Category Archives: Elementary Fiction

The Katha Chest by Radhiah Chowdhury illustrated by Lavanya Naidu

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The Katha Chest by Radhiah Chowdhury illustrated by Lavanya Naidu

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This 40 page picture book for preschoolers and up shows connection to family, memories, and Bangladeshi culture as a little girl explores the quilts made from her Maa and aunts’ worn out saris.  This book has been on my radar for a while and while there is nothing wrong with the slow and thoughtful story, it didn’t sweep me up in a hug and wow me, as I had hoped it would.  The illustrations are as critical as the words in conveying the message, and the illustrations are indeed beautiful, I guess I just needed more.  More connection to the emotion the little girl was feeling recalling the strong women in her life, more impact to the fact that her Nanu is no longer with them, and more understanding about the history of Bangladesh that seems to shape the memories.  I worry that most readers simply won’t get anything other than the surface level of the book, which is ok, the memories woven through generations manifesting in quilts, is tangible and perhaps enough.  I feel like, however, the framing of the story and the textless illustration pages attempted to add more layers to the story, and I think to anyone not Bangladeshi, those layers might not be understood.  I wish their was an afterward with notes about the pictured references, inclusion of such backmatter would really open the book up to a wider audience, and give the book discussion and staying power in my opinion.  If you are Bangladeshi this book will be a treasure I’m sure, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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Asiya loves going to her Nanu’s house, there are treasures there.  Her favorite treasure is the katha chest.  An old trunk full of the quilts made from the old worn out saris of her Nanu, Maa, and khalas. She snuggles in their warmth and listens to the stories they tell. Stories of hardship, joy, skills learned, moves made, loss, death, love and family.

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Boro Khala’s looks like Khalu’s medal, from a sad time when he was away.  Mejo Khala bright oranges and yellow like her fingers.  Shejo Khala’s is stiff and neat, she is never messy.  Choto Khala’s has a white streak like the white saris she wears since Khalu died.  Maa’s katha is patchworked and different than the others, and Nanu’s is paper thin and smells of tea, old books, porcelain and wood.

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There is an author’s note and illustrator’s note detailing the construction and value of kathas, but nothing about Bangladeshi wars, wearing white after a husband’s death, or the textile skills and artistry shown.  The book would read well with context or activities about family heirlooms, connections, and traditions.

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After Iftar Tales arranged by Bismillah Buddies

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After Iftar Tales arranged by Bismillah Buddies

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This book’s beautiful dark blue cover with sparkly stars feels good in your hands and looks lovely on the shelf.  It is a collection of 10 short stories presumably to be read by an adult to a child or children during Ramadan and has its highs and lows.  As often is the case in anthologies, some are written better than others and while I particularly liked two of the stories contained, I couldn’t help wishing that the entire collection would have been better edited.  I don’t know any of the authors, or their ages, and there is not an intro or conclusion detailing how the stories were selected or compiled, but as a whole, the grammar errors (spaces before and after commas and periods), failure to spell out numbers less than ten, and the overall plot holes in so many of the stories, makes it hard to love this book.  Something about judging a book by it’s cover would seemingly apply here, the illustrations are decent, the topics and themes covered are important, but the finishing is lacking, and the book really had a lot of potential.

SYNOPSIS:
The ten stories cover Ramadan in different ways, and do not get repetitive.  With different authors and illustrators and pictures on every other page at a minimum, the books presents well.  Many of the stories are adequate, but largely forgettable as the plot holes just made me and my kids dismiss them.  A few are too lengthy and wandering, but there are two that even despite writing obstacles, thematically were memorable:  “A Ramadan Surprise” by Malika Kahn and “Iftar in Space” by Tayyaba Anwar.

“A Ramadan Surprise” is written in rhyming verse and discusses the need for wheelchair accessibility at masjids.  Focusing on a young girl it also hints on the importance of accessibility for the elderly.  This is such a needed and important reminder and I love that it is present in a book that is positioned to be read and thus hopefully discussed.

“Iftar in Space” similarly opens itself up to be discussed and marveled at between a child(ren) and an adult: how would you fast and pray if you were on the International Space Station. This connection could then be made for people that live near the poles, and how science is valued in Islam and so much more.  I love that Islamic information is seemingly sourced, but I would have loved a line or two at the end clearly articulating that in fact this is what this scholar or these scholars have declared.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first it didn’t bother me that the text was so small, but mid way through, it started to because the pictures are so inviting and regular.  If a child is snuggled up with a reader looking at the pictures it is impossible for them to follow along. I get that that is kind of the point, but with huge margins, the text size can easily be increased.

I don’t know why the book doesn’t seem to have been edited.  The cover and illustrations and binding are all decent to high quality, the cost of the book for consumers is high, so I don’t know why an editor was not (seemingly) involved in the process.  Sure I am picky, but it isn’t one or two grammar errors, it is a lot, and when it is a regular concern, it ruins the flow and feeling of the book.

Overall, honestly there is also very little Islam present in most stories except for the timing of Ramadan, and many of the stories seem to have gaps.  In the first story, a boy is found by a stranger and gifted a lamp, and the family never even tries to find the person who saved their son to thank him? They live in a small village?  In one of the stories where a little girls is fasting for the first time she is also making a salad independently and pulling a cooked tray of lasagna out of a hot oven. A child in one story eats moldy candy, and in a contemporary story kids donate their money to an orphanage.  Are there still orphanages? In one story it opens with a banner being made that is crooked, but the accompanying illustration does not match.  One error or two is easy to overlook, but again, when it is every single story, it is incredibly disappointing.

FLAGS:

Clean

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think while reading it you would find plenty to discuss with your children.  On stories where your children seem bored you could skip them, if sentences don’t make sense you can alter them.  I doubt children will read the book independently, so there is some wiggle room to add or subtract from the text to make the points you want to make and keep the stories engaging.  There are a few stories that discuss Covid and the frustration that it has caused to daily activities, which might help add another layer of connection to the text.

Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Just when you think all the Ramadan stories have been told, you flip open a new book, hold your breath as the stage of predictability is set, and alhumdulillah in this case, you squeal with delight when the big reveal in a children’s book swept you up and surprised you too.  This 32 page richly illustrated story for elementary readers is heartfelt, culture rich, informative, and embracing.  The book doesn’t dwell on the details of Ramadan, fasting, and Eid, but intentionally focuses on some of the feelings, blessings, and acts that make the month extra special.

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Zahra looks up at the Ramadan moon as she hugs her teddy bear and sends a prayer up asking for a little sister. The next day Mama is packing up beloved clothes, and ones that the family has out grown to be donated.  They discuss giving without hoping for anything in return and once again Zahra asks her mama for a little sister. To which her mother lovingly replies that she should be patient.

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When Teddy goes missing, Zahra can’t help but think a little sister would help her find it.  Iftar that night are all of Zahra’s favorite desi foods and prayer after is her asking for a sister and Teddy.  The following day Mama and Zahra take the collected donation items to the shelter and Zahra realizes how sad she is about losing Teddy and these refugees have lost everything.

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Zahra spends time with the children at the shelter and gets to know them.  She wishes she could find Teddy to gift to a young girl named Haleema.  Some days Ramadan crawls slow, and other days fast.  The family reads Quran together, fasts during the day and prays at night.  The night before Eid, Zahra’s dad whispers a secret to Zahra, one that she keeps close to her all through Eid prayers the next day.

Not going to spoil it, although I’m sure you can guess what is going to happen.  There are hints in the remaining illustrations, but I think kids will enjoy not having the heads up.  The book concludes with some informational blurbs and details about the Muslim author and Muslim illustrator.

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I enjoyed the illustrations, they are bright and bold and festive and unique.  They compliment the text completely as they show praying, reading Quran, making duas, etc.  The text doesn’t get preachy, it doesn’t even mention Allah swt or God, but talks of prayer and blessings.  The combination of the text and illustrations, however, definitely convey a strong unapologetic Ramadan/Muslim centered story.  Overall, it is universal and warm and sweet, and both Muslim and non Muslim children would benefit from reading it.

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My only concern is the page that the family is making dua together, it seems odd that they are all sitting in a line as if they have just prayed, but not prayed with the dad in front and the mom and Zahra behind. I read an electronic arc of the book and I look forward to purchasing a physical copy to add to my bookshelf.

Today I’m Strong by Nadiya Hussain & Ella Bailey

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Today I’m Strong by Nadiya Hussain & Ella Bailey

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I really liked the way Nadiya Hussain’s book My Monster and Me discussed anxiety and was so eager for this book.   Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as connected to the characters, the little girls dread of dealing with a bully, or the resolution of channelling her imaginary tiger to find her voice strong enough.  With discussion I think the book would be a wonderful way to get young children, to open up about what is upsetting them, but on its own I feel like a bit more is needed to transition from thinking to action, from nerves to confidence, and from understanding what is bothering the little girl to understanding what needs to be done.

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The story starts with a small girl going back and forth on whether she loves school or doesn’t and revealing that the tiger listens to her and doesn’t say a word.  It then starts the next few pages with the same line: “I love to go to school.  I do,” and detailing what parts of school make her happy.

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It then transitions to sharing why some days, the little girl doesn’t like school so much.  Days when her voice disappears, Molly laughs at her, or blocks her way to the climbing frame, or takes her cake.

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She then reinstates that she likes going to school most day, but not always, and then one day when Molly is mean, the little girl, thinks of the tiger, and knows what to do.  How to find her voice, and stand up to Molly. She then carries through on it, and realizes that soon she can be on top of the world.

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The messaging is universal and great, and while there is no religion shown, it is great to see a brown protagonist dealing with mental health.  The author is Muslim and I’m sure most everyone knows at least of her from the Great British Bake Off.

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

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

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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FLAGS:

Stealing, thieving, death, loss.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

Jamal the Giant and the Largest Lesson by Mariam Hakim illustrated by Nesba Yoosef

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Jamal the Giant and the Largest Lesson by Mariam Hakim illustrated by Nesba Yoosef

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My initial thoughts of this 32 page Islamic fiction, fable-style book, is that it needed to be tested on children, lots and lots of children.  It should have been read aloud to catch all the grammar, syntax, and diction errors, and young readers and listeners should have been asked what they learned or understood from the story, BEFORE, being published.  The message is sweet, the illustrations cute, but it feels unrefined and reads underdeveloped: pictures and concepts are not enough to carry a book if the writing is poor.

I have looked forward to obtaining the book since its launch, so as soon as it was available from a US stockist (@crescentmoonstore), I didn’t even hesitate to purchase it.  I knew the book was available for free online as a read aloud on YouTube, but because I truly love supporting Muslim authors and publishers, I wanted to wait until I had a physical copy in my hand.  These opinions are my own, all my reviews are.  I mean no malicious will to anyone, I’ve spent my money on something, and once I’ve done so, I am completely justified to have an opinion.  You don’t have to like it, or agree with it, but it isn’t personal.  I’ve given reasonings for my opinions, and I stand by them.

Jamal the Giant isn’t necessarily mean, but he is careless, young, and selfish.  He scares the animals in the woods, destroys their homes, ruins farmers’ crops, and steals from the village.  One night, he wants to steal some juice and in the process overhears the community members discussing how different he is from his kind parents, and that he must be forced to leave.  He tries to mend his ways before he is driven from his home, but to no avail.  Unsure how to fix things, it is the advice of a tiny mouse that sets his reform in motion and conveys the message from the Quran, surah 11 ayat 114, “Good deeds cancel out bad deeds.  This is a reminder for the mindful.” He learns he must apologize, make amends and be kind.

The message is accurate, but I have some concerns at how it is conveyed.  Why was the responsibility on the giant to learn how to behave.  Yes if he knew better, he should do better, but it is made clear that he is the last of his kind and his parents died when he was really young.  If the villagers aren’t going to try and teach him, who is?  It isn’t necessarily victim blaming, but if you don’t know better, and have no one to teach you, you definitely are a victim of neglect in some ways.  To have them going from enabling him out of a promise to his parents to threatening to kick him out from his home, is a little abrupt.

Story-wise there are some points that gave me pause.  Why is there an owl flying off in the daytime, sure there are some diurnal owls, but most kids are taught owls are nocturnal, why not change it to a woodland bird that is active in the day, don’t confuse kids.  It doesn’t specify a timeframe that the story takes place in, but it feels like a fable with talking animals a giant and a clear message.  There is a baker, a farmer, an imam, a greengrocery, it is all very quaint, but then the imam is holding a cell-phone, wait what? I do appreciate that the farmer is female though, and that some of the women cover and some do not, it seems representative.

I’m curious who taught the giant to read, and how come he writes his “s” backwards, there seems to be a bit of disjointedness to the upbringing of the giant, his age, even in giant terms.  A lot it seems the author assumes the reader knows about giants or their stereotypes perhaps, because the book doesn’t address them, and the result isn’t a fun moral story, but one that seems to miss things.

The little mouse teaching the big giant, carries some Lion and the Mouse-Aesop fable vibes, but really it is the proof-reading of the book that is disappointing.  When you read it aloud, commas are abundantly missing (even in the online reading pauses are placed where commas are not written).  Why is the B in Baker capitalized, and if it is the Baker’s house, as in last name is Baker, then an apostrophe is missing.  Many of the lines are just awkward and halting, even if not particularly erroneous.  The diction is questionable at times, Jamal “always” thinks about that day at the lake, woah, doesn’t reflect on it, but it haunts him “always.”  Jamal “‘really’ didn’t have to steal,” seems to imply he was justified in stealing a little, this should be a black and white issue in a children’s book, no?

There are questions at the end of the book, and a whole page of information about the author and illustrator as well.  In a case like this I don’t know if the publisher didn’t do justice to the author’s work, or if the author should have refined it more, before coming to the publisher, but it is unfortunate because clearly a lot of effort went in to the illustrations and promoting of the book.

The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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The Boy Who Met a Whale by Nizrana Farook

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

SYNOPSIS:

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

WHY I LIKE IT:

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

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

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

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

FLAGS:

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

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

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

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

Hello! A Welcoming Story by Gina K. Lewis illustrated by Maria Jose’ Campos

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Hello! A Welcoming Story by Gina K. Lewis illustrated by Maria Jose’ Campos

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This 62 page early elementary story is told from two perspectives, you flip the book to read each parallel story from two points of view, the refugee children’s and the children welcoming them.  Overall, I feel it is very well-intentioned and gets a lot right, but I found myself not feeling comfortable with some of the messaging regarding the visibly Muslim character included.

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I love that there are characters of all skin tones both welcoming the refugees and the refugees themselves. And I love the vague universalness that binds all the refugees together being expressed:  that they love their home, they had to flee, the journey was dangerous, they left everything behind, etc..

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I also love the warmth and genuine compassion that comes from the welcoming children.  They are reassuring, open, and seem to truly want to provide confidence to their new classmates.  The simple text really conveys a lot of emotion albeit very idyllic, that provides ways that readers in similar situations can also mimic when welcoming anyone new.

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On one of the two story sides a map is included showing that the refugee kids come from all over the world, the side that did not have the map I worry might confuse young readers.  They might not realize that the five children do not all come from the same country.  There should be a map on both sides, ideally.

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The illustrations that show how the welcoming kids understand the refugee stories is clever in the showing of their understanding.  The images are similar, but the different style is a great emphasis on how we process from our point of reference facts that others have lived.

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The concept of a new kid finding everything so different and not fitting in, is a great concept to explore in terms of clothing and food and language, but for some reason I didn’t like how the girl in hijab was presented.  I’m ok that she took off her hijab to fit in, and that her classmates encouraged her to be herself, and put it back on, but the text is too over reaching, to an erroneous end.

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It says on one page, “No one looked like me, but most people smiled.”  Really, NO ONE? No other Muslims exist in your new home? It then says, “I was afraid to wear my real clothes to school.  The other kids didn’t dress like me.”  In the illustration her clothes are EXACTLY THE SAME, the only thing that changes is she has a scarf on. Hijabs are a religious article of clothing, they are not unique or country specific.  And what does real clothing even mean?

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I also didn’t like the text reading, “This is my journey’s end.”  That seems to imply that you leave the horrors behind, you build bridges, this is your home now, and that is it.  This is a children’s book, the message should be that there is so much more to you and to your life, and you will find welcoming people and be the one welcoming in the future.  I don’t like that it seems to carry the weight of finality to a person’s story.  People, all of us, are more than just a label.

Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

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Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

money

This delightful 70 page early chapter book is filled with humor, Islam, and a sweet story that ties it all together.  The book definitely has a teaching agenda, but it carries it with hilarious banter and relatable examples, all while covering a topic not often discussed in children’s books: money.  The book has a few grammar, vocabulary, and consistency concerns, but they are easy to overlook for readers 2nd grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Twins Zayd and Musa are very, very different.  Both boys enjoy cricket, but Zayd is more focused and enjoys homework, whereas Musa tends to daydream and often says something funny, but unintentionally.  When Musa makes the case in Science class that food, water, shelter, and money are all needed to survive, the class finds him hysterical.

Musa knows not to argue, his teacher is his elder and he knows he should have taqwa and be respectful, but he doesn’t give up on his idea either.  When the boys’ mom talks about halal money and gives them Islamic references for how money should be handled, Musa has a great idea: kids should be paid to go to school.

Once again, the whole school finds him funny, but Saeed Uncle, a neighbor who helps feed the poor at a roadside stand, doesn’t dismiss Musa’s idea and tells him, in some places kids are paid. And offers to take him and show him.

With references to sahabas who had great wealth and examples of how wealth can be used for good, Musa and Zayd learn numerous lessons, and share them with those around them, in a fun, engaging manner.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I get that the book is preachy, but in my mind, it is a story built around a teaching concept, so it doesn’t bother me.  I love the jokes and the tone.  At times the book is written quite formally, but being the author lives in Karachi, Pakistan, I assume that part of it, is just different standards.  I appreciate the Quran Circle table that lists where the Quran mentions wealth and the glossary.  I didn’t quite get all of the random facts included throughout, as some were about money, others about school, but I think kids will enjoy them none-the-less.  The illustrations are enjoyable, the text bubbles often hilarious (once again, a few I didn’t get).

I liked that it mentioned not drawing faces, and not going somewhere alone with someone you aren’t close with.  It is said in passing, but I love that those little nuggets exist in a book that is about something more, but normalizes and takes advantage of the opportunity to remind children of basic safety and Islamic concepts.

There are some awkward tense changes, and a few gaps in the story, but overall, I really enjoyed it and need to find the first one in the series.

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a great book to use in a middle grades Islam class as a starting point to having students research the Quran and Sunnah to find information on a topic.  The humor will keep kids engaged, and the concept is an important one.  I plan to make all my kids read it, so that we can discuss as a family, and benefit from the lessons presented.