more. Ahmed knows the cow can’t be left untreated, and takes the little cow to get help. The cow then needs to get to his owner, and the story continues until the shop is closed, and Ahmed realizes he won’t have a kite for the competition. He goes to the mosque for salat and starts to feel better, he knows that he did the right thing, and inshaAllah Allah will reward him in some other way. His reward comes quickly, however, much to Ahmed’s surprise and in gratitude he also manages to find a way to help his mother.

I love the gentleness of the lessons of doing what needs to be done, even when you don’t really want to, and your friends are not supporting you. Ahmed had chances to walk away, but he didn’t and he was at peace with the outcome. His friend wasn’t mean or bad, he just made different choices. There are discussion questions at the end as well. I think this book would foster great conversation with even the littlest listeners, and I can’t wait to share it at our masjid’s storytime.

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

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This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means.  The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship.  There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read.  There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday. 

SYNOPSIS:

Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name.  Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born.  His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently.  On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and  is living in the US illegally.  

Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study.  Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge.  With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans.  Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son.  At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.  

When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing.  Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom.  He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.

Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city.  When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.  

When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything.  This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.

The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house.  Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was.  I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city.  It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up.  I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives.  Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis.  Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is.  There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets.  Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism.  It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.

FLAGS:

Lying, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list.  I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.

Gokul Village and the Magic Fountain by Jeni Chapman and Bal Das illustrated by Charlene Chua

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Gokul Village and the Magic Fountain by Jeni Chapman and Bal Das illustrated by Charlene Chua

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This 32 page book for preschool to second graders, 3-7, is very formulaic and reads like an episode of Handy Manny, or Dora the Explorer, or Paw Patrol.  Each of the six characters has a skill and represents a different culture, when they work together magic happens and they learn something in the process.  There is a girl with hijab and even a mayor that has to be convinced and the kids are successful and save the day.  Sure there is nothing wrong with it, but it is a bit cheesy, on the nose, and largely forgettable.  The book claims that the six kids are going to learn and celebrate other New Years festivals, as they travel to New York, China, and India for Diwali, except, nothing is really learned or even experienced at any of the festivals or the one that they are hosting in their own village.  The book is the first in a series, and I don’t plan to purchase the next one to see if it improves on showing, rather than telling, but if I could find it in a library, I would definitely read it and enjoy the bright illustrations of diverse kids.

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The book starts off showing a sad broken fountain that isn’t loved or used except by six kids every day who gather there to play.  Zoya to paint, Christopher to build, Riya to play her flute, Dalai to ride his bicycle, Noelle to fly her drone, and Jacob to share the treats he baked.  They like to pretend that the waters of the fountain are connected to all the water around the world and that they can go on adventures.

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When the kids learn that the New Year’s party is canceled because the fountain can’t be repaired in time the kids decide to take action.  Time-out, I know, I usually give the entire summary then highlight the holes, but the book claims no one uses the fountain, now it is in the city center and needs repairs for a party, it seemed that it was old and crumbling, but last year it was fine? And if the kids could have always fixed it, why didn’t they? Any way Riya assigns everyone jobs to fix the fountain, AND THEN they go get the mayor and let her know they are going to fix it and she agrees saying if they can get it done in time the New Year’s Celebration wouldn’t be canceled.  The order seems off to me, they start fixing it, then work it out with the mayor and then have it all fixed in two days and the mayor clears it.  The illustrations show it pretty much fixed when the mayor arrives the first time, not sure what took two more days, and how it was ok for kids to fix a fountain prior to getting permission.

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With the festival back on, the fountain looks happy and the kids suddenly have enhanced skills: notes from the flute turn in to birds, Zoya can paint in the air, Dailai’s bracelet is glowing, tools are growing and multiplying, and the drone, iDea, speaks.  She tells the children to read the inscription on the heart of the fountain.  Somehow the kids know to each touch a glowing orb and sing a song verse together.  It reminded me of Dragon Tales.

The fountain whisks the kids to New York where they see a “jostling, jolly,” crowd celebrating.  Then they are off to watch “millions of people clap and sway together, hoping for happiness and good fortune for all,” at a Chinese celebration.  That is literally all it says, it doesn’t say that Chinese New Year would be at a different time because of the lunar calendar or anything, and then they are off to celebrate Diwali, in India, which also wouldn’t be at the same time as western New Years, and all they learn about it is that it is a celebration of light over darkness.  I’d guess readers wouldn’t even realize that it often coincides with the Hindu lunar calendar’s new year celebrations.

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The kids come back, name the fountain the Friendship Fountain, use some of the decorations they saw to decorate for their own new year’s party, and then they clean up after the party.  There is no showing how their village celebrated, there are no other villagers attending or helping or participating, it just says they agreed it was “the best party ever.”

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Perhaps  I am cynical because the book is $17, but even if the book was free, it really is lacking some depth.  If you are going to highlight some cultures, then highlight some cultures, don’t just name drop and move on. I love that the characters are diverse, but I hope in future book, their own cultures and beliefs are shared not just visually represented.  The formula works for little readers, but if even a talking hammer and screw driver in Handy Manny can have their own personalities, sadly these six kids missed a chance to show themselves and foster inclusive representation and teamwork in a celebratory manner.

https://www.gokulworld.com